It’s time for a new phase in the church’s life as Jesus takes forward the plan he outlined to his disciples (Ac 1:8). Their focus thus far has rightly been on Jerusalem in general, and the temple in particular. But though that must continue, things are now ready for a push into the wider world, though the way the Lord achieves this is probably not what the apostles were expecting.
The story begins with a complaint. At this moment, the church is made up of Jewish believers. But they are not a uniform gathering (v1). Some are more cosmopolitan, influenced by the Greek language and culture, whilst others are more local, shaped by the Aramaic culture of Palestine. These differences provide the backdrop to a complaint which is presented to the apostles. In line with the loving attitude of the community (Ac 4:34,35), needy widows are receiving food rations. The ‘Greek’ widows, however, appear to be being overlooked due to a natural bias for the locals. The apostles take this complaint seriously and use the opportunity to review the church’s life.
In this incident we see how the Lord uses various circumstances to change us, including life’s disagreements. Some sins have to be rooted out in hard situations; some lessons are only truly learned in the midst of stress. So when complaints come we should pause and ask questions which help us to think. Is the complainer simply dissatisfied with life? Is he being proud, thinking his life more important than others? Is he finding it hard to adjust to a new situation? Is he truly convinced that a wrong has been done? Is he confused about what’s going on? Is he just in a bit of a mood at the moment? Is it his personality? We should probe the issue so that we can respond correctly, including changing what we’re doing if the complainant is simply correct. And if we are the one complaining, we need to take care about our attitude in that.
Well, the apostles deal very well with the food distribution problem. They start by gathering the church together to admit that the logistics are now beyond them with the result that they are losing focus on their core task of teaching (v2). This is a wise response (though maybe they should be careful with comments about serving, keeping in mind Jesus’ words: “I am among you as one who serves.” (Lk 22:27)). So the apostles suggest seven other men take up the task (v3). They don’t identify the men themselves but let the church decide, thus preventing any questions of bias. Their action echoes the time the Lord gave Moses 70 leaders to help with his work (Nu 11:16,17). The names of the men show that they come from the “Greek” side, even including a Gentile convert to Judasim (v5); this is sensible, giving a balance to the church’s leadership. But most importantly the men are chosen because they are “full of the Spirit and wisdom.” This means that like Jesus (Lk 4:1-13) they are are willing to sacrifice themselves for others, actively living out the unity brought by the Spirit (Ep 4:1-4). But that attitude is also combined with the practical know-how and personal wisdom which can get the charity work done properly.
This excellent process gives us principles which still help churches to day. Firstly, it highlights the importance of sharing leadership based on the need not to overstretch those already in place. Secondly, the whole church is involved in the decision. Thirdly, we look for leaders among those who are already known as servants in the church. Fourthly, we need leaders who build up our unity not damage it, no matter how gifted they are practically. Fifthly, they should be able to take decisions wisely, building upon the ways that the Lord has taught us.
So when handled properly, complaints can bring about good. Do churches always behave as well as this? Sadly not. We can waste our disagreements by simply turning them into rivalry and shouting matches. We need to be more like this church. The apostles’ concentration on ministry and prayer was vital (v4). Their willingness to change was unifying (v5). But their actions were also used by the Lord for an important step forward. As they publicly transfer authority to the 7 men by placing their hands on them (v6), the door is being opened onto a new stage of activity.