A few years into the new church age, Jerusalem was still its only location. It would take a decade or so for the gospel to break into the Gentile world, and the early years of the church were mainly spent growing and forming in the same city in which Christ died and was buried and rose and ascended. As the number of believers increased, so did the complexity of ministry. They awaited Christ’s return and had adopted a communal style of living. As they shared finances and resources in the church, they instituted a daily distribution of funds for those in need, including widows. Some widows were Jewish, but Hellenistic, Grecian Jews. Influenced by Greek culture and style, they were different. They felt they were neglected when the aforementioned daily distribution took place. Their complaint arose all the way to the apostles.
The apostles responded to the complaint with the determination they ought not to leave the word of God to serve tables, but should instead give themselves to the word and prayer. Instead, the apostles thought, the church should select seven men of good repute, men full of the Holy Spirit, who would preside over the dolling out of financial matters. The people agreed, seven men were chosen, and the word of God increased in the church and community.
Looking back, it was likely a crucial moment in the church’s life. Luke knew it, so he wrote of it. The Spirit knew it, so he helped the apostles. The danger was that the word-based messengers of the church would become embroiled in affairs which would keep them from the proclamation of God’s word, and that would be a fatal blow for the infant church. Fortunately, wisdom prevailed, and the word went forward. We stand today because of the apostles’ doctrine. We are glad they prioritized it.
The entire moment, though, stands as a great example of growing pains for every generation of the church. When a church has eighty people, and the Spirit takes them up to 120, pain comes. When expansion occurs, the entire church feels the strains of growth. When complaints about ministry focus and philosophies arise, the tension, however small or significant, is real. Leaders and churches of all sizes and shapes, if they want to see the Spirit work in their midst, must prepare themselves for the inevitable challenges attached to growth. Here are seven lessons — I’m sure there are many more — we can glean from the Acts 6 story to help us endure church growing pains today.
1. Expect Distractions
At this point in the Acts story, the church had endured some opposition. The full-scale wrath of persecution had not yet unleashed, but conflict had already arisen for their work of gospel preaching and evangelization. The apostles had been detained, then arrested, and finally beaten for the gospel’s sake. The enemy of our souls had tried to stop the church through persecution, but they had responded with prayers asking God for boldness.
Unsuccessful in stopping the church through persecution, Satan added the tactic of influencing church members toward compromise. Ananias and Saphira, during a season of hyper-generosity in the church, had colluded together as a married couple to deceive the church into thinking they were more generous than they truly were. It was classic hypocrisy, an attempt to appear to be something you are not. God struck them down as a divine warning to every subsequent generation that he sees and despises the hypocritical heart and spirit.
Ineffective with persecution and compromise, Satan attempted another tactic — distraction. He would have loved nothing more than to see the apostles of Christ devote their lives to settling the complaints of the people and handling the smaller financial affairs of the church. He would have enjoyed watching these disciples, men who had lived and walked and talked with Jesus, spend their days counting coins and engaging in the distribution. The church’s love and charity were good, and the Devil would’ve been perfectly happy to drown the apostles in the good stuff to keep them from the best stuff.
Churches can expect, especially during times of growth, that distractions will come. There is no stopping the litany of requests and pulls in various directions. However, the church that wants to see real Spirit-fueled growth and expansion occur must know how to structure themselves so that the word of God can go on. Pastors and leaders who become suffocated out of the word and prayer do a disservice to the body of Christ. Focus on the main things must be maintained.
2. Organization Can Further the Word of God
When the church grows, organization is a must. Personally, I prefer the way the church looked immediately after Christ’s ascension. 120 people, together, praying. But that didn’t last long because the Spirit was about to fall upon that starter group. And as the church expands, some structure will become necessary so that discipleship and ministry and helps and outreach can flourish.
Remember, however, that the organization the early church adopted was designed so that the word could be the priority. Like Jethro’s counsel to Moses, advice in which the word would increase because Moses wouldn’t be the only communicator to millions of people, but judges for tens, hundreds, and thousands would be raised up, so the church can adopt organization when it leads to the expansion of the word of God. We are not to organize for organization’s sake, but for the ministry of the word and prayer’s sake.
3. Because Change Is Inevitable We Must Be Adaptable
By definition, a growing and fruitful church is a changing one. Churches are alive, living organisms which age, mature, and grow. Parents cannot stop the inevitable growth of their children, but ready and prepare themselves to adapt to the changes in their kids. Churches also morph and develop over time, so it behooves us to prepare for the changes which most certainly will come. In a sense, change is the only thing which doesn’t change. It must happen.
The apostles were adept at seeking the Lord and responding to the changes found in the early church. They had the advantage of little history as a church, so they could not fall back on “the way it's always been done.” Still, even a few short years in, it is not hard to imagine change was hard to come by. Thankfully, they forged a new path when it was necessary, and the church then and now is better for it. To name a few areas to be adaptable, modern church leaders do well to adapt to shifts in their leadership team, the key members of the congregation, and the tendencies and questions of the upcoming generations.
4. People Should Not Be Put Into Positions They Aren’t Ready For
The apostles wanted men who were first, men of a good reputation, second, full of the Spirit, and third, full of wisdom. Years later, when Paul wrote to Timothy, qualifications for deacons were codified (1 Timothy 3:8-12), but the root and foundation of that future office is found in this story.
The apostles were not willing to put people who were ill-prepared in character or ability in roles they could not handle, nor did they want to hoard all ministry opportunities to themselves. Modern churches must walk the fine line of faith and faithfulness when raising up the next generation of leaders. We cannot install people who are lacking in the Spirit or wisdom or reputation, but we must also take risks with those who have these elements. These seven were ready, so they were installed.
5. There Are Different Roles in the Body of Christ
The apostles gave themselves to the word and prayer. They said, “It is not good for us to leave the word of God to serve tables.” The modern reader might find themselves offended at the statement. Who are these men who rebuff widows and refuse to engage in a simple complaint? Don’t you have time to participate in a simple daily distribution? Do you think yourself above this task? Are you so self-important that you cannot engage in affairs such as these?
You see, Christ had told the apostles that to be great, they must become the slave of all. However, their application of Jesus’ teaching was not that they would do everything, but the things which, given their gifts and callings, would lead to the greatest service to the body of Christ. Peter, for one, would have heard the voice of his master on the shores of Galilee saying to him, “Do you love me? Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” He would’ve known how the word-based ministry was a most vital way in which he could serve the flock of God, for without it they would emaciate.
In a body of believers, various gifts are to meet various needs. The word-based officers are not to do it all, nor is everyone called to the word-based role. Together, in our different positions, we are to work together for the betterment of all.
6. The Word Is Important to the Work
The prioritization of the word in a church’s life is slow work, but it leads to the most exceptional fruit. The apostles felt the Hellenist complaint was legitimate, but, for them, not pressing. It was the problem of the day, the emergency which needed immediate tending, but they would not go there. They knew they were responsible for the continued declaration of Scripture to the people.
Pastors today must focus on the word and prayer, just like these early apostles. There is always something in society and culture which pulls a pastor away from the word. He is under pressure to allow distraction into his mind and heart. It is not the job of the pastor to keep the church informed on the latest social or political activity in society. It is not their primary calling to engage in social work or activism. If such a man as Apostle Paul, who lived during a rampant and systemic system of slavery in the Roman Empire, simply preached a gospel which would slowly erode the system but mostly left the subject alone, then we ought to do the same. Preach the word and let the slow burn of the gospel destroy the idols and altars of the soul.
7. Great Things Can Be Accomplished When We Work Together
At various moments in his Acts record, Dr. Luke gave a brief progress report. At the end of this episode, he gave another. “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).
As the church develops and grows and moves on, great things can be accomplished when we work together. Had the deacons not stepped up at this point, the apostles would’ve become bogged down. But because everyone did their part and conducted their ministry, the word increased, the number of disciples increased, and even many priests came to the faith. To God be the glory.