In any romantic relationship, you remember the “firsts.” First date, first kiss, and – inevitably – first fight. Here in Acts 6, after the almost idealistic start (Pentecost, and the almost-too-perfect community described in Acts 2) we get the first hint of significant conflict within the fledgling church. And, as is sadly so often the case, the issue flares up along cultural lines.6:1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.
We need a bit of background to get exactly what’s going on here (and to appreciate the boldness of the solution they came up with).
Firstly, we see a division in the church between Hellenistic Jews and Hebraic Jews. What’s all that about?
In simple terms, Hebraic Jews were those who lived in Judea and spoke Aramaic as their first language (not Greek). They considered themselves culturally and ethnically more “pure,” and strongly resisted Greek and Roman cultural influences. Hellenistic Jews were those who lived (or used to live) elsewhere around the Mediterranean, in what was called the diaspora (dispersion). They usually had Greek names (as well as traditional Hebrew names), spoke Greek, had been educated in the Greek system – but were still ethnically and religiously Jewish. So there were tensions, with the Hebraic Jews looking down on the Hellenistic Jews as sell-outs to the Gentile empire; conversely, many of the more educated Hellenists would have viewed the Hebraists as uncultured. It’s like the tension today between traditional cultures and those (often the youth) who have been “Westernised.”
At any rate, in Jerusalem, the Hebraists were in the majority. And this also seems to have been the case in the Jerusalem church. Is this why the widows among the Hellenists (the minority) were getting overlooked? Cultural prejudice?
It’s probably a bit more complicated than that. Because for a widow to be receiving support, it meant that she had no male relatives to care for her. What’s a woman doing in Jerusalem without a male, if she comes from one of the Jewish settlements elsewhere in the empire (as most of the Hellenists would have been)? Answer: she was probably left stranded in Jerusalem when her husband died, and had no-one to escort her back to her homeland. Without a natural support network of extended family, she would have been especially in need – but also “off the radar” so to speak when it came to the leadership being aware of her situation. So there’s probably a combination of cultural prejudice and oversight happening.
So anyway, how do they solve the problem?6:2-4 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
This is the section of this chapter that gets the most attention in terms of application, probably because it gives pastors a good proof-text to bring to their church leadership team whenever they feel too bogged down in administration! (Or maybe because it challenges pastors to stop running around trying to make everyone’s experience of church “perfect,” and get back to their central calling.) And it’s true: this does illustrate the principle of different gifts and different callings. Those who are called to pray and preach can’t spend all of their time being the church’s concierge. (Although there’s a tension here with the New Testament principle of servant leadership, so pastors aren’t off the hook altogether.)
But I think that’s not the main point of what’s going on here. So far, it’s just common sense. We can’t have the apostles worrying about daily food distribution, so pick some leaders and make them responsible! Leadership delegation 101. But look at the people they choose:6:5a This proposal pleased the whole group.
(Seriously? That would have to be the first and last time in the history of the Church.)6:5b They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.
It’s this list of names that’s astounding. They’re not traditional Jewish names. Not a Simeon or a Judas or a Joshua among them. They’re Greek names. Hellenistic Jews. And one guy who wasn’t even born Jewish, but had converted later in life – from Syria!
Think about it. The minority group was getting neglected in terms of the distribution of food. So what did they do? Appoint respected members from the majority culture to sort it out on their behalf? No! They put the minority group in charge of the whole thing! They empowered the minority group to solve its own problem, rather than paternalistically solving it for them;
To bring home the boldness of the solution, let me give you a contemporary equivalent – although it’s far more trivial. Imagine there’s an ethnic minority in your church which has a service in its own language on a Sunday afternoon. Every week, there seems to be a problem with the audio and video setup – the afternoon group seems to have to change everything around to get it to work for them, yet it’s left completely wrong for the evening service. Leading to increasing tensions. And tech people traditionally don’t have the best conflict resolution skills. (For the record: this scenario is not happening at my church, but I’ve heard of numerous variations on this scenario in other places.) So what does the church do? In a radical step, they ask the tech team from the afternoon group – the minority – to take over leadership of the audio/video ministry and work out how to make it work for all of the different groups within the church. Radical? Sadly, yes. But embodying the first-shall-be-last, consider-others-better-than-yourselves values of God’s kingdom? Most certainly!
How many other tensions in churches would be resolved if we acted a bit more like this? If we went to the group with less power and gave them the authority to work out a solution for all?
Now as I’ve been saying throughout this series in Acts, this isn’t a command. It isn’t a binding principle. But it’s a great example of one specific way the early church lived out the Gospel mandate to put others ahead of self. And there’s much we can learn from it.
Luke seems to give his “narrator’s approval” to the whole process, showing how the word of God spread after this conflict was resolved:5:6-7 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
To think about
What issues/tensions in your church might benefit from giving those with less power, the power to change/fix it?