the weblog of Alan Knox

Prayer and the ministry of the word

Posted by on Apr 17, 2009 in elders, office, scripture, service | 15 comments

Most of us are familiar with this passage from Acts 6:

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.” (Acts 6:1-4 ESV)

Now, I often see where verse (devoting oneself to prayer and to the ministry of the word) applied to elders. In fact, I read a blog post this week in which the author applied this verse to himself as the senior pastor of a church.

To whom should this verse apply? If you choose to answer, please give the reasoning behind your answer, preferably from Scripture.


15 Comments

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  1. 4-17-2009

    :o)

    Alan,

    I believe this to be a one off description not prescription. And I believe it applies to Apostles, not elders. Here is why.

    1. The scriptures says “the Apostles”. It didn’t say elders, it didn’t say pastors it says “Apostles”. That is the first reason.

    2. If I am to study the unfolding of this historic narrative, it is ESSENTIAL that the Apostle devote themselves to prayer and the word. The foundation for the church is being laid. This is a new found faith in the midst of a Jewish political-religious atmosphere. Doctrine is being formed, the church is being built up and established and from the context this is early in the history of the Church’s life (birth on Pentecost). The way this foundation will be built will determine how the rest of the house is built. So this leads me to believe that at the beginning the vast MAJORITY of “ministry” at this point in time is rooted in those who were the leaders of the upper room.

    3. As we see this history unfold, we see that this prayer and ministry of the word begin to expand into the hands of ALL OF THE CHURCH. We see this as Peter and James are imprisoned and they were praying for Peter’s release. We see Phillip who was one of the seven chosen planting a church in Samaria, ministering to the Ethiopian, we see in Acts 11, those who scattered from the persecution take the ministry of the word to Antioch first to the Jews then the Greeks. We begin to see the whole church come together and make decisions (Acts 15).

    So given my bias I think this was applied to the Apostles and really early in their ministry. Afterward we see them really doing what Paul commands in Ephesians 4 “equipping” so that the body does the work of ministry and not a select few. This is the goal of the gift right?

  2. 4-17-2009

    Alan-
    You said, “to whom should this verse apply?”
    It is applying to the “apostles”. No if ands or buts.
    My reasoning behind this starts in chapter 2:1,3-4 “When the day of Pentecost arrived ‘they’ were all together in one place…”
    vs.3 “divided tongues of fire appeared to ‘them’.”
    vs.4 “And ‘they’ were all filled…
    Skip on down to chapter 4:37 “laid it at the ‘apostles’ feet.”
    5:12 “Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the ‘apostles’.”
    vs. 5:32 “And ‘we’ are witnesses…”
    vs.40 “and when they had called in the ‘apostles’…”
    6:2 “And the ‘twelve’ summoned the full number of disciples and said, ‘It is not right that ‘we’ should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.”
    There I just felt led to go back a little farther as some would do to justify a point. As I have the scriptures showing that basically from the beginning of Acts to this point the text was talking about the “apostles” and or the Holy Spirit. The apostles were doing the ones doing the ministry up to the point in chapter 6.
    This I hope would show someone why I have come to this conclusion.
    Because I know a lot of preachers out there who qoute chapter 6 as a reason why they shouldn’t have to work! Because they have to take the time to pray and minister the word.
    In what I read a “pastor” can’t get that out of this text if they truly read it the way they tell us to read other texts. They don’t have a problem trying to make a point about reading before and after a verse in order to justify what it truly means. Yet they don’t seem to do that with this scripture.
    Anyway you asked and you recieved my 2 cents.
    Thank you,
    Steven

  3. 4-17-2009

    This passage definitely referred to only the 12 (apostles) as being those who devoted themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. I would also suggest that even for them this was a limited “devotion” timewise. Within a few chapters, we see the apostles moving around from place to place, apparently not devoting themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word, but serving people in various capacities. Similarly, we do not see Paul or other apostles or other believers applying this to themselves. Instead, they are all serving people and encouraging other to following their example in serving people.

    So, perhaps even for the 12 apostles, they only devoted themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word for a specific limited time period.

    -Alan

  4. 4-17-2009

    Well it never says that the Apostles ever gave up their role as servants in the Church.

    The Church is a living organism. It is not as though this role was not passed on after the death of the twelve. Catholics believe that the ministry of the Apostles was handed to their successors who are today bishops. The ministry of the “seven men of good repute” is that of deacons.

    In the Catholic Church (in case you are interested), there is a three-fold order of ministry, that of bishop, presbyter and deacon. In divine service (the liturgy) you can distinguish the three orders of ministry by the vestments they wear: the deacon’s specific vestment is called a dalmatic, the presbyter’s is the chasuble, and the bishop (who in modern times is the successor to the apostles) wears both the chasuble and dalmatic because this is a sign of the fullness of ordination. So the deacon shares in the ministry of service of the bishop, but the fullness of that ministry (which includes prayer and ministry of the word) is reserved to the bishop because he is the teacher of the flock.

    That is how a Catholic would understand that passage.

  5. 4-17-2009

    Alan,

    I’m a little shocked that you chose the ESV’s “preaching the word of God” translation. Even the KJV doesn’t use that phraseology. Seems like there’s a little interpretation going on with this particular translation. Care to elaborate on why you did that?

    Gary

    P.S. I really like the KJV of 6:2.

  6. 4-17-2009

    Brian,

    Thanks for describing how a Catholic would understand the passage. Of course, (and I’m sure you know this) I don’t think you’ll find those designations (especially the clothing, but also some of the other distinctions) in Scripture. But, this three-fold leadership pattern was developed by some very early.

    Gary,

    I almost always quote the ESV. But, you are correct. The text actually says, “It is not desirable for us, after neglecting the word of God, to serve (tables).” (Acts 6:2) Discussing the meaning of that verse will have to wait for another post. :)

    -Alan

  7. 4-17-2009

    Let me take a completely different angle on this. But before I do, let me say that in context, this applies to at least “the twelve”, at most all apostles. I don’t think there’s any way to extrapolate to any other gifting.

    So here’s my completely different angle. The apostles were not infallible, perfect people. This narrative records what they said, but it never makes a statement as to whether or not they were even correct in what they said!

    Even if one holds to complete inerrancy with regard to accuracy of the text, one must concede that the text may accurately and inerrantly record an incorrect statement! ;) For example, when words of Satan are recorded, are they truth? The record may be accurate, but the words themselves are likely lies.

    So, with that in mind, I think it’s worth mentioning that perhaps the apostles were not even correct in their statement. I’ll be honest and say that I have trouble reconciling their statement with the teaching and/or example of Jesus himself.

    Is it possible that this was the earliest record of an incorrect hierarchy being exercised by men?

    I’m just askin’…

    (My word verification is “chitamen” — is that little guys that look like bananas?? Or something like a chia pet? Or maybe a chia vitamin?)

  8. 4-17-2009

    Steve,

    I think that is possible. Some believe that that apostles were wrong to stay in Jerusalem and that God intended for them to spread throughout the world as soon as they were filled with the Spirit at Pentecost. Since they stayed in Jerusalem instead, God then forced the church to leave Jerusalem through persecution. This is one example where some people who believe in the authority of Scripture also believe that Scripture records the early believers failing to follow God’s will.

    -Alan

  9. 4-18-2009

    I purposely have not read any of the other responses yet, so this is my unadulterated thoughts on this.

    I am not sure it really applies to anyone today. The context of the text is referring obviously to the 12 apostles. They were busy with laying the apostolic foundation for the church. It was a very critical time in the establishing of the church. They obviously did not need to be waiting tables and passing out clothes. They had their calling of equipping the saints.

    If it applies to anyone today it should be those itinerant equipping ministries of Eph 4.

    Elders are to oversee, care for and feed the flock. 1Pt 5. I can see it applying to local elders to a degree, but not to sequester themselves as clergy or an excuse to lord over or rule over the saints. Elders lead by example 1Pt 5,Act 20, so they must not only tell, they must show and live out the faith.

    Those men who are of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, which is not your ordinary deacon, will handle most of the needs they rise up in the local body, however.

    One interesting point to made from this passage is who selected the men. You do not see that happen much today.

  10. 4-18-2009

    Alan,

    We read in Acts 2:42,”They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

    As with the Apostles in ch.6, I cannot see why that devotion to prayer needs to be limited by our daily serving or employment. It has been my practice to encourage congregations, in which I’ve been teaching elder,to be in conversation with God whatever they are doing, along with specially dedicated times.

    Jack said, “Those men who are of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, WHICH IS NOT YOUR ORDINARY DEACON, will handle most of the needs they rise up in the local body, however.”

    Why would they be recognised as deacons? Which may be what he is referring to.

  11. 4-18-2009

    I think we are all mostly on the same page here. I am wrestling with deacon thing. I have always been taught or assumed Stephen and the other six were the first deacons.

    Therefore they were at a higher level than regular believers, but not as high as elders and apostles. Of course that is not what I believe, but it is the paradigm most of us have had.

    I agree with John’s assessment, but John I would like for you to elaborate on your question in your last post. I am not sure what the answer is. I am still meditating on that.

  12. 4-18-2009

    Jack,

    Yes, I think we are on the same page here.

    Aussie John,

    It is interesting to hear someone else suggest that the seven men in Acts 6 were not deacons. I agree. In fact, I think they were probably elders.

    -Alan

  13. 4-18-2009

    Allen,

    I think that devoting oneself to prayer(fellowship with God) & the ministry of the word(Jesus Christ, I.E. the give and take within the Body shareing Christ & what He is doing in their lives)is the responsibilty of All the members of the Body.

    If we place "prayer and ministry of the word" ONLY in the hands of the Apostles/Elders/Teachers we miss out on All of Christ deposited in the individual members of His Body.

    I think the Apostles were asking for help with waiting tables because they were finding that they were being overwhelmed and were finding it hard for them to continue spending time fellowshipping with Christ & His Body.

  14. 4-19-2009

    Everyone pretty much assumes that the apostles’ actions were correct and tries to figure out how what they said/did in that situation applies to us. They were “apostles,” and because of that designation we automatically think that everything they said or did (in a narrative context) was right. What about Paul and Barnabas’ dispute over Mark? Now there’s a real flattering picture. An apostle arguing with someone to the point that they all just go their separate ways. Is this not the very definition of devisive? Why didn’t Paul just say, “No problem buddy. A brother deserves a second chance. Come on Mark let’s give it another go.” Why didn’t Mark just say, “Paul you’re right. I’ll hang back this time, and maybe next time I can go.” Instead, they decided to argue. It’s like casting lots for Matthias. I’m not sure they were doing the right thing there. I personally think Paul was the man God intended to fill that slot, and I think the apostles jumped the gun. Maybe they were wrong in Acts 6 as well.

    All of that to say this. I think we should forget about the apostles and what they were doing in this pericope. Scripture goes out of its way to NOT explain all of that “we’re too busy to wait tables” stuff because it isn’t the point. The comment is there to explain why a choosing took place, how a choosing took place, and who the choosing involved (including the character of the chosen). It’s about the “choosing,” not the reasons why someone besides the apostles had to be chosen; and the telling of the choosing is only there to show us how members of the body should respond in love to the needs of others and take care of one another. It’s a picture of the brothers’ concern for the sisters, and the steps they took to help.

    It’s just like us to focus on the part of the story that matters the least. It’s like the “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves” passage. That’s an aside. It’s not the main point at all. How in the world is it that people remember the subordinate clause but not the main thought!

    Gary

  15. 4-19-2009

    David and Gary,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. This has been a very interesting discussion.

    -Alan