When we come to Acts 6 Luke immediately plunges us into a controversy within the now multiplying body of Messianic believing Jews (Acts 6:1). In fact, in Acts 6:7 Luke offers us his fifth church-growth report up to this point in time, but the first of six multiplication records that divides his thesis into three major sub-themes addressed in two parts each. The point is that in Acts 6 Luke shows us that the body of believers is no longer simply Jews of Palestinian origin, i.e. Jews who grew up in Judea and Galilee. The Church has become what we call today bicultural. That is, a major portion of it is made up of Hellenist Jews who have resettled in Palestine, and when one adds two cultures together, there is bound to be some friction.
The widow issue was probably merely the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. It was but a symptom of a deeper polemic involving both differences of culture and methods of preaching the Gospel—that is, how controversial should evangelism be? Knowing that Luke unveils a cultural problem within the body of believers in Acts 6 helps us to understand what occurs in this and in the next few chapters of Acts. In fact, I don’t believe one can properly understand the issues between Paul and Jerusalem that occur later, if we don’t see that the Church had to face cultural issues, as its numbers began to multiply and bring in brethren who were not culturally linked with the Jews of Palestine.
In Acts 6:2 Peter called the multitude of disciples together and told them (v.3) to look out among themselves and choose seven leaders to look after their business. Who did Peter call together? Was it the whole body of believers or just those disciples who murmured over the widow issue? If all the disciples were called together, it is awfully odd that only Grecian Jews (one Gentile proselyte) were set up as leaders. This should show us that the issue was a cultural one. If it wasn’t cultural, why were only Grecian believers chosen as leaders?
Many biblical scholars pooh pooh the idea of an organizational split occurring in Acts 6, but I think we need to look at what occurs here before rejecting the idea outrightly. I don’t mean to say the Seven no longer considered the Apostles as their leaders. Philip’s behavior in sending for the Apostles in Acts 8 shows that, even in persecution, the Jerusalem church was considered the governing body. What occurs in Acts 6 is like one single church of the same denomination in a city decides to break up into two bodies—still fellowshipping together, but two separate governing bodies under the leadership of the same denomination—who in the case of Acts 6 are the Apostles.
For all intents and purposes, the Seven were evangelists in every sense of the word. Stephen’s ultimate arrest and stoning did not occur over his “serving tables” or helping poor widows. No, he got into trouble with the authorities over his evangelistic practices—arguments that no one could counter. Later, Philip was the first to evangelize Samaria and continued preaching Jesus along the Mediterranean coast until he settled in Caesarea (Acts 8:40; cp. Acts 21:8).
I believe the controversy in Acts 6 stems from how important the Jerusalem church was to preaching the Gospel to the world, and how aggressively a believer should be in the name of the Gospel. I have said it before in a previous blog, and I’ll say it again: “the importance of the Jerusalem church to the Gospel cannot be overestimated.” As long as the Temple stood, pilgrims from all over the Empire and beyond would come to worship there during the three great annual holy day seasons: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. The Apostles didn’t have to travel the world to preach the Gospel to their brethren, the Jews. They came to them! The Jerusalem church was extremely important for the Gospel’s sake, and its safety needed to be guarded against the assault the enemy, who up to this point in time was the Jewish ruling body at Jerusalem, the same body who had Jesus crucified.
On the other hand, there was the growing body of Hellenist Jews who had resettled in Jerusalem from the Diaspora. They had little regard for the ceremonial practices of the Pharisees, and were more inclined to make a statement of belief without regard to the consequences—a let the chips fall where they may kind of people.
When you have two very different groups of people in one body, as appears to be the case in Acts 6, it is best to do as Peter did—separate the two groups, and permit them to govern themselves with the understanding that both bodies are still one in Christ—i.e. one brethren. If this was not what was done, it is very difficult to explain why almost immediately afterward a large group of believing priests joined themselves with the Apostles (Acts 6:7). They would have had ceremonial issues with joining themselves with the Grecian element within the Messianic movement, but not with the Apostles who were born and raised in Palestine. The fact that this ultra-conservative body of Jews joined themselves with the Apostles shows that the cultural issue and, therefore, the ceremonial issue were solved by dividing into two culturally distinct and equal bodies of believers who, nevertheless, continued to communicate with and have respect for one another.