So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:2-4, NIV)
Traditionally, the seven men chosen by the early Christian disciples are known as “deacons”. The question for us is today is whether or not the situation presented in Acts 6 is normative for us in the 21st century church, i.e. that there should be people in the church who should devote themselves to administrative tasks only so that the ordained ministers could focus on preaching the Gospel. To answer that, let us look at the background of the historical narrative by taking into account the following observations:
First, during the time of the early church as chronicled in the Book of Acts, there were two kinds of Jews, the Hebraic Jews and the Hellenistic Jews. The Hebraic Jews were the ones who were left in the Promised Land (Canaan) during the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian exile or captivity of Judah. On the other hand, the Hellenistic Jews were the descendants of the ones who were exiled to Babylon, Persia and Mesopotamia. By the time of Jesus, there were sizable Jewish communities in every major city in the Roman Empire. These Jews were also known as the “Dispersion”. However, most, if not all of these Hellenistic Jews have already forgotten the Hebrew language and instead spoke Greek. Hence, it was necessary for the Hebrew Scriptures to be translated into Greek known as the “Septuagint”, which aided in the spread of the Faith throughout the mostly Greek-speaking Roman Empire. According to Dr. Justo Gonzalez, in the Diaspora, Judaism was forced to come to terms with Hellenism in a manner that could be avoided in Palestine or Canaan itself. Unfortunately, the Hebraic Jews viewed this Hellenization as a form of compromise. As a result, the Hellenistic Jews were given a somewhat different treatment by the Hebraic Jews. In this regard, it is also noteworthy to mention that when the apostles were arrested by the Sanhedrin, they were merely flogged and instructed not to teach in the name of Jesus unlike in the case of Stephen, one of the seven Hellenists, who was stoned to death by the for preaching the Gospel.
Second, we should remember that in Mark 10:5-6, the Lord Jesus instructed the Twelve to go to the lost sheep of Israel and not to the Gentiles. If we go back a few verses in Acts 5:42, after the apostles were released by the Sanhedrin, “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.” Therefore, in Acts 6:1 we could see that the number of disciples was increasing.
Third, in reading the Book of Acts, it should be remembered that its main theme is the spreading of the Christian Faith in pursuant to Acts 1:8, where Jesus told his disciples “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Notice that the order of the places mentioned by Jesus moves outward: Jerusalem-Judea-Samaria-ends of the earth. The apostles were originally from Galilee and they were to begin spreading the Gospel in the capital, Jerusalem, and move farther out and wide up to the ends of the earth. This was and still is God’s plan for salvation.
Finally, due to the persecution led by Saul referred to in Acts 9, the Hellenistic Jews were dispersed to other nations bringing with them the good news of salvation and the Greek translation of the Old Testament. This dispersion was instrumental to the spreading of the Gospel to the “ends of the earth”, thus fulfilling the mandate of Acts 1:8.
This was the situation of the early church during the time of Jesus and the apostles. In Acts 6, the Hellenistic Jews were complaining that their widows were being neglected in the distribution of food. So the apostles instructed them to select seven men to take care of this task. If you will notice, the seven all had Greek names. Now, did these men limit themselves to administrative duties in the church? No, it was simply a matter of the Hellenistic Jews taking care of their own so that the apostles can focus on the mission Jesus gave them. In fact, on the contrary, immediately a few verses later we can see Stephen preaching and performing signs and wonders among the people while in chapter 8, Philip explained Isaiah 53 to the Ethiopian eunuch and thereafter baptized him. Then he traveled about Azotus preaching the Gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
In conclusion, we can now see that the appointment of the seven “deacons” were for a specific purpose for a specific situation. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are all commissioned to go and make disciples of all nations, baptize, and teach people to obey everything Jesus had commanded. Moreover, we are also called to love our neighbor as we love ourselves by helping those in need as illustrated by Jesus in his parable of the Good Samaritan.