We often have a very naïve and rose-coloured view of the early church, believing this to be a golden age when nothing ever went wrong. By contrast, we see the differences, disputes and divisions in the church nowadays very clearly and often get disheartened by these. As we study Acts 6:1-7, however, we see how differences and disputes can be handled so that division is not the end result, and this acts as a spur to us in our own everyday disputes and differences.
The devil loves to promote and keep our attention on differences and disputes in order to create division and disunity. Paul warns us against this, telling us to ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.’ (Eph 4:3) He stresses the unity of the Godhead in order to make us realise the importance and relevance of unity: ‘There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.’ (Eph 4:4-6)
The Bible is very clear that differences will always abound and are to be embraced and appreciated. We are all different and there is a place for each one of us in the body of Christ (see 1 Cor 12:12-14, Rom 12:4-8). When disputes arise because of these differences (in this passage, the dispute was that the Greek-speaking widows were being overlooked in the distribution of food, a fact no one seems to have actually disputed), we can either let the dispute escalate to the point where we are divided and no longer want to work together, or we can bring the dispute to God and to the church and seek to work through the differences to find a solution (usually compromise is required at this point!) It requires maturity to do this and many people leave churches because of unresolved conflict which is never really addressed, often dealing with relative minor matters.
Grumbling and complaining, trying to sweep issues under the carpet and not addressing problems almost always leads to division and disunity. By bringing the dispute into the open and seeking God’s solution, the apostles showed us that disputes can be resolved. The solution of appointing Spirit-filled men to oversee the food distribution, freeing the apostles to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word, worked and everyone was happy and united.
If we are to overcome disputes and divisions, we have to understand the Biblical precedent of honouring others above ourselves (see 1 Cor 10:24, 33; Phil 2:2-4), clothing ourselves with love (see Col 3:12-14) and striving for unity. This is hard work; it isn’t something that comes easily to us and does indeed require a spiritual perspective which helps us to explain the criteria demanded (‘to be full of the Spirit and wisdom’, Acts 6:3). Only as we see unity as integral to God and to His church will we be able to embrace differences without becoming divided.