Church 2.0: Part 10.17: Deacons, Part 2 (Re-translating Acts 6:1-6)

Church2Deacon as church office/re-translating Acts 6:1-6

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.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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8 Responses to Church 2.0: Part 10.17: Deacons, Part 2 (Re-translating Acts 6:1-6)

  1. Price says:

    Wow…So Phoebe was a preacher too !!!

  2. Ray Downen says:

    There IS a clear reference to serving TABLES. We generally have considered that the work of the seven deacons (that title is not given them!) as being distribution of food which is eaten at tables rather than the teaching, which generally has no reference to being done at tables.

  3. Dwight says:

    I agree Ray. Even the translation of deacons means servant, not representative or agent, because they served the widows food. But this doesn’t mean the servants were limited to serving as Stephen was inspired and a proclaimer. As we read n I Cor. there were many people imbued with the HS and with gifts, so were these all deacons as well and many people spread the gospel…deacons too? Also aren’t we to be servants to each other. Elders are servants. The only difference is that the deacons, if Stephen was even one, was dedicated to a particular service….the waiting of tables. Of which the apostles did not want to do so they could teach.
    All apostles were servants, but according to Acts not all apostles served tables, which was the point of the deacons. But the deacons as saints were not limited to just that as Stephen is an example.
    Redefining deacons really doesn’t change much as far as what they could do and doesn’t really add to what they clearly did.
    But the argument of “That is, they serve at the behest of the elders to assist them in their duties.” is pure speculation and actually there are no examples of them doing this. And there are no examples of the elders or apostles choosing them, but rather the people whom they served. They were basically publically elected servants.

  4. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Ray and Dwight,

    Collins writes in Deacons and the Church at 57,

    “According to the Hellenists’ widows were in need of preachers who could teach them in Greek, and preferably at home when Greek-speakers came together at their tables.”

    There is no reference to food in Greek, only “tables.” Well, if you think this means food on a table, then you read “serve tables [where food is served].” Collins reads “serve tables [where teaching occurred].”

    Now, this will be more plain as we learn more about the early assembly in posts yet to come, but the early church appears to have both eaten and had lessons at home — at the table for lack of space to meet otherwise — all as part of the regular assembly. This being the case, “table” cannot itself tell us what is going on.

    But Luke associates diakonia with preaching the gospel throughout his text.

    (Acts 1:17 ESV) “For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry [diakonia = acting as Jesus’ emissary (through preaching Jesus)].”

    (Acts 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 [diakonia = acting as Jesus’ emissary] and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”

    (Acts 12:25 ESV) And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service [diakonia = acting as Jesus’ emissary], bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark.

    (Acts 19:22 NAS) And having sent into Macedonia two of those who ministered to him [diakonia = acted as emissary for him], Timothy and Erastus, he himself stayed in Asia for a while.

    (Acts 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 [diakonia = acting as Jesus’ emissary] that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.

    (Acts 21:19 ESV) After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry [diakonia = acting as Jesus’ emissary].

    The sense of diakonia as “acting as emissary” (for Jesus or, when so specified, Paul) fits the text better than the traditional meaning (ministry), which is why the most recent NT Greek Lexicon (BDAG) has changed the definition to fit that meaning. Collins’ book is 368 pages going through countless Christian and secular sources. So his thinking is not to be taken lightly.

    Hence, 19:22 changes Timothy and Erastus from Paul’s nurses to his emissaries to help spread the gospel — which makes more sense and fits the context much better. The language is more exact and treats apostleship as not just another “service,” which it is but it’s so much more, but as being Jesus’ emissaries, which is really the point.

  5. Larry Cheek says:

    It seems to me that there are a lot more equations concerning the actions regarding this problem.
    1. I do not see any evidence that the Apostles had been involved with any distribution of the material goods that were being disbursed to aid those who had remained in Jerusalem to hear the messages from the Gospel.
    2. Think about that some, 12 men serving how many thousands of those present. There were Christians who sold their homes and possessions to be distributed among those in need. Yes we have the story of Ananias and Sapphira, but can you imagine the volume of those in need being attended to by only the 12? If the Apostles had been involved in the the total distribution they would not have been able to do much teaching to the vast number of Christians, much less having any contact with those who had not yet committed.
    3. What would give anyone the idea that anyone serving the needs (delivery of food) to these widows would require the high standards of being filled with the Spirit and Wisdom to perform that duty successfully?
    4. Why would that need have to be fulfilled by men? Could not women have performed that duty? Especially, to widows, men had to be made responsible to dispense this (food) to widows and the women could not?
    5. I don’t know of a single reference in scripture of one of these seven men delivering a basket of life sustaining groceries to one of these widows.
    6. Look at what is recorded of their actions.

  6. Price says:

    Larry, that was what I was thinking.. Why on earth must one be such an outstanding representation of The Way in order to put food on a table ? And, if that was his/her duty why was Philip off in Samaria teaching instead of waiting on tables ?

  7. Dwight says:

    My question though comes why would the apostles choose to not do what they were doing?
    It is possible the answer lies in the fact that they were Greek speaking, but the text doesn’t say that, so this is speculation.
    To me it is some what of a counter statement if we read proclaiming the gospel into the text, instead of serving the needs of in general.
    “Then 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.”
    OR in the revised version, “Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and teach the word of God.”
    then “but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
    There seems to a contradiction in that they were shrinking back from giving the word so that they could give the word.
    Then there is Acts 6:1 “because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution (ministration).’
    So what was the daily distribution or ministration? The word of God. Was it a daily reading of the word? Was it something different than what the apostles were doing already?
    At least in the context of Acts 6 it doesn’t seem to fit well.

    While I agree the general purpose of the diakonos was as a servant, it doesn’t argue that these particular diakonos were servants in the context of spreading the word and the context of Acts 6 seems to argue that they were in the service of something else in this instance.
    But I do agree that diakonos means servant and has probably been too narrowly used in many ways.

  8. Price says:

    @ Dwight… I’m obviously no expert here… or there for that matter… but one has to ask the question if Philip abandoned his assigned duties by going to Samaria ?… or is the guy right that there was far more included than passing out food…. Not sure the question can be satisfactorily answered but Philip leaving to go to Samaria even while there were still hungry folks back in Jerusalem does seem to indicate that the ministry might be more in view… but what do I know..

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