A number of months ago I shared the story of the Blue Van. In that story I shared how I failed to live out Matthew 25:31-40 and help a couple in need. Undoubtably there is an aspect of Christianity that is about taking care of the needy. We could list verse after verse that tells us to do so. But one of the greatest struggles that I had with my seminary education was that at various points we spent more time talking about social justice issues rather than about teaching the Word of God. I am not saying that caring for the poor is unimportant but where should it fit in our overall theology?
There are three passages in Acts that I would like to look at. The first two are Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37. Both of these passages tell of how the Early Church "had everything in common." These passages state that the members of the Early Church did not keep their possessions as their own but rather they were willing to give them up so that everyone in the Church had their needs taken care of. Acts 2:45 says:
"And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need."
So the Early Church did think that it was important to help those that were in need. But that leads to two further questions; at least in terms of these passages. The first is to whom were they helping out? The second is to what end were they doing so?
Acts 2:44 says:
"And all who believed were together and had all things in common."
This is telling us that it was those within the Church that had all things in common and 4:32 expounds upon this a little further:
"Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of these things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common."
So these passages are specifically speaking about how the church treated each other. Specifically in these passages the Church was making sure that their own members were properly cared for. But why were they doing this? They were doing so because God commanded them to do so. The Matthew 25 passage makes that very clear. A fully devoted follower of Christ needs to be obedient and to give of what they have in order to care for others. It is important for us to do this as a Church and these passages make it clear that we should be especially mindful of those within our own midst that need the help. But where should it fit into our overall theology?
That brings us to the third passage–Acts 6:1-7–that I would like to look at. It says:
"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. And 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. Therefore 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. But we will devote ourselves to prayer to the the ministry of the word.' And 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. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
"And the word of god continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith."
I don't think that it is any mistake that these three stories are told at the very beginning of Acts. They were formative as to the structure of the Church that persists today. Most churches have two sets of leaders. One set to oversee the spiritual needs and the other to oversee the physical needs. But what I find telling is that the Twelve–the disciples that walked with Jesus and became the spiritual leaders of the Early Church–felt that it was important that taking care of those in need did not eclipse the preaching of the Word of God. And it is because of this that it is my opinion that the preaching of the Word of God should always be the primary goal of the Church. This doesn't mean that we can neglect other duties of the Church like caring for those in need. But our concern over social issues should never diminish our bold proclamation of what Christ's death and resurrection mean for us in a spiritual sense.
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.