Systemic change is an incredibly important part of building God’s kingdom.

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

This proposal pleased the whole group.

—Acts 6:1-5

The disciples were more than two hours into their executive committee meeting when someone finally made the motion to appoint the seven. The meeting had started normally enough. Peter had opened with devotions and called the meeting to order. James had presented the minutes from the last meeting, which were approved. Matthias, the new treasurer, had gone over the financial statements for the quarter, and those looked really good. Despite that unfortunate incident with Ananias and Sapphira, membership was increasing and giving was up. Things were really going well in the church. 

The clerk’s report was where things got complicated. James, who was clerk that year, reported on correspondence received during the previous month. “I got a long letter from the Widow Onassis yesterday,” he began. And before he could say another word, an audible groan went up from the Twelve. John leaned forward at the table and started massaging his temples. Thomas slumped down in his chair and looked at the ceiling as if he were imploring the heavens.

The Widow Onassis. They all knew what was coming. You see, last month she had made her concerns known at the congregational meeting. She had been sitting at the head of a group of Greek widows, and when the chair recognized her she got up, drew herself up to her full 4’11”, and spoke. “Mr. Chairman! There is injustice in this room!” she boomed.

With great forcefulness, she went on for 10 minutes describing how when the daily food cart went around, it always stopped at the homes of the Jewish widows first, so by the time it came round to the Greek widows, the good food was gone. “All that is left for us is a little dry bread and maybe some of yesterday’s fish. This must change!” she said. All around, her widow friends nodded vigorously. 

That was bad enough. But then Widow Abraham decided to respond. She said it was only natural that the Jewish widows should get first choice of the food. After all, they were the charter members. “I set up that food network myself and chaired the committee for 10 years before my beloved husband died! If the Hellenist widows want food faster, maybe they should start their own program!” Things kind of went downhill from there. 

Widow Onassis’s letter was read, and the disciples spent the next hour-and-a-half talking about the food distribution committee. Who should chair? Should they blow everything up and change the program completely? Did it only need tweaking? Should they get Mrs. Abraham and Mrs. Onassis together and try to iron things out? After two hours everyone was tired and cranky. Then Andrew suggested the appointment of the seven deacons. “We can’t be spending all our time on this sort of stuff,” he said. “We have preaching and pastoral care to worry about.” The motion passed. The seven were chosen, and the weary disciples went on to the next item on their agenda. There were still lots of items left.

The Real Issue

In many ways, Acts 6 is a strange passage. Acts is a book full of signs and wonders and great movements of the Holy Spirit. But here, in the middle of all that, you get this passage that reads almost like the minutes of a council meeting. Compared to the fire of Pentecost and the midnight shaking of the Philippian jail, this story seems rather dull. But we shouldn’t give up too easily on this story. There is a lot to love here.

First, this story shows that tedious meetings have always been part of the work of the church. We sometimes romanticize what the early church must have been like. Signs and wonders and the Holy Spirit moving like wind and flame. How wonderful! It’s true that Acts is filled with spectacular happenings. But the early church also faced problems and complaints and long meetings. The tedious stuff was there from the beginning. Every person who has ever served on a church council or a church committee has found herself in a meeting, leaning forward, massaging her temples, and wondering, Why is this so complicated?! Is this really necessary?

The simple answer is yes. The work of the kingdom has always involved tedium. If you are a tired committee member, you are part of a great cloud of faithful witnesses who have been attending meetings since the time described in Acts 6.

Second, this story shows us how administrative decisions about matters that seem tedious on the surface can end up touching on matters that go to the heart of the gospel. The issue in Acts 6 is not primarily one of food distribution. That’s the surface issue, but underneath there is something more serious. The real issue here is central to the gospel and central to the book of Acts. 

Who are the two sides in this dispute? On one side are the Hellenist widows. Hellenist means they are Jews but they speak Greek and are culturally Greek. They would be newer members in the church. On the other side are the Hebraic widows. Hebraic means they are traditionally Jewish. They speak Aramaic, and they hold tight to the old Israelite ways. These two sides—the Hellenist Jews and the Hebraic Jews—are old, old rivals. They have looked at each other with suspicion for hundreds of years. 

You see, by the time of Acts 6, Israel had been under the occupation of Greco-Roman culture for more than 200 years. And when these Greek masters took over and introduced their culture, the Jews took two paths. Some remained Jewish but adopted Greek habits and customs. Others saw everything Greek as an abomination and kept the ancient Hebrew culture. These two sides lived together, but they didn’t like each other much. They looked at each other with suspicion and told nasty stories. “Those Hellenists are backsliders!” “Those Hebraic folk are trapped in the past!”

Now both Hellenists and Hebrews were coming to Jesus, but the old angers, the old stories, the old suspicions were all still there—and that’s the problem. On the surface Acts 6 looks like an issue of distribution and logistics, but underneath it’s an issue of dividing walls. Underlying the Widow Onassis’s letter is a massive question that comes up throughout Acts and the whole New Testament: Can the gospel overcome the old dividing walls of hostility? Can we—Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free—all be one in Christ Jesus? Or will the walls of race and class and culture finally be too thick, too high, too strong? 

The disciples clearly understand the deeper issue. Just look at what they do. They move forcefully and boldly against the old suspicions. Their proposal is a sledgehammer made to knock down the old walls of division. How so? Look at the names of the people they appoint. Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, Nicolas (Acts 6:5)—all of them Greek. All of the new leaders are appointed from the minority group. They’re all “outsiders.”

Systemic Change

What might this be like in our own context? Imagine a historically white congregation that has started to change. Some African American neighbors have joined, and this new group now comprises almost 20 percent of the membership. The council, however, is still all white and European. Imagine that, in order to remedy the situation, the leadership put up a whole slate of nominations for the next year, and every single one of the nominees was African American. Not just one, not just a couple—the whole slate. That would be a forceful move.

That’s like what’s happening here. The disciples don’t just come up with a meal schedule to address the surface problem; they change the whole system. Systemic change is an incredibly important part of building God’s kingdom. It’s also is the hardest kind of change. Systemic change moves slowly, and the process is often tedious. Meetings are tools for systemic change.

Which teaches us something about the way the Spirit moves. Maybe you’ve heard of “God glimpses.” They’re a big thing right now—especially in youth groups. It’s a practice where people in a small group get together and share the places they’ve seen God moving in their life. It’s a great idea. It teaches holy attention.

If you’ve been a part of a group where people are sharing their God glimpses, you know that certain sorts of things get mentioned: surprising encounters and conversations, sudden bursts of beauty, miraculous events, unexpected coincidences in the midst of a busy day. But no one ever testifies about a God glimpse at a committee meeting. No one ever gets up and says, “I saw the Spirit when the council nomination procedure passed” or “I saw the Spirit move when the new worship schedule was approved.”

Acts 6 reminds us that the Spirit is in those moments too. A group of men and women getting together on a weekday evening and patiently, diligently working through the work of the church—that’s a picture of the Spirit moving. Blessed are those folks! Blessed are the church administrators, for they shall inherit the kingdom of God. Blessed are the committee chairs, for they shall see God. Blessed are those who make the nursery schedule, for they shall be called children of God. Blessed are the minute-takers, for their names shall be written in the book of life. Blessed are all those who do the small tedious acts of planning and policy making. Blessed are they, because the Holy Spirit is moving in them. It’s not just the miracles; it’s the meetings.

Luke gives this pro-meeting message a little extra push right at the end of the passage (v. 7) by reporting that the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly. That’s something of a refrain in Acts. Six times Luke reports the church’s growth and expansion. It’s his way of reminding us that the Spirit is at work. Usually these growth spurts come after one of those more spectacular moves of the Spirit: the disciples speak in tongues at Pentecost, and “three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41). But in Acts 6 the growth spurt comes after a congregational meeting. Because God uses those too.

There is actually one interesting difference in the report on growth in Acts 6:7. This time the new members included a large number of priests. Why priests? Could it be that the way these disciples handled the widow controversy—decently and in good order—so impressed these institutional men that they wanted to join? Could it be that the Spirit of decency and good order flooded their hearts with holy joy? Anything’s possible. In the end, I don’t know whether it was the miracles or the meetings, but I do know it was the Spirit. Because the Spirit is always moving in both places.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How have you typically viewed church meetings, e.g. congregational and council meetings?
  2. How have you seen the Holy Spirit at work in a church meeting you were a part of? If you haven’t seen that, why do you think that’s not happening?
  3. In what way is systemic change an important part of God’s kingdom building?
  4. What kind of divisions exist in your church that you think would benefit from systemic changes?

About the Author

Peter Jonker is minister of preaching at LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Mich.