Lay Involvement, Book of Acts Style

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, β€œIt is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them. (Acts 6:1-6).

Several things are worth noting here. First, Luke has no problem either with lay involvement in governance (d’ja catch that the occasion of the invention of the diaconate was ethnic bitching among “Hellenists” (Greek-speaking Jews)_and Hebrew-speaking Jews?). He also takes it for granted that the apostles have the final word, but not the *only* word in who gets named to the diaconate. That will offend hard-core authoritarian types who have the vague notion that post-Tridentine models of governance are eternal in the same way that Jesus and the apostles must always have spoken King James English.

Also worth noting is the language of the apostles as they describe their understanding of their role (and, by extension, the role of the bishop): “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.” A bishop who said that today would be fried by all the pissed-off people who would insert the lecture on “Jesus the Servant Who Washed the Feet of the Disciples” in the tape player and let fly. Indeed, I don’t doubt there are some who would see in these words the dreaded birth of clericalism. It would take scarcely a movement of the grey matter to spout such rhetoric. We’d hear endless cataracts of stuff about how bishops should be down in the trenches, working in soup kitchens, doing the Dorothy Day thing and so forth. Along with lots of stuff about the uselessness of theology and preaching and sacraments when the true gospel is only found in Service, etc.

And yet, it would be wrong. The apostles did not see their primary task as soup ladlers. The bishop is indeed called to serve the people. But his service is primarily, as the apostles teach, in “preaching the word of God”. To be sure, he must also live the word of God. But there are many ways to do this besides soup kitchens.

I note that simply to point out that, yet again, Scripture refuses to simple confirm anybody’s simple ideology, rhetoric and prejudice.

The problem is that, today, we don’t have bishops or laity who seem to really believe as the folks in the book of Acts did. The New Testament sees the members of the Church as *members* of one body, literally body parts. We seem to operate in a quasi-Marxist framework which assumes that, when all’s said and done, the clergy are the bourgeoisie and we are laity are the proletariat engaged in eternal class war. (Newspapers are especially fond of this framework.) Thus, getting lay input is, by definition, good because we manifest the charism of the Wisdom of the Voters or the Vanguard of History. Bishops, even if they weren’t the dunderheads we have, would still be a monarchical imposition on our Jeffersonian lay goodness. No thought is given to the fact that we–we laity–lionized men like Paul Shanley for years and have proven ourselves just as incompetent to judge the things of God as some of our bishops.

Somehow we have to return to the theology of the body of Christ that dominates the entire thought of the New Testament. I don’t know how to do that. But Acts 6 shows there is room for it in the Tradition. It begins, in the words of George Weigel, with “Fidelity. Fidelity. Fidelity.”


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