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.
It’s very easy to idealise the early Church communities. But here in Acts 6 we find tension between the Hellenists (predominantly Greek-speaking Diaspora immigrants), and Aramaic-speaking Hebrews.
The Hellenists complained that their widows were being neglected in the distribution of food. The unjust treatment of the widows, rooted in discrimination against them, isn’t Luke’s focus here. Instead, the evangelist offers a template for distinct but complementary ministerial roles.
The apostles’ response to the complaint demonstrates a healthy approach to handling conflict. Refreshingly, in our culture where accepting criticism is often viewed as weakness, we find the apostles tacitly acknowledging the injustice towards the Hellenist widows and seeking to correct it.
Recognising that the complaint is justified, the apostles are clear about their calling to ‘prayer and…serving the word.’ Their dedication to sharing the gospel means that they don’t have the capacity to be involved in the distribution of food. The suggestion that seven from the offended community should take on the practical task of serving food equitably is welcomed, and the seven are commissioned with prayer and the laying on of hands.
There is no suggestion that one role is more important than the other: prayer and serving the word and distributing food are equally necessary. But clarity about calling is essential for the gospel to be preached effectively and for all to receive fair provision within the community.
It’s just as important today that we are clear about our individual vocations. This enables us to identify the particular responsibilities and tasks God has assigned to us. For the whole body to flourish and be effective as missionary disciples, we each have a unique role and distinct priorities.
Loving God, Make us sensitive to your guidance. Lead us towards the work which you would have us do, and steer us away from those tasks better done by others. Give us grace to acknowledge our mistakes, and courage to be clear in our calling, that the body of Christ may be built up and flourish to your glory. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Gillian Poucher, Minister Gainsborough URC & North Lincs. Area.