Race Counseling in the Early Church

Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. Acts 6:1

It seems that the church in Jerusalem was comprised primarily of two ethnic groups: Hellenistic Jews and Hebraic Jews. Hellenic Jews were descendants of Jacob who had spread throughout the Roman Empire over the previous centuries to procure commerce and establish religious outposts in the greater Mediterranean region. Although still devout to keep traffic with the Jewish religion centering upon Jerusalem these Hellenic Jews had adopted the language and many of the customs of the Greek culture which dominated Asia Minor, Egypt, and the Greek Peninsula.

The Hebraics on the other hand were those who had remained in Palestine through their generations. They had largely refused to adopt the common Greek language and customs and still maintained a more distinctively Hebrew way of life. The result of these centuries of living apart was two peoples that were of one racial stock but entirely different language and daily practice (ethnicity).

Successful evangelical work on the part of the Church in and around Jerusalem had brought members from these two diverse groups of distant brothers back into closer proximity than they had dwelt for centuriesand problems were bound to arise. By the time of Acts chapter six, dissension had arisen between the Hellenists and the Hebraics. The accusation was favoritism.

In a world of limitations man must recognize the ethical obligations which he owes towards all other men. But God, in His wisdom, has organized human relations so as to afford man a natural hierarchy of priorities which shield him from the crushing weight of universal commitments.

It would seem that in the distribution of the goods and services the Hebrew deacons attended first to the needs of those closest to them and then administered to the Greek speaking Christians with what remained. To employ the vocabulary of the modernists, the early church had here a classic case of xenophobia and privilege.

Obviously what these zealous Hebrew deacons needed was a good dose of racial sensitivity training. Churches in Jerusalem needed to be more pointed in their efforts to have a Greek speaking woman and a Hebrew man smiling and laughing together on the front page of their bulletins. Perhaps their mission statements on all the hip church websites should add a paragraph or two about fighting bigotry and being “less Hebraic?” Clearly the Hebrews were in the wrong and needed to change. Right?

Scripture provides a surprising answer. Ensuring that the Hellenics were cared for was of great concern to the Apostles. They wasted no time devising a solution.

However it is the solution which they provide that is quite telling. In answer to the complaints of the Greek community about the care of their needy there is no race counseling offered by the leaders of the church. No awkward and pushy slogan campaigns encouraging the deacons to be “less Hebraic.” No diversity training.

Instead, the action taken by the Apostles was to enlarge the deacon body with Greek Christians!  What a novel idea this is!

In verse 5 we read the list of men who were selected to fill the expanded posts in the deacon body. Highly significant are their names: Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas,and Nicolas. All Greek names. Not one of the new deacons chosen to fill the needs of the Greek community was of Hebrew origin.

Regarding the decision of the Apostles surrounding the expansion of the diaconate, Scottish theologian John MacPherson in his book, Presbyterianism, on pages 91 and following, says this:

We have in Acts 6 an account of the election of seven men to supply a want that had been made subject of complaint…. A complaint had been made to the Apostles by that portion of the membership of the church at Jerusalem which was not purely Hebrew — the Greek or Hellenist section — that the poor and widows and orphans belonging to the purely Hebrew membership, were being attended to better and were being more liberally aided than the similar classes among themselves.

The Apostles listened to their complaint, found apparently that there was some ground for it, and suggested means for remedying the evil….  “The members of the church, therefore, were called upon to elect of their own number seven men who would have the confidence of all for their uprightness and true Christian principle….

The names of all the seven are given, and it is certainly striking to observe that all their names are Greek. When we put side by side these two facts, the complaint coming from the Greeks and the appointment of men all bearing Greek names as Office-bearers to endeavor to remove that which occasioned the complaint — the conviction becomes very strong that these men for the most part at least not only bore Greek names, but belonged to the Greek section of the church at Jerusalem.

This being so, it may further be concluded with good probability that the seven became members of a Board, as specially representing that portion of the church out of which they themselves sprang, and that their presence on the Board secured for it the confidence of the Greeks.

MacPherson’s comments are very perceptive of the reality of the situation and very revealing of the common sense wisdom of the Apostles. No rebuke is anywhere offered to the Hebrew deacons for their work up to this point. The assumption is plainly that there is too much work to go around and that in the real world of limited time and resources it is only natural for the Hebrew deacons to care first for the Hebrew community. Scorning or shaming the Hebrew diaconate was not the answer. Instead a corresponding Greek diaconate was installedthat would work with the existing body of Hebrew deacons to ensure that both communities were cared for and that the Greeks felt confident their own interests were being represented.

There is great moment in this decision for the modern church to take note of. The Apostles assume a world of limited time and limited resources (both tangible and emotional.) It was simply outside the bounds of reality to assume that the Hebrew deacons would pass over widows who were their own mothers or sisters or orphans who were their own nephews and grandchildren to care for people who spoke a different language, had different customs, and lived in different communities. That tangible resources are limited (money only goes so far), that emotional resources are quite exhaustible (thoughts and prayers aside, compassion fatigue is a reality), are inescapable facts which can be blamed upon no man. The Hebrew deacons were not guilty of any animus or ill will towards the Greek communities; they simply had exhausted the resources at their disposal in caring first for their own households (a Scriptural command in 1 Timothy 5).

It was simply outside the bounds of reality to assume that the Hebrew deacons would pass over widows who were their own mothers or sisters or orphans who were their own nephews and grandchildren to care for people who spoke a different language, had different customs, and lived in different communities.

Such limitations of time, money, or compassion are the limitations of being human. These limitations would have existed even if man had remained in a state of innocence.

Sinlessness does not equal unlimited resources and universal commitments and the work of Christ in removing the effects of sin does not change the fact that the subject of grace is still a human being and liable to the limitations which all humans labor under. This is only hard news for utopians, socialists, and modernist Christians who all unite in attempting to overthrow the natural hierarchy of priorities which God has establish in order to protect man from universal demands upon his limited time and resources.

In a world of limitations man must recognize the ethical obligations which he owes towards all other men. But God, in His wisdom, has organized human relations so as to afford man a natural hierarchy of priorities which shield him from the crushing weight of universal commitments. In other words, there is a large difference between bearing malice towards a man and simply not having the time or resources to positively assist him.

The Apostles understood that the affections of the Hebrew deacons towards their own households was in accordance with nature. Later on Paul would condemn those who don’t care first for their own household as being worse than infidels. That their numbers were few and the demands many was not the fault of the existing Hebrew deacons. It was a fact which no amount of social justice oriented guilt tripping could override. By contrast, the Apostles plotted a course that was respectful of the natural affections which place priorities upon man’s limited resources: they established a Greek body to care for their own communities with equal piety and zeal as that of their Hebrew cousins.

Applications of this lesson are directly relevant for today. Instead of falling prey to the constant trend towards universal responsibility Christians must realize that nature structures our commitments in such a way as to require prioritizing our limited time and resources. Natural principles such as geographic locale, linguistic affinity, and common family background give our lives context wherein labor and love can be exerted to maximum effect.

Living a life that is respectful to what is true is a far cry from being xenophobic, racist, or “privileged.” It is rather a manifestation of a piety which rootless and brutish men cannot fathom. Berating people for observing the natural limitations of priorities established for the distribution of their emotional and physical resources is utopian and wicked. If the modern church needs more race counseling then it certainly needs more of  that which we find administered in Acts 6.

Robert Hoyle

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Robert Hoyle is a Southern Presbyterian who resides on the family farm in Dinwiddie Virginia. He and his wife Rachel currently have four sons and a daughter.

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