Studies in Acts
Lesson 10: “Division in Ministry
As Abraham Lincoln famously said, “You can please some of the people all of the time; you can please all of the people some of the time; but you can never please all of the people all of the time.”
Even though he said that in the context of politics, there is a real sense in which it applies to the ministry also. There are many people in the world and in the church, who just assume without thinking about it, that the pastor is the central figure in the church, and that he does any kind of ministry that needs to be done. And even though there have been many years of history to back up that idea, the scripture doesn’t back it up at all; in fact, it says just the opposite! And the place where that concept is introduced is the passage to which we now come in our study of the book of Acts. The chapter falls into two parts:
In verses 1 through 7 we see the appointment of servants And then in verses 8 through 15 we have the accusation of Stephen. Even though this may seem like a very simple chapter, it is actually the beginning of a turning point in the entire New Testament. It is a turning point in terms of the organization of the ministry, and there is a turning point in terms of the “cost” of the ministry.
So let’s look first at the appointment of servants as we find it in verses 1-8 And the first thing we see there is the setting of the whole incident in verse one:
Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists[Greeks] because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.
Here is a situation which many churches would envy – “church growth” – we know that the church had grown to at least 5,000 within just a few months. This is probably the hottest topic among pastors and seminary students today. Countless books and articles and seminars have been given on the subject. But this passage shows that church growth is not without its problems – it is not always the perfect situation it is sometimes cracked up to be. But even in the midst of all that growth they were doing a lot of things right. And one of those things was a distribution of food to widows.
We know from chapter 3 that they were concerned with each other’s needs. And this may have been an outgrowth of the practices of the Jewish synagogue of that time. It may have included more than widows, but that is the problem focused on in this chapter arose. Women in general and widows in particular were an especially disadvantaged group in that society. First century customs and practices did not include the welfare of widows, and a widow who had no adult children was particularly in need. But its importance is shown in the fact that it was still a concern of Paul much later (near the end of his life) when he included it in his instructions to his protégé Timothy. And because it was included in the New Testament, it is still a valid concern today. Incidentally, this is another illustration of how the onset of Christianity improved the situation of many groups which had been the objects of discrimination or neglect in society in general.
Now the disagreement in this chapter arose in a “perceived” discrimination against the Gentile widows in favor of the Jewish widows. This at least implies that the Jews were administering the program. At this point in time there were more Jewish Christians than Gentiles. And it was the Gentiles who were complaining. There is no historical evidence that this was or was not true – and that is really beside the point of the passage anyway. But just the “perception” of discrimination is at the root of many church problems even today.
So that is “the setting” out of which this situation arose, but in verses 2 through 7 we find the settlement at which the apostles arrived. The first factor in the settlement of the problem is the explanation which we find in verse 2:
(2) Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.
The importance of this situation is demonstrated in the fact that they called the whole church together (“the multitude of the disciples”) The importance was not so much in terms of the subject that was being disputed, but in terms of the action they were about to take in settling the dispute was a whole new direction in ministry. And the principles involved in that new direction in ministry were important enough for all Christians to understand (although many don’t, even today.) So there was first this “explanation,” then the second part of the settlement of the dispute is in the organization that is described in verses 3 through 6:
Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business, but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and the ministry of the Word.”
Here we have the first instance of “shared ministry” between the apostles and other Christians. And notice how the division is made: “business” – verse 3, and “’ministry of the word” – verse 4. And this is a division that is carried out throughout the New Testament.
Romans 12:3 through 12, one of the passages that deals with the doctrine of spiritual gifts, gives a good summary:
For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith (4)For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, (5) so we, being many, are one body in Christ and individually members one of another (6) Having then gifts differing, according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them:if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; (7) or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; (8)he who exhorts in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads with diligence; he who shows mercy with cheerfulness.”
Here we have the illustration of Christians working together like the various parts of the body do – all with different functions. And the distinction in the kinds of gifts is made in verse 7 – “ministry” and “teaching” (“prophecy” is no longer needed because of the completed canon of scripture.) Then he gives examples of each of the divisions. So obviously, God does not expect every Christian to be a pastor or a missionary. There are other valid, important, ways to serve the Lord. Another place where this distinction is taught in even more detail is I Corinthians chapters 12 through 14. Now something that is very important in understanding this new arrangement is to notice what the apostles were not saying: They were not saying “the feeding of widows is not important enough for us to fool with.” Neither were they saying “if peripheral programs cause problems we just won’t have them.” But they also were not saying this is so important that we will just have to give up our prayer and ministry time to take care of it.”
So what were they saying? They were saying, “this is an important issue that must be dealt with”
But there are other equally important things that must be dealt with.” Therefore, we will have a division of labor.” And this principle carries over into the church today (even though it is largely overlooked.)
So what were they saying? They were saying “this is an important issue that must be dealt with. “But there are also equally important things that must be dealt with. “Therefore we will have a division of labor.” And this principle carries over into the church today (although it is largely overlooked.) The subconscious assumption of most people is that the pastor is supposed to do everything. But the real focus of the work of the pastor is given in Ephesians 4:11-15.
And He gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers (12) for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry for the edifying of the body of Christ;(13) till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (14)that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the slight of men and cunning craftiness whereby they lie in wait to deceive. (15) but speaking the truth in love, may grow up in Him in all things which is the head, even Christ.”
Verse 11 says that Christ gave to the church men who have the gift of pastor-teacher, and men with the gift of evangelism (apostles and prophets too at first) and His purpose was “for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry. “Now I can just hear someone thinking, listen to that, “preachers only work one day a week,” and now they want us to do the work of the ministry.” (just kidding) but actually there is a sense in which that is what these verses are saying.
And the result of that arrangement will be a stable maturity where Christians are not “tossed about with every wind of doctrine” according to verse 14, but who can counsel and teach each other as newcomers to the group. Let me give you what I believe to be a pastor’s order of priorities in the ministry, based on these various passages of scripture: First and foremost is the preparation and presentation of the teaching of the Word of God (8 hours of preparation per hour of teaching should be the norm.) This would include worship services, funerals and weddings, and bible studies (home or church).
A second priority would be activities that help with the application of the teaching. This would include such things as premarital counseling and working with families about funeral services. It would include such things as encouraging people with serious illnesses or injuries in the application of scripture to their situation. Only then does the pastor’s ministry involve general visitation, public relations, community activities, etc. It is my opinion (although probably none of my business) that the large majority of pastors and churches have these priorities exactly backwards.
Now we have seen “the explanation” of the situation, and “the organization” designed to facilitate it. But the third aspect of the situation is the ordination of these men that took place in verses 5 and 6
(5) And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the holy Spirit and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, (6) whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them.
We have a tendency to think that the pastors and Sunday School teachers have very spiritual work to do, but that other church workers (staff members and otherwise) are more of a secular nature. But look at these men. They were chosen for their godliness and set apart with a public prayer of dedication. Even though their work was not in the area of teaching and preaching, it was just as sacred as the work of the apostles. And that is demonstrated in the next point: because after the “explanation” and the “organization,” multiplication was a natural result. Look at verse 7:
Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.
We began our study in the context of “church growth” and now we come full circle back to it again. Do you see where church growth comes from? Not from putting on a catchy, entertaining program that will attract people who are disenchanted with the church they are going to, not by offering a class for every interest group in town, and not by having facilities that are on a par with the best shopping malls and office buildings. Those things may have their place under certain conditions, but real, biblical church growth comes from bringing people to Christ as a result of a spiritually centered, cooperating organization of spiritual gifts and abilities.
Although it might not appear so at first glance, what we have here in the beginning of chapter 6 is yet another attack of Satan. First he had attacked from outside – the Sanhedrin in chapter 4; then he attacked from within – Ananias and Saphira in chapter 5. But here is the most subtle attack of all: distraction from ministry by means of an argument of an argument about methods. Fortunately the apostles were able to “nip it in the bud” before it became a problem, but many ministries fall prey to this kind of thing, and it is hard to deal with because often “the good is the enemy of the best.” and it is hard to see beyond some good that is being done. And remember that this took place under the leadership of the apostles themselves! Good leadership in and of itself is not necessarily a preventative of problems. But God has His own designs for the way things should be done, and we ignore it to our peril!
The purpose of these studies is to draw you closer to Jesus Christ. If you do not know him, it is my prayer that they will help you understand that Romans 3:23 says that you, like all of us, have sinned and come short of the glory of God. And Romans 6:23 says that the result of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ. And Acts 16:32 says “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. If I can be of help to you in understanding any of this information I can be reached at