When a certain Dallas church decided to split, each faction filed a lawsuit to claim ownership over the church property. The judge finally referred the matter to higher authorities in that particular denomination and a church court assembled to hear both sides of the case and awarded the property to one of those two factions. The losers withdrew and formed another church in the area. During the hearing the church courts learned that the conflict had all begun at a church dinner when a certain elder received a smaller slice of ham than a child that was seated next to him. Sadly, this was reported in the Dallas newspapers and you can imagine how the people of Dallas, particularly the enemies of the cross, laughed about this situation, bringing great discredit not only to the church, but to Jesus Christ.
Sometimes the smallest of problems can bring about disastrous results.
From our study in the first five chapters of the Book of Acts we have learned that Satan actively works to destroy Jesus’ church. He first attacked the church through physical persecution and he continues to use this strategy against many of our dear brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world. The Bible instructs us, who worship in safety, “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners and those who are mistreated as if you, yourselves, were suffering.” It is important for us to remember the suffering church.
Satan’s second strategy was to attack the church through moral corruption; “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6, NASB), and Ananias and Sapphira’s lives threatened to poison the church from within.
In our study of Acts 6, we learn of the third strategy of Satan employs to destroy Jesus’ church and that is through internal conflict. Here internal conflict threatens to divide the church in two and leave her lifeless. Satan seeks to disrupt that wonderful inward peace that God’s Spirit brings, that exuberant joy that fills the church, and thankfully the spiritual leaders in this early church acted wisely and with grace to maintain this wonderful unity in the Spirit, and Satan was unsuccessful in his attempt. I wish I could say that Satan has always failed when he assaults the church with this particular scheme, but sadly, countless works of God have been destroy in this very way. This is given to us for our instruction and for our warning.
Acts 6 describes for us the delicate unity of Jesus’ church and how this unity can be threatened, and more importantly, it describes for us how we can work to maintain unity in such circumstances.
The burden of spiritual unity in the church lays at the feet of every believer, but particularly at the feet of spiritual leaders. I have never observed a church split or divide when the leaders have united together to be led by God’s Spirit. Unfortunately, this attitude among church leaders is often rare when conflict breaks out.
There are five principles for spiritual leadership in the church. The first principle is to listen to complaints. The second is to change the organization when it is helpful. The third is to prioritize the Word in prayer. The fourth is to share the ministry with the flock. The fifth is to appoint spiritually mature leaders.
We begin with the first principle: to listen. It is vital for spiritual leaders to listen to the complaints and criticisms of others. This is not always easy and we read that in the first verse:
1In those days when the number of disciples was increasing…
The early church was growing in every way and we have seen that in our study. In Acts 2:41, we read,
Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
This is explosive growth, and in Verse 47, we read,
And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
In Chapter 4, Verse 4:
4But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.
It is not that women and children are unimportant, that is the way they kept records in that day so 10,000 or more people were a part of this church.
Then, in Chapter 5, Verse 14, we read,
Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.
It is very likely that by the time we come to Acts 6, there are over 20,000 people that are a part of this church and this church is full of life, wonders, the Holy Spirit, power, praise, and joy – all of these things. We might assume that in such a church there would be no problems, certainly no complaining and murmuring. That is wrong! Sometimes the greatest danger in the life of a church is when it is growing and it is being blessed by God. Growing pains can be just that: they can be pains. They can bring about pains and that is what happens in Acts 6.
“In those days when then number of disciples was increasing,”
then the problem is described for us. It is important to understand the cultural context to understand the principles that are laid out for us. Verse 1 continues:
the Grecian Jews (the Hellenistic Jews) among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows (the Grecian widows) were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.
Their cultural context is that in Jerusalem many languages were spoken. We observed that in Acts 2. There were two dominant languages: the Aramaic, a form of classical Hebrew that was the dominant language of the people of Israel – that was the native language of those who were “born and raised” in those parts; then there was a minority, and not a small minority, of Jewish people who lived near Jerusalem who spoke “the language of the day” – Greek. Perhaps some of those had been born and raised in other parts of the Roman Empire and had moved to Jerusalem, the land of their heritage and ancestry, because they wanted to be able to die there. This may have been older people that had come to Jerusalem who spoke Greek. We don’t know all of the reasons why people migrated, but the fact was that there were these two Jewish groups of people who spoke in their native tongue which were different languages. That created a problem in the culture.
In fact, the Pharisees considered these Grecian Jews as second-class citizens. These Grecian Jews were not received well in the land. They were thought of as “outsiders”. They were the kind of people who talked funny, who ate funny kings of food, and who enjoyed funny kinds of music. They just didn’t seem to fit in with the culture; they weren’t born and raised here so, as a result, the differences created an invisible wall between the two in the culture. Now we have people coming to know Jesus Christ, the Great Unifier, who makes even Jews and Gentiles into one.
The Old Testament Law required that the community take care of widows and orphans and every pious Jew understood this. Not always, in Israel’s history did they practice the taking care of the widows and orphans. In fact, many of the Minor Prophets, in particular, chastened the people of the day for neglecting the care of widows and orphans, but every pious Jew understood that this was to be done.
Now the church, as it is being formed, understands that it has a responsibility that this work cannot be left to “outsiders” who are outside the faith in Jesus, to the temple authorities, but that they needed to take care of their own – those who are gathered in the church, and that is exactly what they were doing. During the process of distributing food the Greek speaking widows were being overlooked in some way, or at least they “thought” they were being overlooked. The Scripture does not tell us if this complaint had real legitimacy to it; it only tells us that a complaint arose and that is what really mattered. There was a problem, whether it was real or imagined, it was a problem that had the potential of dividing and splitting the church in two, tearing it in half.
Graciously, the apostles listened to the complaints and the criticism and they responded to it. Undoubtedly, these apostles were some of those whom the complaints were laid against and they were being faulted in this.
When pastors and church leaders stop listening to criticisms and complaints they open the doors to division.
What else might the apostles have done in such a situation? They could have done dozens of things. They could have exercised church discipline against these complainers, “Don’t you know that we are the apostles, we are God’s anointed? How dare you challenge our authority and our wisdom? Out the church you go!” That is an extreme measure, but some churches practice that against those who criticize and complain.
They could have ignored the complainers by saying, “We gotcha,” and then turned a deaf ear and allowed the problem to fester, hoping that maybe it would go away, and perhaps that the people who were complaining would just leave.
The apostles could have organized a forum to “dialogue” about this. That is the favorite of the modern-day church: “Let’s talk about this. We ultimately don’t have to do anything about it, but it is wonderful that we all will feel good about coming together and talking about the problem.” They didn’t do that either. They listened and they acted. They recognized that it was their responsibility to act as God’s steward over the church.
As an aside, it is vital that we learn to listen to minority groups in the church today and to respond to complaints in a Godly way. The church is not to be a place where the majority rules. That is an American ethic and it is an American value: majority rules; let’s vote and get it over with.
Do you know who rules in the church of Jesus? Jesus does and it is vital that the church learn to listen to the minority, whether that minority is an ethnic minority, or age, or however it might be divided. It is vital that we don’t take the attitude: “We are the majority so we are going to keep things the way they are.”
Before we move on I want to give a word to complainers: some have raised complaining to the level of a spiritual gift. Indeed, complaining is appropriate in some situations where God is not being honored, where the Word of God is not being lifted up, or where Jesus is not being glorified. Please know that Satan loves to breed divisions through a critical spirit. It is not a spiritual gift to complain or to criticize. It is not necessarily a mark of great discernment. We can’t use comments when Satan does not succeed in stopping the church in the frontal assault and the attacks from within. This usually happens subtly: an invitation not send; a job unnoticed; a critical comment overheard; jealousy over something that does not really matter. When the murmuring begins, the Devil smiles.
I think it is worthwhile to relate this story to you. One hot day a family traveling down the highway between Johnstown and Jamestown stopped at farmer Jones’ place to ask for a drink of water and he gladly gave it to them. “Where are you headed?” “We are moving from Johnstown to Jamestown to live,” they told him. Then they asked, “Can you tell us what the people are like there?” The farmer asked, “Well, what are the people like where you are from?” They said, “Oh, they are rather selfish people. They are not kind at all. They are gossipy and indifferent. We are really glad to move away.” The farmer shook his head and said, “Well, I am sorry to tell you, but Jamestown will be exactly like the people in your former city.” Not long after, another family was moving from another town to Jamestown and they happened by farmer Jones’ place and they came in also for a drink of water and they asked the same question, “Can you tell me what the people are like in Jamestown?” The farmer replied, “What were the people like in the town where you came from?” They said, “Oh, they are wonderful people. They are kind and generous and loving.” Farmer Jones smiled and said, “Happily, you will find the people of Jamestown just as you found the people from your hometown.”
The issue is not the people. It is often we who bring the problem.
The second principle is: change the organization when helpful.
I almost said, “Change the organization when necessary,” but that is not quite right. There is nothing sacred or immutable about structures and organizations within the church, and yet such change is almost always resisted. Notice the radical change that was brought on in this passage, in Verse 2 through 4:
2So 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. 3Brothers, 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 4and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
They were willing to change the organization and invest this ministry into the lives of other people in the church. Extra-biblical sources note that this action taken by the apostles caused no little stir. In fact, there was one by the name of Megephis who publicly uttered that now famous phrase, “But we have never done it that way before!” there are a lot of Megephis’ in the church, aren’t there?
In the time of great ministry effectiveness the climate of spiritual lethargy can grow and we can stop asking, “How can we become more effective in the presentation of the Gospel to this world and making disciples in the church. Instead, we simply ask the question, “Why should we change now, everything in going great.” Why should they change? They were growing in leaps and bounds. Why change now?
The truth is, growth in the church can cause big problems. The good news is that these problems offer great opportunities for the church to examine ministries and discover helpful changes. These problems also create great opportunities to exercise faith; we need to lean on God and listen to God afresh, not to what God said forty years ago or twenty years ago or ten years ago. We need to listen to God and what He is saying to His church today through His Word and by His Spirit. We need to exercise faith; believing that God leads us. It also provides us opportunities to submit to one another; that it is a good thing to humble ourselves before one another and submit to each other.
The apostles suggested a major change in the way the church is organized and all the members agreed to it! They agreed that it seemed like a good thing and seemed right to them. They radically changed the organization of the church.
From the beginning the church was not afraid to change structure in order to address ministry needs. It is tragic when churches are willing to destroy a ministry in order to maintain programs.
The third principle is: prioritize the ministry of the Word in prayer. I think this is the heart of the story and the central truth that is being taught in Acts 6. This is true as a priority of every person in their personal life, but it is especially true for the life of the church as a whole and it is especially true for the spiritual leaders to attend to.
That is the reason why they said,
“It would not be right for us…”
They didn’t say that it wouldn’t be advisable or helpful or wise. They said it would not be right. They put this decision on the level of a moral obligation before God; that God had given them a stewardship, a sacred trust, to minister His precious Word, a Word that brings life to people, and they said it wouldn’t be “right”, it would be wrong, it would be a sin to do this.
Would it be a sin for them to take food over to a dear, elderly, women’s house? That is right! It would be a sin to do that because if they did that they would have to neglect something more important for the life of the church and, ultimately, for the lives of these dear, elderly widows. The widows, if they had to make a choice between receiving spiritual food and physical food, what did they need more. They needed spiritual food that would give them life, not just here in this temporary world, but they needed spiritual food in the Word of God that would give them life eternally.
This is a warning to the pastors and elders in the church to stay focused and keep the main things the main things. What are the main things of the church? It is the ministry of the Word. I confess that I am constantly fighting this temptation as a pastor, and I believe almost every pastor today, and lay elders, are. We are pulled to help with the organization of ministry. We are drawn to cast a vision for ministry, to oversee people functioning on a staff of ministry, for showing up at committee meetings for future planning for ministry growth, for attending personally to the sick and the shut-in, and to helping those in a financial need. How can a person say, “No,” to any of these vital needs, and they are all important needs? The only way they can say, “No,” is if they understand how vital and necessary the main artery of the church is the ministry of the Word and prayer.
This ministry of “waiting on tables,” as it is called here, is for the daily distribution of food, as it says in the NIV. The word “tables” can be the reference to the distribution of food, but it also can be a table that a money changer uses to make financial transactions. I think this is referencing both of those things; the ministry of helping those like widows and orphans and those who are out of work and the poor, but also the everyday financial ministries, not only ministries of mercy, but the financial dealings of the church. The word to spiritual leaders is: don’t be distracted by these things. These things are very vital and very important, but the Message of the Word of God must be first in the priority of spiritual leaders in the church.
The ministry of prayer and the Word requires a total commitment from spiritual leaders. It requires work and hard labor and study and meditation and a focused intercession for the people. This ministry cannot be done on the fly. A pastor ought not get into the pulpit, unprepared, without having labored in the Word prior. The first business of the church is the ministry of the Word.
There is a statement in the Old Testament that is very interesting. It warns a nation, though the prophet Amos (Amos 8:11, NASB),
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD, “When I will send a famine on the land, Not a famine for bread or a thirst for water, But rather (a famine) for hearing the words of the LORD.
This would be God’s judgment. It would be the harshest thing that could come. It is the final calamity because if you don’t hear the Word of God you have nothing left – no hope, no comfort, and no foundation. A famine of hearing the Words of the Lord is much worse than starving from the lack of food. The great, supreme need is to hear the Word of God and that is the reason why the greatest thing a church can do is to offer the Word. Paul will say to Timothy (2 Timothy 4:2, NIV),
Preach the Word…in season and out of season…
Why is that so vital? It is because it is the Word of God. It tells us about God and we relate rightly to God. That is the very purpose for which we were created.
Fourthly, spiritual leaders are called to share the ministry with the flock. This assumes that the flock is willing to have the ministry shared with them. This is exactly what the apostles did in Verses 3 and following (NIV):
3Brothers, 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 4and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
5This 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. 6They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
The apostles gladly shared ministry with others in the church. This is vital in the church. D.L. Moody would say: “It is better to put ten men to work than do the work of ten men.” Why is that true? It is better for the person who is giving the work over and it is better for the ten men and it is better for the whole church. It is much better to delegate and to divide responsibilities and to share ministry. This is absolutely for the right functioning and the healthy functioning to the church as a whole. God has given each member spiritual gifts for the purpose of doing a spiritual work, and it is vital that spiritual leaders are attentive about sharing the ministry; even important, vital parts of ministry, even as these seven were given.
It is very tempting not to do this. It is very tempting to try to do all the ministry that you possibly can on your own and then, if you absolutely have to, yield a little bit of the corner of the ministry over. Why is it tempting? A person may say, “I don’t want to appear as though I am somehow above a certain kind of work. I am not above waiting on tables or distributing food.” That is not the issue. The issue is one of “calling”. Ephesians 4:11 (NIV) tells us that it was God
…who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers…
Why were these given? It was to equip, to prepare the people in the church to do the work of the ministry. That is why spiritual leaders are placed and given to the church. Others may say, “If I don’t do it, things aren’t going to happen the right way. The decisions that need to be made are not going to be made and no one can really do the job the way I can.” Very few people will actually say that but that is often what we think and so we resist sharing ministry wondering whether others will do it as effectively as we can. That is just prideful and arrogant.
Another reason why it is difficult to share in ministry is because you know what ministry does, and this is one of the things I want to encourage you in ministry. If you are not involved in ministering in some way in the church of Jesus Christ, you are missing out on a great deal of joy. There is a tremendous of joy that comes from ministering and no one ministers without receiving back from God great blessings, but also receiving back from other people a love and concern and friendship; “I know that the moment I stop distributing food to this group of widows, or all the widows, those widows who used to think of me as the greatest pastor on earth are going to think that someone else is the greatest minister and spiritual servant of Christ.” That is hard to let go of that, but we have to share ministries so that all the body of Christ can receive the joy that God intends so that God will be glorified in it.
Finally, we only appoint spiritually mature leaders. This is so vital; not just a warm body or somebody who happens to have attended faithfully for seven or eight years. What is a spiritually mature leader? Verse 3 (NIV) tells us:
…choose…men from among you who are…full of the Spirit and wisdom.
These men have to be spiritually mature. The apostles didn’t look for those who had great administrative skills and talents. They didn’t need to find men or women who are CEO’s of companies who have been involved in overseeing great projects. They didn’t need to have men or women of great means so that, as they were a part of the work, they could contribute to the work. Sadly, this is often the way that spiritual leaders are chosen for churches and spiritual organizations. We consider what they have done in the secular world and how many resources they have acquired so that they can help us.
There is nothing wrong, and there is everything right, about a person using their great resources. Praise God that He has some from within this church who have tremendous resources and are used mightily for His glory. There is nothing wrong with using people who have special talents in administration in business, and the like, but there is everything wrong with choosing spiritual leadership on that basis, and not, first and foremost, on the basis of Christ-likeness, with spiritual maturity, those who are full of God’s Spirit and full of wisdom.
Look at what happens in Verse 7 (NIV),
So the word of God spread.
This is what happens when spiritual leaders act rightly, lead well, and the people respond to spiritual leadership. God receives the glory. The Gospel is made known to people and,
The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly…
I don’t know how they described the increase prior, but here they said “rapidly”. The King James Version describes this, in Verse 1, as “the number of disciples multiplied.” Up to this point, he talked about how the Lord “added”. Now the number of disciples “multiplied”: the church was literally exploding with good growth.
Strong spiritual leadership will issue power witness to the world and when the Word of God spreads, good things happen. When the Word of God is neglected, spiritual disease sets into a church. That is why the ministry of the Word is so vital.
There is always a great danger for the church to get off center. We begin to focus upon the physical needs of the people verses the spiritual needs of the ministry of the Word.
In an earlier study, we looked the angel telling Peter and the other apostles, in Acts 5:20 (KJV), to:
20Go, stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life.
The angel is referring to this theme of the church has to be Word centered. Interestingly, after that sermon I went home, picked up the newspaper and looked in the religion section. There is this big article on the “Cowboy Way” and this cowboy church and how six or seven cowboy churches have been planted in the surrounding areas. There is going to be one coming to Peoria. I don’t know anymore about this church other than what was printed. Let me read to you a couple of lines from the associate pastor, Dave Woolrich. He describes the church this way: “Someone who doesn’t feel safe coming to regular church feels free and not pressured by any church doctrine in Cowboy Church.” Isn’t that a wonderful thing? He continues, “The only doctrine at the Ranch House Cowboy Church is to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’. It says so on a chalk board on the south wall above the pews.” That is the only point of doctrine that they are going to teach – love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 19:19, NIV).
Interestingly, also, I read a little section from Martin Lloyd Jones, a pastor who died in 1981, and who served throughout the middle part of the past century. Listen to what he writes: “We think we are clever. We must say we must start with the needs of people. We must start with one another. We must say that there is only one Commandment: love your neighbor as yourself. I remember once reading in the paper statement by the then Lord Provost of the City of Glasgow. A religious conference was being held in Glasgow and as they do these days, the organization invited this secular person to the opening meeting. As a way of honoring him, they asked him to speak, as if a man like that had anything to say at a religious conference.”
By-the-way, I have been to these conferences in the past few years. They haven’t stopped since Martin Lloyd Jones’ day.
Continuing, “That is the madness of which the church has become guilty. Those men are not to speak. They are to listen and they need to be preached to, but this foolish man stood up and said that he was an ordinary, plain man. They always are. He was a man who had no time for theology and dogma, doctrine and all that. He said, ‘I just want the church to tell me how I can love my neighbor as myself.’ He fit the modern view perfectly, did he not? He put the Second Commandment first and he did not mention the First Commandment.”
In your life, are you tending to the First Commandment? What is it? It is to love the Lord your God, with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and with all your strength. This is the Greatest Commandment and there is only one way to love the Lord your God, the only way to initiate that love, and that is by submitting your life to the Lordship of Jesus Christ; to recognize the Truth of what God says about His Son that He is King, that He is Lord, that He is God, and that you desperately need Him.
Are you loving the Lord your God with all your heart? If you do not have Jesus Christ as your Savior, I urge you, come to Jesus Christ and receive from Him everything your soul needs. Submit your life to Him, for you and I need God’s grace, we need His forgiveness, and we need His life.