Discrimination in the Church

As people we have many beautiful differences, some of which are race, role, and gender. These differences have been ordained by God for His glory and for our good. Together, they form a more complete and intricate reflection of God and are a witness of His love and beauty to the world. Though there are ways in which we are different, in the body of Christ we are one (1 Corinthians 12:27, Romans 12:5, Galatians 3:28). Our differences, no matter what they may be, do not change our value or importance to God and should not change our value or importance to each other or ourselves. It is because of the great value that God places on us that he intricately wove us together our in mother’s womb with those things that make us different from one another. It is his handiwork and creativity on display through us.

Sadly we have allowed the world, the enemy, and our sin to turn blessings from God into things that divide us or are used as a reason to mistreat one another. What should be a cause for celebration and a more full expression of worship to our God is hijacked for a host of reasons.

Sometimes we unknowingly wound one another through lazy ignorance. Other times we have been so subtly influenced by lies that they warp our views without our active realization. In some cases we knowingly hold views or thoughts and ignore or twist scripture so that it fits our view.

In a short devotion I cannot come close to detailing the entire range of ways in which we are impacted by this or account for every variation. Nor can I deal with all of the scriptural responses to the many different situations and issues that we are a part of or will be a part of in some way, whether we acknowledge them or not.

However, scripture holds the truth of God about them and we must search its pages when we confront them. Though I will not be able to deal with any one issue in entirety, let alone address the majority, I would like to provide an example of discrimination in the church and how it was dealt with in scripture to illustrate that while we will face many problems, there are answers and there are action steps that we can take.

Just six chapters into the history of the church we already see racial discrimination rearing its ugly head.

“In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” – Acts 6:1  

Culturally and historically there are many factors influencing the relationship between those who considered themselves Hebraic Jews and those who did not. Hellenistic Jews would have come from outside of Israel and their culture would have been influenced to some degree by Greek culture. It is very possible there may have been some intermarriage in their background with non-Jews as well. Timothy is an example of this, his mother was a Jew and his father was a Greek (Acts 16:1). While there is much more that could be said about the differences of these two groups, it is enough to know that they were different enough culturally and racially to create division.

What is happening here in Acts chapter six happens in our churches today in different ways. The early church basically had a social program to help take care of widows who, because of their status in society at the time, were often unable to take care of themselves well. They were a marginalized group of people in the first century that had little influence and few options. The church tried to step in the gap to take care of them as part of their ministry.

However, because of the difference between the two groups, the Hellenistic Jews were discriminated against and overlooked. We are not explicitly told whether this was an active decision to help only the Hebraic Jews or it was the result of those distributing the goods only thinking of “their kind” and ignoring the others. Whether the decision was active or passive, the result was the same.

In this instance of discrimination in the church, what action was taken? Did they just accept it and move on? Or did they try to deal with it within their own sub-community of the church instead of as a larger body?

No, they brought the issue before the leadership of the church, which in this case was the apostles. The leadership then essentially held a church business or town hall meeting and proposed to form a committee to oversee the daily distribution of food to ensure that everyone was served regardless of race or cultural background. Those picked for the committee were not just appointed from the top down, but the church was asked to choose from among them those who were “full of the Spirit and wisdom.”

“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.’

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.” – Acts 6:2-6

Notice that the “proposal pleased the whole group”, everyone was in on it. I may be reading a little too far, but it seems that the Hebraic Jews in this instance admitted that there was a problem and that action needed to be taken. Their widows were being served fine before, but they too were pleased that the ministry would be overseen in such a way as to serve everyone.

There is a fair amount of discussion on the backgrounds of the seven men chosen by the church, but it is possible all seven were Hellenistic. Nicolas is particularly interesting because he is singled out as a convert to Judaism. This means that he was originally a gentile, converted to Judaism, and then sometime later accepted Christ as Messiah.

What started as a problem in the church that needed to be addressed ended with having a much more far-reaching impact than simply solving the issue of equitable distribution of food. They met a practical need that served a greater spiritual purpose.

“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 6:7

The reconciliation that happened inside the church led to a better witness for Christ outside of the church. Of these seven men, Stephen in the following chapters preaches a powerful sermon and becomes a martyr and Phillip is used to witness both to Ethiopia–through the Ethiopian Eunuch–and the Samaritans–another group of people discriminated against based on race and culture.

Acts 6 is one of the first steps the early church takes in dealing with discrimination within the body based on racial and culture differences. Reading through Acts, you will find more examples of these issues coming to the surface in the church, being dealt with in various ways, and leading to a more unified church that is better able to reach the world for Christ. Jesus set the example in his dealings with Samaritans and gentiles during His time on earth and the early church continued to work through the initial divisions caused by wrong thinking around differences to become more like Christ individually and as a body.

The gospel has been called the Gospel of Reconciliation. Through the gospel we are primarily reconciled with God, but that reconciliation with God also means reconciliation with each other and embracing our God ordained differences.

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