From the beginning of Scripture, the word of God is a means of creation. The word of God does not just describe, but creates the cosmos. It accomplishes that for which it is sent. This is an important fact to bear in mind when we consider the nature of preaching, and the nature of the Church, particularly considering its mission. Should we be a church that prioritises good preaching, or prioritises acts of service? If I may appropriate the words of Michael Scott: ‘Would I rather be in a church with good preaching, or acts of service? Easy. Both. I want preaching to lead me to acts of service.’
I want to take Acts 6:1-7 as the grounding text for constructive dialogue. Some read it as being all about how we should prioritise preaching. Some read it as being all about how we should serve each other. I read it as being all about how a healthy ecclesiology will get you out of all sorts of either/or decisions. If we realise that we’re a body with different parts, then, like Boris Johnson, our policy on many doctrinal and ethical cakes can be pro-having it and pro-eating it.
The issue at stake in the chapter is the unity of the church, as disputes between Greek-speaking and Aramaic-speaking Jews in the early church arise in relation to the distribution of food for poor believers. There were several different solutions available to the apostles. Allow me to play the ministry consultant, and present their options in their strongest terms.
Option #1: Christ Ekkelsia Jerusalem and Messiah Synagogue Yerushalayim
The first option available to the apostles is to simply split the church. They could split into a Hebrew congregation and a Greek congregation. This would solve the presenting problem of the food distribution, as there wouldn’t be the same sort of favouritism. The Greeks would look out for the Greeks, and the Hebrews would look out for the Hebrews. Problem solved. Consider also: this could allow for great opportunities for contextual mission. Greeks who may not be comfortable with the very Hebrew feel of the church might feel more comfortable in the Greek church.
Of course they did not do this. Why? Well, firstly, because such a modern, Protestant way of thinking would have been totally alien to them. Split the church? Surely you could as soon split Christ Himself. It’s a contradiction in terms — there is only one church, you can’t make it into two. Say we were just to say it’s a kind of campus or denominational model though. Still one church, just split into different congregations to help with the smooth running of the machinery. What’s wrong with that? The reason that the unity of the Church across this linguistic and cultural divide is important is because it is the very purpose of the Church. The point of Christ’s death and resurrection, the accomplishment of Pentecost is the two men being made into one (cf. Eph. 2:11-22. In the context of Acts, they are all Jewish, but if the Jews and Gentiles are made one, how much more ought the Jewish Christians who speak different languages be one). So to split in two would be convenient, but contrary to Christ’s purpose for the Church.
Option #2: Axe the Daily Distribution
If you were in charge of the budget, this might be a very tempting option. The daily distribution of food was surely costly, and most likely a logistical nightmare (hence some widows being left out — it’s hard to imagine it was all simply favouritism as opposed to people being stretched and happening to know more Hebraic widows). Furthermore, if you were inclined to make the case that the core mission of the Church is in preaching and saving souls, then this is not a cruel budget cut, this is streamlining to make sure that the practices of the organisation reflect its core values.
The apostles don’t go for this option either. Why? Because they themselves had been preaching, in line with the great tradition of the Hebrew prophets, culminating in the Lord Jesus Himself, that showing concern for the poor was a Christian obligation (Lk. 12:33; Gal. 2:10; Jas. 2:14-17; Prov, 14:31, 31:9, and many others; see also all of Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos… you get the point). So to axe the daily distribution for the sake of just focussing on the preaching would be to do exactly what James warns against — being all talk with no action. Dead faith. You can preach your heart out, but if no one does what the Lord has commanded, you might as well have stayed in bed.
Option #3: The Apostles Reconsider Their Job Description
The third option is that they take on the work themselves. If it needs to be done, they could do it themselves. Maybe Peter’s mother-in-law is still knocking around as well, she could join the serving team, as she was always quick to serve in the past (Mk. 1:31).
The apostles don’t opt for this option either, saying ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.’ They have been commissioned by the Lord to preach, and so they are going to preach. They won’t let other programs or initiatives distract them from preaching and praying.
By imagining three options they could have taken, we see that there are several threats to the Church at this juncture. It is not simply that there is a bit of infighting and a logistical issue to clear up. It is that there is a real question posed as to what the nature of the Church is. Splitting the Church would destroy it, as it would be a deliberate move to do the opposite of what Christ was doing — putting asunder what he had joined together. Neglecting the poor would forfeit the soul of the Church as well, driving a wedge between the doctrine and ethics, faith and works, preaching something about repentance without bearing its fruits.
What are we to make of the third option, though? If the Church is to remain a) united, and b) zealous for good deeds, then why not take option 3? Let’s begin by considering what they did instead. They took seven men from the church who are full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, and charge them with distributing the food. The apostles devote themselves instead to the ministry of the word and to prayer.
What is Preaching for? What is the Church for?
The fact that the apostles prioritised preaching over serving is sometimes taken to mean that preaching has a priority over acts of service for everyone, and that preaching (and only preaching) is the mission of the Church. The logic goes that if the apostles devote themselves to word and prayer, then that is the most important thing (presumably because they’re the most important people). The issue is that we then go down the road of hearing vs. doing, and doctrine vs. ethics. It also runs counter to the analogies of the church used elsewhere in Scripture, and indeed the content of much of the apostolic preaching.
The two images that are most significant for this discussion are the house and the body. In Ephesians 2:20, Paul describes the prophets and the apostles as the foundation on which the rest of the Church is built. In 1 Corinthians, he describes the Church as a body, in which many members have different roles. The point of the foundation is this: that you build something on it. The point of the body is this: it is one, but it does many things by its different parts.
The way this pans out in Acts 6 is this: it isn’t right for the foundation to try to be the building, or the mouth to be the hand. It isn’t right for the apostles to give up preaching, but it might be right for someone else to give up preaching. It’s clear that managing the food distribution is a big job, one that does limit your capability and capacity for preaching, praying, and word-ministry. It’s also clear from Acts 6, 7, and 8 that Stephen and Philip, two of the seven chosen to take over the food distribution, were quite capable of preaching themselves. It was not right that the apostles should give up preaching, yet it was judged to be appropriate in this context for other gifted preachers (Stephen’s sermon is the longest in Acts, so clearly he was not an insignificant preacher in Luke’s mind) to take on work that would mean they are not able to do as much preaching as they otherwise might have.
So does the preaching have priority? Well, yes, but more in terms of logical priority: it must come first. Consider God’s word within Scripture: it accomplishes that for which is it sent (Is. 55:11), whether that is creating, revealing, judging, promising, healing, comforting, etc. Which is to say that it has a purpose behind it beyond the mere speaking. It is powerful, and it is creative. God’s word is prior to creation, but if God had said ‘let there be light’ and there was no light, then we wouldn’t praise his word for its power. The word is proved to be great by the fact that it creates. So it is with preaching, our speaking of God’s word: it is supposed to be creative and powerful in accomplishing what it was sent for. And it was sent to build up the people of God, to proclaim good news to them, to call them to faith, and to spur them on to love and good deeds. The word of God is glorified as powerful when it accomplishes that transformation in the hearts of its hearers.
The preaching of the Church creates the context in which the good deeds of the Church are a) possible and b) make sense. This is why option three is a danger for the Church: if the apostles give up preaching, then after a while, the rest of the community will surely forget what they are supposed to be doing. If we don’t know the story we’re a part of, we won’t know how we are supposed to live. The image of feeding on Christ in his word in appropriate: without the preaching of the Kingdom, without explaining what Christ has done and is doing in the world, then the Church will wither and die from lack of nourishment; but without obedience, living the Kingdom, the Church will become fat, gobbling up the rich doctrine of the Scriptures in listening, and never building the muscles of faith in action.
Remembering that the Church is a body will allow us to fulfil that together without being burnt out as individuals. We remember that God put us in a Church in order to humble us by reminding us that we cannot, and indeed were never meant to, fulfil the entire vocation of the Church as individuals. We must work out what God has gifted and charged us to do (properly discerned with the Church), do that, and let those with other gifts exercise theirs. From time to time, for various reasons (enthusiasm, insecurity, narcissism – usually enthusiasm, but the others feature as well), people will want to make their particular vocation the duty of the whole church. Preachers will want everyone to preach, those who serve the poor want everyone to serve the poor, those with vocations to overseas missions want everyone to abandon their homeland. Indeed, Church accountants may be the only group within the body of Christ that don’t make much effort call others to their way of life. The pastoral genius of the Twelve apostles is that they didn’t make their vocation the mandate for everyone, but decided to continue preaching in order to remind the community who they were in the Messiah, and how their gifts may be used in His Kingdom. The preaching of the Word of God creates the context in which all of these vocations can be pursued and all gifts used without competition, until the body reaches maturity, and the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.