The Origins of a Continuing Order of Ministry (Sun. May 8)

The word of the day is “appoint.”  Today’s society believes that there always is a better way.   Invention will improve anything.  Innovation will make everything function more efficiently.  However, the foundations of Holy Tradition in the church are enduring and are not subject to improvement.  One of these is the church order of ordained clergy.  Today in our reading of Act 6:1-7, we read of the establishment of the order of deacons in the church. The twelve apostles said, “Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint for this business [of administration and caring]”  (OSB vs.  3). Based on this model, our deacons continue to serve the church today.

In today’s reading, we find the nascent church has outgrown the apostles’ ability to manage it.  In the wisdom of the Spirit, the apostles ask the multitude of believers to choose seven men who will have responsibility for administering the daily distribution of food to the widows.  This ministry will free the apostles to devote their full attention to prayer and the preaching and teaching of the Word (OSB vs. 4).

A Window into the Life of the Early Church

This incident reveals some helpful background about the new community of believers.  It included two groups.  The first were those whom Luke calls “Hellenists.”  These were from a group of Jews who were scattered throughout the Roman empire in the “diaspora.”  They had adapted to the Greco-Roman ways and spoke Greek.  Hence, they were called “Hellenists” from a word referring to what is Greek.  The second group was from the Jewish homeland.  They continued to speak Hebrew.  But they also used Aramaic for everyday communication.

The Solution to a Growing Division

The distinction between these two groups is apparent in the complaint of the “Hellenists” that their widows were “neglected in the daily distribution” of food and provisions.  The term “neglect” has the sense of “to overlook” (Strong’s #3865, 190).   Thus, the oversight was probably unintentional.  It was due to the complexity of the growing numbers of believers (OSB vs. 1).  The multiplication of the company of believers demanded a new kind of leadership, the ordained order we call “deacons.”

If we look closely, we find that the names that the community nominated for this ministry are Greek names.  Accordingly, we can surmise that they were chosen to remedy the specific situation.  Nevertheless, this method must have proven beneficial as it became a permanent institution in the church.

Finally, recall that the first martyr of the faith, Stephen, was from this group.  Like the apostles, he spoke the Word with exceptional power.  And, like the apostles, he saw the Risen Christ.  At his death, he gazed into heaven and saw the “glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (OSB Acts 7:55).

The Qualifications of the Deacon

Note that the qualifications for the candidates for the office of deacon were that they must be trustworthy.  That is not surprising since they are to handle the church’s resources.  But more remarkable is the requirement that they had to be “full of the Holy Spirit” as well as wisdom, a gift of the Holy Spirit (OSB vs. 3).

Note also that the multitude (congregation) selected the men who are qualified.  But it was the Apostles’ role to “appoint” them “over this business” (OSB vs. 3).  And notice that how they did that was by ordination by the “laying on of hands.”  The writer of Acts puts it, “when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them” (Acts 6:6).

In this story, we get a glimpse into the practical life of the first church.  We find that step by step as the church grew, the Holy Spirit provided for the leadership and ministries of the church.

For Reflection

What about the church today?  A sure sign of the continuing, active presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our day is that the church continues to ordain men to the three Holy Orders of deacon, priest, and bishop.  At their ordination, they are especially equipped with the Holy Spirit so that they can serve the Lord and minister to the faithful.  We should thank God that He has provided these servants to minister to us and pray for them daily.

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