A Biblical case for affirmative action

I used to see affirmative action as tokenism at best and reverse discrimination at worst - until I studied Acts 6:1-7. There I saw the New Testament church practicing what was, in many ways, a form of affirmative action. Now I see the principle behind affirmative action as a tool to address injustice. Like any tool, it can be used or abused.

I was a victim of a legalistic form of affirmative action in my youth. Back in Malaysia, where I was born and raised, university admissions were based on strict ethnic quotas. The quotas were rigidly enforced, to the point that admission standards were compromised. Many of my Malay high-school classmates got into university with lower grades while I, a Chinese student, failed to gain admission with higher grades. That was how I ended up in Canada as an international student back in 1989. It cost my shopkeeper dad dearly to send me to Canada, where, as a foreigner, I paid twice the tuition of a Canadian student.

Recently the church denomination to which I belong, the Christian Reformed Church, adopted a goal of filling at least 25 percent of its top-level leadership positions with ethnic minorities in an effort to move the denomination continually toward reflecting the North American demographic. There were objections and complaints from people within the denomination who saw this as an affirmative-action policy and, hence, as reverse discrimination. Some ethnic minorities within the denomination called this goal tokenism. Because of my past experiences, I would probably have felt the same way, if not for Acts 6.

Cultural tensions arose in the early church when “the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” We’re not told why this neglect occurred. But it was more than poor logistics, as that would not have consistently singled out one group over another. Injustice was occurring.

Who were these Hellenistic Jews? They were likely born and raised in foreign countries across the Roman Empire and influenced by Greco-Roman culture - hence, Hellenistic. But because being buried in the land of Israel was considered virtuous, many Hellenistic Jews would relocate there to spend their last days in Israel. Often the men would die first, leaving a disproportionate number of Hellenist widows in Jerusalem. These Hellenists and their widows were, in modern terms, immigrants to Jerusalem, and they formed a cultural subgroup within the Jewish community. So the early Jerusalem church included both native Hebraic and immigrant Hellenist Jews.

Even though these two groups were ethnically Jewish, their cultural backgrounds were different enough in the broader Jerusalem context that they likely worshiped in separate synagogues. Acts 6:9 mentions that Stephen was opposed by those who belonged to the Synagogue of the Freedmen - Jews who were descended from former Roman slaves. Since synagogues were segregated according to class or groups back then, the apostles could have chosen the practical option of segregating the Hellenist and Hebraic groups.

Instead, the apostles recruited new leaders to supervise the entire food distribution system. Amazingly, the Christian community intentionally chose seven Hellenist men to do this work. All seven - from the famous, soon-to-be-martyred Stephen to Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch (in other words, a Gentile) - had Greek names, identifying them as belonging to or, at the very least, identifiable with, the offended cultural minority. Doesn’t this look suspiciously like an “affirmative action” program?

Furthermore, these men were given charge not only of distributing food to their Hellenist widows but of distributing food to all the widows - Hellenist and Hebraic. The whole system of food distribution was handed over to the offended minority’s leadership! This wasn’t simply a top-down decision but one that “pleased the whole group.” It displayed the majority’s spirit of love and willingness to hand power to the immigrant minority.

This turned out to be a good development. Almost as an understatement, Luke observes that “the word of God spread. The number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” Even the priests, the guardians of the Jewish religion, were impressed. The apostles’ bold move to address injustice helped spread the Gospel and grew the church.

In this early case history of cultural tensions between an established majority group and an immigrant minority subgroup within the early church, we see the apostles choosing the path of change. Instead of maintaining the status quo, they chose to integrate the subgroup into the structure of the church. They chose to create a new leadership structure and empower the immigrant subgroup’s ability to exercise their gifts and leadership

I believe the good principle behind affirmative action’s all-too-often distorted practices is this: intentional change in the makeup of personnel or leadership is a legitimate means of addressing social injustice in an organization or community. How might this work in your organization or church?

What Do You Think?

  • Can Acts 6: 1-7 be used as a model for affirmative action?
  • How can affirmative action be misused?
  • Have you had any personal experiences with affirmative action?


Comments (9)

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Just a quick question- are the names of these disciples enough to determine that they were all Hellenistic Jews?  After all, many Jewish names in the New Testament have been rendered into their Greek counterparts for our ease of reading (Jesus being the prime example).

That’s a good question. NT commentator Craig S. Keener gives a good answer for you:
“Tomb inscriptions show that many Jerusalemites had Greek names whether or not their parents or grandparents had lived outside of Judea. But even in Rome, under 40 percent of Jews had any Greek in their name, and only one or two of the apostles had a Greek name. That all seven of these men have Greek names suggests that they are known to be Hellenists, first- or second-generation Jewish immigrants to Palestine - hence members of the offended minority. One is even a proselyte - a former Gentile who had converted to Judaism; many of these lived in Antioch.” (From The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (IVP, 1993), p. 338.)

It seems to be standard biblical scholarship to identify these seven as Hellenists by their Greek names. Just off my personal bookshelves, the following texts corroborates Keener:

Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology (Eerdmans, 2001), p. 254;
The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary (IVP 2002), p. 613;
Africa Bible Commentary (Zondervan 2006), p. 1310;
Reclaiming our Roots: An Inclusive Introduction to Church History Vol. 1 (Trinity Press 1999), p. 16;
The NIV Study Bible (Zondervan 1985) note on 6:5;
The Harper Collins Study Bible (1993) NRSV, note on 6:5.

Even the famous 18th century Matthew Henry’s commentary noted: “That these seven were all of the Grecian or Hellenist Jews, for they have all Greek names ...”

Hence, this is nothing new or radical. It’s a standard consensus among bible scholars.

Not sure Affirmative Action can ever be consistent with Christianity. It’s meeting failure with more failure. Christianity, in it’s essence is about pervasive and consistent inclusion - even with difference. AA has to fail if it’s a mandate but I understand the compulsion to do this. Christ inspired and made blind people see in much more than eyesight. Christ was a leader above all and still is now. AA also fails in that it places people who are factually inadequate into positions. So, as I’m involved in mortgages, it is being stated that minorities are disproportionately disadvantaged. This is true but not by race or creed alone. They are not as well qualified and credit worthy by fair analysis. Why? Because the problem is deeper seated and should be reconciled at the core. Teach a man to fish and he will never be hungry.

In her TED Talk, author Chimamanda Adichie discussed “The danger of a single story.” It’s a great example of what happens when only a single story is told. There is no single story of affirmative action. apna attempts here to boil the disproportionate denial of mortgages to African-Americans down to creditworthiness, when factually and scientifically, we know that’s not true, as this link from HUD shows: http://www.huduser.org/portal/publications/fairhsg/lending.html

Moreover, the historic practice of redlining, where minorities were systematically denied mortgages in certain (read white) neighborhoods, also contributed to urban decay. The housing and mortgage industry basically had to be forced to remedy this and have still failed. So, yes, affirmative action by the federal government in that case was necessary to combat racialized practices.

As for the biblical case, I am in firm agreement, and this is a fresh and compelling point of view. I fear, however, that in a world with dwindling resources, we will not give in to our better natures.

I don’t think Acts 6 is affirmative action at all, as that implies (at least in our understanding of the term, since the NT believers would have no idea what we’re talking about) moving some people in to accompany those already there.

Instead it an example of God’s grace in leadership. The people first given the job of distributing food were not up to the task and were replaced by those who were. It seems counter-intuitive to us that the replacements would all be Hellenists, but God’s ways are often counter-intuitive aren’t they?

And I am really grateful for the background on the presence of older Greek believers in Jerusalem. That is great stuff, Shiao!


You give some helpful thoughts on this matter, but we need to keep in mind that a passage like this is “descriptive” not prescriptive, so I would want to be careful in reading back “affirmative action” into Acts 6 when that political concept was not an issue. The Apostles approved of this plan not in order to impress the broader culture or even to bring about racial and/or ethnic harmony within the Roman Empire (or Jerusalem), but to bring unity within the church and to enable the Apostles to focus on prayer and preaching. That being said, I do think we can take it as an example of how to deal with cultural differences, at least within the church when issues like this do arise. And your article is a timely reminder that there was real racial tension within the early church context: the Apostle Paul especially deals with Jew/Gentile relations in passages like Romans 9-11 and Ephesians 2:11-22.
But, to use this as a proof text for affirmative in the political setting is troublesome to me for a few reasons.
1. That is not the intent of Acts 6 (see above remarks).
2. One could easily use texts like Col 4:22-25 and Eph 6:5-9 to argue the biblical case for slavery (as has been done before).
Picking and choosing a text to support a particular cause is dangerous because those on both sides of an issue can find individual verses as support. The bigger context is needed before we can say that we have biblical support.

msholst, you are right that we need to be careful not to cherry pick and to impose anachronistic ideas back to the Bible. That is why I talk about “the good principle behind affirmative action’s all-too-often distorted practices” - I am not supporting affirmative action in any blanket way, nor am I blind to its far too often failures. But it is the original principle behind AA that I see this Acts 6 practice embodying, not AA itself as we know it. But it does look suspiciously AA-like because it embodies the principle behind AA.

And yes, you are right, it is descriptive and not prescriptive. Like anything in Acts - we can learn from the early church’s example. What’s the good principle we learn from this that we can apply in our current situation is the question.

This post is adapted and abridged from my original longer article in The Banner. The ending is different, and perhaps, my original ending might be helpful here to clarify some things for folks. Here’s the excerpt of my ending from the original:

I believe the good principle behind affirmative action’s all-too-often distorted practices is this: intentional change in the makeup of personnel or leadership is a legitimate means of addressing social injustice in an organization or community. Since there is biblical precedent, we cannot simply dismiss this principle. The CRC’s new policy of diversity in leadership follows the spirit of the New Testament church. But to prevent such policies from distorting into either reverse discrimination or tokenism, I humbly offer the following guidelines:

The intention should be to address systemic injustice—removing barriers and changing organizational culture—not to pander to political correctness or lobby groups.

The 25 percent goal should not be treated as either a legalistic quota or a rigid cap. Our focus is not filling up ethnic numbers, but transforming organizational culture.

The candidates must be unquestionably qualified, just as the seven in Acts 6 were “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (v. 3). We need to discern the Spirit’s leading and calling, even as we act with integrity and open ourselves to thinking “outside the box.”

These leaders must be fully empowered to succeed, just as the seven were not simply symbolic tokens but were entrusted with the entire food distribution system. The entire denomination and organizational structure must support their leadership.

Suggestions to consider expanding the ethnicity diversity goal to include gender and disability should be taken seriously, in keeping with the spirit of the principle.

I pray that the CRC’s new diversity policy will help the denomination to become a more diverse, growing community, and that it will enhance our ability to participate fully in God’s mission.

Thanks for filling us in on the original conclusion, Shiao. That is much more meaningful, powerful and helpful.


At its core, the purpose of affirmative action is to level the playing field. If you’re white, male, and/or wealthy, you got a head start on life compared to people who are historically disadvantaged (or, rather, you started at the starting line and they started well behind it).

Honestly, I think the problem has been how it’s been sold: We who support the idea that nobody should start out with a disadvantage in life due to the color of their skin, the wealth of their parents, or the makeup of their chromosomes have allowed those who want to retain their privilege to define the issue, rather than taking control over the definition.

Because in a society with deep-seated inequalities and hegemonies, as our society has, there is no such thing as “neutral.” If an organization is not actively working to ensure that those who have been historically disadvantaged are given the opportunity to prove themselves, they are perpetuating and reinforcing the advantage of the already-privileged.

Take college admissions, for example. I hear all this talk about how they should end all affirmative action in college admissions, and that those who are historically disadvantaged through their ethnic background or their family wealth should have to compete on a “level playing field” with the privileged. So how is that possible?

Should the kid who had to work an afterschool job just to be able to afford to take the SAT have his/her SAT scores set next to the person whose parents could afford to pay for him/her to get an SAT tutor for the six months leading up to the test?

Should the kid who went to an inner-city high school that didn’t offer AP classes because they didn’t have the money, or who chose not to take them because he/she had to take care of his/her little sister after school and didn’t have time to study, be set next to the one who had the chance to take all the AP classes and tests he/she wanted because his/her parents made enough money to have full-time childcare or a stay-at-home parent?

In a “neutral” situation, where the records of these kids are set next to one another and compared 1:1, the rich kid will always win. Better SAT scores, more AP classes, more extracurriculars. A “neutral” policy there will do nothing but reinforce the power of the “haves” and continue to tell the “have nots” that they don’t matter—regardless of whether the less-privileged kid might actually be smarter, or more capable, or more creative, or harder-working. There’s nothing fair about “neutral” there.

(And to top it all off, if the privileged kid’s mom or dad went to that college, he or she is automatically in as a “legacy” admission. How is that not “affirmative action,” but for those who least need it?)

So while the choice is between “fair” and “unfair,” the choice isn’t between “level playing field” and “giving someone an advantage.” On a level and neutral playing field, those who have historically had all the advantages will continue to have them.

Any system that is not actively working to give historically disadvantaged people a leg up is simply perpetuating the privilege of the historically advantaged. Any college, financial institution, business, or government that isn’t actively engaged in affirmative action is simply reinforcing white, male, wealthy privilege.

Which do you choose?

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