So what was the result of the validation, engagement and empowerment strategy of the Apostolic team leadership?
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 6:7)
The rest of the chapter and Acts 7 deals with a specific example that is so laden with wisdom that it deserves a series of its own, but suffice it to say: “the number of the disciples multiplied greatly” and even those that were persecuting the early church “became obedient to the faith”.
So what can we learn from Acts 6:1-7, with a view to reviving our church leadership and governance structures?
Firstly, friction happens. Conflict arises. Life makes mess. We shouldn’t be surprised and we don’t have to see such mess as a personal failure. In general we should take conflict as an opportunity for growth. In the particular context of Acts 6, the overtones of racial prejudice resonate with our contemporary context and so also present tools that will help us grow together. What’s most important is how we deal with it. With this in mind, here’s a summary of the Acts 6 series, highlighting the key points:
- v1 – It was also a time of political and cultural conflicts – so, not too dissimilar to our own. The complaint at the centre of the verse arose amongst the “Hellenists”. The reason for the complaint? Because the Hellenists believed the Hebrew were neglecting their widows in the daily distribution of necessities. Why might this be the case? To me, it is strongly reminiscent of the Westerners in the US and UK (who are, of course, all descended from one kind of immigrant or another) complaining about (often Christian or subsequently converted) immigrants draining social security resources. In other words, the Hebrews didn’t want the Hellenists clogging up their nascent welfare system.
- v2 – Was the Apostles’ response a call to their own authority, an appeal to law and order to instruction for those without food to take more responsibility? No, “The twelve summoned the full number of the disciples,” the Amplified says the “multitude” of disciples. In other words, the Apostolic leadership team operated as a group, summoned the wider body, listened patiently to the complaint, validated the testimony of the oppressed minority and sought representative ways of addressing the issue. In so doing, they set clear precedents for understanding our ecclesiology and for church polity.
- v3 – The result was empowered problem solving and a proto-deacon selection process. The process of delegation followed the wisdom of Jethro, as practiced by Moses but also went much further. Appointing teams of seven leaders was common in synagogues of the day (this would have been familiar to the congregation, which was largely made up of Hebrew and Hellenistic Jews), but the apostles also empowered the multitude to “pick out from among you”. They were commissioned to choose themselves from amongst themselves. This was probably done by voting as it was in the Synagogues of the day and in Acts 14:23. The outcome? As far as biblical models of leadership are concerned what the text reveals isn’t 100% apostolic or 100% presbyterian or 100% congregational. Rather – as Chapter 6 demonstrates – it was clearly a flexible and flowing combination.
- v4 – This was possible because of pre-existent culture of 360 honour and mutual submission. In Acts 6, certain groups were being dishonoured so the apostles decided to empower a team to ensure that they were properly treated.
- v5 – Specifically, the selected team was made up of members of the minority in act of what might be called affirmed action if it happened today.
- v6 – Then the apostles collectively laid hands on them and commissioned them, validating both the criteria given and the decision of the people. Again, plural leadership as well as corporate involvement.
- v7 – And, as we have seen, the outcomes were miraculous and transformational.
People often emphasise the spiritual dimension of the passage – the apostles’ laudable commitment to prayer and the word. However, such results weren’t yielded in a vacuum. Leadership and conflict lessons must also be learned from the example of Acts 6. Transfer all this into the specific context of Acts 6’s ethnic tensions and the resulted salvations, and it is clear that that orthodoxy and orthopraxy are inextricably linked. Or, in other words, justice is a gospel issue.