Unresolved conflict is often at the center of broken relationships. This is why the legal term “unreconcilable differences” is typically used in divorce court to describe the nature of the dissolution of a marriage.
I am sure that most of us have experienced the pain of a relationship that could not be salvaged because of some kind of unresolved conflict. Usually, the conflict is over something small that could have been worked out (i.e. a hurt feeling over a harsh word, a failed expectation, a forgotten commitment, a neglected duty, or a simple misunderstanding). But sometimes the conflict is so toxic that it cannot be resolved this side of heaven without an absolute miraculous intervention from God (i.e. marital infidelity, abuse of any kind, unwillingness to reconcile, or refusing to repent).
Either way, I am sure we all agree that when a relationship falls apart, it is because of unresolved conflict. Satan loves to destroy anything that is meant to reflect the goodness and the faithfulness of God in this world (i.e. marriages, friendships, business partnerships, churches, small groups, leadership teams, families). God designed relationships to be the reflection of his own Triune relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit.
Therefore, relationships are one of Satan’s primary targets – going all the way back to Adam and Eve in the Garden and extending all the way through every relationship that has ever existed or ever will exist – and one of Satan’s main weapons of mass destruction is the weapon of unresolved conflict that always has some kind of problem at its core. Look at the text with me…
1Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint from the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Pharmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. 7And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
#1: THE PROBLEM THAT CAUSED THE CONFLICT (V. 1)
In verse 1, Luke tells us that the early church was growing at a steady rate when all of a sudden, a problem came to light that was stirring up some significant conflict in the church. Complaints were being leveled from one side of the church at the other. It was almost as though one side was lobbing bombs at the other side. Regardless of whether one party intended to hurt the other or not, one party was hurt and the other party was to blame.
In this specific scenario – and I am certain that this was not the only time this happened – but in this specific scenario, the Hellenists or “Greek speaking Jews” were hurt by the Hebrews or “Aramaic speaking Jews” because their widows were being “neglected in the daily distribution” of food and most likely physical needs and financial support.2
In short, the minority (Greek speaking Jews) were being overlooked and maybe even mistreated by the majority (Aramaic speaking Jews). Those who had already been marginalized not only by society at large but also by their circumstances in life (being widowed) were now being remarginalized by their brothers and sisters in Christ; those whom they worshipped with throughout the week were not exhibiting Godly levels of care and the result was some deeply hurt feelings and some unresolved conflict.
The pain of rejection, betrayal, and neglect was becoming too much to bear and those who were being hurt could not ignore it anymore, so they began to complain. This was not the typical complaint of the average western church goer today. This was not the trivial complaints that often split the western church such as conflict over music style, color of carpet, what to serve at a potluck, the preacher’s clothing style, or whether to remodel the bathrooms or not.
The problem here was real – widows were not being cared for properly – and the problem had not been resolved yet and somebody needed to do something about it. Somebody needed to come up with a plan to resolve the conflict.
#2: THE PLAN TO RESOLVE THE CONFLICT (VV. 2 – 4)
In verses 2 – 4, the complaints reach the apostles’ ears and they put together a plan to resolve the conflict by calling a church family meeting and they ask the church family to choose some qualified leaders to serve the needs of the widows. I think it is important to note that the apostles did not ignore the problem and they also did not try to be the answer to the problem; they did not run out and start delivering food and supplies to the widows.
In a stroke of supernatural wisdom, the apostles engaged the church family in a plan that could bring resolution to the conflict. All too often, churches become stunted in their growth when leaders lack the courage to confront unresolved conflict or they try to be the hero who meets every need that arises, or the church members refuse to serve their brothers and sisters in Christ while expecting paid staff to do the work of ministry.
Notice too that the apostles did not instruct the church to just pick any group of people they saw fit to pick. The apostles laid out biblical qualifications for the leaders that the church was to choose, and they identified how many leaders needed to be chosen. The church needed to choose seven men with good reputations, who were Spirit-filled believers that exhibited the gift of wisdom. These men needed to be able to put knowledge into action in a God glorifying way as they cared for the widows in the church.
Lastly, I think it also important to notice that the apostles knew that they had a specific job to do; their job was to preach the Word of God, to minister the Word of God in shepherding, and to spend time in prayer. It is not that they resisted the opportunity to serve even in menial tasks, it is just that they knew what their job was, and they did not want to neglect their job to do someone else’s job.
So, they equipped the congregation to do the practical hands and feet part of the ministry so that they could remain devoted to the spiritual needs of the church family. Every problem we face in relationship has both an outward practical physical need and an inward supernatural spiritual need that must be met. This is why God instituted the roles of Elders to meet spiritual needs and Deacons to meet physical needs.
Neglecting one need to meet the other only produces unhealthy relationships and therefore unhealthy relational institutions that never resolve the conflict. In this case, the apostles identified the problem at the center of the conflict, they offered a plan to resolve the conflict, and then they, along with the church family, followed through with the solution to the problem.
#3: THE SOLUTION TO THE PROBLEM (VV. 5 – 6)
In verses 5 – 6, Luke tells us that the church approved of the apostles’ plan to choose qualified leaders and then they all “prayed and laid their hands on them” as they ordained them into the ministry of serving the practical needs of the church – especially of the needs of the Greek speaking widows who had previously been overlooked.
Interestingly, the seven men who were chosen to serve were Greek Speaking Jews; those who were chosen, were chosen from among those who issued the original complaint, and they were chosen by a mixture of those who made the complaint and those who were the objects of the complaint. In other words: both the neglected and the neglectors elected some from among the neglected to serve the whole.
The complainers were not immediately discounted or discarded, and the accused did not sit back refusing to raise a finger. Everyone from the minority and the majority became part of the solution and the two parties that were recently at each other’s throats were now working together towards a common cause because they both committed to being the solution rather than perpetuating the problem.
Sometimes I get the opportunity to sit down with two people who are at each other’s throats or a church that is split down the center over a very serious problem. One of the most beautiful things to witness in these scenarios is the willingness to overlook trivial offenses, the wisdom to identify the actual problems, and the humility to move towards the center of proposing a plan that resolves the conflict, provides the solution, and produces direct results in the Kingdom of God.
#4: THE SUPERNATURAL RESULTS (V. 7)
Up until now we have looked at the text through the lenses of problems, plans, and solutions. And all of these things are very practical, very rubber hitting the road, very human. It almost feels like we have taken a journey through a practical counseling session or a business partnerships 101 class. There is nothing wrong with applying those lenses to what we are reading but we cannot forget that the Bible is primarily a spiritual book about God and his purposes in the lives of his people who make up the church family.
All of the practical physical problems and conflict that we make plans to resolve and to be a solution to, will be utterly useless if they do not produce some real spiritual results. Another way to say this would be to say that if our desire is to cover up a problem, ignore a problem, dismiss a problem, or worst yet, highlight a problem to excuse our own unfaithfulness then the spiritual result will be spiritual impotence. I think this is exactly what Satan intended: spiritual impotence in the early church.
But in verse 7, Luke tells us that the Spirit of God reigned in the early church as the apostles humbly dealt with the problem that had caused so much conflict by proposing a plan to resolve the conflict which included employing the church family to be the solution to the problem so that “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”
Satan’s plans to render the church ineffective by the weapon of mass destruction commonly known as “unresolved conflict” proved to be impotent against the power of a Spirit-filled church who were committed to being witnesses of the crucified, risen, and returning Savior. Satan is literally no match for our King; his weapons of mass destruction hold no power over the bloody cross, the empty tomb, and the promise of heaven.
In conclusion, when you think about what we have just studied, you have to pause and think about the reconciling power of the gospel. The greatest problem to ever exist is the problem of human sin and rebellion that traces its way back to the Garden of Eden.
But it is not like our Triune God got together and held a board meeting in response to the problem of Adam and Eve’s sin and rebellion in the Garden. The Scriptures teach us that God made a plan to resolve the conflict of sin before the very foundations of the earth were even laid – before he created anything he made a plan to resolve the conflict between us and him.
That plan included the participation of his one and only Son, Jesus who would become the perfect human – though he never ceased to be 100% God in the flesh – so that by the faith that he would give us through his very own indwelling Spirit, we could be reconciled to our Heavenly Father. It is this message of reconciliation and conflict resolution that the church is meant to reflect to the broken world around us.
Church members, deacons, elders, and pastors all make up the church family; just like children, mothers, and fathers make up the biological family. Every family system upon the face of this earth was designed to portray the loving, selfless, and sacrificial message of reconciliation to the world. At the center of that message is a bloody cross, an empty tomb, and the promise of Heaven where all the brokenness of this life – for every one of God’s people – will be completely restored, once and for all.
This message may spur some of you on to servant leadership in this church. Others of you may need to go plant a church. Some of you may need to do some hard work healing from a broken relationship. Others of you may need to do some hard work mending a relationship you broke. All of us need to begin by taking whatever unresolved conflict we are holding onto and begin a process of reconciliation by kneeling at the foot of the bloody cross, in the door of the empty tomb, while holding onto the hope of the promise of heaven. I say this in closing because, the gospel of the cross, the empty tomb, and the promise of Heaven is God’s plan that provides the solution to the problem of sin.
When we become part of that plan by faith in Christ, we experience the results of reconciliation between us and our Father in heaven. Before we can ever begin to be the solution for something horizontal in nature, we must first get our hearts right vertically with our Father in Heaven. Then and only then can we begin to extend the gift of reconciliation to others around us. – Amen!
1 Unless otherwise specified, all Bible references in this paper are to the English Standard Version Bible, The New Classic Reference Edition (ESV) (Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, 2001).
2 Kent, Hughes, Acts: The Church Afire, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1996), 94.