Thursday, August 11, 2005

The importance of the Hellenists (feedback from Taize)

As ever as well as time to reflect and pray Taize offers deeply insightful bible input. This year we had a series on the mission of God in the Acts of the Apostles. I was particularly struck by the role of the Hellenists from Acts 6 onwards. The Hellenists were non Hebrew Jews who lived in the Greek world. We first become aware of them when they complain that their widows are being left out of the food distribution which has only been going to Hebrew Christians. This however is only a presenting symptom of a wider cultural issue, an issue that will define the direction of the mission of God through the church, the distinction between the Hebrew and Greek worlds. The Hebrew Christians led by the all Hebrew Apostles are in Jerusalem, maintaining Jewish custom and attending Temple worship. Unless this changes the real danger is present that Christianity will remain Jewish sect in Jerusalem and the Gospel will never reach beyond it. It is the Hellenists however who will change this. They see the world beyond Judaism and bring a question to the church 'will the church be for non Jews also?' . The Apostles lay hands on the seven leaders of the Hellenists, ostensibly to wait on tables. In reality they are ordaining the people who will take the Gospel beyond Jerusalem. The two key figures are Stephen and Phillip. Stephen can see that Jewish custom and temple must be left behind, that Jesus has ushered in a new order in line with the vision of the Prophets and makes himself deeply unpopular by repeatedly arguing his case with the Jewish authorities, indeed he enrages them so much they kill him, launching a persecution of the church. This persecution seems to largely miss the Hebrew Apostles who stay in Jerusalem but the Hellenists are scattered out into Samaria, and ultimately to Antioch from where the mission of Paul and Barnabas to the Greek world will be launched. The mission of God required those who were from the outside to come in and question the certainties traditions and worship of the established religious system. The conflict this brought, wisely embraced by the Apostles, was the creative place for God to allow mission to break out into a new world. Those who came with this new vision were persecuted for it, but God turned their persecution into the very means of achieving their vision.

we were encouraged to apply this story today, and I think there is much that springs from that as we look to mission at the end of Christendom. In many ways the Christendom church is like the Hebrew church with its customs and certainties, and of itself only brings to faith those who have been raised in Christendom, it cannot reach out to the world beyond its traditions. We need Hellenists who live within the world outside Christendom to come among us. However, the Hellenists will bring conflict, they will undermine the churches traditions and question its codes and practices, indeed they are likely to be persecuted by traditionalists and yet this oposition will become the place from which the baton of the Gospel is passed from the traditional church to the Hellenists who will eventually become the church as the Christendom church fades away.

in these terms my job could be described as 'professional Hellenist' someone called to look from the perspective of those who have no church background and seek to discern what the gospel means in that world and explore what kind of church will emerge from the seed of the Gospel sown in such soil. Seeing my name is Stephen I hope I won't also be martyred in the process! However when I look at the kind of vitriol piled on people like those associated with Emergent in the US I can't help wondering if again the Hellenists are upsetting the traditionalists.

Of course in Acts the traditionalist Apostles laid hands on the Hellenist leaders and embraced them, even if as the rest of Acts and the Pauline Epistles show they probably didn't really understand the radical change this would lead to in the church with the abandonment of Jewish custom. Will the leaders of today's church be able to embrace the Hellenists even if they are fearful of the consequences? What things are we fighting over in the church of today that will turn out in hindsight to have been about a shift in culture and not at all about the essentials of the faith? Will we be able to have our 'council of Jerusalem' in which we are able to find a way forward between the traditionalists and the Hellenists so that the wisdom of the past can also be carried forward into the future as well as that which is actually part of what God was doing and not for the future can be left behind?


John said...

Excellent post, Steve. I'd not thought of that parallel before.

pax et bonum

Hammertime said...

Nice work!

I went to the orientation for my seminary on Friday, and was actually a bit disconcerted by the concentration of white, short haired males. Mind you, I am a white, short-haired male.

I noticed a fellow with long, raggedy hair, glasses and facial hair. He was very reminicent of US hippies as well as pictures we see of Jesus. I though he might be a neat guy to get to know. As we were all walking to the 'food place' after the short worship service and briefing about the administration of the school, I heard him say "I couldn't wait to get out of there. Traditional services are creepy."

At first I felt kind of irritated. I thought, "Why the heck are you in seminary? If you can't deal with a worship style that's different than your own, you have a lot of growing to do." I chose not to sit with him at the food place, choosing instead to sit with the only black couple I could find.

Reading your post, I realize that he WAS dealing with it. I would have felt pretty uncomfortable in a charismatic service, but if the Lord had called me to that seminary, I would tough it out and grow through it. Perhaps this man is doing the same. It is my task to reach out to him. He certainly is on the fringe of my denomination...

I think I'll link to your post, if you don't mind.

Phil Goodacre said...

Hi Steve
Glad to hear that you too had a challenging/thought provoking time at Taize.

You say some interesting things about the need for people to stir up the church, provoke conflict etc. I think there is a certain inevitablity that those who do this will suffer persecution in some sense.

I also wonder whether those who try to "look from the perspective of those who have no church background and seek to discern what the gospel means in that world and explore what kind of church will emerge from the seed of the Gospel sown in such soil" run the risk of misrepresenting people, misreading culture etc. I say this not as a criticism, more of a reflection on my own actions, something to be considered perhaps.

I think the question I am really asking is this:
How can I, as somebody who has been brought up within Christendom, truly understand what Christendom looks like to someone who has not been brought up within Christendom?


Steve said...


nice story, and yes we have our places of comfort and challenge! what is interesting is how mine have changed over the last 25 years! but always God nudges me somehwere to experience something unexpected.

wish you God's blessing in seminary

I've been to your site too, and found some good discusion, sometime i may well post there too. but please do link, thanks for the courteousy of asking, i am very much for the interchange the web brings and appreciate peoples links.

Steve said...


great questions, and i think in many ways you hit the nail on the head. what so often happens in church mission is that we only reach those who share our culture, becasue we fail to truly become incarnate in anyone elses.

some in foreign mission however have gone further and we need to learn from them. (some have done a disasterous colonial imperialst opposite!) i remember one book by a missionary in africa who said it took him seven years to even begin to undertsand enough to communicate his faith in the cultue he lived is really no different when we face the very real question you ask. what did these people do? the went and lived among the poeple they wanted to connect with, the listened long before they spoke. they became to some extent native and discvered in dialogue with those poeple what the 'Good news' really was in that place. too often christians have gone in and assumed their pre packed message will work...this is for the long haul, and requires an open ear to the place we are and to God that can bbe also open to the deeply surprising work of the Spirit, but it has been done.

John W. Morehead said...

Steve, it was a pleasure to find your Blog for the first time today. We have corresponded before and I hope you found he right contacts in the California Bay Area. I will add a link to your Blog from my own at

Andrew Wooding said...

Hello Steve,

Thank you for your excellent article which I read this morning over coffee and too many biscuits. Found it very thought-provoking and encouraging.

However, this phrase from the article has hit a nerve: "The mission of God required those who were from the outside to come in and question the certainties traditions and worship of the established religious system."

The thing is, I tried that for a while and now I just don't think it's worth it. I hope I have a strong, questing, ever-evolving faith, but I'm quite happy being outside the "church" from now on and don't feel the need to challenge it or say anything to it at all as I'm burnt out on doing this.

I only have a limited amount of energy. If I was committed to changing the "church" I would have got ordained. As it happens, I want to stay with the people outside, thank you very much. We have some great God conversations and I've learnt a lot. (I also enjoy meeting and praying with other Christians - I know that this is church as well, but your challenge was about "the established religious system".)

Don't want to bang my head against a brick wall any more. (Or a wooden wall if it's the Baptists.) Got other, more productive things I can be doing with my time and energy. The "church" just isn't worth it.

Andrew Wooding

Steve said...

Thanks Andrew

I don’t think it would be right to impute from what I wrote that the mission of God always requires the renewal of the church by outsiders. Just that this is what God did in that situation…..i would add I think that’s what has also happened in other situations.

However the point is not the renewal of the church it is the equipping of the mission. What might have happened if the Jerusalem church said ‘no we’re Jews only and want to keep Jewish customs’. I guess the Hellenists could have founded a new ‘church’ that didn’t look like ‘Jewish church’ (ie not like ‘church’ at all) but they would also have lost much of the connection to those first hand witnesses of jesus. Would the gospels have been written as they are? I guess not. I am sure God could have sorted it but it would I think have been a worse case scenario.

My observation is that God is always using people from the outside to reform the church, and will do so again. Not cause it’s all about the church but cause God has not abandoned it. In the end why will a new 'church' (again used very loosely)or group of christians out there in the world be any better? Again its wheat and tares stuff, I think God is a reformer and not a revolutionary because he always has compassion on those who are week and falling, he will not break a bruised reed nor snuff out a smouldering wick.

yes in the end i think God does not always sit around waiting for the Church to catch up but i suspect he never stops calling the church to join him in mission, wherever and however far it has wandered.