Growing Pains


Growing Pains

Acts 6:1-7

Main Idea: In this inside look at the early church, Luke describes the blessings and the challenges faced by the rapidly growing body of Christ in Jerusalem.

  1. We Should Celebrate Gospel-Centered Church Growth (6:1a,7).
  2. We Should Expect Problems when the Church Grows (6:1-7).
    1. Protecting the unity of the church (6:1)
    2. Keeping up with the number of legitimate needs (6:1,7)
    3. Overcoming overburdened leadership (6:2)
    4. Avoiding and handling criticism (6:3)
    5. Keeping ministerial priorities in order (6:4)
    6. Sharing the ministry (6:5-6)
    7. Advancing the mission while managing people (6:7)
  3. We Should Protect Biblical Priorities, Make Wise Adjustments, and Share the Ministry—All in a Spirit of Love (6:2-6).
  4. We Should See Growth Problems as Opportunities for More Gospel-Centered Growth (6:7).

In the previous chapter we covered a lot of verses in a moving story of persecution. Here we will consider just seven verses in a story that reminds me of a middle school cafeteria drama! I titled this passage “Growing Pains” not because I have a particular attraction to Kirk Cameron, who played Mike Sever in the comedy of yesteryear, but because growth created the drama of Acts 6.

Perhaps a better illustration regarding growing pains involves Anthony Davis, the 6'11" All-Star power forward for the New Orleans Pelicans. When Davis was in high school, he grew from 6'2" to 6'10" between his sophomore and senior years—that’s eight inches in eighteen months! When he was 6'2", he had one scholarship offer from Cleveland State University. By his senior year he was the number one high school player in the nation. His growth spurt was helpful, but it created challenges. Davis’s parents had to buy him new clothes constantly. Davis had to learn how to play a different position. He had to learn how to rebound, block shots, and post up. His heroes shifted from small guards to big men.

In Acts 6 Luke describes the blessings and the challenges facing the rapidly growing body of Christ in Jerusalem. We see this practical truth illustrated: Gospel growth always brings blessing, problems, and opportunities. Just look at the first verse of Acts 6. The good news? The church is growing! The bad news? The people are complaining! Sound familiar? Luke goes on to describe how the early church handled growth problems and continued to advance the mission. Four lessons are related to these growing pains.

We Should Celebrate Gospel-Centered Church Growth

Acts 6:1a,7

People react to church growth differently. Some find it easy to celebrate because their ministries are aiming for just this: more and more people. Others, however, have a negative opinion of growth because many are obsessed with it, and some feel many will sacrifice core principles in order to welcome growth. This passage helps us understand church growth sensibly.

The early church experienced a particular type of growth here, and it’s this type of growth that must be sought: gospel-centered growth. It came as a result of passionate gospel preaching and compassionate ministry. There were no gimmicks behind it. The apostles weren’t offering watered-down sermons. They weren’t handing out gift bags. Yet the Lord blessed the church with a multitude of converts. This reminds us that while today’s congregations can expand a crowd in a variety of ways, a church is built only through people embracing the gospel.

Let’s make sure we keep the gospel primary. In 5:42 the church kept teaching and preaching Christ every day. If this is happening, and your congregation is growing, then rejoice.

Church-growth critics often complain, “You guys are all about the numbers.” They are skeptical of growth because they associate a big church with an unfaithful church. But Luke doesn’t have this aversion to seeing new faces joining the church. Luke, in fact, brackets the narrative with the subject of increasing numbers. In verse 1 he says, “Increasing in numbers”; in verse 7 he says, “Increased greatly in number.”

So, is Luke all about the numbers? No. Dr. Luke counted people because people count. People matter to God, and they should matter to us. We should long to reach more and more people. And by the way, we have a book of the Bible called Numbers! Further, no good parent would dare say, “We’re going on a weeklong trip, but we aren’t going to count the kids before we get on the plane or in the car because I don’t want to be all about the numbers!” People actually appreciate being counted (Driscoll, “Empowered by the Spirit to Fail”)!

Not all growth, however, is good. One can be all about building a crowd or one’s own kingdom. That’s why we must reject church-growth idolatry. But when the gospel is front and center, we must rejoice when the church grows.

Luke has at least ten summary statements in which he mentions the growth of the church:

  • So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added to them. (2:41)
  • Every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (2:47)
  • But many of those who heard the message believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand. (4:4)
  • Believers were added to the Lord in increasing numbers—multitudes of both men and women. (5:14)
  • So the church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers. (9:31)
  • The word of the Lord spread through the whole [Pisidian] region. (13:49) (We should desire this type of multiplication also: planting new churches.)
  • So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers [in the Galatian region]. (16:5)
  • In this way the word of the Lord flourished and prevailed [in Ephesus]. (19:20)
  • You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are who have believed. (21:20)

Luke clearly sees this expansion as a good thing. By Acts 6 there could have been somewhere around twenty thousand people within the body of Christ! This harvest is the result of God’s amazing grace, and this growth provides a foretaste of the great ingathering of the nations around the throne that is promised in Revelation 7:9. Jesus loves good growth. We should too.

We should desire to see thousands saved. What a blessing it would be to hear, “We don’t have any more room in the second service because of all these Muslim converts who are joining us!”

We Should Expect Problems When the Church Grows

Acts 6:1-7

Allow me to put Acts 6 in proper perspective for understanding our own problems in local churches. Remember Jesus’s parable of the net (Matt 13:47-50)? It illustrates that debris and bad fish come when many fish are caught. This is a reminder that not all growth is pure growth (Piper, “Serving Widows, Preaching the Word, and Winning Priests”). In the book of Acts, both true converts and debris, or pretenders, are present within the gathered church—as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11) and Simon the magician (8:9-25). Thus, we should expect mess within a catch, knowing that the Lord will sort true believers from false at a later time (cf. Matt 13:24-30).

The early church dealt not only with debris but also with human limitations. It is a mistake to romanticize (or idealize) the church in Acts. Is it a model church? Yes. Is it a perfect church? Absolutely not! Did the early church have a lot of wins? Yes! Did it have any failures? Yes. In fact, we see one of them right here. The people were failing to attend to the needs of widows, which is a big deal according to the Bible. They were failing to live out James 1:27.

Though I do not excuse the church’s failure on this point, I do find encouragement in the church’s struggle here. It reminds me that even good churches fail at some things, at least temporarily. The Acts church was a good church. Typical complaints lodged against modern church leaders simply wouldn’t work in its case. After all, the twelve apostles were leading based on their conversations with Jesus. The men were so in tune with the Spirit that Peter’s shadow was able to convey Christ’s healing power. And these guys could never be charged with not preaching enough Bible. Some of these guys actually wrote it (Driscoll, “Empowered”)! Nonetheless, it wasn’t a perfect church.

We must understand that failure isn’t always the result of sin. Sometimes failure is simply due to human limitations. Did the apostles not care for widows? Of course they did—they did as much as they were able! But these men were human, and they were few.

Both of these reminders—that a catch of fish will bring a mess, and that even good churches fail—should make us adjust our expectations. We must kill our wishes about church, choosing to be realistic about human limitations and knowing we will face challenges. There will be messes to clean up as we serve Christ in a broken world. So let’s face these realities with grace toward others and confidence that Jesus is building his church in spite of imperfections.

What were these apostles trying to deal with exactly? Seven problems.

Protecting the Unity of the Church (6:1)

The early church’s unity was threatened for many reasons. For starters, its leaders were dealing with a mixture of injustice and sinful responses to it. The Greek-speaking widows were complaining, something Paul tells the churches to avoid (1 Cor 10:10; Phil 2:14). While they had a right to be bothered by being neglected in the distribution of food, they shouldn’t have been complaining against the Hebrew widows. They should have taken the matter to the leaders. This is a good reminder that there will be times when people in the church will be justifiably offended, and they won’t always respond appropriately.

Maintaining unity involved not only dealing with injustice and sin but also addressing cultural tensions. The Hebrew-speaking widows were the purists. The Greek-speaking widows previously lived outside Jerusalem, some of them for years. Their families could have been carried away in previous exiles. Over time, although they were Jews, they adopted the language of commerce. They had their own Greek-speaking synagogue (v. 9). The Pharisees despised the Greek-speaking Jews. They were looked on as dirty, as second-class citizens. So, as many of these widows moved back to Jerusalem in their twilight years and eventually lost their husbands, they needed care. When many of them converted, they were suddenly part of the same church that included many Hebrew widows. It’s no wonder, then, that tension rose. Once one group felt neglected, bad feelings and division followed—that was, after all, the norm. The apostles had their hands full in maintaining unity amid such cultural drama.

Keeping Up with the Number of Legitimate Needs (6:1,7)

It would be a tremendous challenge simply to catalog the needs of twenty thousand people and numerous widows. In the early days the church may have had ten or twenty widows, which would have made it possible for Peter to say, “Hey, I’ll swing by Esther’s house and see if she needs anything.” Or John could’ve said, “I have to get some groceries for my family anyway, so I’ll go by Ruth’s place and make sure she has supplies for the next week.” While it’s likely things in the church were more organized than that, taking care of people in the early days didn’t require the same level of attention that it does by this point in Acts 6. There was simply no way twelve apostles lacking access to Microsoft Excel could keep up with everything.

The number of Christ followers “was increasing” in verse 1, and the number expands “greatly” in verse 7. That means more administrating and readjusting were needed. Every leader of a growing organization or church knows how difficult it is simply to keep up with everything and to devise new ways to handle new problems.

Overcoming Overburdened Leadership (6:2)

In 6:2 the apostles admit, “We can’t do it all.” They don’t have the time, and they can’t give up prayer and preaching, though they know the work needs to get done. Their situation sounds like that of Moses, who was given sound advice on the importance of sharing the leadership burden:

“What you’re doing is not good,” Moses’s father-in-law said to him. “You will certainly wear out both yourself and these people who are with you, because the task is too heavy for you. You can’t do it alone. Now listen to me; I will give you some advice, and God be with you. You be the one to represent the people before God and bring their cases to him. Instruct them about the statutes and laws, and teach them the way to live and what they must do. But you should select from all the people able men, God-fearing, trustworthy, and hating dishonest profit. Place them over the people as commanders of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. They should judge the people at all times. Then they can bring you every major case but judge every minor case themselves. In this way you will lighten your load, and they will bear it with you. If you do this, and God so directs you, you will be able to endure, and also all these people will be able to go home satisfied.” (Exod 18:17-23)

Moses listened to this advice, and shared ministry proved successful. That sounds a lot like Acts 6.

Avoiding and Handling Criticism (6:3)

Do you think everyone liked it when the apostles said they weren’t going to personally distribute resources to the widows any longer, instead delegating the task to seven others? I doubt it! You can imagine a widow asking, “Who are you? Niconor? Where’s Peter? I want his shadow to fall on me! I’m not feeling well.” I’m sure the temptation to be critical of the new plan was present. Yet the people needed to avoid such complaining. And the apostles needed to handle people’s various reactions to this hard decision wisely and graciously. That started with having the people choose the men, which “pleased” them (v. 5).

Keeping Ministerial Priorities in Order (6:4)

The apostles declare that they will remain devoted to prayer and the ministry of the Word. They don’t want to be distracted. In their concerns is a challenge for everyone in ministry—prioritizing the most important things. It’s easy to busily run through an entire week doing good deeds while failing to pray one time.

Sharing the Ministry (6:5-6)

The apostles realize they are one body with many parts, so they propose a solution. The congregation selects the group, the apostles lay hands on them, and they share in the work of taking over this important task. This is a reminder that even modern leaders must wisely delegate tasks and deploy people to meet needs.

Advancing the Mission While Managing People (6:7)

Both management and mission are important. Some ministers don’t like management or administration, but this can lead to problems since Paul says in 1 Timothy 3 that a pastor must manage the household of God. Pastoring involves management, but leaders within the church must be concerned about mission also. Some ministers are no good at this priority. They just rearrange the chairs on a sinking Titanic. While they are good at management, they aren’t leading the church to reach unbelievers.

Here in verse 7 we see that after a management plan was created to care for widows, the church continued to grow in mission outreach. This should be our goal: to do compassionate and efficient management while aggressively advancing the gospel in our city and among the nations.

We Should Protect Biblical Priorities, Make Wise Adjustments, and Share the Ministry—All in a Spirit of Love

Acts 6:2-6

When Christians face conflict, we can’t just go with our gut instincts or follow traditions. We have to go to the Bible first. We must understand biblical priorities. The apostles’ actions teach us this truth. After surveying the widows’ problem, they rule two things out immediately: “We can’t stop praying and preaching.”

Prayer is at the heart of pastoral ministry. Everything begins and ends with prayer. Yet it’s the easiest thing to sacrifice. That’s why many want to multitask their prayer lives. But we need to remember that Jesus got alone on multiple occasions to spend focused time with the Father. And if anyone could multitask his prayer life, it was Jesus. Surely he could do the “pray as you go” approach to ministry better than anyone, yet he sought solitude. Luke records three specific examples of Jesus withdrawing from the crowds in order to commune with the Father (Luke 5:16; 6:12; 9:18). The apostles followed the pattern of Jesus. They understood that ministry flows from one’s communion with God. They wouldn’t neglect that which gives life to ministry.

Spurgeon had this to say about prayerlessness in ministry:

Of course the preacher is above all others distinguished as a man of prayer. . . . The minister who does not earnestly pray over his work must be a vain and conceited man. He acts as if he thought himself sufficient of himself, and therefore needed not to appeal to God. . . . He limps in his life like a lame man in Proverbs, whose legs are not equal, for his praying is shorter than his preaching. (Lectures to My Students, 42, 48)

Be honest. Would you be distinguished as a person of prayer? Or is your praying leg shorter than your ministry leg?

Recently, in the Dominican Republic, I was talking with my friend, Pastor Otto. We were discussing a mutual hero in ministry, John Stott. Otto told me two interesting insights about Stott regarding prayer that were shared with him via a source close to Stott. Reportedly, Stott kept a prayer diary with a thousand names in it, and he prayed for those individuals regularly. By praying in this way, he was able also to remember their names. Further, Stott wrote his sermons while on his knees. I can just see Stott praying in his prayer closet now, over his people and over the Word, and it convicts me. What a wonderful example he gives every pastor-leader.

Personal prayerlessness, by contrast, indicates self-sufficiency. It’s a sign of pride. It’s a sign that we don’t believe God acts when we pray. It’s a sign we don’t love people as we ought. So let’s repent of such arrogance and stupidity, saturating our lives and ministries with times of intercession, thanksgiving, lament, petition, adoration, and confession. Let’s work to cultivate vibrant prayer lives like the apostles did.

The apostles also say, literally, “It would not be pleasing in the eyes of God” (Polhill, Acts, 180) to stop “preaching the word of God to wait on tables” (v. 2). Because they sought to please the One who saved them and appointed them to preach, they declare their devotion to a fundamental pastoral task (v. 4; cf. Acts 20:18-21; 1 Tim 5:17; 2 Tim 2:15; 4:1-4).

The apostles realize that if they don’t preach the gospel, then there will soon be no church. Giving people food is a great idea, and it’s a biblical idea, but without the preaching of the gospel, the church will quickly dwindle down to no one. Homeless shelters and food pantries are great things the body of Christ should support, but what gives the church its identity—what keeps it on mission—is the preaching of the gospel.

These apostles weren’t arrogantly saying, “We’re too good and important to care for widows.” They were simply demonstrating a commitment to biblical priorities. The apostles weren’t sipping lattes while the seven delegates did all the work. Look back at 5:42. They were teaching and preaching every day, all day—in the marketplace, in the synagogues, in homes. They were on the front lines, weary from battle and scarred by persecution. The easier option would have been to give up preaching to take care of benevolence ministry, not to give more attention to speaking the Word.

After prioritizing prayer and preaching, the apostles then make some wise adjustments. They appoint some guys to take care of the widows.

The biblical writers emphasize the importance of caring for widows, along with other groups of disadvantaged people—orphans, strangers, and the poor (cf. Ruth; Job 29:13; Pss 68:4-6; 146:9; Isa 1:17; Luke 7:11-15; 12:41-42; 18:1-8; Jas 1:27). While some structures are described regarding how to care for widows (e.g., 1 Tim 5:3-16), one should be flexible in implementing ministries based on the needs and the workers in a given situation. That’s what the church displays here: an ability to make adjustments.

Because the church is both an organization and an organism, it requires constant reassessment and the development of new plans. That’s why Christians making strategic changes must first ask, Is this approach biblical? And then, Is it wise and best?

In this case the apostles specify for the task faithful men filled with wisdom. This is a reminder that leaders need to exercise discernment in choosing what’s best: the Bible doesn’t always provide a clear answer to every dilemma. The problems and difficulties of ministry, therefore, require that leaders exhibit the ability to handle situations in a way that expresses love for God and neighbor. Christian wisdom flows from one’s union with Christ, the source of wisdom (Col 2:3). By knowing Christ and walking with him, one learns to live wisely. The selected men enjoyed this sort of dynamic relationship with Christ.

The apostles weren’t the only ones making adjustments. The people also had to make changes. They had to welcome the new leadership born out of the apostles’ decision. Doing so demonstrated flexibility and understanding. The proposal for seven delegates to do widow-work “pleased the whole company” (v. 5). This is remarkable! People were actually pleased with change. Let’s learn from this group. At times, in certain seasons, changes are required for the good of others and for the advancement of the kingdom.

The apostles protected biblical priorities, and they led the church to make wise adjustments—adjustments that involved shared ministry. This little story in Acts 6 provides a wonderful model of leadership and cooperation, a division of labor among equals.

The apostles instruct the people to choose qualified leaders with good reputations and who are full of the Spirit and wisdom (v. 3). The apostles didn’t pull this checklist from the latest business book. They wanted men respected by others. They wanted men who bear the fruit of the Spirit. They wanted men filled with godly wisdom. Each of these qualities would be of great importance as the seven recruited others for the work of helping them care for so many widows.

Interestingly, the people select seven guys with Greek names (v. 5). It is likely that these men would have had a connection to the Greek-speaking widows. Thus, wisdom is displayed in the selection. The group is godly and culturally suited for their task. We know a bit about two of these delegates—Stephen and Philip—from the rest of the book of Acts. Their ministries weren’t confined to widow care.

Is this the origin of the deacon ministry? The text doesn’t call them deacons. The office of deacon isn’t even mentioned in the book of Acts, though elders are mentioned multiple times. These men, then, aren’t ordained to an office; they are commissioned, with a verb, to “deacon” tables.

Having said this, I think this passage does provide a pattern for sharing the ministry, and that’s what deacons do: they assist the pastors and elders in ministry work. How did these men go about their tasks in Acts 6? They helped and theyharmonized.

In this text they help the apostles by freeing them up to focus on prayer and ministry of the Word. They also help by showing everyone an example of what it looks like to serve. That’s what church membership is all about: serving. Membership says, “This is where I serve,” not, “This is where I listen to sermons.” Deacons should provide an example of what it looks like to be a faithful church member, serving and also encouraging others to serve with them.

These seven servants helped maintain harmony in the church by addressing the drama associated with neglected widows. Deacons (and other exemplary servants) are shock absorbers. They are peacemakers. Unfortunately, deacons don’t always have a reputation for bringing unity! But they should.

Don’t miss the overall spirit of love that permeates this text. To make changes and to show grace to one another requires a spirit of love. We don’t see a big church fight in Acts 6. Instead, we see a gathering in which the truth of God’s Word leads the group and the love of God soothes the disagreement. Spirit-filled unity is encouraging to see.

We Should See Growth Problems as Opportunities for More Gospel-Centered Growth

Acts 6:7

Luke describes the evangelistic consequences of the church’s solution to the problem. The church solves the problem, keeps preaching the gospel, and as a result more people are converted. The lesson here is well summarized by Art Azurdia: “Impediments to growth caused by growth can become occasions for growth when priorities are protected and ministry is shared” (“Ensuring Evangelistic Expansion”).

We should probably consider this the normal church pattern: preach, pray, grow, anticipate drama, manage the drama, pray, keep preaching, and then get ready for more drama. When it hits, keep praying.

Times of crises provide the church unique opportunities. Throughout the history of the church, controversy has served to purify and strengthen the church. So let’s choose to see challenges as opportunities.

In the midst of the Acts drama, a number of Jewish priests converted to faith in Jesus as Messiah. This is amazing! John Polhill says as many as eight thousand priests could have been living in Jerusalem (Acts, 183). We read about the priests in 4:1. They didn’t seem ripe for the harvest—they hated the apostles’ message, just as they hated Jesus—yet here many accepted him.

This final note should encourage us. The fiercest enemies of the gospel can be saved. The conversion of these priests illustrates the dynamic power of the gospel! Surely some of these priests had said things we often hear—things like, “Believers are dumb sheep” and “No rational person believes in the resurrection.” Yet suddenly we see them becoming members of the church. The Spirit of God worked powerfully through a small band of disciples to nudge even Christ’s most heated enemies to accept him. May he do it again through our own local churches!

In summary, let’s seek the salvation of everyone—the gospel can penetrate the hardest hearts. Let’s celebrate gospel-centered growth. Let’s have realistic expectations of one another and leaders. Let’s show grace to one another. Let’s remember that there’s a difference between sin and human limitation. Let’s play as a team; if you’re a Christian, you are a player, not a fan, so participate in the mission. Let’s say thanks to people who serve. Let’s pray that each local church will effectively care for the needs of people and also faithfully proclaim the good news. And through it all, let’s remember that Jesus is building his church and we are wonderfully privileged to be part of it!

Reflect and Discuss

  1. What does this passage teach about church growth? How should we view it?
  2. Why did the apostles consider caring for widows important?
  3. Why was the unity of the church threatened?
  4. Why must prayer and proclamation be central in pastoral ministry?
  5. How did these seven men assist the apostles? How was their role similar to that of deacons today?
  6. What does it mean to have shared ministry in a local church?
  7. On which do you prefer your local church to focus: management or mission? Explain.
  8. What is your reaction to the conversion of these priests? How should it impact your church’s outreach to unbelievers?
  9. What does this passage teach about appointing leaders in the local church?
  10. Pause and pray for the unity of your local church, asking God to advance the gospel through it.