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Bible study on reconciliatory leadership

Bible Study by the Right Reverend Duleep de Chickera, Bishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka, for the WCC Central Committee, which met from 26 August to 2 September 2009 in Geneva, Switzerland.

27 August 2009

Bible Study 1

WCC Central Committee

by the Right Reverend Duleep de Chickera, Bishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka



Lighten our darkness we beseech thee O Lord ,
Convert us into disciples of the Truth
And give us your peace.


I bring you greetings from Sri Lanka, a nation striving for peace in the midst of despair.

The theme for our Bible studies over four days is Reconciliation; and this morning we will deal with the challenges of Reconciliatory Leadership (RL). In the Jesus’ Community (JC) reconciliation and leadership are intrinsically connected. Each requires the other.


Today’s trend in Bible study, is the dialogical method, where people sit together in small groups, prayerfully pay attention to a text and hear God on the lips of each other. But unfortunately we will not be able to follow this method since we are too large a gathering. So, you will hear me most of the time and this too in-spite of the golden advice given by Ireneas of Antioch that; “Bishops are most pleasing to God when they are silent!”.

This mornings text is Acts Chapter 6 verses 1-7

Acts 6.1-7

Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’ What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

The background

The fledgling Church is in the post-Resurrection, post-Ascension, post- Pentecost phase of her history. Even though some Jewish practices continued, the preaching of the Good news of the death and resurrection of Christ had begun to create a shift. The new wine called for new skins.

Along with this shift the JC had begun to experience conflict. There was an external conflict with the Jewish authorities leading to the arrest and imprisonment of some of its leaders and an internal conflict caused by the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira. These conflicts taught new lessons. For instance faithfulness in Christ and to the call of the Gospel gets you into trouble. Also, membership in the JC is unlimited; it is open to any and to all, saints as well as schemers, and cannot be controlled.

The immediate challenge

Consequently the immediate challenge faced by the community was the need to prevent disintegration (either because of fear of the Jewish authorities or disillusionment with the absence of perfection within) while at the same time honouring the Gospel mandate of proclaiming abundant life in Christ through word and life to the whole world . So it was then as it is today; the challenge is to demonstrate unity and to be engaged in Gods work concurrently. Ecumenism and mission are in-separable cousins.

The text

Our text describes a new crisis. Murmurings suggest a grievance in the community. There appears to be some discrimination in the distribution of relief to the widows of two sub-cultures. The grievance is consequently addressed without separation or division, but much more importantly, in a manner that enhances the witness, mission and growth of the community of Christ. Verse seven reads; “And the word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”

My thesis in this study is to suggest that RL transformed this grievance into growth and we must now turn our attention to four qualities of RL.

1. RL is sensitive to the murmurings of the people.

The leadership hears the murmurings. This is a useful quality of leadership and is much more important when a community comprises subcultures. Pluralistic societies and multicultural churches require its leadership to be particularly sensitive to the feelings and the grievances of subculture and minority groups.

The ability to hear does not depend on listening to tales and gossip. “Spying and prying” disqualify a leadership. Hearing is best done by having one’s “ear to the ground”. As children we Asians played a daring game of placing one ear to the railway line to hear a distant train that has not yet been sighted. Similarly it is the vibrations, the innuendos, the body language, a sudden change in attitude and words or looks that tell of a hidden grievance that needs to be picked up. This is the method that operates in family life – catching the vibrations so that they may be addressed-and this same ability is a requirement for all leaders in the Church.

2. RL must be clear about ones own priorities in ministry.

This is clear in the stance of the Apostles. While recognising a grievance that needs to be addressed, they affirm that they have been set aside to preach the word. This is done best as leaders learn the art of overcoming subtle intimidation that pressurise them to take on more or to imagine that they are indispensable. To take on more so as to remain popular or because of the fear of criticism is to succumb to intimidation and must be resisted. Connected with this is the ability to know the difference between the important and the urgent and prevent the latter from displacing the former.

3. RL recognises the call and gifts of others.

The suggestion to appoint responsible persons to serve at the table comes from the leadership. This is because RL recognises that the whole Body receives gifts for the whole work of God. As a result of this quality the church addresses the grievance in such a way that she receives a new level of leadership. Deacons are appointed and they themselves are soon to make their distinct contribution to the witness and mission of the church.

4. RL looks beyond routine options to resolve grievance.

These routine options are to easily suggest prayer only, quickly refer the grievance to some other person or committee, to hastily dismiss the matter as trivial and so on. Another unacceptable option is to engage in hierarchical discrimination and flippantly suggest that ; “This is a typical minority complex” or “This is the imagination of some fussy women “ The Apostles don’t even resort to what may have been a legitimate argument, that they had other more important things to do. In-fact it is as the immediate and familiar options are set aside that they arrive at the best one which is to dialogue.

There is no better method to resolve grievance than conversations within the community led with sensitivity. Guidance is provided and time not wasted on who is right or wrong. There must be corporate responsibility. There is a problem that threatens all and the way forward is to select a new level of leaders appointed by the people. But the leadership provides the criteria. So, persons “full of the spirit and wisdom” are appointed to serve at the tables and the chances of a repetition of discrimination are reduced.

Conclusions – The wider consequences of RL

1. The church discovers a new ministry with a specific mandate to respond to human need. This ministry, the diaconate, later becomes the first tier in the three tiered order that many Churches have adapted to. But it has much wider application in the lives of all disciples of Christ as it connects with the indispensable servant ministry of our Lord. If not for this grievance, the discovery of the diaconate / diakonia may have taken some time, or perhaps may never have been discovered.

2. We are better placed to understand that Koinonia is not simply static unity nor is it movement in mission through fragmentation. Rather, koinonia is the sharing of one common life based on right relationships. It is from here that recurring grievance is best addressed creatively. This is a distinct hallmark of the JC

3. RL is not an administrative technique. It has everything to do with character and presence that pervades the whole of life - the conference hall, the board room, our correspondence, our preaching and teaching, our interactions down the corridors and at the dining table and so on.

4. The movement from grievance to reconciliation and growth suggests a cyclic understanding of history. The incidents that immediately follow our text amply demonstrate this perspective. The appointment of Stephen as one of the seven deacons provokes events which lead to the first recorded martyrdom and the ensuing scattering and growth of the church soon afterwards.

This understanding of history also provides for progress and improvement. For instance there is no recognition of women amongst the two tiered leadership seen in the text. Those who gave guidance and those who were appointed were all men. The visible leadership role of women was to be affirmed later.

5. And finally and perhaps most importantly, grievance, in Christian spirituality is always an invitation to growth in unity, mission and witness. An illustration from the community life of elephants may help us understand this better. (In fact a study of the community life of elephants is a fascinating exercise and may even have some lessons here for the ecumenical movement! For instance the leader of the herd is always a female and when young males become troublesome they are driven out of the herd by the mature females !!) Recent research tells us that elephants communicate through murmuring sounds in their stomach which can be heard only by the herd and for quite a distance too. One of the most common “stomach” communications from the matriarch to the rest of the herd, is “let’s move”. Similarly in Christian spirituality the murmurings of people is God saying “Let’s move “ and wise RL will see this as an invitation to a fresh experience of unity, witness, mission and growth.

Group work- John 7.53-8.11.

Then each of them went home, while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’

An introductory remark.

In this incident a woman is reported to Christ by a group of angry and self righteous men. In the way Christ deals with the crisis He displays another remarkable aspect of RL. This is the ability to hold truth and compassion together; a wonderful gift for any leader.

The question:

Christ speaks twice in this passage. What difference would it have made if the order of His words had been reversed?

So please get into your herds and discuss!