Division of Tasks, but not of the Spirit

Reading Acts 6 for another post, I noticed something that is not new, but it stood out to me and I wanted to write it down.

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”5And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. …

8And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. 10But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.

Stephen was chosen by the other believers in Jerusalem to serve tables – that is, to see that the needy among the church were cared for. Yet he was able to defend the gospel against its enemies so powerfully that they took him to the authorities and executed him. And in verse 2, the language in Greek suggest the twelve had been serving tables, but it was too much for them to continue that and keep on serving the Word.

Stephen was not too low to proclaim the gospel, and the apostles were not too lofty to bring dinner to widows. There was division of tasks so that every need was met, physical and spiritual; but there was no division of the Spirit’s power.

Deserve or Need?

A few weeks ago, among the tweets from “Bible Students Say…“, I noticed two tweets had a common theme.

This got me thinking about the use in our culture of the word deserve. Maybe it’s anecdotal, but I seem quite often to hear that word used in place of need. “Everyone needs a place to live” becomes “everyone deserves a place to live” for example.

This is not a harmless drift in word definitions, either. Need is a positive (i.e., descriptive of the world as it is, not necessarily as it ought to be), factual statement. Deserve is a normative (how the world ought to be) statement with philosophical and emotional ties to ideas of justice. In addition, needs have gradations of importance: “I need to pay this bill before my cable gets cut off” is far different from “I need air or I will die” – see Maslow’s hierarchy. Desserts (things deserved, not sweets) do not have any such gradations or hierarchies.

Another distinction is that needs can exist apart from actions and relationships. If there were only one person in the universe, they would still need sustenance, but in that situation it doesn’t make sense to say they deserve anything, because from whom would they deserve it? There are always two (or more) persons involved when we talk about desserts. I can deserve something from you only if I fulfill an agreed-upon condition or you deprive me of what is rightly mine without cause.

So why write a philosophical post about two words and the ideas they represent? Because I think we lose something when we redefine needs as desserts. If everything I need I deserve, there is no room left for compassion, empathy, or generosity. In short, there is no room left for kindness or love. This is especially important when using these words in regards to theology. All through Scripture God describes himself as loving, kind, compassionate, gracious, and merciful. Yet without a distinction between needing and deserving – if we no longer need but deserve forgiveness, grace, and mercy – then God cannot rightly be said to be any of those things. Furthermore, he is no longer deserving of praise, because you cannot worship one who has only given you what is justly yours.

The tweets quoted above are laughable to those who are familiar with proper theology, but the thoughtless use of words they represent is not funny. Our thinking is only as broad as our vocabulary, and if this is the vocabulary of a generation, then there is much work to be done by Christ’s followers who wish to make headway against evil in that generation. The words of Satan blur the lines between ideas. The word of God is sharper than a sword.


Review: Seven Marks of a New Testament Church

That is the title of a book from David Black of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Black voiced a lot of the same thoughts and concerns I’ve been wrestling with about the institutional church. It’s encouraging to see these ideas coming from an academic and in a form that is easy for every believer to access.

I especially appreciated his arguments for unity among the church, particularly in regards to decision-making. “[O]ur man-made method of decision-making… undermines the example of the early church. … We vote, and leave an aggrieved minority. The early church waited upon the Spirit, and it produced a unified whole.” (Location 596)

His comments on the Lord’s supper are also excellent: “Other forms of communion (broken crackers and tiny cups), while perhaps more practical, fail to give significance to the importance Paul attached to the oneness aspect of the Supper.” (Location 672)

I started this book a bit skeptical since it was written by a seminary professor, but I was pleasantly surprised that Black set aside the filter of how-it’s-always-been-done and compares church institutions to what is found in the New Testament.