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
How does the early church deal with discrimination? And what can that teach us today?
1. Discrimination is Inevitable
At this stage in Acts, the early church hasn't done much wrong. They are sharing everything they have with each other; they are growing rapidly; they are taking care of the poor. And yet the perception of discrimination arises. Maybe it's because the Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews, probably from outside Israel) didn't speak the language as well as Hebrews (Hebrew-speaking Jews from inside Israel). Maybe it's because the Hebrews knew people better or were pushier because they were in their home town and the Hellenists were visitors. But whatever the reason, the Hellenists felt that they were being discriminated against. No human system is ever good enough to completely remove the perception of discrimination against someone.
2. The Perception of Discrimination is Itself a Problem
According to various bodies, if someone thinks they are being discriminated against, then they are. I used to think that was stupid, but as time has gone on, I've seen the wisdom of it. It is importance not only that justice is done but that justice is seen to be done.
3. Avoiding Discrimination Really Matters
The apostles convene a full meeting of the whole church to discuss the issue (Acts 6:2).
4. Discrimination Shouldn't Stop Preaching
The apostles recognise that the problem of discrimination has the potential to stop the central work of preaching and prayer, so they choose 7 other people to deal with it. That's not to say that discrimination doesn't matter – of course it does. It can even be a central issue – God includes all sorts of people in his kingdom, and the Jerusalem Council was convened to deal with the question of Jews and Gentiles in the Church. But other things matter too, and we should take care that dealing with discrimination doesn't stop us from doing those things.
5. The Victims of Discrimination Should Be Put In Charge of Righting It
The Seven are an interesting group. The dispute, remember, was between Greek-speaking Jews and Hebrew-speaking Jews. And the group appointed to sort it out were: Stephen (Greek name), Philip (could be Hebrew or Greek), and Prochorus (Greek), and Nicanor (Greek), and Timon (Greek), and Parmenas (Greek), and Nicolaus (Greek – and he wasn't even ethnically Jewish). 6 of them were from the group that felt that they were being wronged. And that's important, because putting them in charge removes the perception of discrimination as well. The Greek-speaking Jews can't complain that they're being discriminated against because they are now the ones in charge of food allocation.
6. The Non-Victims Should Be Protected
Of course, in trying to right any discrimination, there's the possibility of overreaction. And so it's important that the apostles protect against this as well. The Seven are described as “seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom”. They weren't going to mistreat the Hebrew widows to try to get revenge or anything like that.
So which groups in the church feel discriminated against? Women in ministry can feel discriminated against. And those who oppose women in ministry certainly do feel discriminated against.
The Biblical solution then is to put those who feel discriminated against in charge of the protection against discrimination. Legislation for women bishops should therefore be drafted and agreed on by two groups – godly, committed women in ministry and godly, committed people who oppose them.