Your Sunday Brunch Special: Dealing with Dissent

I didn’t get to part II of the last post, but I’m going to work on it this week if I can. It turned out to be more complex than I thought, and my vision of what I should do about it got completely out of hand. So, here is some more New Testament stuff that I’ve been thinking about.

In the sixth chapter of Acts, Luke narrates a very old tradition about conflict and dissent in the early Christian church. When we talk of this episode, we usually ignore the meaning of the outcome, which may be the most important influence on the course of Christianity after Jesus.

Luke tells us this (Acts 6:1): “in these days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews.”[1] “Hellenists” refers to Christian believers in Jerusalem who had a Greek background in some way, Luke doesn’t explain, but he does give some names: Phillip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, Nicolas (the proselyte), all are Greek names. They are Jews, but the text draws a distinction between them and the “Hebrews,” meaning natives of the city perhaps. That both groups are Jews and Christians, is the important point. As Luke tells us about Hellenist leaders he makes sure to say that one of them was a proselyte (convert to Judaism) meaning that the rest of them were born Jews.

Thus, there are two groups in Jerusalem, both are Jews, both are Christians, and they “have all things in common.” The Hellenists probably had a history of being part of the diaspora, and therefore brought up to speak Greek, given Greek names, while remaining Jewish in belief, with perhaps certain differences. The apostles, by the way, have distinctively Jewish names, their history suggests that they belong to the Hebrews faction, and this is confirmed by later events.

When does this episode take place? Apparently quite early in the life of the church, say 36AD, about the time Saul is converted.

In addition to the cultural differences between these two groups in the early church, it looks like there are some theological differences too, and this becomes important to the story (I apologize for teasing this for most of the post). The Hebrews appear to be the dominant group in the Christian community. It seems that the Hebrews, trying to force some kind of agreement on the Hellenists, have stopped supporting the widows of the latter, who were completely dependent on the community, the common funds and property of the church. It’s not an unusual sort of thing, when people disagree with a church or a faction in a church, they often withhold their funds. That seems to be what is happening here.

The apostles don’t like the situation, and they call the community together to come to some kind of resolution. This kind of judgment by the whole (“multitude” seems to have a special meaning) is a feature that reappears in Acts 15, and probably it signifies the depth of the problem. In early Mormonism, church conferences often functioned as decision/discipline bodies, and other Protestants used similar things. Indeed, the organizational layout for judgement in Doctrine and Covenants 107 may suggest that the whole church may be the final court for the most troublesome cases. The Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate a similar kind of function, where the community was presided over by twelve persons, representative of the 12 tribes, and three others, representative of the priestly families, and the community in this setting seems to be called by the same name as the group the apostles call together, the official church if you will. In any case, the apostles preside over the gathering, the “multitude.”

Fourteenth century rendering of the original 12. (Image: Wikipedia)

Fourteenth century rendering of the original 12. (Image: Wikipedia)

The apostles propose a solution to the problem. They (wisely) decline to micromanage the situation, but offer a kind of separate leadership solution to the Hellenists. The text puts it that the apostles are not going to serve tables. This means they aren’t going to get into these decisions of dividing funds, food, etc. The apostles say, choose seven men of good repute, full of wisdom, and the apostles will appoint them to this role. They probably don’t have a name for the office being created, that will take time, but the Seven might be thought of in terms of LDS bishops or stake presidents in some way, or traveling bishops, or some such thing, early proto-bishops in the second century usage or as the idea occurs later in the pastoral letters (Timothy). In fact, the Seven act more like apostles later on.

The important thing is that the apostles don’t expel the Hellenists over the unmentioned issue that created the withholding of funds from the Hellenist widows. Instead, they create a body of leaders for them, which the Hellenists choose themselves, and this in some ways diffuses the problem between the two community factions. The Hellenists will get their fair portion of the community’s funds. It is not clear that the apostles agree with the theological positions of the Hellenists. In fact, they almost certainly do not. Whatever differences they have about their Jewish beliefs, it’s not worth splitting the community over it: they are common believers in Jesus (exactly what that entailed at this point I don’t think is completely clear, but obviously baptism and the promise of the Holy Spirit). Put another way, the apostles decide that a plurality of belief can exist in the church, provided there is unity on some things, and further, that not splitting the body had a much higher value than a doctrinal difference.[3] What was this doctrinal difference? I think it was quite an important one at the time and it was related to the kind of Jews Christians should be.

I mentioned that another difficult difference comes up in Acts 15, where the issue was how gentiles should fit into the Christian community. That was a tougher one, and it took a lot of time to reach a widely accepted resolution, but in fact, this first trouble telegraphs the later one in a much deeper way than is always appreciated.

The decision of the apostles is interesting because it has positive effects in some ways, but causes difficulties in others. Belief in Jesus is more important than unity over Judaism. That is a useful and unifying thing in some ways. The downside is this: tolerating Jews with different beliefs within the body may mean that those Christians may bring conflict with other Jews in Jerusalem, not Christians, but who share doctrine with the Hebrew Christians. That kind of conflict can bring trouble for the whole church, and we see this happens, and it has unforeseen consequences.

The growth in the church that Luke mentions at the outset is a natural cause of the trouble. The apostles required a more complex structure to deal with questions, problems, and immediate needs, and this begins a primitive organization for the church. You see this in early Mormonism, where at first there were two ruling persons, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, but after a year and half, more structure and definition is required to supply the needs of the community. The changes in both cases were in response to need. There wasn’t a blueprint: it largely developed organically.

Now, the Hellenists have these seven men who in effect, are like new apostles. The Seven are not called apostles, but they perform at least some of the functions that may have fallen to the apostles early on, and later their actions appear apostolic. The Seven are led by Stephen, who will shortly be stoned to death over his dissenting Judaism, and this has a major effect on the Christian movement. As an aside, we don’t know what happened with the Hebrews at the time, but presumably the apostles didn’t want to be involved in the trenches there either, and quite soon we see evidence that James (one of Jesus’ brothers) and the elders (an indication of the Hebrew’s traditional beliefs about functionaries) are in place in the church and seem to be running affairs in Jerusalem (Acts 15). So it seems reasonable that the apostles gave both factions a set of leaders at the same time (when Paul comes to Jerusalem on different occasions, it’s clear that James and the other elders are in charge there).

Early rendering of James, chief of the Jerusalem church. (Image: Wikipedia)

Early rendering of James, chief of the Jerusalem church. (Image: Wikipedia)

The apostles stand above both groups, not precisely as everyday leaders, but as symbols of the whole. Recall that they are very deeply associated with Israel, they are the ultimate judges of Israel, and this probably played a large role in how the Jewish church saw them. Even Paul, at the end, after all he went through over gentile converts, his dismissal (in Galatians) of the “pillars of the church”—he cares nothing for them, in his anger over what he saw as a betrayal of their (Jewish Christians) agreement, does not relinquish the overriding importance of Israel when he engages an olive tree parable (Romans 11), much like that of the Book of Mormon in Jacob 5. This persisting racial identity politics takes a long time to dissipate or at least be reinterpreted, spiritualized.[4]

The fascinating thing about this moment is how the apostles deal with this conflict, which is really based on dissent from what is the majority. Unity is more important. And it may set some precedent, because something similar happens later. But as I noted, choosing the Seven has a dark side. One wonders how things might have evolved if various dissenting movements in Mormonism had stayed together in some way, with some compromise or other (Emma, Rigdon, Wight, etc.). What might have happened? In the case of the early Christians the consequence was profound.[5]

What happens after the apostles (it’s not clear that the whole group isn’t involved here, actually) lay hands on the Seven? Nothing easy. Stephen begins preaching, and he is a powerful speaker, but he seems to offend other Hellenists (not Christians) in some way and the offended ones accuse him of blasphemy, one of the more serious charges one could face. They accuse him of speaking against Moses and the LORD. This stirs up the elders who bring him before the Sanhedrin. There are false witnesses against Stephen, and they accuse Stephen of saying Jesus will destroy the temple (probably connected to Jesus as the temple). At this point, Stephen gives a long sermon. The sermon is not very politic, given the audience, and it may illustrate what happened in the church that led to the Seven being appointed.[6]

Stoning of Stephen from the altarpiece of San Georgio Maggiore in Venice by Tintoetto. (Image: Wikipedia)

Stoning of Stephen from the altarpiece of San Georgio Maggiore in Venice by Tintoetto. Note God and Christ depicted at the top reflecting Stephen’s vision. (Image: Wikipedia)

Stephen’s sermon gives an account of Israel’s history, but it differs in a number of ways from the Bible. Scholars see elements of Samaritan thought in Stephen’s preaching, and this was bound to anger the Sanhedrin. Some have wondered if Luke is presaging here what happens to the Hellenist Christians later. Possibly Luke thought of Stephen as a model for how the church eventually evolved (Luke is writing many decades after this incident, so perhaps he is using his narrative to explain in part what the church became, and that is reinforced with his mention of Saul at the succeeding events.

Stephen closes his sermon with some very offensive stuff: the LORD does not dwell in houses made with hands and so forth (he’s negating the value of the temple) then he called them stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, they always resist the Holy Spirit, asking them rhetorically which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute, etc. you betrayed and murdered the Messiah. This of course makes them very angry, and Stephen is stoned to death by order of the Sanhedrin.[7] There are a number of parallels Luke purposely calls out between Jesus’ death and Stephen’s death which I won’t go into here.

The Sanhedrin is willing to leave the Christians alone, but it won’t tolerate attacks on the temple, something Stephen clearly did, and in doing so he probably expressed the view of the Hellenists. Those returning from a diaspora likely didn’t hold the temple in high regard. We know in fact, that there was a very sharp division among Jews of Jesus’ time over the temple. One thing was the problem of the high priests. An important division here centered on the revolts in the second century BC when non-high priestly families took over in Palestine, and more legitimate high priests were in Egypt. The Egyptian Jews tried to build a temple there, but the high priest in Jerusalem conspired with the Egyptians to destroy that effort and they also attacked the Samaritans to destroy their temple. There was some resentment through the diaspora (probably) about paying in support to the Jerusalem temple and the associated idea that God can only be fully and rightly worshipped at the Jerusalem temple. This is the key to the dispute that generated the apostle’s intervention at the beginning of the chapter. This dissent is the kindling of future change.[8] And Luke tells us that a great persecution arises against the church, but this is almost surely against the Hellenists because authorities don’t bother the apostles. The Hebrew Christians are not touched, surely because of their regard for the temple and their belief in its function and the importance of the Law, etc.

The Hellenist Christians are scattered from Jerusalem and these are Jews who are what may be described as “liberal.” Their attachment to the temple is minimal, and may be even less now. The Hellenists go to Samaria, where there is sympathy for people who don’t value the Jerusalem temple or its Davidic heritage and meaning. Luke gives us some of the exploits of Phillip, next in the leadership line of the Seven. And Luke tells us in chapter 11 of Acts that it’s these Hellenists who first begin a ministry to the gentiles. No doubt Luke oversimplifies much of this, but the narrative makes this remarkable point about what the apostles did: the consequence of their decision for unity led in part at least to the fall of Jewish practice within Christianity, and ultimately the complete removal of Christianity as a subset of Judaism. The Hellenists carried with them the devaluing of the temple, and of Jerusalem itself. There was no way to predict this almost butterfly effect on the church that resulted from the appointment of the Seven. The apostles had no particular wish to preach to the Samaritans or the gentiles in general. They are Jews who believe in the continuing value of the Law and the temple in their lives. They are leaders of a Jewish sect if you will. We see more of this in the way Paul comes into Luke’s picture of the church. It seems that the Holy Spirit is really largely in control, working around and through human choices, and it’s this that makes one wonder about the whole history of God’s interaction with humans and how he uses church leaders, political passages, and even human prejudice.

Especially in the case of Mormonism: where does human or prophetic apprehension of the situation, and the resulting decision-making come into play with God’s plan? It seems that in many cases, where the church or church leaders see some issue as vital or necessary, the result is quite different from the expected value. One could point to the usual suspects here, but I’ll leave it to you to think about it and the circumstances of change.

[1] The KJV reads “And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.” The “increasing in number” portends a number of problems and challenges culminating in the gentile conversions.

[2] This process was frequently used in earlier Mormonism, where election of officers was quite common, especially at a local level, but even in central offices. It wasn’t universal though.

[3] Joseph Smith’s complaint about a doctrinal difference and church discipline seems apropos. Joseph had some charisma though, and when he died, it was pretty clear that no one had a similar cachet. Dissent was therefore less tolerated as time went on. John Turner writes importantly on this in his Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet. On a modern version see the present Archbishop of Canterbury’s dilemma.

[4] An unfortunate result of the eventual split between Judaism and Christianity is the terrible narrative that surfaces among Christians that the Jews, as a whole, carry ever continuing guilt for executing God (the Book of Mormon speaks out against this), and this story continues through the Reformation and into the twentieth century. Some of the language employed by even the greats like Augustine and Jerome is terrifying, advocating slavery, forced migration. Hilary: “before the Law was given, the Jews were possessed of an unclean devil, which the Law for a time drove out, but which returned immediately after their rejection of Christ.” Hilary’s Commentary on Matthew, XII, 22. Marcion is the most extreme view theologically: throw out Jewish Law, liturgy, priesthood, AND scriptures. John Chrysostom: “it’s incumbent on Christians to hate the Jews because God has always hated the Jews.” Aquinas: “it’s perfectly licit to hold the Jews in slavery because of what their ancestors did to Jesus.” By the fifth century, Christian motivated laws essentially deprive Jews of nearly any benefit of citizenship, forcing them into ghettos. Probably the disappearance of Jesus’ statement from Lucan manuscripts “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” was a result of later preaching against the Jews, especially post-Julian, when Christians become politically dominant. Jerome wrote that Jews have the Mark of Cain, and must be beggars and be examples of depravity for Christians to look upon. The evil of the Nazis was the sharp end of this theological spear, as it partook of the racial theories that fruited from it in the nineteenth century. For a much broader treatment up to the fifth century, see James Everett Seaver, The Persecution of the Jews in the Roman Empire (Lawrence, KS: Univ. of Kansas Press, 1952).

[5] A much later example is Luther’s case, where his ally in the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon, tried to get the parties to consider what they had in common, rather than what separated them. (Wikipedia has an account.) The things they could agree on at that point were quite strong. Probably 90% in favor of unity. But perhaps the inertia of a large body played too much of a role in any possible resolution. The consequences were brutal.

[6] There is this tradition about the Seven being “deacons.” That is a post-apostolic thing and assigning the title to the Seven isn’t useful and is even misleading I think.

[7] The question arises as to how they could get away with this since the Roman governor would need to approve. But the Prefect only came to town on feast days, to keep order, so they could do it without much risk (cf. Jesus).

[8] There is some hint in the Gospel of John about this, where Jesus himself actually goes to Samaria. When he meets the woman at the well, he tells her that the Jews have the right way, but that the time is coming when neither Samaria nor Jerusalem will be the place to worship. If that’s anything like what the Hellenists were preaching in Samaria, and it’s tempting to believe this. “You can believe in Jesus, without Jerusalem, David and the temple.” Israel is still a theme, but it’s Abraham, and everyone can agree with that.


  1. Fantastic article with much to contemplate. It reminds me of Paul’s counsel to not let rules and minutiae separate us, instead letting unity and love keep us together (see Romans 14). Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thanks, Cody.

  3. Very interesting. Coincidentally, I was just the other day engaged in conversation about 21st century Mormon church leaders’ emphasis on unity. I was of the view that it is too much, slowing change that has strong but not unanimous support. I need to keep thinking.

  4. Calling the Seven “deacons” comes straight from Luke’s Greek for “serving tables.” Paul of course calls Phoebe a deacon in Rom. 16:1. Bearing in mind that Paul seems to do some things differently than the Jerusalem Church (getting to the heart of your marvelous post), what’s your basis for calling the office of deacon post-apostolic?

  5. Points out the difference between reading the scriptures, and really READING the scriptures closely. Lots of good stuff here. We understand too many of these scriptural stories in isolation, rather than in context. Reminds me of this phrase we hear on occasion in the church, but has wider distribution in Protestant Christianity: “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity.”

  6. The Other Clark says:

    Obviously, the seven were the seven presidents of the seventy, just like we have today. Which is why today’s equivalent can act “more like apostles later on.”

    After all, we believe in the same organization that existed in the primitive church.

  7. Jason, you’re right of course. I think its misleading in the sense of an early title, and in the way it gets poached as continuity with Mormon use. Besides, Luke isn’t around for a long time yet. I think because of the waiting table language, this was confused later on as if these were “deacons” of the later church. The Seven don’t have anything to do with deacons that develop later on in the Pastorals (event wise). They are major leadership figures, sub-apostles in some respects, and they certainly seem to end out being superior to synagogue elders, say. I was going to write something about early church officers. Maybe. Now you’ve forced me. Clark, you’re mixing traditions. They’re DEACONS. (grin)

  8. Thanks, Kevinf.

  9. Wow, that piece really opened those stories up to me like I’ve never considered before. Food for thought, for sure.

  10. Martin, thank you. Of all the church reading cycles, New Testament may be my favorite.

  11. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. The future is impossible to predict perfectly. I wonder what current Church decisions will bring 10-15 years from now.

    Speaking of allowing room for variability, I think of the Church taking no official stance on Book of Mormon geography. A very wise decision, I think.

  12. Clark Goble says:

    It’s interesting to consider just how little we know about those crucial first few decades of the church in Palestine. Consider what our church went through and changed from 1830 through 1870 and that same amount of time was what the Church in Palestine went through prior to the destruction of the Temple.

    One problem with the whole unity/dissent issue you didn’t raise were the various forms of gnosticism that were developing possibly around the same time.