(5) The Apostles chose Deacons over small groups. This is a historical retelling of the fact that the Apostles weren’t able to do everything and maybe responsibility had to be delegated (Acts 6:1-7) but under examination some things wind up being not as simplistic as all that.
- The number of disciples is very large and growing (Acts 2:41; 5:14; 6:1).
- Many were already approaching things as a unified community (Acts 2:42-47;4:32-37)
- The issue was between two groups of (most likely) Jews: the Hellenists and the Hebrew nationals (Acts 6:1)
- The issue was that the widows of the Hellenists were being neglected. It wasn’t that the group was lacking in fellowship. It seems to be that we have here the early seeds of problems that would occur as the Gospel expands outward to the Gentiles.
- The Twelve then demand that the Christians function as a whole group to deal with the issue (Acts 6:3) and it was commonly acknowledged that this was a good idea (Acts 6:5).
- The work was probably not serving food but rather dealing explicitly with finances for the widows (Acts 6:2).
If the Twelve had decided things for the group, we would have had the immediate problem of the Hellenists feeling underrepresented. By the community of both Hellenists and Nationals judging on the issue, they get to pick the people that fit the Apostolic mandate while simultaneously addressing the needs of the people. So it’s not surprising that the text goes out of the way to mention Nicolas a proselyte from Antioch Acts 6:5).4
Is this an argument for small groups? Well, not according to the text. It seems to be rather a retelling of a historical situation that may have been unique to the admixture of Jews going on in this community.
I guess someone might be able to draw something else from the passage. Perhaps that: leaders should deal wisely in situations where division might be further emphasized by their mere weighing in on a matter. Or maybe: sometimes you have to let the entire congregation wrestle with an issue (baptized with prayer, of course) for the sake of unity. Maybe you can even draw out that: some responsibilities can be handled by other people beside the core leadership but here I should raise a point.
Some have incorrectly adduced from this passage that this is the Biblical pattern for the selection of Deacons (even highlighting the term in the text) because there is absolutely no text in Scripture that dictates how Deacons were selected or appointed. Sure there’s plenty about elders being appointed, but never about deacons and here, in Acts 6, some have made this the model for the choosing of the office—but there’s no warrant for that in the text.
After all, there’s other non-technical uses of deacon in the Bible (Matt 20:26; 22:13; John 2:5; Rom 13:4; 2 Cor 3:6; Eph 3:7; Col 1:25) and there were plenty of other churches that didn’t have Deacons while the Elders were the ones doing Deacon-work (Acts 14:23; 1 Thes 5:12; Titus 1:5. Of course, in these texts it might be that the churches don’t yet need Deacons because the Elders are able to teach, pray and work; or maybe the assembly is still young; or maybe the work still isn’t large enough to mandate it—the point should be clear: these addresses to these churches doesn’t mention deacons). The text isn’t demanding that This Is How It Must Be Done but rather telling us about a situation where certain individuals wound up getting picked to serve a specific need.