Diaconal Office in Scriptural Perspective
As things stand now, a rather impressive amount has been written about the diaconate. In particular the biblical and historical facets receive a great deal of attention.1Clearly, the biblical and historical foundation of this office ought to be left up to these authors. This is my personal viewpoint as well. I limit myself, therefore, to give you a brief Scriptural orientation in order to leave you with a survey of the diaconate, which aims to be as comprehensive as possible within the set limits. The Scriptural perspective is applied to all the other parts of this book as well.
Diaconate in the Old Testament
Our search for an Old Testament deacon who executes his office in the service of charity will be unsuccessful. What we do find in the Old Testament, however, will be God's norms for the life of everyone in relationship to God and with reference to the wellbeing of his neighbour. Caring for a brother and sister in need belongs to the care of the community; it should be seen as a God-given charge. This God-given charge encompasses the well-being of the neighbour.
From the very beginning, God reveals to man that the earth and everything on it is His exclusive property (Leviticus 25:23). Man is only entitled to tenure. He receives the commission to cultivate this earth, and to develop its potentialities (Genesis 2:15). He is a government official, an office bearer commissioned in the service of the Kingdom of heaven. His work is the service to the Lord.
In addition, the Lord gives man the commission to be a blessing for his neighbour. This, in turn, moves God in His mercy to bless man for the service rendered to his neighbour. When God gives His blessing, He does this bountifully and generously. He demands us to do likewise. In Deuteronomy 15 it is mentioned twice (vs. 7, 8 and 10):
...do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely (i.e. generously) lend him whatever he needs.
This does not apply only to the poor brother but to a slave as well, and the orphan, the widow, the stranger, and the possession-less Levite. In short: all those who because of circumstances land up in difficulties and trouble and now, because of this, are inclined to backslide. "Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart;" then, and because of this, all will joyfully share in the yield of the land's fruits.2
It means being generous to your neighbour and thus being loyal to God.
Giving builds up the communion of saints. It is striking that the Old Testament frequently associates the act of giving with sharing together, sharing as a festive occasion (Deuteronomy 16:10-15; 2 Chronicles 28:14-15). Trimp (1982) comments here:
during the harvest feast you should be in a festive mood. Feasting is a communal affair. Together with the weak and the defenceless you turn the occasion into a feast. And when you have a feast, you cannot afford to be stingy but you will help one another.
Celebrating a feast is in the Bible never an individualistic form of enjoyment, nor a moment devoted to yourself, but a sharing of joy together. It is a sharing in the blessings of God.
Giving is a duty. Deuteronomy 15 instructs us that taking care of one another is a Christian's duty (cf. Matthew 24:40). The needy brother or sister is entitled to receiving assistance. He does not have to plead or beg for it. Thus the charge in Deuteronomy 15:11, "Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers..." The neighbour's right to receive assistance engenders the duty of others to give the help that is needed.
In addition to all this, God's love is bountiful. God protects the rights of both orphan and widow, shows His love to the stranger, takes the lonely up into the communion, and delivers the poor.3He gives His blessing to the giver who obediently keeps His commandments.4You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbour as yourself.
Despite the promised blessing which God will grant His children when they are taking care of their neighbour, the people of Israel have, nevertheless, too often failed living up to these demands.5
Diaconate in the New Testament
At the beginning of the New Testament as well, there is as yet no direct reference made to deacons. An abundance of reference is made, however, to the life of the serving Christ, which example the congregation must follow. The diaconal office that begins to function within the New Testament congregation shall have to exhibit tangible evidence that it is doing so.
Christ came into the world to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). Christ put his arrival and his life in the revealing light of a total, all-encompassing and uninterrupted service (Luke 12:37). In doing so, he turns the regulations of that time upside down, the ultimate consequence of which is to love your neighbour (Luke 6:27-38; 12:22-34). In this sacrificial death we recognize God's love for us and for the world (John 3:16-17). The love of God in Christ is a giving, sacrificial and reconciling love (Romans 8:32; Galatians 1:4; Ephesians 5:12).
Christ is mindful of the preservation — the wellbeing — of our fellowmen and takes upon himself their cares and sorrows. He is 'diakonos,' i.e. servant among his disciples. We find a clear demonstration of this when Christ is washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:17). It is the love of God in Christ that is the source of 'diakonia.'
This gift of love, God's love for us in Christ, contains likewise the call He extends to us: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart."6Christ holds up his life and his disposition as an example so that we shall interact similarly with one another.7
The tenor of the New Testament constitution is this very love (John 13:34; 15:12, 17; 1 John 3:23).
With a view to following Christ's example, we should see that Christian love ought to be determined by a two-partite unity: a calling to repent (for the salvation of our neighbour) as well as a calling for charitableness. Word and action are closely interwoven in Christ (Matthew 5:6-8). This applies not only to our brother and sister in the congregation, but to our fellowman outside that community as well.
The first Christian congregation understood this explicitly. We read:
Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.Acts 2:45, 46
In other words, the congregation itself takes care of its needy brothers and sisters so that
There were no needy persons among them.Acts 4:34
It is the congregation in its totality that performs its diaconal task. The New Testament believers had a wholesome perception of the fact that nothing belonged to them, but that everything belongs to God. They understood that they were allowed to be stewards of God's gifts which they held in tenure, but also that they had to use them in the service to their fellowmen when — and wherever this was necessary. In this manner, the first Christians of the New Testament church fulfilled indeed the Old Testament command (Deuteronomy 15:4).
When a congregation grows rapidly there is a great chance that the supervision over the congregation will diminish. So it comes as no great surprise that we read as early as in Acts 4:34, 35 that the congregation no longer directly distributes the gifts for their fellow members but byway of the apostles. Thus the implementation of the offices becomes a necessity. First in line are the apostles, but when their workload becomes too demanding, it will be shared by servants who will now specialize in this kind of work (Acts 6:1-7; 1 Timothy 3:8-13).
A Diaconal Congregation
The congregation of the New Testament exists by virtue of a communion of saints which has been called into existence by God. Christ established that communion, which is founded on his sacrificial blood and build up by his Word and Spirit. The congregation has, in the first place, fellowship with Christ and shares in his benefits and thus it has fellowship one with another (1 John 1:7; Heidelberg Catechism Lord's Day 21, Q&A. 55*).
Briefly, the following (partly overlapping) characteristics can be found in a communion of saints, which is the wellspring of the diaconate:
Fellowship in faith
The communion of saints is foremost a fellowship in faith. Without fellowship in faith, founded in Christ, there is no communion with one another (1 John 1:7; Acts 2:42; 1 Corinthians 1:2, 9).
The New Testament refers frequently to the concept of 'body' to express the interdependent relationship within the congregation itself (Romans 12:4-5; Colossians 1:18-24). The letter to the congregation at Ephesus is replete with references to this effect (Ephesians 1:22; 2:16; 4:3-16; 5:33-30). The congregation is exhorted to be one in body (Colossians 3:15). Paul admonishes the congregation in Corinth to remain united though a great diversity of gifts, service, and working maybe present (1 Corinthians 12:25).
Being like-minded results from unity in faith. It consists of being of the same mind to reach a well-defined goal (Romans 12:16; 15:15-16; Philippians 2:2). We read that the apostles are to be united so that the world may know the reason why (John 17:21-23). Quite often it seems to be so easy to criticize and attack brothers and sisters who, together with us, are standing on the same frontline (James 5:9). In this kind of fault-finding we become, in fact, deserters and withdraw ourselves from the actual battlefield of our time. Being like-minded does not happen automatically; we have to make every effort to accomplish this (Romans 14:19) and our attitude should be shaped by this purpose (Philippians 2:3-7; James 2:4; 5:9-16; 1 Peter 4:9-10).
Keeping a watch on one another is not merely a recognizing of existing needs but a recognition of talents as well. The strong and the weak are to accept one another (Romans 14, 15). Bearing with each other and willingness to forgive are both essential, even though someone may have grievances against you (Colossians 3:13; Ephesians 4:2). It is only when the doctrine is at issue that tolerance shall cease (Romans 16:17).
The stakes are high: "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13, 14). A congregation that lacks active involvement is courting death, because what is missing is the 'one-for-all' and the 'all-for-one,' which attitude has now become an illusion. When members are separated from the body, the body will perish (Versteeg 1979).
Serving out of love
Brotherly love forms the heart of Christian existence. Christ is the wellspring of mutual love from which flows love for one's neighbour (Heid. Cat. 21, Q&A 55). Being a Christian should be recognizable because of one's love for the brothers and sisters (1 John 4:7-12). It is not for nothing one of Christ's commands: "A new command I give you: Love one another."8
Brotherly love is active love, "not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth."9It will avail itself of every opportunity to administer words of encouragement, comfort, and admonition to keep someone from going astray.10
Christ grants his congregation many gifts so that it may be built up (1 Corinthians 7:7). These gifts can be differentiated as gifts of grace — charismata — whose purpose is to equip and build up the congregation, as well as the services — diakoniai — that administer to the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:4-31; Romans 12:6-13; Colossians 4:17). When someone in the congregation is destitute, while we have plenty, how can we then show no pity on him and seal up our consciences? (1 John 3:16-17). In this context it is relevant to make the observation that the offices, as well, belong to the charismata which Christ grants to his congregation.
In Christ's congregation we are not without obligations toward one another; on the contrary, we are mutually responsible for and to our fellow members.11
The essential issue is here: the well-being of our neighbour. That is why there is room for admonition as well as for encouragement to serve (Matthew 18:15; Hebrews 3:13; 10:24, 25).
Sharing (within the congregation)
We are to share what we have received from God in order to assist one another (Acts 2-5). The table of the Lord's Supper occupies a central place here, for it is a shared communal repast that has no equal. Together we share in the grace administered to us, as well as in the mutual fellowship. Both helpers and receivers of help are dependent on one another, and are in need of one another (cf. Noordegraaf, 1980, pp. 51 ff.)
Sharing (within the federation of churches)
Caring for one another is not limited only to one's own congregation. When the congregation of Jerusalem has become needy, the congregation at Corinth organizes an impressive financial drive, the proceeds of which are brought to Jerusalem by Paul himself (2 Corinthians 8:1-15). In addition, Paul experiences much personal support from the congregation at Philippi (Philippians 2:30; 4:16-18).
Attracting new members to the congregation
A congregation that understands its diaconal task will be highly visible in the surrounding society and will attract others.12The congregation is actively engaged in attracting others, and will be doing good to one another as well as to everyone else (Galatians 6:10; 1 Thessalonians 5:15).
When we start to imagine the extent of both purpose and reach of the diaconal congregation, we shall discover that we still fall far short of the model.