In a previous post I wrote about the challenge of transitioning to a larger church size. This can be painful, but it is important to recognise that these are growing pains and celebrate this growth.
The danger: complaining
That’s the excitement of growing pains. But there’s also a danger. The danger is that we just focus on the pain. The danger is complaining. Look again at verse 1: ‘In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.’
‘Complaining’ is not a small thing. It’s a very significant word – one with strong Old Testament resonances. Jesus has just accomplished a new exodus. He has redeemed his people from the slavery of sin – just as Moses redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt. Jesus is the true Passover Lamb – just as the Israelites escaped death through a Passover Lamb. And the Spirit of God is leading us to our inheritance in the new creation – just as the pillars of cloud and fire led the Israelites to their inheritance in the Promised Land.
But that first generation did not enter the Promised Land. Just three days after escaping through the Red Sea, the people are ‘grumbling’: ‘So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?”’ (Exodus 15:24) So God miraculously cleanses bitter water for them. But then just six weeks later we read: ‘In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt!”’ (Exodus 16:2-3) It’s a pathetic, self-pitying cry. And it continues (Exodus 17:2; Numbers 11:1-6; 14:2-4; 16:1-3; 20:3-5, 13).
The point is this: the word ‘grumbling’ in the Greek version of the Old Testament is the same word that Luke uses in Acts 6:1.
The new exodus people of God are in danger of repeating the sins of the first exodus people. Paul says: ‘Do not grumble, as some of them did – and were killed by the destroying angel. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come.’ (1 Corinthians 10:10-11)
One of the problems with grumbling is that it’s so corrosive. James says the tongue is like a fire. A whole forest can be set on fire by a small spark. It’s the same with the tongue. ‘My complaining is no big deal,’ we tell ourselves. But James says it ‘corrupts the whole body’ (James 3:5-6). Complaining is like a cancer through the body of the church. Every time you complain, you encourage someone else to feel discontented. You pass on your discontent. The opposite is also true. Every time you express thankfulness or praise or honour you spread joy.
You might like to audit your speech. Are you spreading discontent in the congregation or joy? Ephesians 4:29 says: ‘Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.’
Philippians 2:14-16 says: ‘Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold out the word of life.’
I love the image of shining like stars. It’s a great description of the power of our witness as a community of light in a dark world. But the implication is this: If we grumble then we won’t shine like stars. Our witness will be dimmed. And the lost generation of people around us will remain in darkness.
In a future post we’ll consider the response of the apostles to the challenge of growing pains.