Change brings challenge

Family therapists sometimes talk about “normative stress.” The idea is that when families add or lose members — through marriage and birth, divorce and death — things change, and those changes are often stressful.

A couple with a good marriage, for example, may want children badly. If blessed with a child, they will love that baby deeply.

That’s not to say, however, that there’s no adjustment to be made when two become three, or that the adjustment is easy. A couple still figuring out what it means to be husband and wife may struggle to add the roles of father and mother. There are new responsibilities, new expectations, new ways to shine or disappoint. Even their relationships with friends and extended family members will probably begin to shift.

All of this is perfectly normal. But it can also be stressful. As suggested in the previous post, change brings challenge — even in our church families — and some changes are more challenging than others.

As we’ve seen, after Pentecost, the church in Jerusalem grew by leaps and bounds, and kept growing. Even without the tragic episode of Ananias and Sapphira, even without persecution by the Sanhedrin, such rapid growth was bound to pose its own challenges.

Luke describes one of the church’s growing pains at the beginning of chapter 6:

Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. (Acts 6:1, NRSV)

Who are these “Hellenists” and “Hebrews”? Though some scholars disagree, the general consensus is that Luke is describing two groups of Jewish believers.

The “Hellenists” were those Jews who spoke Greek and were used to worshiping in Greek-speaking synagogues. They were part of the Diaspora that began with the mass deportations of Jews to Assyria and Babylon described in the Old Testament. Some of them may have come back to Jerusalem only recently, and were separated from extended family. The “Hebrews” were those Jews who spoke Aramaic, and were more likely to be native to the Jerusalem area.

Both groups were part of the first church, and there’s no need to assume any bad blood between them. Their shared heritage would have taught them to care for widows, orphans, and the poor (as opposed to the values of the surrounding Empire). Indeed, Luke has already described the remarkable generosity and hospitality of the early believers, who were willing to share their resources with each other, even to the point of selling their own property to help the poorer brothers and sisters among them.

Then what was the problem? First and most generally, the exponential growth of the church itself meant that eventually something was sure to get overlooked.

Second, the Hellenists were probably the smaller group, perhaps significantly so. As suggested earlier, they may have been more isolated from the relatives who would have cared for their needs, doubly isolated if their conversion caused a rift in the family.

Third, there’s human nature. Social psychologists have shown again and again how people naturally form in-groups and out-groups for the flimsiest of reasons, and the differences between the Hellenists and the Hebrews were more than just superficial. The two groups didn’t have to hate each other for there to be a problem. They merely had to prefer members of their own group.

In essence, the larger group didn’t see the smaller group’s needs as clearly as they saw their own, and nobody had taken the time time to draw up church by-laws or a policies and procedures manual.

So when the minority Hellenists complained, the Twelve called a town hall meeting to talk it over.

And as we’ll see in the next post, we might learn something from how that meeting went.