Case Study of Conflict in the Early Church
The following case study was presented by my husband, Bud, as a devotional at one of our recent Conflict Mastery training sessions. It was so well received that we decided to share it here in hopes that you also may find it helpful. Scriptures are taken from the New International Version of the Bible. - Dr. Jeannie
I will read verses from Acts 6 regarding a conflict in the early days of the church and make a few observations about each verse. In doing so, I hope that you may find some guidance, encouragement and inspiration as you deal with any church conflicts you may face in your pastoral work.
Acts 6:1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.
OBSERVATIONS FROM VERSE 1
1. Growth and success foster an environment of conflict as needs and opportunities stretch or break existing systems; all growing churches will likely experience an uptick in conflict.
2. Pre-existing latent conflicts (in this case, Hebraic vs Hellenistic) cannot be prevented; existing fault lines may rumble despite a pastor’s best efforts. These fault lines may be political, ethnic, or so on.
3. These complaints implied, at least indirectly, criticism of the apostles personally in as much as they were directly responsible for the distribution of the bread and were in fact Hebraic, not Hellenistic. It is to be accepted the Pastor at some level is responsible for anything and everything that goes wrong in the church.
Acts 6:2-4 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
OBSERVATIONS FROM VERSES 2 - 4
1. Consider first the manner in which the Apostles did NOT respond: namely, they did not ignore, write off or minimize the complaint, nor did they react defensively.
2. The leadership team – the Apostles – reacted in a unified manner. We can safely assume that prior to meeting with the entire church body, they met together for prayer and discussion. The leadership got on the same page before attempting to implement a solution.
3. The Apostles addressed the issue openly in front of everyone; they communicated.
4. They moved into problem-solving mode and focused on a solution for the future rather than get drawn into arguments. They did not defend the status quo nor even rehearse the history of how they came to the current bread distribution program.
5. They clarified expectations of their own role and based their actions on a principle; namely, that “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables."
6. They shared power without abdicating it: that is, they put forth a solution BUT they asked the congregation to implement it. Again, they emphasized expectations – criteria for deacons and their own appropriate role.
Acts 6:5-6 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
OBSERVATIONS FROM VERSES 5 and 6
1. It is my understanding the names of the first seven deacons suggests they were ALL Hellenistic Jews – including one gentile convert! Agape love combined with wise leadership not only prevented further conflict but did so exhibiting the epitome of graciousness!
2. (Note from Dr. Jeannie: Our group humorously noted that the idea of the entire church being pleased with a proposal itself indicates a miracle!)
Acts 6:7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
OBSERVATION FROM VERSE 7
1. Verse seven implies that the wise handling of this potentially damaging conflict in the early church laid the foundation for future rapid growth and new levels of influence. At a minimum, difficulties were averted. It is even possible that this experience accelerated the growth of the church.
FINAL COMMENTS AND PRAYER
Perhaps this episode can help us view church conflicts in a new light. Perhaps they are not always mere nuisances but instead, redemptive opportunities for God's love to break forth into the world in a visible manner. Perhaps, Pastor, your wisdom in handling church conflict may determine the scope and impact of your future ministry, just as it did for the Twelve
Father, grant us grace to lead in a way that prevents unnecessary church conflicts and creates an agape culture that over-spills into the fractured world around us.
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