Handling problems in the church

Sermon: Sunday, 21 January, 2024
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: Acts 6:1-7

1. Problems in the church

As we come to the next section of Acts, once again there are problems in the church. This section is bookended with massive encouragement, in that both verses 1 and 7 speak about the growth of the church. The number of disciples is increasing, the word of God is spreading and even priests are being converted. However, sometimes problems accompany church growth. These are the problems I’d love to have!

What is the problem exactly? It’s clearly stated in verse 1: some of the widows who have a Greek background are being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. I don’t think that this was deliberate. But it was happening. Needy and vulnerable women were slipping through the net, in terms of their practical care. So, the basic problem is that women who had come from faraway countries and so who had no support network and could not provide for themselves, are being missed out. Because those being missed out are from a Greek-speaking background, this had the potential to be construed as favouritism towards the Hebrew widows, and had the potential to split the church along racial lines. That would have been a disaster, especially at such an embryonic stage on the life of the church.

Looking after the vulnerable, such as orphans and widows and the disabled is close to God’s heart. We see this throughout the Bible.

‘Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless.’ (Exodus 22:22)

‘A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.’ (Psalm 68:5)

The early church knows this, but because the church is growing so rapidly, the Twelve are not able to keep track of all of those in need. The situation has become unmanageable.

It would have been good if the Greek widows had directly approached the leaders of the church and brought their problem to them. Instead, we are told that the Greek Jews just complain or murmur about the situation. It’s always better in our churches to communicate problems as they arrive, to give the leadership the opportunity to deal with them before they grow ‘arms and legs’. The complaining we read of here in verse 1 echoes back to the murmuring of the Israelites in the wilderness. I hope everyone in our church will be quick to bring problems to the attention of the leadership, rather than letting a matter fester and grow.

But there is another significant problem in the church. It is related to the first problem, but is a little more subtle, though just as serious. The Twelve are in danger of becoming distracted from their God-given role of ministering the Word of God to the people. If the Twelve deal with the problem of the widows on their own, it will mean much less time on doing the work God has given them to do. They will not be able to teach and preach properly, because their week will become too cluttered with things other people could and should be dealing with.

Once again in Acts, we can see Satan working behind the scenes. He is trying to divide the church on racial grounds. His plan is for this problem to drive a huge wedge between the Jews and Gentiles, who had been divided throughout history, on had only just come together through the gospel. And Satan wants to overload and distract the leaders of the church, so the Word of God becomes something secondary in the church. Satan, then and now, attacks us in all kinds of different ways; he tries persecution and intimidation and moral hypocrisy and now distraction.

2. The solution

I love the fact that the Twelve deal with this issue quickly and wisely. They’re sensitive to the genuine needs of the Greek widows, but are also aware of how this problem could threaten the unity of the church. These leaders are watchful and prayerful. They are ‘on the ball’ here. Their solution is to divide up the work of the church so that different people are doing different jobs, according to the gifts the Lord has given them. The work of preaching was vital. The care of the widows was also vital. Both body and soul matter to God. The answer is to delegate the work more widely.

“A vital principle is illustrated in this incident, which is of urgent important to the church today. It is that God calls all his people to ministry, that he calls different people to different ministries, and that those called to ‘prayer and the ministry of the word’ must on no account allow themselves to be distracted from their priorities.” (John Stott)

This passage is one of the foundational passages in the Bible which highlights the two different kinds of leadership in the New Testament church, that of the elder and the deacon. Elders are called to deal with the matters of the soul, and focus on teaching and preaching and prayer. Deacons are called to deal with more physical needs, such as the needs of the poor, the upkeep of church buildings and ensuring church money is used in a godly way. It’s interesting to note that the Bible stresses the importance of both of these offices. In fact, they have the same job qualifications, except that elders must be able to teach.

‘Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.’ (1 Timothy 3:8-13)

Our church is led by elders and deacons. Deacons are men who have the spiritual maturity to lead in these areas, combined with the practical skills to do so. Both the spiritual maturity and giftedness are necessary to serve in the church. Stephen is the first one identified to take on this new rule. He’s described as: ‘a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’. That’s what we want both our elders and deacons to be.

3. Practical application

How can we apply this short passage to our live in Fife today? There are many direct applications, I believe.

3a. All Christians have been given a spiritual gift to use in the church.

We have been given different gifts in the church and so have different callings. This passage reminds us that if the work of the many is left to the few then nothing will be done properly, and God’s Word will be neglected.

The 5th part of our vision statement is this: ‘That we should all prayerfully seek to identify the spiritual gifts we have and use them in the church for the benefit of the church family.’ There are many gifts being used in KFC and we are thankful to the Lord for that. There are those looking after finance, those teaching Sunday School, preachers and teachers, musicians, those who welcome on the door and those gifted in hospitality. However, in all churches, including ours, there will be Christians who have either stopped using their gifts, are underusing them, or aren’t using them at all. And so, the challenge isn’t to judge other people, but to reflect on our own lives and ask ourselves- what gift or gifts has the Lord given me and am I using them to serve others?

‘There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.’ (1 Corinthians 12:4-7)

This is a hugely important passage as it underlines two things: all Christians have been given a spiritual gift; God expects this gift to be used for the good and edification of others in our church.

In other words, there should be no spectators in KFC. We are a family. We’re not meant to come to church passively, let others shoulder most of the work, and then go home. What does that do? It puts more pressure on those who are helping. Or perhaps you do a little in the church, but you could be doing so much more. There are even those who are probably doing too much, and need to take a step back in case they burn out. Again, focus on yourself. Ask yourself, how can I serve Jesus by serving others in the church here? Speak to the elders if you’d like to do more in the church.

3b. Preachers must not divert their attention away from the Word of God.

‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.’ (Acts 6:2) For myself and Geoff, as pastors, we are constantly asked to use our time in certain ways. We could easily fill our week with good things, such as being chaplains of all sorts of different groups, helping out at community initiatives, helping to run clubs and cleaning and janitorial needed in the church and admin like the website and Facebook and church lunches and fundraising and school lunch clubs. But these things must not be our focus. Our focus is and must continue to be preaching God’s Word and prayer. Of course, we can do a certain amount of the other stuff, and we do, but there’s always a danger of becoming distracted, and the good pushing out the best. The good is often the enemy of the best.

I’m thankful to the Lord that, as ministers, we do have time assigned to us during the week to focus on sermon preparation.

“Men must give themselves wholly to these matters, devoting themselves single-mindedly to reading, teaching and preaching, and to prayer. They must fan into flame the gift God has given them, making it their foremost determination to be workmen who do not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth. How else can they be prepared to preach the Word in season and out of season, correcting, rebuking and encouraging?” (Donald Macleod)

What is the first point of our vision statement? ‘To train and develop church leaders for the future, for the deacons’ court, kirk session and preaching.‘ Friends, it is vital that we train future leaders and then allow them the space to use their gifts to do the worship of teaching and preaching. And I’m excited that we now have five men in our church who are preaching God’s Word. More than ever before, we are helping one another to become better preachers of the Word. Please do pray for us, that our confidence would be in God’s Word and in God’s power.

There’s another challenge here – if the preaching of the Word is stressed so much in the Bible, are you making the most of the opportunities to hear the Word? Are you regular in church? Do you prepare your heart before you come? Do you make use of the evening service? It’s so encouraging to see what often happens when the church majors on the major things: ‘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 6:17)

3c. We must always be caring well for the needy and vulnerable in the church.

Our last, but by no means least point of our vision statement is this: ‘To grow closer as a loving church family, through mutual support and practical care.’

In modern Scotland, there is a welfare state, and so there is not the same need to financially provide for widows, in the way that there was in the days of the apostles. Does that mean that we have no one in need? Does that mean widows have no needs? Of course not! There are times when some of us need to be helped financially. There are times when we are lonely and need to be visited. There are times when we are in hospital and need to be helped in practical ways. Sometimes people need meals or help with their children or help to learn English, or help to apply for a job. Someone could be made unemployed and have a temporary financial need. As a family, we help one another. ‘They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.’ (Acts 2:45)

The question is, what are the needs within KFC today? May the Lord help us to have open eyes, so we will see the needs which exist and meet them as we can. Perhaps there are isolated people you can visit. Perhaps there is someone you can drop some food off to. Perhaps there is someone hurting and by going round for a cup of tea you show your care.

‘There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be open-handed towards your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.’ (Deuteronomy 15:11)

‘Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.’ (Galatians 6:10)