The first verses of the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles are a beautiful testimony of the growth and development of the early Church. They offer valuable advice for the order of things within the Church.
Most of the problems in our Church that relate to the Church are caused by our ignorance, not by our bad intentions. People come and go without taking the time to delve more deeply into the essence of the Church. A good percentage of our misunderstandings and conflicts stems from the fact we have not yet learned to distinguish between the duties and responsibilities of the clergy and the laity, respectively. In some places the clergy tend to exclude lay people from church affairs, and in some, where the laity is especially powerful, the priests are confined to the altar space and perhaps a few feet around the altar as well. This is why the testimony about how the early Church resolved these issues, is particularly valuable to us.
The early Christians lived as one pious and united family. They were of one heart and one soul and “neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed were his own, but they had all things in common” (Acts 4:32). “Nor was there anyone amongst them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the Apostles feet, and they distributed to each as anyone had need” (Acts 4:34:35).
However, wherever there are people, there are also problems. The first elders of the Church were not spared these problems, either. The Church spread and grew with tremendous speed. Before long it was hard to satisfy all of life’s demands. There were many old and feeble members who could not make it to the communal meals and there were many poor people and widows who, having been left without protection, did not get their rations. Some Christians, newly converted from paganism, the “Hellenists” as apostle Paul calls them, raised “a complaint against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” (Acts 6:1).
“Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, ‘It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2-4).
These few sentences of saint Apostles suffice for us to establish the form of all relationships within the Church and resolve many issues that would arise.
We see that in the beginning the Apostles had to do everything: stand in prayer, preach the word of God and also resolve financial matters within the Christian community. They were the supreme authority in all fields. As the number of the faithful increased and the Church community spread, the Apostles could not minister to all the needs of the Church without neglecting their primary duties. Therefore they asked the Christians to find among themselves those who were capable of taking care of the material aspects of the community. They were to bring these men to the Apostles so that they might lay their hands on them.
Though today many choose to ignore the intertwined relations between the clergy and the laity, and insist that the clergy cannot take part in decisions concerning the administration of church assets, the Church reminds them that it is not so. The Apostles had the last word in appointing the men that that the community chose, and remained, even after that, the elders of the community. It is implied that the elected men knew that, just as they were brought forth and given certain responsibilities, they could also be released.
We see also that the Apostles never stopped caring for the material assets of the Church, it was only because of the lack of time and energy that they had to delegate a part of their power to others so that they could dedicate themselves to spiritual matters.
This example set by the early Church is very indicative to us, priests, as to what our priorities are. Prayer and spreading the word of God are our most important tasks. This does not mean that we cannot take part in the administration of our communal church assets. It has been stressed many times that a priest is a member of the church community and its leader. It is not wise to deny the leader of the community and its first member the rights that all other members of the community have. It is the same within any family: the children should not deny their father, the head of the household, the rights that all other members of the family have. Finally, just as in the times of the Apostles the people chose “seven men of good reputation” and the Apostles officially appointed them by laying of the hands, so, too, the bishops of today give their blessing for the appointing of church functionaries before the priest, who represents the bishop.
It is also wrong to rely solely on one criterion or on one virtue or skill. We sometimes think that if we bring highly educated people with extensive work experience into the Church, then all our problems will be solved and our community will blossom. “The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Cor. 3:19). We must understand that what is applicable to other spheres of life, may not necessarily be applicable in the Church. It is a fact that some church communities led by people without formal education are much better off than some of them that are led by high-profile specialists. This is why we need to go back to the principles that the Apostles established and apply them in our own practice.
The Apostles instructed their brethren to find men of good reputation who are filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom. These three virtues were set by the Apostles as the criteria for choosing leaders in the Church: a good moral reputation, personal piety and wisdom. Let us not try to be wiser than the holy Apostles.