“Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28: 19-20)
Never has there been a more compelling vision statement than this one—given by Jesus himself. The Great Commission is at the heart of Christian mission statements everywhere, and its importance can hardly be overstated. But disagreement and conflict came quickly in the early church:
“During this time, as the disciples were increasing in numbers by leaps and bounds, hard feelings developed among the Greek-speaking believers—“Hellenists”—toward the Hebrew-speaking believers because their widows were being discriminated against in the daily food lines.” (Acts 6:1, The Message)
Complex organizational conflict is not new. In fact, the disciples didn’t get much beyond the day of Pentecost before they experienced this notable episode in Acts. We often assume that problems are most likely to arise during undesirable circumstances such as tough economic times, periods of declining attendance, and poor leadership. However, this conflict erupted during a season of explosive growth in the early church: “the disciples were increasing in numbers by leaps and bounds.” (Acts 6:1a, The Message)
In The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1979) edited by F.F. Bruce, one commentator referred to this period as a “momentous advance in the community of Jesus followers.”
Could there have been inadequate leadership? In Acts: an exposition (Zondervan, 1978) W.A. Criswell observes, “These were the men who had been taught by the Lord Himself. This is the church upon which God had poured out the ascension gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the church where the preaching of the Word was confirmed by signs and wonders...”
“Conflict avoidance and defensive reactions must be replaced with biblical insight and spiritual responsiveness.”
Oh, but certainly, only ingrown, shrinking, and self-focused organizations invite the most serious conflicts, right? The last measurement cited in Scripture for the Jerusalem church was 5,000 souls (Acts 4:4) but this meant at least 20,000 people were there including women and children. And, there is every indication that the church was both missional in focus and clearly successful as illustrated by the growing numbers of the Hellenistic Jews.
Organizations will have conflict even if they are the most productive, Spirit-filled, and biblical organizations in the world! Your organization is not exempt!
Luke continues: “Hard feelings developed among the Greek-speaking believers ‘Hellenists’ toward the Hebrew-speaking believers because their widows were being discriminated against in the daily food lines.” (Acts 6:1b, The Message)
Time for a Paradigm Shift
Negative, unhealthy conditions and behaviors often lead to organizational conflict. But, rapid growth and desirable change usually brings trouble too!
The question is not whether your ministry will experience conflict, but rather, what will you do about it when it comes? Although visible disagreements (presenting issues) are often the first symptoms to emerge, we should not confuse these symptoms with the root causes of the conflict. We may be tempted to think that “if we just cajole people to forgive each other and to ‘make nice’ surely we can put this whole unhappy business behind us.” This rarely works. In my experience almost all interpersonal conflicts have an underlying root cause which is not immediately apparent.
If we are to transform painful crises into genuine breakthroughs, we must change the way we view conflict. Conflict avoidance and defensive reactions must be replaced with biblical insight and spiritual responsiveness. The “hard feelings” mentioned in Acts 6:1 can be replaced with a healthy curiosity and the expectation of God-given opportunities for growth.
Where to Start
Once a leader can reframe his view of a situation from one of hopelessness to one of hopeful possibilities, he can begin to evaluate these “hard feelings” with new insight. The “fog of war” can be lifted and the geography of a conflicted situation can find better definition for healthy next steps.
Consider the example from Acts 6:1-7 again. What are the presenting issues? Which conflicts might lie within the interpersonal level? Are there problems between groups or within groups? What about structural issues like organizational deficits, cultural or cross-cultural concerns, and other organizational factors? The matrix below illustrates how the problems in the early church at Jerusalem might be analyzed, separated and categorized. When dealing with conflicts in your own organizations you will have access to much more detail for evaluating a situation. Because of the brief description offered in the Scripture here, some assumptions will be made to add practical details for purposes of clarification.
|Presenting Issue||Conflict Level(s)||Rationale|
|“Hard feelings developed among the Greek-speaking believers—‘Hellenists’—toward the Hebrew-speaking believers because their widows were being discriminated against in the daily food lines.” (Acts 6:1b, The Message)||Personal (“hard feelings”)
Interpersonal (“between” individuals)
Between groups (Hebrews/Hellenists)
Structural (cultural, leadership, organizational issues)
|“Hard feelings” implies both personal and interpersonal issues. Two groups are mentioned, but often factions develop within groups. Clearly the church was outgrowing its infrastructure, and leadership and organizational changes were needed.|
Turning to Solutions
Holistic conflict intervention requires crafting different strategies for each of the different levels of conflict. Helping individuals with interpersonal conflict requires approaches different from those for resolving structural issues. The next verses in Acts 6 provide additional insights into how the apostles forged strategies at these different levels.
“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. 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 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:2-4).
“If we are to transform painful crises into genuine breakthroughs, we must change the way we view conflict.”
Scripture provides significant clues into the apostles’ thinking in the midst of a potential church-splitting crisis. Their words and actions indicate awareness and sensitivity to several levels of church conflict. The foundational prerequisite for the apostles’ decision-making, prior to any action, was their dependence upon God’s Spirit! In selecting a leadership team to tackle this challenge, the apostles stipulated that these individuals must be men full of the Holy Spirit! They also declared the primacy of the Word of God and prayer in their own leadership philosophy.
“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. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 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. (Acts 6:5-7).
The apostles did not ignore or avoid the conflict but took decisive steps to understand and resolve the issues before them. They made leadership and organizational (structural) changes. They recognized the cross-cultural nature of the problem and selected (with support from the congregation) men of spiritual maturity and giftedness to minister to the needs at hand.
The fact that verse seven indicates unhindered advancement in the church following this episode indicates that this conflict presented an opportunity for organizational improvement, and also implies that damaged relationships were nurtured back to health. Although unhealthy responses to disagreement and conflict can distract and undermine vision, biblical insights and actions can substantially improve effectiveness and increase the potential of fulfilling the vision and mission of any organization.
Rev. Michael Hare serves as Staff Chaplain and Ombudsman at Compassion International and is author of the forthcoming book, When Church Conflict Happens (Moody Publishers, April 2019). He is also a member of the Living Stones Associates church consulting team.