The Work of the Ministry

"And in those days... their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.

Then the twelve(said), It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables...look ye out among you seven men... whom we may appoint over this business...we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word." (Acts 6:1-4)

When considering the purpose of the ecclesia, it can be helpful to look at work in the Lord from a twofold standpoint. On the one hand, there is work that is primarily focused inwardly and directed towards the needs of those who believe. While this work includes teaching the truth to the coming generation, much of the internal work is administrative and pastoral in nature. Things like the labour required for the physical upkeep of an ecclesial building fall in this category. On the other hand, there is work that is primarily focused outwardly and directed towards sounding the call of the Spirit and the Bride to those who are not yet in the way of salvation and who are not yet associated with the ecclesia. As the Christadelphian body has matured over the generations, there is less zeal for the external focus in many of our ecclesias then had been in their founding generations. A point of this article is to encourage rethinking the balance we have struck between the internal and external work of our ecclesias.

The Book of Acts (Acts 6:1-4) records an issue that arose in the early history of the ecclesia in Jerusalem. As the ecclesia grew in numbers, the Jewish believers from the Diaspora ("The Grecians") complained that their widows were being neglected in comparison to the care that was bestowed on the widows of Jewish believers from Judea ("The Hebrews.") In modern day terms, this would be like having an ecclesia where those who were locally born and bred were accused of giving more attention to their own widows than widows from believers of families who had transferred into the ecclesia. The apostles were concerned that if they got personally involved in attempting to solve this grievance, it would distract them from their mission to proclaim the gospel. The solution, which was acceptable to the whole ecclesia, was to choose seven brethren from the ecclesia who could take the lead in the administration of the welfare needs of the ecclesia's widows in a manner that was without partiality. At least one of those chosen for this work, Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch, appears to have been representative of the aggrieved party in the ecclesia, as he clearly was not born and bred in Judea and, as a proselyte, was not even Jewish by birth.

This incident is an important precedent in ecclesial life because it concerns the two broad areas of "the work of the ministry" that have come to be known in the modern vernacular as "in reach" and "outreach." The business of daily ministration to the needs of the ecclesia's widows was in reach; the "ministry of the word," in providing public proclamation, was outreach. The situation that existed in Jerusalem demonstrates the possibility that an ecclesia can become so focused on its own internal needs that they become all-consuming. The elders of the ecclesia were alert to this possibility and took steps, in the solution they implemented, to prevent it from occurring.

If we were able to step back from our own ecclesial situations in 2006 and seek to objectively assess the balance between in reach and outreach, many of us would likely find that the scales were tipped in favour of in reach. There are many pressing internal needs in our ecclesias. As the scourge of family breakdown affects the Body of Christ, these needs continue to grow. The way the balance was struck in the Jerusalem ecclesia was to assign different roles to different brethren. Brethren who were tasked with significant teaching and preaching responsibilities were not encumbered, at the same time, with onerous administrative duties in the ecclesia.

Although more concise than the fuller analogy in which the diversity of the members of an ecclesia is compared to the different members of the human body expounded in 1 Corinthians 12, in Ephesians the apostle Paul recognized that different members could best serve in different roles: And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; (Ephesians 4:11). In this list of five roles, we might categorize the first three as "outreach" and the last two as "in reach." Because not all brethren have the same capacity or talent for one work or the other, their roles should be determined where their talents are best used to the glory of God.

To test whether it is a valid observation, that in our ecclesias we tend to direct more resources towards in reach than outreach, we could ask some of the following questions:

The lesson from Jerusalem is that it is easy for an ecclesia to become so overtaken and preoccupied with the internal needs of its members, that its responsibilities to bear witness to the truth of the gospel to a perishing world are neglected. If the internal needs begin to be neglected, they are much more likely to be brought to the attention of the ecclesia from within, as they were in the Jerusalem ecclesia; but if the external needs are neglected, apart from the collective ecclesial conscience, there will be no one from without to complain. Why did the elders of the Jerusalem ecclesia take steps to ensure that a group of committed, zealous brethren would be freed up from other duties to preach the word and bear the message of the gospel news? Apart from the fact that it was a commandment from the Lord and therefore a matter of compelling duty for the twelve apostles, it was the chief way by which the ecclesia could grow. The Scriptures record that the Almighty blessed their labours and the number of those who believed multiplied.

In the present world, while there is an important place for organized ecclesial proclamation of the truth, it is also the case that each of us, acting as individual ambassadors for Christ, can make a difference in making known what we believe. There are cases of brothers and sisters who have conducted Bible classes at lunch hour at their places of work, for example, and through this instrumentality brought new believers to Christ. It is important to create a culture of witness in our ecclesias in which we are zealous to make known what we believe. Preaching can be contagious and zeal for the ministry of the word can be infectious. It is a principle of the Scriptures, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak; (2 Corinthians 4:13). In other words, preaching is a means by which we show our faith. In Acts 6:4, the twelve declared their position: But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. This testimony links their commitment to the ministry of the word to prayer. This is a vitally important link because we cannot suppose that preaching is entirely on our own shoulders. We must trust in the Providence of God to grant the increase to our efforts to plant and water, according as it pleases Him. One thing is sure: if we do not plant the seed, and do not water it, it will never grow and bear fruit to His glory.

One question that sometimes arises in our ecclesias concerns our duty to minister to the social welfare needs of those in our communities at large. Some of our ecclesias are located in neighborhoods where there is poverty and homelessness, for which this question may be more urgent than others. On this question, we note that the apostles did not make addressing the social welfare needs of the citizens and slaves of the cities of the Roman Empire their priority although undoubtedly there were many heart-wrenching cases that could have been addressed. Had the apostles taken on this cause, it would have totally absorbed them and still not have made a significant difference. Instead, when they took a collection from the believers in Macedonia, they took it on behalf of the Jewish believers in Judea. They did not take the collection for the sake of alleviating poverty among the pagan population of the local communities. This focus was according to the principle: As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith. On an individual basis, when needs of our neighbours come to our attention, we have a responsibility to do good to relieve their need, but on an ecclesial basis we are not charged with any duty to address the socio-economic needs of the larger communities in which we reside. If we were to allow ourselves to take on that humanitarian cause, it would quickly overwhelm us and distract us from our higher work of making known the gospel to a perishing world. There are many social workers and social agencies devoted to the matters of the Gentiles, but there is no one but us devoted to proclaiming the truth of the gospel.

It is as true in 2006 as it has ever been in the world's history: the harvest truly is plenteous but the labourers are few. As we put our hands to the plough in the Master's service, it is well to remember, Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.
(1 Corinthians 15:58)

James Farrar
Grimsby, ON