Mars Hill Church
ACTS CH. 6-11: EMPOWERED FOR JESUS’ MISSION
Empowered by the Spirit to Fail (Acts 6:1–7)
Pastor Mark Driscoll — Acts 6:1–7 — May 18, 2014
So, now, we finally get to the recently discussed sermon from the Acts series in which Acts 6:1-7 got preached. We'll get to the redacted version of the sermon because interesting though the excised materials are they don't have any bearing on what has been made publicly available. The "maybe Jesus made mistakes" point is so completely irrelevant to the overall arc of the sermon as would-be expository preaching it can be bracketed off to one side (for now). So, with that in mind, let's get to what's available:
The Difference between Sin and Mistake
Number four, there’s a difference between a sin and a mistake, and it’s really important that I emphasize this. I don’t think, historically, I’ve emphasized this enough in my teaching, so let me clarify it today. So the situation here [is this]: they’re trying to help, love, serve, and care for widows. Now, their critics would look and say, “They don’t care about people.” They do, they’re trying to help. And some would look and say, “They’re in sin. They’re not loving and caring for people. They’re in sin.”
Here’s my question. They are in failure, but there are two kinds of failure. Some failure’s a sin. Other failure’s a mistake. Do you get the difference? Their failure, is it a sin or is it a mistake? OK, think about it for a minute [humming Jeopardy theme song] OK, what do you think it is now? Ready for your answer? How many of you think they’re in sin and they need to repent? How many of you think they made a mistake, they’ve got to learn and grow from it, and fix it?
There’s a difference, right? I don’t think they’re in sin. It’s not that they don’t love people. It’s not that they’re trying to help. It’s not that they have bad doctrine, bad character. It’s not that they’re not trying or working hard. They just stink at it. Any of you had anything like that? They need to improve on it. They need to learn and grow in it.
Friends, this is where we need to give grace to one another. And not every issue is, sin, repent, sin, repent. Yeah, we hit sin and repent a lot. Sometimes it’s mistake, learning, mistake, learning, and we give grace to one another. They made a mistake, and they need to learn from it. You make mistakes; you need to learn from it. We make mistakes; we need to learn from them. I make mistakes; I need to learn from them.
Yeah, well, I've got you something from Deuteronomy here:
"Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow" Then all the people shall say, "Amen!"
Neglecting Hellenstic widows in the context of the early Christian church, assuming that Deuteronomy was recognized as having some kind of divinely inspired, canonical value makes it virtually impossible for Mark Driscoll to split hairs from the pulpit about whether or not failing to care for a subsection of Christian widows within the early church could be described as merely a mistake but not also as a sin. When Yahweh insists that the people of Israel pronounce a curse on anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, from the fatherless, or from the widow that seems like something that might, you know, be considered sinful.
For those who don't have this precedent of reading Deuteronomy for the fun of it, there's also stuff in Detueronomy 24:19-21 prohibiting going over your crop-yielding parcels of land and revisiting branches to pick stuff you missed. Why? Because those gleanings that went ungleaned are to be left for the foreigner, the orphan and ... yes ... the widow. Isn't there a whole little book of the Bible about a widow, and a foreign widow at that, who found favor with some guy named Boaz who advised his men on how she should be allowed to glean in the fields undisturbed? Didn't Driscoll preach through the book of Ruth at some point? The idea that it's merely a "mistake" in Acts 6 that some widows are given food while other widows in the early church were neglected seems hard to sustain for anyone who's ever cracked open the Old Testament even once in their lives.
And moving slightly further along in the Old Testament canon:
Isaiah 1:15-17 (NIV)
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!
Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
Now, to be sure, it's fair to point out that properly defining who qualified for care from the church in widowhood was an ongoing concern. 1 Timothy 5 springs to mind. Clearly by the writing of the pastoral epistles (never mind when scholars debate they were written and by whom) the early Church was concerned, significantly, with how to properly define who was a widow for whom the help of the local church was warranted and who was a widow for whom family within the church was to learn obedience through helping mom.
If Driscoll had framed his discussion of care for widows more broadly he could have broached this entire question in a way that would have illuminated a concern that runs through the New Testament such as the rather blunt and immutable James 1:27.
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Wasn't James an epistle Driscoll preached through a few months ago? But James here was not necessarily one of the Twelve and maybe James the brother of Jesus didn't have enough clout within the early Church for his views to matter just yet in the narrative of Acts 6? Hard to say.
In any case, rather than getting hung up on about six minutes of material that got scrubbed from a recent Driscoll sermon let's focus on the bigger picture. The E on the eyechart here is that care for widows is so prominent a theme in the Old and New Testament it beggers belief that failing to do this would constitute merely making a mistake. If you fail to care for widows in their distress you're failing the religion that is pure and faultless thing and if you've failed that then there might be some sin involved, whether omission or commission.
It doesn't matter how long Driscoll sings the Jeapordy theme song while waiting to answer his own rhetorical question that sets up a false dichotomy between "mistake" and "sin" on the care of widows. That's the opinion of Wenatchee the Hatchet, at any rate, for whatever little it may be worth. It doesn't matter what the six removed minutes about maybe Jesus made mistakes does or doesn't say about Jesus if the entirety of the argument from which that audio was excised hinges upon such a ridiculous false dichotomy shoved into a rhetorical and leading question that Driscoll pushes on the audience to the effect that failing to care for Hellenistic widows was a "mistake" rather than a "sin".
If Mark Driscoll has only gotten around to thinking about how maybe a "mistake" isn't a "sin" after he publicly told Janet Mefferd on the air that maybe he made a mistake but that a mistake isn't a sin with respect to the intellectual property of others then the entirety of the sermon might sound to at least some listeners like an extended exercise in special pleading that has very little at all to do with the actual text of Acts 6. And that's setting aside, for the moment, the entirety of the OT and NT on the subject of how God orders Israel through Moses to pronounce curses on those who withhold justice from the widows and the foreigners. Assuming Christianity emerged as a religious movement from within 1st century Judaism it simply defies belief that early Christians would not have known about that curse in Deuteronomy and would not have had it in mind when a complaint about the neglect of Hellenistic widows rose up. Clearly the Twelve, if we're going to take the narrative of Acts at face value, thought the complaint was serious enough and legitimate enough to not get defensive about it so much and to ask the people to appoint men qualified to address the problem.
Acts 6, then, does not have to be read as a depiction of mistakes being made but as an apostolic response to a legitimate complaint about systemic injustice in the early Church regarding the care of widows that was met with blessing the appointment of seven from the early Church to remedy the problem. It is the opinion of Wenatchee The Hatchet that after years of Driscoll saying from the pulpit that we should not miss the big E on the eye chart that Driscoll has missed that big E with respect to Acts 6 and that the entirety of the sermon is an unfortunate exercise in special pleading with respect to Mars Hill in general and Mark Driscoll in particular more than a reasoned and responsible expository sermon on what is actually in the text of Acts 6.
Let's move on from the bit about mistakes and sins to the part where Driscoll talks about delegation:
Number four, they then lay hands on them, which is delegating authority. What happens in the
Bible is that when a leader chooses another leader and it’s confirmed by the Holy Spirit and
the rest of the team, then they lay hands on that person and they commission them into
ministry, and here’s what it’s showing. We believe that God has put his hand on them,
proverbially speaking, and therefore we’re going to put our hand on them, physically speaking.
And as they go out to do their ministry, they’re doing it under our authority. Under our
authority. [emphasis added]
So the apostles are saying, “We’re not going to be there like, you know, the chef, chopping up
the vegetables, and like the waiter, serving the meal. We’re going to send these people, but
they come on our behalf. They represent us. So if you don’t like the meal, you don’t need to
talk to us, you need to talk to them. If you don’t think that things are run well, you don’t
need to talk to us, you need to talk to them because they represent us.”
Let me ask you this: Do you think anybody was upset that they didn’t get Peter to bring them
their soup anymore, that John couldn’t come sit at their table for a few minutes and check in
on them? Do you think that displacement felt like a loss for some people? “Who are you?” “Well,
I’m Stephen.” “I don’t know you. Where’s Peter?” “Peter’s not here anymore.” “Oh, he’s too big
for us. Yeah, he’s moved on. “Uppity, uppity, uppity. Got a book deal, I heard. He thinks he’s
writing the Bible,” right, OK? Right?
That paragraph set in bold up there reveals how fundamentally Mark Driscoll either fails to grasp the basic reading of the text or opted to ignore it. This wasn't some case where the Twelve delegated authority to people that people didn't recognize but that the Twelve appointed to solve a problem. What does Acts 6:2-6 actually say? We'll highlight a few details here and there:
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 and sisters, 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, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. (NIV, again)
That's the Twelve saying "YOU choose seven men from among YOU" not "We will pick the seven guys we already have in mind for this task." The Twelve offer to turn the responsibility of making sure that all the widows, Jewish or Hellenistic, in the early Church were not neglected in the daily distribution. Then the text tells us the whole group was pleased with this PROPOSAL (not a command) and that THEY first chose Stephen, and six other men.
So when Driscoll riffs a few jokes about how Stephen might not be recognized by one of the group Driscoll has to joke in spite of the plainest and most obvious reading of the biblical text that just explained to us that the group chose Stephen and that this was in response to a proposal (rather than a delegating decision) from the Twelve. This was not authority delegated from the top down to the seven that the underlings had to just deal with because the Twelve picked them, this was authority invested by the Twelve into the seven who had been appointed by the whole group, which would have arguably included the Hellenistic widows who were being neglected in the daily distribution and those who had made the complaints. The response of the Twelve wasn't, "We're going to delegate authority to hand-picked people we already know" so much as the Twelve saying, "Appoint from among yourselves people full of the Spirit who you trust to remedy this inequality."
For all of Driscoll's riffing and joking about people not recognizing Stephen and wanting to know where Peter was he seems to have had to do this at the expense of showing any basic competence in understanding what's actually in the biblical text he preached from.
For a sermon about failure in the early church it can seem as though Driscoll failed, ultimately, to demonstrate a basic understanding of what's in the biblical text. Never mind the deleted stuff about Jesus in some alternate universe not being perfect in Little League or Driscoll digressing on to his kids (again) when there's no reason to do so in explaining a biblical text. At least this time Driscoll didn't hang a lot of emotional weight on a tendentious reading of a biblical text by appealing to the ethical ruminations of his teenage daughter. But if attenders of Mars Hill Church or people listening to the sermon online came away from the sermon Mark Driscoll preached on Acts 6:1-7 thinking it was a compelling or even competent expository sermon on what the biblical text says then, well, Wenatchee The Hatchet disagrees with that opinion.