Acts 6: The Challenge of a Growing Community
Growth in any group – a social group, church, organization, company, etc. – can be exciting and is almost always accompanied by positive feelings. Numerical growth is usually viewed as a good thing and often it is. But the more people we take on, the more difficult it becomes to care for them. Our vision, time, and energy becomes stretched and ultimately if we do not have biblical guard rails in place our community can become a place of frustration and dissension.
We see this very same issue occurs not just in contemporary churches today, but also in the early church of the Apostles.
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.
At every turn, through persecution and push-back, the number of those coming to faith in Jesus Christ is increasing and the early church continues to gain a larger and larger following. As with any organization, we start to see some growing pains. This gives me much comfort personally to know that even the first church did not always do everything right. They made mistakes too. In this case, we see the church has begun to grow so much that we have two distinct groups and cultures who have started following the Apostles’ teachings. Not only cultural Jewish converts but the message of the Gospel has been reaching the hearts of Greeks, beginning the fulfillment of Acts 1:8, “…And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This is a huge milestone in the history of the early church, but like us, as much as we desire new members, it is the new members that are often the most over looked in care and welcoming into the body.
This is not an easy situation that the Greek followers have found themselves in, especially considering it was a subject as sensitive as neglecting to feed their widows! In Acts 6, we see four things that we can do together in the church to continue to grow wider and deeper spiritually while maintaining the fragile dynamic of adding new people and cultures.
OPEN AND HONEST
The first may seem obvious but I think it is often overlooked: be open and honest. In the midst of the chaos that growth can bring, stay open and honest about feeling overlooked or hurt by certain decisions. To many, passive aggressiveness is deemed as an appropriate response to handle being hurt. Let me just say: it is not. Being in intimate community with other sinners is a very difficult and challenging things to do. (There’s a reason the Emergent Movement happened.) But we must be vigilant in our own hearts first to maintain openness and honesty, in confession and in accountability. Matthew 5 could not be clearer on this matter.
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
Similarly, Matthew 18:15
If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out their fault…
When someone wrongs us, either intentionally or unintentionally, the Bible is clear that it is our responsibility to go and reconcile with them directly. Do not wait. Do not allow Satan to gain a foothold (rf. Ephesians 4:25-27).
Stay open. Stay honest. Just as we see the Greeks did here in Acts 6:1, they went to those who had made the offense. In many cases, I have found that the offender is unaware of the consequences to his or her own actions, so we must always remember to bring our case against them in patience and in love. But we must always be attentive to maintain peace with our brothers and sisters through reconciliation.
Secondly, when attempting to reconcile yourself with a fellow church member, always remember the authority structures that God has placed in his church. God created the Church. It is his bride and it is his to structure how he desires. Almost every church you could attend has a recognizable flow of authority to make decisions of any kind. Firstly, Christ and the Word are the head of the church (rf. Colossians 1:18). Every orthodox church must and will maintain that every single member (including pastors, elders, deacons, any leaders) are subject to the authority of the Bible first. Then usually we see the authority trickle down from a board of Elders (may include Pastors), to the Deacons, to the staff of a church, to ministry leaders, and down depending on denominational practice. But this is the way we see that God has set up his church to function (rf. 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1) and we must humble ourselves under this and give proper recognition to those who are in authority over us.
Notice how the author of Acts does not show the Greek members in the early church going around gossiping and trying to cause division. They are not shown trying to fix the problem by taking matters into their own hands. Notice how they recognized the authority that was over them, even though it was that very authority that was overlooking them.
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. 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 and we will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” This proposal pleased the whole group.
By bringing this issue to proper authority, instead of trying to take matters into their own hands, they were able to quickly manage the situation and find a solution that was pleasing to everyone involved. How rare is it that we are able to find a good solution to a problem that is fair and beneficial for all parties? When we trust that God has sovereignly appointed the leaders that are over us, we can trust that they will find the correct solution when we bring it to them in the right manner. Finding a good solution becomes exponentially more difficult once gossip, quick-fixes, and more hurt feelings enter the equation, when they could have been avoided by going to the proper leaders in the first place.
Thirdly, when dealing with a growing community, we must be careful to avoid discrimination and favoritism. One of the hardest things when finding a solution is to not play favorites or to create a solution that only pleases those who you relate to. The Apostles are able to find a solution that not only “pleases the whole group,” but also eliminates favoritism. Their solution was for the group to appoint seven men, leaders who are full of the Spirit and wisdom, to delegate this task to for future oversight.
They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
Something incredible happens here in this passage that we as modern-day readers would not grasp right away, but all of these names are Greek! So not only did the Greeks present this issue of their widows not being fed, now Greeks have been given the opportunity to become part of the solution and leadership! This is such a beautiful turn in the passage! Greek widows were first being discriminated against, but now Greek believers have been empowered and given equal status in the community to help bring balance so that the church can continue to care for its people.
It’s not stretching to agree that racism and discrimination are constant roadblocks our society needs to continue to confront. But we must never forget that these issues are closer than we are usually ready to admit – even in our churches.
James 2:1, 8-9
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism…If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.
If we desire to see our communities grow in size while maintaining the unique diversity and cultures that they carry, then we must be attentive to our own faults of favoritism, discrimination, and even racism. These mentalities will not stand in the kingdom of God and will only harm our people. The Gospel is a free gift for all people, and we must never let our biases get in the way of that. Only Christ himself can be the stumbling block of scandalous grace for those who might not believe.
MINISTRY OF THE WORD
Lastly, we must never let numerical growth become the goal of our community. If we want to grow in size, the faithful preaching and ministry of the Word of God must be our first priority. Our openness, gracious leaders, and lack of favoritism are crucial for a growing and diverse body, but those things will only be properly set in place through the faithful, unapologetic preaching of the Word.
There is nothing more important for our community’s spiritual health and ability to handle conflicts properly, than its understanding of the Word. How are we going to love our neighbors, our brothers, our sisters if we are not renewed to put on the mind of Christ? That only occurs through the power of the Word and the inner workings of the Spirit.
Twice the Apostles made it clear that their priorities must be given to the Word first (rf. Acts 6:2,4). They recognized as the leaders that there was nothing more important to maintaining the peace, fellowship, and care of this early church during booming growth than keeping their attention on the ministry of the Word. Surely, the wisdom of their solution was founded in their rich understanding of the Scriptures and words of Jesus. In all seasons and in all situations – over human wisdom, experience, and judgement – we must allow the Word of God to illuminate our path.
When our churches are centered around the Word, we will start to reflect these kinds of vital attributes that will grow us personally and as a community in deeper and deeper ways. Look at the final results in the early church.
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.
The type of growth our God desires for our communities and churches happens not by playing to emotions or people pleasing, but rather through open and honest community, that humbly submits to church authority, that renounces favoritism and discrimination, and is faithful to the ministry of the Word of God. If we are able to keep our communities safe-guarded in these areas, God will give the growth spiritually and if He wills, numerically.