Lest it be presumed that we are taking an unwarranted step by linking “overseer” with the meal assembly that was the regular setting of the gathering of the church in its earliest days, and lest it be deemed that we are putting too much weight on actions centered upon the meal as an effective counter-cultural witness, we are able to bolster our position by acknowledging the letter’s movement directly from “overseer” to “deacon.” In verse eight of the third chapter we read “Deacons likewise must be dignified, not two-faced, not given to excessive drinking, not greedy for gain” (3:8). This allusion to drinking cannot be looked upon as a general principle, plucked out of mid-air as an ideal. Rather, it must be understood to be concretely connected to the eating and drinking of the church at its meal table. That meal table, to be sure, in its arrangement and in the way it was conducted, as it was rooted in the meal culture that was foundational for society in general, and as it held to the witness of the meal tables of Jesus and the way in which He conducted Himself and spoke at those tables, was a powerful image of the kingdom that the Christians proclaimed, and of the God that was being honored and worshiped at the gatherings of their association.
Along with this, it is incumbent upon us to add to our investigation of the letter a perusal of the introduction of the “deacon” to the church. To do so we have to look to the book of Acts. Now, it is highly unlikely that Timothy had access to the book of Acts as we have it, but it is certainly plausible that Timothy would have been familiar with the story that described the advent of the position. Since deacons are referenced, it is a given that the recipient of the letter did not need to have the position explained to him, being well aware of the “how” and the “why” of their function within the church. So what was that function? Why was the position in existence? In the sixth chapter of Acts we find that “in those days,” which were some of the very earliest days of the church, “when the disciples were growing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Greek-speaking Jews against the native Hebraic Jews” (6:1a). Here, we have the all-too-familiar divide between Jew and Gentile within in the church, though it is somewhat masked by the fact that both sides of this divide were said to be Jews.
What was the source of this particular division? Division between the Gentiles that were Jews by conversion and those that were ethnic and national Jews came about “because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (6:1b). This food-related divide is probably best illustrated by the experience that Paul recounts from his time in Antioch. We find this record in Galatians, where Paul writes “when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he has clearly done wrong. Until certain people came from James, he had been eating with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he stopped doing this and separated himself because he was afraid of those who were pro-circumcision” (2:11-12). What Paul describes in Antioch, which is from a time period after the events recorded here in chapter six of Acts, first played itself out within the church at an intra-Jew level before playing itself out at an intra-church (between Jew and Gentile, and between Gentile and Gentile) level.
Now, when we think about a daily distribution of food to widows, we probably have the idea of people going house to house, delivering meals to those that are shut-in, and who are too old and frail to serve themselves. Though this may have been part of what was occurring, we must do our best to keep ourselves culturally and historically grounded, while also keeping the regular assembly around the meal table front and center. We must also bear in mind that, due to much shorter life expectancies, these widows could have been relatively young. Though we will later be dealing with this in greater detail, we get a glimpse of the treatment of widows in the letter to Timothy (thus causing the reference to widows in Acts have an even greater bearing on our study of Timothy), when Timothy is instructed that “no widow is to be put on the list unless she is at least sixty years old” (5:9a).
As it relates to the physical capabilities of widows and to being sure that we are viewing them through an appropriate lens, Paul writes that there is a bit of a problem in widows “going around from house to house” (5:13a). In response then, Paul’s directive is “I want younger women to marry, raise children, and manage a household, in order to give the adversary no opportunity to vilify us” (5:14). More on this anon, but in that statement, widows are the “young women” and therefore the subject. So again, we can put the idea of the frail, sickly, shut-in widow, who can barely lift her head or feed herself (though there were certainly some of these attached to the church), out of our minds, and see these widows referenced here in Acts as capable, perhaps vibrant members of the community, who are able to participate in the regular table gatherings of the church.
That said, it is probable that it was at the coming together of the church, around a common meal, that these widows were being neglected in the distribution of food. This sounds terribly like the situation that Paul addresses in Corinth, where he writes “when you come together as a church I hear there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it… Now when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper. For when it is time to eat, everyone proceeds with his own supper. One is hungry and another becomes drunk. Do you not have houses so that you can eat and drink? Or are you trying to show contempt for the church of God by shaming those who have nothing?” (11:18,20-22a) The honor-based arrangements around the meal tables to which Jesus was regularly invited, and which He regularly criticized, were alive and well and being used at the meal tables of the church in Jerusalem. Widows, as would have been quite common, were being neglected, relegated to the positions in which they were served last.