(Act 6:1 ESV) Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.
The Jerusalem congregation was, of course, entirely Jewish. Therefore, “Hellenist” — meaning a Greek speaker — likely refers to Jews in Jerusalem who were from outside Judea, perhaps because they remained after Pentecost and perhaps because they moved there to participate in this remarkable congregation.
The Jews of Judea and Babylon generally spoke Aramaic — the language of Syria (Aram), similar to Hebrew. We don’t know whether the Jews in Galilee largely spoke Aramaic or Greek. There were both Jewish and Greek cities scattered throughout the province.
However, the Jews who lived west of Judea — in Asia Minor, Greece, Rome, etc. — spoke Greek and read their Old Testaments in Greek, using the Septuagint as their primary text. This is why the New Testament was written in Greek even when addressed to a largely Jewish audience.
Despite Ezra and Nehemiah, vast numbers of Jews remained in Babylon, which by the time of Jesus had become a center of Jewish learning and the training of rabbis, rivaling Jerusalem. Thus, we later have a Babylonian Talmud, which is even longer and more detailed than the Jerusalem Talmud — being two collections of the Jewish oral law from two distinct centers of Jewish learning. But there is little evidence of rabbinic activity to the west, where Greek language dominated.
Although they were all Jews, it’s easy to see how a language difference, and presumably other cultural differences, could lead to discrimination, even inadvertent discrimination, as the Aramaic speakers might have little communication with the Greek speakers.
Less commented on, but perhaps far more important, is the fact that the church cared for its widows. There was no social security or welfare for the elderly, and yet then, as now, women outlived men. This biological fact was aggravated by the tendency of the Jews to give their daughters in marriage as soon as they reached puberty but for Jewish males not to marry until around age 20 — guarantying that there’d be many widows.
Jewish widows were not all necessarily destitute, but many were, in an age where men often worked all day to earn enough to buy one day’s food. Worse yet, children could not be counted on to support their parents if the parents lived far away. And in an age where it was common to die in childbirth, many parents likely outlived their children.
(Act 6:2 ESV) 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.”
The apostles essentially confess fault. They’d taken on more than they could handle, both preaching and handling the administrative duties of the church. Following the lead of Moses, they delegate.
It’s amazing that it took this long to delegate the work, given that the church was now surely over 10,000 members. They must have already had others helping in other ways. How else do you organize the teaching of that many people in house churches? They surely already had what we’d call “small group leaders.”
(Act 6:3-4 ESV) “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
Church of Christ eclessiology has a hole in it. We insist that Churches must have men called “deacons” to be “scripturally organized,” and we find their qualifications in 1 Timothy 3. However, the Bible nowhere says what a “deacon” is supposed to do. Indeed, if this passage doesn’t answer the question, the best we can say is that “deacon” translates diakonos, meaning servant — and all Christians are supposed to be servants.
As a result, we define the job by tradition. In a small church, a deacon might count the money, unlock the building, or cut the grass. In a large church, we might hire the grass cutting done by others and we appoint deacons to head a ministry. Thus, many insist that the children’s ministry be headed by a male deacon, who might know nothing at all about children’s ministry. It’s a strange, indefensible doctrine.
In fact, people will get very upset if a church has no deacons, even though we only know that the churches in Philippi (Phil 1:1), Ephesus (1 Timothy was likely written to Ephesus), and Cenchreae (if we’ll allow Phoebe to be a deacon) had deacons. They aren’t mentioned in any of the other epistles.
And then they’ll get upset if a program isn’t headed by a deacon, although there is absolutely nothing in the Bible that suggests that a program could, should, or would be headed by a deacon. In fact, if the seven appointed in Acts 6 are deacons, they weren’t program heads but a committee of men whose jobs included (wait for it) waiting on tables — if we take the apostles’ own words seriously.
Was it important, vital work? Absolutely. Was it any sense a management position? Not according to the text. It’s a peculiarly Western bias to imagine that important = management. I think the apostles would have laughed at the thought and said that important = serving those in need.
Now, the position of elder has a long history in the Old Testament, and we know from the New Testament that the Jewish synagogues had elders as well. But there is no evidence of an office called “deacon” in the Jewish synagogue or in the Old Testament, leaving us at something of a loss to know whether the seven are deacons and, if not, just what deacons should be.
However, Stephen J. Sandifer has written a masterful work on deacons, Deacons: Male and Female?, in which he demonstrates that congregations of contemporary mystery religions had officers called deacons who handled the benevolence funds of those religions.
Now, that fits the evidence. In Jerusalem, the use of diakonos for such an office would not ring true, as there were no mystery religions in that part of the world, but for congregations in the Gentile world, it would have made sense to borrow a term from local usage for the holders of the benevolence fund.
And if the deacons were charged with the benevolence work of the church, they had to handle money. And therefore, unlike the volunteer who cuts grass, would have to be individuals of impeccable credentials — which makes sense of the ethical standards of 1 Timothy 3.
Thus, it makes sense — but can’t be proved — that the seven men appointed in Acts 6 were the first deacons, not because they were program heads but because they were the benevolence committee and charged with feeding hundreds or more widows — a program that surely involved a great deal of trust and handling some portion of the church’s funds.
What does that mean for today? Must we have deacons and must they handle benevolence activities? Must they feed widows? No, that’s the wrong lesson. The right lesson is that the church from the very beginning has cared for its members who are in need — even organizing large-scale ministries to do so when necessary.
The “pattern,” if we must think in those terms, is not a group of officials but the care of those in need. The Jerusalem church began by helping. There was a need; of course, they’d help. The creation of officers to handle the care of widows was generated by the need, not a pre-determined pattern of organization.
Therefore, to follow this example, we should first sort out what needs our members have and then we should organize to meet those needs.