It is impossible to overstate the importance of the meal for the church, as it is a vital component of the Jesus tradition, a defining aspect of culture, and combined with talk of food in the letters of the New Testament, a repetitive element in the conversation related to the life of the body of Christ.
Looking then to Acts, there is a complaint registered about the distribution of food. What is the response to the complaint about the way that food is being distributed at the church’s gathering? “The twelve called the whole group of disciples together and said, ‘It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to wait on tables” (6:2). Now, this could be a point of contention. With the centrality of the meal assembly for the church, and the value placed on service by Jesus Himself, can the disciples rightly insist that this is the case? Would it not be most appropriate, in following the example of their Lord, who came not to be served but to serve, for these disciples to do this very thing? Could having a hand in the distribution of the food, which would mean their being the ones that served the food to the assembled church, possibly be conceived of as neglecting the word of God? One might very well lament this response of the twelve, as its enshrinement in Scripture handily created what very well may have been a dichotomy between preaching and service that Jesus never intended, and furthering the construction of hierarchies within the church.
Luke opens his account in Acts by stating that “I wrote the former account,” referring to the Gospel of Luke, “Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach” (1:1). Here, Jesus’ own disciples have opened up a disconnect between doing and teaching. That divide becomes evident in our standard, contemporary reading of the letter to Timothy. It is not evident because overseers and deacons, and the qualifications for such are discussed. Rather, it is evident because we read “overseer” and think of an authority figure, doing the same with “deacon,” though obviously to a lesser extent. Regardless, it is obvious that, owing to the proclamation and example of the disciples of Jesus, that the church quickly fell into these practical and hierarchical divisions, and these divisions immediately began to have honor assigned to them. This is more than comprehensible, as humanity is prone to such things.
Since, unfortunately, they were not going to be waiting on tables, as they would later make clear that “we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (6:4), the disciples went on to say “But carefully select from among you, brothers, seven men who are well-attested, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task” (6:3). One could say that here things went from bad to worse, as the disciples, prone to affectation by a culture that was almost completely dismissive of women (even though women had been charged with the initial proclamations concerning the Resurrection of Jesus), limited that which would become a hierarchical position in the church to men only. One could say that, or one could look at it another way, realizing that they were not intent upon creating a spiritual hierarchy, as this was an unintended by-product brought about by a lack of faithfulness to the mission and vision of Jesus, and chose men specifically to serve at the church’s tables, giving them the responsibility of being sure that all shared equally in the food and drink on offer, because this is a job that would normally have fallen to women and to slaves. Perhaps this is the genius of the disciples, but with so many of us set at such a distance from the culture of the day, we miss what is going on here.
Despite what could be viewed as the short-sightedness of the disciples with their statements about the ministry of the word of God and praying, and their setting that against their own taking up of the role of slaves at the church’s meal tables, the church prospered. We read that “The proposal pleased the entire group” (6:5a). Seven men were chosen as deacons (diakonous in the Greek, which means “servants”). “They stood these men before the apostles, who prayed and placed their hands upon them” (6:6). Not surprisingly then, with service at the root of the church’s witness, and men chosen specifically to serve food to widows (and all who came to the table, with no distinctions or divisions), “The word of God continued to spread, the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith” (6:7). With this success in mind, and this success much owing to the counter-cultural witness of servanthood by the ambassadors of the kingdom of God, we step back and ask if we could possibly imagine Jesus creating this division of labor. While we stand in the stream of that Spirit-led success, can we dream about the church that may have developed had the very men that were looked to as the pillars and foundation of the church, been the ones that had served all, in full equality, at the church’s meal table? What divisions may have been avoided had the church of Christ had this example from which to draw?