Hellenist versus Hebrew: Conflict in the Church
"Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, - It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables." Acts 6:1-2 (ESV)
Who were the disciples?
DISCIPLES: mathetes (a learner or pupil); from manthano or matheo (to learn, in any way)
Mathetes (disciples or brothers) appears in the Book of Acts only once before this (Acts 1:15), yet it ends up being one of the most frequently used descriptions of Christians in the Book of Acts, with 30 occurrences. It can be found 268 times in all of the New Testament.
The word translated as disciple or brother, with four other words found in the Book of Acts, appears to be the most frequent descriptors of "Christian":
MATHETES (a learner or pupil, as in Acts 1:15, used 30 times in Acts, 268 in NT)
ADELPHOS (brothers, of the same womb, as in Acts 1:16, used 57 times in Acts, 346 times in NT)
PISTEUO (those having faith, as in Acts 2:44, used 40 times in Acts, 248 times in NT)
EKKLESIA (the called out ones, as in Acts 5:11, used 24 times in Acts, 118 times in NT)
LAOS (a people, as in Acts 5:12, used 48 times in Acts, 143 times in NT)
WHAT DO YOU THINK? Can these five descriptors of "Christian" be ordered in some way? Perhaps by origin or importance or frequency?
Who were the Hellenists?
HELLENISTS: Hellenistes (a Greek-speaking Jew); from Hellen (an inhabitant of Hellas, a non-Jew); from Hellas (Greece, a country of Europe)
Hellas, or Greece, was probably first peopled by descendents of Javan, a grandson of Noah.
"These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Sons were born to them after the flood. The sons of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras." Genesis 10:1-2 (ESV)
JAVAN: yawan (effervescing, hot and active; Ionians, the Greeks); from yayin (to effervesce; wine or intoxication)
"The sons of Javan: Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim. From these the coastland peoples spread in their lands, each with his own language, by their clans, in their nations." Genesis 10:4-5 (ESV)
"As for the ram that you saw with the two horns, these are the kings of Media and Persia. And the goat is the king of Greece." Daniel 8:20-21 (ESV)
In Daniel 8:21, "Greece" is the same word used for "Javan": yawan.
Although Jerusalem was home to a group of Christian Hellenists, the apostle Paul would later find himself at odds with them:
"[Paul] went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him." Acts 9:28-29 (ESV)
Paul would later write a strong rebuke of both Greek philosophy:
"Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men." 1 Corinthians 1:20-25 (ESV)
Evidently, Hellenists tended to exalt human wisdom above the simple gospel message of Christ and the cross. A Greek-speaking Jew would find it difficult listening to the wisdom of God spoken through the Prophets. Christian Hellenists would probably also incline toward measuring all truth with the standard of human wisdom.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? Do you know someone who exalts human wisdom and intelligence, someone who finds it difficult to understand or accept the gospel? At what point would you "give up" on them, giving them over to God?
Away from Jerusalem the gospel spread, especially because of the persecution that arose when Stephen was killed. Hellenists in Antioch listened to the preaching and responded in faith:
"There were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord." Acts 11:20-21 (ESV)
Paul and Silas were able to effectively communicate the gospel to Hellenists, probably by emphasizing biblical consistency and accuracy:
"When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, - This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ. - And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women." Acts 17:1-4 (ESV)
Paul took advantage of beliefs held in common by Christians and Greeks, arguing persuasively for the truth of Christ:
"In him we live and move and have our being - as even some of your own poets have said, - For we are indeed his offspring. - Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man." Acts 17:28-29 (ESV)
On this particular occasion, Paul received a mixed response:
"When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, - We will hear you again about this." Acts 17:32 (ESV)
WHAT DO YOU THINK? The conflict between Hellenists and Hebrews is set in the context of a shortage of staff. The apostles suggested that a group of volunteers, dedicated to the meal ministry, would bring peace. What ministry in our church might benefit from the same solution? What conflicts are you aware of between different groups in our church?
Who were the Hebrews?
HEBREWS: Hebraios (a Hebraean, a Jew); from Eber (Eber, a Hebrew patriarch); from eber (a region across, on the opposite side, the east side of the Jordan); from abar (to cross over, to make a transition; to cover, as in copulation)
Paul used defined "Hebrews" in three ways:
"Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I." 2 Corinthians 11:22 (ESV)
HEBREWS: Hebraios (one from across)
ISRAELITES: Israelites (a descendent of Israel, previously named Jacob; literally, "he will rule as God); from sara (to prevail)
OFFSPRING OF ABRAHAM: sperma (something sown, seed or sperm; offspring or remnant) and Abraam (Abraham, literally, "father of a multitude")
The Hebrews were a people defined by their bloodline. To be a Hebrew meant you could trace your lineage back to Jacob (Israel) and Abraham.
The early Christian church in Jerusalem found itself quickly mired in conflict between two different groups of Christians: the Hellenists and Hebrews. The Christian Hellenists identified themselves as ones belonging to Christ, with a dependence upon personal faith, based upon reason and knowledge. The Christian Hebrews identified themselves as ones belonging to Christ, with a dependence upon God's calling, based upon the writings of prophets and leaders descended by birth from Abraham.
- Christian Hellenists: Christians by virtue of human knowledge
- Christian Hebrews: Christians by virtue of divine prophecy
Both groups agreed upon the lordship and sovereignty of Jesus Christ. Both groups recognized each other as belonging to Jesus by faith in Jesus. Both groups preferred only their own "kind".
The apostles did not address the root of this conflict. There is no rebuke given to either group. No accusation of hate or discrimination or neglect is leveled against the Hebrews by the apostles. No accusation of dishonesty or slander is leveled against the Hellenists by the apostles.
The apostles responded to this conflict indirectly. Instead of publicly exposing sin and demanding repentence from either group, the apostles simply coordinated the selection of a group of men who would devote themselves toward distributing food in a fair and effective way.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? Were the apostles being soft? Were they avoiding the hard part of leadership: calling others out on their sin? What has your experience with other churches or organizations taught you regarding conflict resolution?
The apostles attempted to resolve this conflict indirectly. They saw the need for preaching to be of a higher priority than immediate rebuke and repentence.
"The twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, - It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables." Acts 6:2 (ESV)
The church had been divided from the start: Hellenists preferred human knowledge and wisdom; Hebrews preferred divine prophecy and genealogy. Neither group were wrong...just different. But human nature tends to make us prefer others who are more like ourselves, and our sinful human nature will make differences into a trigger for competition and conflict.
On the surface, the problem was simple logistics: "We need an effective method of distributing food." Underlying that surface problem is the root problem: "We lack knowledge of God."
The apostles dealt with the surface problem immediately: "Create a committee." But they saw this solution as merely a tool towards gaining the ultimate solution: "Dig deep into God's Word."
WHAT DO YOU THINK: What surface problems are we as a church facing right now? Into what parts of God's Word should we consider digging deep for the coming year?