Racism Theology

Justice is a gospel issue: Hands, feet and mutual submission in Acts 6:4

But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.

Having established a quasi-congregational method of deacon appointment, the text now moves onto what this action means for the apostles. In the previous verse the apostles – who continue to speak in a single, unnamed corporate voice throughout the passage – explained that they “cannot submit” to “leave the word of God”. However, here – as a result of the empowerment-based problem-saving approach – the rationale for their action is given: so, that the apostles can devote themselves to preaching and prayer. Or, in other words, to submit themselves to prayer, the Word and to freely sharing both. In doing so, they model a kind of Ephesians 5-style mutual submission.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, (1 Corinthians 12:21-23)

The Acts 6 example, which appears to show the establishment of two-dimensional elders and deacons-style polity, is reminiscent of 1 Corinthians 12, where Paul – addressing issues of church organisation – also appears to promote a compatible model.

Firstly, there are the head and eyes. Paul refers to “the eye”, which must relate to visionary functions, but could specifically mean the prophetic; and “the head” which – in the context of Acts 6 – refers to the plural leadership functions of the apostles.

And then there are the hands and feet, the practical assistance ministries of deacon-like helping and administration. The eye and the head may be physically higher and more visible, but, according to v22, “the parts of the body that seem weaker are indispensable”. So, while they made be functionally different, they are clearly equally valuable.

(Compare with Rom 10:15 – “how beautiful are the feet of those that bring good news” is in the context of being sent – practically empowered, meaning taking care of the practical and logistical needs of the ministry.)

And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? (1 Corinthians 12:28-30)

The two-dimensional approach is expressed again later in the same passage where – with the exception of tongues, which could deliberately relegated to the bottom of the list in order to address the Corinthian church’s specific over-emphasis on tongues – the list of church roles is roughly split into two groups of visionary and leadership roles and of practical ministries. These broadly correspond with the head/eyes and hands/feet metaphor of the preceding verses.

The point? In 1 Corinthians 12:26 Paul writes: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” something that is directly applicable to the Acts 6 situation. Back in Acts 6, certain groups were being dishonoured so the apostles decided to empower a team to ensure that they were properly treated. In so doing, they could have modeled what Paul later picks up in 1 Corinthians 12.

But who were the team? And what can we learn from the make-up of that team?

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