As we prepare for our move to New York in June, I’ve been reading through Acts a chapter a week. (I did Luke’s Gospel in a similar slow-cooker fashion last year). This week I hit Acts 6, where the early Christians experience their first internal discord that we read about in Acts. Before this, their problems have largely been external persecution. I guess you could count the lies of Ananias and Sapphira as internal, but the Jerusalem church didn’t really have to make any decisions about that problem, other than how many people were needed to carry the bodies out.
But here we find that the Greek-speaking widows are being neglected in the church’s distribution of food. There were some cultural differences between the Jews who were more Hellenized and those who spoke Aramaic. And apparently, these cultural differences led to the Greek-speaking widows getting passed by in support.
The Twelve assemble the church and propose that a group of Spirit-filled, wise men be selected from the church who can be put in charge of the food and promote unity. This is done, and seven excellent men were chosen.
Some have critiqued the twelve apostles though as being part of the root of this problem. Rather than being involved in the ministry to people, they have isolated themselves in their rooms in devotion to “the Word of God and prayer.” They’re like a pastor who can’t meet with people because he has 40 hours in his sermon prep each week, locked away in his study. Acts 6:2, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.”, has been interpreted as a pompous elitism from bookish pastors with no heart for service.
Is this the case though? I don’t think so. Here are a few reasons why:
1) “The ministry of the Word” would have been very people-centered. In Acts so far, the phrase “the word of God” is primarily used as a summary for all the Christian teaching, specifically the Gospel announcement of Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah foretold in the Old Testament. So for them, “the ministry of the word” would have included their evangelistic activities in the temple courts (for which they have been imprisoned at various times). Acts 2 also tells us that the early church was devoted to the apostle’s teaching, meeting in various homes day by day. Now, the apostles did not have a written New Testament for these Christians to read. So for the early Christians to be so regularly encountering the apostles’ teaching in homes, the apostles themselves would have been present in the home! Imagine sitting in a house as Peter tells you of the final events of Jesus’ life (including his own denial) or as Bartholomew recounts the feeding of the 5000. “The ministry of the word” would have been a very personal and people-centered activity.
2) “The ministry of the Word” required a whole lot of work. We don’t know how much access the Twelve had to actual written copies of the Old Testament Scriptures. We do know that only the very wealthy had access to such things. For them to be studying the Old Testament scriptures to learn how better to present Jesus as its fulfillment would require them to memorize various texts beyond what they had learned in synagogue growing up. Whether this involved them reading scrolls provided by a wealthy Christian (perhaps one of the priests who converted- Acts 6:7) or quoting passages among themselves to memorize, we don’t know. And they wouldn’t have a scroll to quote from when they evangelized or taught in the houses. There would be work to memorize these things, especially as they were in Jerusalem where many literate and devout Jews could have refuted them for sloppy teaching. Thinking through the amount of work and study required to preach as they did should keep us from assuming they were too lazy for serving others.
3) Luke presents their statements as good things. He calls their work “the ministry (diakonos) of the word.” It is not as if food service is real ministry and Gospel proclamation is subpar, or vice versa. Both are essential ministries of the church, both for its internal unity and external witness. Luke also presents their statements as “pleasing to the whole church.” And to end the story, with the 7 taking over the food distribution and the Apostles focusing on the ministry of word and prayer, Luke reports that the converts multiplied. And many priests were converted at this time. Would the conversion of the priests be directly related to the increased focus of the Apostles on their Word ministry of evangelism and teaching? Either way, Luke wants us to know that this arrangement was a good thing.
I’ve written this post for two reasons. One, there are those who denigrate the evangelism and teaching ministry of the church as less important than “real” ministry like feeding people. Don’t do it! We need those devoted to the ministry of proclaiming the message of God into people’s lives. Two, there are those who would use this text to justify bookish avoidance of people and their problems. Don’t do that! Your teaching will only benefit from dealing with people each week. Encountering non-Christians will make you think about how you present things in a sermon to deal with actual objections people have to the Gospel; praying and counseling believers will force you to practice speaking God’s words into life situations. And both of these are what Acts calls “the ministry of the Word”, not just a pulpit ministry.