The Task of '' the Seven '' of Acts 6:1-7
1. Attention to Acts 6
The beginning of Acts 6 is one of the parts of this book that often generates more than usual attention. The reasons for this special attentiveness are not always the same. In modern biblical scholarship, people are interested in this section of the Bible because it might offer some information about the early sources of Christianity. There are many who consider the historical description, as Luke gives it to us in Acts, to be unreliable and flattering. Some are looking for a diversity that they claim would have existed, one that appears (to them) to be covered up by the cohesive picture in the book of Acts. Often they “detect” significant differences between, on the one hand, the simple teaching of Jesus, which would stand at the beginning of the tradition that eventually led to our present-day Gospels, and, on the other hand, the more elaborate theology of the apostle Paul, as can be found in his letters. What might have been the intermediate links in this evolution from Jesus to Paul? The many theories of this progression usually lack any historical evidence. If Acts 6 would in fact preserve even some remnant of the period between Jesus and Paul, this section of the Bible could count on greater than usual interest. Such a remnant is thought to be present here because it concerns the account of an early conflict being reported. When there is tension, different groups will become evident. Are the Hebrews (Hebraioi) not the representatives of the earliest group, the true Palestinian followers of Jesus, while the Hellenists are the first group to step outside the narrow circle of these early believers in order to be the switch in the track that leads toward a pagan Christian church and a theologian like Paul? The question of who these Hellenists (Hellenistai) actually were now becomes of great importance.
Some consider them to represent the first Christians from amongst the pagans. The Hellenists are then identical with the Greeks. Others regard them as proselytes, people who had come over to Israel from paganism. A more recent theory regards them as a denomination within Judaism, which was under the influence of some form of syncretism, possibly related to the community at Qumran, or to the Samaritans. Even when one agrees with the older exegesis, which conceives of the Hellenists as “Greek-speaking”, this does not mean that one does not recognize a modality of difference between the Hellenists and the Hebrews. For instance, M. Hengel observes that the Hellenists, as people who came from the diaspora in Jerusalem, were as disappointed with the externality of the temple service, as Luther was greatly disappointed upon his arrival in Rome. These negative experiences would then have given rise to a special sensitivity regarding the ethical and spiritual aspects of religion. In this way, too, the Hellenists become a group of people who are acting as a catalyst in the historical development of Christianity.
In circles where one accepts the historical depiction of Acts and where one recognizes the unity between Christ and his apostle, there is a very different reason for giving special attention to Acts 6. Does this chapter not present the institution of a special office in the church? After the choosing and addition of the twelfth apostle in Acts 1, we now hear for the first time of an election of persons. Are they deacons? If so, what is their task? Or are they not deacons, but people who look after the poor? Is it not strange that do we do not read anywhere about the election of elders in Jerusalem, even though they appear to be present (Acts 11:30; 15:2 et al.)!? On the other hand, we do read how Paul appoints elders in the newly instituted churches (Acts 14:23; see 20:17-38), but then again we hear nothing about an appointment of deacons. Those who are elected in Acts 6 are not called deacons in this chapter or in later chapters. In part they also act more like preachers and evangelists than as people who take care of the poor. What was going on in the early days with respect to this office?
2. The Focus of Acts 6
We will now deal primarily with this second set of questions. In doing so, we need to bear in mind beforehand that Luke did not write Acts 6 in order to give us a complete account of historical details concerning the different ministries in the early Church. His narrative does in fact contain data and details on this subject, but not in a comprehensive way because Luke’s actual subject was something else. We can infer the focus of Acts 6:1-7 from the introduction and the conclusion of this passage. From there we see that the Holy Spirit causes Luke to inform us how an impending malady was healed in the body of the church. Since Pentecost, a “miracle church” had been growing in Jerusalem: as if emerging from nowhere. It was a reward for Christ after his humiliation: a church that stood out because of its close community and great unity. And at the same time it was a church that continued to grow despite threats from the outside and despite the holy earnestness within the church. This has been the subject of chapters 2 to 5. But “now in these days” (characterized by the words: “when the disciples were increasing in number”, Acts 6:1) a discord appears to be threatening within the church, something that will block its growth and stain its good reputation. However, through the intervention of the apostles, the Lord leads everything in such a way that at the end of Acts 6:1-7 the conclusion can follow: “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.” In this seventh verse, the word “increase” from verse 1 returns again. The circle is closed. Instead of growing apart, there is growth in numbers. Even priests are now joining the church! It is within this frame of reference that we read the account of the choosing of seven men: necessary because of a weakness in the church, but also a means to remove or counteract that malady. For a proper understanding of the election of these seven men, we will first need some insight into the conflict situation that led to their appointment.
3. The Nature of the Difficulty in Jerusalem
The terms used (Hebraioi and Hellenistai respectively) in this combination and in this context can only refer to linguistic differences among the Jews. The idea of differences of nationality or differences in modality between the two groups cannot be based on the combination of these Greek terms, nor does it find any support in the narrative of Acts 6. The apostles were not combating tension between two groups, but were promoting the unity of the church, which was in danger due to negligence. This disunity was an unintentional consequence of language differences between the two groups. It is not as if these groups needed to be reconciled but rather that the supervision of the daily ministry in the church needed to be improved. If there were differences of nationality or modality in the congregation, it is inexplicable why the apostles do not utter a single word of disapproval, nor do they give any doctrinal instruction on the principle of unity in Christ. Instead they confine themselves to improve(d) distribution of provisions, which points to practical rather than principled difficulties. It represents therefore a different situation then the one we find in Acts 15, where a statement of principle is required that deals with the circumcision of converted Gentiles.
The term Hellènistès occurs in Acts 6:1 and 9:29. From the context it then appears that persons in Jerusalem are indicated who belong to the Jewish people. However, we also find the same term in 11:20 (one manuscript reads Hellènas (Greeks): clearly a simplified rendition). However, we are then in Antioch (Syria) where the (perhaps Hellenistic, Greek-speaking) Jewish Christians from Jerusalem are no longer addressing the Jews only, but also the Hellènistai. Here we are thinking of non-Jews, who — incidentally — are referred elsewhere in Acts as Hellènes (Greeks). However, Luke uses this more common term only when Paul has arrived in Asia Minor and in Greece. By using the word Hellènistai (Greeks) in 11:20 he may have wanted to distinguish between the Grecian Syrians and truly Greek city dwellers in Asia Minor and Greece. There is no reason to conclude from 11:20 the meaning “pagan” (non-Greek) in 6:1 and 9:29. In the ESV the general term “Hellenists” can take on various meanings from a variety of contexts. The same is true of the term Hebraios. In 2 Corinthians 11:22 and Philippians 3:5 it is used to denote the true Hebrew race as opposed to people who, as proselytes, may belong to the Jewish people, but are not of Hebrew origin. In Acts 6:1 the term Hebraios is defined by its contrast to Hellènistai and in this case the emphasis is then on people whose mother tongue is Hebrew or Aramaic. In practice, the two are very close. It mainly concerned the Jews from the Diaspora, among whom were many proselytes who used Greek as their first language. Hebrew/Aramaic was the language of the indigenous population of Palestine, the vast majority of whom were of ancient Hebrew origin. Behind the differences in language there are generally differences in origin, culture and attitude. This will have been no different in Jerusalem, despite the unity that existed between all in faith.
4. The Daily Distribution
Now that we have determined the nature of the issue that led to the appointment of “the seven”, we also need to determine where the problem came to the surface. It was, Luke says, a matter of the “daily ministration” (Acts 6:1, ASV). Is this to be interpreted as “the daily distribution” (ESV), or “the daily support” (TLV)? The Greek word used here (diakonia) carries a rather general meaning. It also occurs, for example, in Acts 6:4: the diakonia (ministry) of the word. The term diakonia as such quickly makes us think of deacons and diaconal ministry, because we have used the Greek-derived root “diakon” for a number of words that have become established as a practical term for persons and work involving the care of the poor. However, this meaning of “diaconate” is not present in the Greek words (diakonos, diakonia et al.). In Dutch and English we cannot speak of the work of the “deacon of the word”. Instead we speak of a “servant of the word”. This distinction is, however, not present in Greek.
Based on the context, is there any reason in Acts 6:1 to think of a ministry that is limited to the care of the poor? It is striking that there is no mention of ministering to the poor, but of “daily distribution”. One can certainly argue that the mention of “widows” in Luke’s day includes an element of poverty, although it remains striking that just this one group is mentioned when there must have been poor men as well. In Acts 2:45 and 4:35 there is only a very general reference to people who were needy. There the widows are not mentioned separately. In view of the fact that in Acts 2:45 and 4:35 it is said without any reservation that no one was in need, it is also somewhat strange when in 6:1 we suddenly hear that a distinct group of poor, i.e., the widows, was indeed in need. One cannot brush away this peculiarity with the remark that the care of the poor must have gone off the rails after chapter 4. After all, in chapter 6 a situation is reported that already existed for some time (“in those days, when the disciples were increasing in number”) and which already leads to a general grumbling. How can it be noted again and again at the same time that on the one hand no one was lacking anything and on the other hand that the widows of the Greeks were neglected when it came to the care of the poor? After all, these widows belonged to the rapidly growing Church of Pentecost right from the very beginning. These questions lead us all the more not to think too hastily of the “daily distribution” as “the daily support”.
Some consider verse 2 to be of decisive significance. There mention is made of “serving tables”. Through a reference to the Jewish practice of caring for the poor, it is thought that we should be thinking here of a daily habit of arranging tables for poor people. In this way, the word “tables” in verse 2 then further specifies the “daily distribution” of verse 1. Now we need to admit that we know very little about Jewish care for the needy from the time of the N.T. It is more important, however, that we would read verse 2 based on what was mentioned in verse 1, and not the other way around. In verse 1, the daily distribution is spoken of as a known and earlier mentioned fact. Reading back through the preceding chapters, we find no direct mention of any “distribution” service, but rather repeated mention of things that took place “daily” in the church.
In Acts 2:46 we read about a daily gathering of all believers in the temple and related to this of breaking of bread in the houses: so they ate food together with elation and with a sincere heart. The congregation was active outwardly in the temple and also had its own more internal meetings in the houses. This pattern is mentioned again in Acts 5:42 (immediately preceding 6:1): “And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching...” This work of the apostles presupposes that the believers, despite their ever-increasing numbers, continued to hold the house meetings mentioned in Acts 2:46 each day. These meetings in their homes, which must have been held at many addresses because of the number of believers, must have been associated with a great deal of service work because they also ate together. The sharing of goods according to each person’s needs (2:45) must also have taken place at these meetings. We do read that money was laid at the feet of the apostles (Acts 4:35, 37; 5:2), but we do not read in so many words that they were the only ones who distributed it. When it was distributed to each according to the person’s needs (4:35) we do not know who actually distributed it. However, from 5:6, 10 we can conclude that there was a certain group of helping young men who come forward as a matter of course when Ananias and later Sapphira had to be carried away and buried.
When the expression “daily diakonia” in Acts 6:1 refers to the custom of daily meetings in the houses and the ministry implied in it, the expression “serving tables” in Acts 6:2 is a reference to the tables which according to Acts 2:45 were prepared daily in the houses for the entire congregation. It cannot be denied that this help in setting up the meals automatically also would include the help for church members who have no money to buy food. However, it would be incorrect to describe this relief work within the more limited framework of care for the needy. The daily service is assistance that is necessary for full fellowship as a congregation to be able to celebrate together. Neither the words diakonia or diakonein as such, nor the historical context in which the expressions “daily distribution” and “serving tables” are used, gives rise to a more limited description.
5. The Engagement of the Widows
We can now return to the question as to whether the mention of “the widows” does not imply this limitation to the poor. In the preceding it was already concluded that, based on Acts 2-5, it would be somewhat strange if this would refer here to the poor who were being neglected. As we now look at the chapters that follow Acts 6, there is reason for a different interpretation. In Acts 9:39, 41 there is again mention of widows, this time in Joppa. Since in 9:41 there is mention of “the saints and widows” we do not get the impression that the widows are mentioned here as an indication of “the needy”, but rather that they are introduced as a separate group within the church. This is confirmed in 9:39 where we read that the widows do not show the garments that the deceased Dorcas made for them, but they show the garments that Dorcas made “while she was still with them”. Apparently Dorcas belonged to a group of widows who made clothes for the poor and contributed greatly through her means to make this work possible (9:36). The widows at Joppa, with Dorcas being first, were thus doing good works for the service of the saints and of all people. For now we will ignore the fact that in 1 Timothy 5 we also encounter a separate category of widows in the church, performing a particular service (see chapter VI). It is sufficient to note that within the framework of Acts 6:1 it is better to think of widows as helpers in the congregation than of widows as needy persons.
This puts the “widows who were being neglected” in a different light. This expression would be somewhat strange when it concerns the distribution of food: would it even be possible to neglect someone so easily at the table, let alone even a whole group? Is there, then, in fact, no evil intent? And yet the rest of Acts 6 refutes the idea of any malice. If, however, we move away from the idea of caring for the poor and start thinking about the active work of helping at the daily meetings and the daily meals together, it becomes possible to place the expression “being neglected”. The widows had their own place and task within the daily service in the community of saints. Apparently the widows of the Greek-speaking members, however, were passed over unthinkingly and were not actively involved in the work of service. Thus, the Greek-speaking widows are grumbling not because they receive too little, but because they are not allowed to do enough. Their widows are not sufficiently integrated and engaged in the daily distribution. It is an understandable matter. Even today it is still the case that in extending aid and support, the acquaintances and peers are involved in the first place. In the church, however, it is not only about some work getting done, but also about the congregation accomplishing this service as a community together, and not leaving any one group out of it. The annotations to the Dutch Dort translation also mention as a first possibility of explanation of Acts 6:1: “that its widows were not also employed for the service of the needy”.
6. The Leadership in the Functioning of the Community
When it comes to widows who are passed over in food distribution, it may appear strange that the apostles react to this by appointing helpers and not by blaming or punishing the distributors. However, when it comes to widows who are not being involved in the distribution of aid, the problem is not with the distributors but with the organizers of the congregational gatherings. The people responsible for the meals at church also need to make sure that everyone who is eligible is engaged in this work. There will already have been a number of people who served as intermediaries between the apostles and the serving widows. In principle, however, the apostles are the responsible persons. If now, faced with the significant growth of the church, they would become much more intensively involved in the execution of the whole table service, then they could personally see to it that Greek-speaking widows were also engaged. However, this would then imply that they would have little or no time left for their work of preaching (Acts 6:2). The solution is that the supervisory responsibility for the entire organization of the daily service is transferred to other persons who are officially designated for this work. The sheer number (seven) shows that we are dealing with a group that took a leadership role: seven men would be entirely unable to carry out all the work of the table service in a community of so many thousands of souls. They are therefore appointed, as 6:3 says, “over this business” (ASV; see NIV: “turn this responsibility over to them”). The preposition used here indicates that those elected are given oversight of this matter (serving at the tables of the congregation).
The criteria for the election of the seven men therefore contain no allusions to caring for the poor. The apostles themselves will continue to devote themselves to preaching and prayer, but the spiritual direction of the practice of the fellowship of the saints in the homes is now transferred to others. This work requires first of all that someone should be filled with the Spirit and with wisdom. Through the Holy Spirit the Lord establishes fellowship. Only those who are filled with the Spirit can lead that community. In the practice of the community, wisdom is especially required because dealing with persons plays an important role. It was due to a lack of wisdom that the widows of the Greeks were left by the wayside in the distributing activities. However, human wisdom in itself is insufficient: spiritual fellowship in Christ requires leaders who themselves are infused with the Spirit, through whom alone this fellowship can exist.
It is often somewhat puzzling to some that people who are regarded as “deacons” in Acts 6 never really have anything to do with the poor in the rest of the book of Acts and are presented more as preachers. When the church at Antioch sends gifts for the relief of the church at Jerusalem, those gifts end up not with the seven, but with the elders of Jerusalem (see Acts 11:30). After his election, Stephen becomes known primarily as a preacher and is killed for his testimony from the Scriptures. We encounter Philip later on travelling through Samaria as an evangelist, baptizing believers, including the chamberlain from Ethiopia, and extending his preaching work to Caesarea (Acts 8:4-40). Now we should not deduce from this activity of Stephen and Philip what the actual task of the seven entailed. It does show, however, that for the matter referred to in Acts 6, men were chosen who were full of the Spirit and able to present the gospel. The words used in Acts 21:8 (“Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven”) does provide an indication that being an evangelist is not identical with being one of the seven. Therefore, one cannot claim that the seven are chosen to be evangelists, but rather that the seven are chosen from among people who can also serve as such. This would be striking if we think in Acts 6 exclusively of distributors of goods for the poor. However, when we think here of men who are given charge of the actual exercise of the communion of saints, this is not so surprising.
7. The Position and Task of “The Seven” in the Early Church
Based on the issue that led to the appointment of the seven, we also receive insight on their place and task. It now becomes possible to speak of these in more detail.
To begin with, the idea of a separate governing council/group of seven people specifically for the Hellenistic part of the church, must be rejected. Various authors of the twentieth century are of the opinion that the Hellenistic congregation is now separated from the Hebrew one, which then perhaps also received a separate “board” of seven men. This opinion does not do justice to the text. Haenchen implicitly acknowledges this when he assumes that Luke eliminated this separation into two sub-groups as best he could by fitting in “the seven” as care-providers in the overall picture of a congregation led by 12 apostles.
The names of the seven who are chosen might indicate that they came primarily from the Greek-speaking portion. Greek names were also common among Palestinian Jews, but since the number of these names in Acts 6:5 is rather large, compared to the proper names in the list of the apostles, it is statistically quite likely that at least part of the group of seven were Greek-speaking persons. This is also supported by the fact that these Greek members formed an important part of the congregation in Jerusalem. After all, they were recruited from a population that was largely made up of immigrants from the Greek diaspora (see Acts 2:5-11). There is, however, no reason to infer from the perhaps Hellenistic character of the chosen persons that they were chosen exclusively for the Hellenists and not for the whole church (see Acts 6:2, 5 “the full number”; “the whole gathering”).
Their number — seven — is predetermined by the apostles (Acts 6:3). This shows a desire on their part to form a collegium. The number seven is often found in antiquity with governing councils. Information from Josephus shows that the commandment of Deuteronomy 16:18 to appoint judges and officers in every city of Israel was understood as a commandment to appoint seven administrators with judicial powers in every city. Apparently it had become practice to have local councils in Israel consisting of seven men. When the apostles in Jerusalem propose to appoint seven men to oversee a fair and equitable administration, they were most likely thinking here of the appointment of an independent governing council of seven people.
Were the seven replaceable in the sense that one or more could be substituted for others? It is striking that we never read about the replenishment of the seven, for example after Stephen’s death. Later in history we continue to find the apostles or James with the elders in Jerusalem. These “elders”, whoever they may be, can be distinguished from “the seven”. In Acts 21:8 Philip is still referred to as one of the seven. When office bearers are appointed in the churches on the mission field, the institution of the seven does not re-occur. Was it a matter of limited duration? Was something else put in place later on by analogy with the institution of this group?
These questions cannot be answered without keeping in mind the unique place and task of the church in Jerusalem. It is Luke himself who places the election of the seven in the framework of the history of the earliest church of the New Covenant. Earlier we sketched the connection of Acts 2-5 with 6:1-6: the rapidly growing church is preserved as a community in spite of threatening disintegration. However, we should now also pay attention to the connection with what follows. Many people have expressed surprise that Luke almost immediately continues the story of the choosing of seven men with the history of Stephen’s testimony and Philip’s work as evangelist. It seems as if Luke could have saved himself the trouble of including the part of Acts 6:1-7: nothing actually follows from this election and what does follow is not at all related to serving the tables of the community. Also later on Acts 6:1-7 receives no follow-up. However, it is not satisfactory to cite as the only reason for the narrative the need to introduce some new names. We may suspect that there is a more profound reason. We should note that Luke closely links the overall account of Stephen’s witness to the history of the church in Jerusalem. After Stephen’s death, a persecution breaks out. This time it is not against the apostles, as in chapters 2-5. Precisely because the Sanhedrin had ultimately released them after reconsidering their case, it now became very difficult to open another trial against them without coming into conflict with the law of Moses. The tactic now shifts to isolating the apostles and taking away their followers. Now the church is persecuted and all are scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, with the exception of the apostles (Acts 8:1). The account moves from growth (Acts 6:7) to scattering (Acts 8:1), and that as a numerous congregation! Luke immediately shows, however, that this was now also the actual function of the church. She was to be like a seedpod bursting open. God brought the crowds together in Jerusalem in a very short time so that they would spread all over the country and into foreign countries. Their community was destined for export. And this is precisely what the God-appointed stewards of the church realized and pointed out. The seven, reduced to six persons after Stephen’s death, do not say at the scattering that their ministry is finished, but they lead the congregation in that scattering on the path that God intends. Philip teaches the congregation to now serve the people of the world with what they have received. The result of this leadership and direction has been that the church, originally at Jerusalem but now found throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria (Acts 9:31), experienced peace and is built up and walks in the fear of the Lord: it even increases in number. And so we see in 9:31 the topic of growth resurfacing. This shows that Luke is still following the same pattern as in chapters 2-6. In chapter 9, however, the issue of chapter 6 is not addressed again: the widows in Joppa are not neglected, but rather they are women who are actively engaged. The fellowship is strengthened. Philip, one of the seven, left his mark as the person who guided and established the community (see Acts 8:40 for the work of Philip in the cities around Caesarea). In the end Philip settled in Caesarea (Acts 8:40; 21:8), from where he continued his work for the now regional congregation. Luke does not tell us anything else about the work of the seven. His frame of reference is the worldwide spread of the gospel and the position of the church in Jerusalem in all of this. After the persecution during the time of Stephen, the situation in Jerusalem changes. The original church is now found in Judea, Samaria and Galilee. After Acts 10, we encounter in Jerusalem the “elders” who were not mentioned earlier. It requires a separate inquiry to determine who they are and what their task is. It should be noted, however, that “the seven” was not a breakaway group from these elders, but a group separate from the apostles. Also note that these seven were not succeeded by these elders (Acts 21:8). Their task has been specific: to preserve the community of the saints in Jerusalem in the face of impending disintegration and to give direction to this communion on the road of dispersion across Judea and Samaria.
8. Are There Any Lines To Later Offices?
The unique history of the earliest congregation also causes the ministry of its earliest overseers of the community to be unique. And this prevents us from drawing a direct line from “the seven” to a later ministry in the church.
Traditionally, Acts 6:1-7 has been understood as the institution of the ministry or the office of the deacon. Is that correct? The question is difficult to answer, because first one has to determine how one understands the office of the deacon. In the early Church this ministry had a different content and was closer to the work of the other leaders than in the time of the Reformation, when the office of the deacon was restored. Incidentally, John Calvin recognizes in “the seven” first of all people who are to govern the congregation in the exercise of the mutual fellowship belonging to it. Dr. C. Trimp also notes in Acts 6 the care of the needy embedded in the total fellowship of the saints. There is therefore not so much difference between those who think of “deacons” in Acts 6 and those who do not. In the description of the diaconate from Acts 6, almost everyone makes further stipulations, and those who speak of a one-time ministry in this chapter then offer a description of it that comes very close to the “deacons from Acts 6” as posited by others. Even when D.J. Karres connects the deacons with Acts 6 as “guards in matters of righteousness” and not as “caretakers of the needy”, no structural difference arises with other opinions, even though Karres explains the word “righteousness” in his own way. One can imagine that with this incomplete parallelism between “the seven” and “the deacons”, J.M. Gerritsen and R. Boon come to regard “the seven” as the also-incomplete prototype of “the elders”. When one takes note of the attempts to connect a later ministry to the source of Acts 6, one gets the growing feeling that connections cannot be made directly here.
We will, therefore, suffice with some negative statements about proposed connections. Various data show that elders directed the churches outside of Palestine. Apparently they were sometimes assisted by diakonoi. It is impossible to equate these diakonoi with “the seven”. Stephen and his co-workers formed an independent council/group, set over the community. Structurally this is more similar to the council of elders (the presbyterion, 1 Timothy 4:14) than to the deacons, who, judging by their name, have a servant function and historically only act alongside and with the elders. As for their work, it can be said that in later times (without the presence of teaching apostles) the care of the community of faith was entrusted more to the elders, who may have been assisted in this by servants, diakonoi. It would be incorrect to state a priori that the work of the diakonoi from the mission congregations would have no common ground with the activity of “the seven”.
The impossibility of drawing straightforward connecting lines to later offices does not mean that Acts 6 does not offer any relevant data that should and will be found in later institutions of other functions. For example, the preaching of the gospel is just as important as the necessary leadership of congregational life. As needed, separate offices can be established for this purpose, each of which then also has its own independence and responsibility. Guiding the fellowship of the Holy Spirit requires people who are filled with the Spirit, and they are positioned in the church under God’s blessings by the laying on of hands. The whole gathering can point to men, but they need to be men who are devoted to God and their position in the community is also from the hand of God. The principle of Acts 6 almost foundered with the Roman Catholic influences on the Church. All ministerial functions were increasingly determined from the “apostolic” centre in Rome while the ministries of and for the local congregation of God crumbled. When, at the time of the great Reformation, the office of the deacons again took shape, the wisdom of Acts 6 was put into practice, regardless of the question of whether, in the further ordering of this local ministry, one has always relied correctly on various texts in the New Testament.
Another important principle from Acts 6 is that any malfunctioning in the community needs to be remedied, but not by categorical divisions of the people of God into Hebrew and Hellenist groups, rich and poor, slaves and free, white and black, healthy and handicapped, etc. It is the task of the local office bearer to work toward the integration of God’s people into the one mutual diakonia among them.
Acts 6:1-7 relate how a certain displeasure concerning the non-involvement of the widows from the circle of Greek speakers in the many daily services for the meetings and the common meals of the believers in their houses, has been overcome by the apostles putting the supervision of this communal exercise in the hands of a council/group of seven men, chosen from within the congregation and filled with the Spirit. The congregation now appears to continue to grow and prosper.
Luke positions this account in the history of the first church. He shows how the Lord intended to use this designation of the seven when this congregation was called soon afterwards to be scattered and to branch out beyond Jerusalem.
The council/group of the seven has an unrepeatable place in church history. Their task — to preserve and to lead the God-ordained community of the saints — remains current for local office bearers. The division of labour (teaching, prayer, community) in congregations where the apostles are not present, need not automatically to be the same as in the church in Jerusalem, where the apostles and elders resided and laboured.