The early church is often idealised. It’s a golden age – everyone was a great saint and martyr, everyone shared their lives and their resources, everything was awesome and we need to get back there ASAP.
Passages like Acts 6 show that the reality was far more prosaic – those early Christians were figuring things out as they went and sometimes things went wrong.
For instance, here we have a pastoral breakdown. The church was supporting the widows within its community, but somehow, be it an oversight, a breakdown in communication or unspoken prejudice, the Aramaic speaking widows were being looked after while the Greek speakers were being forgotten.
The apostles need to sort this out, and so they appoint seven deacons to manage the situation – this is where Stephen and Philip arrive in the narrative. And while we can see this as simply being a solution to an administrative need, there’s a deeper wisdom on display here.
See, we’re given the names of the seven deacons in Acts 6:5, and the key thing to notice is that all seven names are Greek. There’s an issue where Greek-speaking widows are being neglected? Okay, the Greek-speaking community needs to lead the church’s response as thet’re the ones on the front line.
It’s a simple, obvious solution, but all too often we neglect its wisdom. Racism is discussed on panels consisting entirely of white commentators. Events are held to talk about gender equality and every speaker is a man. The apostles were wise enough to hand things over and let the deacons have their voice.
Too often the voice of privilege is dominant, so much so that it’s taken for granted as the default setting by everyone except, say, the Aramaic Christians – the people on the receiving end of society’s mistakes, oversights and prejudice. And so the questions of how to deal with racism or sexism in the church are asked, but the wrong voices are trying to answer them and so those answers are unsatisfying.
In short, sometimes the best thing to do is pass the mic to a little-heard voice and then shut up and get out of the way. We need to do a lot more listening than shouting nowadays; that’s the only way unspoken stories will be heard and healing between our communities can begin. And if you have a platform – a blog or a podcast or a pulpit – offer that to someone who needs space to speak. Maybe, in the diversity of our stories and our voices, communities can be transformed and the scars of the centuries slowly begin to heal.
(If anyone out there wants to use this space to tell their story, please let me know.)