A model church board – reflections on Acts 6

The apostles had a very specific role: their chief task was to be witnesses of the resurrection. But the church needed more than preachers and teachers, it needed managers. It also needed managers to deal with the financial and pastoral issues arising from the needs of the Greek-speaking widows. So the apostles proposed that a board of management be elected. They said to the church: “Select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task” (Acts 6.3 NRSV).

Traditionally the office of ‘deacon’ has been traced back to this passage. But in many ways this is an unhelpful association, because today the word ‘deacon’ comes with a good deal of baggage. In a Baptist context, for instance, deacons are the ‘managing trustees’ of a local church; whereas in an Anglican context, deacons are essentially probationer ministers who have yet to be ‘priested’. The reality is that at this point in the life of the church there are no ‘deacons’ – the Greek word (diakonos) from which we get our word ‘deacon’ is not used by Luke. Rather, the apostles propose that seven men be elected to ‘serve’ (diakonein) the church by sorting out the financial and pastoral issues arising from the needs of the Greek-speaking widows – so that the apostles could devote themselves to the ‘service’ (diakonia) of the word.

From our perspective today we might say that here in Acts 6 we have the development of two ‘tiers’ of leadership: the twelve apostles realised they needed to hand over some of their managerial function to what we might term a board made up of seven men. The important point, however, which I wish to make is that for both groups leadership was a form of service (diakonia). Furthermore, in this regard we need to bear in mind that Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles was written by one and the same person: and that it is in Luke’s Gospel that, within the context of the Last Supper, we have the account of Jesus saying to his disciples:

“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves (diakonon , a present participle of diakonein). For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves (diakonon)? But I am among you as one who serves (diakonon)”. (Luke 22.25-27)

Unfortunately in most modern translations of Acts 6 the reference to ‘service’ has been lost: e.g. the NRSV and the NIV speak of ‘waiting on tables’, while the GNB speaks of ‘handling finances’. Whatever was the precise task of the seven, it was a form of service – just as the preaching and teaching of the apostles was a form of service. On reflection it is perhaps wrong to speak of different ‘tiers’ of leadership, for in the Kingdom of Christ there is no place for ‘hierarchy’ – we are all equal in the service of God (even although our roles may be different).

So in terms of qualifications for leading the church forward, members of this board of management had to have the following characteristics:

  1. They had to be men with a ‘servant-heart’! The exercise of leadership is a form of ‘service’ and is very different from ‘lording’ it over others.
  2. They had to be “men of good standing” (6.3 NRSV), “men of good repute” (REB), “men whom everyone trusts” (Peterson). The actual Greek word comes from the Greek word for a witness (martouroumenos) and is also used in 1 Tim 3.7 – i.e. men whose lives bore witness to their faith. Here we see that in leadership character is vital.
  3. They had to be “men full of the Spirit” (6.3 NRSV). What does this mean? According to J.B. Phillips it means men who are “spiritually minded”; according to another commentator, men of “mature faith” (Robinson and Wall). However, in the context of the Acts of the Apostles, people who were filled with the Spirit were people who spoke freely about Jesus (2.4; 4.8, 31). That’s a significant qualification for leadership!
  4. They had to be “men of wisdom” (6.3 NRSV) – this is more than simply being people of “good sense” as Peterson suggests; in this context ‘wisdom’ surely refers to organisational talent, or what Ben Witherington calls “the ability to discern the right thing to do when choices must be made”. It is not enough for a group of church leaders to be spiritually-minded – they must also be gifted in dealing with people and with structures.
  5. Although not singled out by the apostles, there is a fifth qualification. Like Stephen, the seven needed to be men “full of faith” (6.5) – the faith in mind is not saving faith (that would be true of any church member) but faith that dreams, faith that dares, faith that believes with God all things are possible

One further thought: is it significant that the seven had to be “men”? Had the apostles yet to see the implication of God’s pouring out his Spirit upon “all flesh… both men and women” (see Joel 2 and Acts 2)? Reta Halteman Finger, an American New Testament scholar, observed: “That men were chosen for table service could mean that they were appointed to supervise quarrelling women. It is just possible, however, that the choice is in conformity with the Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus calling male leaders in his community to act as those serving others at table”: i.e. what in first century culture was a woman’s task became a man’s task!

In conclusion, it is often said that much of what we read in the Acts of the Apostles is ‘descriptive’ rather than ‘prescriptive’. Furthermore the situations we face today are very different from the situation facing the Jerusalem church. Nonetheless I believe that these five qualifications for leadership are still relevant to church life today. Indeed I would argue that here in Acts 6 we have a ‘model church board’.

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