Jesus’ prayer for us as believers is that we should be one as He and the Father are one (John 17:21). It was Jesus’ desire that unity would exist in the body of Christ. Yet believers often allow disagreements over traditions or church doctrines to stand in the way of that unity and to divide them. And this is not confined to division between believers of different denominations. Disagreements can cause division to happen even between believers of the same church body. Disagreements can be over styles of music, preaching styles, or changes in the format of the Sunday service. Often such disagreements are what cause churches to split. When disagreements arise and threaten division, we would do well to look to the example of the early church.
Acts 6:1 tells us that at a time when the church was increasing in number, a disagreement arose between Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) believers and Hebraic (Aramaic-speaking) believers over the distribution of food to widows. Specifically, the Hellenistic believers complained that their widows were being overlooked. The issue was creating division and threatening the unity of the church. When problems such as this arise, church leaders are faced with a choice. They can either continue with the status quo (“Hey, our numbers are increasing so why change anything?”) or they can look at the problem as an opportunity to look at the way ministry is being done and make any changes that may be needed. In the case of the early church, the church leaders, the Apostles, chose the latter.
First, they admitted there was a problem. They gathered the disciples together and came to the conclusion that the problem existed because they were trying to do it all. They were trying to deal with the secondary tasks such as the distribution of food while at the same time attending to their primary tasks, prayer and the teaching of the Word. They came to the realization that their primary tasks were being neglected as they focused on the secondary tasks (Acts 6:2). In other words, they had their priorities wrong. But while they knew that the teaching of the Word and prayer should be their first priority, the Apostles also knew and acknowledged that the secondary tasks also were important. To their credit, the Apostles were not afraid to share their authority and their ministry with others. So the next thing that the Apostles did was to suggest a solution.
The Apostles asked the disciples to select from among themselves seven men who would take over the responsibility of serving the body in secondary tasks such as the distribution of food. But, as they pointed out, these men should not be just any men. They should not be chosen because of their popularity but because they were men of good reputation. And by good reputation, the Apostles meant that these seven men should be full of the Spirit and full of wisdom. They would then turn over the responsibility for things like the distribution of food to these seven men, so that the Apostles could give their attention to praying and teaching the Word (Acts 6:3-4).
The Apostles’ proposal was embraced by all with open arms. Seven men were chosen who held the qualifications stipulated by the Apostles. These men were presented to the Apostles, who laid hands on them and prayed for them, commissioning them to do this important work (Acts 6:5-6). The result was that the disagreement did not cause what would have been the very first church split, but instead, unity prevailed. What a lesson this is for the church today. When disagreements arise, we need to first acknowledge the problem and determine the cause. Then we need to prayerfully seek a solution to the problem, talk about it, and put it into place.
There was another benefit to the way the early church handled their disagreement. The Word of God spread, and the number of disciples increased. In fact, even a large number of Jewish priests came to Christ as a result of the way the early church dealt with what the enemy intended for harm (Acts 6:7). When we, as the church today, handle our own disagreements the way the early church did, those outside the church will take notice, seeds will be planted, and a harvest will be reaped.