The Church as an Agent of Change and Transformation in Traumatic and Conflictive Situations

posted in: Theological Reflection

Espacio Teológico – 2021/Heinz Dieter Giesbrecht

Translated from Spanish


Introduction: Challenges and Traumas of a Church During and After the Pandemic  

During and after the pandemic, the church has gone through many drastic and traumatic changes. The simple fact of pausing for sanitary obligation, the services, and face-to-face meetings in the faith family had a powerful impact. In many cases, the obligatory social isolation has caused spiritual isolation of the family of faith.  We heard testimonies that part of the membership no longer showed up after this period.

But beyond these structural, organizational changes, the pandemic has caused extreme traumas of loss. Martinez Camino specifically describes the traumatic despair caused by the pandemic when he states:  

“The suffering of so many people and so many families, caused by illness and death; the tensions originating both from home isolation and from the imposed physical distances in ordinary life; the anguish associated with unemployment, the bankruptcy of businesses, the ensuing shortages and poverty, and the uncertain social and economic future; all of these, and others, are factors capable of inducing not only psychic disorders, such as depression but also something even more frightening, such as the severe or total loss of hope: disillusionment or despair. ” (Martinez Camino, 2021, p. 25). 

Psychologists teach us that traumatic experiences often lead to changes in spirituality and philosophy of life (cf. Fajardo, 2020, p. 87).  

The paradigm shift caused by the pandemic could be what Martinez Camino calls the end of faith in the ideology of progress and synthesizes it as follows:  

“The global pandemic of 2020 confronts our generation with an unprecedented global vulnerability. Globalization -which has conveyed the pandemic- has been marked by the ideology of progress. According to which the global world -produced by man, his science and technology- under a supposed immanent law of human history, will end up being the kingdom of reason and complete freedom, the heaven that religion unduly projected to another world”. (Martinez Camino, 2021, p. 25f.).  

Although the Coronavirus pandemic has its unique characteristics, at the same time, we can observe throughout the history of the church that the followers of Christ have gone through many traumatic experiences of significant impact and that the presence of God among his people was manifested shockingly precisely amid the vulnerability of the family of faith. This tells us that traumatic experiences can become opportunities for learning and growth if we face them from the perspective of faith in Christ. He incarnated precisely in our human vulnerability. 

In this contribution, I want to analyze the example of the early church from this perspective, as described in chapters 6 – 15 of the book of Acts.  We want to observe how the new movement, which originated at Pentecost, suffered opposition and aggression from the traditionalists of Judaism. All this manifested itself in a traumatic experience of persecution and martyrdom, demonstrating the vulnerability of the new and young church. And precisely in this environment, Luke describes in the book of Acts how the Holy Spirit used these adversities to strengthen the church in its profile, vision, and mission, thus transforming threats into opportunities. 

1) The persecution of a community of faith that challenged its surroundings’ religious and cultural patterns.  

According to Luke’s report, the early church was installed in Jerusalem, the religious and cultural center of first-century Judaism. From the Jewish pilgrims from Palestine and the Diaspora who celebrated the traditional harvest festival, called Pentecost, the first church was formed with 3,000 baptized (Acts 2:41).  

The mention of the participation of the members of this church in the temple services parallel to the meetings in private houses with the celebration of the Lord’s supper is remarkable (Acts 2:46). Justo Gonzales comments the following in this regard:  

“According to that verse, the Christians persevered both in attending the temple (their worship as Jews, which they all were) and in the breaking of bread (the new Christian worship that was emerging).” (Gonzales, 2000, p. 89f.) 

With this participation, the first believers coming from Judaism demonstrated that they considered themselves a new movement within the people of God. And very soon, the traditional and institutional Judaism recognized it and felt threatened by this new “sect,” which finally provoked a growing and violent opposition.  

But it was not only between the traditional Jews and the followers of Jesus that conflicts were created but also within the new family of faith, which had been born at Pentecost. Luke mentions this in Acts 6:1, indicating two groups within the early church, the Greek-speaking Jews and the Aramaic-speaking Jews. The Greek-speaking were the so-called Hellenists, who had lived or were living outside Palestine and had been integrated into the Hellenistic culture of the Roman Empire. The Aramaic-speaking were the Jews mostly from Palestine who considered themselves more authentic or pure Jews who were not willing to adapt to the Hellenistic culture (Gonzales, 2000, p. 148; Bruce, 1998, p. 146). In the city of Jerusalem, there had arisen synagogues of the Hellenists in which Stephen evangelized (Acts 6:8-10), one of the seven servants, who were chosen precisely to attend to the Hellenist widows in the daily distribution of food in the Jerusalem church. It is interesting to note that the seven servants have Greek names. About Nicholas, it is said that Nicholas was a “proselyte from Antioch” (Acts 6:5). This means that “he was not even a Jew by birth, but by conversion” (Gonzales, 2000, p. 149).  

Precisely this group of Hellenists was the most open and indicated to understand the challenge and the need to cross borders and cultural barriers to witness the gospel of Jesus beyond Jerusalem. Based on Stephen’s preaching (specifically Acts 7:47-50), Eckhard Schnabel implies that the Hellenistic believers understood very radically that Jesus himself had replaced the temple as a salvific institution. That, therefore, the sacred and exclusive places no longer exist (Schnabel, 2002, p. 881).  

But precisely, this conviction, based on biblical texts of the OT cited by Stephen in his preaching, was unleashed in a scandal by the simple fact of attacking the central identity of traditional Judaism. And when religious and cultural identity is attacked, this often leads to fanaticism, as we can observe in Acts 7. The martyrdom of Stephen was the immediate tragic consequence, and the general persecution of the church in Jerusalem followed (Acts 8:1). Gonzales observes that, apparently, “the persecution was unleashed mainly against the Hellenistic Christians, and not against the ‘Hebrews,’ so that the apostles, Barnabas, and others were able to remain in Jerusalem” (Gonzales, 2000, p. 165). 

2) The church of Antioch in Syria as an agent of change.  

A direct consequence of the general persecution of the Hellenistic believers of the early church was their flight to Antioch in Syria (Acts 11:19). This city and the church there became the center of the missionary movement that eventually reached the entire Roman Empire. 

Very aptly, Gonzales summarizes and comments as follows:  

“Up to this point, the narrator’s attention has been focused on Jerusalem. In the episode of Stephen, the new leadership has been presented, no longer ‘Hebrew,’ but Hellenistic. Now we will talk about how that Hellenistic church carried the message beyond Jerusalem and even Palestine (and how Peter, in the Cornelius episode, showed himself to agree).  In the next section, the focus of interest will shift to Antioch, where it will remain for the rest of the book.” (Gonzales, 2000, p. 171) 

Antioch, a city located along the Orontes River, was the capital of the Roman province of Syria. After Rome and Alexandria, the largest city in the empire with about five hundred thousand inhabitants. Here resided many church’s moral standards Jews in a very open relationship with the inhabitants of other cultural backgrounds. Gonzales speaks of a “great exchange of ideas, cultures, customs, and religions” (Gonzales, 2000, p. 219).  

When the persecuted believers arrived in Antioch, they began to evangelize in the synagogues of the Hellenistic Jews. But very soon, they extended their mission to the non-Jewish Hellenists, among whom there were probably also many polytheists. Thus an urban, multicultural, and growing church was formed in this new context (Acts 11:19-21). Here in Antioch, they first received the name “Christians” (Acts 11:26). Schnabel argues that this observation of Luke indicates the emergence of a new identity with a profile that differs from the Jewish and pagan inhabitants in the city (Schnabel, 2002, p. 770 and 774).  

But all this did not mean that the new church in Antioch distanced itself from the early church in Jerusalem. Quite the contrary. As Luke describes in Acts 11:22-24, the Jerusalem church sent its representative Barnabas to Antioch to accompany and stabilize the new work. Barnabas, whose first name was Joseph and whose origin was a family of Levites (Acts 4:36-37), undoubtedly belongs to the Aramaic group of the early church. His profile seems to be that of a mediator since, after Saul’s conversion, he made every effort to integrate him into the group of leaders (Acts 9:27). And Barnabas was who saw in Paul an ideal profile to stabilize the new work in Antioch (Acts 11:25-26).  

About ten or more years earlier, Saul, with the Greek name Paul, had been converted from a persecutor of the church to a faithful disciple of Jesus. His background and profile were ideal to be part of the leadership team in the new church at Antioch. He had Roman citizenship and a serious and deep theological formation within radical and conservative Judaism. Before his conversion, he belonged to the Pharisees, which transformed his legalistic worldview. He developed his passion for preaching the gospel of unconditional grace. His ability to communicate with Jews and Hellenistic pagans had developed in his hometown of Tarsus. His mother tongue was most likely Greek. But as a student of Gamaliel, he also spoke Hebrew and Aramaic (Schnabel, 2002, p. 890).  

Thus, a leadership team was formed in the Antioch church consisting of a converted Hebrew Jew (Barnabas), a converted Hellenistic Jew (Paul), and at least three other people mentioned in Acts 13:1. Simeon is mentioned with the nickname “Niger,” which may indicate an African background.  In addition, Lucius of Cyrene is mentioned, who could be of Roman cultural background by his name. Mention is also made of Manaen, who had grown up with Herod, i.e., he knew Roman culture from his own experience (Schnabel, 2002, p. 642f; Bruce, 1998, p. 289f). 

This group, with very diverse backgrounds and experiences but united in the vision of proclaiming and extending God’s kingdom, received the Holy Spirit’s prompting to cross more cultural barriers to evangelize people from all over the Roman Empire (Acts 13:2). It was the right team in a culturally open context to move across borders with the gospel of Christ. 

3) The council strengthened the church in its mission despite tensions and threatening conflicts. 

Luke continues with the experiences of Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey and how they returned to Antioch to report what they had experienced during this time (Acts 14:26-28). 

And in the following verse (Acts 15:1), the arrival of believers from Judea is mentioned, which caused much doubt and insecurity. All the processes of change, which the church had perceived as the work of the Holy Spirit, were now in danger of being overthrown. This situation described is similar to what Paul relates in Gal 2:11-16, also referring to Antioch.  

Bruce explains the necessary background to understand this situation better: “Soon there would be more Gentile Christians than Jewish Christians in the world. Many Jewish Christians, no doubt, feared that the influx of so many converts from paganism would weaken the moral standards of the church, and the indications in Paul’s letters show that their fears were not unfounded. How was this new situation to be controlled?” (Bruce, 1998, p. 337) 

It was then a reaction of the traditionalist Jewish believers to the radical changes observed in the new church center of the first century. Very typical for change processes, we keep here the tendency to retreat to the known and controllable. The known and controllable was what the Jews had already practiced for many centuries when non-Jews wanted to be integrated into their community of faith: “Unless you are circumcised according to the tradition of Moses, you cannot be saved. (Acts 15:1). As Schnabel points out, one can perceive a very reasonable logic behind this concept: With the circumcision of the new believers, the accusations of the Jews that the Christian faith wanted to destroy the foundations of the Jewish faith could be appeased. Furthermore, this would ensure that all members would act according to a well-defined ethical standard, the tradition of Moses (Schnabel, 2002, p. 968). 

Luke indicates that this was the position of some representatives of the early church present at the Jerusalem council, “who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees” (Acts 15:5). Gonzales clarifies that the Pharisees who had accepted Christ by faith as the promised Messiah of the people of Israel did not cease to be Jews or Pharisees: “We are not dealing then with ex-Pharisees who still retain remnants of their former beliefs, but with sincere and practicing Pharisees who, while continuing their careful observance of the law, are also Christians” (Gonzales, 2000, p. 273). 

What is striking during the process of discernment in the Jerusalem council is that it combines lived experiences with personal observations in the light of a word quoted from the prophet Amos (ch. 9:11-12). The argument summarized by Jacob, the prominent leader of the Jerusalem church, analyzes Peter’s introductory speech and the testimonies presented by Paul and Barnabas in the light of what was expressed by the prophet Amos concluding “that God is raising a new people, or an extension of Israel” (Gonzales, 2000, p. 276).  

Also striking is the summary expression of this discernment process in Acts 15:28: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us” (according to NIV). Bruce comments that these introductory words of the final, written decision “emphasize the church’s role as a vehicle of the Spirit” (Bruce, 1998, p. 351).  

The debate at the Jerusalem council demonstrates that the risk in this situation was to replace the centrality of Christ and his gospel of grace with religious traditions. If this were to happen, Christ would no longer be the center of faith and the church (Acts 15:10-11). At the same time, the conviction was confirmed that the centrality of Christ always entails an attitude of respectful love for one’s neighbor and his conscience. That is why it was decided to avoid anything that could cause a scandal to the people of Judaism (Acts 15:28-29). As Schnabel shows, Paul himself acted in his relations with people of Judaism according to these standards (Schnabel, 2002, p. 977).  

In this way, he had ensured at the Jerusalem council, on the one hand, the centrality of Christ and his gospel of grace and at the same time the inclusion of all who were willing to receive Christ, whether they were Jewish or pagan cultural background.  

Fitzmyer aptly sums it up:  

“The letter that the Jerusalem church sends to the local churches of Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia advises the Gentile converts in those churches to respect the traditions of the Judeo-Christians among whom they reside, to preserve the unity of the Church. And the Judeo-Christians should not think that the observance of such regulations is a guarantee of salvation, for God grants salvation only through the merits of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is why the letter ends: ‘You will do well to avoid this’ (15:29b). This way instills a crucial distinction that Christians of all ages must not forget. Christians of all ages must not forget: there are demands of the Christian life that are essential, and others that, while not crucial, can contribute to the preservation of harmony and peace.” (Fitzmyer, 2003, p. 217).  

Conclusions: Guidelines for dealing with change processes amid difficulties and trauma. 

From the example of the early church, which grew through missions during radical and traumatic changes, we can learn some essential principles that can guide us as the body of Christ in our pandemic and post-pandemic situation.  

a) The communal evaluation of lived experiences in the light of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God is the foundation for a healthy orientation. The council in Jerusalem is a good example, as experiences and observations were shared, but without falling into the trap of subjectivism. The firm orientation in the process of discernment and evaluation was the Word of God, interpreted in the light of the Holy Spirit, perceiving at the same time the feelings of others. We must create these spaces in our work teams, home groups, and other meetings with church members. To cultivate communion and solidarity as members of the body of Christ, we must make every effort to return to face-to-face meetings after the obligatory isolation. Although virtual meetings have many advantages, they cannot supplement face-to-face meetings, in which we comprehensively perceive what moves our brothers and sisters in faith.  

b) It is very remarkable how, in the case of the early church, a great effort was made to listen to all voices, whether the voices of the traditionalists or the progressives. And also took care of having representatives of the different groups in the leadership, as shown by the leadership team of the church of Antioch. Unfortunately, the pandemic has caused many polarizations and divisions in the body of Christ. The fact that government officials  

The fact that government officials prohibited or forbade the celebration of face-to-face services caused much debate. So has the application of vaccines and much speculation about what has supposedly been caused behind the scenes of the pandemic. Controversial debates and polarizations should not allow more divisions within the body of Christ. Therefore, it is necessary to listen to all voices on the one hand. At the same time, it is essential to distinguish, as we saw in the debates on cultural issues in the early church, between the essential and the secondary. 

c) In situations of drastic and traumatic changes, it is essential to orient oneself in God’s vision for the church. The church at Antioch is an example of how even persecution becomes an opportunity to embrace this vision more consciously. Remembering during the trauma that Jesus had charged his disciples to move from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth was crucial. In much the same way we have learned during the pandemic, many new strategies for evangelizing and teaching the Word of God, especially in virtual and digital formats. Integrating these new formats with conventional ones is an excellent opportunity for churches and missionary and educational ministries.  

d) The vision determines the mission’s focus, as we observed in the early church. In the Jerusalem council, the mission of expanding the gospel across cultural boundaries was confirmed. The fears of the traditionalists were not allowed to overthrow this commission that Christ himself had entrusted to his disciples.  Applying this to the post-pandemic situation, ask yourself: how we want to fulfill our mission to comfort and spiritually counsel those who have lost loved ones? or those who are traumatized, depressed? or those who do not dare to seek help and support because they are not ready to come out of their isolation. What must be avoided is that the polarization and ethical debates provoked by the pandemic displace the church’s priority mission to witness the gospel of grace integrally. 

e) The consequence of the discernment process in the primitive church was clear and practical resolutions that helped orient itself in missionary practice. For example, what was indicated in the letter written due to the council in Jerusalem. Applying this to the present challenges, it is urgent to elaborate and implement pastoral guidelines, concepts, and models for distressed, insecure, traumatized, skeptical, hurting, lonely and isolated people.  Also, the mediation and transformation of conflicts to overcome divisions and polarizations is a challenge that the church faces during and after the pandemic. And all this with the conviction that the Kingdom of God consists of faith, love, hope, thus transforming threats into opportunities. 


Works Cited

Bruce, F. F. (1998). Hechos de los Apostoles: Introducción, comentario y notas. Buenos Aires:  Nueva Creación. 

Fajardo, L. R. (2020). Sin escape: Coronavius y la Biblia. Valencia: Fortaleza Ediciones. 

Fitzmeyer, J. A. (2003). Los Hechos de los Apóstoles II: Comentario (9,1-28,31) (Vol. II).  Salamanca: Ediciones Sígueme. 

Gonzáles, J. (2000). Hechos de los Apóstoles. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Kairós. 

Martínez Camino, J. A. (2021). La ideología del progreso según Bendicto XVI: Diagnóstico,  denuncia y alternativa. En J. A. Martínez Camino (Ed.), La fe en tiempos de pandemia: De  la utopía a la esperanza (págs. 11-26). Madrid: Ediciones Encuentro. 

Piper, J. (2020). Coronavirus y Cristo. Editorial Poiema. 

Schnabel, E. J. (2002). Urchristliche Mission. Wuppertal: R. Brockhaus.