The early church prepared for action and was empowered for further action when they sorted out their leadership. We have two stories of leadership – one at the beginning (Acts 1), and then one when they course-corrected a few chapters later (Acts 6).
The first one is sparked by the departure of one of their leaders who turned out to be a devastating disappointment.
History is full of leaders who looked full of promise and then turned into the opposite of what they originally hoped. Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, was originally written in honour of Napoleon. Beethoven strongly believed that Napoleon would deliver the ideals of egalitarianism. The symphony is nicknamed the “heroic” symphony – you can feel the triumph in the music…except that Beethoven felt so betrayed when Napoleon crowned himself emperor, after promising there would be no emperor, that Beethoven was about to destroy the entire symphony. He was convinced not to, but tore out the cover page that named it the “Bonaparte” symphony, and instead wrote “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man”.
The great leader with the ideals in Acts 1 was Judas. After his betrayal of Jesus, and horrific death, we can imagine the community was bitterly disappointed – even a bit in trauma with all the violence going on around Jesus’ death and resurrection and Judas’ death. They could have said “no one will ever replace him”. But Peter is looking around and sees that they have 120 people who need at least a ration of one leader to ten people, and so he draws on scripture as a guide and leads people into prayer to discern who will replace Judas. No leader is irreplaceable. They had a look around and discover that there were others who were qualified – the main qualification being that they had been present during Jesus’ ministry, so they could be reliable witnesses. Jesus had more than the twelve – he had at least another 70 he trained up to heal, speak, care, teach. So instead of wallowing, Peter led the community in looking: God knows what is going on with us. God knows we need leaders, who has God provided for this time?
Not only that, but these leaders, including the top 12, were demonstrating leadership when Jesus was around. He was not the only person doing the things. There are stories in the gospels of him telling his disciples, “Find food for the people”, “organise them into groups”. He left them when he went up a mountain and at the bottom of the mountain, they were casting out demons and healing people (with varied success). He sent them out on missional expeditions. He was getting them to lead, so they were prepared for when he was gone. The original group were people trained up by Jesus himself.
The good news about this awful betrayal is that it breaks up the thinking of the group regarding the "usual suspects" - they have to think of someone OTHER than the usual "top twelve"…which paves the way for other leaders in the future (including the Greek-speaking ones and then eventually gentiles.)
So there were qualifications, and they weren’t just that the new person could do some tasks. They had to have a personal connection with Jesus. Matthias fades out of the story after this - we don't know if he did a brilliant job, but we can probably tell he did an adequate job. There are no complaints! We do know that he was a person who had journeyed with Jesus and his life had the mark of Jesus’ influence on it.
So the disciples settle on their new top twelve, but then a few chapters later, as the movement is growing, we discover they need to get some more leaders with a diversity of roles.
We see that there is some cultural diversity happening and it impacts on the leadership. The language that everyone used In society, was common market-place Greek. The New Testament is written in that common Greek. But clearly there were those who could speak Greek and Hebrew, and those who couldn’t speak Hebrew. With no communication, you can imagine that people got excluded, particularly when it came to sharing resources. The Greek-speakers needed advocates – someone who could represent them and cross the cultural divide. And the labour involved in material care for so many people was getting too much. The very sensible thing to do was to get some more leaders, make sure there was diversity in the mix, and include a range of skills that would cover the needs.
This was a new concept for the group. Prior to the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost, they were an insular group of people and generally the same kind of people. All of a sudden, at Pentecost they are speaking in many languages so lots of people foreign to Jerusalem hear and believe in Jesus and the movement has to shift its focus. This change needs leadership and without it, we discover a recipe for injustice. Without those extra leaders, people are left uncared for. Without those extra leaders, people are not heard. It’s not that Peter and the twelve were bad leaders – they just didn’t have enough of them, and enough diversity to handle the movement.
There also needed to be a diversity of gifts. The OG disciples knew what they were gifted in and called to – this was to vision, preaching, teaching, prayer, discernment (known as the ministry of the word in this passage).
They were meant to be equipping people. This is a key element of leadership: it is not just doing tasks. It’s empowering everyone else in the movement and directing them to do the things they are gifted to do.
The poor old disciples were potentially running around like chooks with their heads cut off, while others in the movement sat there complaining – “you’re not helping me enough! You’re not doing the things I think are important!” This is impossible and not sustainable. The new seven additional leaders were to co-ordinate caring, practical responses to people’s material needs…but even then, I don’t think they were just there to do a task. Their qualification was to be someone who had “full of the Spirit and wisdom”, and they chose Stephen who was “full of faith”, which seems like the role was about vision, discernment, modelling and equipping, too. Jesus gave the example of servant leadership, and of equipping-sending leadership too. Leadership is not about doing tasks. This is why they laid hands on them – they were ordaining them, saying “we trust you, we pray for you, we will follow you, we ask for God’s wisdom to be on you”. If it was just about handing out bread, they wouldn’t have gone to the trouble.
When the movement recalibrated their structure and concept of leadership, got more leaders ordained by the group, they grew, they took off! The number of disciples increased rapidly! Limited leadership will limit the group’s potential. Let’s never just say "we need more people in our church". You will not get more people without leadership that gives them vision (reason) and direction (the way to go). Jesus told his disciples to make disciples. All of us are called to be equipped in helping people discover Jesus and their God-given purpose. It takes initiative.