I have often wondered about the passage in Acts where the apostles appoint seven leaders to specifically oversee the distribution of food for Christian widows. Does the argument being made here mean that our church leaders/teachers don’t have to bother with practical service? That teaching is more important than doing?
That certainly seems to be the approach taken by many Christian leaders/teachers, who do not incorporate feeding the hungry and washing the dirty as an essential part of their Christian ministry, nor teach such action to ministry trainees. Indeed the opposite can happen: when I’ve asked for volunteers for some form of community action, I’ve been told not to approach the ministry trainees and staff at a church because they need a break. They do need a break, but then I didn’t intend for my request to be seen as something that church workers did in their free time on top of ‘church’ work, but rather as something which the church incorporated into the work of its paid staff and trainees. A secondment, if you like, into a voluntary, community-oriented position for an hour or two a week, made possible by a reduction in some other area of work.
Admittedly, I don’t know what church staff do all week. If I had to guess, I would say they’re over-worked and that too much is expected of them. I don’t know how little time they have for theological study and sermon prep, and how much time is spent doing things to help congregation members, and how much is taken up with admin and decision-making and leading in the sense of running-a-business rather than of practical service. I just know that I don’t see church leaders leading by example when it comes to practical ministry for those in need, and I wonder how they expect congregation members to value this work when they don’t, or whether they even think about it at all.
But when they do think about it, there is a good justification in Acts when the Twelve say to the disciples, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Instead, brothers and sisters, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
That sounds like a great excuse! Not me, I can’t serve, I’m too important spending my time praying and teaching!
And yet – these are the people for whom their Master Jesus got down on his knees, stripped off his outer clothing and washed their feet. These are the people whose Teacher Jesus could have spent his entire ministry teaching, and could even have delayed his death by decades in order to teach more, but instead spent time healing and helping, and taught (and healed and helped) for only three years. These are the people whose Master Jesus told them to lead by serving. These are the people commanded to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, invite in the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned as proof of their belief in Jesus. They are explicitly told to do the very thing they now declare themselves to be too important to do!
So, I think, it cannot be that this passage means that church leaders/teachers are not also called, as all Christians are called, to serve in practical ways.
How then are we to understand this passage?
It is helpful, perhaps, to remember that whilst Jesus did not refrain from practical service to those in need, nor did he himself centre his ministry on that alone. He also spent time teaching, and ultimately dying for us. He spoke of needing to leave his healing ministry in one area in order to teach in another; he didn’t mention leaving a teaching ministry in that area in order to teach in another. IN some way, then, was Jesus’ teaching ministry more important than his practical ministry? But then, Jesus did not make preaching and teaching his sole ministry. He also spent time healing, driving out demons, sharing social time with friends and family and followers, withdrawing to spend time just with God, and commanding nature. And when Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is here, it is his practical ministry not his teaching ministry that he points to.
Jesus says that he came into this world to seek and save the lost, to serve, to lay down his life, and to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God (Luke 4:43). At times, that meant leaving one area in order to go and serve another. He explicitly said that he withdrew from healing in area A in order to teach in area B – but he did also then withdraw from teaching in Area B in order to go and teach and heal elsewhere; and he sent his disciples out to both heal and teach. And ultimately, Jesus left his entire teaching, preaching, healing, helping ministry after just three years in order to die for our salvation.
Jesus refrained from activity when it was not what he saw his Father doing, even when it was a good activity. Jesus did not heal everyone at the pool of Bethesda, but picked just one man. Jesus withdrew from one area, taking his healing as well as teaching with him, in order to speak and heal in another. Jesus let Lazarus die, knowing the pain to Lazarus and Mary and Martha as they waited in vain for the friend – close enough and able enough to help – to come and help. Jesus let John the Baptist die, his cousin and the person closest to Jesus in commitment to God. Jesus did not attempt to do everything and be everything to everyone.
Jesus also delegated. He sent out the twelve (Matt 10:1,5-15, Mark 6:7-13; Luke 9:1-6) and the 72 (Luke 10:1-17). He was able to give some tasks to other people in order to spread the workload and so get more done.
I wonder, therefore, whether the passage in Acts is more about delegation and appointing proper leaders to important tasks such as feeding the hungry, so that it does not get overlooked or forgotten. It is not that the Twelve should not do it because they were too important; but that this task was too important for it to be done by a handful of people who also did everything else. It was not pleasing that the Twelve should neglect the widows in order to teach; that had resulted in the very situation being complained about, and which now needed addressing. But nor was it appropriate for the teaching to be neglected. What was the solution? To create leadership roles, recognised and prioritised in the church, and to give them to godly people to ensure that this important work was done well – and that teaching was also done well.
The weakness of this argument is that the Twelve literally say that it is not pleasing that they ‘serve at tables’ - διακονεῖν/diakonein τραπέζαις/trapezais – as if it is not merely that they cannot take the time to organise and lead everything involved in such a work, but that they can’t even volunteer the time to do the lowliest, least important task for the shortest of times. On the other hand, the next sentence is the command to appoint men who may be “put in charge of this task”, as though the issue at stake is not the volunteers who turn up to do an hour or so at a time and then go away, their duty fully discharged, but rather that there needs to be people who do all the background organising and management and finding out who it is who is in need of food. It is that job, rather than the immediate serving of food or washing of feet, which the Twelve say they can’t do – and that seems appropriate, given the time it takes to properly organise charitable service on a large scale and the responsibility associated with it.
Perhaps the Twelve are saying that it is displeasing that they should have been drawn away from their appointed roles to oversee a dispute belonging to another role. Indeed, some commentators make comments along this line “It would have been happy for the church, had its ordinary ministers, in every age, taken the same care to act in concert with the people committed to their charge, which the apostles themselves, extraordinary as their office was, did on this and other occasions” (Benson Commentary). Or ““Every clergyman begins as a deacon. This is right. But he never ceases to be a deacon. The priest is a deacon still. The bishop is a deacon still. Christ came as a deacon, lived as a deacon, died as a deacon: μὴ διακονηθῆναι, ἀλλὰ διακονῆσαι” (Lightfoot, Ordination Sermons, p. 115). On the other hand, the Pulpit Commentary seems to be wrong when it says that “There are Christian laity to serve tables”, given that this passage appears to intend the appointment of a ‘clergy’ specifically for the task of managing the serving of tables.
Another possible interpretation is that the role of the Twelve was a distinct role relating to the laying down of doctrine for a new understanding of God, and so they had a special calling different from all other Christians. The calling extends to those people who were so closely associated with the Apostles that some of their writings entered the canon of the New Testament. The comment by the Twelve, therefore, signifies the importance of properly organising ministry to those in need and appointing good, godly leaders who may also be financially supported by the church – but it does not say that subsequent church leaders/teachers had no such role to play.
Personally, I am inclined to the view that a church leader is not necessarily the person who organises the practical ministry. For a start, each individual ministry needs its own leader. It would not have been pleasing for the leaders of the widows’ food ministry to become embroiled in the organisation of the ministry for making and distributing clothes, for example. That would have taken them away from their role – not because clothing the naked is unimportant relative to feeding widows, but that both are so important that they cannot be tacked onto another role. Each must have their own leaders. But having appointed a leader for a practical ministry or a teaching role, that does not stop the practical leaders from sharing their theological thoughts, or the teaching ministers from contributing their time to the practical work. Indeed, the church would be impoverished if those engaged in practical ministry never shared their learning, and those engaged in teaching never put it into practice. More than that - I think our leaders/teachers are spiritually impoverished when they do not regularly engage in acts of practical service to those in need.
I don’t know what it takes to run a church. So I also don’t know how much of a church leaders/teachers role is appropriate to them, and how much should be done by someone else. The Apostles said that they couldn’t lead the distribution of food to widows, because it would take away from their time teaching. But what else do we routinely expect our church leaders/teachers to do, which takes away from what they should be doing? Is it possible that they are doing things that take them away from a level of practical service that they should be doing? Are there aspects of leading a church which are different from teaching the congregation and training disciples, which needn’t actually be part of the responsibility of those whom we term our leaders?
There is a fable telling of a mother who took her young son to the local wise man, asking him to tell her son to do some chore or other that he was refusing to do. The wise man asked the lady to leave and come back in a week. When she returned with her son a week later, the wise man turned to the son and told him to do as his mother had said. Why did you not say this last week? asked the lady. Because, said the wise man, I cannot tell your son to do anything that I do not do myself.