As the early church grew rapidly, conditions required that steps be taken to meet the needs that arose in the congregation; in this text we see needs, responses to needs, and two all-time firsts. The main problem that came up was ministering to the needs of widows. In these times, to become a widow was very often a complete economic disaster, for without a husband or family to provide, a woman was unable to keep body and soul together, particularly an older woman. A young widow would find a man to marry, and he would provide for her, but an older widow would often be destitute. Jewish custom had made allowances for their needs, and the early church had also done so. Yet as the church was growing so rapidly, some widows began to be overlooked and something needed to be done about it.
At the same time, there were two groups within the church which had often been in conflict in the Jewish community, the Hellenistic Jews and the Hebraic Jews. The Hellenistic Jews had adopted Greek manners and customs over the years since the conquests of Alexander the Great, and many of them had moved to Judea from widely dispersed regions of the known world. The Hebraic Jews were largely descendants of those who returned to Jerusalem after the captivity and who had retained the traditional Jewish ways. You can easily see how friction would be the result of these cultural differences, and they can be compared to differences in today’s church between traditionalist and non-traditionalist approaches to things like worship style and church organization.
The first recorded division within the church is described in 6:1 as these two groups became conflicted about the ministry to widows; apparently some Hellenistic widows had been overlooked. Notice that the apostles responded very quickly to this problem and came up with a solution: they would create the first ever ministry team comprised of seven men of high character who were to be selected by the congregation at large (6:2-4).
The apostles seem to have become stretched too thin as their preaching and ministry “of the Word” had grown, and since they were the ones who were eyewitnesses of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, they were the ones who needed to attend to it, and others were needed to handle the benevolent ministries, and the issue was promptly resolved to everyone’s satisfaction (6:5-6).
As a result, the church continued to prosper and grow rapidly; even “a large number of priests” came to believe. Sadly, Luke doesn’t give us any more specific number so that we might have an idea what “a large number” looked like…
For us today, there is a lesson here, for a problem surfaces and it was timely solved by the creation of a ministry team in which the apostles delegated some of their activities to others who had demonstrated the wisdom and maturity to handle it. We can certainly gain insight by noting that the apostles did not wring their hands in despair at the idea of delegating, nor did they assume that they were the only ones who could possibly be trusted to get the job done, nor did they allow gossip or division to continue while they asked God to send them a professional. Instead they led the community decisively, responsively and wisely, and the Kingdom prospered as a result.
Yet, there were storm clouds on the horizon…