Since Easter, each day, we have been reading from the book of Acts. I have said before that it is called the book of Acts, or Actions, not the book of sitting around waiting for something to happen. Acts is a wonderful book on how the early church was organized and many of the principles outlined are very applicable to the Church today.
This week the focus was on the sixth chapter and the first seven verses.
IN THOSE DAYS, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “it is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may 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 multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochoros, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaos, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them. And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.
In the Jewish-Christian Community in Jerusalem there were two distinct groups of people. There were the Aramaic speaking Jews from Jerusalem and Palestine. These were the descendants of the ancestral inhabitants of the land and prided themselves that there was no foreign mixture in their lives. Then there were the Jews from other places in the world who had been away from Palestine for generations and had forgotten their Hebrew and only spoke Greek. These are the two groups we see in the story today.
It appears that the Aramaic speaking Jews looked down upon their Greek-speaking brothers and sisters, and this was affecting the distribution of alms to the needy and so a conflict arose in the Church. The Jews had a great sense of responsibility for the less fortunate among them and had a program to assist them in their need.
The custom was for two collectors to be sent out from the synagogue on Friday to the markets and private homes to take up a collection for goods, but mostly money, to assist those less fortunate in the community. Later the goods collected would be distributed. Those who were temporarily in need received enough to support themselves temporarily, and those permanently unable to support themselves would receive enough for fourteen meals or two per day. It is clear from this pericope that the Christian Church (if it can be called that) had taken over this process.
The twelve (that would be the Apostles) gathered the entire community together and said that their role was the Word of God and that they could not leave that responsibility to serve at table. At first glance, this looks a little uppity if you are it makes sense, the minister cannot do everything and do it well. There need to be clear lines of responsibility in the Church. So they asked the community to select from among themselves “seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty” The community did as directed and thus was born the ministry of the deacon, service.
What is important to recognize is that although the numbers were increasing every day since this conflict had arisen this had slowed down. Conflict in a community is deadly for the spiritual health and growth of that community. Once the deacons were appointed and began their ministry “the word of God increased, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem.” Once the ministry was established, and clear lines of responsibility were drawn, the Church began to function well, and people were attracted to the message of the Apostles.
Dealing with conflict when it arises is never easy, and it took the leadership, the Apostles, to resolve the conflict and by all accounts they did it with love and understanding. The need was identified, and a solution was created to fill that need and then the Church grew. It seems that is the solution to many issues in the Church today. Leadership needs to lead!