Preserving Church Unity: Lessons from the Jerusalem Church

Preserving Church Unity: Lessons from the Jerusalem Church

What is the strategy behind Luke’s way of depicting the early church in both unity and strife?

Bernhard Oestreich, phd, is professor of New Testament studies, Friedensau Adventist University, Friedensau, Germany

The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32, NRSV). Thus, Luke describes the unity that prevailed among the early followers of Jesus at Jerusalem. “With one mind” comprises another of Luke’s favorite expressions to portray a church enjoying peace and harmony (Acts 1:14; 2:46). Indeed, the apostolic church was a united church.

However, Luke does not fail to mention several incidents that show discord and struggle among the followers of Jesus. The most obvious are the controversies about the food supply for the widows (Acts 6:1); the conflict about Peter’s visit to Cornelius, a gentile (Acts 11:2, 3); the council of Jerusalem about circumci­sion (Acts 15:1, 2, 7); the dispute between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36–40); and two other instances that we shall note later.

What is the strategy behind Luke’s way of depicting the early church—on the one hand, describing the unity of the church, and on the other, not hesitating to express the strife that existed among the believ­ers (e.g. Acts 15:2)?

In order to understand Luke’s reporting of unity and conflict, we need to focus on three features. First, the context in which Luke speaks of the church’s unity reveals that most of the statements of harmony come as summary statements. These are short passages that do not relate to singular events but general descrip­tions of time periods (Acts 1:14; 2:42–46; 4:32–35; 5:12–16; 9:31). One could say that Luke frames his conflict stories with summary statements of harmony. In other words, the church did not live in unchallenged harmony but was able to achieve concord time and again. Harmony was not an immovable condition but a permanent goal that was often reached.

Second, in all of the conflict passages Luke not only states the problem but also narrates how the conflict was overcome under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Luke was interested in showing conflict resolution. An exception might be the dispute between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36–40), which resulted in a separation. But the outcome was a doubled missionary effort since both went to different places to spread the gospel.

Third, Luke’s strategy includes his interest in showing how, after the conflict was overcome, the gospel was proclaimed even more strongly and that the church grew (e.g. Acts 5:12; 6:7; 11:19).

These features lead to the con­clusion that Luke’s concern was not to depict a situation but to describe a way, a movement towards a goal. He does not simply relate history but imparts to his listeners the conviction that unity is possible. He encourages them not to put up with conflicts, not to separate from those of different opinion (Acts 15) or resort to blaming others (e.g. Acts 6:1–7), but to rely upon the effect of the Holy Spirit and to strive for unity. As we can see in Acts 15, the means of achieving con­sent consists of mainly discussion (v. 7), paying attention to God’s guid­ance (vv. 7–12, 14), and consulting Scripture (vv. 15–18). We experience encouragement today as we see that the early church struggled with problems similar to our own and that through God’s guidance they were able to overcome the dividing issues.

Asking for God’s decision

Luke relates two incidents of the early Christians’ lives in which, not the interpretation of Scripture, but the direct intervention of God prevented the church from being disrupted. The issue in these quarrels was a struggle for social status. It seems that matters of status are as dangerous for church unity as doctrinal differences (Acts 11:1–18; 15:1–33) and questions of conduct (Acts 6:1–7; 15:36–40). Interestingly enough, these two events are not always recognized as conflict scenes.

The first event involves the selec­tion of Matthias in Acts 1:15–26. In the early church, the 12 apostles were the most powerful representa­tives of the followers of Jesus. They enjoyed the greatest authority. After the death of Judas, Peter suggested that the gap should be filled and a new witness for the ministry of Jesus selected. Luke reports that about 120 followers of Jesus were assembled in Jerusalem (Acts 1:15). According to Peter’s proposal, they agreed to a set of criteria for the one who would qualify for the task: one who has been with Jesus from the beginning and was a witness to His resurrection (vv. 21, 22). These criteria are indicators of high social status.

They nominated two candidates: Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias (v. 23). What does it mean to have two candidates? In a society accus­tomed to democratic elections, to have two or more candidates for an office is a normal or even a desired situation. A vote of the community then decides who will be elected. It is different in a society where the leading authorities determine the way of the community, as was the case in ancient Jerusalem. To have two candidates means that the leading figures have not been able to agree on one—the community is split over the candidates—but both of them have their supporters and their opponents. A democratic vote, in effect, would create a loser. In a traditional society of the first century, at the end the loser would not only be without the honorable office, he would also lose face.

In every society, individuals rec­ognize the importance of not losing face and of gaining respect and honor. In the Greco-Roman culture of the first century, this was an even more important issue.1 Honor was a most desired good, more important than money. And honor was a limited good. That means that one could gain honor only at the expense of others. If someone received the honor of being elected for an important position, the other candidates ended up damaged. The first Christians in Jerusalem faced a difficult situation that easily could have led to an open struggle over status in the group.

How was this struggle pre­vented? Luke reports that they first prayed that the Lord would indicate which of the candidates He elected, and then they cast lots between the two. This is the only place in the New Testament that casting lots was used for electing someone into an office, and it seems that this was not a common practice. If casting lots had been normal, they would not have taken pains to work out criteria and name candidates. Praying for God’s decision and casting lots was the way of getting out of the dilemma they faced when they were not able to reach a consensus over the candidates. At the end, Matthias received the office, not because of his achievements, but because of God’s sovereign decision.

To understand the culture of the first century, we need to recognize the importance of differentiating between acquired honor and ascribed honor. In order to win a struggle for status, one had to invest something. One could spend money for a public building or the welfare of the com­munity, one could win a contest and increase the fame of the city or one could become the patron of needy people and thus increase the number of his own supporters. All these actions were suitable to outdo real or assumed rivals and win acquired honor. Of course, these actions would always leave behind the persons that lost the contest and were put to shame.

Ascribed honor was not the result of personal effort; rather, by birth or family connections. It was inherited, as it were, or given to the person by the sovereign decision of a person of high power. There was nothing one could do for it. Consequently, ascribed honor did not put to shame the one that did not receive it, because he was not responsible for it.

That Matthias became one of the 12 apostles was not because of his or his supporters’ actions or power. He did not acquire this honor; God Himself ascribed it to him. When the group of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem came up with two candidates and faced the possible outbreak of a status struggle among them, they resorted to the highest authority.

Praying and casting lots was an unusual but very wise decision, to preserve the unity of the group. Luke indicates this by framing the report of the election of the twelfth apostle with summary statements about the harmony of the church. Before the election, he said that they were all together unanimously praying (Acts 1:14). And, after the event, they were all together at one place (Acts 2:1) and received the Holy Spirit. This means that the group of Jesus’ followers was not living in constant harmony but was able to overcome a situation where the group could easily have been disrupted.

God’s intervention

The issue of the struggle for status comes up again in the incident of the death of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 4:36–5:11). This time the strug­gle was not prevented but broke out openly. By God’s intervention, one party of the rivals lost not only their honor but, at the end, also lost their lives as well. What was the issue? The early church took great effort to supply its poor members with food. They had common meals and thus looked after the ones in need (Acts 2:44–46; 4:32–35). Members who were better off provided enough food so that the poor would receive care. But after a while, there was not enough food for all. This led some wealthier members to sell some of their property and give the money to the apostles. Thus, they were able to continue with the common meals.

In the Greco-Roman culture of the first century, it was a well-known practice for rich members of society to sponsor common meals and other needs of the community. A posi­tive attitude towards public needs was a virtue in the ancient world. The wealthy even had a certain obligation to do something good for society. Research has shown honor­ary inscriptions with the names and actions of sponsors who provided for professional, ethnic, and religious voluntary associations.2

The early church did not demand that everyone hand over their prop­erty to the apostles (e.g. Acts 5:4; 12:12). That “no one claimed private ownership” (Acts 4:32, NRSV) sum­marizes Luke’s ending statement (Acts 4:32–35)—a general descrip­tion of the inner attitude of the wealthy church members towards their belongings, not a description of the legal conditions of property.

After the summary, Luke relates two examples of sponsoring the food program of the church. First, he mentions the positive example: Joseph who earned public honor and received an honorary name. This is a case of acquired honor and a well-known practice of recognizing a sponsorship. The apostles gave him the name Barnabas, meaning “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36, 37), probably because of his generous gift to the church during a difficult financial situation. The honor that Joseph Barnabas received gave him an advantage of status over other members in the church who were on the same social level. Other owners of real estate were now in a lower position because Joseph received the honor, not them. In that ancient society, there was a constant rivalry between members of the same social level for honor. As any individuals in the ancient world would have felt, Ananias and Sapphira felt chal­lenged to contend with Barnabas for the same or even greater honor. This means, we have here an open struggle for status in the early church.

The Holy Spirit enables Peter to see that Ananias and Sapphira do not care for the welfare of the church but are concerned with their own inter­est. They want the exceptional honor without the exceptional sacrifice.3

To obtain honor by fraud was generally considered as an offense. The audience of Luke’s work must have understood the situation in this light. That the struggle for status was a constant issue in the early church is indicated by the repeated admoni­tions by Jesus and Paul not to strive for honor (Luke 14:7–10; Gal. 5:26; Phil. 2:3; Rom. 12:10, 16).

The conflict was overcome by divine intervention, not by human action. Peter does not pass a sen­tence but only speaks for God. He pronounces the facts of the case and points to the consequences. The solution in the conflict includes bowing to the authority of God, who acts as a superior Judge and ends an unfair power struggle in the church. The correct hierarchy of honor is restored in the church. In the end, it is God who saves the unity of the church. This shows the lesson of this conflict. The task of individuals in the church is, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to recognize the work of God.

Again, Luke places a positive summary statement before and after the account of the conflict (Acts 4:32–35; 5:11–16). As a con­sequence of God’s action, the whole group gained public honor. The people were full of respect for the church and held its members in high esteem (Acts 5:13).


The church today faces similar challenges of disunity caused by hid­den and open struggles of members to achieve status and superiority. Luke’s message is encouraging: unity within the community of faith is pos­sible if all those involved in the divisive positions were to place their divisions at the altar of prayer and seek the will of God and the workings of the Holy Spirit. Status and positions are not to be sought or held at the risk of hurting the unity of the body of Christ. Christ is the Lord of the church, and His will means that the church must be one­ even as the Father and the Son are One (John 10:30).


1 Cf. Bruce J. Malina and Jerome H. Neyrey, “Honor and Shame in Luke-Acts: Pivotal Values of the Mediterranean World,” in The Social World of Luke-Acts, ed. Jerome H. Neyrey (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 25–65.

2 See Markus Öhler, “Die Jerusalemer Urgemeinde im Spiegel des antiken Vereinswesens,” New Testament Studies 51, no. 3 (2005): 393–415.

3 Cf. Ernst Haenchen, Die Apostelgeschichte, Kritisch­exegetischer Kommentar über das Neue Testament (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1956), 199.

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Bernhard Oestreich, phd, is professor of New Testament studies, Friedensau Adventist University, Friedensau, Germany

October 2011

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