Acts 6: Seven Chosen to Serve, Stephen is Seized
There are two (related) passages here, where the first one outlines a problem they were having in the nascent Church: as the number of disciples is growing, the Hellenists complain that the Hebrews are neglecting their widows in “the daily distribution,” which, I assume, was food handed out to those who were in need.
- Hellenists were Greek-speaking Jews, who came from outside of Palestine, and
- Hebrews were the local, Hebrew-speaking Jews
So the Apostles come up with a solution:
And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (verses 2–4)
Everyone likes this idea, so they pick seven men:
And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. (verse 5)
It seems to be particularly calling out this man named Stephen. I wonder if we’ll be hearing more about him…
They bring these men before the Apostles, who pray and lay their hands on them.
Almost as an aside, verse 7 tells us that the number of disciples is continuing to grow, including a great number of the Jewish priests.
But then Stephen starts debating with some Greek-speaking Jews who don’t accept his message:
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. (verses 8–9)
As I so often do, I’ll rely on the ESV Study Bible notes on “the synagogue of the Freedmen”:
Acts 6:9 Those to whom Stephen preached were Diaspora Jews … and Greek-speakers like himself. There may have been only the one synagogue of the Freedmen, with the various names designating its constituency, or those names may represent individual synagogues. “Freedmen” would refer to Jews who had been enslaved and then granted freedom. The place names all point to the Diaspora: Cyrenians and Alexandrians represent North Africa, while those in Cilicia and Asia represent the area covered by modern Turkey, also a part of the Diaspora.
Regardless, they’re debating him but are not able to “withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (verse 10). So they fall back on a pattern that was used against Jesus Himself: they secretly find some men who will stand up and claim that Stephen has been blaspheming. And it ends up with a similar result: Stephen is put on trial.
And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” verses 12–14
But then we’re given an interesting footnote, at the very end of the chapter:
And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (verse 15)
The first half of this chapter is a pretty well known passage to anyone who has considered—or been considered for—a leadership role in their local church1, because it’s widely considered2 to be the beginning of the separation of Deacons and Elders, where:
- Elders are responsible for teaching/preaching the Word and prayer, and
- Deacons are responsible for day-to-day operation of the local church
Then, after that, we get to the arrest of Stephen, one of the very first Deacons (or Deacon-like roles in the Church).
Deacons and Elders
This passage gives feeding the poor as a perfect example of the duties of a Deacon; in many local churches Deacons are also responsible for handing out the bread and wine for the Lord’s Table. At my particular church, we have another role we call Trustee, responsible for things like building maintenance, but we consider Trustees to be specialized forms of Deacons.
When it comes to Elders, many churches—mine included—have separate roles for Pastors and for Elders. Just like Trustees and Deacons, the role of Pastor is considered a specialized form of being an Elder, but obviously there are very specific duties a Pastor would have that other Elders wouldn’t.
Is this a firm separation of concerns between the roles of Deacon and Elder? Definitely not! For example, visiting the sick or people who can’t leave their homes could, in my mind, fall to either role, though most churches I know of have Pastors/Elders doing it, even if Deacons are also doing it. (Perhaps because preaching the Word is so often a part of these visits?) And our local church often does baskets of food at Christmas time, for those who don’t have enough, clearly a task that would fall to Deacons, but I’ve never been part of such an activity and not found Pastors/Elders neck-deep in the process too!
However, that does explain what might, at first glance, seem like a pretty cold response from the Apostles about the Greek widows being neglected. Without context, this could be read as, “it’s not our job, we’ve got better things to do, you take care of it!” But that’s not what they’re saying—or at least, not with that negative tone. (It might sound more harsh to North Americans than to other Christians because for some reason we view “waiting tables” as a demeaning job, so when the Apostles say “we shouldn’t be neglecting the Word to wait tables” it sounds like a slam to our ears.) In fact, we know that the Apostles weren’t being cold or uncaring, because verse 5 says that, “what they said pleased the whole gathering.”
What they are saying is that preaching the Word of God and taking care of the needy are both important roles, and if everyone is trying to do everything nothing is going to get done properly. So having the Apostles—the original Elders—focus on the Word, and the Deacons focus on the day-to-day needs of members of the Church, means that both will get proper focus, attention, and care.
To that point, in my opinion churches that have both of these roles—Deacons and Elders—shouldn’t view one as a promotion over the other (where you become a Deacon, and then, if you do a good job, you get promoted to Elder), they should view them as completely separate things. People who have the skills and disposition for one won’t necessarily have the skills or disposition for the other. I think my local church does a good job of this, and actually, it works out well for a lot of men in particular: there are men in the Church who would like to get involved but wouldn’t be caught dead singing in the morning service or leading a Bible Study or anything like that, but becoming a Trustee and helping to fix problems with the church building are perfect for them! (On the flip side, there are Pastors who should never be put in charge of repairs around the church building…)
Does that mean Deacons shouldn’t ever preach? In a word, no. In this very chapter, and especially in the next chapter (spoiler alert), we see Stephen preaching up a storm3! So it’s more a matter of focus and devotion than a strict separation of concerns; if Stephen’s preaching was causing him to neglect feeding the widows, or his other Deaconal duties, it would be cause for concern, but there’s no indication in Acts that that’s the case.
In a sense, Stephen’s arrest, while unjust, is unsurprising. He is following exactly in Jesus’ footsteps, just as Jesus predicted would happen to His followers: when we follow Jesus faithfully, the world will hate what we’re saying and doing. We don’t always suffer the same consequences as Stephen does in the next chapter (spoiler alert), but there’s a sense in which we should be worried if we’re not suffering for His sake; it might mean we’re not sharing His message correctly, if the world isn’t reacting negatively!
That being said, we should be very clear what Jesus meant by suffering for His sake, and we should be very clear why Stephen suffered: the world shouldn’t hate us, it will only hate the message we’re sharing. As a Christian, it’s my job to share the Word as accurately and as compassionately as I can, in a way that people can understand, but I’m also aware that the world’s natural reaction to that message is one of revulsion. (I should know, it was my reaction, too, before the Holy Spirit worked in me. Anyone who reads this would likely be able to say the same thing.) If I do that correctly, some will believe and some will hate the message. They might think they’re hating me, but really it should be the message they’re hating, even if they mix the two up.
Stephen was arrested for doing all the right things: preaching the Word in wisdom, performing miracles, and—based on the fact that he was one of the seven men chosen to feed the needy—helping the poor. That last part is more important than we might recognize; it might seem commonplace in the 21st Century, but I’ve read a number of Christian commentators as well as historians pointing out that one of the things that really struck the Romans about Christians was how Christians took care of the poor. It was unheard of—to the point that it was a significant factor in Christianity spreading so quickly, because it was a genuinely new thing!
I feel that modern-day Christians—at least in North America—sometimes get this very twisted. We aren’t as loving and as charitable as we should be, we water down the Word too much when we preach it, and Christianity gets reduced to a set of obviously hypocritical slogans. (“What would Jesus do?”) Then we read passages where Jesus says the world will hate us (though, as I’m saying here, the world shouldn’t actually have anything against us, only against the genuinely good things we do, that stand as accusations against sinful hearts), and realize we’re not being hated. So then some Christians overreact: instead of doubling down (or getting started) with good works, love, charity, and faithfully spreading the Gospel, we make ourselves obnoxious to the world, trying to make them hate us. We try and act differently from the world, thinking we’re “setting ourselves apart,” when the Bible says that the way we’re supposed to be “set aside” is by being holy—by being God’s light in the world. By being like Him.
I’m hoping this is a wildly exaggerated caricature of the Church, though I fear there are aspects of it that are a little too true…
There are a number of times in this post where I’m talking about the “local church,” as opposed to the universal “Church,” because so much of the discussion around Deacons and Elders is a local matter. Different local churches handle these things differently, and that’s not a bad thing. (In my humble opinion.) ↩︎
Maybe “widely considered” is too strong; the ESV Study Bible notes point out that there isn’t full consensus that these men are Deacons: “Interpreters differ over whether these seven men should be considered the first ‘deacons’ in the church. On the one hand, the noun ‘deacon’ (Gk. diakonos) does not occur here. On the other hand, the corresponding verb (Gk. diakoneō, ‘to serve, help, render assistance’) is used in 6:2, and this same verb is used of those who serve as deacons in 1 Tim. 3:10, 13. However, this is a common verb for ‘service.’ It could well be these men were called to deal with this issue and any like it.” However, even if we quibble about what to call these seven men, the points still apply. ↩︎
“Preaching up a storm” is a figure of speech, but in this case a storm definitely descends on Stephen as a result of his preaching! ↩︎