1 Now in these 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. 2 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. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 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. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 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
Pain is part of life, and usually not the good part. But the good part of pain is it proves you are alive, identifies a problem, and with the right solution can lead to a better, stronger, body.
The church is the body the body of Christ, and like any other body it often experiences pain. Even in infancy, the church had already experienced the pain of persecution from the Jewish authorities, the pain of corruption from dishonest members, and now the pain of dissension between the “Hellenists” and “Hebrews.”
If you ask someone today, “What’s the problem?,” the answer that all-too-often comes back is “racism.” Today we see race in everything, when we’re not supposed to see race in anything, and therein lies the problem. Even the pure, primitive church had to pivot at this point and pry open this powder keg of prejudice.
All of the first Christians were Jews, but they were two kinds of Jews, “Hellenists” and “Hebrews,” prone to be prejudiced against one another. The “Hellenists” spoke Greek and Latin and came from cultures outside of Israel. The “Hebrews” spoke Hebrew and Aramaic and came from Judea and Galilee. The Lord had brought them together, now something was trying to tear them apart.
At the last Passover they witnessed the demise of Jesus Christ, but seven weeks later at Pentecost they became convinced He was alive. They became His followers, by grace through faith in the apostolic preaching of the gospel, aided by the gift of tongues. In the aftermath they were all together in Jerusalem, thousands of them. They were shunned by regulative Roman and religious Jewish societies, and now had to figure out how to survive as newborn Christians. One of their first questions, which is always one of mine, is “When do we eat?”
The first church was not communist but it was a commune, by necessity. Apparently the “Hebrew” Christians, since they were playing on their home field, were not properly sharing the ball, or rather the food supply, with the “Hellenist” Christians. A complaint was lodged, with a hint of cultural racism implied, and the painful problem was put at the Apostles’ feet.
It was not a theological problem, but churches seldom split over theological problems. It was not an authoritarian problem, for the Apostles were clearly in charge and no one was trying to usurp them, yet, for it would take a while for Christians to learn how to fight over who is in charge. It was not, in spite of what I’ve said heretofore, primarily a racial or cultural problem, even though a line was clearly drawn in that sand. This was a growing problem, or the problem of the sudden and rapid growth of the church. Call it growing pains, if you will.
A former White House official was famous for saying, “Never waste a crisis.” Their mischievous goal was to expand the power and reach of government. God’s goal in this crisis was to fully and simply organize His church. The two New Testament offices come clearly into view for the first time, and this model serves as the biblical standard for church administration until Jesus Christ comes again.
First, “the twelve,” or the Apostles, transitioned themselves into the Pastors (Shepherds), or Elders (Presbyters), or Overseers (Bishops) of the church. The job description they gave themselves serves as the standard for all subsequent servant leaders of Christ’s church: “We will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.” Out of the abundance of time spent in prayer and Bible study, Pastors preach the word, provide biblical guidance and counsel, and minister grace to the members of the church. If a Pastor is not spending the vast majority of his time in these endeavors, he, or the church responsible, is wasting his time.
Going forward in Acts and into good church history, the right employment of Pastors and Elders find them always in plurality. They are mixed between vocational, bi-vocational, and non-vocational men. Under the Headship of Jesus Christ, governed by Holy Scripture, and tempered by congregational assent (which we will look at later), they are the only human leaders in the church.
The second office that originates from the growing pains of the early church is the position of Deacon. The title actually appears in verb form in the text, “serve.” Deacons are not to be leaders, but leading servants of the church, providing special care to the hungry, or hurting, or otherwise physically needy members of the church.
When they stick to their job description, Deacons are problem solvers, as we see in this text. When they don’t, they are problem makers, as they are in most Southern Baptist churches. One historically SBC institution, Wake Forest University, even has for its mascot the “Demon Deacon.” Sadly, I have met him in former churches. At least Deacons who usurp the biblical authority of Pastors and Elders don’t have to worry about growing pains, for their churches are stagnant and dying all across the land.
Finally, as general members of the congregation, you may ask, “What’s in it for me?” The answer is, everything. You, too, are charged by God with the task of prayer, the study of God’s word, the proclamation of the gospel, and the care for souls. You, too, should seek to minister to your fellow church members suffering from age, illness, or want. And you, not your Pastors and Elders and Deacons, have the final human say in what goes on in your local assembly of Christ’s church.
Congregational government begins in response to the growing pains of the first church. The church at large got to “pick out from among you” the men who served under the Apostles/Pastors as the first Deacons. Baptists rejoice, for here we find the church voting (or some semblance of ballot casting). Since then, every local church ought to have the authority to choose its officers, admit others to the congregation or exclude unfit members, and have a voice and a vote on any matter of importance.
What balance! What beauty! What bonehead would want to mess with such a spiritual and simple plan for the organization of a church? When held in charity and unity in a free and growing environment, a church properly organized can expect growing pains to be about the only pain to be experienced.
It is amazing what happens when a church does God’s will, God’s way, according to God’s word. “The word of God continued to increase, and the number of disciples multiple greatly.” Even hard knots, like Sadducee priests, were saved.
Other problems and pains would arise in the early church, as they occur in every church. We are about to see the pain of persecution raise its ugly head in monstrous proportions, and the redemptive way in which God and Christ’s church handle it. But for now, let us learn the great lesson of proper church government.
The roles of Pastors or Elders, Deacons, and the congregation are not trivial matters. Their proper employment is vital to the balance, health, and success of the church. Souls hanging in the balance depend upon it. It’s God’s business, and He should have the final say on how it is run.
By the way, God’s business extends beyond church life. It also covers your personal life, your sexuality, your marriage and family, your money, your work ethic, what to do with your free time, for everything in a Christian’s life falls under the Lordship of Christ. So let us commit ourselves to this early church principle, to doing God’s will, God’s way, according to God’s word. Then, may all our pains be only growing pains.