Ethnic Inclusion, Gender Roles and the Diaconate
In recent years, two ecclesiological issues have come to overshadow almost all others--namely, racial reconciliation and the role of women in the church. There is no shortage of Biblical and historical teaching on these issues, but a serious consideration of Acts 6 is in order if we are seeking to shed light on the way in which these two important matters are met by the formation of the Diaconate (diakonia). In short, Acts 6:1-7 is exceedingly instructive in helping to pave the way toward greater ethnic and gender inclusion in the church.
In Acts 6:1-7, we discover one of the God-instituted means of fostering unity in Christ among various groups in the church in which strong cultural and social differences existed. In the context of the early church, these difference were not limited to, yet included culture and language. At the inception of the New Covenant church, certain Christian Hellenistic Jews--who had not come from the mainstream Hebraic culture of the Apostles--began to complain about discrimination in the daily distributions. The Scriptures do not tell us whether the complaint was verifiable or whether it was a false accusation. Regardless, ignoring the complaint or dismissing it as a simple "misunderstanding" was not the solution proposed by the Apostles. Nor was the solution to follow the common temptation to separate minorities according to their language or cultural preference. Rather, the solution was to form the diakonia. The Apostles insisted that it was their duty to give themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word (diakonia tou logou), while the church was to elect and ordain certain men to the ministry of the tables (diakonein trapezais). This was the way in which the Apostles solved the problem of disunity.
This solution secured the inclusion and appreciation of the Hellenistic members of the church. Interestingly, the majority of the seven men whom the church appointed to the work themselves had Hellenistic names--names that would have sounded foreign to any of the Christians whose principle languages were Aramaic and Hebrew. It would have been similar to the way in which Spanish names sound foreign to most in churches in the English speaking world today. Despite their Hellenistic names and cultural background, they were empowered to fulfill the office and role of the Diaconate.
It is important for us to note that the institution of the Diaconate arose in the middle of a crisis, in which the unity of the church was in danger. The Apostles were firm in their insistence that Christ was the reason for and source of their unity. The reaffirmation of the role of the Apostles and the institution of Diaconate reflects the radical character of that unity.
The Gospel came to break down the walls of separation between God and man through the ministry of the Word and prayer. That was part of the ministry of the Apostles and they devoted themselves to it with the goal of spiritual reconciliation. However, the impact of that vertical reconciliation also has the horizontal aspect of bringing unity among different groups under the Crucified One who is the center of the apostolic preaching and prayer. When Christ was on Earth physically, He was commissioned His disciples with the preaching of the Word, and, with the secondary but important task of giving attention to the physical needs of the people. This is especially so in the quest for compassion and unity. In Acts 6, the Apostles relinquished an important aspect of their original apostolic duties, namely, the duty of taking care of the physical and material needs of the poor. in the context of unity and reconciliation, it may be more fitting to call these seven men "apostolic deacons"--precisely because they were the appointed servants to whom this apostolic duty was delegated.
Deacons have been given the glorious and spiritual call to lead the church toward service. Racial reconciliation, unity, and the inclusion of believing minorities in the church is one of the important aspects of this service today. While reconciliation and unity is the duty of all members of the church - both officers and lay people - the officers are the ones who have been called by God to exercise leadership in this area. Diaconal work is important in order to achieve the goals of reconciliation and inclusion of minorities.
The second matter to which we must turn our attention is that which concerns the impact of this situation on the role of women in the Church. It was women who set the background and the raison d'être of this institution. There was an impression that a portion of the church was neglecting certain women in the fellowship. In the book of Acts, women play an important role in the expansion of the Kingdom. Whether it was the women mentioned and included as an important part of the early church (among whom Mary, is named - Acts 1:14) or the women who were full partakers of the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1; 17-18; 21:8-9; and 1 Corinthians 12:2-11) or Peter's allusion to Joel's prophecy of the outpouring of the Spirit on both men and women of all classes or the fact that the sign of the covenant began to be opened not only to male members of the covenant (circumcision) but also to female members of the covenant (baptism), it is clear that women came to the forefront in a much more significant way in the New Covenant era. However, while women were significantly included and mentioned in the development of the New Testament church, only men [andras] full of Holy Spirit were appointed to be ordained for the diaconal institution. Just as Christ selected men to be Apostles (i.e. the Twelve), so God ordained only men to be Deacons. This means that treating our sisters in Christ with all the dignity and honor of Jesus does not include ordaining them to the offices of the church established by Christ Himself.
Furthermore, a deeper question remains. Who were the women who formed the background of Acts 6? They were widows and Greek-speaking Jewish-Christian women from the diaspora who had no family to care for them.
I do not, in any way whatsoever, doubt the good intentions of those who are desirous of seeing women flourish in the church. However, I do wonder whether our current social context has had too much influence on the debates in the church. The fact that many women in our society fill prominent roles in the secular business market may serve to put unnecessary pressure on ministers to only address one aspect of honoring women in our churches. For instance, the PCA's Report to the Cooperative Ministries Committee insists that in the PCA there are many godly women who "have had successful careers where they gained the skills of administration or strong economic knowledge, or understand legal or medical problems." Surely, pastors ought to have a firm desire to utilize the training and gifts of such women in the church in a plethora of ways. However, there is the very real danger of only fixating on the inclusion of a single category of women while neglecting to see how the Lord is working in the lives of other Christian women who are not "successful" in the eyes of the world. Self-examination may lead us to conclude that we are often tempted to neglect other categories of women in the church because we live in a time when "the virtues earning the highest return are ... conversational cleverness, skill in social navigation, excellence in bureaucracy, and keenness in finance."
The ordination of the deacons in Acts 6 comes in the context of (and has as its primary service-driven purpose) not simply women, but widowed women. Are these women the type of women we think of when we seek the promotion of women in the church today? Do our friends--who are calling for a greater inclusion of women in the church's ministry--have in mind women who are in the margins of society? To ask the question is to answer it.
The Apostles and Deacons in the early church followed the tradition of Christ's ministry (diakonein). In the Gospels, we find wealthy women partnering with and supporting our Lord Jesus' ministry (Luke 8:1-3). Our Lord was concerned to redeem, dignify, include, and promote women who were underprivileged and disenfranchised in society just as He was with the poor, the sick, the tax-collectors, the soldiers, the children, and the Samaritans. Jesus engaged the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28); healed a woman with hemorrhage (Mark 5:25-34); compassionately served the Widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17); healed a woman who had a crippling spirit (Luke 13:10-17); and interacted with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4)--a sinner who was considered an ethnic outcast (in other terms, a product of miscegenation). These women were silent sufferers, seen by others as existing on the peripheries of society and religion. Hence, we need to think of the role of women in the church as going beyond the idea of women who are successful and gifted by worldly standards to include women who do not look successful or qualified by the standards of the world and our culture.
One way of honoring the disenfranchised women in our churches is by praying and acting towards a revival of the role of Diaconate. The members of the Westminster Assembly drew out the relation between the Diaconate and the poor when they suggested that it was the responsibility of Deacons to take "special care in distributing to the necessities of the poor." This was the way in which the Diaconate has been consistently portrayed in the New Testament (Acts 6), by the Reformers, and by the members of the Westminster Assembly.
As a minister of a multi-ethnic, bi-lingual congregation in the PCA, I am exceedingly grateful that our denomination is growing numerically and making progress in addressing and engaging these important issues. In addition to rejoicing in numeric growth, we should view much of the progress that we have made in understanding the role of women in the church as something for which we should be thankful. We should, however, not be surprised if we find that growth and progress often lacks biblical balance (we have the tendency to devolve into lines of racial and ethnic separation--as well as into separation by socio-economic background). And, we should be exceedingly cautious of defining progress in terms of the secular world's definition of success and usefulness.
In moving forward, practical and intentional actions should be considered. The PCA Book of Church Order encourages the elders of our churches to "select and appoint godly men and women" to assist the Deacons in "caring for the sick, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and others who may be in any distress or need" (BCO 9-7). Godly women in our congregations should be encouraged to reach out to the women and children of minority communities--intentionally welcoming and integrating them into the activities of our local churches. It seems to me that this is a tangible and positive step forward.
In order to achieve consistent progress on both racial reconciliation and the role of women in the church) we must emphasize the role of the diakonia in the life of the church. Real, God-honoring progress won't come by allowing the world to shape our thinking on these issues; rather, it will only come when we embrace the New Testament concept of the diakonia. We must encourage godly men and women to seek to assist the elders and deacons of the church in carrying out the important work of caring for the poor, needy and disenfranchised in church. This was an integral part of the mission of the early church and it must be so for the church today.
William Castro is a church planter of Emmanuel Upstate PCA, in Greenville SC, a multiethnic congregation of Mitchell Road Presbyterian Church and Calvary Presbytery. William has degrees from the University Seminary Evangelical of Lima (BA, MDiv) in Peru and from Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (ThM). William and his wife, Judy, have three daughters.