By Rev. Assoc. Prof. Anthony Gooley
I have had the privilege of sometimes meeting with a small network of Catholics exploring ministry and the ministry of deacon in our Australian context. One of the suggestions from that network is that I might consider contributing a few short pieces to this blog to provide some food for thought about some of the things we have discussed. As a theologian with an interest in the topics the group is reflecting on, some thought I perhaps could offer an idea or two that may be of value. I will leave that for the reader to assess if they are of value or not.
We have been talking in the network about deacons and I wanted to look at Acts 6:1-7, which many claim as the foundation of the ministry of deacon. (You should read Acts 6:1-7 now to understand this article.) The reason they do so is not because the word deacon (diaconos) appears in the story, it does not, but because St Irenaeus in the second century called the seven men chosen deacons. Perhaps he knew of a tradition that called them deacons. The Bible never describes them as such.
The term deacon (diaconos) is found in the New Testament letters that are older than Acts. The term is used to describe an office or role in the early Church in the Letter of Timothy and Romans. Romans 16:1 is of particular interest because here a single individual, Phoebe, is named as bearing that title.
Perhaps a tradition of calling the seven chosen in Acts 6 ‘deacons’ stems from the fact that they are chosen for a diaconia or ministry. It is important to attend precisely to what is going on in Acts 6 1-7 and not to read into the text meanings that are not present. The first thing to note is what the Greeks in the story are complaining about. In what way are the Greek speaking widows neglected?
Look at the translation that you are reading. If you find that your translation mentions as the source of the complaint anything like ‘food’ or ‘funds’ or the ‘goods’ of the community, any material want or deprivation, you can pick up your pen and scrub those words out. Words like these are not found in any Greek manuscript of this text. Nor were they found in any translations into any language until after the 1940’s. Modern translators added these words into the text to make the text agree or align with the definitions of the diacon group of words then found in the major dictionaries of the New Testament. The definition no longer stands, but that is another story we will come to later.
What are we left with when we take out the recent additions to the text? The word that Acts uses for “Greeks” does not refer to those who are ethically Greek but to those whose language is Greek. Quite possibly these are Greek speaking Jews visiting Jerusalem for the Festival of Passover, when the action takes place. They complain to the Aramaic speaking Apostles that the Greek speaking widows among them are excluded from the daily diaconia. The solution proposed is that the Greek speakers choose from among themselves seven for this diaconia. The Apostles lay hands on them, a sign of passing on the mandate of their apostolic ministry. They commission them and send them to this task.
Notice the qualities the men require for the task. They are to be “men of faith and filled with the Holy Spirit”. If food or funds or anything like that might have been the issue one might expect qualities like good with numbers and logistics.
The Apostles do not wish to neglect their preaching in the Temple area, to minister (a diacon word) tables, as the Greek expresses it. To minister tables means to conduct ministry in the context of homes, not to wait on tables like a waiter in our modern sense. If you find the preposition ‘on’ before tables, you can scrub that out too.
Social convention required that widows unaccompanied could not go out of the house to listen to the preaching of the Gospel and even if they could it was in a language they did not understand. Perhaps if they had someone, of faith and filled with the Holy Spirit, who could minister the word of God to them, they would not be so neglected.
It is interesting to note how the story ends. No mention of widows being better fed or having more money. (Read Acts 5:1-11, it is hard to imagine a fair sharing of funds would be an issue after that story left its deep impression on them!) We should expect such a conclusion if food or funds was the source of the complaint. Instead, we learn that “the word of God continued to spread.” If we follow the careers of two of the seven, Stephen and Philip, in Acts 6-8 we find that they preach, baptise, and catechise, but never perform any charitable works. We don’t hear of them again except one reference to “Philip the evangelist, one of the seven” (Acts 21:8)
Throughout Acts, and elsewhere in the New Testament, diaconia is often accompanied by the words tou logou (the word) or ministry of the word. In Acts 6 it seems that we have a story about the early Church having to adapt its ministries so that the word of God could continue to spread. Recognising the lack of justice in depriving the Greek speaking widows of their right to hear the Gospel, the Apostles chose seven Greek speakers for this important ministry of evangelisation.
If Acts 6 is meant to function as a foundation story for deacons, and that is an if, then it has nothing to do with charity or justice or welfare in the material sense. Modern translators, any many theologians as well as others, try to make a story about charity and reinforce that by adding words to the text to make it agree with this theology. How it came to be considered a social welfare story and why those words were added, is an interesting story that we can explore next time. You can read more about this in my book Deacons Today: New Wine, New Wineskins. Coventry Press, 2019.
Thank you, Anthony! Join us and find out more about diaconal ministry in our Feast of St Phoebe webinar on Saturday the 3rd of September: