I’ve long held the view—a common one, I think—that deacons are appointed by local churches to meet their members’ physical and material needs. Undoubtedly, such a view can be justified both biblically and historically.
Biblically, the seven appointed to “serve tables” in Acts 6 are not specifically called “deacons,” but many interpreters agree that they illustrate the functional heart of the diaconate—caring for the community’s needs. This despite the fact that much more is said in 1 Timothy 3 about a deacon’s qualifications than the specific responsibilities they are expected to carry out.
Historically, ecclesiastical traditions have nuanced the responsibility of the diaconate in different ways, yet the core element of meeting the needs of the Christian community has been, not surprisingly, constant.
However, I have come to realize that such a sketch of the diaconate may actually be misleading. That is, outlining the tasks the diaconate fulfills does not necessarily capture its essential function any more than listing the various tasks of a parent gets at the essence of parenthood. Or to put it another way, identifying various responsibilities fulfilled by deacons—what they do—does not get at the core purpose of the office—what they are for.
It probably also hasn’t helped that churches have often treated deacons as if they play a “supporting role” to the “real” work of those doing preaching, praying, and leading—a possible, even if not necessary, interpretation that could be gleaned from Acts 6:2. This hierarchialization of ministry is further entrenched by how often deacons are unordained, or, in traditions where they are ordained, are viewed as on the way to “full ordination.”
It was Karl Barth who awoke me from my diaconal slumber.
Once during a reading of the second half of the third part of the fourth volume of his Church Dogmatics, I was struck by his enticingly (if frustratingly) short commentary on the ministry of the diaconate. Barth gives a glimpse of how we might align the diaconate more closely to the centre of the Church’s essential calling to be witnesses to the Kingship of Christ in Church and world alike. Indeed, Barth gives hints for how the diaconate could be re-envisioned as a vital function of the Church’s public witness, and to do so in a way that bridges rather than exacerbates the formal ecclesial/public or internal/external distinctions that often characterize discussions of the Church’s engagement with the world.
Barth poses three “urgent problems” which, if attended to, might help construct a theology of the diaconate that encourages a critical engagement of the Church with cultural, political, and societal practices—practices that necessarily push her outside of herself. This is especially intriguing to those who want to develop a theology of public witness in contradistinction to the varied “church as alternative polis” theologies—many of which suggest that the church’s best public witness occurs when it restricts itself to attending to internal ecclesial practices and liturgies rather than critically and directly engaging the practices and “public liturgies” (and persons) external to the Church itself. So what are Barth’s three “urgent problems” that a theory and practice of the diaconate must face?
First, Barth observes that the diaconate’s effectiveness in meeting material needs will be proportionally limited to its understanding of how those needs arise from and are “grounded in certain disorders of the whole of human life in society . . . social, economic, and political.” More brashly: the diaconate that meets material needs of persons, especially those only of its own faith community, but closes its eyes to the broader social conditions causing them, have become complicit in those conditions by their silence. As Barth puts it, “The diaconate and the Christian community become dumb dogs, and their service a serving of the ruling powers, if they are afraid to tackle at their social roots the evils by which they are confronted in detail.” Ouch!
In this regard, Barth implies that diaconal service should not focus upon meeting the material needs only of those within the Christian community. In order that the diaconate fulfill its service not merely as a support to the Church, but as a witness to the world in its own right, it will necessarily be prepared to minister to those outside its own membership. When this happens, the Church explicitly enters into solidarity “with those who are pushed to the margin and perhaps the very outer margin of the life of human society,” even those whom might be to be especially “burdensome and destructive.” By so serving “the hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, sick, imprisoned” the church confesses Jesus Christ himself, without which the confessing community could alarmingly find itself “hopelessly on the left hand among the goats” (Cf. Matt 25:40ff.). In this way, the diaconate is itself a bridge between those “internal/external” or “ecclesial/public” distinctions (and sometimes, dichotomies) that so often persist.
Second, Barth asks, how is the church to understand its own diaconal service against the backdrop of the material services given (often better) by State? Can the Church continue to meet human material needs in view of the “the competition of godless Marxist Socialism,” and we can optionally insert, for example, Canadian Health Care or American MediCare as appropriate, “with its evangelisation and diaconate”? Barth’s question was prescient, especially for those of us living in a time and place where access to a social safety net is viewed at the level of a fundamental human right. In other words, is there any space left in which the diaconate can still function?
The answer, even in countries with a vibrant social safety net, must be: without a doubt! But the diaconate has active space not simply because there are “gaps in the system”; theoretically, a well-oiled publicly funded system could eventually close those gaps. Rather, even where the gaps are few and far between, the diaconate must never forget something fundamental to its service: unlike the service expected of the State, which is always in greater or lesser ways a service to humans (even if the service rendered by the state is not technically philanthropic but bureaucratic in nature), the service of the diaconate is first and foremost service to God, and not to humans, even if secondarily there is benefit to persons in physical need. As Kuyper once put it, “Deacons are not our servants, but servants of Christ.”
Following Barth’s lead, I argue that the Church need not fear losing its diaconal space. Even if gaps in the safety net were eventually closed, the way in which the State meets needs of the disadvantaged can never replace the diaconal service that has as its goal the glory of God manifest in the mutual fellowship of humanity in Christ. This is because the glory of the State practically tends toward the philanthropic (“the love of humanity”) rather than the philotheotic (“the love of God”) to which the Church is called even before its call to love the neighbour. Diaconal service is thus qualitatively different from the service of the State, if for no other reason than it is always and only carried out “in the name of Jesus Christ” (cf. Acts 3:6), not in the name of Caesar, nor as an act of philanthropic charity.
Put another way, the diaconate will always have space for action not simply because we will always have the poor with us (Cf. Deut 15:11; Matt 26:11). That is not sufficient theological motivation! Rather, the modern State which is self-defined as secular does not exist to serve God (even if it ought to understand itself this way!) and so is ideologically incapable of ever addressing the fundamental social and theological root of societal want, such as poverty or disease or unemployment. In short, parallel activities between the State’s social welfare system and the Church’s diaconate do not fulfill parallel purposes.
The third urgent problem Barth discusses is how to keep a healthy “special” diaconate functioning that reminds the church that service is simultaneously the concern of the whole body and of each individual Christian. Undeniably, all Christians are called to be servants, even as Christ himself came not to be served, but to be a “Deacon” of all (Mark 10:45). So how can we encourage specially appointed and trained deacons to carry out their special calling without assuaging our consciences with a few coins cast into the benevolence fund?
I can only surmise how Barth would solve this vexing problem, but one reason the distinction between “deacon” and “everyday Christian” persists is because the mandate congregations give their diaconate is often too narrow, while the expectation placed upon the diaconate is often too high.
On the one hand, the mandate of the diaconate is often too narrow. In this regard, congregations happily authorize deacons to ensure the material needs of the marginal in their midst are met, and they are doubly happy when this is carried out with appropriate stewardship of finances and facilities. But even if such responsibilities are fitting, such a mandate is too narrow because it wrongly assumes that “action speaks for itself” (it doesn’t) and therefore fails to authorize the diaconate also to speak on the church’s behalf, whether in support or in opposition, toward the social, political, and economic institutions and conditions under which the material need has arisen in the first place.
This begs the question of how the diaconate ought to engage in speech forms appropriate to its office—a question I can’t address sufficiently here. However, I do insist that churches should empower and equip the diaconate to do more than just “act”; they, too, need authorization and requisite training to discern and speak with spiritual wisdom to negative social conditions.
Here I observe that the supposed first deacons (Acts 6:1) were asked to deal with a problem that was not only practical (“hungry widows”) but political in nature. They had to grapple charitably and justly with the potentially explosive ethnic and social tensions that lay at the root of the practical problem, mainly, the unjust favour shown to Jewish over Grecian widows. Indeed, it is not immediately evident from the text that the first seven were appointed because they were able to work with their hands (which is not undesirable!), but more explicitly because they were “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). The lesson? Beware of appointing practically oriented deacons who are unspiritual and politically unwise! Indeed, those in the diaconate must not only give a fish to the hungry, or even be prepared to teach a hungry person to fish, but also intelligently to sound the alarm to Church and society when the fish are dying due to human pollutants and political neglect.
On the other hand, the expectation placed on the diaconate is often too high. In appointing a diaconate, it is theologically inappropriate to expect that its existence guarantees that the Church will carry out its material obligations. Rather, wise deacons will stubbornly refuse to hide these needs from the sight of the rest of the congregation. It is not the deacons’ job to keep pressing needs out of sight and out of mind of the congregation, but to call the congregation to join them in serving.
As Barth puts it, having a diaconate in no way negates that “a great deal . . . can be done by way of quiet personal diaconate among Christians or between Christians and non-Christians or semi-Christians in their own homes.” To put it bluntly, don’t expect the diaconate to fulfill in every possible way the material needs of either Church or society. Rather, expect the diaconate to serve as it is able, while continually reminding the rest of us of our own obligations to serve. In this way, the whole local community can fulfill both its apostolic and diaconal service, that is, service which continually holds Word and Deed, Speaking and Acting, together in an unbreakable partnership of public witness to the Gospel.