Acts 6:1-6: An Exegetical Inquiry


1Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. 2Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. 3Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; 4but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, 6whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them. (New King James Version)

Because of my shortcomings as an exegete, I am calling this paper an “exegetical inquiry” rather than an “exegetical study.” Nevertheless I do have some serious questions that I would like to put forth for the consideration of those with a greater aptitude in this area than I have. I should also mention that my delving into this topic was originally prompted by some thoughts on the subject that were shared with me a while ago by a good friend, the Rev. Richard J. Waters. In what follows I will demonstrate why I think that the germinal ideas he expressed at that time, about the deacons of Acts 6, may very well be correct.

What I have been pondering is the nature of the diaconal office to which these seven men were called. The conventional wisdom has always been that they were elected to an office that did not involve the administration of the means of grace, but was limited to the distribution of material aid to the widows and perhaps to other needy members of the Jerusalem congregation. But I am no longer convinced that the traditional interpretation is completely defensible.

In Acts 2:42 we are told that the Christians in Jerusalem were “continuing steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles and in the communion in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers.” (Here and elsewhere in the body of this paper the translation is my own.) The phrase “the communion in the breaking of the bread” (th koinwnia th klasei tou artou) calls to mind St. Paul’s description of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 10:16, where he asks, “The bread that we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” (Ton arton on klwmen, ouci koinwnia tou swmatos tou Cristou estin;). Since the book of Acts emerged from within the Pauline circle of the apostolic church, it is a fair assumption that St. Luke is here using the phrase “the communion in the breaking of the bread” in a technical Pauline sense, as a reference to the Lord’s Supper. The overall liturgical flavor of Acts 2:42 would certainly favor such an understanding.

Four verses later, in Acts 2:46, we are told that “from day to day they were continuing steadfastly with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they shared food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people.” Given the immediate proximity of this verse to verse 42, this would seem to be another reference to the sacramental activity that is described there. In other words, the Jerusalem Christians were celebrating the Lord’s Supper together on a daily basis, in conjunction with a fellowship meal or “love feast.” We know from 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 (and from the testimony of the ancient Fathers) that such a combination was normative at this time in church history.

As we jump ahead to Acts 6:1, we read there that the Hellenists within the Jerusalem congregation began to murmur against the Hebrew members, because “their widows were neglected in the daily ministry” (pareqewrounto en th diakonia th kaqhmerinh ai chpai autwn). This daily “ministry,” diakonia, in which some of the widows were supposedly being overlooked, has customarily been understood to be a distribution of food, in the category of alms, to the needy members of the congregation. It is perhaps noteworthy that elsewhere in the book of Acts, where reference is made to the distribution of material aid, another Greek word is used. In Acts 2:45 we are told that the believers sold their possessions and “distributed them to all, according to anyone’s need.” The Greek word for “distributed” is diemerizon. Likewise in Acts 4:35, we read that the apostles “were distributing” (diedidoto) money that had been obtained from the selling of church members’ property to those who were in need.

It is true that the original meaning of diakonia was something akin to the kind of service that would be rendered by a waiter in a restaurant. This does not mean, however, that the daily diakonia mentioned in Acts 6:1 is necessarily limited to that sort of thing. In the following verse the apostles are quoted as saying that it was not desirable for them “to be leaving the Word of God to minister to tables” (kataleiyantas ton logon tou qeou diakonein trapezais), but in verse 3 they refer to their own apostolic duties as diakonia when they say that they will continue steadfastly “in the prayer and in the ministry of the word” (th proseuch kai th diakonia tou logou). (Similarly, in Acts 1:17 and 25 the apostles speak “of this ministry” [ths diakonias tauths] when they speak of their special calling to be witnesses of Christ and of his resurrection.) In Acts 6 the meaning of diakonia is clearly not restricted to the mundane distribution of meals or groceries to the elderly.

As we evaluate what the apostles are saying in Acts 6:2-3, we should remember what we have read in Acts 2:42. There are some very noticeable parallels between these two passages. In Acts 2:42 the liturgical life of the Jerusalem congregation is distilled down to three fundamental observances: they continued steadfastly in “the teaching of the apostles,” in “the communion in the breaking of the bread,” and in “the prayers.” Is it possible that in Acts 6 the apostles are saying, in effect, that they will continue to carry out and lead the first and third of these observances as before, but that they will now be sharing at least some aspects of the second observance with the newly-appointed deacons? In other words, is it possible that the deacons described here were called to be the equivalent of “Communion assistants,” to distribute the body and blood of Christ -- and also the food that was to be eaten in the “love feast,” in conjunction with the celebration of the Supper -- after the bread and wine had been blessed by the apostles with “the word of God” and “the prayer?” Perhaps with the continuing increase in church membership this distribution was becoming an unwieldy and time-consuming process, so that if the apostles had continued to carry it out themselves it would steadily have cut into the time that they needed on these occasions for reading and commenting on Scripture, for preaching, and for leading in the liturgical prayers of the congregation. And maybe some people, especially the meeker and less noticeable participants, were occasionally getting skipped. If this is an accurate description of the situation, then the “table” service to which the deacons were being called, to alleviate these problems, would have included service to the “Lord’s table” in the specifically eucharistic sense of 1 Corinthians 10:21.

If the work of the deacons of Acts 6 was not as far removed from the ministry of the means of grace as has generally been supposed, it would help to explain why these deacons did not hesitate to preach publicly and baptize when the need and the opportunity presented themselves. Almost immediately after we read of Stephen’s election to the diaconate (Acts 6:5-6), we are told of his disputations with members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen and his sermon before the Sanhedrin (Acts 6:8 - 7:60). Philip the deacon preached to and baptized the Samaritans (Acts 8:5-13), instructed and baptized the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-39), and preached elsewhere as well until finally settling in Caesarea (Acts 8:40). He remained in that city, where he was later known as “the evangelist” (tou euaggelistou) (Acts 21:8).

The account of the appointment of the seven deacons in Acts 6 is sometimes used as the sedes doctrinae for the claim that the “public ministry” need not always involve offices that are associated with the administration of the means of grace. Given the totality of the Biblical witness on the subject of the unique and saving ministry that Christ has entrusted to his church, such an idea is, in my view, dubious at best, even if the traditional interpretation of this account is accepted. But if there is any validity to the interpretive proposals I have offered above, then such an idea would seem to be left with little if any exegetical support.

The Presentation of our Lord,

February 2, 2001

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