This is a revelatory moment for American Christianity. A continuous stream of stories of abusive ministry leaders and racial injustice is driving many Christians to question their identification with their churches. So are the old stories, showing that the oppression of women and ethnic minorities is more woven into the American Christian story than we were taught or ever wanted to admit. Not every recent assessment of this story is compelling or accurate. But what’s clear is that our reckoning hasn’t reached back far enough.
The oppression of vulnerable women and ethnic minorities isn’t central just to the American church’s story, or even to the Western church’s story, but to the earliest days of the church itself, “when the number of disciples was increasing” (Acts 6:1–7).
There was a lot of good news for Greek-speaking (Hellenist) Jewish Christian widows in those early days. They followed a Messiah who not only rose from the dead and ascended to heaven but who in the temple itself specifically denounced the teachers of the law for “devour[ing] widows’ houses.” (Mark 12:40). They saw the Spirit of the Lord at work healing the sick, delivering the possessed, and redeeming the lost.
But this new Christian community was also neglecting these minority women, overlooking them in the daily distribution of food. The same disciples famous for having “shared everything they had” (Acts 4:32) weren’t sharing with them. The old prejudices continued, with the Hebraic Jewish widows being fed and the Hellenists left hungry. The oppression that Jesus denounced in the temple was happening at the table.
Both the widows and the broader community of God knew that God revealed himself on Sinai as one who “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18). But the community of God was withholding food instead. It also knew the warning from Deuteronomy: “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow” (27:19).
It’s sobering to realize that the church—at the very moment it was filled with the Spirit and doing so much good—was blind to this systemic neglect. Since its creation, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church has also been divided, disobedient, lacking, and wrong.
But here’s what happened next: When Hellenist Jewish Christians advocated on behalf of their widows, the disciples responded quickly. They stopped what they were doing and called “all the disciples together” to address it. “The whole group” chose seven men “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” to fix the problem. And they did.
“So,” Luke concludes, “the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).
This too is how the church works: It listens to the oppressed. It repents of its oppressing. And by doing so, it proclaims the Word of God, it draws people to Christ, it models repentance and reconciliation to the world, and religious leaders become obedient to the faith instead of trying to protect their power.
This can be our Acts 6 moment. Congregations and denominations are dividing over whether it’s even appropriate to talk about systemic ethnic discrimination, let alone to identify resources to fix it. The stories of preachers and teachers abusing and devouring the houses of the vulnerable tempt us to despair. But knowing the history of the broken, beautiful church gives us hope. So too does identifying local believers “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.”
It will take more than seven people to repair widespread abuse and neglect of the vulnerable. But none of us are empowered to act without deep connections to local Christians serving faithfully and sacrificially. Find your seven.
This needn’t be a time we look back on in shame. The church flipped the script. In his study of early Christianity, Rodney Stark notes that the church bucked pagan culture by allowing wealthy Christian widows to keep their husbands’ estates and by financially supporting poor widows so that they did not feel pressure to remarry. A letter in the mid-200s reports that a Roman church of about 30,000 had 46 presbyters (priests) and seven deacons and was caring for “more than 1,500 widows and distressed persons.” The early church became known not as the church that got widows wrong but as the church that gave widows hope and care, regardless of ethnicity. We’ve been here before. Listen to the widows.
Ted Olsen is executive editor of Christianity Today.
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