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Sunday, March 16

Is waiting on tables a ministry? (Acts 6:2)

I had a great question from a friend last week. Chris asked about the translation of Acts 6:2. The Jewish widows were being given preferential treatment over the Hellenistic widows, and the Apostles say, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables” (NIV). Notice how the NIV keeps “ministry” with “the word of God” and not with “wait on tables,” giving the distinct impression that waiting on tables is not a ministry, or one of lesser value.

Most translations keep διακονεῖν as a verb (and not the noun “ministry”). For example, the NRSV writes, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” The translation loses the sense of ministry tied up in the verb διακονέω, but it correctly keeps the idea of diaconia with daily service. The NLT almost makes service sound pejorative: “We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program.” Is that what caring for the widows is? A “food program”?

Notice the actual Greek word order. “It is not right for us to neglect (καταλείψαντας) the word of God in order to wait (διακονεῖν) on tables.” I understand that διακονεῖν is not being used with the full, later sense of a Christian “ministry” and that it has the flavor of its earlier usage to mean “wait at table.” But yet, is it not interesting that διακονεῖν is used in connection with waiting at tables and not with preaching?

Look at v 1 and its use of the cognate noun. “Their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution (διακονίᾳ) of food.” And then in v 4 διακονία is used of the Apostles' work. “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry (διακονίᾳ) of the word.” Both preaching and service are necessary ministries of the church; one leads with the word and the other with hands. As John Stott used to say, they are both “ministries,” and the only difference between them is that they are different!

Is preaching more important than serving the widows? I know the quick, evangelical answer is, “Of course it is.” But what is James’ answer? “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their time of trouble.” What was Jesus’ model? Do we see him giving a significant priority to preaching over helping people? I don’t think so.

Perhaps if the evangelical church actually learned this lesson we might have less pew sitters and have a greater impact for the kingdom, both in what we do and what we preach.

The issue is not identifying the calling of the Apostles; their’s was to preach. For others, it is to serve with their hands. Both are ministries, and both are essential for the success of the gospel. At least that is Jesus’ model.

Chris concluded his email to me with these words. “There are different priorities within the church, according to the calling and gifting of God through the Spirit. And certainly those, like Timothy, who are called and set apart to be pastor-teachers, must indeed make the preaching and teaching of the Word their own personal priority in ministry —  would that they all would do so!”