The second of my talks on multicultural church from a recent church away-day.
Earlier today we looked at the situation in Acts chapter 2 when the disciples preached on the day of Pentecost when 3,000 people from around the Jewish diaspora became Christians.
Now, we need to know a little bit about Jewish society at this point. Essentially, the Jewish community was divided into two. There were the people who lived in Israel itself, and there was the diaspora community who were spread around the whole region. The people who lived in Israel, referred to as Hebraic Jews, tended to look down on the diaspora or (Hellenic – Greek) Jews. The Hebraic Jews lived in the Promised Land and were able to get to the Temple for the festivals, whereas the Hellenic Jews lived amongst Gentiles and weren’t really seen as being properly pure.
Most of Jesus first followers were Hebraic Jews, but from the day of Pentecost onwards, there were an increasing number of Hellenic Jews amongst the believers and as you might expect there were problems.
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews[a] among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widowswere being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
The first thing to notice is that conflict happens; it is part of normal life in the church. This isn’t to say that it’s a good thing or a necessary thing – but it is something that happens. It is also the case that when you have people from different languages and cultures rubbing up against each other, then there are more causes of conflict.
It is important that when there are conflicts in the church that we talk honestly and openly about them. There is nothing to be gained by burying things and pretending that everything in the garden is rosy if it isn’t. We need to be prepared to talk things through and to come to solutions together. The last thing we should be doing is gossiping and complaining about people behind their backs. Conflict is part of life, so let’s face up to it.
Conflict is A Pain
You can almost hear the frustration of the Apostles as they are asked to deal with the problem of the distribution of food. “It’s our job to preach – not to sort out the meal rota!”. Down through the centuries, Christian leaders have faced this same frustration as they have had to deal with conflicts and disputes in the church. It is very hard to concentrate on preaching and teaching when you have all sorts of other stuff happening in the background.
This is why we need a plurality of leadership where people with different gifts and strengths contribute to the whole life of the fellowship.
So how did the Apostles deal with this problem?
They appointed a group of people to serve the food and make sure that everyone got fair shares. There are two things that are important to notice about the people who were appointed. The first is their qualifications:
Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.
Full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom: this was the qualification for people who were going to wait on tables. I’ve seen adverts for missionaries and church leaders which asked for less. However, it shows that all roles in the church – especially those that look at delicate situations require spiritual wisdom. We do need to think things through in a Godly fashion and people need to be equipped for that.
The second thing isn’t quite so obvious, but the names of all 7 of the people who were appointed were Greek – they were all Hellenic Jews. Now just think about this. The Hellenic Jews were complaining because their widows were being overlooked when the food was doled out. We don’t actually know whether their complaints were valid or not – the text doesn’t tell us. However, appointing only Hellenic Jews to the group who would deal with the problem was a mark of genius – they would have nothing to complain about after this. However, it did take a lot of understanding from the Hebraic Jews to allow this to go forward. You can imagine that there were quite a few complaints – but a compromise saved the situation. In a sense, this is an early example of positive discrimination – giving priority to the minority group to ensure that they weren’t discriminated against.
So, What Happened Next?
Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. 10 But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.
This isn’t exactly what you’d expect from someone who was appointed to wait at tables, but Stephen was obviously a really impressive man. As the story moves on, Stephen is falsely accused of blasphemy, tried, found guilty and then killed.
It’s an odd privilege, but it seems significant to me that the first Christian martyr wasn’t one of Jesus’ disciples or someone from Jerusalem, but a Hellenic Jew called Stephen, someone from the margins.
Moving on to Acts 8 we come to another interesting story:
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and allexcept the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.
4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. 6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. 7 For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city.
Philip was another of the seven that were appointed to wait at tables and he fled to Samaria when persecution started following the death of Stephen. However, he didn’t just go to ground, he started to preach and within a short time, revival broke out and many Samaritans came to know the Lord.
This is significant. Up until now, the people who believed in Jesus were all Jews – but the Samaritans were not Jewish. They were racially close to the Jews and their religion was similar to Judaism, but they were not Jewish. It was one thing to have diaspora Jews counted as believers, but it was quite another to have Samaritans.
Because of this, we read that the Apostles had to check out what was going on personally.
14 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria.
Philip did something extraordinary when he went to Samaria, he was the first person to preach to people who were not 100% Jewish. It’s not surprising that the doctrine police came up from Jerusalem to check out exactly what he was doing. The first person to break out of the Jewish bubble was a Helenic Jew, someone from the margins.
But we are not finished with Philip
Later in Acts 8 he is taken by the Holy Spirit out into the desert where he meets an Ethiopian Official who had been up to the Temple to worship. This man wasn’t a Jew, but he was interested in Judaism, he was what is called a God-fearer – anyway, Philip led him to the Lord. Years before Christianity ever came to Europe, there was an African official who believed in Jesus and who knows how much influence he had on his home country upon his return.
We’ve briefly followed the stories of two of the seven Helenic Jews who were appointed to wait tables. Stephen died as a martyr and Philip did an extraordinary job of preaching to people who were linked to the Jewish faith, but who were not quite Jews. These people who were not from the central core of the church, but who belonged to a different culture were absolutely key in the early story of the church.
By contrast, Peter one of the leaders of the Jerusalem church, was very reluctant to take the Gospel across cultural lines. In Acts 10, Peter has to be given a vision a number of times before he was willing to accept what God was calling him to do, while Cornelius, a Roman God-fearer obeyed straight away and sent for Peter to come and tell him the Gospel.
More Helenic Believers
I’d like to jump forward now to chapter 11. Here we meet a group of unnamed believers who do something extraordinary.
19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.
25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
Believers were scattered all around the Mediterranean and as they went they preached about Jesus to the Jews that they found. However, there was a small group from Cyprus and from modern-day Libya (Hellenic background believers) who did something rather special; they started to preach to Gentiles. Up till now, the only people who were not Jewish who had been reached by the Gospel were people who had a link to Judaism – God-fearers or Samaritans. However, this group reached out to people who were 100% Gentiles. Greek believers reaching out to Greek pagans – this was new and a real innovation.
Not surprisingly, the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas down to check out what was going on. They couldn’t let something like this happen without being sure that it came from God. Interestingly, they sent Barnabas who, like some of the people doing the preaching, came from Cyprus. It’s hard to know, but I get the feeling that the disciples were not too worried about what was going on – but they had to send someone, so they sent Barnabas.
There are two interesting things to pick out from this passage.
The first is in verse 20 – “telling them about the good news of the Lord Jesus”. I mentioned this, this morning. The Greeks didn’t really understand the Jewish concept of the Messiah, so the unnamed believers who reached out to them found an entirely new way of talking about Jesus – they used the word Lord. This is an extremely creative approach to evangelism and may well have met with some opposition – after all, we’d never done anything like this before! Of course, these days, the idea of calling Jesus Lord is so common we don’t even think about it.
The second interesting thing is in verse 26 – “the believers were first called Christians in Antioch”. There is more to this than just a change of name. Up until this point, the Christian church had clearly been an offset of Judaism. They met in the Temple, they kept Jewish feasts and so on – but now they were no longer clearly Jewish. There were believers who had never been to the Synagogue, had no connection with Judaism, but who were clearly followers of Jesus. They were given a new name, because they had become a new people. Everything had changed. This wasn’t the same group with a new name, but an entirely new identity all together.
And all of this was due to some Hellenic Jews whose names aren’t even recorded in the Bible. You could argue that what happened at Antioch was the most important point in the development of the Christian Church.
What Can We Learn From This?
Multicultural Churches Will Have Difficulties
This is something that you can’t avoid. When you have groups within the church who see things in different ways and who have different ideas about how things should be done, there will be the possibility of people falling out.
Sometimes the differences are matters of perception; one group feeling that it is being ignored. This is what happened over the issue of the food. We are never actually told whether things were unfair, just that one group felt they were – but that’s enough to cause problems.
Sometimes the issues can be potentially very serious as in the concerns that meant the Apostles in Jerusalem had to check out what the guys were doing in Samaria and Antioch. In these cases, there was nothing to worry about – but they didn’t know that until they checked it out.
However, all of these issues could be address because the leadership became aware of them. In a situation where there is the added possibility of disputes, you need to be extra transparent when they arise. Gossip, intrigue and plotting can divide a church very quickly and little frustrations can grow up into big problems if you are not careful.
Do you have a church culture in which problems can be aired appropriately and addressed?
Those on the Margins – the Minority Communities Are Often More Creative
One of the things that you notice in the book of Acts is that it is generally Jews from the diaspora who push things forward and who reach out to the Gentiles. (Paul was a diaspora Jew).
It was Philip who reached out to the Samaritans and the Ethiopian, the unnamed Greeks who started witnessing to the Gentiles in Antioch and Paul had a very radical ministry right across the Mediterranean.
I don’t want to make too much of this, but there is a general principle that growth comes from the margins of the Christian Church, rather than from the centre. You can see this across the world, where places that we tend to think of as “mission fields” have growing churches, but Europe, which we think of as the historic heartland of the church is not showing much growth – in fact the opposite is true. Even in the UK, most of the growth of the church is occurring amongst the Black majority churches in big cities, not amongst the traditional British denominations.
In a multicultural church, this means that it may often be the minority communities who want to be more experimental or more active in evangelism. This can feel a little threatening for the majority community – but we need to learn to handle these sorts of things. How do we encourage entrepreneurs in the church?
We also need to recognise that this doesn’t give an excuse to the Brits to be less involved in evangelism. Peter had to learn to reach out to Cornelius, even though it was counter-cultural.
The Importance of Leadership
Good leadership is really important if a multi-cultural church is to flourish.
The disciples made the decision to concentrate on what they were called to do – teaching God’s Word, but that meant that they had to find the right people to deal with the food problem. Knowing you can’t do everything and being prepared to let others take a lead is a mark of good leadership. Appointing all Greek speakers to the role was a mark of genius – and quite a risk.
The Apostles also took responsibility for what was happening elsewhere. They checked out what Philip was doing and sent Barnabas to keep an eye on the unnamed Greeks. However, they weren’t heavy handed as soon as they saw that God was blessing what Philip was doing, Peter and John joined in. When it came to Antioch, they sent Barnabas who was predisposed to be on the side of the locals. Getting this balance between encouraging innovation and new ways of doing things, while keeping the central truths of Christianity in place is absolutely key. Multicultural churches should face lots of tensions along these lines – and they need to have leadership in place to walk the tightrope.
A question; how is the church doing in this regard?