3 views on the ministry of the Seven in Acts 6

What was the ministry of the seven men in Acts 6? What precisely did they do? This article looks at three views on what their ministry may have entailed. It looks (1) at the traditional view that they served food, (2) at the view (which I hold) that they served at banking tables, and (3) at what John Collins has discovered by tracking Luke’s use of the word diakonia in the book of Acts.

Waiters or “Bankers”?

In Acts 6:1-7, Luke recounts the story of when the church in Jerusalem chose seven men to minister to the Hellenist widows. The Hellenist widows were Jewish women who spoke Greek and probably held to at least some Hellenist customs. That the seven men spoke Greek is suggested by each of them having a Greek name. These men have been traditionally referred to as the first deacons (diakonoi) of the church, this is despite the fact that Luke never calls them diakonoi.

It is commonly thought that the Seven functioned as waiters and served meals to the Greek-speaking widows. The NIV, NASB, and NRSV even include the word “food” in their English translations of Acts 6:1, but there is no word for “food” in the Greek text. The Greek simply states that the widows were being overlooked, or neglected, in the daily “ministry” (diakonia). The KJV translates Acts 6:1b literally as: “their widows were neglected in the daily ministration”, but it is unclear in what way the Hellenist widows were neglected.

Communal meals were a regular part of community life in the first-century church, and the church in Jerusalem seems to have had opportunities for daily table fellowship in the early weeks and months, and perhaps years, of its existence (Acts 2:46). Were the Hellenist widows not being served at these gatherings? Danker believes that “it is improbable that some widows would be deprived of food at a communal meal.”[1]

A different scenario to that of serving meals is that the seven men in Acts 6 administered funds, not food, and that they served at banking tables rather than at dining tables. The Greek word trapezai used in Acts 6:2 can refer generally to four-legged tables or specifically to banking tables.[2] Banks are still called trapezai in Greece today.

The photo at the top of this page is of a sign showing the logo of the National Bank of Greece.  The sign reads: Ethnikē Trapeza, which translates as “National Bank”.  (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the early days of the church some of the richer members were selling their property and bringing the proceeds to the apostles (e.g. Acts 4:32, 37; cf 2:44-45). This money was then distributed to the poorer people. So, it is plausible that the Seven were distributing money to the Hellenist widows. This idea has credence when we realise that the use and context of the Greek word diakonia in the New Testament shows that it may be used for a ministry of collecting, conveying, and administering funds for charitable purposes (Acts 11:29-30; 12:25; 2 Cor. 8:4; 9:1, 12-13). Moreover, the early church historian Eusebius wrote that the seven men were chosen eis diakonian huperesias eneka tou koinou, which Paul Maier has translated as: “to administer the common fund.”

Whether the seven men had a charitable ministry of administering funds or a more practical ministry of serving food, their care of the Hellenist widows allowed the apostles to spend more time exercising their ministry (diakonia) of prayer and preaching (Acts 6:1-3).[4]

Or Preachers of the Word?

John N. Collins proposes another ministry for the seven Greek-speaking men. In his book Deacons and the Church,[5] Collins looks closely at how Luke uses cognates of diakonia in Acts. He notes that Luke is “a skilled and sensitive user of Greek [who] shows himself to be totally familiar with all that the diakon– words stood for in the Greek language, religion and culture” and that Luke uses the diakon– words “as code words for the kind of ministry by which the Word of God is to spread from Jerusalem.”[6]

Beginning in Acts chapter 1, Collins shows that Luke, through the mouth of the apostle Peter, referred to the ministry of the Twelve as diakonia twice, in Acts 1:17 and 25, and that this ministry entailed being “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The next instance where Luke uses diakon– words is in chapter 6. In this chapter, the ministry of the Seven and the ministry of the Twelve are both referred to by the exact same word: “diakonia” (Acts 6:1, 4). Collins notes that “Luke then closes the scene of the Seven with the tell-tale phrase, ‘the word of God continues to spread . . .’ (Acts 6:7).”[7] (This “tell-tale phrase” also occurs in Acts 12:24.)

In the seventh chapter of Acts we have “the great preaching event in the brief career of Stephen, one of the Seven” (Acts 7:2-53).[8] Immediately following Stephen’s death, Luke records the mission of Philip, another of the Seven, who took the Word of God to Samaria. Samaria was specifically mentioned by Jesus as one of the stages, after Jerusalem and Judea, of the spread of the Christian mission (Acts 1:8). Luke ends his record of Philip’s ministry with Philip “poised at Caesarea, the port leading to Rome (Acts 8:4-14; 26-40), which is Luke’s ultimate trajectory of the Word.”[9]

In Acts 11:29-30 and 12:25, diakonia is used for the ministry of Barnabas and Saul when they brought financial assistance from Antioch to the church in Jerusalem. Finally, in Acts 20:24 and Acts 21:19, Luke has Paul identifying his mission to the Gentiles using the word diakonia.

Collins summarises his findings on Luke’s “striking pattern of usage” of diakonia in Acts:

At the heart of Luke’s history of the Christian mission then, we have the word diakonia marking the major stages of its progress. In this narrative the term diakonia marks the beginning of the Twelve’s mission (1:17, 25), it is there at their peak in Jerusalem (6:4), it is there to mark Paul’s inclusion in the mission (20:24), and it is there when Paul completes his part of it (21:19).[10]

The diakonia of the Seven was directly instrumental in causing the growth and spread of the Christian mission. Rather than being involved in charitable or practical work, Collins believes that the Seven were involved in preaching, and that the Hellenist widows were being overlooked in the daily ministry of the Word. He explains that, because they were Greek-speaking widows,

. . . they were neither free to attend large gatherings in the temple forecourts nor linguistically equipped to understand what these Aramaic preachers were saying when they returned from the temple to speak in the intimacy of the household (5:42). Accordingly, the Hellenist’s widows were in need of preachers who could teach them in Greek, and preferably at home when Greek speakers came together at their tables (6:2).[11]

If Collins is correct, this helps to explain why only the Hellenist widows, and not also the Hebraic or Aramaic-speaking widows, were missing out on daily ministry (diakonia) (Acts 6:1).

A Sacred Commission

Collins believes that the first people to read and hear Luke’s history would have related his use of “diakonia” to the usage in other Greek historical and romantic narrative where the word designated a sacred commission of some kind.[12] The church had given the Seven a sacred commission and they seemed well able to fulfil it (Acts 6:3, 6). We are told that the men were full of the Spirit and wisdom; and their preaching and evangelistic abilities, in particular those of Stephen and Philip, far exceed the qualifications for deacons found in 1 Timothy 3:8-13, or the qualifications for many deacons today. Bearing in mind their abilities, Collins states that the Seven were “a new group of preachers”.[13]

While the Seven were active in important ministry, it is unlikely that they held the office of deacon.  They were set apart and commissioned with prayer and the laying on of hands, but this did not necessarily denote ordination into an office at this early stage of the church. In Acts 13:2-3, for example, Paul and Barnabas were commissioned for a specific ministry in response to a temporary situation, and were prayed over with the laying on of hands; but Paul and Barnabas were not office holders in the church at that time.

The seven men are never referred to as “deacons” (diakonoi) anywhere in the New Testament. [14] Considering Luke’s care with the language, the fact that he never refers to the Seven as “deacons” (diakonoi) in Acts is significant. Luke may have written Acts sometime between 80-90 AD. By the 60s, the word “deacon” (diakonos) was being used as a ministry title in some churches, (e.g. the church in Philippi), yet Luke chose not to use this word for the Seven. Therefore, it is doubtful that they were the first official deacons of the church. However, the long standing debate continues for some.[15] With or without an official title, the Seven were effective in their sacred ministry which facilitated the spread of the Christian message and mission.


Endnotes

[1] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition, revised and edited by F.W Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 230.

[2] Danker suggests a play on words in Acts 6:2, “involving ton logon tou theou designating a ledger entry, in which case trapeza, which is also a banker’s term, may here denote accounts.” Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon, 230.

[3] Eusebius, The Church History, (Book 2.1.1.) transl. Paul L. Maier (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1999), 57.
Arthur Cushman McGiffert, however translates this phrase as “for the service of the congregation.”Eusebius, Church History, transl. Arthur Cushman McGiffert. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250102.htm>
The Greek text was sourced from the Perseus Digital Library: Eusebius, “The Ecclesiastical History”, Vol 1-2 in Eusebius of Caesarea. Editors Kirsopp Lake, J.E.L. Oulton, H.J. Lawlor, William Heinemann (G.P. Putnam’s Press; Harvard University Press: London; New York; Cambridge, Mass.; 1926-1932)

[4] Today, the role of deacons in some Protestant churches is to attend to charitable acts or practical necessities leaving senior ministers to concentrate on a preaching ministry. However, many deacons in the New Testament and post-apostolic Church functioned as agents, messengers and emissaries.

[5] John N. Collins, Deacons and the Church: Making Connections Between Old and New (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2002), 51.

[6] Ibid, 52.

[7] Ibid, 53.

[8] Ibid, 53.

[9] Ibid, 53.

[10] Ibid, 54.

[11] Ibid, 57.

[12] Ibid, 57.

[13] Ibid, 57.

[14] In Acts 21:8, however, Philip is called an evangelist.

[15] The continuing debate about whether the Seven were official deacons stretches back hundreds of years. Writing in around 180AD, very much after the fact, Irenaeus states that Stephen (one of the Seven) was chosen by the apostles to be the first deacon. (Against Heresies 3.12.10) Chrysostom, however, writing in the late 300s, states that the Seven were neither deacons nor elders, but ordained for the specific task of ministering to the Hellenist widows (Homily 14 on Acts).

This article is adapted from chapter two entitled “Ministry (Diakonia) in the Book of Acts” from a forthcoming paper on “The Roles of Diakonoi, Male and Female, in the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Church (c. 40-120) with Special Reference to Phoebe of Cenchrea”. Other chapters can be accessed here.


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