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Study Notes:

Acts 6:1-7

Church Leadership Pt 1

Summary: Discrimination can tear a group apart, but so can disorganization, wise leaders involve diverse co-workers because they know they cannot accomplish the mission alone.

We’ve been talking about the cycle of external opposition and internal division faced by the early church. Three weeks ago we had external opposition as the Peter and John were taken into custody and questioned for causing a scene in the Temple.

Two weeks ago we saw internal division with Ananias and Sapphira lying about what they were giving to the church. They were trying to make themselves look good and God called them out on it.

And then, last week, we saw the apostles arrested as the external opposition cycled around again. Peter and others were questioned about their teaching and activities, beaten and released, but they kept on doing what they had always been doing – preaching the good news of who Jesus is and what He has done for us.

Along the way, after each challenge, we’ve noticed little summary statements that tell us the Church kept growing. As long they remained faithful to God and His Word, as long as they followed His agenda and plan, things continued to advance.

Well, this morning the cycle continues. We see another internal issue with the potential to cause division and tear the Church apart just as it’s getting started. We read:

Acts 6:1 Now in those days,when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.

So, here’s what you need to know: there have been problems in the Church from the very beginning.

The Church isn’t even six months old yet, and there’s conflict brewing. If you’ve ever been disappointed by the Church, if you’ve ever had difficulties with the Church, if you’ve ever been hurt by the Church, or frustrated by the Church, there are a LOT of people all around the world, and all throughout history who understand exactly what you mean.

Now, we want the Church to be a place of love, hope, peace, rest, retreat, and encouragement. And it is all of that, at times.

But it’s also a hot mess – a raging dumpster fire of disaster, disorder, and dysfunction.

You know why? Because in any true church you’re going to find two things – Jesus and people. Now, Jesus wants the people to be more like Him – but they’re a work in progress. Sometimes you get to see the stuff that’s been renovated and you’re impressed, encouraged, and inspired. But sometimes you get to see the unfinished side and you’re disappointed, disgusted, or discouraged.

I have to be honest with you – if you stick around the Church long enough, you’re going to be hurt or offended by someone. We’re a one-room schoolhouse and everyone has their own preferences, opinions, and levels of maturity.

But I can also promise that if you stick around a healthy church long enough, things will get better and the same people that offended or hurt you will one day minister to you in your pain and trials or will help you grow in grace and knowledge because we’re all maturing together.

And, Jesus wants you here. The Church is His plan, His project and there’s no plan B, no other options.

He knows you could get hurt here – after all, He was betrayed by Judas, one of His own. Think about that the next time some church leader lets you down. Judas spent years in ministry with Jesus, only to desert and betray Him. And, as a side note – that’s something for you parents to consider – you spent years pouring into your son or daughter or sister or brother – years encouraging and instructing them, and they walked off and left – Jesus knows. He knows exactly what that’s like.

He knows the pain of betrayal, but He also knows the frustration and embarrassment of just being flat out disappointed in the behavior of His own people. If you read the Gospels, you will see where He had to correct their behavior time and time again. And this is the group He entrusted the church to – they weren’t perfect, they didn’t have it all together. They were a mess, they were under construction, and they were not completed yet. But He was using them.

And He’s still using messed up, broken, incompetent, inexperienced people who feel way out of their league, today. He’s patient with them, patient with us, patient with me – as He encourages us, guides us, corrects us and helps us grow.

Friends, we are going to offend each other here at City Gates, we’re going to snub each other, we’re going to say mean or unthoughtful things to each other, we’re going to be overlook and disappoint each other. But let us decide and commit that we will also be patient with one another, long-suffering, kind, and forgiving, let us be willing to defer to one another, and willing

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to give people another chance as we all grow. In other words, let us try to reflect to others the grace, patience, and love we have individually received from Christ.

Now, we don’t have a sprawling ministry to widows, but there are definitely things we can learn from the history of the early Church.

We see two groups here – Hebrews and Hellenists. The Hebrews were ethnically and historically-religiously Jewish – they had received Christ, but they were still working to figure out what meant in light of the Jewish faith they had grown up with. The Hellenists were also ethnically and religiously Jewish. In other words, the two groups had a lot in common. Where they differed was in culture.

The Hebrews were natives of Palestine and Jerusalem. They grew up speaking Aramaic and Hebrew in the synagogue. The Hellenists were from the diaspora, they lived in the surrounding countries and had adopted many non-Jewish customs as well as speaking Greek. Some of you understand exactly what this is like – because you’ve been in America so long that when you visit family back home in China, or Iran, or Panama, or wherever your family is from, you feel the difference even if you grew up there.

So, you have these two groups who have a lot in common, but also something very obvious that makes them distinct and they’re having some conflict, they’re making accusations, the different groups are receiving different treatment.

But here’s where you have to be really, really, careful not to let your current cultural climate come rushing in to how you interpret the Bible. Because some of us are ready to read this as an issue of injustice in the church. Some of us are ready to see this as some homogenization, some discrimination going on. Some of us are ready to read some systemic oppression and in-group/ out-group prejudice here. It’s tempting, to read it that way, isn’t it?

To be honest, that’s how I’ve always read it. One group, the home team – the Hebrews, were shutting out the Hellenists, using their position and power for their own advantage and leaving the leftovers, the bare minimum, for anyone else. It wasn’t fair.

But let me ask you a question – what if this isn’t an issue of flagrant discrimination and instead it’s just an issue of frustrating disorganization? What if, instead of being an issue of majority culture vs minority culture it’s just a tragic issue of mismanagement?

Look, if you’ve been around City Gates long enough, you know we’re willing to call out some hard issues if they’re clear cut Biblical issues. But I’m not so sure we have a glaring case of social injustice and discrimination here. Now, why do I say that?

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Well, think about this – the last time we saw an issue in the church, it was the hypocrisy of Ananias and Sapphira. We know what happened, we know they were wrong, and we know they were judged. We know that because we read it all in the text.

The book of Acts is one of my favorite books in Scripture, it’s easy to read. It reads like a history book in many ways. If you’ve never read any Scripture, I always recommend people read a gospel like John and then read Acts, because it’s really easy to get into.

So, again, one of my favorite books, one I’ve read many, many, times. But here’s something I always missed – when you read about the conflict in Acts 6 – there’s no rebuke, no correction, no repentance, just some re-organization and then things keep marching on.

Now, you would expect, that if this was a heart issue, if there really was gross discrimination occurring, if this was all rooted in systematic oppression and prejudice, it would be called out – just like we see with Ananias and Sapphira or when Peter preaches to the crowds or the Sanhedrin – he calls their sin, sin. But we don’t see that. There’s no instruction on the importance of unity or love or acceptance.

And so, if you’re honest, when you first read this you’re ready to blow it up on injustice, but upon second look, maybe it’s just not there.

Personally, I just don’t see it. I’m not entirely convinced. I think it’s more likely that this was simply an issue of misalignment: poor allocation of time and resources, poor administration and supervision, and a lack of prioritization on the part of the leaders.

But I also think God used this mess to get people’s attention so they would re-evaluate the mission and undertake some reorganization, and that it actually led to increased diversity in leadership which was an incremental, but critical, next-step in God’s plan to go global with His Kingdom.

Watch what happens:

2 Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable (or, right) that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. 3 Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; 4 but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

5 And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit (we’ll meet learn more about him later in Chapter 6 and 7), and Philip (we’ll see him again in Acts 8), Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, 6 whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them.

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Now, here’s something you need to know that isn’t obvious: these are all Greek, not Hebrew, names. In other words, it is possible, though not necessarily certain, they’re all men from the side that was complaining.

So, let’s take some time and dig into what happened and what we can learn from it all.

First, people were complaining that “our” widows aren’t being taken care of like “your” widows. But it wasn’t an open rebellion, it wasn’t a public protest, it was grumbling, in fact your Bible may have used the English word murmuring.

You Bible scholars might be interested to know it’s the same word used in the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Old Testament – to talk about the way the people murmured or complained about Moses and his leadership during the Exodus (Exodus 16:7; Nu 14:27; 1Cor 10:10).

It wasn’t open rebellion, it wasn’t a protest, but grumbling is still inappropriate behavior for Christians.

The Scriptures tell us plainly:

Phil 2:14 Do all things without complaining and disputing, 15 that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world

1 Peter 4:9 Be hospitable to one another without grumbling. 10 As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.

But wait, you say, didn’t these people have a legitimate complaint? Weren’t real widows getting less on their dinner plate because of what was happening? Isn’t this something worth speaking up about?

Yes! Of course it is. But that’s the exactly the point – someone should have spoken up. And I mean all the way up – straight to Jesus. In other words, they should have prayed for the situation and about the situation. God said in the Old Testament that widows were important and that He would defend them (Ex 22:22ff; Deut 10:18). So people should have been praying about this.

And, they should have taken the issue directly and immediately to the leadership and shared their observations AS WELL AS their concern.

Now, I want to make a big deal out of sharing the details and their concern because sometimes people come to leadership and share something, but they don’t give the impression it’s important

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to them, or the leadership is distracted and the severity of the issue doesn’t get across. And so people walk away complaining, because, “Well, I said something, but they didn’t listen.”

Friends, you have to make sure you’re heard. Now, to be clear, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be addressed immediately or even that things are going to turn out your way – leadership in any organization or family has a lot of factors to consider – but make sure you’ve been heard if the issue is important to you. And then get back to praying, trust God, and be willing to be part of the solution or to accept an alternative outcome.

And, make sure you’re heard by leadership, not other people and not the spouse or friend of leaders – that’s grumbling, that’s murmuring, that’s sub-Christian – go to the leaders directly. They should want to hear you, and if they don’t they shouldn’t be in leadership.
Speaking of leaders, let’s talk about how they responded.

We need to note, first of all, that they addressed the issue. They didn’t brush it aside – which again, makes me think this was an oversight – they didn’t repent, nor did they call anyone out on any behavior, bias, or attitudes. Instead, they established priorities and positions. Let’s talk about each of those.

Notice they established priorities for themselves and for the church. They said, yes, this is a problem, but it’s not something we can take on – we need to be focused on the Word and Prayer.

Some scholars estimate the Church at around twenty-thousand men, women, and children at this point and if you have the apostles out serving tables, it’s like being on an aircraft carrier where the Captain and all the chiefs are down serving food in the mess hall. It needs to happen, people need to eat – but someone also needs to know where this ship is going and be able to give some direction.

Jesus gave the disciples the Great Commission – to go and make disciples – teaching people, not just meeting physical needs.

Now, the church should be interested in both. But, there is a very, very, important order.

Speaking to spiritual issues, often raises physical concerns. This whole conflict was over widows receiving aid. Why were they able to receive aid? Because other people, who had resources, were giving to the church. And why were they giving to the church? As an act of worship to God.

When people are born again, and when they begin to grow and thrive spiritually, they always, always, manifest that growth physically – you see real actions happen in the real world because of what is happening in their souls.

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But, the reverse is not necessarily true. You can take people who are doing well in the physical realm – they’re happy, healthy, physically and financially fit, and you have absolutely no guarantee that it will produce anything spiritual. In fact, it may do just the opposite – they may think they have no need for any sort of spiritual “crutch.”

So, the church should be interested in helping people, both physically and spiritually, but the spiritual aspect should always take priority BECAUSE it generates, propels, and sustains the physical.

Consider this as well. Jesus did many miracles, but only one of them is recorded in all four gospels. Do you know which one? It’s the feeding of the five thousand. Large crowds had followed Him as He was teaching, and He saw the need – they were hungry and there were no stores to go buy food, no restaurants to buy lunch. So He met their immediate physical need. And do you know what happened after He did that? John tells us, in John 6, that a crowd of people gathered that wanted to make Him king.

In other words, He had just met this enormous physical need – feeding five thousand people – and they responded by pushing Him into politics. But did He accept their nomination? No. He told them hard spiritual truths and it drove many of them away. He said, essentially, I need to be focused on the Word and prayer – the ministry the Father has sent me to do. Now, again, He was aware of their physical need – the meal was His idea, but He didn’t allow Himself to be sidetracked by it.

The Church has always been involved in meeting needs – you need to know the facts – how many hospitals were started by churches? How many colleges and universities? Where did the concept of universal public education come from? Sunday School was originally an outreach to child laborers, an effort to teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic just before the worship service because kids were too busy working in the mines and factories to attend school.

For all the problems the Church has had, and it has had many, it has also done a tremendous amount of good. It has met real needs, helped vulnerable and needy people.

But it’s number one mission has always been, and must remain, to preach the gospel and teach people – for one day, no matter how much or how little physical or financial assistance we receive, we will all die and then, the greatest questions of life come into play – where did we come from, where are we going, what’s next?

That’s why the apostles said, we need to give ourselves to the Word and Prayer but we also need to meet this need. So, find seven men among you with good reputation, wisdom, and who are full of the Holy Spirit.

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It’s tempting, and easy, for leaders – and again, we’re talking about leadership in the home, on the team, at work, in the community, not just in the church – it’s easy for leaders to use their position and power to ignore or shut-out complaints. It’s tempting and easy to just do things your way and pay no attention to what others are saying. But here, we see the apostles not only listened, they established qualifications and boundaries and then invited others into the process and publicly identified with the new team members to endorse them.

They said, you seven take care of that, and we twelve will take care of this, and together we will advance the gospel. Which is exactly what happened. Look with me at verse 7:

Acts 6:7 Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.

Crisis averted. Instead of dividing and splitting along cultural seams, the Church remains united and actually grew in response to conflict.

And in the process something very, very important for the history of the global church happens: you now have non-Hebrew ministry leaders, appointed by the apostles.

The story of Acts includes an ever widening circle of gospel outreach. It begins on Pentecost when the first disciples, who were all from Israel, and many of whom were from the region of Galilee, are now joined by other converts from all over North Africa, Southern Europe and the Middle East. They speak different languages and come from various countries, but they are all still ethnically and historically-religiously Jewish.

Now, we see the church appoint leaders from this from this group who are culturally distinct from the original apostles. Then, in just two chapters you will see the gospel go to the Samaritans who were half-Jewish in culture, ethnicity, and religious doctrine. In the later part of Chapter Eight the circle expands to reach an Ethiopian-convert to Judaism – he’s entirely different ethnically and culturally, but there’s still a religious connection.

Then, in Chapter 10 we meet Cornelius, a Roman. He’s ethnically distinct, like the Ethiopian, but he wasn’t even a full convert to Judaism, he was God-fearer. And finally, in Chapter 11 the gospel expands to include Gentiles who had no connection to the Jews either ethnically, culturally, or religiously – the only thing holding them all together is Jesus.

In other words, this conflict over supporting widows led to the next important step in the church’s growth so that people like me and most of you that have no Jewish lineage could receive the gospel and be brought into the Church.

Now, ideally, the conflict could have been avoided – the apostles could have kept their eyes and ears open, they could have been walking around, talking to people, monitoring the organization.

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But here’s the deal: things were growing. The distribution for the widows was only one of many things happening, and I’m sure it was hard to keep up with it all.

You have to understand, a healthy church is always a mess – because it’s growing. New people are showing up that don’t know where they fit or how you do things. Rhythms and routines that used to work well with 10 people now have 20. Leaders that were putting on events for 40 now have 80. It leads to problems, but they’re good problems to have.

And make no mistake, we have some of those problems, growing problems, around here. If you notice them, or if they have affected you, I’m sorry. I really am. But please, don’t let them frustrate you, or drive you away, don’t let them provoke you to murmuring, gossiping, or complaining – pray. Pray about the situation, pray for leadership, pray for your own heart and contentment. And then, say something, to the right people, and make sure you’re heard.

Let me give you three things to think about before we end.

First, be slow to judge. Not all conflict and friction in a church, family, business, class, or team is driven by sin – sometimes things just get overlooked or unfold faster than leadership can keep up. Don’t be so quick to assign a narrative.

Second, pay attention to what God is doing – He often uses conflict and pressure to produce growth. God had a bigger plan and vision for the church than what the apostles could manage on their own. They had to involve others. But that meant reassessing and reorganizing.

You have to do that sometimes as a healthy, growing, church, family, or team.

Think about it in building terms. Sometimes you need to move some furniture around – that’s easy change and it can create some room or space. But then sometimes you need to take out an entire wall, that’s a little more difficult, creates a bigger mess, takes more time, but it creates more space. And, sometimes you need to renovate the entire room, top to bottom.

But in all of that, you never touch the foundation. Friends, our church has a solid foundation – we rest on our belief that God is real and that He is really good. We rest on the fact that people sin and need salvation. We rest on the gospel that promises that Jesus Christ is the sacrifice for our sins and the only way to new life. We rest on belief in the Scriptures as true, and as a sufficient guide for all of life. Those things never change. But sometimes we need to shuffle things around up top as we figure out the best way to apply all of our foundational commitments today, in Northern Virginia, among these people.

We can’t fall in the love with the way we’ve always done things – sometimes change is necessary. But when it comes, it often creates new opportunities. So let me ask: what problems do you see at church and in the world and how might God want to use you to address them?

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We’re all called to some sort of ministry: the apostles needed to be in prayer and the Word, these new leaders needed to be tending to widows. What’s your role? God doesn’t just save you from something, He saves you for something too – what is it? What does He want to do through you?

It might not be a position of leadership in the church, but you can serve the Lord by meeting needs and serving others in countless ways. You can serve the Lord in politics, or the military or law enforcement, as an engineer, educator, or accountant as you bring order out of chaos. You can push back the forces of darkness and decay, you can innovate and lead, you can shine light on issues and spark understanding and discovery – all of life should be ministry.

There are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God – Hellenists are just as valuable as Hebrews, physical needs are as important as spiritual. And when we all keep our eyes on God, and allow Him to shape, mold, and direct us, everything gets taken care of, and the whole Church grows.

Let’s pray.

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