Day 18: Pluralism in First Century Church
Thursday, April 19, 2018
Adapted from the Book of Acts Chapter 6
Dear Lord, The community of Disciples grew in number and factions developed. Greek-speaking believers—“Hellenists”—argued that the daily food lines discriminated against their widows. So the Original Twelve said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” The seven men they selected managed the day-to-day tasks. They were full of the Holy Spirit and had good sense. What can we learn about leadership from the way Your early followers chose to address this challenge?
Last year when I wrote about this, I leaned heavily on Willimon’s commentary. This year as I reread what I wrote, I was deeply dissatisfied. When Willimon reads this scripture he sees three basic leadership motivations. First, there are basic needs; second those need are identified from the bottom up; and lastly he posits that the model we use for today’s ordination comes directly from the Apostles’ responses to these needs. (Three leadership styles and quotes are from Willimon, Acts, 1998, pp. 58-60) To the extent that the early church had the same practical problems we face today, I understand what he is suggesting. But further study exposes a bigger issue: there is a real divide here between Hellenistic followers and Jewish followers of Jesus. That divide is deeper than basic human needs for food, clothing and shelter. One of my favorite theologians, Raymond Brown, says “Acts 6.1-6 tells us about a hostile division among Jerusalem Christians.” (Brown, INTRODUCTION TO THE NEW TESTAMENT, p. 293)
Brown says it is this division and not human need that is driving the apostles’ to lead in a new way. First they refuse to “wait on tables” because they are not going to start deciding who gets what resources—they let each faction choose its own leadership. Second, by doing this, the twelve are telling in the first century to embrace “church pluralism.” (Brown, 294) Third, as the number of people who embrace following Jesus grows in the first century church, the number of arguments expands too. Fourth, as the apostles embrace “the new ‘multitude’ of the Jerusalem community,” (Brown, 295) they have no way of knowing what this will unleash. The tolerance of the Sanhedrin regarding how to treat the Temple will be tested. The killing of Steven is pivotal. Brown reminds us, “Just as Jesus’ death was not the end because the apostles would receive the Holy Spirit to carry on the work, the death of Steven is not the end.”
Today we live in a period of hostility that looks like the first century churches. We will have to decide what we will do with our religious pluralism. Peterborough UMC is located on a street replete with other denominations—and many faith traditions populate our local area as well as our country and our world. These are not new challenges. The apostles teach us in what they refuse to do, as much as they teach us in what they do.
Will we work to expand how people see God’s inclusive call to lead and to serve in a pluralistic world? Will we look for all the places that the Holy Spirit is already at work?
Recap prayer: Dear Jesus, Fill our hearts with guidance from Your Most Holy Spirit and empower us to act, as we discern where we are being called to serve You on earth as in heaven. Amen.