Serving the Word and Serving Tables Are Equally Valuable (Acts 6:2-4)
One of the greatest contributions that Acts makes to a theology of work emerges from the apostles’ response to the intra-community injustice of Acts 6:1-7. The work of administering justice—in this case, by overseeing food distribution—is just as important as the work of preaching the word. This may not be clear at first because of a misleading translation in the NRSV and the NIV:
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.” (Acts 6:2, NRSV)
It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. (Acts 6:2, NIV)
The term “wait on tables” (Acts 6:2) may sound a little condescending compared to “serving the word of God” (Acts 6:4). Are the Twelve saying that taking care of people’s need for food is less important than preaching the word? One way of interpreting this passage says that waiting on tables is “trivia,” a “humble task” or one of the “lower tasks” in the community. This line of interpretation sees Stephen’s subsequent preaching as the “real” purpose behind the Spirit’s influence in Acts 6:3. There would be no need for the Holy Spirit to get involved in the menial task of managing the allocation of resources, according to this view.
But this reflects a bias in translation not found in the original Greek. When English translations say “wait on tables” (Acts 6:2) in contrast to “serving the word” (Acts 6:4) they are using different words—“wait” and “serve"—to translate the same Greek word, diakaneo, which is the original word in both Acts 6:2 and 6:4. It means “to serve.” Therefore, a more literal translation would be “serve tables” and “serving the word." Both are diakaneo, service. There is no reason to use a slighter word for serving tables. Not every English translation displays this bias—for example both the King James Version and the New American Standard Bible translate Acts 6:2 as “serve tables” rather than “wait on tables.”
It is not reason [i.e., right] that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. (Acts 6:2, KJV)
It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. (Acts 6:2, NASB)
Moreover, just a few words later, in Acts 6:3-4, even the NRSV and the NIV translate the same word as “serving” and “ministry,” respectively.
We, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word. (Acts 6:3–4, NRSV)
[We] will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word. (Acts 6:4, NIV)
Thus, the Greek original, and some English translations, give the important sense that the work of serving those in need is on a par with the apostolic work of prayer and preaching. The apostles serve the word, and the deacons (as they have come to be called) serve those in need. Their service is qualitatively the same, although the specific tasks and skills are different. Both are essential in the formation of God’s people and for the witness of God’s people in the world. The life of the community depends upon these forms of service, and Luke does not give us the sense that one is more powerful or more spiritual than the other.
Despite all this, could it be argued that the condescension about serving tables is not just a matter of translation but is really present in the disciples’ own words? Could the apostles themselves have imagined that they were chosen to serve the word because they are more gifted than those who are chosen to serve tables? Is that what they mean when they say it would not be right to neglect serving the word in order to serve tables? If so, they would be falling back into something similar to the Roman patronage system, setting themselves up with a status too high to sully by serving tables. They would be substituting a new source of status (gifts of the Holy Spirit) for the old Roman one (patronage). The gospel of Christ goes deeper than this! In the Christian community there is no source of status. A more consistent understanding would be that if you're called to serve the word of God, you shouldn't neglect serving the word in order to do something else. Likewise, if you're called to serve tables, you shouldn't neglect serving tables in order to do something else. People may be called to different tasks, but there is no biblical reason to regard some callings as higher than others.
Ironically, one of the table-servers, Stephen, turns out to be even more gifted as a preacher than most of the apostles (Acts 6:8-7:60). Yet despite his preaching gift, he is set aside for the service of resource distribution. At that moment, at least, it was more important to God’s purposes for him to serve as a table-server than as a word-server. For him, no lingering hunger for status stands in the way of accepting this call to serve tables.
This has strong resonances in today's world. Frequently, workers in food service occupations—the modern equivalent of "serving tables"—find themselves in low-status jobs with inadequate pay, poor benefits, high turnover, and difficult or even abusive working conditions. This passage from the book of Acts speaks directly to this situation. In God's eyes, working in food service—or any other occupation—is not a trivial or demeaning job, but a form of service on par with the work of the Apostles. What can Christians do to make this vision a reality in today's places of work?
Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible, (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 344.
John Michael Penney, The Missionary Emphasis of Lukan Pneumatology, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 65 fn 11.
Joseph T. Lienhard “Acts 6.1-6: A Redactional View.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 37 (1975), 232.
Youngmo Cho, Spirit and Kingdom in the Writings of Luke and Paul (Waynesborough, GA; Paternoster, 2005), 132.