(Series: “The Early Church of Jerusalem” post #12)
The first serious problem that threatened to split the early church of Jerusalem centered around what Acts 6:1 calls “the daily distribution” (N.K.J.V.). No definition is given for what this distribution was, but the apostles described it as serving tables (Acts 6:2). Based upon this description, two possible definitions have been offered.
First, the tables could have been stations where the church’s widows went each day to either receive an allotment of food or receive an allotment of money from the church treasury to use to buy food. It is perhaps significant that the Greek word that is used for “tables” in Acts 6:2 is the same Greek word that is used in reference to the money-exchange tables that Jesus turned over as part of His two attempts to rid the temple complex of commerce and greed (John 2:13-22; Matthew 21:12-13).
Second, the tables could have been the sit-down variety where the church’s widows were served meals each day. This definition seems to be the one more commonly held. Several translations (N.A.S.V., N.I.V., N.L.T., N.R.S.V.) even add in the words “of food” to the term “the daily distribution.”
Whichever definition of the tables is correct, what isn’t in doubt is the fact that the Hellenist Jewish Christians (who spoke Greek) thought their widows were getting shafted in the allotted amount. Depending upon how we understand the tables, the Hellenists either believed their widows were getting a lesser amount of money to purchase food or a lesser amount of food than the Hebrew Jewish Christians (who spoke Aramaic). The disagreement eventually reached a boiling point that led the Hellenists to complain to the apostles.
The apostles, in response, didn’t take over the distribution themselves. They didn’t ask for volunteers to do the job, either. What they did was instruct the church to choose seven worthy men from the membership ranks. These men would become the “table servers” who would be delegated the responsibility of overseeing the daily distribution.
This plan of action pleased the church members, and seven men were chosen. The men were: Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas (Acts 6:5). Since all seven names are Greek names it’s possible that all seven men were from the Hellenist group. Whether or not this was the case, God must have been pleased with their selection because following the election the word of God spread even more and the church’s numbers swelled yet again. At this point the new converts even included many of the Jewish priests (Acts 6:7).
So, there’s no question that the Acts 6:1-7 election was a great thing that produced marvelous results. But was it the first deacon election of the church age? Many solid students of the Bible believe that it was and that the seven men became officially recognized deacons for life. There are, however, other equally solid students who understand the election to be a one-off type of deal. To them, the election was akin to a temporary committee being elected to serve for a limited time to achieve a stated goal (e.g., a committee to organize a convention, a singing, a revival, a Homecoming, etc.).
Having studied this subject quite a bit, I understand how people can reach either conclusion. Therefore, it’s not my intention to use this post to praise one interpretation and bash the other. Instead, I’m simply going to list the evidences that can be used to support each interpretation and let you, the reader, form your own opinion. I will, however, close the post by offering my take on the question.
I’ll begin by listing the evidences that support the interpretation that Acts 6:1-7 is not describing the first election of deacons. The evidences are as follows:
- While the actual words “deacon” and “deacons” are used in our English translations of the New Testament (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8, 10, 12, and 13), neither word is used in Acts 6:1-7.
- The qualifications (“of good reputation” and “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom”) stated for the Acts 6:1-7 men are not the same as Paul’s list of qualifications for deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. Not only is the 1 Timothy list much more extensive, it doesn’t even include “of good reputation” and “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.” One might think that if Paul is describing the same office as Acts 6:1-7, God would have inspired him to provide a direct tie-in to the Acts passage by somehow restating those two descriptive qualifications.
- The New Testament uses the titles “elder,” “pastor,” “bishop,” “shepherd,” and “overseer” interchangeably to describe the office most commonly referred to nowadays as “pastor” in the local church. However, as of Acts 6:1-7 that office hadn’t been officially established in the church age. Surely the apostles were playing that role in the colossal Jerusalem church, but they were still referred to as “apostles.” The office of pastor (elder, bishop, shepherd, overseer) isn’t mentioned until Acts 14:23, which tells us that Paul and Silas appointed (“ordained” K.J.V.) elders in every church. This raises the legitimate question: “In light of the fact that the pastor is the God-appointed shepherd of the church (1 Timothy 3:4-5; Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24; 1 Peter 5:1-4), would the office of deacon be formally instituted in the church age before the office of pastor?”
- Even though two of the seven men, Stephen and Philip, are mentioned prominently in subsequent stories (Acts 6:8-15; 7:1-60; 8:4-13; 8:26-40; 21:1-14), neither man is ever described by way of the title “deacon.” For example, in Acts 21:8, as part of a story that takes places many years after Acts 6:1-7, Philip is specifically described as “the evangelist” and as “one of the seven.” He is not described as “the deacon.”
Now let me move on and list the evidences that support the interpretation that Acts 6:1-7 is describing the first election of deacons:
- Paul, in his writings, does not hesitate to include the office of deacon as part of each local church (Philippians 1:1). He even provides a list of qualifications for the candidate for the role (1 Timothy 3:8-13). The question becomes then: “If the office of deacon did not begin in Acts 6:1-7, when exactly did it begin?” It seems strange that the New Testament wouldn’t even mention the beginning of the office. This possible omission — if that’s what it actually is — is made even more glaring by the fact that the beginning of the office of pastor (elder, bishop, shepherd, overseer) is recorded in Acts 14:23.
- Even though the words “deacon” and “deacons” aren’t used in our English translations of Acts 6:1-7, variations of diakonos, the Greek noun from which we get the word “deacon,” are found in three places in the passage. First, the word “distribution” in verse 1 translates diakonia. Second, the word “serve” in verse 2 translates diakonein. Third, the word “ministry” in verse 4 translates diakonia.
- In regards to the Acts 6:1-7 qualifications not matching up with the 1 Timothy 3:8-13 qualifications for deacons, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the two passages aren’t describing the same office. As evidence of this, 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 are clearly describing the same office — the word “bishop” is used in both passages — and yet those two lists of qualifications, though similar, aren’t exactly the same.
- The word “deacon” comes from the Greek word diakonos, and diakonos literally means “servant.” Obviously, the seven men elected in Acts 6:1-7 did become servants as they served the tables of the Jerusalem church’s daily distribution.
Well, as you can see, there is a pretty solid case to be made for either answer to the question: “Is Acts 6:1-7 the first deacon election?” As for me, I tend to think that it was. For one thing, it’s hard for me to believe that the New Testament would assume the office of deacon in the church without giving us an account of the office’s origin. For another, everything about what those seven men did speaks to deaconship (servanthood).
Finally, in closing, let me point out one last thing about this whole topic. Even if we accept the premise that those seven men were the church’s first deacons, it should be noted that the Jerusalem church didn’t hold a deacon election until the church had upwards of 20,000 members. Contrast this with the fact that many small churches today, with memberships less than 200, try to have seven deacons! You see, if Acts 6:1-7 really is talking about deacons, then it should teach us that two things about them. #1: God-approved deacons are scarce. And #2: It doesn’t take many God-approved deacons to get the job done in a local church, no matter how big that church might be.