Theology

Justice is a gospel issue: Precedents for ecclesiology and polity in Acts 6:2

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”. (Acts 6:2)

In Acts 6:1 the immigrant believers complained that the local believers were neglecting the needy amongst them. First, we must note that the complaint was not only heard, which is an important indication that demonstrates the apostles’ receptive handling of the complaint, it was acted upon. Specifically, they called a meeting of all the believers. The King James says “the multitude”.

“And the twelve…” called the meeting. Not a single head or spokesperson. The 12 together, which signifies a kind of team leadership. While the role of the corporate leadership of the apostles in the first few chapters is thus far presbyterian in its polity – with the leadership of the group large falling the plurality of apostles – here it takes on a distinctly congregational dimension, with all being invited.

And as far as the complaint is concerned, far from invalidating it as challenging their authority or undermining a culture of honour, as some contemporary apostles may suggest, on this occasion, even though such an approach is likely to have made life feel difficult for apostles, they chose to publically address both the complaint and the need. Keener points out that it was a particular rather than necessarily normative need, but it was a need nonetheless.

Both the hearing and the action, validate the point of view of the immigrant minority of returning Hellenist jews. People need to be heard. The natural human response is to contradict, but most often we can validate and empathise with how people feel and gain better connection, which facilitates greater influence and mutual understanding. This does not mean we don’t address the underlying issue. On the contrary, connection builds the necessary bridge for making such a confrontation a positive experience for all involved.

However, the apostles were also clear about their priorities saying “it is not right that we should give up preaching…”, in the context of this team leadership style this shouldn’t be read and autocratic, but rather about focusing on corporate vision. Furthermore, validating the need and complaint and need while also retaining the wider corporate vision is a great example of an assertive communication style (“your needs are important and our needs are important”). They listened to the complaint, validated through action and kept focused on the vision.

“it is not right” – Nevertheless, the Jamieson, Faussett and Brown commentary points out that the phrase means “we cannot submit” to de-prioritising and even giving up preaching the word in order to do practical service. In other words, practical acts alone devoid of spiritual basis are as worthless as spirituality without corresponding practical acts of love and kindness.

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