Three years ago, I wrote a post called “Prayer and the Ministry of the Word.” Of course, that’s a phrase that comes from Acts 6, when the church was having a problem. Some of the widows (the Hellenistic widows) were not receiving food that they needed. So, they church brought the problem to the apostles, who gave them some counsel about who to choose to take care of this issue. (As a side note, it is interesting that the apostles left it up to the church to choose the people…) Why did they apostles not take care of this issue? Because they were busy with “prayer and the ministry of the word.” This phrase has been requisitioned by many church leaders as justification for spending many hours each week praying and studying Scripture in order to prepare sermons, homilies, and teachings. Is that a valid interpretation and application of that phrase?
Acts 6 begins like this:
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.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:1-7 ESV)
Elders (pastors) sometimes apply this passage to themselves, arguing that elders should focus on “preaching the word of God” or “prayer and the ministry of the word.” In this line of thinking, the elders should spend their time praying, studying, and preaching, while other people in the church carry out the other activities (such as waiting tables or caring for widows).
Now, to begin with, I think believers often have a wrong understanding of what it means to “preach the word of God.” As I’ve suggested in other posts (i.e. my series “Preaching in the Old Testament“), “preach the word” does not mean “give a sermon”, but to proclaim or announce the Gospel. Similarly, I’m not convinced that “the ministry of the word” means studying the Bible and commentaries and other books for 20+ hours per week in order to prepare a sermon.
However, beyond these points, I think there are at least two reasons why it is not valid for elders to apply this passage to themselves and their own responsibilities.
First, elders are not mentioned in this passage. Luke only mentions apostles. There is no indication in Scripture that the responsibilities of apostles are to be assumed by elders.
Second, and perhaps more important, the apostles seemed to have devoted themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” for a limited amount of time. In other words, even the apostles did not continue this same type of devotion of time forever.
Within a short time, we see evidence in Scripture that the apostles were soon moving about from place to place. For example, Peter is traveling “from here to there” (Acts 9:32) and eventually spent some time in Joppa (Acts 9:36-10:22) and Caesarea (Acts 10:23-48) before returning to Jerusalem (Acts 11:2).
We know that Paul traveled throughout his work as an apostle. Also, when he wrote to the church in Corinth, he indicated that it was normal for apostles to travel (1 Corinthians 9:1-5). Paul also indicates that Peter has been in Corinth at some point (1 Corinthians 1:12). Paul tells us that his work as an apostles included serving people diligently (1 Thessalonians 2:7-10 among others).
(According to tradition, all of the apostles traveled to different places in order to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ and to strengthen the churches.)
So, whatever it meant for the apostles to devote themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word”, it seems to have been a short-term devotion. Soon, they were no longer spending all of their time on this activity, but were traveling around proclaiming the gospel and serving people – the very thing they said that they did not have time to do in Acts 6.
Perhaps, the apostles recognized that there was a specific thing for them to do at that time. Instead of allowing other people’s responsibilities from hindering them, they exhorted the people to take care of their own responsibilities. In fact, this is exactly what they told those who were complaining: take care of this yourselves.
When this particular project was complete (whatever it was), the apostles continued with whatever God called them to do next. For most of the apostles, this seems to be traveling from place to place to proclaim the gospel and strengthen the churches.
This passage is not an exhortation for elders (pastors) to spend many hours praying and studying Scripture. Instead, this passage is an exhortation for all believers to not be distracted from whatever God has called us to do… even if that responsibility eventually ends and God then calls us to do something else.