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Feb 15 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

February 14, 2016 – Acts Chapter 6

Turning the Next Corner

Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. Acts 6:1

Intro: There are insights in this chapter I do not want us to miss

So I am going to spend more time than usually in providing a perspective on it
– if we can see the key issues, it will help to clarify who we are at Reflexion

Paul Hiebert, a missionary in India, later became a renown cultural anthropologist
– his interest in folk religion led him to research in the process of institutionalization

Hiebert observed that “Institutions, like people, go through cycles of growth, maturation and ‘hardening of the categories.’ The result is often a loss of vitality and life they once had. We must balance stress on church growth with church renewal or we will plant many churches which in a few decades will be dead.” [italics added]

Hiebert also identified stages of institutionalization:

  • “The founding parents of an institution often pay a high price to join it, and take personal risk. They join together in a fellowship of high intensity, personal in nature and caring. The result is a feeling of warmth and tremendous purpose and fellowship.”
  • “The second generation is raised inside the organization, and this makes them radically different. . . . To stay is the easiest course with little sacrifice.”
  • “The third generation is more removed from the founders and has less of their vision. Nominalism enters, and many stay in because it is the course of least resistance.”
  • “The fourth generation and on are well entrenched and the institution for them is a way of life. They have much invested in it in terms of their own identity and so want to maintain it not for what it does in ministry for the world, but what it does for them as persons.”

We begin here, because in chapter 6 we find two organizations in conflict
– first, the community of disciples that is on the crest of a spiritual movement
• its leaders are discovering that growth does not come without a cost
– secondly, the established religious institution
• its leaders and some of its devoted followers feel threatened by the community
◦ the community is finding its way forward,
the institution has arrived
◦ the community is learning how to function
the institution’s functions are fixed in place

V. 1, The community’s growing pains

We learned of generous donations to the community
– now we see one of ways those donations were used to help the needy
• cultural tensions in the larger society surfaced within the community
• “Hellenists” were Jews who had absorbed Greek culture
◦ this gave locals the impression they had been compromised
– Hebrew widows knew the language and local customs
• they would be familiar with the system and who to contact for relief
• I doubt that those in charge were conscious of their bias and unfairness

Something good happening — while the disciples were increasing 
– but that was exactly the situation that created the internal problems
• new challenges surface with growth
◦ especially in a group made up of people from diverse backgrounds
• these challenges require the loosely formed communities to organize
◦ Israel’s complaints in the wilderness required organization
(that one book of the law is entitled “Numbers” indicates the need to count and order the twelve tribes)
◦ Jesus organized the multitude to avoid a chaotic situation when he fed them
(he told the disciples, Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each — Lk. 9:14)

There are certainly positive outcomes as a result of having organization and structure:

  • systems that put in place deliver services where needed
  • business is conducted professionally
  • money is handled effectively and with integrity
  • large, well-organized groups accomplish more engage and work bigger projects

– but Paul Hiebert also warned of the “Dangers of Institutionalization”:

  • Vision gives way to routine
  • Goal orientation gives way to self-maintenance
  • Flexibility gives way to inflexibility
  • Focus on people gives way to focus on programs
  • We begin [by] controlling the institution. In time the institution comes to control us.

Vv. 2-4, The apostles proposed a simple solution

So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.
The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Temon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them. Acts 6:2-6

Their simple solution would raise further concerns today
– the obvious problem was cultural discrimination
• less obvious to them, but a sensitive issue now was gender discrimination

As Gail O’Day pointed out, “. . . the group that is formed . . . to assist in the supervision of this ministry of service consists of seven men. The twelve apostles perpetuate their model of leadership in this new group. Women are the objects of ministry in Acts 6:1-6, not agents of ministry.”

– it seems that increasing women’s role in ministry was part of the church’s education

  • Tabitha was known for her kind deeds, charity and care of widows (9:36-39)
  • in Philippi, Lydia opened her home for church meetings (16:14-15)
  • Priscilla took the lead role in providing Apollos more accurate instruction (18:26)
  • Philip, one of the seven chosen here had four daughters who were prophetesses (21:8-9)

Luke possibly began seeding the idea female spiritual service in his Gospel

  • Elizabeth was a righteous person and “filled with the Spirit” (Lk. 1:5-6, 41-45)
  • Luke gives more of Mary’s story and surrender than the other gospels
  • Only Luke tells us about the prophetess Anna (Lk. 2:36-38)
  • “Some women” were with Jesus, supporting him and the disciples (Lk. 8:1-3)
  • There is also the lovely story of Martha and Mary (Lk. 10:38-42)

Israel went through learning stages while in wilderness
– and they also faced an issue regarding women’s rights (Nu. 27:1-11)

It may reflect a wise decision that all seven men chosen have Greek names
– perhaps they too were Hellenists and would be sympathetic to their own widows
– to me, the most striking man among them was Nicolas
• Luke tells us he was proselyte (Gentile convert to Judaism) and from Antioch
◦ this foreshadows chapter 15, where a dispute in Antioch is carried to Jerusalem
◦ the church there was largely Gentile converts to Christianity
• visiting Jewish believers told them they had to keep the law to be saved (15:1)
◦ this was supported by Christian Pharisees in Jerusalem (15:5)
◦ here in Acts 6, a great many of the priests had also joined the faith

Although none of the apostles belonged to this tradition, the influence of its status and authority were undeniable and unavoidable. After all, this is the religious system that had been with them all their lives.

Had the apostles attitude drifted from Jesus’ example?

After an argument among the disciples over which one was greatest, Jesus said:

For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines? But I am among you as the one who serves. (Lk. 22:27)

– I don’t think they considered serving tables beneath them
• or that they meant to elevate their role over others in the community
• I think they had other considerations in mind
– the apostles understood the central role of God’s word
• they had heard Jesus’ parable of the seed and the soils
◦ they knew what happened when God’s word was neglected
◦ they also knew what happened when it was given priority

The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith. (v. 7)

• Jesus described his words as seed, a rock-solid foundation, as spirit and life
• the Bible is a book – it becomes God’s word when:

◦ the Spirit speaks its life into our spirits
◦ when it is brought into today (perhaps the greatest compliment I ever received was from a woman who told me I was not like other preachers who, she said, “Take us into history and leave us there”)
◦ it is served by those devoted to it

The same Greek word that is “serve” in verses 1 and 2 is “ministry” in verse 4
– everyone serves
• a friend once told my wife, who is a physical therapist, “You have a special ministry”
• later, Barbara was still thinking about that
◦ “I never thought of what I do as ministry”
◦ later, at work she began to grasp the truth of what he said
– can you see the ministry in your service?

Vv. 8-15, People who were willing to kill for their religion

Significantly, the men serving tables were no less gifted than the apostles
– Luke doesn’t tell us why some men . . . rose up and argued with Stephen
• it would seem from their native regions they were Hellenist Jews, not locals
◦ they were definitely loyalists to the institution
• unable to best him in open debate, they resorted to devious schemes to silence him

Their tactics were similar to those G. Lloyd Rediger refers to as Clergy Killers

“Clergy killers are people who intentionally target pastors for serious injury or destruction.” “Clergy killers are few in number, but awesome in the damage they create.”

– typical of clergy killers, their actions are described in verses 11- 14:

  • “they secretly induced” others to do their dirty work. Clergy killers draw “negative advocates” into their web
    Rediger, “. . . they have expandable influence that typically attracts people with common gripes, frustrations, or misguided agendas.”
  • “they stirred up” as many as would listen to them – exciting emotions like outrage and fear
  • “they came up . . . and dragged him away” – to the Council that had interrogated Peter and the other apostles
    ◦ clergy killers will accuse their victims to anyone perceived as having the authority to punish or remove them from ministry
  • “false witnesses” – notice how their accusations were mostly vague
    ◦ clergy killers often come up with very spiritual sounding accusations
    ◦ in this instance, they accused Stephen of speaking against Moses and God, the Temple and the Torah

– the “customs” they mentioned in verse 14 were based on interpretations of the law
• I once heard a seminary professor say, “The Scriptures are inspired. Our interpretations are not”
◦ we cannot help but go wrong when we treat our interpretations as God’s word
• later, Peter refers to those same customs as an unbearable yoke (Acts 15:10)

Conc: Paul Hiebert claimed that institutionalization is inevitable

He explained what Protestants do when they get tired of being in a dead church
– they leave it and “create a new church which will be alive and warm”
• they assume they can  design a church that will never become dead

Hiebert, “But there is no way of structuring an institution to keep it from experiencing institutionalization or from losing its vision of faith. In time one finds many different churches, each now dead.”

• most likely, that is the fate of Reflexion — despite our efforts to not become a church
– in the meantime, we can fend off institutionalizing our community by:

  • constantly bringing our awareness back to the presence of God, our inner life and our relationships within our spiritual community
  • adopt the attitude of those who live in tents — this is a journey and it is important that we are always listening and learning in order to find our way
  • being okay with the fact that we’re imperfect

– however, it is not okay to neglect the priority of God, his word, and others
• this is what define life within a community of Jesus’ disciples

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