Resistance and Riots

Acts 19:23-41

I wanted to spend a little more time with Paul in Ephesus, because there is a man there who teaches us a lot about ourselves. He’s not one you would expect to learn any great spiritual lessons from – but he’s one who turns the mirror around and offers us a glimpse inside – and it’s just possible that we might see a little bit of Demetrius in ourselves – Acts 19:23-27.
And we’ll also get a glimpse into the dynamics of church conflict – because a lot of church fights I’ve seen resemble what went on in Ephesus – and that’s especially tragic, because this wasn’t even a church fight.

Demetrius had a number of motives for resistance and opposition:
Vested interests – money, position, power (especially financial power) and status quo are always a deadly combination.
Jesus had threatened the position of the Pharisees – they could see the writing on the wall – “Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” John 11:47-50

Tradition – We’re like Demetrius, we prefer things that have security and familiarity. In fact, there are some traditions that become so ingrained within us that we cannot imagine life without them. And because they are so much a part of us, we lose the ability to distinguish them as traditions.

Remember Jesus challenged the religious traditions of the Pharisees in Matt. 15 – traditions that were so strong and so ingrained that they had, in reality, replaced and superceded the Law – and he said to them, “Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.”
It is a strange and inexplicable thing that we will defend our traditions and oppose change even when change will obviously create a better and healthier life. It happens in churches – it happens in families.

There are families that come in to counseling that are suffering terrible turmoil and family dysfunction – often, with traumatic problems like alcoholism or abuse. And yet, with every therapeutic intervention the counselor attempts, the family seems to get worse and worse. The family themselves sabotage the very things that would help them get well. Why? There is something about the familiar that has them enslaved. Wellness is an unknown. When they are sick, at least their roles are defined, and they know how to act – someone is the victim / enabler / rescuer – like scripts in a play. Even if it is painful, it is familiar. And so, they unconsciously choose to remain sick (even to remain in pain) rather than experience the uncertainty of wellness and having to change parts and redefine roles.

To a lesser or greater degree we have all done that in some arena of our lives. So, familiarity plays a key role in a lot of the decisions we make.

Selfishness and pride – at the root of all of these motives comes the choice of self – my interests, my needs, my preferences – I want things done my way – I have to be right. It is a motive that the devil has skillfully woven into the fabric of our modern way of thinking. My interests are of prime importance – I should never have to sacrifice what suits my needs in order to accommodate others. It is this inalienable “right to choose” that we have come to hold most dear and use as a weapon to demand and manipulate and coerce to get our way.
Paul commented pointedly on this idea of personal rights and choice when he said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”

This is not to imply that there are no noble motives in resisting and opposing others – it is to say that we need to carefully examine our motives and our hearts because they are so often and so subtly deceptive.

Demetrius also utilized two key tactics to accomplish his objective:
Uproar – Once Demetrius had raised up his banner of resistance, it didn’t take much to get the mob whipped into a frenzy. No longer did reason play any part in the proceedings – it became a shouting match – it escalated into a mob mentality.

“Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” was their rallying cry. Isn’t it funny that whenever we aren’t sure of exactly where we stand or how to defend our position, what do we do? Shout a little louder – rattle our sabers a little more menacingly.
There was a remarkable parallel to the events outside the praetorium where Pilate tried Jesus – Mark 15:9-15. These same people had, only days earlier cried out “Hosanna” as Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. There was a confusion among the people that was easily manipulated by the Pharisees.

Confusion – That’s what Demetrius capitalized on. Confusion always seems to accompany this kind of uproar – some are shouting one thing, some another, but listen to what Luke says in vs. 32 – “most of the people did not even know why they were there.”

Whenever there are church fights, there are always a few on either side shouting one thing and some another, trying to fuel the fires, but invariably, the majority of the people are in the middle scratching their heads wondering, “what in the world is going on here?” And eventually they end up jumping into the fight or bailing out of the church. And either option is tragic.

Let me share an observation with you about church conflicts – anytime someone comes to me and says “everyone has been coming to me and complaining about …” red flags start waving and sirens start screaming. First of all, it’s never “everyone” – it’s only one or two.
Second, they didn’t come to you, you went fishing for ammunition to back up what you already thought. And third, why do you suppose it is everyone thinks you’re the one to go to when they want criticism and complaint passed along? Is it because they know you have that kind of spirit to begin with?

I have rarely seen a church fight that was truly over some point of doctrine – they are almost always over personalities. They later cloaked it with some doctrinal label to legitimize it. But it still destroys the work of God in a city.

These two escalate and feed each other – confusion and uproar – the less people understand, the louder they shout.

One man stands out in all this – a calm city clerk. He’s not a wimpy little bureaucrat, he is the chief magistrate of the city. And he displays some tremendous insight and wisdom. He had his own vested interests to protect. Rome looked with disfavor on these rowdy, unauthorized assemblies. Ephesus was dangerously close to having Rome crush what little freedom they did have. These rioters were endangering the security of the city.

He brings a spirit of reason to these proceedings – “You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of today’s events. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.” After he said this, he dismissed the assembly. Acts 19:37-41. Even the city clerk reminds them that there is a right way to handle the grievances they might have.

When dealing with conflict – ask two questions:
Do I understand the issues?
You have to credit Demetrius with one thing – he understood the heart of what Paul was saying – And Demetrius understood what the consequences of that would be. Demetrius has a priority list: His financial livelihood, his religious tradition, his goddess. He understands that if Paul is successful it will hit them in the wallet, in their reputation, and their religion will be discredited. They had a lot riding on opposing Paul. But understanding the issues isn’t the only thing.

We also need to ask, “what are my motives?”
Like Demetrius, when we start shouting and resisting and opposing it is often because we are reacting out of selfish motives. We haven’t taken the time or effort to understand what it is we are fighting against. We need to carefully research, not only the facts, but our motives as well.

Paul tried to help the Roman church do that when he wrote Romans 14. You see, it’s not the facts that are in question, it’s the attitude – the motives that Paul zeroes in on. Is there a right answer, a wrong answer to the question at hand? Sure there is, but here in Romans 14, there’s something more important than who’s right and who’s wrong that’s at stake:
1 – “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.”
4 – “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?”
10- “You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.”
13 – “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another.”

Judging and condemning threatens the unity of the body and the reputation of the church. If we can’t work through our disagreements and accept each other in spite of our differences, what possible message could we have to offer the world? If meat-eaters and non-meat eaters can’t live together in the body of Christ, then there isn’t much hope for bringing together a world fractured by conflict and strife into harmony and unity in Jesus Christ.

But if, for a moment, we can take a cue from that Ephesian city clerk, we might learn a thing or two. He saw the danger the city was in by allowing this conflict to continue unchecked. And part of the problem in church fights is that when we get sucked into battles over petty issues and squabbles we lose sight of anything but the fight. We forget the casualties around us in the spiritual lives that are ruined by watching Christians acting like the world, and we forget that there is a larger audience looking on and thinking, “I knew the church wasn’t any different.”

Paul warns Timothy about the man who stirs up trouble - he describes him as having “an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction…” (1 Timothy 6:4-5).

Paul tells Titus, “Avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:9-11).

Satan’s greatest tool against the church isn’t the storm of persecution from outside the church, it is the termites of divisiveness from within.

Does that mean we can’t disagree, and discuss issues? Not at all. We don’t just shove our differences under the carpet and pretend we agree about everything – but we work toward unity not conformity. We understand that there will be things we don’t see eye to eye on – but you remember Paul’s conclusion to the meat-eating conflict back in Rome – it’s in Romans 15:7 – “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”

The key to godly conflict resolution is to do what Christ would do. In John 13, Jesus wraps himself in a towel, takes up a basin and begins to wash feet. Just moments before his disciples had been arguing about who was greatest in the kingdom, just moments before Jesus had torn their hearts out by telling them he would die, just moments before Jesus had told them one of them would betray him, one of them would deny him and all of them would abandon him. And then he begins to wash their feet. Certain conflicts can be resolved only with a basin of water. Paul didn’t say, “Accept one another because you agree about everything.” He didn’t say, “Accept one another because you’ve gotten rid of everyone you can’t get along with.” He said, “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”

“Just as Christ accepted you.” That doesn’t leave much room for ill will and hard feelings and wounded egos. You will never forgive anyone more than God has already forgiven you. Unity in the church is never as much about having all the right answers as it is about having the right attitude. Whenever we disagree with one another, let’s begin by accepting one another as Christ accepted us – and once we have done that, then and only then can we begin to deal with anything else.