Church division is nothing new. The church had barely begun before church leaders faced a crisis:
Acts 6:1-7 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.
In first century culture, men married young. Women often outlived their husbands. Leaders in Jerusalem had established an early form of “welfare” to care for these widows. But there was a cultural problem. The “Hellenists” had embraced Greek culture and language, while the “Hebrews” had maintained their Jewish roots. Because of this division, the Hellenists thought that their widows weren’t getting a fair shake.
Today’s church is no stranger to complaints. The music is too loud. The music is too soft. The speaking is too deep. The speaking is too shallow. The toilet paper unspools in the wrong direction.
In today’s individualized society, preference trumps purpose. How often have you found yourself looking for a church that “satisfies your needs?” And these are hard expectations to live up to. Social scientist David Wells observes that the role of the church leader has shifted from “shepherd” to the dual roles of “manager” and “psychologist.” In short, pastors are expected to be all things to all men. The gospel takes a back seat to “crisis management.”
But the early church understood that it could never live up to this ideal. So they found a solution:
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.
Up until now, the church was a network of households. But the church was expanding. Social challenges had to be met. The choosing of the seven was the first step toward greater organization. The church would later call these men “deacons,” from a Greek word that refers to serving tables (see verse 2).
But these men were not chosen at random. The choosing of the seven represented a very specific strategy:
- Choosing Greeks: If you were living in that culture, you’d notice that all seven men had Greek names. The men chosen to address the problem understood the culture they were addressing. This was more than a “crisis management team.” This was a strategy for healing division.
- Focusing on the gospel: Did you notice the purpose behind the selection? Read verse 4 again: “But we [the disciples] will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.” The disciples would not permit a momentary crisis to overshadow their eternal purpose.
Focus on preference and you create a culture of consumers. Focus on purpose and you create a family of disciples. Today’s church is in need of leadership whose priority is the gospel. How can you pray for your church leadership?
- Spiritual strength. It’s not just easy to “coast” on your natural skills and ability—it’s deadly. A leader’s sense of value is often based on his last performance. Pray that your church leaders would not measure themselves based on others’ expectations, but be continually refreshed in their identity in Christ.
- Social support. It truly is “lonely at the top.” Leadership strains relationships, and pastors can suffer from feelings of woundedness and inadequacy. Pray that your leaders find support in friends and family.
- Skillful steering. Like the early church, leaders have to pick their battles. Pray that they have the wisdom to handle these crises, and maintain a clear focus on the gospel.
But above all, pray that leadership would be a continual source of joy. Our passage concludes with the results of these leadership choices:
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.