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 ...

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