Integration in the First Church

Christian MölkFriend of Strangers Leave a Comment

The first church in Jerusalem had quickly grown to several thousand members.[1] Many of the newcomers were Greek-speaking Jews from the Jewish Diaspora who had come to Jerusalem primarily to celebrate Passover, but then stayed after they were saved and baptized. To make sure that all these thousands of new believers from other countries had food for the day, they shared all their possessions together[2] and distributed food to all who needed it. But with the rapid growth came new problems:

1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. ”

(Ac 6:1)

Until this moment, the first church had held together despite strong external pressure. They had been persecuted, brought before the Council and flogged, but they had remained as “one heart and soul”.[3] But now the honeymoon seems to be over and the first internal divisions are beginning within the church. If the Devil fails to stop the church from spreading the gospel through external persecution, he will instead try to weaken the church through internal divisions.

For some reason, the Greek-speaking Jews felt that their widows did not receive the same treatment as the native Jews. Exactly what had happened is not clear, but with such a rapidly growing church of several thousand members, it is not surprising if there is an organizational mistake somewhere.

Distributing food to widows and orphans was part of the Jewish tradition, normally carried out by the priests in the temple. It was part of the Jewish tradition of taking special care of society’s vulnerable groups that I wrote about in chapter 10.

For some reason, Christians seem to feel that they also needed to take care of their church members. In the same way, we as a church today should help socially vulnerable people, especially members of our own church but also in society at large. Even if it is really the responsibility of the municipality, we need to help if the municipality is not enough or if someone falls through the cracks. For example, if the municipality does not provide good enough language training, the church can help by setting up a language café. As Paul writes to the church in Corinth, it is the lack of language that makes us strangers to one another.[4]

If you transfer the message of the text to today, you can compare it with Swedes and immigrants. In theory, we all agree that it shouldn’t matter if you’re Jewish or Greek, Swedish or immigrant, but the more you live together, the clearer the differences become. To overcome this, we need to listen to complaints and actively work on integration.

It was good of the Greek-speaking Jews to bring the problem to the attention of the church leaders. However, one should of course avoid “complaining” and instead go to the leaders directly and point out the problem and try to find a solution.

In the same way, it is quite natural today that from time to time unintentional organizational mistakes occur in the work of the church. By pointing out the problem to the leaders, solutions can be found. Complaining risks creating more division and resentment.

The problem was unintentional and not the result of misconduct. As a church leader, it is impossible to anticipate every possible problem or change, but once a problem arises, it must be dealt with, and the necessary changes made. You don’t always get to choose which problems and situations you will meet, but once you face them, you have to deal with them. So now that the apostles and disciples see the problem, they realize that they need to reorganize the food distribution:

2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch.6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. 7And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”

(Ac 6:2-7)

The apostles could have dealt with the complaints by ignoring the Greek-speaking Jews. Or they could have split into two churches, one Hebrew-speaking and one Greek-speaking. But they didn’t. Instead, the apostles’ solution was to include more leaders in the ministry. If they themselves had undertaken to distribute the food to the widows, they would have neglected the specific calling they themselves had received from Jesus. But by recognizing the problem and appointing new leaders to do just that, they resolved the situation in the best possible way.

It is worth noting that all seven new leaders elected have Greek names. They were most likely some of the Greek-speaking Jews who had complained that their widows were being overlooked. It was very wise of the apostles to appoint Greek-speaking Jews to this leadership. Those who saw the problem also had to be part of the solution.

In a church, the pastor is not supposed to do everything. Rather, church leaders are supposed to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ”.[5] That is, church leaders are to help church members find and grow into a role in the church that suits them, so that they too can participate in building up the kingdom of God from the gifts and skills with which they have been given.

It is my experience as a church leader that those who see a need do so because God has placed that task on their hearts and is calling them to enter into that ministry. So when someone complains about something in the church, a good leader should turn that person’s complaint into trying to help that person into ministry and become part of the solution to the problem they see themselves.

It is not in the text, but the ministry of the seven new leaders is described in other parts of the Bible as “deacons” or “church servants”.[6] These seven church servants were to be filled with “the Spirit and of wisdom”, i.e., they were to be both spiritual and good at their work. Having only one or the other will not be good, but the combination makes a great deacon! Although church work is practical, it is important to have a good spiritual character when entering into service for God.

Such a practical and seemingly simple and unglamorous task as distributing food to widows was a spiritual task that needed prayer and the laying on of the hands of the Apostles. Making coffee, serving food, teaching Swedish and appealing unjust government decisions is a similar spiritual service today that also needs prayer and spiritual wisdom.

If the Devil’s strategy was to divide the church and distract the apostles from the Word and the ministry of prayer, he failed miserably. Instead of distracted apostles and a divided church, the result was a better integrated church, wise leaders, new church servants and continued successful growth.

Applying these principles to today, we can learn in particular that we should work to keep the church together despite different language groups, and appoint church leaders from all groups in the church. When Spirit-filled leaders from other countries and languages are included in the church leadership, it becomes easier to integrate and hold the whole congregation together.

You have read a free chapter of my book Friend of Strangers. If you like this book, please consider purchasing the ebook through Amazon. Since English is not my native language, there may be some linguistic inaccuracies. Please contact me if you find any.

Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1] Ac 4:4

[2] Ac 4:32

[3] Ac 4:32

[4] 1Co 14:11

[5] Eph 4:12

[6] 1Ti 3:8–13

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