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Historical and theological experience

Theological foundations of diakonia

Archbishop Jeremias of Wroclaw and Szcecin, The Orthodox Church of Poland
From report at the 3rd Annual General Meeting of the European Federation for Diaconia - EURODIACONIA
Poland, 26-30 May 1999

"Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, 'The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves'" (Lk. 22:24-27).

The service of Christ

"I am among you as the one who serves". There are many interpretations of these words of the Savior. Some exegesists see here primarily service in the literal sense of the word as waiting on tables and washing feet (cf. Jn 13:4-10). Others believe that this text should be understood in the context of the Last Supper as "a call for service in communities to those who are installed to preside over the celebration of the Eucharist" [1].

Here Christ instructs the pastors of the Church "not to abuse their position like the authorities of this world do in order to oppress and not to concentrate on position and honors" [2]. The point is that "the greatest" among the disciples of Christ should be like the youngest, while "the one who rules like the one who serves".

Perhaps these views of contemporary exegesists are well justified and true. At the same time, there is an impression that the Gospel from St. Luke may just as well speak primarily about the unique service of Christ Himself, i. e. about the Lord's service of humankind and all creation, performed by Him in His life filled with humbleness and humility and crowned by the death on the Cross.

This meaning of Christ's service is especially clearly stressed in the Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians (2:6-8). Jesus Christ was the image of God, but He humiliated Himself by taking the nature of a servant, by "being made in human likeness and being found in appearance as a man", by "becoming obedient to death - even death on a cross".

The Letter to the Romans points out that Christ died for us "while we were sinners" (Rom. 5:8). Several lines below, now in the perspective of the Triune confession, it says, "when we were God's enemies, we reconciled to Him through the death of His Son" (Rom. 5:10).

This means that the service, diakonia, of Jesus Christ, was addressed not only to the weak, sick and poor. In His earthly life, our Lord Jesus Christ showed that He understood the love of one's neighbor He preached (cf. Mt. 5:44) not in a figurative but in the most literary and real sense. Those who criticized Christ were right - He was a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Mt. 11:19). Diakonia, the service of Christ, embraces everyone including the deprived, tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes. For instance, tax collectors were well-off people. In Mt. 21:23-31, Christ throws these cruel words into the face of the chief priests and elders: "The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you".

The service of the Savior also reaches beyond the national borders of Israel. According to the Gospel from St. John, the Greeks came to Christ already in His lifetime (Jn. 12:20-22). The parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37) and the conversation of the Savior with the Samaritan woman (Jn. 4:1-42) have a clear theological import. Belonging to God's elected Israel is related by the Lord to the other, a stranger or even an enemy. According to St. Mathew, the risen Lord sends His disciples to all nations (Mt. 28:19). Remarkably, the beginning of this understanding of Christ's service is found already in the Old Testament. In many passages in Holy Scriptures, Israel is reminded that they "were slaves in Egypt" and therefore should not "deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice". What remains of the harvest should be left for the alien, the fatherless and the widow (Deut. 24:17-22, cf. Deut. 14:29; 16:11,14).

The understanding of service in the early Church

Edaurd Schweizer makes a far-reaching remark on the notions describing the "service" of Christ. By the time the Old Testament books appeared, there were in the Greek language four words denoting service. These are TELOS (perfection), APXH (leadership), TIMH (honor), and LEITOURGIA (public service). All these words, except for the first one, appear in the same sense also in the Old Testament, but referring only to the Jewish and Greek-Roman service and only occasionally to Christ Himself and to the whole community participating in the service of Christ. "Instead, a secular, non-biblical, verb diaconio is chosen, with words stemming from the same root to describe all kinds of service of the disciples of Christ" [3].

Thus diakonia is a collective notion for many kinds of activities, services, and actions. For our theme it is important to note that along with many other notions the word diakonia means the preaching of the gospel (cf. Eph. 5:6-7), as well as the service of the apostles in general (cf. 1 Cor. 3:5) and in particular the raising of funds for the Palestinian, especially Jerusalem community (cf. 2 Cor. 8:4).

This circumstance justifies the opinion that diakonia is inseparable from the integral life of the Church. Diakonia is an essential element of the Church.

Collecting contributions in Macedonia and Achaia (Rom 15:25; cf. 2 Cor. 8-9) implies not only support for the suffering fellow-Christians in Palestine. As a concrete expression of the community and solidarity of all Christians, it makes it possible to perceive the authentic catholicity and unity of the Church as a living reality.

The history of installing deacons in the Church cited in Acts 6:1-6 does not make a considerable change to this meaning of diakonia. The fact that the apostles are reluctant to neglect the ministry of the word in order to wait on tables does not at all disprove the significance of the diakonical nature of the Church. Actually it was no longer physically possible for the apostles to take care of both tables and preaching, since the number of disciples was increasing. From the Acts of the Apostles we learn that the deacons ordained by the apostles did not understand their service as waiting on tables alone. The laying of the apostles' hands also gave them a charisma of missionary service. One of the seven, Philip, baptizes an Ethiopian. Another one, Stephen, crowns this successful preaching of the gospel with martyrdom. "Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen - Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom of the Spirit by whom he spoke" (Acts 6:9-10).

The diakonical responsibility for the integrity of God's creation

The understanding of preaching good news as diakonia is inevitably linked with the fact that preaching introduces a person to the highest value which is salvation. Therefore, the diakonical work can be interpreted as anticipation of the reality of the Kingdom of God. And it is not only humankind that belongs to this reality.

The end of the Gospel from St. Mark (16:9-20), so much argued about, makes a clear statement on the preaching of the gospel to all creation: "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation" (16:15). The preaching of the gospel is addressed to humankind as the crown of creation (cf. Mk. 16:16 and Col. 1:18-20). Conversion and baptism understood in Rom. 6:5 as union with Christ is not an end to the spiritual ascension of a person. The goal is not yet achieved. The participation in the body of Christ, i.e. membership in the Church, makes only a beginning of life in Christ (Gal. 2:19-20). This life has no end and it is not limited to the personality of an individual. It finds its necessary accomplishment in the life of a community of the faithful, i. e. in the life of the Church. Through the Church the manifold wisdom of God becomes known "to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms", in other words, to all creation.

The Letter to the Romans tells us about the ardent hope, with which all creation awaits the revelation of God's children, that "the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom. 8:21).

Diakonia in social life

In the verses of the Gospel from St. Luke, cited in the beginning of the article, there are these words: "Jesus said to them, 'The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors'" (Lk. 22:25). Most of the interpreters have overlooked these words. There may be an impression that the words of Christ do not apply to kings and their attitude to the nations they rule, nor to benefactors and their attitude to the beneficiaries. Yet it is not so. First of all, there is no reason to believe that kings and benefactors cannot be Christians. But even if they become Christians, what will become of them? These questions are not to be easily dismissed, if only because on two occasions the Letter to the Romans 13:4 describes "archonts", that is rulers, as God's servants - deacons. Christians should obey these rulers or whatever they may be called (cf. 1 Pet. 2:13-14). What is meant here are rulers anxious to do good. Moreover, I Tim. 2:1-2 calls Christians to pray "for kings and all rulers".

The question of Christian attitude to state and the authorities has preoccupied Christians in all times. In the 3d century, one of the answers was: the moment an emperor becomes a Christian he ceases to be an emperor. As far back as the 4th century voices were heard maintaining that the state with all its institutions loses its meaning when its citizens become Christians. These views proved to be utopic, while the conviction has remained till our time that Christians have a special service to perform for society. This service has varied with times. For some Orthodox what is important is criticism of the authorities, such as that ventured upon by St. Ambrose of Milan in the 4th century and St. Philip, Metropolitan of Moscow, in the 16th century. Otherwise service of the state was performed by those Christians who helped overcome divisions and stop civil wars.

In the new times the old political problems have been ousted to the background by other problems, particularly those pertaining to social and economic life. The recent events, such as the war in the Balkans, have brought us back to the former questions about the goals decisive for the life of nations and states.

First of all, the nature of Christian participation in social (political, etc.) life should be clarified. During the last two centuries beginning from the French Revolution, Christians have participated in political developments passively, so to say post factum, responding to the already accomplished events.

Not that this position was imposed on churches and Christians. It resulted partly from the processes which took place within the churches themselves, primarily in the theological reflection on historical experience. Historically the passive attitude replaced a period of high activity among Christians and churches. Since St. Constantine Equal-to-the-Apostles, Christians were aware of their responsibility for social life and were actively involved in building it. The influence of Christian churches upon social life was not always only positive. In medieval states and during the Reformation, Christians were responsible for such atrocities as inquisition, eradication of peoples in America, bloody wars.

In the Age of Enlightenment, Christian influence on social life began to weaken. The political structure of church-state relations in most Protestant countries and in Russia at that time came to reflect the intention of the state to dominate all areas of social life, particularly through control over the churches while incorporating them in the state structure.

The consequences of this state of affairs became manifest in the early 20th century. They were most vivid in the attitude taken by major European churches during World War I. Some of them have identified with the authorities in their country up to this day.

The powerlessness and passivity of Christians and churches have been especially vivid with regard to the mass media.

Just as in the worst times of church history, Christians have been carried away by various groupings. Slander upon neighbors, such as the Serbs and Russians in the West, has become incredible. There is a lack of truly reliable information about the real situation in Serbia, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. It is political and economic interests that define in fact the way in which information is presented in the mass media. The perceived freedom of the mass media is made a dogma precluding a critical question of whether this freedom exists in fact.

Eventually a Christian should ask the legitimate question: What are the life expectations and goals of a person whose outlook is formed by the mass media? This involves another question: To what degree the diakonical work is conditioned by the needs arising from this outlook?

The readiness for dialogue is essential today as never before. Retreat into one's own church community or personal devotion is inadmissible not only in view of problems faced by all of us. Such a retreat is unacceptable primarily from the theological point of view. Salvation that Christ has given us leads not only to the renewal of every individual. It leads to the creation of a community of people redeemed and faithful to Christ, i. e. to the emergence of the Church. The community of the faithful, the Church, the body of Christ, has its own place in this world. Their service in the world is to save this world, to save all God's creation.

  1. Gerhard Schneider, Das Evangelium nach Lukas, Gutersloher Verlagshaus, Wuerzburg, 1977, S.450
  2. Op.zit. S. 450
  3. Eduard Schweizer, Die diakonische Struktur der neutestamentlichen Gemeinde, in: Diakonie - Biblische Grundlagen und Orientierungen, HVA, Heidelberg 1994, S.170
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