adapted from a message given at WCCC on 18.07.29
Even since the beginning of the Christian Church representation was an issue. After the resurrection of Christ, the key event that launched the Christian church, was the revival at the feast of Pentecost. Even within this event God was thinking about representation. You see, in this event the Holy Spirit was poured out in power at Jerusalem where Jewish people from all over, BEYOND the land of Palestine where Jesus ministered, had not only gathered in Jerusalem but received Christ and stayed there. There were amazing miracles happening in the name of Jesus and the once timid 12 disciples became powerful witnesses. They weren’t even afraid of the authorities that were trying to shut them down. The church of Jesus was growing fast. But there were also some blind spots that affected the church in such a way that the writer of Acts had to let us in on it.
PASSAGE Acts 6:1-7 (ESV)
1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.
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. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 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.
So what do we learn, from this passage, are some potential BLIND SPOTS IN THE CHURCH?
1. Seeing the Marginalized
The church of Jesus was growing, meaning there were all sorts of different groups of people coming together. As so even in this exciting growing new community of Jesus, the brokenness of human prejudice and discrimination crept in. We find in v.1 that a group called the Hellenists were being neglected in the church.
Who or what are Hellenists?
- Hellenists were Jewish immigrants not born or native to Palestine, which was a land that was predominately Jewish.
- The word “Hellenist”, literally, is Greek for “somebody who speaks Greek”.
- So these Hellenists were Jews that had come from outside of Palestine, immigrants who predominantly spoke Greek and were more used to living in Greek culture, not like the Jews in Palestine who spoke Aramaic and were used to being around Jews. Hellenists were people who were more bi-cultural: ethnically Jewish but culturally Greek, and so they were looked down on for not being Jewish enough.
It was not just an accusation of discrimination but there was actual neglect happening of a whole group of people, in the church.
- V. 1 we see the “complaint” turned out that the Hellenist widows “were” being neglected, not allegedly being neglected. They weren’t getting food like the Palestinian Jews were getting. And no where do we see in this passage that this accusation was denied. Discrimination was real in the church and real people were being affected by it.
- The word for neglect here is the greek word “paratheoreo” (“para” – beside, “theoreo” – look at) which literally means “looked at as on the side” or like the young folks call it giving someone a “side eye”. These widows were literally seen. But not not as important, but more like an afterthought, as less than.
Ok Dave but that was back in the day, what does that have to do with us? This doesn’t happen any more right?
- Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. It is said that Sunday is the most divided day of the week in America. Even though the Kingdom of Heaven will have EVERY tribe and tongue worshipping TOGETHER, churches TODAY are too often split by race and culture. We still have this blind spot today. We still have difficulty loving our neighbor as ourselves, especially neighbors that we feel are not like us, not part of our culture.
- Ok, I know this is a uncomfortable passage. But God put it in our bibles. Our blind spots are an uncomfortable topic. But i have to tell you the truth. If we can’t talk about it in church then where can we? We, Christians, of all people should not be afraid of the truth, because if we hold to it, Jesus says the truth can set us free.
- I grew up as part of the historically Japanese-American Holiness conference of churches. Churches planted by Japanese immigrants in America, churches with history in two cultures, just like the Hellenists. For the ethnically Japanese, as Isseis, Nisseis, Sanseis; 1st, 2nd, 3rd generation ethnically Japanese who have lived in the US. Never fully accepted as American or as Japanese. Even put in prison camps for being ethnically Japanese because of fear in war time. Constantly seen as foreigners. Then once out, having to suffer the indignity of of not being allowed to have their churches back but told to go to white churches, these same churches that stood by and watched their own siblings IN CHRIST be bussed away to these camps.
- This isn’t only a Japanese-American thing. This happens all throughout America, as a country of immigrants. Sociologist Ezra Park called this experience of being a part of two cultures as “the marginal man” experience…to not feel accepted because one is not purely of the dominant culture. To live on the margins, or on the sides, of the dominant culture in society. To not feel like you ever fully fit it. The Chinese may call it “ABC” – American Born Chinese. The Irish may call it “FBI” – Foreign Born Irish. Mexicans may call it being a “Pocho”.
- But, let’s be real. Just because we are in the same room with folks of other cultures doesn’t mean we always treat each other equally. We MUST be ever watchful not to neglect each other, ESPECIALLY those in the church that are not like us. Especially not to neglect those who are NOT in positions of power or a part of the dominant culture of the church. It is our pride and human brokenness to put down those that are different from us. It was in the early church, it is in the church now. We must look long and hard at these blind spots…those we don’t easily see, even if it takes more effort, and do right. Those of us who have ever experienced being overlooked or marginalized can be a voice to those who are being pushed aside now.
Another blind spot in the church we see is our failure in
2. Serving Spiritual AND Physical Needs
In this passage we see the 12 disciples, the apostles, were becoming overwhelmed by the work of the early church and people were being neglected.
- They felt it was not right to give up preaching the word but they also knew that they shouldn’t ignore the physical needs of the widows in the community who needed to eat and had no one else to care for them.
- The issue was how to make sure to take care of the spiritual AND physical needs of the church.
From an initial reading of this passage it may seem that the ministry of “serving tables” was inferior to the ministry of the word.
- However, the same Greek word for service, “diakonia”, is used in v1 translated as “distribution” for the distribution of food to needy widows and in v. 4 translated as “the ministry” for the ministry of the word. The exact same word is used for both the ministry of meeting spiritual as well as physical needs. Both meeting spiritual and physical needs is seen as service, as legitimate ministry. That’s why in the modern day church we see Elders (like the 12) who guide the spiritual direction of the church as well as Deacons (taken from this very word diakonia for service) who are to take care of the physical needs of the church people.
In today’s church, in America especially, there seems a tendency to dismiss the ministry of meeting physical needs as less spiritual.
- We must remember that taking care of those in need is something dear to the heart of God and a key sign of our relationship with Jesus. The OT is full of words from God about the protected status of the orphan, the widow, the fatherless, the foreigner, and the poor. For example Jeremiah 22:16 states: “‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the Lord.” This idea is carried out in the NT with the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 25 where, so closely does God associate with those in need that, he says how we treat “the least of these” is how we treat him and is a sign of our salvation.
- This is why the early church was about taking care of the needs of the widows “daily” as we see in verse 1.
- It was such an important issue to care for the needy in the early church that the 12 felt it was necessary to call the (as we see in v.2) “FULL number of the disciples” together to discuss it. They called all of the believers together to address this need.
- We also see that the ministry of meeting physical needs was taken seriously because the qualifications to lead such a ministry were high:
- Anyone who was to lead in the work of meeting physical needs had to be, as stated in verse 3, “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom”. They needed to show moral, spiritual, and practical quality. Serving the physical needs of people was seen as Spiritual work. One commentary states “Like those qualified for prayer and preaching, the table-servers’ ability is the result of spiritual power. Nothing less than the power of the Spirit makes possible meaningful, community-building, peace-making work among Christians.”
So yes, we must not neglect the Word of God but we also must not neglect caring for those in need.
– 1 John 3:17 says “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?
– If we really believe and live in God’s word it should affect the PHYSICAL world around us. If we SAY we know God’s love we must SHOW God’s love.
– The church should be about the ministry of serving God’s word AND serving those in need. Meeting spiritual AND physical needs.
- For those of us who love God’s word and good teaching, PLEASE know that that helps the church remember what is really important. But we ALSO must keep in mind that without serving those in need it is so easy for us to become hypocrites and lose touch with God’s heart.
- For those of us who care for people in need, PLEASE know that God sees that as legitimate spiritual work of His Kingdom. But we must ALSO keep in mind that without his Word to guide us we can get lost and burn out.
The last blind spot we see in this passage that can happen in the church is not
3. Representing ALL of the Body in Leadership (power dynamics)
It is important for us to understand WHO the early church ended up appointing to lead this important work of meeting the needs of the needy.
- V. 5 tells us a list of seven people.
Who were these 7?
- All seven men had Greek names, which likely indicates that they were all Hellenistic Jews, Bi-cultural Jews that were immigrants or children of immigrants.
- It makes sense that if the seven were going to be chosen from ALL the believers present, for at least the specific task of addressing Greek-speaking Jewish widows, that Greek-speaking Jewish leaders be chosen. (*I would be remiss to note that it was still men who were chosen for these roles. This is a whole other issue that would take at least another post to get into in order to give justice to the issue, given the level of debate over it, and I must admit others could address it far better than I in this space. Suffice it to say, we must take into account not only cultural norms of the time but also the education and efficacy that women were allowed at the time. I think scripture has plenty of cases where women stepped up and into important roles and representation amongst God’s people even in such cultures: Deborah, Esther, Priscilla, and Lydia just to name a few.)
- It also is most likely that these seven were Hellenists because of the fact that they needed to chose SEVEN people for this job of tending to Hellenistic widows indicating that there was a large amount of Hellenistic widows present in the early church.
Ok these 7 deacons were Hellenists, so what Dave?
This is huge for so many reasons! BECAUSE OF THIS REPRESENTATION:
1) the church unlocked the power God wanted to release through a group of people that had been totally overlooked and untapped. It is STEPHEN who becomes the first in the church to die for his faith Jesus, not even one of the full blooded 12 jewish disciples of Jesus! And Philip is the first disciple to take the gospel to non-Jews! It took people that lived in more than one culture to reach different cultures.
2) when we make sure our church leaders represent ALL of our community, they bring a perspective that is missing in the church, and the whole body of Christ benefits. Theologian Justo Gonzalez calls this the mestizaje perspective, the perspective of those who come from a mix of cultures. People that are of multiple cultures are able to see things that single culture people simply miss. The Hellenists were able to see a critical gap in the church that the Palestinian Jews couldn’t see.
- It’s interesting to consider, Luke, the very person who wrote this book of Acts we are reading today. Luke was more than likely an outsider to the dominant Jewish Culture. From evidence in scripture scholars believe at at most Luke was a Gentile and at least a Hellenistic Jew himself.
- It is no wonder he was the only one to record Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son and the good Samaritan, Samaritans being outsiders that Jews had a deep prejudice against.
- Without his perspective we may not have gotten Luke’s rich perspective of Jesus as born to poverty and his mission to those in need in the gospel of Luke. Without Luke’s perspective we may not have known how the church of Jesus came to minister to outsiders and non-Jews in the book of Acts.
3) This representation made a huge difference in the church. This isn’t just shallow token representation. It helped meet a real need, it helped bring unity, and it brought growth.
- V. 7 says that after these appointments not only did “the word of God continue to increase” but that “the number of disciples multiplied.”
- When people saw that the leadership of the church had people that LOOKED like them, they could feel that the church could be a place for people LIKE them.
- The church could reach more people now because the best people to reach outsiders are outsiders.
- this is a crucial turning point in the early church. If this didn’t happen, we may not be here. For the first time this movement went from a spiritual movement of a specific ethnic group to include more cultures…that includes us too now! It had to take the early church facing some hard truth, but they didn’t ignore it, the early church did something about it’s blind spots!
When we represent ALL of the community in the church, 1) people who have been overlooked are released to their full potential, 2) we gain invaluable perspective we are missing, and 4) the church grows!!!
- Just treatment and representation lead to the growth of God’s kingdom in this earth. A just community is a powerful witness to the world and something the world longs to be a part of, especially in such divisive times in which we live. It is what Jesus prayed for us on the night before he was betrayed into the hands of men (John 17:20-23).
So are their any blind spots in your faith and in your church?
- Do you see the marginalized in your church? Do you seek to understand their experience and listen to them? Do you speak up for them with the power that you have?
- Do we value meeting Spiritual AND Physical needs? Do we give a word and a prayer but hold back from going out of our comfort zone to meet a need? Do we get caught up in the doing of meeting physical needs there is no time in our lives to allow God to speak into us?
- Do our leadership structures reflect ALL the people of the congregation, of the community? Do we have any voices that are missing from the table in decision making, that affect the very people we are making decisions about? Do we dismiss too quickly the perspectives of people who may have different experiences than us?