So what does mean with regard to the office of deacon? Well, we should not think of them so much as servants but as representatives, agents, or even attendants. That is, they serve at the behest of the elders to assist them in their duties.
The subtle question that the redefinition forces us to ask is: whom do the deacons
serverepresent? If the word means “servant,” then we would naturally take the deacons as serving the church, and that has been our traditional interpretation (and the traditional interpretation of many others).
But if the word means “agent” or “representative” in this context, the church can’t be the answer. Rather, Acts 6 offers an example of the Seven taking on a role previously held by the apostles, doing work so that the apostles are freed for prayer and the ministry of the word.
Hence, the Seven are representatives or agents for the apostles. They carry out assignments for the apostles, which in this case is serving the Hellenistic widows.
Then how should we translate —
(Act 6:4 ESV) 4 “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry [diakonia] of the word.”
Here’s the flow of Luke’s thought, as retranslated —
(Act 1:24-25 ESV) 24 And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place in this
ministry[role as messengers] and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”
(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[diakonia = delivery of the message]. [Note that the Greek makes no reference to food here.]
(Act 6:4 ESV) 4 “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the
ministry[diakonein = delivery of the message] of the word.”
Let’s try a preliminary re-translation based on the ESV:
(Acts 6:1-6 ESV) Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists [Greek-speaking Jews] arose against the Hebrews [Aramaic-speaking Jews] because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution [diakonia = delivery of the message]. 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 [diakonein = deliver the message at] tables [that is, to teach at each Christian’s house]. 3 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.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
Collins’ suggestion is that the passage be re-translated (a bit more freely) as follows:
The Greek-speaking members of the community complained against those who spoke Aramaic that their housebound widows were being overlooked in the great preaching (diakonia) that was going on day by day in the environs of the Temple. So the Twelve summoned the whole complement of the disciples and said: “We cannot possibly break off our public proclamation before the huge crowds in the Temple to carry out a ministry (diakonein) in the households [at the tables] of these Greek-speaking widows. Brothers, you will have to choose seven men from your own ethnic group who are fully respected, empowered by the Spirit, and equipped for the task. We will then appoint them to the role the needs to be filled. That will mean that the Twelve can get on with attending to worship in the Temple and to our apostolic ministry (diakonia) of proclaiming the word there.
(Deacons and the Church, 58).
Collins takes diakonia to be used by Luke of the apostolic task of carrying Jesus’ message to the world, with that meaning being established in chapter 1 and then carried throughout Acts until —
(Act 20:24 ESV) But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the
ministry[acting as messenger for Jesus] that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.
(Act 21:19 ESV) After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his
ministry[acting as messenger for Jesus].
If that’s so, then Acts 6 is not about failing to feed widows but a failure to bring them the message of Jesus in their own language at home. If that’s so, then it only makes sense that Luke immediately tells us about Phillip’s and Stephen’s proclamation of the gospel. They were originally appointed to proclaim the word within the church, to its Hellenistic widows, and then they were called to do the same for the lost.
It’s important to realize that v. 1 speaks of the daily diakonia, which could refer to distribution of food, of money, or the services of the apostles as God’s messengers. The word “food” is not in the text. Since Luke usually takes diakonia as a reference to acting as a messenger of the gospel, using that meaning in v. 1 makes the passage about teaching, not feeding, the widows.
If that’s correct, then it explains why the Hellenistic widows were left out. It’s unthinkable that the Jerusalem church somehow forgot to provide food to widows who spoke Greek. The traditional rendering makes the church into bigots who let widows starve — hardly likely and far from the message Luke is conveying in Acts.
Rather, under Collins’ interpretation, the problem was the fact that they spoke Greek rather than Aramaic, and the public teaching of the apostles was in Aramaic. These women simply didn’t understand what was being said. The solution was to appoint seven men who were Greek-speaking to meet their instructional needs. And most commentaries are agreed that the seven men were Greek-speaking Jews.
This interpretation better sets up the immediately following accounts of Phillip preaching to the Samaritans and Stephen’s preaching on the streets of Jerusalem. They were appointed as deacons because of their Spirit-given aptitude to preach the gospel.
What Collins doesn’t explain is why it was widows who had this problem. Why not Greek-speaking married women? Why not Greek-speaking men? It may be true that the men had superior language skills, because they were engaged in business and not home bound. Greek was the language of commerce, not the language of the home and family. Married women had access to their husbands to help with understanding the apostles’ preaching.
Further on the role of deacons as teachers
Now, if this is right, then Seven had as their historic role the task of teaching as assistants to the apostles in their role as teachers. That would nicely explain why Paul mentions shepherds and teachers and not deacons among church offices in Ephesians 4.
One of the specialized meanings of “ministry” (diakonia) in the New Testament refers to the dispensing of the gospel.
Ferguson, Everett. The Early Church & Today, Vol 1: A Collection of Writings by Everett Ferguson (Kindle Locations 196-199).
Acts is, itself, evidence for a teaching role —
Their election was made jointly by the apostles and the congregation. It was determined that they must be men “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (v. 3). As one scans the Book of Acts, “fullness of the Spirit” almost always entails bold witnessing for the gospel of Christ (cf. Acts 1:8). That these men served in a manner transcending the traditional notion of deacon is clearly seen in the prophetic teaching activity of Stephen (Acts 6–7) and the evangelistic ministry of Philip (Acts 8).
Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 1996.
Ferguson notes the parallels of Acts 6:1-6 with the appointment of Joshua as successor to Moses in Num 27. This passage refers to Joshua as a “shepherd” over God’s sheep.
The account in Acts 6: 1– 6 contains several verbal echoes of the Greek translation of Numbers 27: 15– 23. These parallels make the differences in the two accounts quite striking. In both accounts, there is a command to select a person or persons with specified qualifications to be appointed over a given responsibility, but in Acts 6 the divine choice is made by the people rather than by God directly. In both cases, there is a formal presentation, but in Acts 6 the chosen persons are presented before the apostles rather than before the priest and the whole congregation. In both instances, there is a laying on of hands, but in view of the other reversals, it seems likely that in Acts 6 the laying on of hands is done by the people rather than the leadership (Moses and the apostles).
Ferguson, Everett. The Early Church & Today, Vol 1: A Collection of Writings by Everett Ferguson (Kindle Locations 548-554).
This parallel would argue for the men in Acts 6 to be elders (also called “shepherds” in the NT) as successors to the apostles. Or perhaps we might think of them as elders in training, as they weren’t given responsibility for the entire congregation. And that would not be inconsistent with their being deacons.