The early church faced great challenges. That should not surprise us, as God’s people have faced challenges in every generation. Some came from outside the church, while others were internal matters. Let us take a quick look at some of the internal challenges with which the early church had to deal. Surely we can learn from these. Remember, a “challenge” is not necessarily a problem – it is “anything, as a demanding task, that calls for special effort or dedication” [www.yourdictionary.com].
Leadership Changes – Any organization which has leadership changes goes through transition. Some of those transitions are smooth, while others are a disaster. What changes in leadership do we see in the book of Acts?
First, Jesus returned to heaven (Acts 1:9-11), leaving “the Movement” without its Founder on earth. After the church began, one of its faithful servants and vocal defenders, Stephen, was killed (Acts 7). After his death, the church mourned, but then it moved on. The apostle James, John’s brother, was murdered (Acts 12). The efforts of the church never wavered.
Local churches were established, and for a period of time they existed without elders. Then, elders were appointed (Acts 14:21-23; 20:17,28). That is a major change for any congregation to experience. Yes, it can involve huge challenges. The first-century saints showed us that changes in leadership do not have to hinder a local church’s faithfulness and commitment.
Immorality – That picture in Acts 4 of the brethren in Jerusalem being of one heart and one soul, praying together, and sharing their resources with one another, that is something beautiful to behold. But when we turn the page to chapter five, we behold a real-life ugly scene. There we find the first-mentioned, internal church problem. What was it? The husband-wife duo of Ananias and Sapphira lying to the Lord (5:1-10). They sold a possession and then lied about how much of the money received for the sale they actually gave to the Lord’s Cause.
Society may look at lying as a small matter in comparison to murder and rape, but lying is still wicked in God’s sight. It is part of the old way of life that children of God must put off (Colossians 3:9). What Ananias and his wife did put a black mark on the church’s reputation. But, the church could recover from it. In fact, when the two liars were killed, “great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things” (5:11). Absolutely, when the word got out about there being liars among the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, the church faced a real challenge. But, the saints kept on teaching, kept on living for Him, and multitudes obeyed the gospel (5:14). We do not endorse immorality among us. It hurts us. We certainly do not advertise openly any immoral conduct of brethren; it shames us and we detest it. But, despite some cases of evil conduct on the inside in the first century, the church survived. In fact, it thrived. Despite this unwanted challenge, we can do the same today. Let us not give up or become passive.
Complaints – Are you thinking Acts 6 is a prime example? Me, too. At a time when the number of disciples multiplied, “there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” (6:1). Feeling neglected, tension, and complaining – we have all seen it happen. Thanks be to God that the apostles faced the challenge head on, got the congregation involved in selecting some men to deal with it, and the situation was defused (6:1-7). Good leadership really helps in such situations. The best news? The church kept on working and growing! (6:7). We also can do that.
False Teaching – It is in Acts 15 that we read that some Judaizers (still trying to bind the ways of the old law) falsely taught, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (15:1). After a serious discussion of the general matter of keeping the law of Moses (15:5), the apostles, elders, and whole church sent a Holy Spirit-guided message to many congregations (15:28,29; 16:4,5). The result? The church was strengthened (15:30-32,41; 16:5). No, it was not aided by the false teaching, but when the faithful stood against the falsehoods and continued to teach the truth, the church was strengthened. The same thing happens today. We do not downplay the challenge of false teaching, but we also must not allow it to consume all of our energy or steal our zeal.
Maintaining Unity among Those from Diverse Backgrounds – There were Gentiles and Jews living and laboring side by side in the church. Males and females did the same. Farmers and business people sat beside one another during worship. Rich and poor saints partook of the same cup of the Lord. Caucasians, darker-skinned disciples, and those with extra dark skin faced the challenge to lay aside any preconceived notions or past stereotypes and “comfort each other and edify one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Under such circumstances, would it have been challenging to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace?” (Ephesians 4:3). Challenging, yes; impossible, no. Come to think of it, modern congregations face similar challenges. Despite our diverse backgrounds and cultures, we are one family in the Lord (Galatians 3:26-29). When internal challenges come, let us not draw back, but continue to believe, work, and persevere to the saving of the soul (Hebrews 10:39).
— Roger D. Campbell