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Life together and conflict resolution

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Archives / 2018 / February

 

 

Life together and conflict resolution

Denis Fortin

Denis Fortin, PhD, is professor of historical theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and teaching pastor at the One Place Fellowship on the campus of Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

 

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has grown a great deal in the last 100 years. We now have a presence in almost all countries on earth, even if, in some places, this presence seems quite small. We are a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-racial group of people. And such a diversity is a beautiful gift of God.

Yet, at times we must admit that this diversity is not as appreciated as it should be—even causing some tensions to arise. All cultures have beautiful attributes of rich linguistic heritage, colorful clothing, delicious foods, joyous music and singing, thought-provoking literature, and deep spiritual and religious roots. Each culture has its heroes, its defining historical moments, and its memory of the “good old days.”

While we celebrate and are proud of the heritage we personally own and cherish, no cultural group or ethnic group is perfect. Human history teaches us that every culture is sinful, in need of God’s grace, for the harm done to the different person, the immigrant, the poor and powerless, the neighboring cultural or ethnic group. Each culture has its history of violence done in the name of some value or historical reason, if not in the name of God. No culture is sinless and perfect, and all are in need of the grace of God.

God invites us to live together and share the blessings of the gospel, to live n harmony and prepare for the coming kingdom of God. What a challenge! But with that commission also comes the grace.

The New Testament speaks of a new reality of people of different cultures and ethnic heritage living together in harmony, despite dissimilar memories, to accomplish a common mission. The concept, called in Greek, koinonia, and translated, usually, by the word “fellowship,” creates this reality.

Just before His ascension, Jesus said to His disciples that He would send them the Holy Spirit so they could spread the good news of salvation to all places (Acts 1:8). Such a commission had its unforeseen consequence: the people of God would no longer be made up of one ethnic group.

The book of Acts tells us that as the good news was shared in Jerusalem and Judea, the disciples of Jesus created a community, a fellowship, a koinonia. Observe three important characteristics of this community.

A together community

The early community of Jesus’ followers was described as “joining together in prayer” (Acts 1:14; 2:42), fellowshipping together (Acts 2:1, 44, 46), being “of one heart and mind” (Acts 4:32), having “everything in common” (Acts 2:44), and sharing their posses-sions with those who had less (Acts 2:45; 4:32, 34).

Luke used two expressions to describe this early Christian community in Jerusalem: they were of “one accord” or of “one mind” (Acts 1:14; 4:32) and they were together “in one place” (Acts 2:1).

This idea of togetherness stands out and gives us crucial insights into what Christian life together was like then.

At the end of Acts 2, Luke describes the early church soon after the experience of Pentecost, which likely created the togetherness of this community.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to “fellowship” (koinonia), to the “breaking of bread,” and to “prayer.” Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had every-thing in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42–47, NIV).

What a beautiful koinonia they experienced.

This koinonia, however, was not without its stresses and challenges. And here, again, the book of Acts gives us a beautiful insight into how to work out challenges to unity and fellowship.

A challenged community

Sometime later, Luke tells us, quite candidly, that this koinoniawas deeply challenged and its survival threatened. Acts 6:1–6 indicates a deep concern arising within the community about the daily distribution of food to widows in the community. It appears that the twelve apostles, who were responsible for this food distribution, most likely unintentionally favored some widows over others. By then, the Jerusalem community had grown to include Jews who believed in Jesus the Messiah from two ethnic groups: some were from Hebrew heritage and others from Greek heritage. A complaint arose among the Greek Jews that the apostles were either giving more to the Hebrew widows or giving food to them first and whatever was left over to the others.

Now, it is interesting to note that the apostles themselves were responsible for this perceived wrong and favoritism. The top leadership, even in this early Christian community, was not immune to making a mistake. And more accurately, the Hebrew heritage of the apostles may have blinded them to this wrong. The lesson from this episode is obvious: even the most blessed of leaders can make mistakes when it comes to relationships with people of other ethnic groups. Unknowingly and unconsciously one’s own ethnic culture can create an unfortunate set of circumstances and unintentionally hurt people of a different culture. We are not to be surprised by this, as it is the bane of sinful humanity for all of us. Different ethnic cultures have different sets of values, customs, and preferences, and these values, customs, and preferences, blind people to what may hurt others.

What is phenomenal, in my opinion, is what comes next.

When the apostles were confronted with what they had been doing unintentionally, their response was a most magnanimous moment in this early community.

The apostles did not attempt to give any excuse for their mistake. They forthrightly and sincerely owned the mistake. And then they did something absolutely amazing, they invited the group who had been wronged to participate in finding a solution to the problem.

The apostles believed that those who had been wronged were the best people in the community to solve the problem. The apostles suggested that seven men be selected who would take over the distribution of food to the widows—to all the widows, both Hebrew and Greek. The apostles gave up one function of their ministry in order to concentrate on the others.

The insight was amazing and surprising but may hold the key to any successful resolution of conflicts between ethnic groups within a community of believers. When a wrong is done to one group, the group that did the wrong ought to own the mistake immediately and then approach the group that has been wronged and invite them to participate in finding the solution to the problem and then help implement the solution.

problem-solving community

There was a great deal of trust, grace, and love in this story. The Hebrew apostles had made a mistake, and they owned their mistake. They trusted their Greek brothers to help find the right solution, suggest the appointment of the right persons, and then let them implement the solution. What is just as surprising is the fact that all seven men appointed for the distribution of food are from the Greek ethnic group. The apostles trusted their Greek brothers because they believed that they, too, had received the grace of the Holy Spirit and were just as committed to the welfare of the Lord’s people as the apostles were. What a beautiful and genuine respect of each other’s gifts.

I wonder, sometimes, if that is the pathway to find an adequate resolution to some ethnic strains in our own church community—and to the ethnic and  racial separation that we experience. What if we said sincerely to each other: “We are sorry for the prejudice we have repeatedly shown toward you and ask for your forgiveness. We also ask you to suggest how to solve what has happened and to propose tangible steps to follow to remedy the situation. [And now the hard part:] We commit ourselves to try to implement what you suggest.”

This early Christian community shared a beautiful fellowship, a koinonia. Their common bonds created this koinonia. They shared the same gospelmessage, prayed and worshiped together, ate together, hoped in the return of Jesus together. This fellowship and common life allowed them to have the fortitude to find an amazing solution for the ethnic tension they experienced later.

I do not think it is a pipe dream to have the same vision for our community today.

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