Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. 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. (Act 6:1-7)
“Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Thus the first church council is formed, the first elders appointed. And already confusion sets in as we try to translate what we just read to our modern day practice. What we call elders today would have been called deacons in the early church. When the New Testament speaks of elders it is referring to what we call the pastoral office. But the early church soon found out it needed more than the apostles. 3,000 can you imagine? 3,000 members in one day. And it kept growing. By the time we are in chapter six the congregation may have been up to 6,000 or so. Who knows? I’ll put this in perspective a bit. 3,000 is a congregation larger than the town population of Staples MN. Where I grew up. 3,000 is approximately 500 more than the number of confirmed Missouri Synod Lutherans on the inflated books of the 16 congregations in the Utah circuit of the Rocky Mountain District, that somehow manage to support four day schools even to this day. This is a lot to keep track of. The offerings that are coming in for the support of the work is huge. The accounts are getting out of control, people are getting overlooked, the disciples themselves are overwhelmed. They themselves begin to realize that there ministry is suffering as the work of Moses suffered when he was the only judge for Israel. So they ask for men of good repute, men that you can trust, to be put in charge of the finances.
Serving tables, every time I read the phrase I think of waiters and waitresses. In my world they are still called that, they work in restaurants and serve tables. They take orders and bring food they often also take care of the check. This is the image I think most of us get in our heads. We think immediately that these men are going to be in charge of the food pantry and doing a first century version of Meals on Wheels. But the word translated “tables” here had wider meaning in Greek. It basically meant accounts of all types. It’s possible that someone went and bought food for everyone and doled it our everyday. It is more likely that the widows were given a stipend and bought their own food according to their tastes. But the accounting early on was shoddy, books weren’t kept and jealousy and suspicion arose fairly quickly. The converts from the diaspora seemed to have felt as second class citizens in the church. These would have been Jewish people who were more comfortable in the Greek language than Aramaic and Hebrew having come from Greek speaking areas of the Roman Empire, places like Tarsus and Pergumum, Alexandria, and even Rome, which at this point had a larger Greek speaking population than a Latin speaking population. Though in Rome, it was probable that a majority of those who spoke Greek could also manage Latin. But the apostles refused to be the book keepers, and turned that over to others.
This seems smart to me. I remember early on in my ministry talking to a “nondenominational” pastor and hearing that he took care of all the church’s accounts. This seemed insane to me. He was in charge of counting the offerings, and depositing them. I’m sure he kept the books, but I did kind of wonder how many sets, and which ones he showed the congregation and the IRS. Suspicion arises after a five minute conversation! Personally, I’d rather just take that which the congregation has agreed to pay me and let a panel of others be in charge of the books, men known by the congregation to be of good repute.
That is the only qualification given here in Acts. Later on in the Pastoral Epistles of Paul there will be a laundry list of characteristics that make for good repute, man of one woman, manages his own household well, children are believers. Some of these things are listed for elders and most repeated for deacons. I don’t know of too many pastors who don’t shudder as they read those passages. It’s the pastors that don’t shudder who scare me though. Are they so oblivious to sin in their lives? I mean you have to wonder what kind of a hand they have with their people, and whether they know how to lift a finger to help rather than pile on more law. The only thing I know to do today is trust that God uses the weak ones of this world to shame the strong, the foolish to shame the wise. I’ve known elders, the modern day deacons, who often don’t feel qualified for the office due to some failure they perceive in their lives. This is the way it so often is though, we see ourselves differently than others see us. No one can examine their soul and come away smelling roses. And it is absolutely right, they don’t know about you what you know of yourself. And yet, often times they know things about you that you don’t see yourself either. If the congregation has nominated you and elected you to office they probably suspect that you are a sinner like the rest of them, but they hold you in good repute anyway and trust you will be able to do the job they have asked of you. And they probably wouldn’t feel that way about you if you didn’t know you were a sinner.