'In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against those of the Aramaic-speaking community because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, 'It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Tinon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Anitioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. So the word of God spread The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.' (Acts 6:1-7)
'There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.' (1 Cor. 12:4-6)
First, let us pray:
Almighty God, Dear Father, what a privilege it is to abide in Christ - to dwell in him, sharing his life as a branch shares the life of a vine! Thank you that he is our lives. Work in our hearts to keep us abiding in Christ and filled with his Spirit day by day and moment by moment, by simple faith. Show us any hindrances to this in our lives, and enable us to fling them aside. May God's Word live in us richly; may we keep God's commandments and abide in God's Word. May we keep God's commandments and abide in God's love. In Jesus' name. Amen.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I'm very happy to share my understanding of these texts of the Bible and also my testimony with you in your Seminary.
Historically, the Church's work has always been divided into two basic categories. One is pastoral proclamation, and the second is pastoral service. The first concerns the essential nature of the Faith, and the second is the life of the church. Usually the clergy is in charge of the preaching and the laity of the work of administering the church. How can we make a strict division in an actual situation of evangelization? We must do this because we are called to organize activities for proclamation. That relates to the ideas of organizing actual matters in the Church. So we quickly face a serious question that is both ecclesiological and ecclesiastical. Put simply, the Church's works are the holy work for spreading the Gospel in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19-20), no matter whether it falls under pastoral proclamation or pastoral service. Thus we have come to the central message of our texts for today: the principles by which the Church is administered.
The fundamental message of Acts 6:1-7 is the principle of democracy in the ordinary life of the Church. If everything in the Church were to be decided by the authority of the Apostles and the leaders of the Church without any controls in place, we can imagine that such a Church would be full of 'quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance, and disorder.' (2 Cor.12:20). This is because church leaders are human, too. They are not God. In actual pastoral work, we need to use the whole wisdom of the believers in practical matters. This wisdom is a gift from the Lord. The message of the texts shows that the full engagement of the believers was the basis of the principle of the democracy initiated by the Apostles in New Testament times.
The second important message of the texts is the principle of the mutual respect. We find that the Apostles, as disciples of the Lord, adopted kind and sincere attitudes when dealing with brothers and the sisters in ecclesiastical matters. Or we can say there is a relationship of equals between the Apostles and ordinary believers. We should recognize that them as brothers and sisters in Christ. The critical question for the leaders of the Church is how to apply this biblical principle in our pastoral work.
The third point of the texts is that the apostles faced squarely the possibility of errors in their evangelical work. They never tried to deny their mistakes, especially those pointed out by ordinary believers. On the contrary, they responded by initiating an ecclesiastical institute to avoid future errors.
We have gleaned from the text from Acts three important points of the ecclesiology. These are: democracy in church government, mutual respect, and an attitude of the authenticity.
Let us turn to our second text for today: 1 Corinthians 12:4-6.
We need to contribute the whole of our life to evangelization; or, we can say that we must respond to the Divine calling with all of life. As a human being, each of us should try our best to work for the Lord using our proper gift that comes from him. We cannot ask all believers to do the same evangelical work. So first we should understand that each of us has received a different gift from the Lord.
But we must confirm from this text one important point: The Lord is the same Lord for all even though we do different services in actual evangelical work. God is the same and the Holy Spirit is the same. As a servant of the Lord, no matter what our position in the Church, we must obey the Lord and be loyal to our Savior. So in this sense, ordinary believers must be of the same mind as the leaders on faith and on responsibility for the Church.
In a word, the ordinary believers have an equal position of the spirituality for the Church because we have the same Lord and the same Holy Spirit, although we work in different positions of the Church because we have different gifts from the Lord.
Now let me share my personal experience about the essential message of the texts.
As you know, Chinese Christianity exists in a particular sociopolitical context. Culturally, China is characterized by authoritarianism. We find this in nearly all aspects relative to administration both in the government and in the Church. It is a cultural factor of traditional Chinese civilization. So one of the serious challenges for our Church is how to realize the principle of democracy in the practical work of leadership. How can we realize mutual respect between the leadership and ordinary believers, so that leaders treat believers with authenticity in Christ.
Actually, through the working of the Holy Spirit, we can find surprising and pleasing examples in the local church. They have shown the exact way to work according to the teachings of the Bible. Last year I visited Chen Dai church, a church in a small village in Jinjing County, Fujian Province, in southern China. There are three thousand families in this village, of which only thirty families are Protestant Christians. They have established a church council composed of deacons and elders, for making important decisions in the church. The social gatherings and church services are led by the deacons and the elders. The pastor's work is only preaching the word of God. If there are difficult faith questions, they must listen to the pastor's opinions. For instance, should non-Christians be allowed to participate in the Christmas worship? Should unbelievers who request help from the church be treated the same as brothers and sisters in Christ? If so, is baptism still necessary? How can we understand the relationship between the civil authorities and the authorities of the Church? In this situation, the parish council will invite the pastor to give the final decision. Day by day, the Gospel has been spread by their excellent living out of the faith. Believers, and their rich relatives who live abroad, have been happy to support the church financially. Everything in the church, especially financial affairs, has been clear and aboveboard, and the use of money very reasonably decided by the church council for social service. They have offered various services for the children and the elderly of the village, whether they are Christians or not. So the relationship between the older leadership and the younger pastors and deacons is very harmonious. There is not the sad phenomenon Paul describes in 2Corinthians 12:20, of 'quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance, and disorder' in this church.
You know, in Third World churches most corruption is due to the fact that the lines of authority and power are unclear. If the principles of democracy, mutual respect and the authenticity could be strictly practiced in the church government or administration, with the understanding that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, I believe that the Church will move successfully onward, spreading the Good News of the Lord.
We should recognize that in China our church faces many serious problems now. One of the biggest is that we have not really established a healthy mechanism like church councils where believers can come together to administer the church. This disappointing situation keeps many potential believers away, especially Christian intellectuals.
And now by sharing the texts about the 'Choosing of the Seven' in the Bible, we have gotten a very important message about the Church's government. We also have this excellent example in one small village. So we are full of confidence that we may realize this good way for all of the administrative levels of our Church one day. Please pray for this.
Finally, let us pray together:
Lord, you hear our prayers before we speak, yet welcome our praying: therefore we come with confidence to lay our requests and thanksgivings before you.
We pray for the authorities of the United States, who can bring the world to peace, we pray for the authorities of China, who should do everything for the people according to the justice of God.
Thank you, Lord. We pray also for Christians everywhere, for those who are persecuted for their faith, for those who struggle to be faithful, we pray for your grace to grow in knowledge and love of you. Especially we pray for the professors, stuff and the students both in this Seminary and in Nanjing Seminary. We pray for both the old and young generation of the pastors in the Chinese Church that you would give them the spiritual power to face the different challenges, including the challenges from inside themselves.
Lord, we give you thanks during this Easter season. Especially, we thank you for the gift of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection. We thank you for the surprising ways you continue to bring new life where there has been only death and for the gift of hope for newness in our lives. In Jesus' name. Amen.
Preached at chapel, San Francisco Theological Seminary, April 23, 2001.