Stephen the Leader

Caracci, Annibale – The Stoning of St Stephen – 1603-04

Today’s readings:
Psalms 116; 145, 2 Chronicles 24:17-22, Acts 6:1-7, Acts 7:59-8:8

On December 26, the Western church observes St. Stephen’s Day (the Eastern church observes it one day later). Stephen was the first martyr of the church. His fellow Greek Christians chose him for leadership when a dispute arose between them and the Hebrew Christians. The leaders of the early church not only preached the gospel, but served the needy – particularly widows – by providing food and financial support. As the church grew, twelve apostles were no longer enough to meet the need and the Greek widows were slipping through the cracks. The Hebrew Apostles asked the Greeks to select seven of their own to serve in this role, and Stephen was the most prominent among them.

It seems these seven were not limited to service, as Stephen was publicly accused of blasphemy for preaching the Gospel. Despite his impassioned witness on behalf of Christ, he was stoned to death. Like his savior, Stephen asked God to forgive his persecutors. His death kicked off a great persecution led by Saul (later Paul). Those who were not dragged off to prison scattered and spread the faith throughout Western Asia.

Stephen didn’t seek leadership, but when called to it he faithfully embraced his responsibilities and his God … even when they led to his death. He could have stuck to “waiting tables” – as the twelve apostles (rather condescendingly) referred to the delivery of the agape meal (or Lord’s supper)  – but he didn’t think one duty less important than the other. We remember Stephen not only for his martyrdom, but for his true dedication to servant leadership.

Stephen is an excellent benchmark for choosing our own leaders, and for modeling our own leadership style if we are called. He committed to doing what was necessary, not what was glamorous or safe. He was brave, and to the end he chose to reflect love and grace, rather than hatred and anger, toward his persecutors. When we look at leadership in the church, how many Stephens do we see? If it doesn’t seem like enough, remember it was the people who chose him. Change is up to us.

(For another take on St. Stephen, see Martyrs Vs. Victims)

Comfort: Everyone can help make the church better.

Challenge: Talk with people you respect in leadership positions. Ask them what they find challenging, and how you might support them.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for all the martyrs and saints who helped build Your church. Amen.

Discussion: What traits do you look for in a leader?

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Martyrs vs. Victims


Readings: Psalms 116; 149, 2 Chronicles 24:17-22, Acts 6:1-7, Acts 7:59-8:8

In Western Christian tradition, the day after Christmas is St. Stephen’s day. Stephen was the first deacon of the church, as well as its first martyr. False charges of blasphemy led to his death by stoning. Stephen’s story seems like an abrupt shift in tone from the Christmas story, but is it really?

The story of Christ’s birth has been sentimentalized and sanitized through centuries of carols, Christmas pageants, and whitewashed nativity scenes. Familiar and comforting now, the story was originally a radical one with unlikely characters and their equally unlikely circumstances. Christ’s birth heralded the beginning of a religious and political revolution, achieved through his own death.

When Stephen was appointed deacon, it was a risky endeavor. The Roman empire did not grant Christians the same religious latitudes as it did Jews. Like Christ, Stephen was falsely accused and was condemned by Jews rather than Romans. And like Christ, he asked for God’s mercy on his executioners.

We Western Christians can barely conceive the fear of being executed for our faith. Our squabbles with our culture occur because we fear losing our monopoly on power, not because we are being crushed by occupying forces. After Stephen’s execution the remaining apostles, though they were scattered and their homes were being ransacked, continued spreading the gospel. We boycott businesses that don’t meet our agenda and slap Jesus fish on our bumpers (without fear of persecution) and think we’ve served the Gospel.

We should give thanks we can freely exercise our faith, rather than exploit perceived slights to support our persecution narrative. In countries where Christianity dominates, the group we should be most critical of is ourselves. Christ, Paul, and the apostles preached to a church in danger of being wiped out before it began. Now we are more likely to do the stoning than to be stoned.

A strong faith understands the gospel is something to be proclaimed rather than something to be defended. Even when we are persecuted, we are victors not victims. The path we begin following at Christmas does not end with us assuming power, but confronting it.

Comfort: You are responsible for sharing the Gospel, but not for enforcing it.

Challenge: Pray for those who persecute you … but first be sure you’ve accurately identified them as persecutors.

Prayer: Deal bountifully with your servant, so that I may live and observe your word. (Psalm 119:17)

Discussion: Have you ever played the victim, only to realize later you were not?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!