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Atlanta, 22 Mar 2017

Good afternoon! It's the third day of spring (autumn for you Aussies and Argentinians), and Atlanta is greening nicely as it awakens from its winter slumber. The annual surge of vitality in God's world is inspiring to observe -- like the new creation of life in Christ (2 Cor 5:17).

Below is the third in a series of nine studies on Surprising Passages of the Bible. Thanks again to all of you who sent in suggestions; we have plenty of material now.

Women Don't Count (?)

After a somewhat complex study last week on Luke 19:27, today's passage, Acts 2:41, is simple:

Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

And yet this text entails a double-surprise. To begin with, people commonly claim that 3000 persons were baptized at that first Christian Pentecost, the "birthday of the church." But if so, that would be out of step with the normal biblical method of counting. (Note also, in passing, that all examples of head counts in the NT are approximations.)
Observation 1:  The total of those baptized is an approximation.
Observation 2:  The total omits women and children -- it's men only.

Observation 3:  There are only 2 passages in Acts where people are counted.

In the Old Testament, too, reckoning normally included men, not women. For example, Jacob's 70 male descendants went up to Egypt in Gen 46:27. Or take the book of Numbers, frequently referred to as justification for counting church members. Yet the two counts in Numbers were military censuses: males only, and of fighting age (20-60). (Presumably the census of 2 Sam 24 was a military census, too.)

The custom of counting men is the same in the NT. Jesus fed the 5000, didn't he? Yes and no. "The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children" (Matt 14:21). Now let's come back to Acts. Acts 4:4 reveals that the Jerusalem church had reached 5000 men. It stands to reason that the 3000 of Acts 2 was the approximate total of male disciples. And apart from the rather vague Acts 21:20, where James the brother of Jesus mentions that thousands of Jewish believers (literally myriads -- also Greek for tens of thousands), they seem to have stopped counting  altogether. (Of course I am speculating, since it's possible someone kept up a membership directory -- but if so, there's certainly no indication of such a practice anywhere in the NT.)
Surprise 1:  Women weren't counted at all.
Surprise 2:  The early church had little interest in quantifying their success. (And even when they did count, the totals were only approximations.)

It's not that women were unimportant -- far from it! Women are often depicted in the Bible as being more "with it" (more spiritual and faithful) than the men. The custom of counting males only -- family heads -- differs from common church practice, so appealing to the Bible for support for "taking attendance" is unconvincing. Of course women "count" -- they are crucial in the biblical story -- yet they were not normally counted. Family units seem to have mattered more than the total of individual attendees.

In our highly individualistic society, this observation comes as quite a shock. In fact, both surprises -- the omission of women, and the disinterest (?) in statistics -- are at odds with how most of us do things. Could there be valuable lessons here, which we ignore at our peril?

A word for leaders
Leaders: how might the health of our ministries improve if we counted only male disciples? After after all, they are the ones, more often than the women, who stray and need to be reined in. In Acts the two instances of counting included only Christians -- not children, as this can easily skew the real picture behind the total attendance. (That's the custom of some of the churches in my own fellowship, for example in parts of Africa.) 

Here's a final scriptural consideration. When David orders a census, we learn that he greatly displeases God (2 Sam 24), with dire consequences. This military census may have made him feel secure, but it was a clear indication that his trust in the Lord had faltered. (Sort of like a man who constantly checks the stats of his investments, or the woman who compulsively looks in on her children, afraid something bad may have happened.) If we don't understand why not putting our trust in numbers was a big deal, maybe we're more affected by a culture of control than we realize. 

With these things in mind, we close with some thoughts for church leaders:
  • Is your security as a leader closely tied to your "stats"?
  • In your congregation, are more women being converted than men? If so, why?
  • Are the sisters outpacing the brothers spiritually?
  • Please take a look too at the Stats paper, after reading 2 Sam 24 (a passage that should be a wake-up call for all church leaders).
  • Could it be that the pragmatic approach of the business world is dictating the bottom line?

"With the measure you use..."

On Sunday I preached another message in North River's sermon series on Jesus Christ. In Jesus Misquoted I zeroed in on the most quoted (and misunderstood) verse in the entire Bible, Matthew 7:1. This was a challenging lesson to prepare, as the text (Matt 7:1-5) cuts to the quick. (Ouch!) I was acutely aware of my own inconsistencies -- and my tendency to be more critical of others than I am of myself. There was also lots of helpful material for seekers.

Watch at the livestream link. (Fast forward to 1:04 and watch till 1:39.) The first 5 minutes of the video are a teaching ministry update. The next 30 are the sermon proper. Thanks for your interest!


All material (c) 2017 by Douglas Jacoby.       unsubscribe from this list           update subscription preferences