The History of Martus: A Biblical Story
The widows were hungry. The Apostles—folks like Peter and John and James—had been busy since the eruption of Pentecost. They stood up in the crowd on that day and started preaching…and never really stopped. People responded to their preaching and joined this new movement—more and more each day.
And while Acts 2 tells the story of the believers “having all things in common,” Acts 6 tells a bit of a different story. As humans are prone to do, divisions began to creep into the early church. They were probably small at first, but then grew. It came to the attention of the Apostles that the widows—those who had no reliable form of income and were thus reliant on the goodwill of others—had been subtly divided into two groups. Those who spoke Aramaic, the language of the Apostles and much of the Church leadership, were fed and cared for. But those who spoke Greek were hungry. Their needs were being neglected. Perhaps it was as simple as a language barrier, and likely unintentional. But the bottom line is that it was problematic to the unity of the Church, and dangerous for those left out.
So, the Apostles created a new role in the church. They chose seven individuals who had demonstrated a life of faith and service, offered a prayer of blessing, and laid hands on them. They were ordained into this specific calling, and thus: Martus was born.
Theology of a Calling
Technically, martus had been around for a long time. The Greek verb martyria means to give evidence or testimony, and the noun is martus, one who witnesses or gives testimony. There is a legal connotation connected to the word, as in someone sitting on a witness stand at a trial. But in the early Church, this concept came to mean witnessing to and giving testimony of the power of Christ in one’s life. A martus was an eye-witness (and “ear-witness”) to the Gospel. It is the root word from which we get our word “martyr.” We usually understand a martyr to be someone who dies for their faith, but in more expansive terms, it is someone who witnesses to Christ’s power so fully with their entire life that even death is a natural act of testimony. However, that witnessing work does not necessarily include an unjust death by an oppressor; it might simply include a life of service, faith, and commitment.
That’s what it seemed to mean in Acts 6. These individuals “of good standing” were called on to do the work of the church, motivated by the injustice caused to these widows. They were leaders who had already embraced a life of care for the needs of the church. The Greek word for their calling is variously translated as “wait on tables,” “serve tables,” “keep account,” “running a food program,” or “to help with the care of the poor.” That is a lot of variation, but we all know that so often in the Church, those who do one of these things ends up doing some version of all of them!
Martus at First Baptist
In fact, we know a leader in the Martus mold when we see one because First Baptist has had more than their fair share—those who have chosen to witness to the power of Christ in their lives, and in the world, by serving those in need within the community and congregation. Sometimes they “serve tables” (or set them, or make food to eat from them, or package that food up for shut-ins, or organize the committee that does all of that, making sure that none of the “widows” of our church are neglected). Sometimes they “keep account,” managing the administrative needs of the congregation. Often, they do the things behind the scenes that no one thinks about until they aren’t able to do them anymore! These are the women and men who give witness to the power of Christ in the world so consistently that we tend to not even notice. Their work is the air that we breathe as a congregation.
The Spiritual Leadership Team (SLT) asked, “what if we followed the Acts 6 model?” What if we recognized and even ordained these individuals “of good standing,” to highlight and continue the work that they are already doing? What if we laid hands on them, prayed for them, and blessed them in their work? What if we named what it means to be a Martus at FBC?
So what exactly is this? Another committee? A volunteer of the year award? An “ordination-light?” A new intern program?
None of the above. This requires us to have a new mental model in some ways, not really fitting into other categories. This is not a one-time “award,” but an acknowledgement of continual and significant service. This is not another committee; these folks are often on plenty of those! Nor is this an additional task or job description for these leaders. We are recognizing a category of leaders, beyond staff and elected ministry team members, who feel called to serve at First Baptist. These leaders are not feeling called to serve beyond our congregation’s ministry, like someone that we ordain to professional Gospel ministry. It is a “setting apart” of leaders who are called, but not in the same way that we ordain professional ministers to a universal Gospel ministry. Instead, they have responded to a martus call within the ministry of First Baptist, and we want to bless them in that calling. We want to pray for, lay hands upon, and commission them for the ministry that they have done, are doing, and will continue to do.