REVIEW by Satya Maharjan
Ministry teams are thriving in every local church congregation. These teams are the ones that are formed and dispatched in the area of the ministry where needs are mostly felt. In order to deal with new emerging challenges that come with the healthy growth in the church, Christians are to work together in a team. This team is called the “ministry team”. But the term “ministry team” carries an adverse connotation in the North American churches, since the “team” is highly associated with business corporates.
However, the ministry team was the exemplary fashion and mark of the apostolic church that is modelled to enhance the ministry. This is the featuring element of forming the ministry team of the Seven in Acts 6:1-7, if the historical text is correctly understood. The proposition of the article is to inform the readers that the apostolic concession to the Seven is a temporary ministry-team formation in order to deal with a certain situation for the time being. Therefore, the following pattern should not be taken as a basis to implement the ongoing office of deacons in the church.
Prior to appointment of the Seven, apostles themselves operated certain duties that were allocated to the Seven. So, those Seven were probably not entitled as deacons. As Pelikan affirms that the office of deacons became normative not earlier than the late second or third century. Thus, the critical exegetes of our time are more reluctant to not label the Seven in Acts 6 as deacons rather than referring them as “the Seven.”
Sell, the author of the journal, has shed some light on the background of the appointment of the Seven in the apostolic church. He analyses verse 1 and verse 7 to help us to understand the rudimentary truths in Acts 6:1-7. Verse 1 indicates that many were converted to Christianity, and verse 7 clearly states that the church was exploding with growth now. The underlying event that led the apostles to appoint the Seven is in verses 2-6. Had they not dealt with godly wisdom and sensitivity, that event could have cost dearly for the apostles in their effort to expand the church. Conflict in the church could have overturned the rapid growth of the church as well as created a thick partition between the Hebraic and Hellenistic Jews in the church. But wise dealing of the apostles that put this conflict to end can be edifying for our present day church to engage when similar conflict comes along.
According to Sell, the problem in the apostolic church was more serious than the Grecian widows being overlooked in the “daily distribution of food” (v.1). There was accusation on Hebraic Jews that they should not assume dominance over Hellenistic Jews only because of their birthplace and language. They had no ground to treat Greek-speaking Jews as the second-class citizens. Their detrimental and low views of Hellenistic Jews had become a desperate menace to the wonderfully growing church.
The tension between Hebraic Jews and Hellenistic Jews in verses 2-6 was beyond unequal distribution of food to the Grecian Jews but their “perception of prejudicial treatment.” Despite the facts that apostles were overseeing the charitable arrangement of distributing food to the needy including widows, the Aramaic-speaking Jews were charged of prejudicial treatment on Greek-speaking Jews. This was a serious charge, and the apostles treated it very seriously. For this very reason, the Seven were chosen among the brothers. Therefore, the selection of the Seven had to do more with allegation of prejudicial treatment among brothers than food distribution.
Upon the apostles’ beseech to the disciples, the Seven were chosen from among themselves for the ministry of food distribution. The apostles treated both preaching of the Word and distribution of food equally as a ministry. For this matter, they selected men with “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” (v.3). The apostles laid their hand upon them and prayed for them. This is the mark of commission for the ministry. As Sell writes that the thriving of the church in verse 7 followed by the narration of conflict in verses 2-6 shows the successful ministry of the Seven in the church.
Sell also assumes that the ministry of the Seven might have come to the end after the resolution of the conflict in the church. Nonetheless, there is not any hint of their duration of the ministry. He has a basis to claim that the designated ministry for the Seven did not last long because of the persecution. In Acts 7, Stephen who is one of the Seven was murdered heinously for his testimony. This barbaric persecution continues in chapter 8 which indicates that except the apostles, all the disciples were scattered into Judea and Samaria.
The biblical expositors have been debating on the apostles’ laying their hands on the Seven as an ordination for lifetime office or simply a commissioning for certain period of time for specific, short-term mission. The various Bible passages seem to support both in different context. Yet some of the biblical passages suggest strongly that the apostles’ laying hands on the Seven was not an act of ordination for lifetime office but simply authorizing and confirming the Seven to work on behalf of the apostles. They were commissioned to a specific task of the time; a short-term mission to resolve the conflict in the church.
Despite the fact that many argue from this passage to support their view for the continuity of the deacon’s office in the church, Sell maintains that the Seven were not mentioned as the deacons in the passage other than referring to their work as “ministry” in general. Next, classifying the Seven as the deacons does not do enough justice to their work. Since they were assigned to the office that had to deal only with everyday physical and temporal needs of the church, the position was looked upon as an inferior to other spiritual role as Elders. If this was to be true, then it also would have demarcated the role of the deacons to only satisfying the needy people in the church. However, the case was otherwise. Stephen and Philip among the Seven were actively involved in the ministry of the Word. Stephen was even performing miraculous signs and evangelizing and defending his faith in the mass. So, the Book of Acts does not support the view that the deacons are commissioned only for engaging in non-spiritual role, such as meeting the needs of the people, other than ministry of the Word.
Therefore, the commission of the Seven in Acts 6:1-7 should be regarded as a pattern for the formation of the “ministry team,” instead of viewing it as the ordination of the first deacons. This particular event in the church history should be viewed as a unique opportunity for us to edify the present day church to come together to solve problems or take challenges together as a team in the church ministry.
EVALUATION OF THE JOURNAL
Sell’s writing is clear and full of insight. He does not simply assume that the passage is not about the continuity of the deacon’s office in the church. Rather, he postulates his points to make case for the passage as the pattern to form the “ministry team.” And he offers four valuable principles of teamwork that can be seen in Acts 6:1-7 in order to address the problems in our ministry.
He identifies the need of clear understanding and purpose of mission as the first principle of any teamwork. Without clarity of purpose in the mission, confusion may rule out the success of the teamwork. Their level of performance and clear understanding of their mission or purpose is solely responsible for their team success in the ministry. They should be purpose directed and mission oriented.
The second principle, as he puts in order, is a crystal clear role of each team member. If all team members know their role, their responsibility, and contribution to the team, they will have all what it takes them to accomplish the team’s vision. This is the model in Acts 6 where the apostles and the Seven had their distinctive roles and their shares of the ministry. Moreover, the roles should be outlined necessarily so, in order to make each team member play their roles without overlapping with others.
Recruitment of team members is listed as the third principle of teamwork. As per the division of labor, we also need people of character, quality, and essential abilities to meet our team’s vision. Although Acts 6 does not demand specific gifts and talents of the Seven as qualifications for the ministry, the Scripture does require “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” as high standard qualification of the Seven (v.3).
The fourth principle is the need of motivation for the team to work its way. Highly qualified and able members do not guarantee success unless they are enabled to act. The team should be given freedom and authority to work in the bounds of the team’s vision. Unnecessary obstruction, needlessly bureaucratic procedure, and excessively detailed control of the teamwork from authorizing body can hinder the teamwork.
Equally, we can see this in Acts 6 that the apostles did not meddle in the affairs of the Seven. On the contrary, they appealed to the congregation to find people from among themselves. They did not handpick people of their choice. Then, they also publicly “conveyed a modicum of apostolic authority” to the Seven, so that they might be able to accomplish their tsk through teamwork.
All the principles are very practical and should be taken as guiding principles for the ministry. Sell’s assessment of the passage also gives his readers a clear understanding of the original text that is used to define the work of the Seven as “ministry” rather than deacon. His brief word-study of the uses of the same Greek term helps people of no Greek knowledge also know that the term “deacon” is used nowhere in the passage. This is a huge leap for the lay-people to read and comprehend the passage in a new understanding.
In the essay, Sell is not arguing whether there should be an office of deacons or not in the church. For the Greek term “diakonos” is not used to refer the Seven as the deacons. Instead, he is proposing that we should view the passage as a way to deal with unique problems that come along with the growth of the church. The way the apostles addressed the problem in the church in Jerusalem can be a prototype for our generation and generations to come. So, he laid out four principles to back up his arguments for the Seven as the “ministry team” and invites us to take them into consideration for our ministry.
However, his argument for the Seven possibly commissioned for the short-term mission is not persuasive. Of course, the disciples were scattered during persecution. The reason we see Stephen and Philip serving the Word of God in different geographical regions corroborates the claim. But can we take the position to claim that the problem in the church in Jerusalem might have been solved after their dispersion? Is it not possible that the same charge of “prejudicial treatment” existed even after their dissemination in different regions?
Thus, I do not buy Sell’s assumption that the ministry of the Seven might have ended after shortly. By all odds, they were not deacons but their ministry might not have halted right after the problem was solved. I think the faithful ones might have been in the ministry for a long time, so that the same charge or problem in the church would not emerge time and again.
I appreciate the author’s concept of teamwork and emphasizing the ministry as a “team ministry.” My personal experience also shows that teamwork is always important for the success of the ministry team. I have learned about the servanthood ministry in team where people of different personality, characters, talents, and skills come together for common cause or mission. We learn to fit into shoes of each other in the team ministry.
My past couple of years ministry tenure in the Operation Mobilization and the Gospel for Asia ministry were based on teamwork. In OM, we were teams that were dispatched to different parts of the country for short-term mission. I learned to serve teammates on my best level and achieve the goals of our mission. It was effective in the mission field when we worked as a team. We defended each other in the hostile area where Gospel was not welcomed. In the midst of confusion and doubts about our goal, we discussed together and came up with ideas that helped us to accomplish our mission successfully.
Role of each team member was defined clearly. When team members did not function as a unit in the ministry team, constantly problems and confusion were inevitable in the team. So, we knew our parts to play in the team. I never knew that we encroached each other’s dominion of the ministry, except for those who were not ready to humble themselves. Every action has reaction. Thence, we were pushed to limit our time in one particular place for evangelism and had to move to other parts of the country for ministry. This shows how much ministry can be affected in both positive and negative way through team ministry. If the team is intact, goal is not too far away to achieve. One a member of the team does not cooperate with the team; it can ruin your mission.