Have you ever sent off an email or a text with the jab of an angry finger? Have you ever slammed a door or punched a wall? Have you ever hung up on someone? We all have conflict in our lives.
We encounter conflict daily: we have disagreements with our spouses, parents, children, co-workers, and neighbors. But how do we navigate conflict and come out the other side in one piece? How do we not become the worst version of ourselves during conflict? What if conflict provided an opportunity for us to grow as people and also to glorify God?
There’s a passage in the Bible that shows just how well conflict can go when we respond out of humility instead of pride.
A massive conflict is brewing in the early church that could destroy the church. Jesus has been resurrected, appeared to his disciples, ascended to heaven, and sent the church the Holy Spirit. The apostles have gone from cowering, fearful, proud men, to proclaimers of the most fantastic news the world has ever heard: God has sent his Son to rescue his people from their sin.
The power of this good news is undeniable. Thousands believe that Jesus is the Son of God. The groups of these followers are joining into communities in Jerusalem that are marked by prayer and generosity. People are selling their possessions and giving them away to those who are needy.
On top of this, massive racial walls are coming down. The Jews and the Hellenists,[i] those who aren’t Jewish by birth and who are a minority in the church, are being knit together into one body.
A complaint comes forward—the Hellenist widows are being neglected in the daily distribution of bread.[ii] At the heart of this complaint is the accusation that the leaders are hypocritical, that the promise that the gospel is for the world and unites those across every ethnicity is a lie. The church is preaching a gospel of unity and that God welcomes everyone into his family, but if those who are non-Jews are given second-class status, then everything will crumble. The stakes of this conflict are high.
This conflict has all the makings of a church split between the Jews and Gentiles.
And yet, put yourself in the apostles’ shoes. You’re leading an organization that is exploding: it’s multiplying daily. You know one thing: how to preach the inspiring news of who this man Jesus is: how he changed your life and how he can change others’ lives. But you have no real organizational leadership experience. Yet, despite that, your organization is one of the most charitable organizations ever assembled on the planet: you’re feeding countless widows and poor. And these women dare to complain?! They have the audacity to claim that you are poor leaders?! They claim that you’re racist?! Seriously?
There were a lot of reasons the widows could have been neglected: language barriers, geographical barriers, disorganization. This is almost surely not intentional.[iii]
The apostles have every reason to be defensive. They have every reason to minimize the attacks against them. They have every reason to dismiss the accusations. But they don’t. Here is what happens:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And 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. 3 Therefore, 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. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”5 And 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 Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.[iv]
The apostles pull together the leadership and say they need to continue preaching the word of God. This is a shocking response.
They don’t deny the accusations. They don’t defend themselves. They don’t make excuses. They don’t take it personally. They realize their priorities. Their ministry is about the good news of Jesus Christ going forward. This conflict is an opportunity to reset those priorities.
And they don’t just hear the complaint; they act on it. They choose seven for the task. They pick not just any seven men, but seven men who aren’t just men of outstanding character, but each of these men shares something: each one of their names is Greek. These are seven Hellenists. They are from the group that has brought the accusation.[v]
How humble is that? This is not just a Band-Aid to make it go away. They are putting their money where their mouth is. They are giving representation to the group who made the complaint. These servant leaders[vi] are essential not only in their function but in their voice and in the unity they bring.
Let’s examine the seven ways the apostles humbly navigate this conflict:
1) Make it about them: instead of taking things personally, they look to those bringing the complaint.
2) Take ownership: instead of denying responsibility, they take ownership of their fault in the neglect.
3) Right-size your ownership: instead of minimizing what they did, they look at their wrongdoing for precisely what it was.
4) Right-size the complaint: instead of exaggerating it, they heard it for what it was.
5) Make amends: instead of not fixing the problem, they made amends. Repentance isn’t just saying you’re wrong; it’s making changes.
6) Make it about them: instead of making the complaint about themselves, the apostles made the complaint about the widows. This supernatural response requires the heart of Christ for other people.
7) They saw God: instead of cutting God out of the picture, they realized that the conflict was an opportunity from God, and he is at the very center of it. Every conflict is an invitation.
At the heart of each of these responses is humility: a heart transformed by the humble heart of Christ. How we grow in our ability to navigate conflict comes through a heart that is humbled before our humble God.
Our culture tells us that the way to navigate conflict is to learn techniques, but at the end of the day, if you’re heart isn’t changed, if you have pride in your heart, then you are going to fight poorly.
The way to change your response to conflict is to change your heart.
Our hearts change when we meet Jesus. We are sinners saved by grace. We are those who were in conflict with God, but he forgave us because of the sacrifice of his Son.
The good news that the apostles were devoted to preaching is the very thing that had seeped into their souls, and created a humility to their very core that allowed them to respond the way they did. Has the gospel gripped your heart that way?
The passage ends this way: Acts 6:7 “And 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.”
This conflict was an opportunity for the apostles and the church. Everyone was watching and seeing how they handled it. If I was there, I probably would have made it personal and tried to take on all the extra responsibilities just to prove them wrong. But that would have prevented others from being equipped and the church from growing.
Conflict is an opportunity for us; let’s not miss it. Let’s enter in faithfully and humbly that God might be glorified through us. May conflict teach us to grow in humility so that God might use us more greatly for his purposes.
[i] There is a significant amount of debate over who the Hellenists are, but most agree that they were a minority in the early church in Jerusalem who were Greek-speaking Jewish believers (Longnecker, Expositional, 327-9; Williams, NIBC, 118).
[iii] Williams, NIBC, 118.
[v] All of these names are Greek, whether they are Hellenists is less certain, but many think they likely are (Longnecker, Expositional, 331).
[vi] The word used here is diakonein—serving. It is the same root as the word for deacon, but whether they had that title initially is less likely (although the duties are very much the same as those lays out for the office of deacon) (Marshall, Tyndale, 126; Longnecker, Expositional, 331).