Unlike Matthew 25:31-46, Acts 6:1-6 is not at the tip of anyone’s tongue when discussing charity, although it may be a story of early church food ministry at its best—and of course at it’s worst. In the midst of adding more and more followers, a group of widows have been neglected perhaps in the rotation to serve, perhaps in receiving charitable handouts. The whole church is gathered around this challenge. New leadership is recognized and in the verse after this pericope, the church continues to grow.
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4 while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” 5 What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:1-6 NRSV).
More recent scholarship on this text falls into three broad categories. Feminists engage the widows themselves, and wonders if widow necessarily means poor. Post-colonial scholarship identifies this as a story about the interaction of two cultures. Reta Halteman Finger and Andrew McGowan focus on the way this text contributes to our understanding of shared meals in the early church. First I’ll provide some of the traditional critical background to Acts and to this story. Most critique suggests this is a transition story intended only to introduce Stephen and other new leaders in the church.
According to Robert Wall in the commentary “The Acts of the Apostles” in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Acts was written by the same anonymous author Luke, and addressed to a new or immature believer, Theophilus (Wall 5), to consolidate the diverse membership of the church, to be a Christian apologetic (Wall 8) and to deepen the faith of new believers (Wall 9). It is likely that the writer (who scholars call Luke) was not present for the stories found in Luke and Acts and thus is dependent on stories that were handed down (Wall 13). Of the many theological purposes of Acts, most relevant to this project is to help believer’s to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to join this community that shares everything in common (Wall 23).
Acts 6 continues the image of sharing material belongings from Acts 2:42-44 (Wall 71) but addresses conflict arising out of the sharing: the widows have been neglected (Wall 112). While Wall identifies that diakonia is translated “distribution” when referring to widows, and “ministry” when referring to the apostles (Wall note 244 p111) he still accepts the traditional reading that the widows have been overlooked in the distribution of charitable handout (Wall 111). While the story is about a break-down in the equal sharing of goods he finds good news in the decision to show solidarity with a full community meeting (Wall 114). Wall defends the apostles by noting that the existing leaders cannot “preach and do bookkeeping at the same time” (Wall 115), although it is hard to see how the criteria in Acts 6:3 (“men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom”) could point to bookkeeping. Wall’s argument is that here, and in the pastoral letters, the requirements point to the Greek ideal of choosing leaders based on character rather than skills (Wall 115). It still seems to me that these requirements imply leadership more than simply keeping the books, and at least some of the seven do go on to be church leaders, more than managers of a meals program.
Bruce Malina and John Pilch in Social Science Commentary on the Book of Acts suggest that the purpose of Acts 6:1-6 is to introduce these new leaders, especially Stephen (Malina and Pilch 55). They note that each narrative in Acts begins with everything fine in the community, introduces a disturbance, and then neatly resolves the disturbance to ends with the restoration of “equilibrium of life, their collectivistic life story” (Malina and Pilch 10). The disturbance is created in part by the cultural differences between the civilized Hellenists and the barbarian Hebrews (Malina and Pilch 29), the Hebrews are insiders and focused on Judean customs, while the Hellenists, returned from the Jewish Diaspora, would have adopted Greek customs and language (Malina and Pilch 56). The seven appointed new leaders are Hellenistic based on their names, starting with Stephen, who is critical to the next story in Acts; the last is Nicolaus, a foreigner (Malina and Pilch 56). Thus the story of the widows exists mostly to introduce leaders, to carry the story forward, and to show the growth of this new Christian community.
Acts 6:1-6 is about widows
Gail R. O’Day in The Women’s Bible Commentary focuses on the failure of the community to name women to solve the widow’s neglect. She notes that Hellenistic women are likely to have high standing since we know that the women Paul meets in Greece are identified as leading women of their communities (O’Day 396). O’Day accepts that the story is about almsgiving (O’Day 397) but notes that Luke is reinforcing the concept that table ministry, assigned to seven men, is identified as less important than the preaching ministry of the twelve (O’Day 397). The value of the widows is further downplayed when we see that the widow Tabitha is identified as doing good works (not ministry) later in Acts, while the work of the men assisting widows in this text is identified as ministry (O’Day 399).
Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, on the other hand, is certain that this is an argument over the Eucharist. In Memory of Her explores the biblical language around service and finds that “serving at table”, found also in Acts 16:34, Luke 10:40, 12:37 and 17:8 is not giving away money but is table service at a meal, “most likely the Eucharistic ministry” and includes all the prep, serving during the meal, and clean up, which we know from Acts 2:46 was happening every day (Schussler Fiorenza 165). Schussler Fiorenza argues that to be overlooked the widows could “were not assigned their turn in table service or they were not properly served” (Schussler Fiorenza 166). She notes that it is likely that Hellenistic women would have expected to be included ‘breaking of bread’ while the Hebrews may not have allowed it (Schussler Fiorenza 166). The solution of assigning the twelve to do the diakonia of the word, and the seven to do the diakonia of the table (Schussler Fiorenza 162) adds to Luke’s earlier Martha/Mary story which also makes clear that diakonia of the table is the lesser ministry (Schussler Fiorenza 165).
Once the conflict is about serving rather than eating, it becomes clear that the widows who feel neglected may not be poor. Schussler Fiorenza notes that the text does not say either way (Schussler Fiorenza 165). Certainly women involved in this new church movement were not all poor, for example Mary, mother of John Mark, who was cousin to Barnabas (Col 4:10) is likely in charge of a Hellenistic house church in Jerusalem (Schussler Fiorenza 166). Her argument is that Mary would not be named if John Mark’s leadership that was most important, and Schussler Fiorenza wonders if Mary is not one of the dissatisfied widows in the story (Schussler Fiorenza 166). Thus this is a story about identifying the importance of table service, not about charitable giving, and the widows complaint is about not getting a chance to serve, rather than about whether they are given charitable resources.
Scott F. Spencer in “Neglected Widows” notes that it seems to be hard for scholars to stay focused on the widows themselves (Spencer 718). As we have seen in our study of food ministries, it seems to be hard to stay focused on the people in need. Spencer traces the widows throughout Luke-Acts, starting with Anna in the birth narrative (Luke 2:36-38), the widows at Nain and of Zarephath (Luke 7:11-17 and 4:25-25), the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8), the poor widow (Luke 21:1-4, 20:27-40, 45-47), the neglected Hellenistic widows (Acts 6:1-7), and ending with Acts 9:36-43 and the supported widows at Joppa (Spencer 718). “These scenes featuring four individual widows accumulate over the course of the gospel to constitute a group of Lucan widows in the reader’s mind” (Spencer 719 italics original). He notes that while widows certainly are women whose husbands have died, biblical studies generally assume they are all also destitute and unappreciated, which fails to recognize the biblical widows who are not (Spencer 720). Still Spencer notes that Hellenistic widows, by virtue of being far from home, are cut off from family support (Spencer 728). He disagrees with Malina and Pilch that this story is neatly resolved, instead he notes that the apostles are more concerned about being distracted from preaching than about members going hungry, and they refuse to be part of the solution (Spencer 729). Spencer argues the apostles fail at the test to act as Jesus would act (Spencer 730). For Spencer this is a story of a community failing to make caring for one another a top priority. They have failed to provide food for the hungry, and then failed to let needs of people who are hungry trump the authority of the leaders.
O’Day, Gail R., “Acts” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, ed C.A. Newsom and S. H. Ringe; London SPCK; Louisville Westminster John Knox 1992 check all this 305-12.
Malina, Bruce J. and John J. Pilch, Social Science Commentary on the Book of Acts. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.
Schussler Fiorenza, Elisabeth, In Memory of Her A Feminist Theological Reconstructions of Christian Origins, Tenth Anniversary Edition, New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1994.
Spencer, F. Scott, “Neglected Widows in Acts 6:1-7” in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 56, no 4 Oct 1994, 715-733.
Wall, Robert W. “The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol X, Leander Keck et al, ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002.
 I have not included the related arguments made by some scholars that this story must not be about widows but about an underlying dispute between the Hellenists and Hebrews. Recent Scholars, including Wall and Finger, show those arguments are unsupported, but they do not add to or take from my arguments about food ministries.