One of the deadliest wars in the history of the United States was a war fought against our own people – the Civil War. The Civil War lasted 4 years – from 1861 to 1865. It was a war waged between the Northern States and the Southern States over the issue of slavery and secession (some disagree with me and say it wasn’t about slavery – they are wrong – they need to study history).
The war literally divided the country and weakened it beyond what anyone could have imagined. In the intense combat of these four years, around 750,000 people died – 750,000 Americans died as a result of direct attacks from other Americans.
For context, this is more American deaths in a single war than all of the other wars combined up until the Vietnam war. The most horrific war fought by the United States of America was… against itself. In 1858, a few years before the beginning of the Civil War, a U.S. Senator named Abraham Lincoln (you may have heard of him) gave a speech on the importance of unity in the young nation. The speech was a warning of what would happen if division continued to spread across the country and he began the speech by quoting the words of Jesus – “A house divided against itself will not stand.”
Why am I sharing all of this? If you are a Christian and part of a church (if you are a Christian and NOT part of a church – you are outside of God’s will for your life) we need to understand that we are engaged in an ancient war that has lasted thousands of years. At Renovation Church we have been going verse-by-verse through the Book of Acts. Although the Book of Acts is commonly referred to as the “Acts of the Apostles” it can also be studied to gain a grasp on spiritual warfare.
Here’s what I mean.
The birth of the church was opposed by Satan and his demons. Although we do not (usually) see spiritual warfare with our physical eyes, we DO see the effects of the war. Beginning in chapter four, Satan seeks to destroy the church by having Peter and John arrested and threatened for preaching Jesus. This doesn’t work and the church continues to grow. In chapter five, Satan changes his tactics and seeks to destroy the church by planting hypocrisy and self-righteousness in their midst through Ananias and Sapphira. God puts them to death, purifies his church, and the church continues to grow. Becoming desperate, Satan then has all of the Apostles arrested and put in prison – likely thinking to himself that if he can get rid of the leaders, the church will collapse. Instead, God sends an angel to set them free and commands them to keep preaching.
Honestly, I feel a little bit sorry for Satan (okay, no I don’t). Everything he has done up to this point has backfired. But, if there’s anything the Scriptures testify about Satan, it is his craftiness. Satan understands human nature better than the most educated psychiatrist because Satan has been studying humans from the very beginning. One of Satan’s greatest successes in his war against God’s people happens in the Book of Exodus. Almost immediately after God frees His people from slavery to Egypt and leads them into the wilderness, they begin grumbling and complaining against God and Moses – division nearly destroys God’s people.
A very similar thing is beginning to happen in Acts 6:1-7; grumbling and complaining threaten to destroy the church in its infancy. Certain widows in the church (who would have no social security net to uphold them) were being overlooked in the “daily distribution” of food. This truly was a life or death situation; a widow being overlooked means she could have gone days – even weeks – without a consistent source of food. Many widows in the ancient world died due to starvation or resorted to prostitution as a last resort to put food on the table.
The way the early church handles this situation provides immense wisdom for our churches today.
1. The Apostles Involve the Church
“The Twelve summoned the whole company of the disciples…” (Acts 6:2a)
I think we would all agree that the Apostles had the authority to hold a closed-door meeting and make an executive session about what to do. Most churches have a board or leadership team and when the church encounters major issues, they are almost always solved by this exclusive group of people rather than the church as a whole. In contrast with this, the Apostles recognize that every member of the church has the Holy Spirit and the ability to hear God speak – as a result, they get everyone involved.
2. The Apostles Define Their Calling
… and said, “It would not be right for us to give up preaching the word of God to wait on tables.” (Acts 6:2b)
Do not miss what is happening here – they are making a moral claim as to why they cannot continue to oversee the daily distribution of food. On the surface, it almost seems as if the Apostles are arrogant. A better (but more confusing) translation of the Greek would be something along the lines of, “It would not be right for us to give up serving the word of God to serve on tables.” Both are needed – physical food IS important but so is spiritual food. For the church to continue its mission of making disciples of all the nations, the Apostles needed to define their calling. In other words, they needed to learn to say no to good things so they could say yes to the God thing.
3. The Church Selects Leaders
“Brothers and sisters, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:3-4)
Volunteers (and leaders) are needed so desperately in many churches that if you fog a mirror and are willing to show up on time, you will become a leader. In contrast with this, the Apostles call the church to select people who meet three qualifications: a good reputation; fullness of the Holy Spirit; fullness of wisdom. What I find fascinating are the things NOT included – they do not require any prior experience in running a food ministry, they do not require any leadership experience, they do not require formal education. There’s a lesson here for all of us (especially those in areas of leadership) – You can teach competency but you cannot teach character.
4. The Leaders Come from the Complaining Group
“This proposal pleased the whole company. So they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicoloaus, a convert from Antioch.” (Acts 6:5)
Something that is easy to miss while reading this passage is that all seven of these men have Greek names. This is significant because they are part of the “Hellenistic Jews” who were complaining that “their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution.” It is tempting as a church member to complain about issues in the church – this isn’t bad in and of itself. Unfortunately, we tend to complain and are not willing to be part of the solution. Friend, do NOT complain to your pastor about an issue in the church if YOU are not willing to be part of the solution. God shows us issues in our congregations not so we can complain and bicker about them but rather so we can step up and be part of the solution.
5. The Apostles Confirm/Commission the Leaders
“They had them stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.” (Acts 6:6)
Finally, what we see the Apostles confirming the selection of the church and commissioning these men for the work of ministry. The act of laying their hands on them is symbolic of the Apostles transferring a portion of their authority to these men so they can accomplish the duty they have been given. As leaders, it is necessary that we delegate many of the tasks before us. Unfortunately, one of the great failures of delegation is we delegate the responsibility without also giving the authority. The Apostles are wisely doing both.
Why is all of this important? Luke makes it clear at the end of this passage that three incredible things happen in the church as a result of this delegation process. Here is how he closes this section in verse 7: “So (or, as a result of this) the word of God spread, the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly in number, and a large group of priests (former enemies of Jesus) become obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7).
Interested in learning more? This all comes from the message I preached last Sunday at Renovation Church. Here’s a link to the “Sermon Discussion Guide” I wrote for my church as well as the video of the message. I am leading an online small group tonight discussing this text and you are welcomed to join us. Connection information is also below.
(If you are reading this in your e-mail, you will need to go to the actual page to see the sermon).