The New Testament lesson in today’s Daily Office relates a story that’s shared regularly in my Baptist family, especially when it comes time to select deacons. In the early Christian community, a dispute has arisen because certain widows are being overlooked in the distribution of food. And so, the apostles say:
“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.” (Acts 6:2-4)
Now obviously, there’s a lot to commend this course of action. It certainly makes sense from an organizational standpoint. This “division of labor” will almost undoubtedly be more efficient and productive. What’s more, it allows the gifts and abilities of others to be brought to the fore. In fact, almost immediately after this, Stephen — one of those chosen to wait on tables — emerges as a major leader and the church’s first martyr. And perhaps most of all, it has the benefit of elevating the importance of prayer and preaching (i.e. “the ministry of the word”), which sounds “appropriately spiritual” to those of us who have spent much time in church.
But as one of my theology professors once pointed out, there is one potential problem. This seemingly “efficient” and “spiritual” decision creates a gap between the servant leadership exercised by Jesus and the hierarchical leadership often exercised by his followers. Let’s remember, after all, that Jesus not only waited tables. He accepted an even humbler role and washed his disciples’ feet. And then he told them:
“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:13-17)
Jesus clearly believed in the importance of prayer and the ministry of the word. But apparently, he also believed in the importance of serving others, even in menial ways. And one can’t help but wonder if today’s approaches to church leadership would be much more faithful to Jesus — and much less prone to make improper distinctions between clergy and laity — if we could remember that lesson.
In light of this, of course, some might ask: “So what are you saying, Preacher? Are you suggesting that we do away with deacons and that we ask our pastors and other church leaders to handle custodial duties?” Well, no; that’s not what I’m saying (although – I do try to wash dishes and sweep floors around my church when my congregation will let me). Instead, I think that I’m trying to remind us: When it comes to guiding our lives together as God’s people, what appears to be “efficient” and “pious” isn’t always what’s right. What’s faithful to the example and teaching of Jesus is.
May God help us today to make the decisions that truly honor Him. And even when we fail to reach this standard, may He give us the grace that in all things works for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.