the weblog of Alan Knox

Seven Chosen to Serve

Posted by on Aug 5, 2007 in office, scripture, service | 11 comments

The title for this post comes from the ESV section heading for Acts 6:1-7 which reads:

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. 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. 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. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 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. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:1-7)

This passage is usually recognized as the installment of the first “deacons”. However, before we decide what is actually being described here, let’s recognize that most of what is taught from this passage is based on assumption and speculation.

For example, the title “deacon” is not used of the seven men chosen here. Instead, the noun διακονία (diakonia) is used to describe the “daily distribution” or “daily service” (Acts 6:1) and the “service of the word” (Acts 6:4), and the verb διακονέω (diakoneo) is used in the phrase “to serve tables” (or “to serve food”).

Also, we are not told how the Hebrew widows received their daily food, nor are we told why the Hellenist widows were not getting their daily food. In fact, we are told very little about the details or organization involved in this distribution of food. We can assume or speculate as to how this was being done, but apparently this was not important enough for Luke to include. Perhaps, that means that what Luke was trying to communicate is not related to these details.

Neither does Luke tell us how “the full number of the disciples” chose the seven men who were going to take care of this problem. Again, we can make various assumptions and speculations, but it appears that Luke is more concerned with the character of the men chosen than the method used to choose them.

Finally, and this is one of the most interesting parts of this story to me, Luke does not tell us how, when, or even if these seven men actually supplied food to the Hellenist widows. Instead, the only subsequent times that any of these men are mentioned, they are mentioned in the context of evangelism. In fact, if it is the same Phillip, one of the men is called “Phillip the Evangelist” in Acts 21:8. Apparently, these men did not find their identity or their “job” in being a “deacon”.

So, what does Luke tell us in this episode from the early life of the church? First, Luke tells us that there was a problem. The Hellenist widows were not receiving their daily amount of food. This problem reached the ears of the apostles.

Second, we see that the apostles told “the full number of the congregation” to take care of the problem themselves. The apostles told the people to choose spiritually wise men with a good reputation. Again, the apostles did not tell the people who to pick or even how to pick these men.

Finally, we see that “the full number of the congregation” picked the men and presented them to the apostles. In Acts 6:6, Luke does not specify exactly who “laid their hands own” these seven men. It could have been the apostles – which is usually assumed – but it also could have been the people who chose them, presented them to the apostles, and also laid hands on them.

What is Luke communicating in this passage? It looks to me as if Luke is showing that the apostles expected all believers to take part in service. The apostles did not run things or control how problems were met. Instead, when a problem presented itself, the apostles expected the people who knew about the problem to take care of it.


11 Comments

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  1. 8-6-2007

    Isn’t it amazing what a passage looks like (or doesn’t look like) when we remove the presuppositions and assumptions and traditions from it?

    I find that I love reading the Bible more now that I’ve started removing so many of those grids from it than I ever did before.

    And I find that things come into perspective in a much simpler, much more reasonable way than before. Sometimes it almost seems like there is a huge freedom in saying, “You know, the text doesn’t actually say that.”

    What’s even more amazing to me is how many times the traditional interpretations of passages such as what you have addressed here are held by the very people who claim a “literal” reading of the text!! ;)

    Thanks for your continued work at this approach to ecclesiology, Alan. It’s oh, so refreshing.

  2. 8-6-2007

    Steve,
    Great point; I agree fully!

    Alan,
    Excellent post! Good work.

  3. 8-6-2007

    Alan,

    Here are a couple of assumptions that I have heard regarding this passage

    1. This passage teaches us that pastors/elders should be “devoting themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Instead, this passage only says that the twelve were to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. It says nothing of this being part of the role of a pastor/elder.

    2. It is often assumed that when the apostles were “devoting themselves to the ministry of the word” they were publicly teaching or preaching. An equally valid assumption could be that they were devoting themselves to the writing of Scripture. This passage is not perfectly clear as to what this “ministry of the word” involved.

    Just my two cents…

    Theron

  4. 8-6-2007

    Alan, great post.

    I wonder if these seven men were also responsible for collecting the completely-legitimate new-covenant-principle of dropping the first 10 percent of your gross income directly into the bucket as it’s passed around church each week. ;) After all, couldn’t these seven men be the new church’s Levite priests, collecting the ‘tithe’ for the orphans, widows and strangers?? And there’s no question about it – the “church” is the new “storehouse,” isn’t it??

    (I don’t think I need to qualify this, but just in case anyone doesn’t get me, I’m being sarcastic). :)

    As Steve said, when we remove our presuppositions, assumptions and traditions from the text, things just don’t add up the same way!

  5. 8-6-2007

    Steve,

    Yes, I agree. We’ve systematized the text of Scripture so much that we lose sight of the text itself.

    Michael,

    Thank you.

    Theron,

    Good additions. I have heard those assumptions as well. And, I agree, you will not find those in the text.

    Joel,

    I enjoy sarcasm, so thank you!

    -Alan

  6. 8-6-2007

    Alan,

    True story: Called to minister in a church. I was meeting with deacons after beginning this new phase of ministry and decided to have a short study on the passage, bringing out some of what you have pointed out.

    As I was closing the study with a few comments on “servanthood”, one deacon stood up quickly and pompously asserted, “I am no man’s servant!”

    Oh,what memories that story revives!

  7. 8-6-2007

    We’ve systematized the text of Scripture so much that we lose sight of the text itself.

    OH how I agree about our systematic theology. However are we not in danger of doing the same just with a different perspective. The parts of the passage you highlight fit best with your understanding of Matt 20:25-28 and Hebrews 13:17 “Follow your leaders and submit..” I share these understandings or leanings but see them in some tension. Systems don’t like tension.

    You state “The apostles did not run things or control how problems were met. Instead, when a problem presented itself, the apostles expected the people who knew about the problem to take care of it.”
    I question if this is what is actually being described. What I read is that the apostles hear of a problem and give instructions for solving that problem. They state why they cannot physically tend to the problem (It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.) They then go on to tell people what to do- pick seven men from among you and then the apostles (or maybe apostles with the rest of the community) will “appoint to this duty” these men. In any case the apostles are involved also with the appointing.

    I see that the apostles did certainly involve the community in how the men were chosen. But the text does not indicate that the community was involved in the decision for how many men, or that it would be men, etc.

    Lets ask ourselves if leaders in our assembly were to act in this way would we call it exercising authority? Or how would we react if a leader were to explain that it would not be right for him to give up proclaiming the word of God to serve tables.

    Note: I understand that we are talking about the apostles and that is not a direct correlation to leaders/elders.

    I hope my post does not seem to confrontational.

  8. 8-6-2007

    Aussie John,

    At least the man who proudly stated that he was no man’s servant was being honest. I always appreciate the examples from your experience. Please, keep sharing them!

    Jason,

    I don’t think you’re being confrontational at all. In fact, I believe the tension is a good thing. Thanks for adding your thoughts on this passage.

    From experience, if a leader suggested that solving a particular problem was not his or her responsibility, some would accept that and solve the problem themselves, and some would continue to blame the leader for the unsovled problem.

    -Alan

  9. 3-28-2013

    And the “tables” they were ministering at is the same word used for money changers tables. It could be, this is a “finance committee” of sorts

  10. 3-28-2013

    John,

    I suppose… but I don’t see anything related to finances in this passage. Was this term for “tables” used to refer to any other kind of table besides “money changing” tables?

    -Alan

  11. 9-10-2013

    Alan,

    Thank you for your study here. I wrote an article with similar questions and it’s good to see I’m not as heretical as some might think. (You’re not a heretic, are you?:)

    I’m going to continue to find the truths that are clouded by our traditions.

    Thomas