Clashes in the Book of Acts (Part 1)

Acts-450x450The Book of Acts is itself a case study in social clashes that resulted in varying degrees of resolution. This new series will primarily look at conflicts that were internal to the new emerging church. Certainly there are many narratives where missionary efforts led to major clashes with local residents who represented the interests of Jewish or Roman-Greco society. By the end of this series I will cover those broader societal tensions and how Paul and others responded to them. But most of our discussion will revolve around Jewish-Gentile tensions within the church.

DISPUTES                                 HARMS

It helps to distinguish DISPUTE situations from HARM situations. Generally, the field of conflict resolution / mediation deals with the first, and the field of restorative justice deals with the second. But there are important overlaps, too. My first series on “Isaac and Peacemaking” was fully about the resolution of water disputes through settlement. The “Joseph and Pain” series was about the resolution of harms through relational healing. “Philemon and Forgiveness” can perhaps be seen as a hybrid case. Both Philemon and Onisemus may have felt slighted by the other, but there was likely a hurtful offense caused by one of them that called for reparation and reconciliation. In the stories of Acts we are largely looking at dispute situations where two sides experienced a clash of interests.

Widow neglected by her Hindu family

Widow neglected by her Hindu family

What are interests in the realm of conflict resolution? Let’s jump to the first major intra-church conflict. In Acts 6 we learn that “the Grecian Jews complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (vs. 1). The interests of the Grecian or Hellenistic Jews could be boiled down to health care and provision for those who had less means to care for themselves. But these interests could also include fairness and respect and perhaps representation in leadership for the entire group. When the Grecian Jews felt like their bedrock interests or needs were not being met, they found a way to voice their concerns.

Fortunately, this short episode led quickly into a resolution process where interests on both sides were acknowledged and where mutually-satisfying solutions were put into place. Recall first that every initial Christian in Jerusalem was Jewish. As we read from the Pentecost story, however, not every Jew was of Hebrew descent. There was a rich diversity of non-Hebraic, Greek-speaking Jews who had been woven into the Jewish fold. All of the original leaders of the Christian movement, the “Twelve”, were Hebraic Jews. When they learned about the neglect of widows among the Grecian Jews, they accepted responsibility and oversight for this segment of the church.

The goal of interest-based mediation and facilitation is to help parties move beyond their clashing positionalism to a point of understanding of each other’s interests. Once parties can appreciate what the other party truly needs, it is much easier for bridgework to be reconstructed, emotions to be diffused, and solutions to be discussed. In this case the apostles did three important things in response to a situation that could have gotten worse (vs. 2). They…

  1. Gathered everyone together for a inclusive communication process
  2. Named their own most important interests that needed to be met
  3. Suggested a solution that dignified and empowered the other party

Theoretically, these leaders could have just set a solution in place, but note how they first opened up the lines of communication by gathering people together from both sides, and then allowed the conversation to focus on the real interests that were at stake. Specifically, the Twelve leaders needed to devote their time “to prayer and the ministry of the word.” And so they wisely proposed that a set of seven new leaders, all to be chosen from the contingent of Grecian Jews, be entrusted with the tasks of serving those in need. “The proposal pleased the whole group” (vs. 5). In today’s language, this was a “win-win” outcome. Here we see both bridge-building in the communication process and empowerment of parties to carry out new solutions. By being engaged in both the process and the outcome, the Grecian Jews were dignified. At the same time, this conflict opened up a door for the apostles to reprioritize their own duties and attentions

The 5 C’s: Conflict Creates a Chance for Constructive Change


7deacons1This example is very short and condensed, but it gives us a glimpse of how leadership choices can be made early on in a conflict situation that can either assist or block a good resolution process. What is most notable in the forthcoming conflicts between factions within the church is how good resolution simply cannot happen unless both sides come together and have safe, constructive settings to converse about the issues and determine new courses of action. There simply is no substitute for the power of civil dialogue where people voluntarily come together to work things out.

Stephan was one of the 7.

Stephan was one of the 7.

As we journey further into Acts we will see how social distinctions within Jewish communities, no less than social distinctions between Jewish and non-Jewish communities, played into numerous conflicts that tested the capacity of the early church to maintain unity and sustain growth. To be sure, clashes between groups with contrasting interests will be part of any community. It is part of the human experience. The overall testimony of Luke’s Book of Acts, however, is that when cool heads prevail, conflicts can lead to positive outcomes.


Contacting Ted Lewis

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  1. Bobo Gomes Co says

    Dear Brother Ted,

    Thank you so much for your biblical narrative of conflict in the book of Acts. As I went through it, a question came to my mind. Is there something called silent conflict? In our case in Africa and according to African culture, we are not allowed to speak in all situations even when we don’t agree. And that alone borders me.
    It is beautiful to see that Grecian-Jews complain against Hebraic Jews gives an idea of “the voicing of conflict, acknowledgement of conflict, and inclusive resolution of the conflict”.

    There are many ways of creating and voicing the conflict, it can be through speaking, violence, power and economic control, religious, social, cultural, environmental, communication etc.

    In this case;

    1. The Voicing – Unhappiness of the Grecian Jews did not start when they voiced the conflict. It certainly started as they intentionally observed (what they saw) unequal distribution of food based on race as they may have perceived to be, and critically processed the whole situation and conclude that is was unfair. Not all the voicing can be peaceful and deserving attention, but which one deserves? The Grecian Jews voiced their complains in a manner that invited Apostles to intervene.

    2. Acknowledgement – It was good that in hearing and possibly seeing, the Apostles could admit that something was not right and need to be fix immediately. When in conflict, if one part does not want to graciously voice or even receive the complains, the conflict can take a different direction, possibly allowing animosity, anger, deeper division, neglect, isolation, grievances and even aggression. In their case the majority of the above mentioned did not happen.

    3. Inclusive resolution – Someone once said “the world is dangerous,not because of those that do evil but because of those that see evil and do nothing”. The Apostles by the leading of the Holy Spirit decided to include everyone in seeking conflict resolution no matter, their origins, social status or influence, education and religious power. They had the wisdom to divide the task and not to think that they can do everything or even have the power to do so alone. Certainly the spirit behind is the fear and the will of God in every step. The question today is, what are our motives for living?

    4. The outcome – was a sense of dignity and justice for all, peaceful cohabitation, rightful execution of task and every lasting fruits. From there Christians learned how to bring people together, divide the task, and cordially support one another in their endeavor of spreading Good News.

    It became a conflict because their were two opposing sides; not only by race but also believing things should be done differently. One by thought and action in distribution; the other by perception and inability to change situation.

    Friend, I am not sure this will be of any helpt to you but reading your article, kind of triggered some thoughts and I decided to put them down. Kindly advice if possible.

    Bobo Gomes Co

    • Yes, I like all that you are adding to this study. Silence in the face of social conflict can act not only as a barrier to healthy group dynamics, but can also allow certain people to maintain power over others or over group interests. Theologically we can be glad that “while we were yet God’s enemies” (Romans 5), God was not silent, but initiated the constructive bridgework to remedy the relational distance between God and humanity. We have good precedent, therefore, to initiate resolution processes, but the key is to do this in respectful and invitational ways that empower all people involved to have a voice and participation, even, as in this biblical anecdote, they are represented by other leaders with whom they trust. Ted

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