The selection of the seven in Acts 6 is often cited as support for congregational nomination or election of church officers, especially deacons. In churches with a congregational church polity, this passage is often produced as precedence for church governance, as it appears that the apostles themselves transferred electoral power to the hands of the entire congregation. I have occasionally heard defenders of a strongly congregational polity point to Acts 6 to support not only the congregation’s right to elect their own deacons, but also to select their elders, hire their pastors, and generally lead their churches by majority rule.
Others, who are more sensitive to the actual context of the passage, have suggested that the text at least provides the biblical basis for making the office of deacon a point of congregational power: that is, deacons should be selected from and by the congregation. If a particular church’s polity then consists only of deacons and a hired pastor, the deaconate functions in a way similar to leaders in a representative republic.
A Closer Look at Acts 6
Though sometimes exposited as the proof text for congregational autonomy in the selection of its deacons, a close examination of Acts 6, along with other New Testament texts, suggests that we should be very hesitant to treat this passage as a prescription for leadership selection, including deacons, elders, and pastors. Rather than providing a prescriptive method for congregational election of church leaders, the text provides an example of wise problem-solving in the early church that illustrates some general principles of leadership selection. Yet a careful consideration of this passage reveals facts regarding the selection of the deacons that are often conveniently overlooked by those who want this passage to bolster a strong congregational form of local church government.
So, must a congregation choose its own deacons independent of the leadership of the church? Consider the following eight observations.
Is This Descriptive of Prescriptive? We need to always be cautious about turning descriptive passages into prescriptive principles. In the narrative genre, the purpose of any particular account is not necessarily to prescribe how we are to do something in perpetuity. If that were the case, then why don’t we cast lots to select elders (Acts 1:26)? Unless there is something in the text that clearly says this is prescriptive, unless we see other texts in the New Testament that indicate the practice was universally instituted by the apostles and observed everywhere, then we must be very careful about using these to establish “biblical” mandates.
The Seven Are Not Identified as “Deacons.” Acts 6 does not explicitly identify the selected men as “deacons,” and nowhere else are they later identified as such. In fact, Philip, “one of the seven,” was identified later as an “evangelist” (Acts 21:8). Along with many commentators, including several early church fathers, it is my opinion that we see here the first historical instance of what becomes the task or office of deacon, but it is obviously not Luke’s purpose to clearly identify these men as the “first deacons” in order to establish precedence. If the passage were meant to be taken prescriptively, one
would expect some comment by Luke regarding its association with the office of “deacon.”
An Ad Hoc Task Force, not Standing Board of Leaders. In the setting of Acts 6, the need for the seven men was ad hoc, that is, they were selected to address a specific need that arose due to cultural conflict between two groups in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:1). This would set an example of appointing deacons on an “as needed” basis for particular functions in the church—either short or long term. It does not constitute a “board” or “body” of deacons for the sake of governance of a local church.
A Group of Representatives, not the Entire Congregation. The leaders of the church in Jerusalem (that is, the apostles, who were then functioning in a way similar to the “elders” of a local church), were the ones who called together what appear to be representatives from the disgruntled party of Hellenistic Jews. (Some may say this was only an apostolic prerogative, that is, since today’s elders are not apostles, then we cannot take this passage as indicating the relationship between elders, the congregation, and deacons. However, if this is maintained, then neither can a congregation today apply this verse as precedence for selecting their deacons, because we have no living apostles today to approve the selection.)
The Greek text does not clearly indicate that all the thousands of church members in Jerusalem were gathered for this meeting, but “the great number of the disciples,” could be a partitive genitive (the great number from among the disciples), or, more likely in this context, the specific category of “disciples” mentioned earlier in verse 1: the “Hellenistic Jews” who had protested the unfair treatment in verse 1. Note that the deacons selected all have Hellenistic names (Acts 6:5), as it was the Hellenistic widows who were being neglected. This indicates that the “great number of the disciples” was not a full “congregational meeting” with a general democratic process to select representative leaders for the whole church, but a representative ad hoc group assembled to select appropriate men for this particular task.
Then, when the text says this found approval with “the whole great number” (6:5), this is the same term for the same representative group, indicating the number of those who were summoned to help solve the problem, not the thousands of church members in Jerusalem. The Greek adjective pas (“whole”) is always governed by the context to determine what set (universal or particular) is intended. In short, this was not a congregational meeting to select church leaders, but an ad hoc assembly of the legitimately disgruntled Hellenistic Jews for the purpose of solving a particular problem.
Church Leadership Initiated and Confirmed the Selection of the Seven. It should be noted that when the problem of the neglected Hellenistic widows was brought to the attention of the apostles, the leaders themselves initiated the process by which the problem would be solved—the gathering of representatives of the Hellenistic Jews, the delegation of selecting the leaders from among that group, and then the approval of the selection indicated by bringing the seven before the leaders for approval. Please note that the group of Hellenistic Jews did not exercise any authority on their own, but only what was given to them by the leaders of the church. The apostles “summoned” the Hellenistic Jews (6:2), ordered them to select seven men (6:3), and gave the “job description” (6:3), but they reserved the authority to officially “appoint” them to the task (6:3). The reason this task was delegated was the Hellenistic Jews knew their group best (all of the apostles were Aramaic-speaking Jews!), and to select these men would have taken them away from the ministry of the Word (6:4).
The Hellenists Task Was Given by the Leaders. The congregational representatives of the Hellenists, hearing the decision of the church leaders, did not vote on the recommendation in some kind of democratic process. The decision of the apostles was final. Here we have the congregation submitting to the decision of the elders, not vice versa. They received the assignment to select leaders from among them, did so faithfully, and then reported back to the leaders when they had accomplished the task (6:5–6). The phrase “what they said pleased the whole gathering” does not indicate official approval, but simply their pleasure in the wise decision of the leaders (6:5).
Selection of Deacons Received Approval by the Leaders. As a final step in selecting the seven representatives of the Hellenistic Jews to see to the neglected widows, the chosen men were “set before the apostles” (6:6). This demonstrates that the apostles had the final say on who would serve in this capacity, as indicated in their instructions (“we will appoint to this duty,” 6:3). Thus, the apostles laid their hands on the seven and appointed them to serve officially. That this was an official appointment is indicated by the laying on of hands and the later reference to these men as “the seven.” They were not merely volunteers, but actual positions of service in the community, even if limited to a particular area of practical ministry among a particular group within the church (that is, seeing to the needs of the Hellenistic Jewish widows).
This May Apply to Deacons, not Elders. This text at least provides an early example of selecting deacon-like ministers in the first local church. However, it does not give any illustration for the selection of elders, who are the ranking leaders of the church. The examples we have for the selection of elders in the local church suggest that already-established leaders were responsible for the selection and appointment of elders. Thus, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church during their first missionary journey (Acts 14:23). Timothy himself was appointed by a “council of elders” (1 Tim. 4:14). Titus, who served in a similar pastoral role as Timothy, was instructed to “appoint elders” in every town (Titus 1:5). Although we have no clear pattern for the appointment of deacons, the pattern for the appointment of elders indicates that they were selected and approved by already-established leaders, not by congregational nomination or vote.
Positive Principles from Acts 6
Even though the selection of the seven in Acts 6 cannot be read as a prescription for congregational power to elect its own leaders, we can glean the following positive principles:
Ad Hoc Deacon Selection. The seven were chosen not to serve on a standing board or committee, but to address specific needs of the church as they arose. This would provide a biblical precedence for selecting ministry assistants on an “as needed” basis. We also know that members of the seven later went on to other things (e.g., Philip, who served as leader of the church in Caesarea). This indicates that the particular task of deacons may have a natural life cycle related to the task as well as to the ministry calling of the individual. Deacon service appears to have been “to the task” and “for the moment,” not as a permanent position or office. However, this does not rule out the possibility that a “standing committee” of rotating deacons might be the wise decision of the church leaders to attend to ongoing needs of the church.
Delegation of Authority. The apostles saw the wisdom in delegating the selection of the best men from that sub-group of Hellenistic Jews in the Jerusalem church. They called together the best people to make the best recommendations. This would provide a biblical precedence for choosing deacons that best fits the specific purpose of service. For example, if the need is somebody to minister among the elderly in the church, wise leaders might gather representatives of the older members of the church to make recommendations for leadership, under the oversight of the elders.
Dependence on Congregational Insight and Advice. The apostles clearly depended on the insights and counsel of members of the congregation who had a particular interest in the problem or challenge. They did not simply make arbitrary or heavy-handed decisions until investigating the matter, hearing from a large representative of those affected, and appointing the best people to deal with the matter—people who were well-respected and qualified according to the congregation itself. This is always a good precedence and reflects wise leadership. It is therefore a good idea for elders in a church to select deacons and other assistants based on broader congregational insight rather than simply arbitrarily appointing leaders to serve in various areas of ministry. A common practice today of electing deacons to a board and then assigning each deacon to oversee an area of ministry that he may not have functioned in prior to the appointment does not reflect this very well.
Conclusions from Acts 6
In sum, though Acts 6 does provide an illustration of how the leaders of the Jerusalem church wisely addressed a particular problem through the appointment of the seven, it does not provide a universally-binding prescription for how deacons (and especially elders) were to be selected. Nor is Acts 6 part of any discernible pattern in the New Testament that could contribute to our understanding of the prescribed method of selecting deacons. On the other hand, the selection of elders and other ministers in the New Testament (including missionaries and deacons) seems to have been entrusted to already-established leadership (apostles, other elders, not to the congregation).
Acts 6 does provide one illustration of how the apostles wisely addressed a particular problem, suggesting for us today that specific needs call for a delegation of authority with dependence on the congregation for insight. Any process for selecting deacons in a local church should take this illustration into consideration and strive for the same kind of wise decision-making, avoiding rash appointments.
Acts 6 does not in any way teach or support the idea of congregational church governance as it is commonly practiced today, in which final governing authority rests in the congregation of voting members. All authority in this text begins and ends with the established leadership of the apostles, who were at that time functioning as the elders of the local church in Jerusalem.