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)
It is hard not to read some condescension in the voices of the apostles in these English translations. In the minds of some, working with the word of God is “ministry” (as the NIV puts it), while the work of “waiting” at tables is somehow menial. One line of interpretation has followed this sense, suggesting that waiting on tables was “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.
But this line of argument depends on dubious translations. The Greek verb translated as “wait” in the NRSV and NIV is diakoneō, which carries the sense of service or ministry. The King James Version and the NASB put it more accurately as “serve.”
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)
In other words, the Greek word for the work of the word is exactly the same (in verb form) as for the work of distributing resources, diakonia, “serving.” The NRSV and NIV translators rightly regard the work of preaching as “serving” and “ministry.” Yet they condescend to a more demeaning word when referring to the work of food distribution, “waiting” tables. In contrast, the KJV and NASB translators do not read such condescension into the text. Whether working with the word or with food on tables, both groups “serve” in these translations.
The Greek text gives 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 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? 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.
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, at least, no lingering hunger for status stands in the way of accepting this call to serve tables.
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.