3 views on the ministry of the Seven in Acts 6

Trapeza, national bank

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 been.   It looks at the traditional view that they served food;  it looks at the view (which I hold) that they served at banking tables; and it looks 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 chapter 6:1-7 Luke tells the story of when the church in Jerusalem chose seven Greek speaking-men to minister to the Greek-speaking widows.[1]  These seven 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.

Diakonoi was a common word in Ancient Greek.  Servants who waited on tables were typically referred to as diakonoi (e.g. the servants at the wedding at Cana).[2]  And it is commonly thought that the Seven 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.  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”.

In what way were the Hellenist widows being neglected?

Even though communal meals were a regular part of community life in the Early Church (Acts 2:46),[3] it is possible that the seven men in Acts 6 administered funds, not food, and that they served at banking tables rather than at dining tables.  Trapezai, the Greek word used in Acts 6:2, can refer to four-legged tables or to banking tables.  Even today banks are called trapezai in Greece.  (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, transl. “National Bank”. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the early days of the church some of the richer Christians were selling their property and bringing the proceeds, i.e. money, to the apostles (e.g. Acts 4:32, 37 cf 2:44-45).  Moreover, the use and context of diakonia in Acts 11:29 shows that it can be used for a ministry of giving financial assistance.  So, it is possible that the Seven were distributing money to the Hellenist widows.  If so, this charitable and practical ministry of the seven men would have freed up the apostles to spend more time exercising their ministry 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 and he notes that Luke is “a skilled and sensitive user of Greek – and shows himself to be totally familiar with all that the diakon- words stood for in the Greek language, religion and culture.” (2002:51)[6]

Collins (2002:52) states that, in the book of Acts, Luke uses the diakon- words “as code words for the kind of ministry by which the Word of God is to spread from Jerusalem.”  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 referred to by the exact same word: “diakonia” (Acts 6:1, 4).  Collins (2002:53) 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).” 

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).  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.”  (Collins 2002:53) 

After an occurrence in Acts 11:29 where the word clearly refers to a ministry of financial assistance, diakonia reappears in Acts 12:25 in reference to the evangelistic mission of Barnabas and Saul in Antioch (cf Acts 11:26).  Then, in Acts 20:24, Luke has Paul identifying his mission to the gentiles using the code-word “diakonia” (cf Acts 21:19). 

Collins (2002:54) 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).

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, women, and 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).”   (Collins 2002:57)

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

A Sacred Commission

Collins (2002:57) writes that the first people to read and hear Luke’s history would have related his use of “diakonia” to that in other Greek historical and romantic narrative where the word designated a sacred commission of some kind.  The church had given the Seven a sacred commission (Acts 6:3, 6), and they seemed well able to fulfill it.  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.  Rather than being involved in practical service, Collins states that the Seven were “a new group of preachers”.

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.  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.

Since the seven men are never referred to as deacons (diakonoi) anywhere in the New Testament,[7] it is doubtful that they were the first official deacons of the church.[8]  With or without an official title, the Seven were effective in their sacred ministry which enabled the spread of the Christian message and mission.


Endnotes

[1] The Hellenist widows were Jewish women who spoke Greek and probably held to some Hellenist (Greek) customs.  That the seven men spoke Greek is suggested by their Greek names.  

[2] Diakon- words, cognates of diakonos, are also used of others in the New Testament who served meals (Matt. 8:15; Luke 12:37; John 10:40a, etc).

[3] The church in Jerusalem had opportunities for daily table fellowship in the early days, weeks, and possibly months.  Later, churches met weekly, on Sunday evenings, for table fellowship. About this weekly meal, Aliki (2009:74-75) writes, “In the first and second centuries, up to and including Tertullian’s days, the weekly communal supper of Christian communities, that is, the Eucharist and the agape meal were one and the same event, taking place in the evening.”

[4] The role of many deacons in Protestant and Evangelical churches is to attend to charitable acts or practical necessities leaving senior ministers to concentrate on a preaching ministry.

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

[6] Luke’s care with the language makes the fact that he never refers to the Seven as “deacons” (diakonoi) significant.  Luke may have written the book of Acts sometime between 60-64 AD.  (It appears to have been written before the death of Paul, and before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD).  By the 60s, the word “deacon” (diakonos) was being used as a ministry title in some churches (e.g. the church in Philippi (Phil. 1:1-2)), yet Luke chose not to use this word for the Seven.

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

[8] 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 300sAD, 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 a chapter entitled “Ministry (Diakonia) in the Book of Acts” from a forthcoming paper on “The Roles of Deacons, Male and Female, in the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Church”.


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Posted February 4th, 2014 . Categories/Tags: Church History, ,

7 comments on “3 views on the ministry of the Seven in Acts 6

  1. […] The Greek word for a four legged table and the Greek word for a bank is identical: trapeza. (cf Luke 19:23.)  Even today, if you are walking down the streets somewhere in Greece, and you see a sign that says “TRAPEZA”, it will belong to a bank.  The seven men in Acts chapter 6 who were serving at trapezai (tables) may have been administrators handling the church’s finances to make sure that all the needy people, including the Hellenistic Jewish widows, were not being overlooked in the daily distribution of funds – not food.  Despite the NIV, NASB and NRSV translations which uses the word food, the Greek does not mention food anywhere in Acts 6:1-7.  (See Acts 4:34-35 also.)  (More on the ministry of the seven men in Acts 6 here.) […]

  2. Becky says:

    Very interesting, Marg! I love the way you traced the use of these words all the way back to the time the accounts were written. I’m eager to see what you write about next.

  3. Karin says:

    Does the article you cite as source say anything about women and ministry? I’d be curious to know Collins’s views on this after the summary you gave.

  4. Marg says:

    Thanks Becky. I’m writing about diakonoi (deacons) in Paul’s letters at the moment. But it will take a while before it is post-worthy.

    Karin: The information from John Collins comes from his book Deacons and the Church: Making Connections Between Old and New (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Morehouse Publishing, 2002) (I am also currently reading his book Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources (Oxford University Press, 1990)) I have found his views on women in ministry to be along egalitarian lines, which may be especially problematic for him as he is Roman Catholic.

    In between the preface of Deacons and the Church and chapter 1, Collins has a paragraph with the title “A note about women, the church and this book”. Here it is in full:

    Roman Catholic women and women of other churches who feel that authorities in their churches discriminate against them on the basis of gender in matters of ministry may come to his book looking for support in their struggle to achieve gender equality in ministerial appointments. They will find, however, that the book does not address the issue directly except in so far as women occasionally occur in the sources. The book needed to do no more than that, however, because the ancient Christian language of ministry, diakonia, is gender inclusive. Accordingly every implication for ministry today that arises from the consideration presented in the following pages is equally applicable to men and women.

    I think this answers your question. I’m thankful for all the scholars who are on record as being for equality in ministry.

  5. […]  The Greek-speaking widows in Jerusalem may have lived secluded lives.  More on this here. […]

  6. […] Philip is mentioned second to Stephen in the list of seven men.  These seven men were “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3), and have been traditionally referred to as the first deacons.  The story of Stephen’s martyrdom is recorded in Acts chapter 7.   […]

  7. […] Paul was consistent with how he used the word diakonoi (diakonos singular) in his letters.  Like Luke in Acts, Paul in his letters applied the term to people who were involved in some kind of sacred commission. […]

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