By Bill Mefford
This is part of a multi-week study of Acts and how we can continue to build a progressive Wesleyan movement that manifests God's Kingdom on earth in our local churches. Any study of the New Testament church will both critique where we are currently as a church as well as stir up visions for where God is leading us. That is the goal here.
There are discussion questions below for you to use and discuss with your Sunday School class, youth group, Wesley Foundation group, or local church or other band of believers you meet with (whatever you call church). Begin by reading the adjacent chapter in Acts and then the post below. End by answering the questions. Please let us know what happens and what you learn at Bill@figtreerevolution.com. We would love to share any new insights or missional engagement with others! Let's build the Wesleyan progressive movement together!
Luke establishes a subtle, but powerful contrast between the last chapter and chapter seven. We recall that upon learning of a dispute between Hellenist and Hebraic widows regarding an unfair distribution of food - a dispute that had far more to do with a clash of cultures than structural inefficiency - the disciples respond by saying that they must maintain their focus on teaching and cannot be dragged into "waiting on tables." Thus, they establish the first hierarchy of roles in the church.
So, the church approves of seven new servants to oversee the distribution of food. One of them is Stephen who apparently did not get the memo that some followers of Jesus should just wait on tables while others should be charged with teaching; Stephen did both. In fact, the religious leaders of the day felt so threatened by him that they brought him before the religious council to bring charges against him. The religious leaders were so threatened by this waiter they even instigated false charges and hired false witnesses against him. Interestingly, this is the most concerted action taken by the religious leaders against a member of the new Christian community in its early life.
It begs the question why. Why are they so frightened of Stephen? They had taken action against Peter and John previously, but they pull out all of the stops against Stephen elevating him - a waiter of tables - as an even greater threat than the leaders of the community! Why? The text does not say exactly why, but could it be that when even those doing the daily, ordinary work within a community are known for "doing great wonders and signs among the people" (6:8), then that movement is a force that is powerful enough to possibly upend the religious power structure?
Why is this important for us? Because any progressive movement must be more than a an eloquent and powerful personality with a group of followers. A progressive movement will invest in developing leaders even among those who wait on tables - those doing the everyday grunt work of the movement. A movement that brings about needed revolution in an unjust society will be a movement filled with leaders whose embrace of both word and deed - a willingness to proclaim the truth while living out a just vision for the world in their everyday service to the community - is a movement that truly will threaten the power structures of the day. It is crucial we do better as progressives building up leaders for the movement at all levels. Too often progressives wait for the William Barbers or Jim Wallis' of the world to follow and do not realize the power they have when they serve where they are placed and refuse to back down from unjust, entrenched power.
So, Stephen is brought before the religious leaders and, amazingly, he begins to lecture them on the history of Israel; a lesson I am sure the religious leaders did not appreciate. As we read Stephen's speech, one thing is certain: Stephen will never win an award for the most diplomatic. He holds nothing back - he is a truth teller. But what cannot be understated here is the important picture of a waiter of tables lecturing the religious leaders of Israel on what their history means and who the long-awaited Messiah is. This is one of the best pictures of what a progressive movement looks like for real leaders will not be those with titles and status positions - something we have slovenly become too focused on and dependent on in our current lazy progressivism. Genuine leadership will be those who, despite the absence of titles or status positions, arise from among the people because they demonstrate absolute commitment and authentic passion.
This is who Stephen is. And to borrow a preacher's term I used to use when I pastored churches and preached a particularly passionate sermon, Stephen "lays the wood" on the religious leaders. Man, this guy holds nothing back. Maybe he is rightfully ticked off that the religious leaders have fabricated the entire case they are making against him. I have seen this up close. Institutional religious leaders feel threatened by someone who refuses to play by their rules and who refuses to acknowledge their positions as head of the food chain so they use their power to marginalize and oppress them. It is amazing how fragile entrenched power truly is. One targeted sermon and they insist that the deliverer of that sermon be put to death.
For too long progressive Christians have tried to marry prophetic, truth-telling with institutional ownership. Stephen's blasting of the religious leaders of his day, which is reminiscent of Jesus' verbal scorching of these same religious leaders in Matthew 23, show that truth-telling must begin with one's own house. Institutional ownership comes with a price and the cost is often in the ability to prophetically speak truth to power. Progressive Christians have tried to manage religious institutions while at least sounding somewhat prophetic on popular social issues. But yet, managing institutions means guarding enormous financial resources, marginalizing dreamers and potential leaders who do not fit the institutional model of leadership, and tempering prophetic statements so that they do not unnecessarily rock the financial boat which sustains the institution.
Building a progressive movement modeled after the New Testament church in Acts means that we reject religious institutionalism and that we invest our time, energy, and yes, money, in leaders at all levels. Even in leaders who wait on tables.
Questions for Discussion:
1) How important is building up new leaders to your local church? How important is building up new leaders to the progressive movement overall? How can this be made more important to the daily work of your church?
2) How would you define a leader? Have we made too much of a few leaders who speak or write, but have neglected the other aspects of what leadership is?
3) Do you agree that progressivism cannot both be prophetic while managing large religious institutions? Why or why not?