Coping with Divisions in the Church-sermon text version

The cycle we’ve seen before continues in the Acts of the Holy Spirit and the Apostles: Pure Church, Powerful Church, Growing Church, then Persecuted Church, repeat.  The enemy on the outside of the Church is always easier to deal with than ones arising as division on the inside of the Church.

a divided churchPersecution and pressure from outside strengthen, build, and purify the Church.  Problems within the church divide us.

So in today’s passage (Acts 6:1-7), as we begin to pick up the pace in our familiar pattern, we see an attack upon the unity and purity of the Church.

It doesn’t always happen as something intentional and insidious.

It can sometimes take the form of being passed over, ignored, marginalized, or having their feelings hurt.

The last time we saw an assault from within the Church, it was Ananias and Sapphira who were exhibiting a lack of integrity, but this time the enemy within is something as ostensibly benign as hurt feelings and a lack of attention to their welfare.  Unequal treatment of widows along ethnic backgrounds was threatening division in the Church .  Today, we’re going to see 6 simple steps for coping with divisions that threaten the Church from within so that united we stand, instead of divided we fall.  Church splits are as common as hurt feelings within the Church and therefore, we’re wise to see how we can avoid division by handing threats properly.

Here’s the problem:  Acts 6:1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.

The Church was getting bigger (and that’s good, right?) but the larger an organization gets the more people are there to feel overlooked and the easier it is to lose track of everyone.  There’s greater diversity of background, opinion, and even philosophy of ministry.

Without something unifying us, many groups and churches discover that diversity becomes division.

Not everyone likes the same thing…the same style of worship, color of carpet, type of preacher, or pizza toppings.  It kind of reminds me of that old Groucho Marx line, “I sent the club a wire stating, “Please accept my resignation.  I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.”

Our first coping strategy for keeping divisions from becoming splits is to listen and correctly identify the problem:

What is the real problem?

  • It was not that the number of disciples was increasing and too many people were joining their exclusive club, people with different tastes and backgrounds.
  • It’s not like the situation of division that one of my Trinity professors spoke about in which the Eastern Orthodox Church doesn’t recognize the Church in the West, the Catholic Church doesn’t recognize the Protestant Church, and 2 Trinity professors don’t recognize each other coming out of a liquor store.
  • It was not that there were Grecian Jews (who spoke Greek) and Hebraic Jews (who spoke Hebrew) and there were language problems.  This Church is at Jerusalem right now and while it might look like favoritism based upon ethnic origin, it could just be a practical issue of the Grecian Jews not having immediate family nearby looking out for their widows the way the Hebraic Jews did.

Acts 6:1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.

When looking to identify the problem, we can assume the worst or assume the best in other people.  We can dwell in divisions or dwell in the whole.  We can make a mountain out of a mole hill or try to minimize real mountains by denying their existence or treating them as mole hills, ….or we can create a level path to solve the problem by listening well.

That’s what the apostles did: they listened to the problem being described to find out what might be a level path forward.  Step one in avoiding a Church split was an openness to hearing the problems aired.  Listen. Correctly Identify the Problem.

Step two in coping with division is to identify a prompt and wise solution.

In this case, the solution to the problem of disunity was organization.

Acts 6:2 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.

Let’s look at how the Church organized…quickly…in order to work smarter and not harder.  The process was pretty simple:

Step 3   Leaders lead.  In case we miss this nuance, let’s notice that the Twelve leaders gathered a meeting of all the disciples, both Greek and Hebraic.  It doesn’t say that all disciples gathered the Twelve.  It doesn’t say that the disciples didn’t need a leader or could operate without one.  They brought the attention to the leaders and then surprise, Leaders lead!  But they don’t leave the congregation out of the discussion.  No one was being overlooked in identifying the problem and identifying a solution.

banyan1The leaders recognized no one person can do it all as a be-all and end-all. 

No one can—or should—do everything in a church.  It’s dangerous on a variety of levels.

Back when I was in seminary, one of my favorite professors—Dr. Hiebert—talked about two types of ministries: a banyan tree and a banana tree.  The banyan tree is filled with pride and builds big arching branches of ministry centered around one person and it spreads and sends out roots along all the branches.  It’s so massive that it kills off everything underneath it.  When that leader dies, leaves, or falls from grace, there’s nothing left to survive since it has killed off everything underneath it.

banana treeThe Twelve were smart because they didn’t build a banyan tree ministry.  They had the other type, a banana tree ministry in which a mother plant sends out daughters and they send out daughters.  The mother plant may eventually die, but having sent new growth out in strength, the movement becomes bigger, stronger, and more diverse.  Why? Because each daughter sends out daughters of their own in health and strength to minister to the local surroundings.

Step 4   Leaders don’t just lead, they delegate.  The Twelve would choose Seven to do the equally important work of “waiting tables.”

There are a lot of churches that totally miss this concept: Waiting on tables is not a lesser ministry of the Word of God than teaching, it’s just another application of ministry.

The Twelve recognized that neglecting one application of ministry in favor of another is dangerous to the health of the Church.  Throwing our whole selves into serving the poor all the while neglecting biblical teaching results in a Church that resembles a philanthropic organization that any group can organize.  Even without faith in Jesus.  But these Twelve were wise.  They also saw that if you take the Spirit of Life, Christ Himself, out of any issue, it’s dead.  It leads nowhere but to satisfy an earthly need for a flash of a moment.  Having Life in the issue begins with going to the source of true Life, John 14:6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  The Church is supposed to know who Jesus is and then share Him with others in both words (teaching) and deeds (acts of service).  So the Twelve delegated, and there’s a good reason why:

When the enemy is outside, we are pressed together and derive strength from one another.  Blessed Be the Tie that Binds.  But when the enemy is on the inside, we fracture and split apart.

Step 5: When the problem is within, the solution must come from within:  Acts 6:3 Brothers, 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 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

log splitSo the ministry of the Word was important and the ministry of practical application was important too.  Not a case of spiritual elitism, of the notion that doing spiritual stuff is better, but only that delegation to each’s gifts and strengths is godly.  Furthermore, by giving the group a say in the matter, they each felt like they had a part in creating a solution.  Involving the whole group in tackling the problem makes it more likely they’ll want to be part of the solution instead of resisting it and dwelling in the division.  Which if you’ve ever put a wedge on the end of a log and applied pressure you know it splits.  Same thing happens in a church if the wedge is not removed.  These widows were just an important symptom of a wedge being present and the Twelve quickly recognized disunity–the true wedge– as the problem and moved to a wise solution.

Therefore, Step 6 is choose the right people to lead the process of implementing the solution in the successful application of the Word by tangible acts of service.  What are the qualifications?  Seniority?  Nope.  Money?  Nope.  Political schmoozing?  .  Aggressive use of force or the ability to be an enforcer?  Nope, nope, nope.  Pouting?  .  Emotional manipulation, salesmanship, random selection, sign-up sheets, or drawing a name out of a hat?  Nope to all that!

It’s not success at the expense of godliness like the old idea that “The secret of success is sincerity.  Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.”

Here are the qualifications:  People are chosen based upon spiritual qualification, not things man looks at, and on spiritual gifts given by God.  Remember our puzzle pieces and where we fit in?  Aside from how God gifts us, there are important character qualifications: full of the Spirit and wisdom. In selecting people to oversee and to lead in practical areas, their qualifications must be the same as that of teachers!  They must be full of faith (reputation), full of Spirit (godly), and full of wisdom (fear of the Lord and knowledge of the Scriptures with practical outworking).  

The Twelve could have overwhelmed and overworked themselves, but they recognized that Pride has no place in ministry.  They chose others.

Acts 6:5 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.

Let’s look at the wisdom of who they selected among all the godly ministers to the poor.  They chose Greeks like Stephen and Nicolas and put them in positions of authority to be sure it would be viewed as their being advocates for the widows in question, calming their fears of ongoing discrimination.  It might not be something the English does for us, but in the Greek, it’s significant that a Greek is the first name, Stephen, and Nicholas, a Greek convert to Judaism was the last name.  They bracket the Seven.

Acts 6:6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

They were commissioned for this important work by prayer.  The result when we deal with problems without delay is that the Church doesn’t get distracted from its mission by living in the division instead of dwelling in the whole.  And the outcome gets even better:

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.

The Jewish priests even began to join with the Christians because of what they witnessed.

In A Tramp Abroad, the author Mark Twain writes,

The church is always trying to get other people to reform; it might not be a bad idea to reform itself a little, by way of example.”

His humor aside, he makes an excellent point.  The Church’s example says much about what it believes.  So, combatting division and organizing ourselves for success is as simple as following these 6 Steps:

    1. Listen and correctly identify the problem
    2. Identify a prompt and wise solution.
    3. Leaders lead.
    4. Leaders don’t just lead, they delegate.
    5. When the problem is within, the solution must come from within
    6. Choose the right people to lead the process of implementing the solution.

Yes organizing for success is a general principle, but here at Plymouth, we can follow these same 6 Steps.  That’s what GROW Plymouth is for.  By being a place where you can share ideas and concerns, we can listen to the collective wisdom of the congregation and identify any potential divisions and problems.  Our leaders can prayerfully develop prompt and wise solutions in which each of us can be part of the solution.  We can do more than talk about ideas.  We can implement them before division gets the better of us.

Arguably the greater enemy of the Church is us.

We, by acting in opposition to one another, by displaying a lack of unity, by imagining, maintaining, fostering, and reinforcing divisions, and by unwillingness to partner together toward a solution, we can cause the Church to be divided against itself.  And it will not stand! Conflict avoidance does no good.  It simply gives time for division that could be resolved to instead corrode away at the very fabric of any church and this will lead, inevitably, to its death if we do not employ helpful coping strategies.

Yet, this is all easily preventable by doing what the Twelve, the Seven, and the rest of the disciples did to benefit the Church and its future.  God blessed their actions by continuing to grow the Church which I propose is exactly what we want too!  Let’s pray.


Categories Chapel Worship/News | Tags: | Posted on February 25, 2015

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