A problem arises

Credit: ErgSap, Flickr via Creative Commons

Credit: ErgSap, Flickr via Creative Commons

A few weeks ago I started teaching a series on roles of leadership discussed in the New Testament. We are looking at the needs of the very early Christian church, ways those needs were met, and what we can learn about meeting the needs in our own faith communities today.

In Acts 6, the baby church runs into a problem. Initially the entire congregation was 120 people, living in Jerusalem a few months after Jesus ascended. During a major Jewish festival, with thousands and thousands of pilgrims in the city to celebrate at the Temple, the event known as Pentecost happened. Sourceless winds, tongues like fire floating over the disciples’ heads, people praising God in languages they had never learned. It was weird enough that a lot of people just thought they were drunk. Peter, one of the twelve guys who tagged along with Jesus, took the stage as fisherman-turned-megaevangelist, and at the end of his speech 3,000 people joined the church. Many of these new disciples were from all over the known world, but they hung around after the festival was over to join the new community.

Care for widows (who had no means of self-reliance), orphans, and the poor was generally handled by Temple or synagogue funds. As their numbers grew, we see that system developing in the new community as people brought the extra they had, gave it to the twelve apostles, and it was redistributed to meet needs. It’s a beautiful system, really. Except when it isn’t.

A complaint came to the apostles on behalf of the Hellenistic widows, women who were outsiders. They spoke different languages from the native Jerusalemites, different practices and rules. The Hellenistic Jews had assimilated Greek culture into their lives, which would have been judged as unclean by the traditional Jews native to Israel. The needs of the outsiders, the foreigners, the “worldly” weren’t being met.

The problem was, the apostles were responsible for teaching and prayer and discipleship of the church. They were the ones who spent time with Jesus, received His teaching, witnessed His miracles. His final words to them were to baptize, teach, make disciples. Twelve guys, 3,000+ congregants. Now there was a serious need that required attention, and there was nothing in place to make a solution readily available. So they asked the congregation as a whole to elect seven men with three qualifications: a good reputation, full of the Spirit, and full of wisdom. These men would be responsible for resource allocation for the needy, a role typically filled by a head of household. This means they weren’t just looking for accountants, but spiritual leaders with specific abilities.

Interestingly, all seven names listed are Greek. It says that the entire congregation agreed with the election, which means that the native Jews approved of putting “their” widows in the hands of the injured party. Donald Miller wrote a post once about Desmond Tutu’s process for choosing leaders in the days after apartheid. Miller said this:

“When asked what sort of people Tutu wanted to serve with him, he answered he wanted victims, people who knew firsthand the atrocities of apartheid, those whose lives had been ripped open, who’d lost families and loved ones. But what he said next would change my life forever. Tutu said he did not just want the victims who had stayed victims, but he wanted victims who had forgiven the guilty, who had the moral character to give of themselves when they had every right to be angry and vindictive. These people, Tutu said, are the most capable to help others heal, because they have the education of empathy, they know what pain feels like, and can guide the bitter into forgiveness and strength, and the guilty into reconciliation. He called these people wounded healers.”

This is a beautiful thing, and I think it’s what we see in the process described in Acts 6.

Here’s what I took from studying Acts 6:1-8

  • Leading is about serving. Businesses, NPOs, universities, churches, governments could all benefit from recognizing that leaders are those who serve the people around them, both those working in the organization and those the organization deals with outside its doors.
  • Don’t neglect the important for the urgent. This is something I learned a long time ago from people much smarter than myself. We have to take the time to determine what is important to us, prioritize those things, and allow the urgent to fall in where it can. Some things won’t get done. That’s okay. No one wants to come to the end of their lives realizing they spent all their days putting out fires and never engaged what mattered most.
  • Character matters. Can you think of anyone in your life with a good reputation, full of the spirit, and full of wisdom? You should probably hang out with that person more. What kind of person do you strive to be? Do these things make the list?
  • Grace abounds. Forgiveness, trust, vulnerability, risk. All those power words are all that matter. How are we at taking care of those around us? What do I have to offer someone around me in need? Compassion can be as valuable as a meal, and no one in the Church or her communities should ever go hungry for either.
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