In Acts 6:1-7, there is a dispute among the Hebraic and Hellenistic Jews in the church concerning the care of widows. The Twelve gather together and decide that seven people should be appointed for the task, since "it would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables." Some consider this statement as intended to be normative and this to be the origin of the diaconate in the church, but I've heard others suggest that some interpreters think Luke actually intends to portray this decision of the Twelve in a negative light. After all, Jesus had taught the Twelve saying:

For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. Luke 22:27

On the other hand, Acts 6:7 shows the upshot of their decision: "So the word of God spread."

How should this story be understood in light of Luke's ethics/theology? Is there any merit to this theory? Who are the major writers who argue for it?

1 Answer 1


From what I can tell nearly every commentary on these verses that I am aware of understand the verses in a positive sense and that the role of the deacon is illustrated well here. In other words one of the main responsibilities of the deacons were in charge of dispensing money to the needy, which the church collected and generally helping the poor.

The following is a good description of just some of the matters that made the poor important to early church structure:

The Christian communities grew up, as we have seen, in the midst of poverty. They had a special message to the poor, and the poor naturally flowed into them. And the poverty in the midst of which they grew was intensified by the conditions of their existence…In times of persecution the confessors in prison had to be fed: those whose property had been confiscated had to be supported: those who had been sold into captivity had to be ransomed. Above all there were the widows and orphans. In such times as those which we are considering the poverty of widows and orphans is necessarily great… The number of virgins and widows for whom the Church had to provide consequently multiplied in an increasing ratio. In addition to these were the strangers who passed in a constant stream through the cities of all the great routes of commerce in both East and West. Every one of those strangers who bore the Christian name had therein a claim to hospitality. (THE ORGANIZATION OF THE Early Christian Churches, Edwin Hatch, Page 42-45)

I quote the above only to show how natural and central the community chest for the poor was in early Christianity. So important that the ‘early church structure’ was naturally based in part for the relief of the poor. We see this structure forming in the verses you mention. Rome did not have a social safety net as many countries do today.

Now in this context I think we see a natural adaptation to the structure of churches in early history. It is not that the Apostles were arrogant rather the opposite is true. They tried to do everything themselves then learned from experience they needed help from able men to alleviate them, so that they could focus on what there main duty was. I am sure someone would suggest that the Apostles were insecure leaders here, and may have support for the argument in that Jesus rebuke the Apostles when they prohibited strangers from casting out demons, but wherever such views are held they are difficult to find proving how recent and imaginative they are.

What is very interesting though is that church officers who were not ordained for the ministry of preaching were still allowed to preach in Acts and in the ancient synagogue as well. This seems therefore that there is some middle ground between the two positions that you are wondering about that prevents a large split between supposed ‘clergy’ and ‘non-clergy’ with respect to ministration of the word. This middle ground position seems to be the only one supported by the facts of the history of Acts and early church history as well.

The proofs are the following:

First, in the next two chapters of Acts we see these waiters ‘preaching’, and ‘preaching powerfully’ with miraculous signs. This is surprising to say the least considering that they were just ordained to wait on tables?! This includes at a minimum Stephen (Acts Chapter 6-7) and Philip (Acts Chapter 8).

Second, objective analysis of early church documents have led many to conclude preaching was allowed by laymen, referring to Hatch again:

On the contrary, the existing evidence tends to show that laymen, no less than officers, could, upon occasion, (1) teach or preach (2) baptize (3) celebrate the Eucharist (4) exercise discipline (THE ORGANIZATION OF THE Early Christian Churches, Edwin Hatch, Page xxvii)

Third, Alfred Edersheim, the Jewish historian notes that ordination was not required to preach in the synagogue during the time of Christ (however later on in years this changed and ordination did become required):

The reading of the section from the Prophets (the Haphtarah) was in olden times immediately followed by an address, discourse, or sermon (Derashah), that is, where a Rabbi capable of giving such instruction, or a distinguished stranger, was present. Neither the leader of the devotions (‘the delegate of the congregation’ in this matter, or Sheliach Tsibbur), nor the Methurgeman, nor yet the preacher, required ordination. (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim, Book3, Chapter 10)

I think Edersheim's observations is borne out by the fact that Paul was allowed to preach in so many synagogues during his travels which was part of how Christianity spread especially among the god fearing Gentiles in those communities that attended the local synagogue.

Conclusion: This was not arrogance of the Apostles but neither was it rejection of church officer or laymen to share in the ministry of preaching, it was simply out of necessity to free the Apostles up to perform their main duties.

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