Friday, August 17, 2012

Trouble at the Tables: Acts 6

Trouble comes from two basic places: inside and outside. That seems like an obvious statement right? If not, let’s consider it:

Your car works fine. Then, one day it does not. Either something broke internally or some external force, like a freight train, smacked it. Either way, it was working fine until either internal wear brought it down or external forces destroyed.

The same thing is evident in your body. You go to bed, fine, and wake up and cannot move your arm. Perhaps the ligaments snapped in the night, and perhaps it was gnawed off by a tiger. Either way, either internal disruption or external destruction put a hold on your jazz marimba career.

The difference between the internal and the external forces is that you can often see the external problems coming. The internal ones tend to pop up from less expected directions. Healthy people die from heart attacks while smokers live without lung cancer; alcoholics die from simple falls while vegans die of liver disease. All of these events happen, even though they are from the expected results.

This is visible in the church as well. The difficulties in Acts 5 with external persecution and religious pressure were expected. After all, this religious group was responsible for the execution of Jesus, so one must assume His disciples were expecting problems on the outside.

Really, problems on the outside are easier to deal with. They may be more catastrophic, but often outside issues are either single incidents or predictable pressures. Much like the single damage of a car accident or the long-term external pressure of gas prices, you can see it happening and know when it’s over.

The internal issues, though, are much more difficult to deal with. These are what we have in Acts 6 (link). Internal issues. When those arise, you have to deal with them, and deal decisively with them.

Why? Because internal hemorrhage is deadly, and internal strife is deadly to a church. Very rarely has external pressure completely destroyed a body of Christian believers. While some churches fade away as external forces remove the people that are part of a fellowship, even the persecution of North Korea or Iran has not eliminated churches from those nations.

Yet the Christian churches that once sponsored the learning and culture of Western Europe and the United States are dying rapidly and their influence is waning quicker than a Cubs playoff run. It is external forces that we would like to blame for these problems, but really our issues have arisen internally and we cannot escape that reality.

The passage today, Acts 6, is the first place in church history that internal issues arise. Within this passage, the church sees a problem arise in how they are handling the provision for the needs of widows within their community.

A few words are necessary to address why this was an issue. First, in the social norms of the day it was the responsibility of the family to provide for widows within the family. Additionally, orphans should also have been provided for by extended family rather than abandoned. (You see a little about this as the early church does not seem to address orphans until perhaps a decade into their existence, time enough for children to be born into believing families and then their parents to have died.)

The religious system of the Jews established these social norms, but the Christian faith was disruptive to that system. In some portions of Israel, especially Jerusalem, it appears that accepting Jesus as the Messiah put one into isolation from their family and cut off that support. The church then undertook to meet that need. The idea is that the church is family starts here (though that has run to an abusive level in some place): the church is family, united by the blood of Christ. That means provision and care, stability and stick-to-it-ness that you do not find many other places. After all, family is family, no matter what happens.

I digress: the church has taken on providing for the widows that have come to the faith. This is all well and good, but trouble comes from it. Eventually a complaint arises that there is a disparity in the food distribution. There appears to be more distribution to the native Hebrew-speaking Jews than there is to the Greek-speaking members of the church.

In the long run, the church will have more Greek-speakers than Hebrew-speakers, but that is not the case yet. Right now it feels to the minority group that they are being overlooked or slighted in the operation. This is the setup for division and argument.

Note a few critical aspects of this situation:

First: There is no argument here about doctrine. No one is wrong or right here, and so this is not about the purity of the church. Neither is it about getting God’s Word right. In those cases, there is no compromise or synthesis: right is right, and wrong is wrong.

Second: There is no actual sin present in this situation. This causes me to think that there was no true disparity in provision of food for widows, for denying one group food over ethnicity would be blatantly evil. Instead, I think this is a problem of appearance. When sin is present, there is no compromise with it. Sin has to go.

Third: There is no reason not to simply solve the problem and move on. There is no point in rehashing yesterday’s complaint or getting even for it. Instead, move forward! And do so quickly

What do we take from this?

Address the issue quickly. It does not appear that this problem festered in the church but was instead handled quickly.

Believe the best about people. There were no accusations attached but only discussion of behavior.

Commit to keep prayer and the Word important.

Delegate issues to be handled by people that can handle them.

Exalt God over your problems.

Any internal issue must be addressed and addressed quickly. Take the example of the early church and act rather than allow the strain to build up!

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