We are pleased to begin a new partnership with Spectrum, a community of Christians of all denominations which encourages groups and individuals to explore the Christian faith in depth. Spectrum publishes an annual series of six study papers called Explore designed for their network of study groups, and which Theology Everywhere will be featuring every other month. This year six different authors offer studies in the Acts of the Apostles, all occasions when the Early Church seized opportunities which arose at the time. In the ‘new normal’ age which stretches before us what kind of responses will there be to the challenges which present themselves?
- Responding to Need. Acts 6.1-7
One of the aspects of the mission of the Church lies in reactions to situations which arise. Opportunity knocks and we have to respond in such a way that there are favourable outcomes whether in active service or growth in discipleship.
In our study passage a few years have elapsed since the Day of Pentecost. Significant growth has occurred in the Jerusalem Church such that internal tensions arose. One in particular was between Aramaic speaking Christian Jews, original citizens of Jerusalem, and Greek speaking Christian Jews, who were incomers. The latter, a composite group, comprising of proselytes converted to the way of Jesus (ref. perhaps the outcome of John 12.20f) and later settlers, possibly from among the 3,000 who responded to Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, which included people from Pontus, Phrygia and Crete. The Hellenist/Hebrew division was one carried over from Judaism into Christianity. Hellenists had their own synagogues where the Greek language was used.
Now, when all should be one in Christ Jesus, the Greek speaking Jewish Christians, particularly their needy widows, complained that they were being discriminated against in the daily provision of meals and cash handouts. It appears that the principle of ‘all things in common’ (Acts 2.44) was under considerable strain.
In order to resolve the dispute the apostles handed over the decision making to the whole congregation, which, after due deliberation, nominated seven men to administer the aforesaid charitable activities. This would leave the apostles free to continue their work of leading prayers and preaching the good news. Naturally they agreed with the suggested names and prayed over each one with the laying on of hands.
The qualifications required for the work are interesting. The men had to be full of the Holy Spirit, presumably manifesting its gifts and fruits, chiefly love; full of wisdom, possessing that kind of common sense which relates to the art of living; and full of faith, the kind of trust in Christ which showed that they were living His Way. If the church asked “Are they any good with money?” it does not say.
The men chosen were, diplomatically, all Greek speakers as their names suggest. We only ever hear of Stephen and Philip again, although it is suggested the Nicholaus may have become leader of a group of ‘heretics’, the Nicolaitans, in Ephesus (Rev.2.6). Stephen’s progress to martyrdom is well told (Acts 6.8 – 7.60) as is Philips work as an evangelist (Acts 8.4-8, 28-40; 21.8).
There is no suggestion here that the ‘ordination’ is anything other than to a local responsibility. The laying on of hands was a symbolic ceremony confirming the gift of the Spirit for a particular task not an induction into an ecclesiastical hierarchy. The outcome of these appointments was to encourage the apostles in their preaching ministry. Church growth ensued including the conversion of some low level priests.
Historically the development of a Diaconate occurred with the emergence of the Church as an institution, and as a stage on the way to priesthood. In Methodism the Diaconate is an Order open to both women and men the role of a deacon being very much that of community service and pastoral care. David Clark in his book Diaconal Church: Beyond the Mould of Christendom (Epworth 2007) argues that the concept of the Diaconal Church is one that could liberate the laity. The idea of being a Servant Church after the pattern of Christ Himself is Kingdom based and community orientated and the only valid pattern for mission, especially one that is based upon the response to human needs.
The ideal of service to others is, of course, not confined to the Church as is forcibly evidenced by the selfless actions of so many during the coronavirus emergency, professionally, vocationally and voluntarily. The value of their work has been immensely recognised and appreciated as never before.
Several questions arise out of this passage –
- Consider experiences of conflict resolution and their outcomes and of responses to situations which have arisen. How should the Church respond post the coronavirus epidemic?
- Were the apostles right not to undertake the more ‘menial’ tasks? Is it the Methodist tradition to ‘let ministers be ministers’? How easy does this prove to be?
- Is our definition of ordination too strict?
- How may the ‘Diaconal Church’ become a reality?
- What qualifications do we look for in those who take on responsibility in the local church?