In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews[a] among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 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. 3 Brothers and sisters, 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 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”It's providential that Steve over at Triablogue discussed this passage of scripture recently. I'd been planning for weeks to blog about this topic as it was the text for a sermon I heard last year that's stuck with me. Acts 6 is often presented as a narrative in which we get the first deacons. Maybe, but we're not told that in such explicit terms as to make that beyond all doubt. What we can observe is that the situation was a case of systemic neglect that was brought to the attention of the twelve. What did Peter and the Twelve do? They summoned everyone and said that it wouldn't be right that they give up preaching to serve tables. BUT at no point did they deny there was a problem, and a very serious problem.
5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
What was the problem? The neglect of Hellenist widows in the food distribution. To more fully appreciate the significance of neglecting widows as a sign of a failure in Christian practice go look at 1 Timothy 5. There Paul wrote that if a man would not care for and provide for his own family that he had denied the faith and become worse than an unbeliever. This was not about your wife and kids at all, dear reader, it was about a widowed mother. If a man felt no obligation to care for his widowed mother then he was in fact worse than the pagans, pretty much all of whom would agree that your momma kept you from starving to death so you ought to do right by her in her old age. So let's just run with the idea that the neglect of widows was a given as a substantial economic and social problem that gets discussed at various points in the OT and NT.
Let's notice that this neglect of the Hellenistic widows happened in the apostolic church no less. For those who may have had a church background in which the NT church was the great example back toward which we hoped revival might bring us (any Pentecostals, for instance, heard that one?) this story is a sobering reminder that there was never a golden age. Neglect of a people group that didn't fit the common language happened even in the midst of the explosive growth of the early Church.
The neglect was likely not intentional but that did not make it less unjust or less dangerous for the long-term health of the early Christian community. Partiality whether by active bias or unobserved neglect would harm everyone eventually.
So the Twelve are presented with the fact that there was a complaint, that the Hellenistic widows were neglected. What was their response? It's true they said that it was not good that they should wait until tables when they could preach the word. But notice what they didn't say, "This isn't really a problem." The Twelve did not deny that a significant injustice was happening. How do we know? They advised that seven men be appointed to deal with the problem. Seven men who the church was to appoint who were of good repute. This might come across like a case in which Peter, the first pope, was part of a committee that came up with a surprisingly Baptist solution to a systemic injustice in the apostolic church. The congregation should appoint a committee and those guys should tackle the problem.
Now some scholars have proposed that Luke's account of the early Church is idealized, particularly where Paul's relationship to other apostles was concerned, and so "if" we go there on that matter then Luke's observation that a systemic injustice was happening months or years after Pentecost becomes even more significant. Even if we assumed the Lukan account of the early Church in Acts was whitewashed or idealized in some way this problem still shows up. What can we make of that?
Well, the simplest point would be to observe that no matter how amazing you think your church is there will come a day when there is an injustice in it. That's the simplest observation. It won't matter if it's a big old institutional church or maybe an informal gathering of guys around a fire. Maybe an injustice would be a termination. Maybe an injustice would be a guy leveraging the term "Christian" as a way to drum up business when his work on its own might not merit recommendation. Whatever it may be at some point your church is going to fail in the justice department and that failure may be unintentional or intentional. As a certain guy might put it, if the church runs into trouble even when it was being directly supervised by guys who wrote books of the Bible .... you can't expect your church to be less susceptible to developing a culture in which injustice and inequality incubates. Not that we know for sure that that guy would ever concede to that point for his church, mind you, but if he were talking about some other church he might make that point. ;)
Neglect of the widows gives us some insight into how to understand what an injustice would be. For instance, an injustice would be a minority being sidelined by another group. Widows might not have been a majority in themselves and could have been a minority but within that minority there were subsets and one of these subsets was being overlooked in the distribution.
Let's diverge for a moment into the topic of music, a topic near and dear to the heart of Wenatchee the Hatchet. Let's suppose that there was a church somewhere with a popular church musician, well-liked and long-standing in a given role in the congregation. Everyone who'd been around any length of time knew the songs and knew the material. All was well, right? Well ... maybe not altogether well. What if new people came, people who had never heard this type of music before. In a church with some liturgical elements the old school would easily follow everything but newcomers might be lost. What about people with disabilities? If a newcomer had a disability of some kind and showed up late what if there were no worship notes? That person would be stuck spending pretty much the entire service not being able to really participate in what the congregation was doing, which would be of no significance to all the old-school folks who knew all the material backwards and forwards. Music in the church is a small thing in many ways compared to the neglect of widows, obviously, but by analogy ...
Suppose leaders decided the musical style had to change because it became apparent it was not helping everyone actually participate in congregational worship? that might go over badly for all the people loyal to the popular church musician and such a decision would hurt. But, on the other hand, the musician was popular enough to eventually get session work and the change facilitated some additional congregational activity. Any church musician who's been a professional will realize that your job is to serve the congregation first and if that happens to let you strut your sutff then okay. But you can't forget that your first aim is to help the congregation worship God. There have been, can be, and will be times when the inertia of a popular musical idiom can trump congregational activity. Does anyone remember the bit where Protestants began to work toward vernacular worship in contrast to Latin?
Well, changing things would help newcomers and folks with disabilities ... but the change might prove very unpopular with folks who thought things were just fine the way they were. The change would be seen as a terrible injustice to people who might not for a second imagine that they are actually the ones in a place of privilege and convenience with respect to a church tradition and that if they were in the position of the newcomer, the outsider, or the disabled person that their own comfort and luxury would be what made the other person unable to participate in the congregation during a chuch service.
Now as the deployment of terms like social justice go in congregationial activity who would a church have a greater vested interest or obligation to help more fully and directly participate in the life and work of the church together? The comfortable insider or the awkward newcomer, maybe the one unable to follow? The answer is, I admit, a bit rhetorical. People translate sermons into sign language for the deaf, for instance. People invest in audio systems to help teaching and participation become more easily heard across a room. Music often gets calibrated down to the lowest common denominator not to be insulting to musicians or musical taste but because if you're really good you can be humble enough to enjoy doing the simple that helps everyone and not just the difficult that impresses everyone (or almost everyone, there might be some musicians in the crowd who could have different ideas ... but you know how that goes).
Now music is hardly what we'd normally have in mind if we were talking about the church addressing an inequality but there was a time when the language of worship was actually a very big deal in the life of local and regional churches. If you don't know Greek you might want to skip the Greek Orthodox church and go for a Russian Orthodox church if you're inclined to be Eastern Orthodox. The Antiochian might be the best option if you want vernacular liturgy. Yet notice that even within the Orthodox tradition you're not tethered down to having the liturgy and service in just one language. Now we could try to get all Spock about this and say the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few and there'd be weight to that but as Hellenistic widows among the widows go the needs of the few have to be considered as part of the needs of the many. Their neglect signifies an injustice of omission in a church that is no less serious in the long run than outright oppression.
Well, back to injustice of the neglecting widows sort. The Twelve did continue to preach and teach but they entrusted to the people the appointment of qualified men for the task of making sure the Hellenist widows were not neglected in the daily distribution. That meant there was something around already for the daily distribution but that what was in place had a neglect built into it. In other words the injustice within the the early Church came about because of a flaw in the very thing that had been set up to deal with a problem, the care of widows in the community. It was once this daily distribution had been set up to solve a general problem that a specific injustice took shape.
The injustice that happens in your church or my church may paradoxically come about precisely because of how someone goes about solving what they consider to be a problem.
So if the Twelve hear that there is a complaint that the Hellenist widows were getting neglected in the daily distribution, if they were hearing complaints of an injustice within the church, what would the Twelve sya or do if they thought and behaved as we do? Is it possible that in some fashion you or I might be someone who thinks all is well because the widows are being provided for? I mean if just a few Hellenist widows have been neglected, well, that's stuff that's not even on purpose, was it? It's not like someone did something wrong or just lied to make it seem like things were okay when they weren't, was it? I'm comfortable, I've got things the way I like them so ... why would anything need to change?
Yet dealing with the widows was precisely where the neglect came because one group was favored and another overlooked. The paradox is that it was ameliorating a need that brought about an injustice. It was trying to solve problem A that led to the injustice of B. It's a detail that's easilly overlooked when considering this text which so very often has been presented as an explanation for why churches have deacons. It may have been the beginning of that, true, but it was the beginning of that because the early Church and its leaders could admit to a systemic injustice happening in their midst and that it came about through the paradoxical fact that there was a daily distribution from which Hellenistic widows were excluded.
Something to think about for a while if you feel like it.