"Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business" (Acts 6:3).
The Early Church had a problem. It had to do with "this business" of social welfare, and it was a business made necessary by church growth.
"This business" has bugged the Church from the beginning, and Acts 6 gives us an account of how the Early Church addressed the problem.
First of all, note that the problem arose due to church growth. It wouldn't have been near the problem it became had the church stayed small. The controversy arose because the growing church was a "mix" of Hellenists and Hebrews. It was not a "homogeneous unit."
The church could have minimized its problems if it had stayed homogeneous and small. Thank God, it didn't. A church made up of all "middle class" people has no "poor class" problems. A tribal church doesn't have to contend with those who are "not our kind of people." And, of course, if a church is only interested in people who have the faith to stay healthy and wealthy, it has no problems with widows and wheelchairs. It stays Laodicean-ishly prosperous! It has "need" of nothing!
"This business" of social welfare came after the church was formed.
This is an important fact. First the church ... then the welfare. How does a church get started? Do you begin with social welfare and hope a church will be the product of it? No! To do so would be to put things in reverse order. There was no talk of social welfare at Pentecost, or in the revivals that followed. Prayer and ministry of the Word were the tools for church growth, and that is why they were considered "top priority" business! The apostles had this clearly in focus when they dealt with "this business" of social welfare in Acts 6.
So it's first things first. This is a rule of thumb for the church and especially for missionaries and pioneer pastors. You don't start with a feeding program. You start with evangelism. You give priority to the development of the body of believers. Then, as the body grows, you teach it to address the social problems that accompany growth. You don't stop prayer and ministry of the Word to serve tables. Serving tables is a worthy business and certainly is not beneath the dignity of the preacher. It simply is not as important as prayer and ministry of the Word. Therefore the preacher delegates "this business" to qualified church members.
Let us remember that Acts 6 is the first record of corporate action by the Church in the interest of social welfare.
In this case, the objects of welfare were "their widows." Widows "outside" the church were not in focus. The disciples were addressing an "in house" problem. It had nothing to do with suffering sinners. Corporate social action by the church should be directed to suffering saints. It is "family" business.
I can almost hear the cries of anger and anguish at my last statement. But hear me out. Suffering sinners will say, "Are we not all God's children and therefore entitled to help from the church?" Wow! We've jumped square into a theological issue! We are facing the heresy of universalism. When we say suffering sinners are not God's children, we will be accused of bigotry, callousness, and inhumanity. Let's be prepared for it.
But let's not back off from what the Bible teaches.
All men are God's creation, but all men are not God's children. A man becomes a child of God by spiritual birth ... not by physical birth. Sorry, sinner friend! God loves you. He sent His Son to die for you. He wants you to be His child. He created you that you might be part of His family. But He has laid down one condition for belonging. You must believe that Jesus is God's Son and accept Him as your Savior. Do that, and you are "family." Fail to do that, and you are not entitled to "family" privileges ... one of which is corporate action by the "family" to care for the social needs of its own.
Having said the above, let's admit the dilemma we are in. The church is hopelessly divided ... so divided that the word "Christian" is almost meaningless. The Pentecostal man's Christian is the Church of Christ man's heathen! It is loosely said that more than half the citizens of the United States are "born again!" So now we don't know the meaning of "born again!" It is difficult to know who is "family" and who isn't "family." So we are hard pressed to know who to help. In a way, the universalist's argument is easier to handle. He would make us all God's children in varying stages of enlightenment and development. That way he doesn't have to decide who is entitled to help.
The upshot of this dilemma is that we help those who prescribe to our tenets of faith and "join our church." I can't believe that this is right, and I would hope that our help would not be that selective. However, weak as our position is on "who is family," it at least recognizes the fact that there is a choice to be made. To say there is no choice is to succumb to the heresy of universalism.
We have already said it is "family" that is to be helped. But how do we determine who is "family?"
I see no way other than for each Christian community ... whether a local church or an organization of local ... to work out a plan for helping the social needs of the believers under its responsibility.
In determining who is to be helped we must also consider proximity.
A man is responsible for his own family first of all. This does not excuse him from responding to needs further afield, but it does give him a guideline as to where to start when helping. I see the local assembly in Oshkosh as being more responsible for "family" needs in Oshkosh than, say, in Chicago. The Chicagoans, on the other hand, would be more responsible for "family" needs in Chicago. This can be expanded to church denominations and to national churches. I wouldn't want to carry this too far, since we dare not be indifferent to the needs of God's family wherever it exists. However, proximity remains a factor.
But we must add another item in addition to "family" and "proximity" when determining who should be helped.
This concerns "needs" and "wants." And here we have to be careful. I am considered a wealthy man in Africa. I am considered "middle income" in America, though there are some who would consider me "borderline poor!"
My point is that poverty is a relative thing. The affluent American thinks that a person living in a mud house ... who has no shoes to wear ... and who eats only once a day, is "needy" and should be helped. Helped? Helped in what way? Helped to develop insatiable appetites that make men envious and discontent ... like many Americans? Helped to adopt a value system based on materialism? Helped to be educated in skepticism and cynicism? Never! Such help doesn't help! Maybe the third world needs help, but I see very little of what the average American has that it really needs!
That brings me to my next point. Ask me, and I say there is very little that America has that the third world needs.
Ask the third world, and it will tell you that there is very much that America has that it needs. So how do we determine real need? We will have to find our answer in God's Word.
What I'm going to say next could easily be misunderstood. So read carefully, and think.
Paul said that the kingdom of God is not meat and drink. Part of our problem is that we measure man's need by meat and drink. We use the wrong measuring stick. By American standards, Jesus and all His disciples should have been on welfare! But Jesus was blissfully detached from the cares of life. Having food and raiment, He was content. Now, should followers of Jesus, in the light of this, be telling the world that life consists in the abundance of things a man possesses? Should we buy the lie of self-indulgent preachers of prosperity? Should we go into all the world with this kind of gospel? American value systems say that life is related to the abundance of things a man possesses. The third world reads us loud and clear. We come to disqualifying ourselves when it comes to being able to demonstrate to the world the real meaning of abundant living.
Jesus' life was gloriously independent of an abundance of "things." But He had a hard time making people understand His point of view. When He tried to direct a misguided materialist down the road of abundant living, He told him to divest himself of his wealth. Obviously, Jesus felt that the man's "things" confused the issue. "Give your money to someone who really needs it," was what Jesus told him. You can see that Jesus did not consider himself one of the poor to whom the man's wealth was to be given. Not for a moment! Jesus knew the meaning of abundance, but it had nothing to do with "things." It had to do with "life." He did not come that men might have "things." He came that men might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly!
It is interesting, too, that Jesus did not tell the rich young ruler to turn his wealth over to Him. Amazing! Jesus didn't even propose to set up a relief agency funded with the rich man's money. Think of the opportunity Jesus missed! Think of the worthwhile projects He could have promoted! Instead, Jesus said, "Give it to someone else!" Sobering, isn't it! Jesus' value systems were unlike anything we see today!
We've talked about helping suffering saints, now let's talk about suffering sinners.
Real hunger and real misery cannot be ignored. Jesus was very explicit about the believer's obligation to those in need. He touched men where they were hurting, and so should we. We dare not shut up our "bowels of compassion" to real need. Here is where a cup of cold water speaks volumes. Our "be ye warmed and fed" must be accompanied with clothing and food. This is a one-to-one personal approach to real need, and it is a convincing testimony to the love of God within us. So when it comes to real need ... whether in or out of the family of God ... the believer must respond.
The believer must be compassionate. But how do you measure compassion? Where do you find it? Is it in a million dollar gift by a foundation to a "worthy cause" ... or is it in a visit to a retirement home full of forgotten people? It could be in both, but it is more likely to be in the latter. The former requires no interaction ... no touching ... no interruption of schedule. The latter demands all of these.
In a very real sense "charity begins at home." That is, if we are unwilling to minister to the real needs that we can see, how can we say we have compassion for those we cannot see? I think we have to look into our hearts and see whether our generosity to real needs far away isn't a sop to selfish living. It needn't be, but it can be. By giving to those we don't have to touch, we can placate our conscience and go on indulging our own wants without having to interact with real need. It is so easy to look at the emaciated and starving on television ... to be moved with compassion for them ... to watch and weep ... and then drive by desperate need in our own city. God forgive us!
But compassion encompasses more than physical need. We must always come back to the fact that spiritual need is greater than physical need. It is when the church puts social needs above spiritual needs that it misses its reason for being. Now I know that it is very hard to convince a humanist that a starving man has a greater need than food. But our problem is not with the humanist. Our problem is with Christians who embrace the belief that physical need is greater than spiritual need. Experience proves that it is much easier to get believers concerned about physical suffering than it is to get them concerned about spiritual lostness. They are more moved by the sight of thin Hindus than they are by the sight of fat Buddhists. "Thinness" rather than "lostness" tears them up emotionally.
The Early Church was right on target. They lived in a day of oppression, famine, poverty, and ignorance. Yet they never launched social programs to overcome evils. Read your Bible and you will find that this is so.
The preachers preached against socials evils, certainly, and the believers responded to need on a one-to-one basis. But the body of believers never organized to combat these problems. They organized to preach the gospel and to assist suffering saints, but they never sponsored relief programs or liberation movements on behalf of suffering sinners. This is significant. It is significant because it indicates that the Early Church believed that the liberation of the spirit was not only more important—it was all important! So much so that they devoted all their energies, resources, and time to the preaching of the gospel.
Now back to "this business" of serving tables.
We noted that the preacher must put his mind to it but not his hand. He must see that it is done, but he is not to do it himself. He has more important business to do! In Acts 6 the apostles let the believers choose seven men for "this business." But the apostles reserved the right of veto. The believers would choose, but the apostles would appoint. They didn't appoint men according to their wealth or business savvy. Prestige or civic clout did not figure in their choosing. They selected men of honesty, spirituality and wisdom. The record shows that they chose well. It seems to me that this is the pattern for procedure in dealing with social needs in church. If every local assembly in every nation would follow this plan, there would be much less need for organized action on a wider scale.
However, even the Early Church congregations joined hands to meet a desperate need in the church at Jerusalem. So we have precedent for united action by local assemblies. This united action was international. Congregations from different countries participated. So we are not wrong in rallying to real need in areas of the world where our brothers and sisters are suffering.
It appears that, when international action was required, the church leaders became more involved than when "this business" was done at the local level. Paul carried offerings to the church at Jerusalem, and he did some fund-raising among the Asian churches. But he never lost his sense of priority. He never neglected prayer and the ministry of the Word for the sake of social action. He always gave spiritual need top priority!
We've said enough. Let's try to pull all these scattered thoughts together.
1. The business of preachers is building the Church through prayer and ministry of the Word.
2. The business of social action on behalf of believers should be delegated to qualified church members.
3. Suffering sinners should be shown compassion on a one-to-one basis by believers.
4. The Church should give top priority to spiritual need.