Why is it that surveys of pastors' schedules often reveal that when it comes to preaching, their professed priorities greatly differ from their actual practice? The Word is central to the church's growth--so central that Satan will use a congregation's expectations and traditions (often innocent in themselves) to distract ministers from what is required for effective proclamation of the Word. In the midst of great advance, the Jerusalem church faced the same problem.
Luke notes the church's continued numerical growth as the apostles faithfully teach and evangelize (5:42). This success leads to an overload for the apostles in their administration of the common fund for the poor (4:35, 37; 5:1; compare Deut 1:9-10). As a result, the Grecian Jewish widows are being overlooked in the daily food distribution. The resulting complaints (compare Num 17:5) threaten to destroy the church's unity.
The fact that it is Grecian Jews (Hellenistoi; Longenecker 1981:327-29 for a cogent discussion of the options for understanding this term) who complain against Hebraic believers (Hebraioi; see Longenecker 1981:332) shows that cultural tensions probably lie behind the oversight. Pious widows, having been removed from the temple dole--the weekly quppah, or poor basket of foodstuffs (m. Pe'a 8:7)--are now dependent on the church's daily distribution (NIV specifies it more precisely than the Greek by adding of food; see Kistemaker 1990:221). But the apostles, Hebraic Jews, are not making sure the Grecian widows receive their share.
Hebraic Jews had a prejudicial sense of superiority over Grecian Jews, because of their own birthplace and language. Lack of communication between the groups also fostered suspicion. In fact, human diversity will always bring with it opportunities for prejudicial division and injustice.
Facing the problem immediately and openly, the Twelve gather the congregation (plethos; see 4:32 for comment) and point out another threat: distraction from their calling, the ministry of the word of God. This activity is essential for church vitality and growth (see 6:7). The apostles are facing the decisions that come to leaders of a movement that is growing in numbers and complexity.
The Twelve instruct the congregation to choose seven men to take over this responsibility. That the diaconate is a function and not an office is clear from Luke's wording. He never uses the noun "deacon" (compare Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8-13), though a noun and verb to describe the function are present (diakonia, Acts 6:1; diakoneo, 6:2; contrast 1:25). This passage probably did contribute, however, to the origin of the office (Coppens 1979:421). Luke stresses that this physical/social ministry has equal validity with the apostles' evangelism/edification ministry, for he uses diakonia to describe both (6:1, 4). The church must exercise both, and neither to the exclusion of the other (see Lk 10:38-42).
This division of labor is accompanied by a reiteration of the apostles' commitment to their calling: prayer and ministry of the Word of God. The apostles determine to be "busily engaged in, devoted to" these things, so that realistically they will take up all their time (Bruce 1990:183; compare 1:14; 2:42, 46). Prayer (literally, "the prayer") may have to do with leading the community's prayer services (Bruce 1990:183), or the apostles' intercession for the welfare of the community or effectiveness in preaching, whether individually or as a group (10:9; 13:3; Haenchen 1971:263; Stott 1990:121), or both. Prayer is central to the church's vitality and advance, as it was in Jesus' ministry (Lk 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28; 11:1; 22:41; see 18:1). The ministry of the Word "[sees] to it that the Word of God is communicated in power and in continuity with the apostles' teaching as its norm" (Krodel 1986:134). In the summary statement on growth, the necessity of this ministry is articulated for a third time (6:7; compare 6:2).
The proposed solution reveals the values that guided the decision: commitment to unity, to a holistic ministry and to growth by means of preaching and teaching. The decision-making process reflects equally important values for church order. It is participatory, because of the church's spiritual equality (1:16; 2:17; 4:33; 6:3; 15:23). It involves distinct roles for leaders and congregation. The leaders (note it is collegial leadership) propose a solution and the criteria for implementing it. They also confirm the congregation's implementation (6:6). The congregation must "own" the proposed solution and do their assigned part (6:5).
If unity and growth are to be promoted, then, structures in the church must be flexible. Decision-making must be participatory, with distinctive roles for leaders and congregation.
The Twelve instruct the congregation to find seven men with a good reputation. The word order in the Greek makes it unlikely that the reputation is limited to being Spirit-filled, as the NIV suggests. The spiritual qualification full of the Spirit applies to those who have so fully given themselves to following Christ that God's saving, sanctifying and edifying grace is clearly and continuously manifest in their lives (6:5; 7:55; 11:24). The final qualification is wisdom--that skill in administration and business which will bring efficient and effective accomplishment of a task. Moral, spiritual, practical-- these should be the hallmarks of all who sit on church boards. Only with such leadership will the real work of the church be done.
The whole congregation took ownership of the proposal, and unity was restored (6:5; compare 4:32). They brought forward names of seven men who may well have already been exercising leadership in the Grecian Jewish segment of the church. Except for Stephen and Philip (see 6:9--7:60; 8:4-40; 21:8), Scripture tells us no more of these men. Stephen's spiritual quality is particularly noted. Being full of faith and of the Holy Spirit probably points not to his working of miracles (as Haenchen 1971:263; see v. 9) but to his extraordinary depth of faith, as well as his singular life in the Spirit.
The leaders confirm the congregation's work by praying over and laying hands on these men. Though grammatically one could understand the people as doing this, Luke probably intends us to understand the apostles as the commissioners (compare 6:3). "The laying on of hands" is used in Old Testament passages with the "choice of supplementary leadership" form. Hebrew samak, used in Numbers 27:18, means "to lean the hand on, exercise some force at the base of the hand at the joint" and has the significance of to "pour your personality--or a quality of yours relevant at this moment--into him" (Daube 1976:162; compare Num 27:20). What the apostles pass on to the Seven through the laying on of hands is not the Spirit, for the Seven already have the Spirit (Acts 6:3). Rather, they receive authority to work as the apostles' representatives in a specific task (Parratt 1969:213).
Having weathered the threat, the church returns to its normal condition: growth. So integral to growth is the Word of God, the message of salvation, that Luke uses personification, saying literally, "The word of God grew" (see 12:24; 19:20). As the seed possesses the power of growth, so "the word has in itself the power of life. . . . This independent force of the word of God makes it the preeminent instrument of salvation" (Kodell 1974:506; Acts 10:36; 13:26; 14:3; 16:32; compare 4:4; 11:1; 13:49; Lk 8:11). Luke's combination of spread (grew) and increased (multiplied) echoes the Old Testament command "Be fruitful and multiply," which was incorporated into covenant promises about the people of God (Lev 26:9; Jer 3:16; 23:3; compare Gen 1:28).
From among the priests, the core of the church's opposition (Acts 4:1; 5:17), a large number become obedient to the faith. The social gulf between the ordinary priests and the upper-class chief priests, who oppressed them economically, may explain the regular priests' openness to the gospel (Longenecker 1981:333). Still, the response of the priesthood reflects the total triumph of the church's mission. No segment of Jewish society was beyond the reach of the gospel. And today our churches should be marked by the same conviction--that the ministry of the Word is essential for growth and that growth is the normal condition of the church.