Organic or Organised?
Following his article on the marks of a healthy church in Acts 2, Ray Evans reflects on Acts 6. He says this passage of Scripture is also essential in helping us to understand what a healthy church looks like.
A prominent Christian leader pointed out to me that there are men in every generation who (under God’s blessing) bring Christians back to Acts 2. They start movements to help us all get back to the Acts 2 model.
But here’s the problem. Acts doesn’t stop in chapter 2.
In fact, Acts 6 is a really important passage and it’s easy to read it and think, “We have deacons so we have mastered Acts 6.” So we just move on. But when we do that we miss the significance.
Acts 6 give us another nine marks, but a different nine to Acts 2. So, what are the marks you see?
1. First you see growth.
2. Then you see grumbles! We don’t see that coming for all of us think, “If the church grows, everybody will be happy.” But Acts 6 tells us that the church can grow and you can find things going wrong.
3. Third, leadership. The leaders in Acts 6 are brilliant because they don’t misdiagnose the problem. What do I mean? Acts 5 has presented to us a severe case of church discipline. Acts 6 then starts off with a grumbling church. That word is quite significant for it was used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) to describe the people of God complaining about food way back at the Exodus.
The leaders could’ve easily be forgiven for saying, “You have just witnessed the Lord judging people for sinning, now you had better stop moaning for the people back then were judged for moaning about daily bread.” They could even have got the Bible out to present the case.
It’s very interesting because this time it looks like the same thing but the leadership understand that it is not the same thing. This is not a sinful moan against God. This is a growing church not coping with what’s happening to it.
In Acts 2 the church was feeding everybody, but now, somehow, it’s failing. It was marvellous, but now it’s not quite right. The leadership understand this. They don’t castigate people. They don’t preach a sermon on contentment, nor call for a prayer meeting for bread miraculously to be on the table tomorrow morning.
In other words, they don’t do what I have done when I have been moaned at! I can get quite defensive. Some of us take it into ourselves and say, “I’m a useless leader” while others of us come out with, “Right I’m going to show them who is in charge.” Neither tactic helps! This leadership team leads the way through the problem.
4. Another mark is the membership. “They gathered all the disciples together.” Now membership here is partly embryonic. They had a sense that they are believers in the risen Lord Jesus and now there are of thousands of them.
5. Leadership initiative. The leaders don’t ignore the ‘members’ and together they come up with a solution along the lines of, “There is a way of organising this and we haven’t been organising it very well. We have had too many things to do. We have to organise differently. We need word and deed.”
Sometimes we’re taught that Acts 6 is all about the word not being held up. When you first read, “It would not be right for us to neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables” (v2), it looks like a no-brainer. The argument goes that the preacher must not get dragged into practical problems. In a sense that is right, but it can be too simplistically employed.
How do we know that? For John, one of those very leaders, wrote that if you see your brother in need and you do not practically care for them, “How can the love of God be in you?” (1 John 3:17). If there is a hungry widow, and we don’t feed her, we deny the faith.
So, in Acts 6 when the leaders organise church life, they are not saying: “Word is supreme, deed is irrelevant.” They don’t set it up as word or deed. It is word and deed as an organisation, but within the organisation’s duties some have a particular priority, a particular responsibility for word ministry. But they also must make sure that deed is organised.
6. Team formation. Here we probably have ‘proto-deacons’. It is suggestive of the way forward, but I don’t think it sets out to be prescriptive. The exact way they did it, how many men they appointed, and so on, can’t be used as it is the only blueprint. That the leaders organised teams is an important part of the overall leading of a church.
7. How a team is empowered.
8. How priorities are set.
9. Finally there is a results summary. Luke gives us both a ‘quantity’ and a ‘quality’ report: the number of disciples increased rapidly and a large number of even the priests are saved.
Acts 6, if one studies the structure of Acts, is also more significant than many realise. For it comes in the section John Stott called the three great counter-attacks of the devil. Acts 4 is external persecution, then Acts 5 is internal corruption, and Acts 6 is organisational complexity.
To an Acts 2 church, led by great leaders, you have to add in the organisational ‘nous’ of Acts 6 if the church it to overcome the challenges it faces.
Balancing the Tension
Now, the issue is this. Do we have a proper tension in our own church between the ‘organic’ of Acts 2 and the ‘organised’ of Acts 6? Some neglect the one, some despise the other, seeing it as unnecessary or even worldly. But the church in Acts has both in their right place.
Another passage that illustrates the same tension in good balance is 1 Timothy 5. It shows that the early Christians didn’t rely just on personal/organic spirituality, but also on group/organised spirituality. What do I mean?
Paul was writing to a church telling it to put widows on a list. We might think, “We only have two widows in our church and everybody knows who they are.” But if it is a larger church, there may be 35. 28 of them might get personally looked after by family or kind Christian friends ‘down the road’.
Organisation doesn’t replace this personal ownership. Paul has just said that if a man has widow in his family and doesn’t look after her, he is worse than a pagan (vs 4, 8). A Christian should help the widow down their road. But some widows don’t live down anybody’s road, or aren’t in any believers’ family. They are to be looked after nevertheless. The point of the organisational solution (the list) is not to replace the ‘organic’. The organisational aspect is like the safety net underneath. The widow not so well-connected still gets cared for. It is organic and organised.
Now the questions is: what are your equivalents? You don’t have neglected Greek-speaking widows as your presenting problem. But you have equivalent problems which are holding the gospel up. There may be things which you as an organisation are not doing very well.
Many of us who are church leaders are not trained in this area. We are Acts 2 pastors – preaching, baptising, teaching, encouraging spiritual life, nurturing new converts – and often we are trained in that well.
But Acts 6 is alien territory. It is alien – not because we haven’t got deacons – but because we wouldn’t know the process of solving problems like this. We are not helped to do it; we are not even thinking like that. If we begin to address it, we fear that we are beginning to treat the church like a machine and we are becoming a technician.
Acts 2 and Acts 6 are seamless. They are both the Apostles in action. Organising things in Acts 6 is part of their spiritual calling. They realise that if they don’t deal with this, the church could be split right down the middle. So it’s a fascinating passage.
We need to constantly monitor the tension and give due emphasis between these two key elements of leadership in a local church – the individual owning their responsibility to ‘devote themselves to…’ and the church as an organisation working wisely with the limited resources it has to do all that the Lord wants.
It may be worthwhile for your leadership team to reflect on these things!