Acts, Chapter 6
"Organized Religion". The phrase already has a negative connotation to many ears. Organized religious entities have certainly done their part, over the years, to earn the red flag that the term now sends up. But is the concept, by nature, corrupt? Scripture shows us that this isn't the case.
In this chapter of Acts, we see that the early church was doing something very good. They were giving priority to caring for their widows. Making sure their needs were met. However one cultural segment of the church felt that their widows weren't being given the same attention as all the others. When the Apostles (also called "The Twelve") heard about this, they called a "church meeting". They examined the way they had been gifted and recognized that God had given the 12 Apostles a unique gift for speaking and revealing the words of God. Because this ability was so rare, and they knew they wouldn't live forever, they felt a sense of urgency to dedicate themselves to the task of speaking the word of God, delegating to others some of the administrative work required to serve people effectively.
When the church creates structure, it should be to play up our individual strengths and spiritual gifting. It may take some time to figure out exactly where everyone fits best, but the goal should be to have everyone serving where they are most appropriately gifted and passionate. The Apostle Paul talks some about the nature of healthy "organized religion", comparing it to a physical body and how it ought to function. You can read more about that in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.
It's an interesting side note that the Greek word used for "serving"(food) here, Diakonia, shares a grammatical connection to the Greek word for "Deacon". We might even consider this group of seven men, chosen to distribute food, to be the first church "board of deacons". Although Paul's writings will go into more detail about the criteria for being a Deacon/Servant in the church, we can look at this passage alone and conclude that those given positions of administration in a church, whether paid or volunteer, should: a. have a good reputation, b. have some visible evidence of the Holy Spirit working in their lives and c. be wise.
And since the "servant positions" mentioned here weren't yet formalized into what modern churches would think of as "Deacons", we can apply these desired character traits to ANY kind of administrative or leadership role in our churches today.
We can see in verse 7 that God chose to bless the church after this bit of "administration" was taken care of. In light of this, we shouldn't see administrative details and goals toward "organizing" our churches as "non-spiritual" elements.
The "Freedmen" mentioned in verse nine were named because of their descent from Roman slaves. They were a legitimate part of the religious culture, but were a lower class in society than many of the other groups of religious leaders. They may have not been as wealthy or esteemed, but they seemed just as motivated to hang onto their traditions at the cost of truth.
Stephen, one of the recently elected "table-servants", was blessed by God with a ministry that involved great "wonders and signs". He displayed a great deal of wisdom in what he taught and the Freedmen didn't know how to cope with what he was saying. So they started a smear campaign to falsely accuse Stephen and twist his words.
Eventually, they brought him to the Sanhedrin (Israel's supreme court, made up of rulers, elders and religious teachers) along with some false witnesses to testify against him.
In verse 15, the text tells us that when they looked at Stephen, his face was like the face "of an angel". Since this word can also simply mean messenger, we can't be sure of what they saw. It would seem that a miraculously "glowing face" would disrupt the proceedings a little, but the interrogation continues as normal in verse 1 of the next chapter so there probably weren't any "Hollywood visual effects" going on. However, we can at least assume that the Sanhedrin saw something in Stephen that was unusual. They may have even sensed that this man would have something very interesting or profound to say. And he did... but we'll check that out next week!
Coffee House Question:
What are some of the pitfalls you've seen when religion gets "organized"? What do you think might be some of the benefits of "organizing" our churches?
Next Week: Stephen's Last Stand!