Acts 6: 1 – 7 The choosing of the seven
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. 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 will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’
This proposal pleased the whole group. 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. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
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.
* * *
This seems like a fairly mundane example of day to day life in the early church, but actually it’s quite significant, for two reasons.
Firstly, St Luke is using this account to introduce Stephen to us. He’s showing us how Stephen became an important figure in the early church, important enough for the Sanhedrin to take notice and attack him.
Secondly, the account of the selection of the seven deacons is more than just an interesting snippet of early church history. It captures the moment when the group of men and women who followed Jesus becomes a church, with a hierarchy.
In the earliest days, there were just people who believed. The apostles, especially Peter, had authority because everybody could see that their ministry was validated by the signs and wonders that God worked through them. The beliefs of the disciples prompted them to give generously so that “there was no needy person among them.”
But now the distribution of food to the widows had become contentious. Worse, there were factions within the body of believers. “The Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” The apostles were being distracted from what they saw as their primary task of prayer and the ministry of the word.
In short, human sinfulness was starting to disrupt the work of God.
To solve the problem, the Twelve proposed to the disciples that they should choose men to be responsible for food distribution. The only qualification needed was to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. The disciples chose seven, and the Twelve prayed and laid hands on them. Problem solved.
Actually, I wonder whether it was.
It raises questions.
The Twelve say “ ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.”
Is that wholly in line with Jesus’ teaching? “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” (John 13: 14)
There is no record here that the Twelve prayed about how to solve the problem of food distribution. We assume they must have done, but St Luke doesn’t say so.
St Luke makes no comment, either, about the sin involved in the dysfunctional relationships between the two factions, the Hellenistic and the Hebraic Jews.
It’s a pragmatic solution to a human problem, and it’s a solution that has had consequences. The church became split into an ordained, spiritual leadership focussed on prayer and the ministry of the word, administrators who deal with the daily running of activities like food distribution, and the body of believers. We still have that structure today.
Whether or not it’s the ideal structure, it certainly didn’t inhibit the growth of the church in Jerusalem, for “The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”
And tomorrow, we’ll start reading the story of Stephen.
Thank you for loving us. Thank you for your word. Thank you for your church. Please help us to be open to the prompting of your Holy Spirit, both as individual believers and as members of your church.
In Jesus’ name, Amen