Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’ What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
Sadly there’s nothing new in experiencing the Church as something less than one big happy family. Here we see believers who in the early flush of faith had all things in common falling into factionalism. Maybe the sharing of resources that first marked their life together had led some individuals into poverty, and now they had a sense that their own group were not being treated fairly. Study Church history, and you have the sense that the great causes of division over the ages have been theological and ecclesiological; but pick up an honest history of some local congregation, and you discover conflicts of a very different order.
How we deal with conflict in the local church is a real test for us all: do we face it, or do we pretend it is not there and ignore it? The Jerusalem congregation has strong leadership, and the twelve have a positive proposal to put to them. The way forward is going to be to develop local leadership – but that is only going to work if those who are chosen are then ready to develop and play a full part in this new ministry within the church.
But just what form this ministry will take is yet to be made clear. There’s something a bit uncomfortable about the implication that devoting oneself to prayer is somehow superior to a ministry of waiting at tables: didn’t Jesus come among us as one who serves? But we’d be missing the point if we thought that these seven appointed men are proto-deacons, or indeed if we thought any of these passages provide a clear pattern for later developments of ministries and orders. Stephen is never going to be remembered as an organiser, whatever might have been in the minds of those who appointed him. Once we allow the Holy Spirit a part in resolving our differences and guiding our futures, we can forget about the neat and tidy solutions we might have been planning.
Everyday God through the hurts and quarrels and frustrations that still mark the life of your church keep us faithful to you. And through the quiet influence of your Spirit may we find new and better ways of journeying together.
The Rev’d John Durell is a retired minister in Northern Synod.