#RacismMatters (Acts 6:1–7)

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The issue of racism is as old as the fall. Satanic hatred has plagued mankind ever since he first said no to God. Our treatment of one another has been abysmal as we have loved ourselves more than our God and therefore more than our neighbours. Our quest for autonomy—self-rule—has resulted in a lot of horrible repercussions, not the least of which is the folly of denying God-given dignity to those who are different from us. In other words, we tend to think that, after God established our ethnic identity, He threw away the mould and those who are different are therefore in some way inferior.

But it does seem that over the past eighteen months or so, the issue of racism is front and centre in undeniable ways—globally. We’ve seen this in high profile ways in the United States (Ferguson, Milwaukee, Charlotte), India (Delhi), and of course right here at home in South Africa.

Social media and the blogosphere are probably daily filled with tweets and articles addressing this matter, and the church has not been silent about it. And it should not be, for racism (and ethnocentrism and class warfare) is a problem for many in the church as well. In fact, African-American Jarvis Williams writes,

Racial tension can be easily detected on any Sunday morning, at any Christian church, during any worship service, and within any congregation…. The impact of racism on the church is evident by either a lack of ethnic diversity in certain congregations or a lack of sincere, familial, Christ-like love for those from different ethnic groups within the body of Christ.1

We dare not bury our head; we dare not divorce racism from the gospel; we dare not secularise the issue by pretending that it is outside of the sphere of the church. It is a matter that matters to God, and therefore it must matter to the Christian church. And so we must speak up and we must listen up!

But as I have very recently discovered, to try and address the issue constructively can land you in some very uncomfortably hot water! Some time back, I wrote an article for the church website titled “White Privilege.” In it, I argued that the concept of white privilege is an undeniable and lamentable historical and present reality, but that white privilege does not mean that every successful white person has been freely gifted with success apart from hard work. Very recently, that article has generated a great deal of discussion, some of it unfavourable. It has resulted in our church being labelled racist, largely because of a misreading of the argument I was trying to make.

The issues of racism and white privilege are undeniable realities. If we do not speak up, we are failing to be faithful to our Lord and Saviour, and, as I will show, to His Great Commission.

Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) was a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler. He spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. At one point, he wrote a poem, which included these words:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.

If we do not speak up for others, we must not be surprised when the time comes that no one will speak up for us.

Before we begin I want to state some presuppositions, some premises that, as Christians, we can all agree to.

First, we all agree that to judge the value of another because of skin colour or ethnic/tribal connection is not only foolish, but is to sin.

Second, we all agree that only fools believe that DNA makes them intrinsically better than others.

Third, we all agree that that such fools do exist, have existed and will exist in pre-consummated history.

Fourth, we all agree that sometimes we are foolish! We are guilty of making superficial generalisations about people based on their pigmentation, their ethnic pedigree and/or their material prosperity. Racism runs deep in our fallen psyche.

I am a white man. I grew up in a racial bubble but was not non-racialised. I went through most of my schooling years in schools in which I never saw a black person. I never noticed the absence of children of colour; it simply did not strike me as unusual to be in an all-white school. Until I started university, I was largely oblivious to racial tensions.

When I first encountered black fellow students in high school, I did not give much thought to the peculiar difficulties they faced as “people of colour.” While driving through the city streets one day in the 1980s I spotted a piece of graffiti that read, “Free Mandela now!” I thought that “Mandela” was a local prisoner, perhaps an American human rights agitator. I only later learned who Nelson Mandela was and why it was so important to many that he be freed.

These are some of the struggles that I faced. I think many share my story. And the sooner we all admit our struggles in this area, the sooner we can work on a solution.

Racism is a huge subject, for under this umbrella of hate resides ethnocentrism and class warfare or class envy. Judging by pigmentation, by pedigree, or by prosperity is ugly—because it is sinful. Racism therefore matters.

This is not, of course, a recent problem. In Acts 6, we see an example of how the early church faced one aspect of this issue. We will study this text together with a view to glean some principles for how we can seek racial reconciliation driven by the gospel. This will be a very brief introduction to this important subject, but we will take several studies to consider it more fully.

The Context

Our text is Acts 6:1–7, which begins with these words: “Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying” (v. 1). “In those days” has direct reference to the end of chapter 5, where we read, “And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (5:42). It was in those days that the number of the disciples was multiplying.

“Those days” therefore describes the early days of expansion in the church. We read very clearly of this expansion in Acts 2:41ff; 4:4, 31; 5:14, 26, 42. In each of those texts, Luke speaks of people being saved. In each of those instances, people were coming under the sound of the gospel and being brought to repentance. Baptisms were a common sight and the church was growing by leaps and bounds. There was still effectively only one local church on earth (in Jerusalem), and already the dynamics of local church life were beginning to show. As much as people were being saved, there was also evidence of falsehood (chapter 5) and, as we will see, of false living (chapter 6).

The Conflict

It was in those days of great gospel growth that the conflict here described arose: “there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists” (v. 1) The “Hebrews” and the “Hellenists” were two different ethnic groupings in this church. The conflict here was therefore ethnic discord.

The Hebrews were the very Hebraic Jewish Christians. They took pride in their Jewish identity, maintained a distinctly Jewish lifestyle, and spoke Hebrew or Aramaic. The Hellenists, on the other hand, were Jews who had allowed a Greek lifestyle to affect the way they lived. They had adopted some Greek customs and had lost the ability to speak Hebrew or Aramaic. Thought both groups were Jewish by descent, there were distinct cultural differences and, often, some discord existed between the two groups.

This was therefore a diverse church—there were Hebrews and Hellenists in the same body—but not one that was ethnically reconciled. This is an important distinction to bear in mind. Jarvis Williams again points to the difference:

Many Christians equate racial diversity with racial reconciliation, so they conclude if racial diversity is present, then racial reconciliation must be present as well…. The church must not be content with racial diversity; it must push forward to a biblically distinctive, Christ-centred and Spirit-led embrace of one another in love.2

We must not assume that ethnic diversity necessarily equates to ethnic reconciliation. While the majority of our church membership is white, BBC does have a fair number of people of colour in our congregation. Nevertheless, we have a great deal of work to do to realise true ethnic reconciliation in our church. We are learning, but it is a process. The church in Jerusalem likewise needed to learn, and they learned well.

The Cause

The actual cause of the conflict is now stated: “their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” (v. 1a). We read in 2:44–46 and 4:23 that the Christians in Jerusalem placed their wealth in a common pot, which was distributed, under the direction of the apostles, as need arose. As it turned out, however, the Hellenist widows were being “neglected” as the “daily distribution” was being made.

The word translated “neglected” means to “overlook” or “disregard.” There is no hint in the text of nefarious motives: the overlooking was understandable but not acceptable. The problem is that one group was privileged, while another felt slighted and marginalised. There was very much a majority versus minority mindset. Those handling the distribution were not intentionally overlooking the Hellenists, but it was offensive nonetheless. They were being thoughtless.

The result was “a complaint.” The Greek employs an onomatopoeia. It is the word goggysmos. The Hellenists were goggysmosing. There was an appearance of Hebrew privilege, and so there was a protest: #GreekWidowsMatter.

I don’t think that the slight was only perceived. It was doubtless more than appearance. It was not right, but it is the way that it was. The Hebrews were privileged, and the Hellenists were therefore neglected.

Sadly, the issue of privilege and neglect are at the root of much conflict. When it comes to racism, the complaint is about white privilege. And white privilege is an undeniable reality. I have witnessed it myself, and been the privileged recipient of it, both knowingly and, no doubt, unknowingly.

Several years ago, I was in a queue at an airport. I was flying economy class (such is my destiny!) and the queue for check-in was long. Meanwhile, the business class check-in next to us was empty. Economy class passengers were casting longing sideways look at the empty business class check-in, but were being routinely ignored. Until, that is, I came within sight of the business class check-in official, who smiled at me and beckoned me over. As it turned out, I was the only white person in the queue.

More recently, I was at a restaurant with my daughter and son-in-law. They have three children: two white and one black. As we sat there, several patrons passed us cooing over my white grandchildren, while my black grandson was roundly ignored. It broke my heart to see this happen in front of my eyes. I should add that this was not in South Africa!

Anthony Bradley, another black Christian author, writes, “We must situate discussions of race within an understanding of white privilege. It is what it is. Instead of denying it, we need to think creatively about how it can be used for the advancement of the kingdom of Christ and for the common good.”3

The Concern

The apostles did not brush off the complaint as oversensitivity. Instead,

the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

(Acts 6:2–4)

Realising that they had been thoughtless, they immediately became thoughtful. They realised that a sense of favouritism and partiality threatened the unity and health, and therefore the expansion, of the church. It was a Great Commission issue. It mattered!

The apostles were concerned to keep unity of spirit in bond of peace. They were committed to doing something about it! Are you? Do you share their concern for the dignity of others—even if you think that the complaint is exaggerated.

What follows in our text is a commitment to use privilege for the benefit of others. The apostles knew that every member matters because every person matters. This was their gospel conviction.

As Christians, we are called to be compassionate, to be empathetic. I recently asked one of the young black members of our church to give me some thoughts on race relations in the church, and he responded to me, in part, with this comment: “Racism isn’t just to harbour hatred, resentment, or something equally negative toward another race. It is also the absence of empathy, compassion or something positive toward another race that is not your own.” I found that very helpful. The lesson is simple: We need to listen!

One of the most moving pieces of literature I have ever read is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. King was arrested for being a black man who was standing for his rights. Many white pastors were urging him to remain silent, comforting him that things would eventually right themselves. This lengthy letter was his reply to them, stating the reasons that he was not willing to remain silent. They did not understand what it was like to be a black man, having, for example, to explain to his children why they had to sleep in the car because hotels would not allow blacks to rent a room. He gives example after example of such racial injustices, imploring white Christians to put themselves in his shoes so that they will understand his protest.

We need to learn to listen and to empathise with those who are marginalised. It is easy to deny the realities, but it is not helpful to do so.

The Counsel

The counsel offered by the apostles is clearly set forth in v. 4: “Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” The apostles knew their priority—“prayer and the ministry of the word”—but they also saw how important this matter was. It was so important that it needed to be addressed. It was important enough that half-hearted efforts by busy apostles would not suffice; it needed the undivided attention of Spirit-filled men. It was important enough as to be considered a threat to the prayerful proclamation of the gospel.

Being dedicated to the ministry of the Word does not mean that we don’t have time for “social issues.” For the church, it is not a matter of either/or, but of both/and. And our commitment to this matter must begin at home.

Again, the apostles did not thoughtlessly or heartlessly dismiss the discrimination. They lovingly listened and acted.

And whom did they choose to take care of this matter? Not the first seven men who volunteered, but those who were “of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.” They selected those who were reputable, Spirit-filled and wise—because those are the kind of people who are equipped to help with gospel-driven racial reconciliation.

The kind of people who are required to help the church in this matter are Christlike people: honourable, holy, helpful and impartial. Will we address it in our own hearts and churches?

The Choice

The selection of men is now enumerated: “And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them” (vv. 5–6).

This was a compassionately countercultural choice. Remember that the church in Jerusalem was largely Hebrew (as opposed to Hellenist). But here, the crowd chose not to please themselves. The seven men listed here all have Greek (rather than Hebrew names). Seven Hellenists were selected and appointed by twelve Hebrews in order to pursue racial harmony in the church. J. A. Alexander notes:

As all the names are Greek names, it is not improbable that these men were selected from among the Hellenists, to silence their complaints, either by a generous concession of the Hebrews, who agreed this whole business should be managed by their foreign brethren; or by adding seven Grecians to the existing body of Hebrew stewards.

The countercultural choice was a compassionately constructive choice. The apostles were not being patronising (“This is a Hellenist problem, so let them sort it out themselves!”) but constructively sensitive. If we will pursue racial harmony, we must be Scripturally-sensitive, not politically correct.

The love of Christ, their love for the church, the power of the gospel, and the task of the Great Commission fuelled this selflessly sensitive selection. It may not have been the only possible solution, but it was one possible solution. There is no one-size-fits-all problem to racial tension, but there must nevertheless be a commitment to seeking righteous reconciliation. We must do something constructive to address the issue!

There are a few brief points that may be helpful at this point.

First, the gospel brings people together. Consider the apostles. There were twelve of them, one (Matthew) of whom was a tax collector and another (Simon) a Zealot. Tax collectors in first century Palestine were Jews who were considered traitors because they worked for Rome. They were often dishonest and were hated by faithful Jews. Zealots were Jews who strove for Jewish political freedom. If the average Jew hated tax collectors, the Zealots despised them. A Zealot would sooner behead a tax collector than eat with him. And yet these two men worked side by side in gospel ministry. Why? Because the gospel brought them together.

Second, the gospel tears down superficial barriers (Ephesians 2:11–15) by highlighting our deepest similarity: sin and alienation from God (2 Corinthians 5:16). Christians of all stripes are united in Christ. That similarity is far more powerful than any differences that exist between us.

Third, our churches should reflect our culture and community both in laity and leadership. This cannot be done superficially, but certainly a neighbourhood that is, say, fifty percent white and fifty percent black should have an even cross-section of members? But this will only happen as the church strives for gospel-centred racial reconciliation.

We must be committed to love counter-culturally. If we are among the more privileged, let us use our privilege for the good of the whole to the glory of God.

The Consequence

What was the consequence of this commitment to gospel-centred racial reconciliation? Luke tells us: “Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith” (v. 7).

In the context of conflict, of spiritual warfare (manifested in ideological idols), those who experienced Hebrew privilege took practical and principled steps to express their conviction of equality. Indeed, Greek widows mattered. The result was the further powerful and productive spread of the gospel to the glory of God.

Yes, racism matters! The church grew in the midst of a culture obsessed with ethnocentricity and class warfare. Even “a great many of the priests believed”! One can hardly imagine a more Hebrew group of men than the priests, and yet in the context of racial reconciliation, many priests came to faith in Christ—evidently the result of this apologetic of love (cf. John 13:34–35; Ephesians 3:10).

Summary

The purpose of this study has simply been an overview of what is required for racial reconciliation. There are a whole lot more things to be said, and we will consider those in upcoming studies. For now, let me summarise two main points before making one important observation.

First, by way of summary, let us realise that issues of racism are real and relevant and not new. It is significant that the first new covenant church faced this. We can be sure that we will face it too.

Second, by way of summary, let us be aware that where there are sinners, there will be temptation to sinful division because of sinful, selfish judgements. Racism matters—a whole lot. We must be committed to confronting it, confessing it, and crushing it.

This then brings us to the one observation I wish to make before closing. (As I have said, I will return in future studies to consider more practical issues.) Racism matters to God, and it should matter to us. We could (and, in future, will) list a wide range of reasons that it matters, but why does it matter? It matters because God’s purpose matters.

God’s purpose in creation was to make all people in His image (Genesis 1:26–28). This purpose is repeated in the New Testament: “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings” (Acts 17:26). Diversity is important to God, and it is to be celebrated.

There was a time when I used to speak of the need for colour blindness in the church, but actually colour blindness is not a sign of health. (Just ask any optometrist!) Anthony Bradley says that we need to move “beyond the failed concept of ‘colour blindness’ and recognize the importance of racial, ethnic, and ideological differences as a catalyst for loving our neighbours well.”4

My daughter and son-in-law serve as missionaries in another part of the world. Where they live, they are in the minority as whites, and they have zero access on a daily basis to blacks. This presents some challenges to them as they seek to raise their black son for Christ. I recently sent my daughter an email, asking her how they intend to approach this challenge. Her reply, replicated in part below (with my grandson’s name removed at her request), blessed me tremendously.

We are not permitted to be “colour blind.” __________ is black. We must all fully acknowledge this. [We should use] the word “black” and with no feelings of hesitancy in acknowledging this difference. Being “colour blind” is not a virtue; we do not ignore race and deem talking about it as offensive. Many have noted that this “colour blind” tendency leads to being blind to and dismissive of all the very real prejudices that people of colour experience. So, we notice race and celebrate it. We cannot erase all notions of __________’s blackness, because at some point down the road, his blackness will be projected onto him and he needs to be capable of having a strong identity of himself as a black man.

Race matters, and we need to intentionally shepherd __________ as he forms a racial identity. It has been proven that representation influences children and it is vital that __________ be surrounded by positive images of people who look like him. This can be done in the following ways: Immersing ourselves not only in our own history, but in history that would be relevant to his same-race community; being friends with people who are black as well as white; ensuring that the books, movies, toys, music, images on clothes, etc. in our home represent black people as well as white people; [and] purposefully esteeming black role models, as well as white.

The day __________ joined our family, we ceased to be a “white” family and became a “transracial” family. __________ is not just a black add-on member; he is an integral member of this family, and his addition changed the very nature of our family. This may just seem like semantics, but understanding it deeply will help us to communicate his total inclusivity and belonging in our family….

Because [my husband] and I are white, we cannot shepherd __________ in developing a racial identity alone. We need other black people to come alongside us and teach us. Therefore, we must intentionally seek the insights of mature, godly and wise black individuals.

This will not be an easy task for them, but it is something they are committed to pursuing as a mean to raising their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

We are hesitant to believe the best of others. That is, we are hesitant to love our neighbour as ourselves. But we need to love one another, and we begin to do so by loving God. Then, and only then, will we be able to listen to one another, look out for one another, learn from one another, and live with one another.

Let’s do so locally—in the church and in our wider communities. And may God be pleased to bless our gospel-driven efforts and show the world a better way, for God’s glory.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. Jarvis Williams, One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation in Pauline Theology (Grand Rapids: B&H Academic, 2010), Kindle edition.
  2. Williams, One New Man, Kindle edition.
  3. Anthony Bradley, Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Minority Leadership is Overlooked in White Christian Churches (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2013), Kindle edition.
  4. Bradley, Aliens in the Promised Land, Kindle edition.

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