I've often wondered about this little phrase in Acts 6: “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.” The words are spoken by the disciples: they needed help with food distribution and did not want to abandon their work of teaching to cook meals. They looked for helpers to serve tables. I’ve pondered this decision made by the early church leaders and wondered, is this passage saying that teaching God’s Word is more important work than that of serving tables?
I mean, even unspiritual people can be hospitable, can't they? Just take a look at this long list of mundane, unspiritual tasks that need to be done almost every time we have guests over for a meal. (I can just hear the small business coaches I've listened to telling me to outsource as many of these tasks as possible.)
Send a note inviting someone to eat with us
Plan the meal
Clean the house (at least the parts the guests will see)
Walk to a grocery store or two
Cart or carry the ingredients home
Load the fridge and shelves with food
Wash and chop meal ingredients
Cook the meal
Set the table
Welcome and seat the guests
Eat the meal together, noting what needs refilling
Clear and wipe the table
Wash the dishes
Dry and put away the dishes
Send a note saying we enjoyed our guest's visit.
You probably didn't actually read that whole list. But you read enough of it to be reminded that the work of serving tables or being hospitable isn't glamourous. Almost any other task—including being a teacher of God’s Word—sounds more spiritual than peeling vegetables and wiping dusty corners.
But in Elisabeth Elliot’s Discipline, she talks about work and the spiritual importance of doing all work well. We know that serving tables is a humble task. Rather than asking whether serving tables was important work, Elliot points out that the spiritual character of the men chosen to serve those tables in Acts 6 was most important. The early church's kitchen team wasn’t chosen based on who had the biggest van for making deliveries. The members were not chosen based on their culinary expertise—which is probably how we'd pick our church kitchen team members today. They were chosen based on their spiritual maturity: the disciples looked for “men of good reputation…full of the Spirit and of wisdom” to serve tables. The disciples knew that the character of the Christians in the kitchen serving physical food is as important as the character of the Christians on the platform serving spiritual food.
"God prepared Stephen for martyrdom by giving him a mundane job." —E. Elliot
Not only is the spiritual character of the host important, but faithfulness in serving tables trains us to take greater responsibilities in God's kingdom. Elliot explains, “It is especially interesting that one of the men appointed was Stephen, ‘full of grace and power’, whose acceptance of responsibility for the Greek widows soon led to his doing great miracles and signs and to his speaking with such inspired wisdom that he excited the extreme jealousy and irrational hatred of the religious elite. He must have been a truly humble man to have accepted that first task and a very brilliant man to have made such an impression as a speaker. God prepared him for martyrdom by giving him a mundane job.” Yet sometime between lugging my groceries up the stairs and putting the leaf in the dinner table, I easily forget that straining macaroni can be training for martyrdom.
"How important is the work of serving tables?" is the wrong question. The question reveals my human desire to skip over mundane work and do something important. But the pattern in the Scripture is always that of humility before honour, servanthood before kingship, and the crown of thorns before the crown of glory. “If Stephen had set his heart on the working of miracles and signs or on becoming a brilliant apologist, he would hardly have been willing to accept an appointment on the welfare board. That, however, was what happened to be open to him at the moment. There was a need. He was called upon to fill it. He said yes. His heart was set on…obedience to God."
I want to learn to ask better questions, questions that lead me to obedience: "Which work has God put before me today? Whether my task is serving tables or teaching the Word of God, will I do it 'as unto Christ'?" Every task God has given me to do is important because He is observing my attitude in my work. Every job God has given me to do is spiritual, if I do it for the One Who served me first. When I see even the mundane aspects of hospitality (hello, giant pile of dishes at 11pm) as spiritual work, I may even be surprised how many opportunities come to teach the Word of God as a result of or even while serving tables.