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Why Churches Have Deacons - a study of Acts 6:1-10

Updated: Jun 25, 2021

Are you serving God through His church?


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 6:1-10

Stephen represents a new era in the church, where the Apostles share work with church members for the long-term health of the church, and the entire church grows because of their ability to work together (so effective that they face new opposition). How are we serving? How are we caring about our church?

“It would not be right for us to give up preaching about God to handle financial matters.” Acts 6:2

[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About


Giving a Gift

I don’t know exactly how this will work, but let me tell you what I’m thinking and what the purpose would be. (Mainly, I don’t want anybody to be put on the spot or made to feel awkward.) Here we go—draw up a certificate for a really nice gift (it doesn’t have to exist in reality!), like a pot of gold. Then take a volunteer and say, “I want you to pick someone in the church to give this to. Who would you pick and why?” Then do the same with another volunteer or two. Your point would be to try to establish the unspoken rules we all have for giving gifts, usually something like (1) someone we believe is in need, and (2) someone worthy of the gift. And I know those sound subjective, but I bet we would be able to agree pretty well on what it means to be in need and what it means to be “worthy.” So why is it that your class members wouldn’t all say the exact same names? Because we know people differently! I simply might not be aware of someone’s great need because I don’t know that person well. I also might not realize someone’s good (or bad) character simply because I really don’t know him.


That’s where we are with our passage today. Some widows were being neglected in the early church, and they happened to be widows who spoke a different language than the church leaders. My guess is that the leaders didn’t know these women well and so didn’t realize their neglect. That’s why it’s so important that our church be able to network throughout the entire church family so that individuals don’t slip through the cracks, no matter how unintentionally.


Lending a Hand

Here’s another activity—take a volunteer and tell him/her that he’s in charge of this next demonstration. Then, come up with a list of activities that your class would find amusing. For instance, I’ll ask my volunteer, “I need you to count the number of times I say the word ‘you.’ I also need you to hold up the certificate from earlier. I also need you to balance these boxes. I also need you to gather everybody’s Bibles. I also need you to make sure everyone has a pencil. I also need you to check everybody’s shoes for dirt. [and so on]” Don’t give any breaks, don’t make it easy. The idea is that the person will eventually ask for help. And that’s the whole point. Once we ask for help, things get a lot easier. That’s a lesson God taught the church in our passage today—one person or small group of people cannot do everything that needs to be done. But if we divide our labor, we can get a lot more done (including being on the lookout for all the people in need, per the other illustration).

 

This Week's Big Idea: Where Did Deacons Come From?

Your leader guide is quick to point out that our passage does not label “deacons,” and yet this is usually where pastors go in the Bible to tell their church members about deacons. So what gives? Our title “deacon” comes from the Greek word diakonos, which occurs 29 times in the NT. Usually it is simply used to identify a “servant” or “minister” (which is what the word means). For example, Jesus (Rom 15:8), Paul (1 Cor 3:5), Phoebe (Rom 16:1), Apollos (1 Cor 3:5), Tychicus (Eph 6:21), Epaphras (Cor 1:7), and Timothy (1 Tim 4:6) are all called diakonos. The first time it is used of an office in the church is Phil 1:1. Then, Paul lists the qualifications of a deacon in 1 Tim 3:8-13 (although he does not list his duties!). And that’s about it. We infer the duties of a deacon from the fact that the two times they are mentioned they are listed immediately after “bishops” (the head of a local congregation), and because Paul specifically talks about them not being double-tongued or greedy, it would make sense that they are involved in personal visitation and responsible for moneys—all in support of church leadership.


And that brings us back to Acts 6. A lot of scholars will say that although these 7 men are not “deacons” by title, the function they served soon grew into the office of “deacon” that the later New Testament talks about. And this is where things get interesting. The verb form of deacon (diakoneo) is what we translate in this passage as “It would not be right for us to give up preaching in order to wait on tables” or “to handle financial matters.” So although they are not called deacons, they are said to deacon (if that were a verb). I have always associated that verb with what we think of as a waiter in a restaurant, and that may be exactly the sense. However, in those days, all financial matters were handled on tables (think of Jesus and the money-changers). There are at least a few instances where the verb for deacon specifically referred to being responsible for financial transactions. That would make sense in this passage—the church wasn’t just worrying about food for widows, but also about services and financial assistance. It could be that the deacons were going to take the brunt of responsibility for keeping track of all the money.


One way or another, I do believe that we can look at Acts 6 as an introduction to what would become the office of deacon (call it a proto-deacon). Like everything in society, it evolved over time, even in just the first decades. The needs of the people became more clear, as did the limitations of the church leaders, so it simply became obvious that every individual local church needed deacons. What they did would look a little different in each local setting, but there would need to be universal qualifications for them to help keep churches out of trouble (especially of the Ananias kind). Over time, then, the apostles helped determine those guidelines and wrote them down (hence the New Testament). In the centuries since, churches and deacons have sometimes ignored these qualifications and early responsibilities, but the apostles can’t be blamed for that!


(Please, please, please don’t let this get into a debate about gender. That’s not remotely the point one way or the other of Acts 6. Just say that we will talk about that when we cover Romans in the not-too-distant future.)

The Context of Acts

These few chapters of Acts are about the growth of the early church, their early opposition, and the problems they faced. Our passage this week, which introduces a dispute between Israeli Jews and Greek Jews, foreshadows the bigger problems to come. But in order for those differing worldviews to really start to clash, the church will have to be chased from its comfortable perch in Jerusalem. That will happen as a result of the witness and violent death of Stephen, whom we meet in this passage as well. In many ways, these verses mark a major transition for the church—it will be forever changed by the decision made here.

 

Part 1: A Need Discovered (Acts 6:1-2)

In those days, as the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint by the Hellenistic Jews against the Hebraic Jews that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution. Then the Twelve summoned the whole company of the disciples and said, “It would not be right for us to give up preaching about God to handle financial matters.”

A Microscopic Flaw. Flaws and problems exist in every organization all the time. If they are with a single person, growing the organization will help hide the flaw. If they are with a segment (proportional), growing the organization will make the flaw more visible. (You can even demonstrate this if you want—it’s easier to break a larger version of the same thing, like a longer 2x4, or a bigger lego wall, etc.) In this case, as the church continued to grow, it became impossible to ignore this problem. The cause is very straightforward. Many Jews had moved all around the Empire for business and then established families. But in old age, those same Jews often wanted to return to Jerusalem so as to be buried in their homeland. Hence, lots of widows who had adopted the language and culture of their new home and maybe didn’t know very many people in Jerusalem.


If you didn’t do the “giving a gift” exercise at the beginning, do it here. I would want to make the point that the apostles probably weren’t intentionally neglecting these outsider Jews (and note that they were Jews, not Gentiles!) - they simply weren’t as familiar and aware of them. We all tend to help people of whom we feel like we know the need (well, “gofundme.com” is proving otherwise). Out of ignorance, we can leave a need unmet.


Something else to note—we’re not specifically talking about the distribution of food. That’s regularly the assumption, but that’s not what the text says. “Daily distribution” can refer to goods, services, and even money. The fact that it’s “daily” implies perishable foods, but as I said in the section on deacons, the phrase the NIV translates as “to wait on tables” here is translated “to handle financial matters.” It literally means “to serve tables” which might mean meal-time but also means financial transactions (which were all handled on a table). Obviously, they all tie together. This was a logistic and resource matter—a big one, judging by the size of the church. If the apostles spent their time handling that issue, they would have less time to preach and pray. And as I say below, they decided that the best solution was to divide the labor among additional people. This is not dissimilar to what churches do in hiring associate pastors (like me) so the lead pastor can have time and energy for sermons and counseling.

I definitely want to point out that the apostles (“The Twelve”) didn’t make this decision on their own. They gathered the whole church together to reach a solution. I don’t have space to spell this discussion out for you, but you can see the great value in including your entire church on big decisions like this.

 

Aside: “Hellenistic” Jews???

That's a scary word! The explanation is actually pretty simple. “Hellas” is Greek for “Greece.” “Hellenic” means “related to classical Greece.” (And we have to be careful to say classical Greece because Greece and Rome had a longstanding conflict. Although Rome won all of the military encounters, Greece’s “classic” culture and language ended up being much more influential than Latin in the Near East.) In a nutshell, “Hellenistic Jews” were those who spoke Greek and probably observed as much Greek culture as Hebrew. Think of the difference and conflict between conservative Muslims and “Americanized” Muslims.

This would mean that one of the early conflicts in the church was related to prejudice against a culture, something we can still relate to today. A much later (and well-founded) fear was that early Christianity became too influenced by Greek/Hellenic culture and got itself into theological problems because leaders were thinking too much like Greek philosophers and not enough like Jesus followers. And I’ve already pointed out that the church took a bad turn when it became more worried about cultural relevance than Christian faithfulness. That true and that said, that has nothing to do with the needs of these Greek widows. Someone can represent the “enemy” (as in the dangerous outside world) and that does not change our responsibility to care for and love that person. Jesus was very clear about that in the Sermon on the Mount. The apostles may have been uncomfortable around these Greeks, but they still had to care for them just as they would their own grandmothers.

Bonus Aside: Opportunity Cost / Cost Benefit

If you have business types in your class, this might be the best way to try to explain how and why the apostles made their decision with respect to these “deacons.” Every decision we make comes with a direct benefit and a direct cost. For example, fixing the copier has the benefit of a working copier, but it costs $250 (or whatever). However, every such decision also comes with an indirect benefit and an indirect cost. For example, not fixing the copier will also hamper productivity of office staff, and the copies will have to be made elsewhere for $200. In other words, making a wise financial decision requires looking at direct and indirect costs and benefits.


The same is true of human capital. In our passage, the apostles had to make a decision. They obviously were capable of ministering to the Greek widows just in the same way that David is capable of sitting at the front desk. The opportunity cost is what the apostles (or David) could be doing with their time instead of ministering to the widows. For the apostles, that opportunity cost was time spent in prayer and preaching. They decided that the opportunity cost was too great. Factored into that decision was the opportunity cost for members of their church. The apostles were uniquely trained and gifted for preaching; others were gifted in ministry and stewardship. Wise management means putting the best combination of people in the highest leveraged positions to accomplish the right tasks. Someone else could have preached (or no one could have preached) and the apostles could have “deaconed,” but they decided that that was not what was best for the church as a whole.

 

Part 2: A Solution Reached (Deacons 6:3-7)

“Therefore, brothers, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the preaching ministry.” The proposal pleased the whole company. So they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte from Antioch. They had them stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. So the preaching about God flourished, the number of the disciples in Jerusalem multiplied greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith.

Here’s the amazing part to me: the apostles let the church select these men. Yes, that’s how we do it today, but with everything going on I would think the apostles might be a little uptight about this! But no, they set down some qualifications and trusted the church to make the wise decision. Which is the way it’s supposed to work, even today!


Why 7? I’m not sure. Certainly, deacons were not limited to 7 later in the New Testament. And note the two qualifications: of good reputation (which implies both inside and outside the church) and full of the Spirit and wisdom. Nothing about specific skills. Pick men that you trust of high Christian character, and we know that the Spirit will guide them in right actions. Powerful!


And here’s the most important takeaway: the apostles acknowledged that although prayer and preaching were absolutely central to the church’s mission, so was ministry to widows. But no one could do it all! They would keep responsibility over the former and give responsibility for the latter. This is not about “spiritual ministry” vs. “physical ministry”; this is about how it all gets done. As did the apostles, many pastors today have special training in Bible study and proclamation, and that should be utilized. This isn’t about relative importance.


So the situation was admittedly not right, but the solution proposed was deemed right. We don’t know how these men were selected, but we can see that they all had a Greek-ish name. They were selected with the job in mind. We really only know anything about Stephen (see what follows) and Philip. But they were all evidently worthy men, and they proved perfect for the task at hand.


The act of “laying hands” was symbolic, much like baptism or anointing with oil (see Num 27:22). However, we can’t ignore that on some occasions, when the apostles laid hands the Holy Spirit was given (8:17, 9:17, 19:6). We’ll talk about that in the next two weeks, so don’t get hung up there. The point in this passage is symbolic—a demonstration that these men have been approved to their duty. There is some debate about who actually laid hands. The literal translation would be, “They had them stand before the apostles; having prayer, they laid hands on them.” I would call that an ambiguous antecedent for a personal pronoun. Who does “they” refer to? Some believe that the entire congregation laid hands on the Seven, others believe that just the apostles did. Because these were “proto-deacons” it really doesn’t affect our practice of ordination today.


Just as earlier in Acts, Luke tells us that when the problem was identified and solved, the church flourished. Think about the wording—earlier, Luke specifically noted that “3,000” or “5,000” were added. Here, he just says “multiplied greatly.” That implies to me that he lost count!


There are some key points to make: (1) the church did not ignore this problem until it was too late; (2) the church did not divide over the solution to this problem; (3) the church did not take shortcuts in solving the problem; (4) the whole church worked together to solve the problem. That’s awesome! Your leader guide asks how your class members are using their gifts and talents to serve the church, and I think that’s a great idea. If your class members have questions about how they can get involved, just let me know. We’ll talk! But along with that, I would want to make the point about the balance between an “inward awareness” and an “outward focus.” David is encouraging us not to be “inwardly focused,” and according to Acts he’s absolutely right! When we get focused on ourselves, we’ll slowly die out. But that doesn’t mean we ignore what’s going on inside the church! These widows were in the church, and their neglect threatened the church. But the solution was not to lose their outward focus—it was to spread the work. Being healthy on the inside allowed them success on the outside. It required the leadership to be flexible, to listen to criticism, to engage church members, and to get over prejudices. Wow. Don’t you think you could talk about that for a while?

 

Aside: Spiritual Maturity

Your leader guide wisely comments on the importance of spiritual maturity among church leadership. “Unspiritual believers should never be given leadership positions.” In our very pragmatic America, that might sound harsh, but it is absolutely correct.


Three developments in America set us down the road where this is even a question. (1) Most importantly, we stopped taking membership requirements seriously. The Bible is pretty clear that only Christians should be church members. If a bunch of non-Christians had selected “the Seven” who knows what would have happened! (2) Because the church became an influential institution in our culture, elements of society decided it would be valuable to influence the church. Consequently, people sought leadership positions in the church for reasons other than devotion to Christ. (3) Pragmatism says you “do what makes sense.” Consequently, churches began appointing HR directors to the personnel committee, and CPAs to the stewardship committee. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as those individuals are spiritually mature. Sadly, that was not always the case.


As a result, it has become common to find churches with leaders who might be considered spiritually immature. And they tend to make decisions not in keeping with the full counsel of Jesus Christ, perpetuating the situation. What can a church do about that? Start taking qualifications seriously; appoint mature Christians to positions regardless of their worldly qualifications; don’t be afraid of potential backlash because we are “serving God, not men.” You’d be amazed how quick this can be fixed!

 

Part 3: A Servant Tested (Acts 6:8-10)

Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some from what is called the Freedmen’s Synagogue, composed of both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, came forward and disputed with Stephen. But they were unable to stand up against his wisdom and the Spirit by whom he was speaking.

Stephen is going to dominate the next section of Acts. Clearly, he was a kind of folk hero (being the first martyr) and the sort of man we all could aspire to be. Luke also uses him as a literary device to transition into the next major section of Acts, the persecution and spread of the church. Essentially, the “plot” works like this in Acts: the church faced opposition, the church made wise decisions that brought great solutions, the church grew in strength and numbers, the church faced even bigger opposition (rinse and repeat). The Seven are the result of one of those wise decisions. Because of their selfless and faithful devotion to their task, the Apostles could focus on prayer and preaching, and the entire church flourished. One of the Seven (Stephen) was so called-by-God that it was like having another Apostle, which stirred up even more opposition than usual. We’re going to skip Stephen’s arrest, trial, and execution and skip straight to Philip and the Ethiopian next Sunday (because Lifeway is trying to get through all of Acts in 6 months). I would say “if you have time . . .” but I have no idea how you will have time to go into any detail about what happens to Stephen.

Closing Thoughts: A Quick Summary of Stephen

Your leader guide tells you everything we know about the Freedmen’s Synagogue, and it rightly tells you to emphasize that Stephen (who was “just” a church member) did not let opposition stop him. We can be like Stephen because we have the same Spirit given to us. Now, we may not want to be exactly like Stephen, who

  • Acts 6:11-14, faced false charges (no one wants to go through that)

  • Acts 6:15-7:53, gave one of the most amazing sermons recorded in all the Bible, recounting for the Sanhedrin that Jews (remember that Stephen was saying all this as an outsider!) had rebelled against God and killed His prophets throughout their entire existence

  • Acts 7:54-8:3, was stoned to death in complete violation of Jewish law code, launching the first major persecution of the Christian church (and in this passage we are also introduced to Saul, who would become Paul)

But if you think about it, the whole purpose of this lesson is to show us that we want to be like Stephen. He was a regular church member, but he was so regarded in his Christian character that the church came together to ask him to . . . wait for it . . . help out widows. And he of course said yes because he truly cared about what was best for the church. He just wanted to follow Jesus. And he wasn’t afraid of what might come his way (he certainly didn’t know that his confrontation with those foreign Jews would get him killed!). That can and should be true of all of us! We so desire to follow Jesus and be like Jesus that our church think of us when it comes to an important task, and we be available to say yes, and we do our task so well that the world takes notice. Come on, we can do that! Challenge your class: “How are you serving? How are you doing in your service? How committed to the well-being of God’s church are you? Can you prove it?”

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