Category Archives: Dysfuncational

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]

 

Urban Organic Function (2)

B.  Function of the one body:

Another lesson we learn from the “neglect problem” in Jerusalem was that there was no such thing as “church autonomy” in the Jerusalem church, for all the Christians in Jerusalem functioned as one body of Christ from the very beginning (See At 2:44; 15:4,22). They were one church regardless of whose house in which the members sat on Sunday morning. The members remained as the one body in the city throughout the history of the church in Jerusalem (See At 15:4,22).

However, efforts on the part of the Hebraic groups to be independent from the Grecian groups may have been the source of the problem. And since the neglect was a problem, then any autonomous behavior on the part of the Hebraic groups was wrong. A natural result of autonomy is that groups often develop a sectarian spirit that keeps groups separated from one another. In the case of some groups in Jerusalem, their autonomy may have led some groups to be negligent in their responsibilities toward the whole body of disciples throughout the city who were meeting in other homes.

The fact that there were complaints, and subsequently a solution for the problem, clearly teaches that where the disciples sat on Sunday morning did not make them autonomous from one another.   Neither did sitting in a separate assembly relieve them of their responsibility to minister to the Grecian widows of other groups.

If the possible 800 assemblies were indeed rightly autonomous from one another, then we should be complaining about their complaining. We would assume that each autonomous group should take care of their own widows, and thus, not make the “neglect” a “brotherhood issue.” If all the members in Jerusalem were intentionally behaving independently as autonomous groups, then the solution that the apostles later suggested would have been contrary to church autonomy.

We say the preceding because we ourselves live in a large metropolitan area that represents many different language and cultural groups. In a city area of over four million people, there are at least ten different language/cultural groups represented among the churches throughout the metropolitan area.   Unfortunately, some church groups have little contact, and sometimes concern, for those groups that are separated from them linguistically and culturally. It is simply the way people function if they neglect living according to the gospel that brings unity among people. But because the world functions in this manner, does not mean that Christians can separate themselves from one another because of either language or culture.   Since we have a tendency to separate ourselves from one another, then we need to heed the exhortation of the Holy Spirit that we should be “eager to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ep 4:3).

Nevertheless, realizing linguistic/cultural differences helps us develop a practical understanding of what exists in most large urban centers in the world today. The Holy Spirit gave us some insight into this common challenge that we have when working in urban centers. He inspired Paul to reveal that God “has made of one man all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth [city], and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation” (At 17:26).

These are not “boundaries” that are drawn on a map.   These are cultural boundaries that are often identified by linguistic differences. It is the way God naturally separated people from one another after the attempted efforts on the part of man to build a tower whose top would possibly reach unto heaven (See Gn 11).

If one has not experienced living in a metropolitan area wherein several languages are spoken among those who are of different cultural backgrounds, then it may be challenging to understand the natural human instinct for people to assemble under their own cultural or linguistic flag.   Throughout the world today there are thousands of cultural and linguistic “boundaries” that separate people from one another. These “boundaries” exist within the limits of most international urban areas of the world today. It is simply a reality with which the church within these cities must deal in order to be the one body of Christ. It is possible, therefore, that the Holy Spirit recorded for us the “neglect problem” in Jerusalem in order to help us understand means and ways by which we can evangelize and function as the body of Christ in urban centers throughout the world.

In Jerusalem in the first century, there existed at least two linguistic/cultural groups, specifically the Grecian and Hebraic Jews. The two groups had a common father in Abraham, but this did not mean that they were common in their culture or language. The fact that the Hebraic Jews seem to have ignored the Grecian Jews suggests that they allowed their culture and language “boundaries” to be an excuse to ignore their responsibilities to function as the one universal body of Christ. They were at the time a dysfunctional organic body because some had forgotten the oneness that is produced by their common obedience to the gospel. They had forgotten what the Holy Spirit said to some Jewish brethren in Galatians 3:26-28:

“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek. There is neither bondservant nor free. There is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

 [Next in series, September 22]

 

Urban Organic Function (1)

The function of the church in large urban centers is different than the social environment of rural areas. Since the members of the body in urban centers are faced with special problems in reference to remaining in contact with one another, we believe the Holy Spirit recorded for us a situation of organic dysfunction in the historical context of the early church. The “neglect of widows” was the ideal example to illustrate some of the obstacles the members of the body in urban centers must overcome in order to fulfill the mandate that widows are to be a part of the contribution of the church in any particular city (See Js 1:27). We are sure that the Jerusalem church fell short in other areas of function. However, dysfunction in the area that identified the fellowship of the one body was critical. The care for widows and orphans defined the church as an organic body that has the heart of God for people (See 1 Jn 3:10-24). For this reason, the Holy Spirit moved the mind of Luke to record this historical case of dysfunction in order to give us solutions on how to function as the organic body, even in the complexities and complications of large urban centers.

A. Identifying dysfunctions:

The first lesson we learn from this historical incident is in reference to a dysfunction in the organic body in concerning widows. Because the members of the church in Jerusalem were meeting in different homes throughout the city did not justify this dysfunction. It seems that some Hebraic groups had become so autonomous from one another that the Grecian widows actually became anonymous from them. Regardless of the cause, the dysfunction had to be corrected.   Solutions had to be made in order to correct this dysfunction in the entire body in Jerusalem.

Keep in mind that the dysfunction in distribution to the Grecian widows was realized because there were those who saw it as dysfunctional behavior among all the members of the church in Jerusalem.   They realized that the organic function of the body among all the members who were assembling in the approximate 800 groups throughout the city was actually behavior that was not worthy of the gospel. It revealed that some were not living in a manner that was worthy of the gospel that brought all them together into one body in Christ.

Great shepherds among us will always know their Bibles well enough to identify areas where we are not functioning according to the gospel. And when they speak out concerning dysfunctional body behavior, the body must listen. This is the focus of Paul’s instructions to the elders of the body. In listing qualities that the shepherds must have, Paul wrote that “an elder must” hold “fast the faithful word as he has been taught, so that he may be able by sound teaching both to exhort and refute those who contradict” (Ti 1:9). In the context of the Acts 6 dysfunction, though not mentioned, there may have been elders who initially brought the matter before the apostles.

Do not be surprised that we suggest that there were designated elders among the disciples at this time in the history of the church in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas designated elders in the cities of Lystra, Iconium and Antioch when the older Jewish men in these cities were only about six months in the faith.   Simply because Luke does not mention elders in the historical narrative of Acts before Acts 11:30 is not proof that there were no elders in the Jerusalem church.

The matter of dysfunction in distribution was brought before the apostles only because the apostles were still in the city at the time. The disciples, including possibly the elders, wanted to bring the “neglect problem” before the apostles in order to determine if there was any revelation from the Holy Spirit on this subject (See At 2:42). Since the church was in existence from three to four years by the time we get to Acts 6, it would be reasonable to conclude that some Jewish elders had been converted. This would be a valid assumption, especially in view of the fact of what was stated in Acts 5:7, that a great number of the priests were obedient to the faith. It would be logical to think that there were designated elders among the several thousand Christians in Jerusalem at the time.   Either these elders, or some other concerned members, identified the neglect of the Grecian widows to be a flaw in the organic function of the body. They knew the truth of God on this matter well enough to know that the “neglect problem” had to be corrected.

[Next in series, September 19]

 

Dysfunctional Challenges

From the beginning in Acts 2, the number of saints in Jerusalem grew from an initial infusion of 3,000 gospel obedient members—some of whom were traveling visitors for the Passover/Pentecost feast who later went home—to well over five thousand men three to four years later who were local residents (See At 4:4). These members were meeting in homes throughout the metropolitan area of Jerusalem at the time Luke inscribed the historical statement of Acts 4:4. If the 5,000 men of Acts 4:4 could be doubled to include the same number of women, and then conservatively add about two children per family, then by the time Luke made the statement there could have been well over 20,000 individuals of the church of Jerusalem within three or four years after the events of Acts 2.

Since there were no church buildings, civic halls, or public schools in which these Christians could meet on Sunday morning, of necessity they met in their homes. (The meetings outside in the temple courtyard of Acts 5:42 were evangelistic, not worship assemblies of the saints). The point is that the saints were meeting in homes throughout the city by the time of the dysfunctional distribution to widows that is recorded in Acts 6:1-6.

If we would suppose there were an average of about twenty-five people who could meet in any particular home in Jerusalem, then this would be an approximate number of 800 assemblies of the disciples in different homes throughout the city. Because of our experience with the disciples meeting in homes, people of like mind often gravitate to those with whom they feel comfortable. For example, those who speak a common language naturally gravitate to those house churches where a common language is spoken.

This would only be natural. In a small social environment the most inner feelings of one’s heart can be expressed only in one’s native language. And when there is only an average of about twenty-five people in the group meetings in Jerusalem, it was simply a natural thing that there be a common language that was spoken in each small house assembly.

We have found that most Bible interpreters forget this very important historical setting of the early church in all the cities of the Roman Empire where there were Christians. Because Bible interpreters have ignored the house assembly context and function of the early disciples, they often do not understand completely contexts as Acts 6 in the historical setting of the times.

When we step into the historical context of Acts 6, the Grecian Jews who spoke Koine Greek were meeting in homes that spoke primarily the Greek language. These were Jews who evidently grew up in Greek-speaking areas outside Jerusalem, but later migrated to the metropolitan area of Jerusalem. And since they were probably migrants to the area, then they were possibly living in the lower economic suburbs of the city because they were not connected to the established financial heritage of the local resident Jews, which Jews spoke Hebrew, or Aramaic.

Those local resident Jews who spoke Hebrew, or Aramaic, were meeting in homes that spoke the common local language, possibly homes that were in the upper economic or established suburbs of the city.   Because the approximate 800 assemblies were conducted throughout different suburbs of the city, we would certainly assume that none of the members of the 800 assemblies knew all those who met in all the assemblies. This would especially be true if the house groups were located in different economic suburbs of the city. It would simply be unreasonable to think that all the members knew the approximate 20,000 plus individuals of the church of Jerusalem during the three to four years since the beginning in Acts 2. This would particularly be true because of the rapid growth of the church in Jerusalem, especially since Luke makes the point of growth when he introduced the problem of the neglected widows (At 6:1).

In small groups people naturally have a tendency to bond closely with one another. Those of a common language and culture simply gravitate to one another, and subsequently bond around their common means of communication. There is nothing abnormal about this. It is simply the way God made us. We can imagine, therefore, how difficult it would have been for many of the disciples in Jerusalem, who did not share a common language or culture, to know those of different languages or cultures. This would especially be true if there were new converts in many different suburbs of the city, and thus, many new assemblies in the city since the initial Pentecost three to four years before.

This would be a particular challenge for those groups in the upper economic, or locally cultured suburbs of the city, to know those of the lower economic suburbs. There were simply too many groups and too many differences for all the saints to know all the saints. This seems to be the historical setting that led to the dysfunction that is recorded in Acts 6. The Grecian Jewish widows were being “neglected in the daily distribution of food” because they were not known by the groups who were taking care of their own widows (At 6:1).

We do not know all the reasons for this neglect, but for some reason the lack of fair distribution was occurring among the disciples in Jerusalem after three or four years from the beginning of the church in Acts 2. Understanding how the early church solved the problems does give us a great deal of information concerning how the early disciples allowed the gospel to move them as an organic body. The occasion also provides us with a “mission textbook” on urban evangelism.   Jerusalem was a typical multiple cultural city of the ancient world. The organic function of the church in the city, therefore, provides a great deal of information on how the organic body of Christ should function in urban centers.

[Next in series, September 16]

 

 

 

Learning from Dysfunctions (2)

Sometimes we spend so much time in the New Testament discussing, or debating, doctrinal points that we often fail to investigate the function of the early disciples as the organic body of Christ. In our quest to discover and implement doctrinal purity, we often overlook those areas of behavior where some early disciples dysfunctionally lived the gospel they had obeyed. Even more striking in our dichotomous religiosity in these matters, we are zealous in bringing an individual to the point of salvation, but while he is still dripping wet, we fail to enlist the baptized believer into the ranks of the organic army of God. The Holy Spirit wanted to exhort some in the Philippian church in this matter by reminding them that their behavior as disciples must always reflect the gospel that they obeyed: Only let your behavior be worthy of the gospel of Christ (Ph 1:27).

Since our behavior as Christians must reflect the gospel that we have obeyed, then it is imperative that we study in the New Testament those examples where the Holy Spirit recorded dysfunctions in the organic body. We must turn to the record of what was recorded with the same zeal by which the Holy Spirit encouraged the early disciples to consider the Old Testament examples. “For whatever things were written before [in the Old Testament] were written for our learning (Rm 15:4).   The same exhortation was written to the disciples in Achaia: “Now these things happened to them [the Israelites] as an example, and they were written [in the Old Testament] for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Co 10:11).

Organic dysfunctions of the body of Christ in the first century were not recorded by the Holy Spirit for the simple purpose of filling in historical material of the early church. The record of these dysfunctions in the body is in our hands today for a purpose. Since all inspired Scripture is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and instruction in righteousness (2 Tm 3:16), then we would correctly assume that the Holy Spirit would record examples in the New Testament that we could examine, which examples illustrated dysfunctional behavior on the part of some early disciples. We must assume, therefore, that these recorded examples of dysfunctional behavior on the part of some were recorded for our correction and instruction in righteousness.

We must never allow all the noise that hovers around debates over doctrine to draw our attention away from examples of organic dysfunctions that reveal we may not be worthy of the gospel we obeyed. For example, we have found that we are quite hypocritical in this matter in reference to the Lord’s Supper. We will strive over matters surrounding the Lord’s Supper, when the Holy Spirit says at the same time, “Do not strive about words to no profit” (2 Tm 2:14). We divide over the Lord’s Supper that was instituted to remind us that we are one united body because of our common obedience to the gospel (1 Co 10:16,17). We sometimes become hypocritical humbugs in these matters.

The Holy Spirit wanted us to understand that when He recorded dysfunctional behavior on the part of the early disciples, He wanted us to be reproved by the examples of bad behavior. And in being reproved, He wanted us to refrain from such dysfunctional organic behavior that does not reflect the full power of the gospel in our lives.

The Spirit said this clearly through the pen of Paul: “If you then were raised with Christ [through obedience to the gospel], seek those things that are above” (Cl 3:1). The word “seek” in this statement goes far beyond mental assent.   Reference is to letting our behavior be worthy of the gospel of Christ (Ph 1:27). When our minds are focused on the resurrected and reigning Son of God, then we are encouraged to behave in a manner that is worthy of the gospel. We will thus “put to death … fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire,” etc. (Cl 3:5). In contrast to such dysfunctional behavior as members of the body of Christ, we will put on “a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another and forgiving one another” (Cl 3:12,13).

It is through the power of the gospel that our lives are transformed from worldly behavior that is dysfunctional according to the gospel. The organic body of Christ functions at its best when all the members put away the dysfunctional behavior that is typical of worldly behavior. Paul’s exhortation to the members of the body in Rome was not without his initial reminder that he was not ashamed of the power of the gospel that would not only save, but would also transform behavior (Rm 1:16):

“Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind [that is focused on things above], so that you may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rm 12:2).

With the preceding thoughts in mind, we must establish a very important foundation upon which to interpret the historical statements concerning the function of the organic body of Christ that are recorded in the New Testament. We must not assume that the recorded historical accounts of the function of the body were arbitrarily placed in the New Testament by the Holy Spirit simply as statements of history. To do such would be assuming that the Holy Spirit simply wanted to give us an historical record of the early church. But in this history, there were dysfunctions of the organic body. We must assume that the Spirit wanted us to learn from the dysfunctions, as well as those times when the early disciples’ lives were worthy of the gospel. Therefore, we must look deeper than the record itself.

We would correctly assume that all historical statements that are recorded in the New Testament are there for the purpose of teaching something greater than the historical statement itself. In other words, we must look beyond the record of the historical events in order to understand what the Holy Spirit was seeking to teach through the function of the incident that is recorded. Since the early gospel-obedient believers sought to live a life that was worthy of the gospel of Christ, then we must seek to understand where they failed in those areas of function that were not according to the gospel.

Since an encyclopedia could have been written by the Holy Spirit to give an account of all the activities of the early church, we must assume, therefore, that those cases that are given were recorded for the purpose of teaching specific lessons. This was the Holy Spirit’s approach in recording key miracles in the life of Jesus.

“Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written so that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God …” (Jn 20:30,31).

When come to the book of Acts, we must assume “that many other things happened in the early function of the church that are not recorded, but these events were recorded to teach how we should live according to the gospel.” We therefore come to both correct functions and dysfunctions of the organic body of Christ that are recorded in the New Testament—specifically the book of Acts—with the understanding that these historical accounts were meant to teach how we should live according to the gospel.

[Series to be continued.]

Dysfunctional Organs (1)

“Apartheid” is an Afrikaans word—the language of South Africa—that means “separateness.” The practice of racial and cultural apartheid found its legal roots in South Africa when a system of institutionalized racial segregation was introduced within society in 1948. From that date the system was maintained by the authoritarian political power of one group of citizens over the citizenship of the rest of the country.

The practice of apartheid within South Africa resulted in a system of dysfunctional social stratification, which social system legally prevailed until the early 1990s. However, even after the writing of a new constitution that did away with all the apartheid laws, the embedded social behavior of apartheid continues to this day among all social groups of the country. It is a system of dysfunctional social behavior much like the caste system of India that lingers on today, though the legal restrictions are long gone. Social changes continue long after the demise of legal statutes that seek to regulate society contrary to the principles of the word of God.

We live with the legacy of the dysfunctional social injustice of apartheid even to this day in South Africa. But before we target and criticize South Africa for her brief history of apartheid, we must remember that apartheid has always existed throughout the world. The experts use the word “ethnocentrism” to identify the foundation upon which separateness within societies often prevails. Without the principle of “love-your-neighbor-as-yourself,” apartheid is simply the legalization of ethnocentrism. If we take away legalized apartheid, we still of behave as segregated citizens within a society because of different skin colors or cultures.

We originally began the writing of this book in order to deal with dysfunctional behavior systems among the early disciples.   But the more we focused on the dysfunctional behavior patterns of the early disciples, the more we began to realize that apartheid was strong in the first century, and subsequently found its way into the organic function of the early church. When it came into the fellowship of the church, organic dysfunction resulted because apartheid is against the very core of the gospel.

Apartheid among Christians is contrary to the spirit of the gospel. When Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Have this mind in you,” he took the Philippians, and us, on a journey of the Son of God across cultural boundaries (Ph 2:5).   Jesus illustrated in His gospel mission that unless He transitioned the separateness between God and man that would eventually lead to the total annihilation of humanity for eternity, He had to destroy the “apartheid” between God and man (See Is 59:2). He had to set an example of a cross-cultural journey that would bring all men of society together into the fellowship of one body. This is gospel.   Therefore, for those who have obeyed the gospel of the Son of God, there can be no apartheid between those who have come into the fold of God’s gospel-obedient people. Because He so loved the world, the Son of God left the culture of heaven in order to cross over into our culture. He did so in order to reconcile all of us together into the united family of God. We must never forget that only in Christ can the following social order prevail over our natural instincts of apartheid:

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek. There is neither bondservant nor free. There is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.

 Galatians 3:26-29