We like to think of the “Church” this way too. We read through the Book of Acts and land on the passages where believers sell their goods to assist the community and think “Wow- believers would never do that now!” We look at the different ministries our church is running and may think, “That really helps our congregation but are we reaching the needs of the community we live in like they did in Jerusalem?” It would be great to say that the early days of “The Church” were better, purer, more altruistic, and untainted by sin and compromise than it is now, but we would be wrong! The truth is wherever there are humans involved with the Lord’s work, there’s going to be issues! It’s simply a fact of our fallen human nature- although we don’t like to focus on that nowadays. Acts 4 closes with the idyllic scene of believers bringing gifts and offerings to the Apostles for the betterment of the community (Acts 4:32-37). Awesome! Chapter 5 begins with the false donation of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) while Chapter 6 acknowledges that prejudice and mismanagement were depriving certain widows of their daily needs (Acts 6:1-6). NOT so awesome!
It was customary for the Jewish community of the 1st century to take two offerings every Friday before sundown. The first was the kuppah (meaning basket). It was a monetary donation that was divided among those in need and was meant to provide them with 2 meals a day for the coming week. The second was the tamhuy (meaning tray). It consisted of goods that were then given to those with the most pressing immediate needs. Most scholars believe that it has been about 5 years since the birth of the Church in Acts 2 by the time distribution troubles come up in Acts 6. It appears that although the collections continued to be made the distribution of funds and goods made its way to only certain widows. Uh oh! Prejudice, discrimination and mismanagement in the Early Church! Say it isn’t so!! The church had barely come together and it’s already divided. Jews of Hebraic descent (those in Jerusalem that spoke Aramaic) and Jews of Grecian descent (those who came from the Diaspora whose main language was Greek) naturally drew together for fellowship, prayer and study according to their language and customs. Archaeology has even borne this out. The widows of either group were particularly vulnerable in the first century but it appears that the Hellenist widows were being slighted because of their heritage and the matter is brought up before the Apostles (v. 1). The solution was to form a panel of overseers (v. 3) and the office of “deacon” (the root of the Greek word means “to serve’) was created. Problem solved.
It is tempting to say this was just one incident and the Church was more good than faulty but a truthful reading of Acts proves that they continued to struggle with human frailty. However they didn’t give up, they didn’t quit and they didn’t abandon each other when they failed. Perhaps then, we shouldn’t be looking at what’s wrong when we encounter struggles in our own congregations, rather we should be asking, “How can we make this work?” if we find ourselves facing similar situations in the Church of today. Nostalgia never fixes anything. Jesus does. And in His words, problems just mean it’s time to put your hand to the plow (Lk. 9:62).
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
https://www.annhlefevre.com; Olivetreeann@mail.com; https://www.linkedin.com/in/annhlefevre; https://www.facebook.com/ann.h.lefevre