Rereading Acts 6:1-7: Lessons for Multicultural Mission Organizations

by Hansung Kim

The conflict in Acts 6:1-7 may have multiple implications for multi-cultural mission organizations in the twenty-first century.

The early Church might not have been as perfect as people often think. Nobody would, however, disagree that she was healthy and strong, and that eventually she turned the world upside down. She had problems like any organization, and yet she dealt with them constructively. For instance, if Ananias and Sapphira’s lie about the money they gave to church had not been properly addressed, it could have jeopardized the faith community in Jerusalem, which financially depended upon the generosity of its wealthy members. Although the punishment was shocking, it might have served the early Church as a warning that God should not be taken lightly and that he expected total submission. This, in turn, encouraged members of the early Church to share their possessions with one another. Another example is Acts 6:1-7:

In those days, when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

If the narrative in Acts 5:1-11 was on the individual level, the above narrative shows that the early Church was healthy on the community level. The conflict between the Hellenists and the Hebrews in Acts 6:1-7 may have multiple implications for contextualization, especially for contextualizing a multicultural mission organization in the twenty-first century.

Today, globalization is a household name, and governments and institutions seek to adapt themselves to the changes globalization has brought to their doors. Christian mission organizations are not an exception in this regard.

The challenge and result in Acts 6:1-6 may help them see the obstacles they are facing and spur them to change in order to let “the word of God spread.” As a result, the number of disciples may increase rapidly and a large number of priests will become obedient to the faith (Acts 6:7).

Below, we are going to contextually reread the passage of Acts 6:1-7. To do so, we will look at the nature of the dispute in Acts 6:1-7 and probe into who the Hellenists and the Hebrews were. Then we will relate this event to a multicultural mission organization. Finally, we will draw some practical applications for such an organization.

What Is the Problem Again?
This event was the first cross-cultural conflict among Christians in the early Church. But there are different views on the nature of the event. Some scholars think the issue was rather practical; for instance, James Montgomery Boice believes that it was “a problem of administration” caused by the rapid growth of the Church (1997, 112). Others suggest it was “the problem of supply and demand that growth had created” (The New Interpreter’s Bible 2002, 110). C. K. Barrett thinks it was “a minor deficiency in administration” (1994, 303).

There are, however, scholars who find the nature of the problem was greater than just a matter of administration. F. Scott Spencer points to some Jewish scriptures that stress “God’s special role as father of orphans and protector of widows in the vacuum created by absent or abusive males” and says it was “a very serious offence” (2004, 75). Young Lee Hertig looks at it as an econo-political struggle based upon the cultural differences between the Hellenists and the Hebrews (2004). C. Peter Wagner suggests, with examples, that the nature of the problem was cultural and political (1994, 141). It is interesting that biblical scholars tend to view the problem as an administrational or religious matter, but mission scholars see it as cultural and political. At this point, a comparison of the Hebrews and the Hellenists seems appropriate in order to articulate the nature of the conflict found in Acts 6:1-7.

Who Are They Anyway?
Scholars also seem to have different understandings on who the Hellenists and the Hebrews were. Dean Flemming thinks “the term ‘Hellenists’ (Acts 6:1) referred to Greek-speaking Jews from the Diaspora, in contrast with the ‘Hebrews,’ whose primary language was Aramaic” (2005, 32). He goes on to add that the Hellenists seemed to have a Jewish-Greek mixed subculture in Jerusalem. I. Howard Marshall suggests that, besides their geographical origin and the degree of their religious purity, “the Hebrews were Jews who spoke a Semitic language, but also knew some Greek” and “the Hellenists were Jews who spoke Greek, and knew little or no Aramaic” (1980, 125-126).

Harry Boer, however, understands that the two are ethnically identical but different in their geographical origin and observation of the ceremonial law (1976, 18-19). Wagner explains that the Hebrews “would likely have been Judeans.” Many had personally known Jesus and they “would, and did, think of themselves as spiritually superior to the Hellenists”; the Hellenists, on the other hand, were the Greek-speaking Diaspora with limited Aramaic fluency and “none of the Hellenists would have had a personal memory of Jesus himself, as did many Hebrews, so they might easily succumb to a spiritual inferiority complex when they were around the Hebrews” (1994, 137-138).

Barrett, however, suggests that the Greek word for the Hellenists has a linguistic and cultural connotation and that of the Hebrews “does not have a primarily linguistic connotation” (1994, 308). In Philippians 3:5 and 2 Corinthians 11:22, Paul identified himself as a Hebrew. Although he was able to speak Greek and was born in Tarsus, his identification as a Hebrew implies that the word “Hebrew” has an ethnic connotation. To sum up and make sense of all these different views on the identities of the two groups in question, the Hellenists were likely a community of the Diaspora Jews and the proselytes whose common ground was the Greek language—the lingua franca of the time—and the knowledge of the Greek culture as well as the Christian faith. The Hebrews were likely a community of the Palestine Jews who had a better understanding of ceremonial laws and Jesus’ teachings. This provided the latter a sense of superiority over the former. Most scholars seem to agree that the two terms are to be defined as contrasts. It is more likely that there were the Hellenists who moved back to Jerusalem for quite some time and assimilated into the majority of the society and that there were the Hebrews who were cosmopolitan while remaining religiously pure. I, therefore, think there was a spectrum of two contrasting parties, although Barrett and Wagner think they are exclusive.

Contrasts between the Hellenists and the Hebrews
There is, in fact, a number of contrasts between the two groups of early Christians. They include: religious backgrounds, language, culture, degree of cohesiveness, access to a decision-making process, and, consequently, unequal treatment.

1. Religious backgrounds. In regard to the contrast of religious backgrounds, Boer suggests that the Hellenists did not observe the ceremonial laws and, therefore, they were probably refused full-table fellowship with the Hebrews (1976). They brought “syncretized customs and religions” with them when they moved back to Jerusalem (Hertig 2004, 62). The Hebrews, on the other hand, read the Hebrew scriptures, kept the ceremonial laws, and probably knew Jesus personally (Wagner 1994, 138).

2. Language. The Hellenists’ primary language was not Aramaic, which was the language of the early Church and that which the Hebrews spoke. Some of them would have found it difficult to communicate in Aramaic at church. Wagner emphasizes that “the Hellenists could not typically speak fluent Aramaic unless they had lived back in Jerusalem” (1994, 137). Although the two groups “were one in heart and mind” (Acts 4:32), the subtle cultural differences and nuances in the language were likely to create misunderstandings and, in such cases, the Hebrews would claim authority in clarifying them, which were often in favor of themselves knowingly and unknowingly.

3. Degree of cohesiveness. The degree of cohesiveness is another example of how the two groups contrast. When the Diaspora Jews moved back in Jerusalem, “each group had its own synagogue before [they] became Christians” (Kistemaker 1990, 220). They “naturally formed their primary social groups with each other, not with those Hellenists who spoke other dialects, much less with Aramaic-speaking Hebrews” (Wagner 1994). The Hebrews, on the other hand, had been in the early Church from the very beginning (see Acts 2:7; Wagner 1994; Spencer 2004). These differences disclose the degree of cohesiveness of both groups. The Hellenists might have formed a very close relationship in smaller groups (but a loose sense of community as a whole), whereas the Hebrews were much more cohesive because of their common origins and practice of the Jewish traditions.

4. Access to decision-making process. Both parties contrast in having access to a decision-making process. The conflict took place before persecution and the twelve disciples were still in Jerusalem (Acts 6:2). Peter condemned Ananias and Sapphira and they fell down and died. The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people (Acts 5:12), not to mention that Peter’s preaching was understood by those who did not know Aramaic with interpretation (Acts 2:5-13). All these shocking incidents and miracles by the apostles were so powerful and impressive as to establish authority in the early Church. It is not far-fetched from the truth to think that the believers in the upper room (Acts 1:12-15) not only received the Holy Spirit together and became the core group of the church, but also developed and shared a sense of commonness. And considering the level of education and social status of the disciples, Aramaic was likely to be the language of worship, and those who did not speak Aramaic as freely as others might have found it quite difficult to contribute their views and concerns on issues as convincingly as they could have done in their first language. And interestingly, Luke does not mention anyone of significance who may be classified as a Hellenist besides Barnabas.

Consequently, even if it were not intended at all, the Hebrews were likely to have greater access to the decision-making process than the Hellenists.

5. Unequal treatment. There was, consequently, economic, social, and political inequality. There was unfair distribution in the Church and it negatively affected members and the churches alike so that church leaders had to take drastic and visible action. There was social injustice in the Church in that one group of believers inevitably made complaints against the other. The leadership of the early Church was demographically disproportionate. With the exception of Barnabas as a candidate for the twelfth apostle, the leadership of the Church was almost entirely Hebrew, even though the number of the Hellenists was, by all means, not negligible. Marshall states, “The complaint about the poor relief was but a symptom of a deeper problem” (1980, 125). This incident was a cross-cultural issue that the early Church had to contextualize itself in a fast-changing time and place. According to Wagner, although “their spirituality was not deficient, their missiological sensitivities were” (1994, 142).

How Does This Relate to Our Situation?
The cross-cultural nature of the conflict between the Hellenists and the Hebrews is very similar to the problems multicultural mission organizations often face today. Many pay attention to the cross-cultural obstacles that lie between foreign missionaries and local Christians. Acts 6:1-7 may provide some valuable insights for the cross-cultural conflicts between Western missionaries and Majority World missionaries. In fact, Majority World missionaries working with Majority World missionaries as partners are a recent phenomenon. The number of Majority World missionaries has grown particularly fast in the past fifteen years. It is not unusual to see a multicultural team where the leader is a westerner and the majority of the members are from the Majority World. And yet, the Majority World members may feel that they are not heard. Similarily, Majority World missionaries may not feel heard in an organization in which they account for a significant ratio, but the policy and culture, both formal and informal, of the organization does not represent them appropriately.

Western missionaries, especially English-speakers, are like the Hebrews in many ways, and Majority World missionaries are like the Hellenists. Theology has developed in the West, and it has used Western philosophy. Majority World missionaries often feel they are inferior to their Western colleagues, even when they are better qualified. Many Western missionaries are born and grew up with the language that the organization uses as the official language. The structure and culture of the organization are based on those of their society, which they are already accustomed to. Westerners share the same philosophy and culture that naturally draw them to each other. Majority World missionaries, on the other hand, are often from very different cultural backgrounds and have language barriers among themselves because their first languages are different and they cannot be intimate with each other in English. In short, westerners have a greater degree of cohesiveness among themselves than do people in the Majority World. With the advantages of knowing the language, culture, and practices, it is presumable that Western members have a louder voice in a decision-making process—or at least they can better represent their feelings and opinions in the process.

It is a grand and sometimes painful task. It is, in fact, a sacrifice to empty oneself; however, it is a growing opportunity for Western missionaries today, just like the apostles in the early Church who had to learn “those from the second culture could become part of their church and peacefully accept their leadership” (Wagner 1994, 143).

What Can We Learn from This Passage?
The passage provides several practical applications for multicultural teams.

1. Members of a multicultural organization need to be sensitive and aware of their unconscious cultural assumptions. Context changes. An appropriate cultural assumption at one point at one place may face a challenge of modification in a different context. If members of a cross-cultural organization do not detect this, the organization is likely to be in jeopardy.

2. A leader of a cross-cultural team must encourage members to speak their thoughts and feelings and must create an environment to freely express their emotions and thoughts. All this without imposing his or her thoughts or the organization’s policy upon the other missionaries. The leader may not have enough cultural understanding to hear his or her members’ grievances and the policy may not fully accommodate the diverseness of the organization’s multicultural nature. Members, also, need to reveal their feelings and thoughts honestly and constructively. It may not be possible to have a town meeting like the early Church did. With today’s information technology, however, gathering information from members can be easier than ever before.

3. Leaders should consider making changes as swiftly and willingly as possible if they are likely to bring harmony and effectiveness to the team without compromising the truth. The changes must reflect and respond to members’ grievances. It is imperative that the existing frame of reference should not be employed. The voices of other cultures be taken into consideration instead.

4. Leaders of cross-cultural organizations may learn from the twelve disciples concerning their views of the newly-elected “Hellenist” leaders. Although some scholars like Boice view “deacons as the first administrative officers in the church” (1997, 117), others think the Seven “did not form a group beneath the apostles, but alongside of them—a distinct ethnic leadership group” (Wagner 1994, 150). Barrett also argues “the Seven were somehow different from the Twelve, but the difference could be adequately stated in the fact that the one group was made of Hellenists, the other of Hebrews” (1994, 305). Stephen and Philip were not just deacons, but also evangelists (Acts 6-8). Considering all these things, the apostles accepted the Seven as leaders of the early Church who could better assist and address the problems the Hellenists faced (Dollar 1996, 67). This new-skin-for-new-wine strategy was not only effective in handling the cross-cultural problem, but also in evangelism. “And the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).

Likewise, when the existing leaders accept and respect new leaders of other cultures, the organization may well have: a new vision and perspective that the new leaders bring in with them, a new set of directions and practices that create new areas to reach out to, and a new spirit that rejuvenates the morale of the members of the organization.

The Book of Acts is full of cross-cultural issues. The Jerusalem council in Acts 15 is a classical example, setting fundamental principles of contextualization. The narrative in Acts 6:1-7 has not received as much attention. However, it offers far greater insights into the cross-cultural issues of international mission organizations. The conflict between the Hellenists and the Hebrews precedes the accounts of Stephen and Philip. Before moving on to the martyrdom of Stephen, Luke reports more church growth as a result of this conflict. Barrett puts it that “evil is overcome by good and the solution of a problem leads to the expansion of the church” (1994, 303). This was all possible when the apostles were not hesitant to make changes in the Church.

From late last century, the gravity of the Church has moved from North to South. More and more Majority World missionaries have joined international mission organizations, many of which used to be Western. While some are genuinely interested in making themselves culturally appropriate for their multicultural members, some seem to be as insensitive as the apostles were with the Hellenists’ physical needs.

The Economist looks at the future of the European Union (EU) in the form of book review. The report is based upon a book published by Bruegel, a think-tank in Brussels, and talks about the future of the EU in relation to the ever-changing world. While some of its predictions are music to the ears of Europeans, others are as bitter as good medicine gets. One of these suggestions is as follows: “If Europe refuses to share its place at the table, it may find itself increasingly short of dining partners in consequence”(2007, 59).

Barrett, C. K. 1994. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. Vol. 1. Eds. John Emerton, Charles Cranfield, and Graham Stanton. The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments series. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Boer, Harry R. 1976. A Short History of the Early Church. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans.

Boice, James Montgomery. 1997. Acts: An Expositional Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.

Dollar, Harold. 1996. St. Luke’s Missiology: A Cross-cultural Challenge. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

“Europe: Charlemagne: Overweight but Underpowered.” The Economist 84 (Sept. 8-14): 44-46.

Flemming, Dean. 2005. Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Hertig, Young Lee. 2004. “Cross-cultural Mediation: From Exclusion to Inclusion.” Mission in Acts: Ancient Narratives in Contemporary Context. Eds. Robert L. Gallagher and Paul Hertig, 59-72. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

Kistemaker, Simon J. 1990. New Testament Commentary: Exposition on the Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.

Marshall, I. Howard. 1980. Acts. Leicester, U.K.: InterVarsity Press.

Spencer, F. Scott. 2004. Journeying through Acts: A Literary-Cultural Reading. Edinburgh: Hendrickson Publishers.

Wagner, C. Peter. 1994. Acts of the Holy Spirit. Ventura, Calif.: Regal.

Hansung Kim is currently teaching at ACTS in South Korea. He was a missionary to South Asia with OM. His interests include: missionary training, Korean/English teaching as Christian mission, and cross-cultural missionary cooperation.

Copyright © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

Related Articles

Welcoming the Stranger

Presenter: Matthew Soerens, US Director of Church Mobilization, World Relief Description: Refugee and immigration issues have dominated headlines globally recently. While many American Christians view these…

Upcoming Events