The Connection (5)

E.  The connection

In the local context of the Corinthian culture, some during the assembly were still following the drunken behavior of the pagan temple culture of Corinth. They had made the general love feast an opportunity to manifest their pagan temple culture and arrogant attitudes. The love feast, therefore, became a reflection of their unrighteous attitudes and lack of love for one another, rather than a reflection of the united nature of the ekklesia of Christ. Some who were possibly Christian athletes who participated in the Games may have been bringing their competitive spirit into the assembly of the saints.

Paul was harsh in this context with the ungodly behavior of those who competed for recognition during the assembly. The reason for his harshness was in the fact that the Corinthians were attacking the loving nature of the ekklesia of Christ. The members of the body are bound together as one body through love, just as the Father and Son are one (Jn 13:34,35). However, the Corinthian love feast manifested everything but love and unity. Their inconsiderate and competitive behavior was subsequently manifested to the unbelievers who may have showed up at the “love” feast.

Paul’s rebuke was not that they were violating some ceremonial rituals of either the love feast or the Supper. His rebuke was stern because the arrogant and competitive spirit among them were destroying the communal and participatory nature of how Christians are to fellowship with one another as the ekklesia of Christ. Though he initially addressed them as the “church (assemblies) of God in Corinth” (1 Co 1:2), they would cease to be this united body of Christ if they continued in their disruptive assemblies that manifested before the world an unloving spirit.

If indeed the specific assembly about which Paul wrote was a provincial assembly during the Isthmian Games, then we can only imagine what attending athletes would be saying about the Christians of Achaia when they returned home after the Games. This may explain why the Holy Spirit focused specifically on this problem among the Achaian Christians. Their behavior was simply bad advertisement for the early church.

When the love among disciples is lost, as was typical with some in the regional assembly of Achaia in Corinth, then the lampstand of the gospel is taken from the city. The members of a loveless church may continue to meet, but because they manifest an ungodly behavior with which they surround the love feast of celebration and the Lord’s Supper, they no longer reflect the gospel in their assemblies (See Rv 2:4). Paul saw this happening in Corinth, and thus, in his rebuke he identified and corrected such unbecoming behavior among the disciples.

One lesson is strikingly clear from Paul’s revelation surrounding the Corinthian problems: If any assembly of disciples in any area manifests division in the love feast and the Supper, then the members are bad branding examples for the church. The love feast/Supper is the perfect opportunity to determine if each member of the body has the heart of God. If members cannot sit down and eat together in harmony with one another, then they are not together as the one body of Christ. If the members are competitive in their individual ministries, then they destroy the unity by which the organic body must function in harmony.

If the members autonomy from one another throughout a province or state has divided them to the point that they cannot come together in a common meeting in “Corinth,” then they are sectarian. One of the greatest lessons learned from regional love feasts is that such events provide everyone with the opportunity to manifest the nature of the organic body of Christ. Regardless of where each member of the body sits on Sunday morning throughout the province or state, he or she is still a member of the one body of Christ. Assemblies must never be used as an opportunity to divide members from one another. We are all “of Christ.”

[End of series]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Meal and the Supper (4)

D.  The meal and the Supper

It seems that only the disciples of Achaia had the problems in their assemblies that are discussed in the context of 1 Corinthians 11-14. It seems that they had the problems because the disciples of Achaia had a unique provincial assembly during the Isthmian Games. Paul’s instructions concerning the women keeping silent in this combined provincial meeting would be appropriate. The instructions concerning the women keeping silent in such a combined assembly would answer some of the problems that came from women speaking out of order, and thus causing more confusion (1 Co 14:34,35).

However, in their ordinary weekly house meetings, the women would simply remain in their subjective relationship with their own husbands in the presence of visiting neighborhood families who assembled in their homes on Sunday. It would be unreasonable to think that the wife should keep silent in the home assembly simply when another family stepped into her living room for a time of praise and worship. If indeed a wife was not submissive to her own husband before the assembly, then she would be out of order in her relationship with her husband, as well as with guests, who would be attending the couple’s house assembly (See 1 Tm 2:12).

We are told that the Corinthians in their regular weekly house fellowships came together on the first day of the week throughout Achaia (1 Co 16:2). However, we are not told that the meal of 1 Corinthians 11 was a combined weekly gathering of all the house groups. Throughout Achaia such would have been impossible on a weekly basis.

The 1 Corinthians 11 meeting may have been a periodic regional meeting in Corinth wherein the division that was going on among the individual house fellowships manifested itself in the general love feast that took place in the city of Corinth. Add to this the problem of some disciples in Corinth not waiting for those who came from great distances from throughout Achaia. Their lack of love for one another was revealed by their gluttony of eating all the food before others arrived.

Whatever the historical setting, we must be careful that we do not read our modern-day system of institutional assembly behavior into the context. We do know, however, that the Corinthian disciples were continuing the Passover meal tradition through the love feast/Lord’s Supper as part of a celebration feast, just as the disciples in Troas. We assume that they were so committed to the love feast/Supper that they were willing to keep such even during an occasional provincial meeting in Corinth.

[Continued]

Isthmian Games Assembly

C.  The Isthmian Games assembly

If the assembly of 1 Corinthians 11-14 were indeed an occasional meeting of all the disciples in Achaia, then we might wonder from where this tradition originated. Here is a possibility: The Isthmian Games were conducted in the spring every two years in the city of Corinth.   These games originated several centuries before the arrival of Paul on the scene on his second mission journey.   Paul wanted to be present in Corinth in the spring of A.D. 51 because he knew that this was the ideal opportunity to preach the gospel to the world through the athletes who attended the Games. Since athletes from throughout the Roman Empire were gathered for these games, Paul wanted to seize the opportunity for world evangelism. It was during this opportunity that Paul used a diversity of languages to communicate the gospel (1 Co 14:18).

In order to support this view, it is interesting to note the “athletic language” that Paul used throughout the Corinthian letters (See 1 Co 9:24-27; 10:1-13; 15:55-57). He knew the athletic culture of the Greeks and others who prepared for the Isthmian Games. Words as “crown,” “race,” “self-discipline,” “boxing” and “victory” were commonly used words in the competition of the Games. Paul simply coined the words when he wrote of spiritual matters to the Achaian disciples.

It is also interesting to note that there were no public accommodations for the athletes who came from great distances to participate in the Games. The visitors camped in tents in the open fields that surrounded the facilities for the events. Not only did Paul see the Isthmian Games as an opportunity for evangelism, but he also saw them as an opportunity for his tentmaking business. Evidently, Aquila and Priscilla also took advantage of the opportunity, for it was in Corinth where Paul first encountered this couple who had recently fled from Rome (See At 18:1-3). This common tentmaking business in the context of the Isthmian Games explains how Paul could have contacted the other two tentmakers.

It would not be difficult to assume that since the first disciples of Achaia may have been in Corinth for the occasion of the Isthmian Games, that the members of the body throughout Achaia continued the tradition of an “Isthmian assembly.” They possibly had such an assembly every two years in order to take advantage of the evangelistic opportunity that the international event presented. However, in their behavior, they were tarnishing the opportunity.

At least this possibility explains why the gift of speaking in languages would have been so valuable during this biannual assembly. Since there would have been present athletes of different language groups from throughout the Roman Empire, it would have been a tremendous opportunity for world evangelism.   The opportunity was similar to that which was presented by the annual Jewish Passover/Pentecost feast in Jerusalem where the apostles stayed for at least fifteen years after the establishment of the church in Acts 2. The Achaian brethren may have simply scheduled an “Isthmian assembly” at the time of the Games. At least it would have been quite negligent on their part not to have taken advantage of such an opportunity.

The Isthmian Games presented the opportunity for world evangelism as the Passover/Pentecost feast. However, the Achaian brethren were squandering the opportunity for evangelism because of their lack of love and consideration for one another. They should have been manifesting the same spirit of love that the early Jewish disciples did in Jerusalem a little over twenty years before:

“Now all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they sold their possessions and goods and divided them to all, as everyone had need. And continuing daily with one accord in the temple and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and sincerity of heart” (At 2:44-46).

The Achaian brethren were portraying the opposite of the above description of the first disciples in Jerusalem. It may have been a Greek cultural problem.   Nevertheless, they needed to learn a great deal from the first Jewish disciples.

When we read the statement by Paul to the Achaian brethren, “if the whole assembly [of Achaia] gathers in one place [in Corinth] (1 Co 14:23), then in the historical context, we would probably be correct to assume that this was a biannual assembly of the saints from throughout Achaia who came together in Corinth for the mission opportunity of the Isthmian Games (See 1 Co 11:18). During their presence in Corinth at the time of the Games, they simply took the opportunity to assemble on Sunday in Corinth, having invited athletes of the games to come to the unique spring Sunday assemblies during the Games (See 1 Co 14:23).

Based on this possibility, Paul asked a specific question concerning the disciples’ chaotic behavior that took place during this regional assembly. We quote his question below with our assumption that his question was indeed made in the historical context of the biannual event of the “Isthmian assembly.”

“Therefore, if the whole assembly [of the disciples from all Achaia] gathers in one place [in Corinth during the Games], and all speak with languages [of the different nationalities that are present during the Games], and there come in the uninformed [who know little or nothing about the church], or unbelievers [who are attending out of curiosity], will they not say that you are mad [if you conduct your assembly in confusion as in the idolatrous temple]?” (1 Co 14:23).

Unbelieving athletes assuredly attended the assemblies of the saints during the Games. But if they witnessed the rival competition between the tongue speakers and prophets, then they would assume that these people (Christians) were mad. It may have been that some of the brothers brought the competitive spirit of the Games into the assembly of the saints.

It would not be outside the historical context to understand Paul’s teaching concerning the assembly in 1 Corinthians 11-14 with the background of an occasional meeting of the Achaian saints in Corinth.   Such an interpretation would certainly answer a great deal of questions concerning the nature of his instructions concerning the problems that arose during this unique assembly.

[Continued]

Regional Assembly (2)

B.  The regional Assembly

We are not told in the context whether the assembly that was addressed in 1 Corinthians 11 – 14 was a weekly event, or a periodic event when all the house groups of all Achaia came together in one place in Corinth. However, it is more reasonable to believe that this specific disruptive occasion wherein the competitive behavior concerning languages and prophecy that was discussed in the context of 1 Corinthians 11 – 14 was actually an occasional provincial assembly. This is indicated in the statement of Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:18: “For first of all, when you come together in assembly, I hear that there are divisions among you.” Or more specifically, “Therefore, if the whole assembly gathers in one place [in Corinth] (1 Co 14:23).

It seems more likely that Paul’s reference to the assembly was not to the small weekly house assemblies, but to something far greater to which everyone in the province was gathered, and during which the problems of 1 Corinthians 11-14 were addressed.

An occasional large provincial meeting was where the “I am of Paul,” “I am of Cephas,” and “I am of Apollos” sectarianism would most likely have been revealed (1 Co 1:12). Such an assembly would present the opportunity for competition between those gifted in languages and those gifted with prophecy in order to teach the multitude who had come together.

It would certainly be unreasonable to conclude that their sectarian behavior was being manifested in the weekly house assemblies throughout the province. Claiming allegiance to a specific personality in a group of 25-30 people would seem questionable, especially since each particular “loyalty sect” may have been meeting in the same house. And the use of the gift of languages (tongues) would have been unnecessary if everyone in the weekly house assembly spoke the same language.

People of a common language throughout Achaia would certainly have met in a group that spoke their particular language. But throughout Achaia, everyone spoke Greek, so the need for the gift languages was not necessary. Only during the Isthmian Games did people come into town who spoke other languages. During an assembly with diverse language groups, there would be the necessity for the use of the gift of languages.

The disruptive behavior that Paul confronts in the context of 1 Corinthians 11-14 seems to fit better in the context of an occasional fellowship assembly of all the Christians in Achaia when they came together in the city of Corinth. It was in such an assembly that favorite personalities divided the one body of Achaia into “loyalty sects.”

[Continued]

 

 

THE REGIONAL FEAST/SUPPER (1)

The early disciples came together regularly on the first day of the week to fellowship with one another and to partake of the Lord’s Supper during or after a love feast. They celebrated the gospel of Jesus with the bread and fruit of the vine. They celebrated one another during the love feast. In view of these participatory events, we need to approach the context of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 with the understanding that the love feast was a meal upon which the Supper was based. Seated in the love feast, the Supper of the Lord was observed in order to celebrate the Redeemer of the one redeemed body.

It is in the context of this celebration of the love feast where we discover that some of the Corinthian disciples were reflecting their divisive and competitive attitudes. There is justification to consider that the particular love feast/Supper that Paul addressed in the context of 1 Corinthians 11 was an occasional regional assembly during which rude behavior and inconsiderate attitudes were revealed on the part of some of the participants. In fact, when we consider their rebuke by the Holy Spirit through Paul, we can better understand the purpose of the love feast and Supper encounter for which both were conducted by the early church.

A.  The historical setting:

Many Bible students make an unfortunate interpretive error by lifting the events discussed in 1 Corinthians 11 – 14 out of the historical context of the early church, particularly the church of Achaia. For this reason, we must caution ourselves about reading into the context our own rituals that we traditionally maintain today that surround the love feast/Supper. It is simply our quest to understand the teaching of the word of God and the examples of how the disciples of the first century responded to the gospel. We must do this with the historical background of the early disciples, and not our own.

Since the letters of 1 & 2 Corinthians were written to Christians throughout the province of Achaia, we must understand that the assembly for the love feast/Supper about which Paul addressed was probably an occasional provincial assembly of the Achaian church in the city of Corinth (1 Co 15:16; 2 Co 1:1; 9:2; 11:10).   If we bring the discussions of this chapter into the context of the weekly love feast that was likewise observed by the Troas church in Acts 20:7, then we must understand that the Achaian disciples were in some way locally and provincially coming together in fellowship to eat the love feast and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. But the specific love feast/Supper that gave rise to some unique problems in Corinth was not the weekly event. It seems to be a forced interpretation to assume that the assembly about which Paul addressed was any particular weekly house assembly. He seems to be addressing the dysfunctional behavior of some in an assembly that was much larger than a house assembly.

[Continued]

Apartheid Christianity

A few years ago we were somewhat shocked as we looked upon a picture of the attendees of are particular lectureship of brethren in America. There were over one hundred preachers and church leaders pictured in this annual preacher’s lectureship. We looked closely at the picture. We look at every face. The picture was in one of the “brotherhood” newspapers of the church, but what we saw took our minds back to the apartheid years in Jerusalem. Everyone who was pictured in the newspaper were African-Americans. No other cultural group was represented in the picture.

After the “apartheid” function among the Christians in Jerusalem was revealed through the lack of administration of food to the Grecian widows, we might assume that the problem of discrimination among the Christians that was based on cultural barriers, was overcome. In reference to the distribution among the Grecian Jewish Christians, the problem was immediately solved. But this may not have been the end of discrimination among the members of the body. When Christians started to reach out evangelistically to cultures beyond Jerusalem, there were still some cultural differences that lingered. Jesus’ mandate that the gospel go beyond the city limits of Jerusalem ran into some cultural obstacles as it did in Jerusalem.

When Peter went to the house of a Gentile, Cornelius, the cultural barriers between Jews and Gentiles was revealed in the actions of those to whom he returned when he came home to Jerusalem.

A.  Apartheid in Jerusalem:

It took a special vision from God to convince Peter, an ardent Jew by culture, to get out of his cultural cocoon (At 10).   In the special vision that was sent to him by God about ten years after the establishment of the church in Jerusalem, he even complained when asked in the vision to eat those things that Jews were not, according to the Sinai law, allowed to eat. So he complained, “Not so, Lord, for I have never eaten anything common or unclean” (At 10:14).

Peter was an obedient Jew in reference to the Sinai law. Though that law was dead, and God had subsequently declared all meats to be clean, Peter still refrained from eating certain meats. What Peter and other Jews had difficulty practicing was the fact that what was unlawful to eat under the Sinai law had now become only the customs of the Jews.   Nevertheless, Paul excused himself of any Jewish food restrictions with the statement, “I [Paul] know and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself. But to him [Peter] who regards anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean” (Rm 14:14). So we will excuse Peter for the moment for not considering all foods clean. But he and all Jews had to understand that what was once law when they were under the Sinai law, was no longer law in reference to foods. Eating of all meats was simply determined by the custom one might feel in reference to eating certain foods.

Now when the Holy Spirit eventually came upon the household of Cornelius, God signalled to Peter and the Jews who had accompanied Peter to the house of Cornelius, that the gospel must go to the Gentiles. When the household of Cornelius was empowered by the Holy Spirit to speak in other languages, they realized that God was signalling that the Gentiles must hear the gospel (At 10:44-48).   And if the gospel must be preached to the Gentiles in order that they obey the gospel, then the unity of the gospel must do away with any cultural barriers between Jews and Gentiles.

Because of his experience with the Holy Spirit coming upon the household of Cornelius, Peter finally understood the teaching of the vision. He thus stated to Cornelius and all those who were present, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons. But in every nation he who fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him (At 10:34,35). Hold this thought.

After Cornelius and his household were baptized, Peter and company returned to Jerusalem. But when he reached the city limits, “those who were of the circumcision disputed with him, saying, ‘You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them’” (At 11:2,3). We would assume that those of the “circumcision” were fellow Jewish brethren.   At least this is a good assumption.   If they were, then the cultural barrier between Jews and Gentiles in the city of Jerusalem reached into the fellowship of the church. This was probably the case since the culture of Jerusalem was strictly Jewish. This was later revealed when Paul came to the city many years later and the elders of the church encouraged him to observe some Jewish customs in reference to the temple (See At 21:17-25).

If indeed these were fellow Jews and fellow Christians who came out to contend with Peter, then the Christians in Jerusalem continued to be intimidated by the apartheid of the Jews in Jerusalem in reference to the Gentiles. The apartheid (separateness) between Jews and Gentiles may have greatly influenced the behavior of Jewish Christians in the early years of the church. This may have been the source of the “neglect problem” that led to the oversight of the Grecian widows. Because it took a special vision of God to one of the Christ-sent apostles, cultural barriers continued to hinder the missions of the Jerusalem church until about ten years after the beginning of the church in Acts 2.   (We assume that Peter’s trip to the house of Cornelius was approximately ten years after the Pentecost of Acts 2.)

B.  Apartheid in Antioch:

“After fourteen years [from Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem when he returned from Arabia], I [Paul] went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus also with me” (Gl 2:1). Titus was a Greek. But when the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem confronted him about not being circumcised, Paul identified those who confronted Titus as “false brethren” (Gl 2:4). From this identification, therefore, we would assume that if someone would make a cultural practice a matter of salvation, then he or she is a false brother (See At 15:1). But this was not the end of the story in reference to apartheid in the church of Jerusalem. These false brethren sought to take their “Jewish cultural Christianity” far beyond the city limits of Jerusalem.

Paul later wrote in the letter to the Galatians, “But when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he stood condemned (Gl 2:11). After reading this statement, we wonder what Peter, the apostle whom God sent to the house of Cornelius, did to bring himself into a state of condemnation.   This was the same Peter to whom were given the “keys of the kingdom” (Mt 16:18,19). Peter certainly preached the truth according to the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit did not force him to conform to the truth of the gospel that he preached. And because any direct control of his behavior was not a work of the Spirit, Peter stood condemned because he was responsible for his behavior on this occasion.

While in Antioch, and before the arrival of the Jewish delegation from Jerusalem, Peter “ate with the Gentiles,” just as he had done with the household of Cornelius (Gl 2:12). However, when “certain men” came from Jerusalem, “he withdrew and separated [apartheid] himself [from the Gentile brethren] (Gl 2:12). But it was not Peter alone who practiced this apartheid behavior in the fellowship of the disciples. Barnabas and the other Jewish Christians in Antioch also withdrew themselves from the Gentile brethren (Gl 2:12,13). If a picture were taken after the arrival of the Jerusalem brethren, it would probably have been a picture of Jews only.

What Peter, Barnabas and the other Jewish Christians did was place themselves in a state of condemnation because “they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Gl 2:14). Their behavior was contrary to the gospel of Jesus who gave up His cultural environment of heaven with God in order to be transformed into the flesh of man (See Ph 2:5-8). It is often difficult for people to understand that they must never allow any cultural barriers to stand between them and the preaching of the gospel.

Many suggestions have been made as to why Peter allowed himself to be intimidated into living contrary to the gospel in Antioch.   We would assume that the Jewish culture was still so strong in him and in Jerusalem that those who were still in the bondage of such, followed the preaching of the gospel to other areas.   In this case, the cultural bondage made its way even to the church in the Gentile city of Antioch.

We must never underestimate the bondage of cultural religiosity. When Christians believe that certain rites of their culture are necessary in order to be saved, then they seek to bring the brethren under the bondage of such behavior. Sometimes the intimidation of those who teach “cultural Christianity” was so strong in the first century that even a Christ-sent apostle succumbed to those who preached such bondage. We must never forget what Paul wrote in order to encourage the Galatian Christians never to succumb to “cultural Christianity: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Gl 5:1).

And just in case his readers did not understand the seriousness of this matter, in the context of the “circumcision Christianity” that some Jewish brethren were teaching, Paul wrote, “Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you are circumcised [in order to be saved], Christ will profit you nothing” (Gl 5:2; see At 15:1).

Solving Dysfunctions (2)

D.  Qualified by reputation:

The seven men of necessity already had a good reputation of having dedicated themselves to the ministry of the saints.   This is the character of leaders as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:15,16:

“You [in all Achaia] know the household of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have dedicated themselves to the ministry of the saints, that you submit yourselves to such, and to everyone who works with us and labors.”

This is the commentary passage on the situation in Jerusalem in Acts 6. Achaia was a Roman province. Because of the dedication of brother and sister Stephanas and their household, they had a great reputation for ministry among all the disciples throughout the province of Achaia. Because the seven men who were to be selected in Jerusalem were already involved in ministry throughout the city, it would be easy for the church to identify them because they already knew of their ministry. The whole church of Jerusalem, therefore, simply had to select which seven ministering saints of the city they wanted to be designated by the apostles to focus on the administration of food to the widows.   They would have to agree to work in this ministry until the problem was solved. The point is that the seven were already in the work of ministry to the saints before they were selected by the church. Once they were selected, they were then designated by the apostles. This was done in order to make sure that the whole church knew those to whom to go in reference to distribution needs.

God opens doors of ministry for those who are already in ministry. Therefore, instead of praying to find a ministry, one should get busy on his own initiative and start ministering. Once God sees that one is dedicated to the ministry of the saints, then He will open doors for greater ministry for that person. The one who sits idly by waiting for a ministry will see no open doors for ministry. Because he is not able to find something to do is an indication that he will do nothing though a ministry is staring him in the face.

What is also significant about the apostles’ suggestion is that it “pleased the whole multitude” (At 6:5). All the saints in Jerusalem were on board for a solution because the apostles did not form a board of authority to run the show.   There were no power struggles and debates. We see no business meetings or ambitious populous candidates stepping forward to be voted into office.   The church went forth to make their own selection. Candidates did not come forward for a populous vote.

The names of those who were chosen indicate that there were both Greeks and Jews in the group of seven, for the list of names included both Grecian names and Hebrew names (At 6:5). Nicolas was a Gentile proselyte who had immigrated from Antioch to Jerusalem. In order to culturally reach all the widows of all the language/cultural groups, those who were chosen represented men from all linguistic and cultural house groups of Jerusalem. The whole church thus revealed great wisdom in the men that they chose for this work of ministering to the widows.

E.  Functional growth:

It is interesting to note that the Holy Spirit began the historical section of the neglect of the Grecian widows with the statement, “When the number of the disciples was multiplying” (At 6:1).   When the solution was implemented by the church, the Holy Spirit concluded with the statement, “So the word of God increased. And the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly” (At 6:7).

When the church does that which is right according to gospel motivation, then growth happens. Whenever there is a dysfunction in the body of Christ, growth is always hindered. When the members’ minds are so focused on the problems that disrupt the body, they cannot focus totally on the preaching of the gospel to the lost. For this reason, Satan seeks to disrupt the body, and by so disrupting the body he disrupts the preaching of the gospel.   It is for this reason that gospel-obedient disciples must always keep their minds focused on those things that are above (Cl 3:1). They must be alert to areas of function in the body wherein problems may develop.

It seems that in the three to four years of growth since Pentecost, the church in Jerusalem was functioning without any “committee” to feed the widows. The committee of seven was designated only when a dysfunctional problem arose.   Committees, therefore, were not a common organizational structure of the early church, even among the possibly 20,000 people in the church of Jerusalem who were meeting in possibly 800 homes throughout the city. Therefore, when a committee was formed to solve a problem, it was not permanent.   This does not mean that perpetual committees are wrong. It only means that when gospel-obedient people are motivated in their daily living by the gospel, there is little need for cooperate organizational structures in the body life.

This point is brought out in reference to the lives of two of those who were on the first committee. One of the committee members, Stephen, was full of grace and power of the Holy Spirit (At 6:8). However, his total commitment to preach the gospel eventually led to his death (At 7:54-60).

It is significant to note that though Stephen was part of the committee of seven to serve tables, he still reached out in preaching the gospel. It may be worth nothing, therefore, that the church knew him as a leading person among the disciples because he was formerly preaching the gospel in Jerusalem prior to his selection by the church to be on the committee of seven (See At 15:22).   It may be that by the time of his death, the problem of the neglecting of the widows had been solved and the committee terminated. At least Stephen’s part on the committee was terminated when he went on to glory.

Philip, another person of the committee, was a married man with possibly four young children at the time. Many years later we find Philip as an evangelist. When the great persecution eventually arose in Jerusalem, “Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them” (At 8:5). He then was led to the desert to preach the gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch (At 8:26).   And then he and his family moved on to Caesarea (At 21:8,9).

The problem of the neglect of the widows had long been solved by the time of the death of Stephen and Philip’s move to Ceasarea. Committees are intended to solve dysfunctions in the organic function of the body. But when the problem is solved, there should be no need for gospel living people to be organized into committees to do good to all men, “especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gl 6:10). Those who are living the gospel fulfill the needs that arise among those of the family of God as soon as they encounter needs. This is the meaning of being “organic” as the body of Christ. When disciples are meeting in their homes, it is difficult to ignore a need that is sitting across the living room table.

It is as John exhorted, “Whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 Jn 3:17). If one needs a committee person to come by and remind him of his responsibility to care for his brother, then his relationship with the brethren as a whole is not close enough to discover the needs of his brethren.   If he knows legitimate needs, but does not respond, then the heart of God does not dwell in him through the gospel.   Therefore, “let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn 3:18).

[Next in series, October 3]

 

Solving Dysfunctions (1)

When a dysfunction of the body is identified, leaders who are both equipped in creating solutions for the function of body life, as well as taking the initiative to do what is right, will move into action. In the case of the Acts 6 problem that was presented to the apostles, the apostles moved into action with solutions that revealed great wisdom on their part.

A.  Consideration of the whole:

This was not a situation where mandates were made behind closed doors and handed down a chain of command to the church.   We see no boards of authority in the early church. The apostles did not behave in this manner, and neither should we. As the accepted leaders at the time, the first thing the apostles did was to call “the multitude of the disciples” (At 6:2).   This move on the part of the apostles called on the entire church to get involved in the solution. Boards of authority seek to steal away from the whole church the opportunity for the church to find solutions for dysfunctions that affect the whole church. The actions of the apostles teaches that it is always the responsibility of the whole church to identify and solve its own problems.

The lesson here is that when a problem affects the whole church, then the whole church must be involved in the solution.   All leadership does is to create the opportunity for all the members to work together as one united body in order to find solutions for problems. Therefore, the church cannot give over to any board of authority that which the whole church should do.

B.  Work of the organic body:

In the case of distribution to the widows, the apostles threw the responsibility for solving the problem back to all the members of the body in Jerusalem. They said, “Look out from among you seven men” who will take care of this business (At 6:3). There seems to be no significance to the number “seven” other than the fact that to the Jews the number was symbolic of perfection. In the selection process, this is the only decision we see the apostles making. When the seven were selected by the church, all the apostles did was announce the selection. Nothing was said about the apostles giving their approval of the seven. In other words, we see no effort by the apostles to disqualify any one of the seven.   When the church put their stamp of approval on the seven men, the apostles submitted to the decision of the church.

What is significant is the fact that the 20,000 plus members of the body that we suppose were in Jerusalem at this time had to work together as one body in order to find and set forth the seven men.   Boards of authority seek to usurp the opportunity of all the members who should work together as the organic body of Christ. The members of boards assume that they must guarantee the function of the church by handing down dictates to the church.

But in this case, this process was reversed.   The church handed to the apostles their decision. The apostles suggested the simple guidelines for selection. But it was the church that made the final decision as to who would serve in the ministry. We assume that more than seven men fulfilled the spiritual guidelines set forth by the apostles. But it was the decision of the church to make the final selection of seven men. After they made their selection of seven men, the whole church then presented these men to the apostles for the simple task of making a public designation of who would be the seven servants.

C.  Qualified administrators:

The apostles gave some general spiritual qualifications that should be characteristic of those who would be chosen.   The chosen should be men who would work among all the house fellowships. They would take the lead in making decisions concerning the distribution to the widows (At 6:3). The very nature of the ministry of distribution would assume the responsibility of making decisions concerning distribution. Such would conform to the Spirit’s instructions through Paul who wrote, “I do not allow a woman … to be dominant over a man” (1 Tm 2:12).   This would not restrict women from working with their husbands in the ministry, but the principle of male leadership should not be violated in reference to the leadership of the men in the distribution.

Those who were to be chosen should be of “honest report” (At 6:3). Since the men would be handling a great deal of money, this was a practical qualification in reference to the character of the men. It was a qualification that was certainly known among all the saints in Jerusalem.

Men “full of the Holy Spirit” would suggest that they formerly had hands laid on them by the apostles to receive one of the miraculous gifts of the time (See At 8:18,19). We could assume that one of these gifts was the gift of administration (See 1 Co 12:28). However, in the selection process we assume that the church would recognize those who had a natural gift of administration.

The “full of … wisdom” qualification would be the foundation upon which decisions were made in the distribution. This qualification would suggest that these men not be novice Christians, neither those who were young. Since the men would be working among all cultural groups in Jerusalem, they needed to be men who were known for their integrity and ability to make the right decisions.

The church initially went to the apostles for a possible revelation from the Holy Spirit on this matter. But this was a matter that needed no revelation from God.   It was a function of the body that required only wisdom to solve. Wise Christians who are moved by the gospel can use wisdom in order to carry out the mandate of James 1:27, that the church is responsible for the widows and orphans among them. The Spirit did later give information concerning the care of widows (See 1 Tm 5:1-16). However, in this case of distribution to widows in a large metropolitan area, only wisdom was needed in order to solve the problem.   God does not do for us those things we can do for ourselves if we would just use some common sense (wisdom).

[Next in series, October 1]

 

 

Connecting Gifts And Needs

Sometimes it is wrong to do right. When speaking of living the gospel, this statement may seem quite odd. Nevertheless, in the organic function of the body of Christ, it is sometimes wrong for those who are gifted with special ministries to work in an area where they may not be gifted, or in reference to a need that should be passed on to another.   This was the case in reference to the disciples in Jerusalem finding a solution for the dysfunction concerning the neglected widows in Acts 6.

Since the apostles were still in Jerusalem at the time a functional problem developed in Acts 6, they, as the accepted leaders, were faced with a functional problem among the disciples. There is a great lesson to be learned from how the apostles handled the problem concerning the care that the whole church in Jerusalem should render to the widows.

We are not told by Luke who brought the problem of the neglected widows before the apostles. We assume that the apostles were busy with their work of prayer and ministry of the word of God (At 6:4). Since prayer should be a ministry of all the disciples, in this case the apostles did not want their prayers to be overshadowed by the administration of what others could do. But specifically, it was their Christ-ordained ministry to deliver the inspired word of God to the early church (See Jn 14:26; 16:13). This was especially important because of those who continued to come and stay in Jerusalem for the Passover/Pentecost feast.   The apostles continued to teach those who journeyed to Jerusalem (At 2:42).

The last Passover/Pentecost feast that Luke mentioned was in Acts 2. However, since the event of Acts 6 probably took place from three to four years after the Passover/Pentecost of Acts 2, we must assume that the apostles were diligently teaching those who obeyed the gospel during each Passover/Pentecost feast (See At 2:42). It was their mission to go into all the world and preach the gospel through those who were baptized during the Passover/Pentecost feasts. Therefore, when the dysfunctional organic problem of the feeding of the widows in Jerusalem was made known to them, they replied, It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables (At 6:2). This one statement opens a great door for understanding the ministry of the apostles in reference to the organic function of the early church.

In view of the necessity that the apostles not be diverted from their ministry of the inspired instruction of the church and world evangelism, it would not have been right for them to forsake these Christ-appointed ministries in order to serve tables. In this case, it would have been wrong for them to do a good thing.   The apostles simply stated, “But we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (At 6:4). In reference to the ministry of prayer, we would assume that these were special prayer sessions for those who were returning home to other lands after being taught by the apostles.

We are sure that the apostles were confident that they fulfill their destiny. They felt no guilt about saying “no” to a good thing of serving tables. Neither did they allow others to make them feel guilty about not caring for the widows (See Js 1:27). When one is focused on doing what he or she believes is his or her God-given ministry, others should not make them feel guilty if they do not participate in their own God-given ministry. After all, in another context and situation, Paul wrote,

 “Now there are many kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are many kinds of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are many kinds of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all (1 Co 12:4-6).

Paul concluded 1 Corinthians 12 with the admonition that the organic function of the body of Christ is based on the fact that gifted individuals work together as one body, regardless of the diversity of their gifts (1 Co 12:28).

In the list of different ministries that God has designated in the body, “administrations” was one of those gifts.   On the occasion of Acts 6, the apostles helped the early disciples to understand that “administration” was a special gift that was necessary to be recognized in order that the organic body function properly. So for this reason the apostles said, “Look out from among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, who we may designate over this business” (At 6:3). In other words, it was not the business of the apostles to leave their gifted ministry of special prayers and teaching in order to administer the distribution of food to the widows. It was not according to the God-defined function of the body that they leave their ministry in order to do the ministry of someone who was specifically gifted in administration.

Those who are zealous in their particular ministry must not make others feel guilty if they are not likewise involved in their own ministry. The light of the gospel shines differently through different members of the body.   A healthy body is the result of all the organs of the body functioning according to their purpose in order to maintain the function of the whole body. When any one part of the body says that he has no need of any other part of the body, then that part of the body that wants to stand alone becomes dysfunctional. Therefore, “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” (1 Co 12:21).

Neither should one’s ministry be exalted above the ministry of another member. “On the contrary, more indeed, those members of the body who seem to be more feeble are necessary” (1 Co 12:22). Exaltation of one ministry over another is detrimental to the organic function of the whole body. Minimizing the “less honorable” members in their function is senseless.

“And those members of the body whom we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable parts have more abundant presentation” (1 Co 12:23).

Paul’s point to the Corinthians was in the fact that “if one member suffers [in his or her ministry], all the members suffer with it. Or, if one member is honored [in his or her ministry], all the members rejoice with it” (1 Co 12:26). Members in their ministries must function in cohesion with one another.

This is exactly what the apostles taught on the occasion of the bodily dysfunction of Acts 6. There was a dysfunction in the distribution of food to the Grecian widows, for only the Hebraic widows were benefitting from the existing distribution. The solution was not that the apostles leave their ministry in order to assume the task of others who had the gift of administration. The solution was in the fact that the whole church should look out among themselves in order to identity those who were gifted with administration in order to correct the organic dysfunction of the church at the time.

[Next in series, September 28]

 

 

Urban Organic Function (3)

C.  The collective body working as one.

We need to reap another lesson from the Acts 6 dysfunction by going one step further in understanding the organic function of the body. This point was emphasized when Paul wrote to all the Christians of all Achaia who occasionally met in Corinth for a united love feast. During the occasion, which some seized as an opportunity to reveal both their sectarianism and inconsideration division was revealed.   Paul rebuked the dysfunctional members for their competitive practices in reference to ministry. After reminding them of the diversity of ministry by which God ordained that the organic body function, he wrote, “But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing [gifts/ministries] to every one individually as He wills” (1 Co 12:11).

The body in all Achaia was made up of individuals who exercised their Spirit-given individual ministries. These individuals worked in their individual ministries as the one universal body of Christ. Paul therefore instructed, “For as the body is one and has many members [with different ministries], and all the members of the one body, though they are many, are one body [universally], so also is Christ [universally] (1 Co 12:12).

We must not forget that “the body is not one member, but many” (1 Co 12:14). Though we as the one body “are many members,” we function as the one universal body of Christ (1 Co 12:20). It is fallacious to think that the church can be united only when all the members of the one universal body are sitting in the same assembly on Sunday morning. In fact, cultural and linguistic divisions (boundaries) are revealed when there must be three or four interpreters to interpret the message of the hour into all the languages that are represented.

There is nothing wrong with the translation of the lesson into the language of all those present, but to force such in weekly house assemblies seems to be an effort of forced unity beyond common sense.   (In another book we have dealt with the occasion in Corinth when translators—interpreters—were needed in the occasional assembly of all the Achaia house fellowships that is discussed in the context of 1 Corinthians 11-14.)

We would conclude that each of the house assemblies throughout Achaia used one common language on Sunday morning to accommodate everyone who was present. Those who spoke the language of a particular house assembly went to the house that spoke their language.

Common sense dictates that each language group has the freedom to meet when speakers of the assembly all speak the common language of the group. We have found throughout the years that it is quite naive to think that unity can prevail among individual members only when everyone sits at the same location on Sunday morning. Unity is not based on proximity in assembly, but common obedience to the gospel. If we would judge that unity among the members in a city must be based on close proximity in assembly, then we have developed a forced man-made unity that is simply superficial. It is an empirical unity that does not necessarily have to be based on a unity of the spirit.

Now apply this function to the church in Jerusalem. Luke recorded that the number of the disciples in Jerusalem had increased to about 5,000 men. We have added wives and children, estimating that there could have been over 20,000 individuals who made up the church in Jerusalem. Now must all these 20,000 be assembled together at the same place in order to be the one united church in Jerusalem? Must they all be at the same place on Sunday in order to preserve unity?

Sometimes common sense should be used when understanding the historical function of the one united body of Christ in any particular area or city. Common sense dictates that the 20,000 did not meet at the same place on Sunday morning in order to sustain unity. Common Sense dictates that the 20,000 met in various homes throughout the city because there were no publicly-owned buildings in Jerusalem that would house this number of people.

The local Christians’ meeting in approximately 800 homes led to the problem of the neglect, not a problem of disunity.   The solution for the “neglect problem” was not to assemble everyone together under one roof. The solution involved everyone looking out for everyone, regardless of whose house in which everyone sat on Sunday.

There were certainly challenges that faced the church in Jerusalem because of the necessity of the members’ meeting in so many different homes throughout the city. Because the Grecian Jews were meeting in their own assemblies—some would supposedly say autonomously—the Hebraic Jews assumed that they were not responsible for the Grecian widows. As it is often said, “Out of sight, out of mind.” And since the Grecian Jews were out of sight of the Hebraic Jews, then the Hebraic Jews in their autonomous behavior possibly thought that they had no responsibility to share their contributions with the widows of other groups, especially if they were of another culture, language group, or possibly economic status.

If the Grecian Jews were primarily immigrant Jews to Jerusalem, they may have been the lower income citizenship of the city.   If they were, then it could have been that they could not financially care for some of their own widows.   Since they were out of contact with the financially established Hebraic Jews, then we can understand how the “neglect problem” arose. The Grecian Jews may have been embarrassed to ask for help. But someone did ask, for such neglect was contrary to the spirit of the gospel where members bear one another’s burdens (Gl 5:2).

In their neglect, at least the Hebraic Jews revealed their dysfunctional autonomous fellowship, if indeed they believed themselves to be autonomous from the Grecian house assemblies. However, we are giving them the benefit of the doubt that the Hebraic Jews did not know that the Grecian Jews were being neglected.   At least we assume that Luke alerts us to this possibility when he introduced the dysfunction by saying, “Now in those days when the number of the disciples was multiplying” (At 6:1).   The neglect may have been unintentional because of the great number of assemblies that were throughout the city because of the phenomenal growth of the church.

Luke does not record in the Acts 6 account that any racism was involved, for everyone involved was a Jew, except for a few proselyte immigrants. And since he did not mention racism as the problem, we must stay with the former conclusion that the Hebraic Jews were unaware of the situation.

There was a vast number of assemblies in the city.   The natural thing is that house assemblies often become so bonded with one another in the commonality of their language and culture that they have a tendency to become autonomous from one another. They subsequently become anonymous from one another. At least the house assemblies in Jerusalem lost contact with one another when there were hundreds of house assemblies being established throughout the city as the number of disciples multiplied.

In the historical situation of Acts 6, it seems that the word “neglect” should be understood in the context that at least the distribution among the Hebraic widows was taking place. However, some house assemblies were simply bypassed by the Hebrew speaking groups and administrators because of an unintentional oversight. The Hebraic groups did not know the language of the Greeks, and thus, they naturally did not make an effort to go to those house assemblies that spoke Greek. Whatever the real situation, the church in Jerusalem was dysfunctional in this matter as the one organic body of Christ. A solution had to be found to correct the disorder because their common obedience to the gospel produced one body of Christ whose members must care for one another.

[Next in series, September 25]