Contra Mundum Essay Collection: Thomas Schirrmacher

Social Responsibility in the New Testament Church according to Acts 6

by Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher

Copyright © 1997 Thomas Schirrmacher

The appointment of deacons in Acts 6 and in the New Testament church in general is of great significance. It is surprising, that besides the offices of overseers (bishops) and elders, who were responsible for leadership and teaching, the church had only one other office, that of the deacons and the deaconesses, whose duties were exclusively social in nature. The social responsibility of the church for its members is so institutionalized in the office of the deacons, that a church without them is just as unthinkable as a church without leadership or Biblical teaching.

1) The church carries fully the social responsibility for its own members, insofar as the individual's family is unable to do so. This duty consists in more than donations or symbolic assistance for a few, but in responsibility for all.

2) Therefore the church must distinguish clearly between its social obligations toward fellow Christians and its social responsibility for others. The former has been institutionalized in the office of deacons and is binding, insofar as funds and possibilities are available (assuming that the individual has not willfully brought the situation upon himself). Proverbs 3:27 speaks of both cases, "Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, When it is in the power of your hand to do so." Galatians 6:10 speaks of our duties toward all men, but emphasizes the priority of the believers: "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, expecially the those who are of the household of faith."

The command in Matthew 25:45 should also be understood in this sense. Jesus is speaking of believers, not of everyone. Were the "brethren" mentioned in verse 40 intended to mean all men, this would be the only text in the New Testament that uses the term figuratively to indicate anyone other than church members or fellow Christians.[1]

A comparison with the question of peace-making will help clarify the matter. The Scripture obliges Christians to live in peace with fellow-believers. If they do not, than the church leadership is to interfere. As far as the relationship to non-Christians is concerned, Paul says, "If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men" (Romans 12:18). The New Testament church is based on a covenant binding on all members. The expectation that the believer is obliged to care for all men stems from a false understanding of fairness and justice, for the the Bible requires the believer to provide first for his own family, next for the members of the local congregation, finally for the world-wide church. Only when these obligations are fulfilled, does he have any responsibilites for other people.

3) Acts 6 gives great priority to the social obligations of the church towards its members, but the responisbility for proclaiming the Word of God and prayer remains more important and is instiutionalized in the offices of the elders and the apostles.

The apostles give the following reason for refusing to accept this "business" (Acts 6:3), "but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:4). Prayer and proclamation of the Word, which always belong together, have priority over social engagement and must never be neglected. The combination of prayer and teaching is not new. Long before, it for example had been the ministry of the prophet Samuel to "pray" and to "teach" (1 Sam. 12:23).[2]

The provision for the socially weak was also considered a matter of course in the Early Church, which universally reserved special funds for social purposes.[3] Its provision for widows was exemplary.[4] As a matter of fact, more money was spent on social concerns than on the salaries of the elders and pastors. According to the Church Father, Eusebius, the church in Rome in the year 250 A.D., for example, supported 100 clergymen and 1500 poor people, particularly widows and orphans. Alois Kehl writes,

"Never, in the whole of antiquity, had there been a society or a religious group which cared for its members as the Christian Church did."[5]

By the way: The responsibility of the wealthy, above all, for the provision for the poor, gave the donors no special rights in the congregation. For this reason, James 2:1-13 energetically attacks their attempts to exploit their position in the church.

[1] . Kurt Hennig, "Beim Wort kommt es auch auf die Worte an", Das Fundament, (DCTB) 1, l991, pp. 9-24 (particularly pp. 22 and 19-24).

[2] . Compare the combination of prayer and watching in Neh. 4:9.

[3] . Adolf von Harnack, Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten (VMA-Verlag: Wiesbaden, o. J., reprint 19244), pp. 178-183, and the chapter, "Das Evangelium der Liebe und Hilfsleistung", pp. 170-220.

[4] . Ebd. pp. 184-186.

[5] . Ebd. pp. 182-184.

Return to Contra Mundum Root Page

3-6-97 tew