A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine posted on how justice and the gospel are inextricable. Anyone who has read Isaiah (or any of the prophets) as well as Jesus (see Matt 25 etc) can’t help but agree, but Joel Brown was making his point that “justice is a kingdom issue” based on Acts 6. My immediate response was: Yes! Acts 6 connects with many really important things such as ecclesiology, race relations and immigration. In fact, the post encouraged me to pull out some notes that have been percolating within me for the last couple of years. So, here’s a brief look at Kingdom Justice issues as understood by the early church in Acts 6.
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. (Acts 6:1 – ESV)
The New Living Translation puts it like this “There were rumblings of discontent”. As we go through this chapter, note how the apostles addressed the “complaint”. Or rather, note how they didn’t handle the situation. No hard power. No controlling the narrative.
But first, let’s stay with the first verse. Of course, the events of Acts 6 take place within a historical context. This is generally accepted as being AD35-39 – the first few years after the death and resurrection of Jesus when the church was exploding by the power of the Spirit and when it was also facing persecution at the hands of religious jews.
It was also a time of political and cultural conflicts – so, not too dissimilar to our own. The complaint at the centre of the verse arose amongst the “Hellenists”. According to Craig Keener, the term Hellenist “was often applied to those who had absorbed much Greek culture. In this passage, it probably refers to foreign (Diaspora) Jews or their descendants for whom Greek remained their mother tongue.” In other words, the Hellenists were a kind of immigrant to the Hebrew Jews (the Hellenisation [Greekification for want of a better explanation] of the jews was prophesied in Dan 11 and took place around 115BC).
The reason for the complaint? Because the Hellenists believed the Hebrew were neglecting their widows in the daily distribution of necessities. Why might this be the case? To me, it is strongly reminiscent of the Westerners in the US and UK (who are, of course, all descended from one kind of immigrant or another) complaining about (often Christian or subsequently converted) immigrants draining social security resources. In other words, the Hebrews didn’t want the Hellenists clogging up their nascent welfare system. Whether you accept this reading or not, the themes of cultural tension, immigration and justice in the early church are undeniably presented in this opening verse.
Their initial step was to call a public meeting of the church. And in doing so, they set some early precedents for church polity.