The following is an article I wrote to address Acts 6:1-7 which we had planned to teach the weekend of December 14-15. However, Roseburg froze over the previous weekend, and for the sake of safety we canceled services. In order to stay on schedule, we decided to look at the passage here, rather than in a sermon. Let me know your thoughts about it!
Now in the days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:1-7, ESV)
GROWTH BRINGS PROBLEMS
Growing families need more space, more food, more clothes, more time and attention. Any couple who has recently added the first little one to their home will describe it as life-changing!
Growing companies have communication problems, distribution challenges and leadership needs. What worked when they were smaller isn’t sufficient to address the situation when they become larger.
Even churches are tested when they grow. Growth in numbers tests our focus (“Will we stay on track with our purpose or get distracted?”); it tests our flexibility (“Are we still flexible enough to change, or are we set in our traditional ways?”); it even tests our love (“Is it about numbers of nickels and noses, or still about people?”).
As the early church grew to well over five thousand believers, they began to have problems that they didn’t have when they were smaller––problems that resulted from their diversity and different expectations. Apparently, though everyone in the church was Jewish, not all were culturally the same. Most were Hebraic Jews––those who spoke Hebrew and were most comfortable with strict Jewish culture; but a growing minority of believers came from a Hellenistic background, spoke Greek as their first language and were most at home in a more relaxed religious environment.
It helps to understand that there was no Social Security system in place in that day. Families typically took care of their own; but if a woman had no family or was a single mother with no prospects for marriage, she often was destitute. The early church saw this as a need to be addressed, and from its early days, it took benevolent offerings to help the poor in their midst. So what was the problem?
As the church grew, the needs grew as well. Further, the money was entrusted to the Apostles who then distributed to others as they showed need (Acts 4:34-35). When a church has only a few hundred people, the expectation that leaders know names and faces, backgrounds and situations is entirely reasonable. As more are added, it becomes less likely that a few leaders know everything and everyone. In this case, some of the widows had been overlooked or neglected. I doubt that it was intentional; but because the widows were Hellenistic, many from that background took it personally. They did not think the best of the Apostles, but rather the worst: “They don’t care about us. They favor their own.”
THE SOLUTION IS MORE GROWTH...IN STRUCTURE
I suppose the Apostles could have become defensive and could have dismissed the rumored charges as inaccurate and unsubstantial: “Those griping Greeks always find something...” They could have downplayed the problem and pointed out that it was only a few widows – which would not have addressed the real issue that Hellenistic Jews felt like second-class citizens. They could have dropped what they were doing, succumbing to the loud demands for action, and changed their focus to solve the problem and serve the widows.
They did none of that.
What did they do?
1. They quickly acknowledged the problem as legitimate, and offered a workable solution. Too often, leaders simply say, “Not my job,” and leave it at that. It might not be their job, but it is their job as a leaders to address situations and offer solutions, or at least give constructive guidance.
2. They reaffirmed what they were called to do, and therefore their priorities in ministry. They needed to attend to proclaiming and teaching God’s word and praying for the church – in other words, they continued to focus on the spiritual side of ministry. There is wisdom in doing a few things well and foolishness in attempting to do everything yourself. Disgruntled or disappointed people can be so vocal that leaders are tempted to drop what God has called them to do to solve problems they aren’t called to solve. Even with the best of intentions, if a leader abandons his responsibilities to meet legitimate needs, he has made a bad decision. Everyone has a part to play, and no one plays all the parts. Playing someone else’s part robs them and violates your responsibilities.
3. They recognized that the leadership structure must grow to meet the needs of a growing church. Sometimes an organization outgrows its administrative structure; it needs to address problems that didn’t exist when the structure was set up. The leaders of the early church knew that for the church to continue to grow, problems must be addressed––and one of the first problems now facing them was the lack of leaders to deal with specific problems!
The Apostles’ solution was to decentralize––to share the ministry of leadership with others. They had to trust that there were other believers who cared, who were gifted by God and who could address the problem wisely and tactfully. Delegation is often difficult for competent leaders because it requires them to trust someone else with a problem they could solve if they directed their energies to it. The too-high price tag of not delegating is a neglect of the current responsibilities of those same leaders. So, they decided to delegate not only the responsibility of attending to benevolent needs (and the corresponding handling of cash to do so), but also the authority to make good and wise decisions regarding that ministry.
HOW YOU GROW IS CRITICAL
As Luke relates the story, the Apostles simply gave guidelines for the quality of individuals needed to lead this ministry and let the people select them. If silence suggests anything, it is striking what the Apostles didn’t do:
•They didn’t select the people themselves. This invited those who were vocalizing the problem to be part of the solution. If the Hellenistic widows were being neglected, perhaps some Hellenistic people could be selected to ensure that the widows would be attended to.
•They didn’t even mandate how these new leaders were to be selected. The method was clearly flexible, whereas the qualifications were set in concrete. Focusing on clear qualities and not specific procedures, the Apostles wisely indicated that good people were key to solving bad problems. I am often reminded that if you have good people in a bad structure, you’ll probably be fine; if you have bad people in a good structure, you’ll constantly be in trouble.
•They didn’t micro-manage. Once they laid hands on the newly selected leaders and entrusted to them this ministry (and its present challenges), the Apostles never addressed it again. They let it go, and let these servants (or “deacons”) do their thing.
NOT JUST WARM BODIES...
So what kind of people are needed as leaders of this (and other) ministries? One might think, “any warm body will do”––and if we thought so, we’d be wrong. Whether the focus is “spiritual” or “physical,” whether it involves finances or educational programs, every ministry is about people. No wonder, then, that the Apostles advised that they choose individuals with good reputations, who were controlled by the Holy Spirit’s presence and marked by wisdom (6:3). They would need all those traits to effectively deal with the hurts and disappointments of two cultures clashing over slighted widows.
And it worked.
GROWTH CAUSES GROWTH
Luke’s last word in this passage is one of success: “And the word of God continued to increase” (because the Apostles didn’t ignore their own calling), “and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem” (implying that the church was once again unified and healthy).
In fact, Luke states that the impact of this administrative change had an unintended spiritual impact: “and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” The “priests” were the same Sadducees who once disbelieved in resurrection, in any unseen world, in miracles or in angels. So great was the love and impact of the church among its own, and so wise was the Apostles’ handling of this potentially volatile situation, that even these who had been resistant to the faith were now drawn to believe in the Savior. Such was the impact of good and wise leadership when faced with troublesome problems of growth.
Too little structure or too centralized a leadership, and problems do not get addressed. Too much structure, and flexibility suffers. An organization should have just enough structure to address the needs that growth brings, but not too much that strangles creativity or flexibility.
THE GROWTH PRINCIPLE APPLIED
The church of which I am privileged to pastor, Redeemer’s Fellowship, has grown from a small Bible study in the front room of physician’s home to a large church of over 1800 individuals; meeting in a rented facility in 1987 to owning three buildings on the corner of Lookingglass and Harvard, and one downtown; from two founding pastors with a part-time secretary to 19 full- and part-time ministry and support staff. The number of our ministry leaders and our structure has increased to address the challenges and opportunities that growth has brought. In all, we have been able to retain both creativity and flexibility in leadership and ministries, though we are constantly in need of more leaders who have the reputation of being “full of the Spirit and wisdom” and “full of faith” (6:3, 5).
If a person is healthy, he or she will grow––physically, emotionally, spiritually. We expect families to grow––there should be children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Successful businesses and organizations will grow. And churches in whom the Spirit of God is working will certainly grow – not only in numbers as people hear the Good News and believe, but also in depth of character as individual believers become increasingly Christlike, and in ministries, structure and leadership as they face the problems growth brings.
Where have you seen growth in structure solve or create problems? Let me know in the comments below.
Pray that all of us, especially at Redeemer’s, would do as the early church did, so we might see what they saw – God multiplying the number of individuals who find and follow Jesus.