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Newsletter, July 2016

An Orthodox View of Philanthropy and Church Diaconia. Part 2

Miltiadis Vantsos
Lecturer of the Theological Faculty at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece

Marina Kiroudi
Dipl. Theol. orth., Munich, Germany

Diaconia in the life of the Church

The Christian understanding of philanthropy expresses itself very clearly as diaconia, as service to fellow man, and from the beginning belongs to the life of the Church as a matter of course. As the Apostles proclaim the Gospel of the death and resurrection of Christ (comp. Rom 1:1-7), so also is this act of salvation at the same time an expression of Christ's boundless love for man. For that reason it is connected to the corresponding offer of love, setting Christ's love as the benchmark (Jn 13:34) and addressing itself to all believers. Of course love in this new offer is understood in an all-encompassing sense, but it expresses itself as active charity in tangible everyday life, also in view of the hardship of the needy. The Apostles not only preach the word of God, but they practice the offer of love in their life.

The Christians of the Jerusalem Church feel joined in their belief in the resurrected Christ and are united "heart and soul" (Acts 4:32). They have everything in common: "life, soul, harmony, the common table, the inseparable brotherhood, unfeigned love, uniting many bodies to one bond and many souls to one and the same attitude" (Basil the Great, Sermon In Time of Famine and Drought, PG 31,325B). The common belief here includes a common life, which cares for the spiritual as well as the physical needs of others. Possessions are sold and put at the disposal of the community. This does not occur in the form of absolute possession sharing, but rather in the sense of a sensible distribution, which the Apostles themselves undertake, so that each receives as much as he needs (Acts 4:35). In this way there was ultimately none who suffered (Acts 4:35). So while a personal willingness to diaconia is presupposed, a certain authority is necessary to lead the philanthropic works of the Church.

As the number of faithful in the Jerusalem Church grows, it is no longer possible for the Apostles to concentrate on their primary assignment of preaching the word of God, so that they comment: "It would not be right for us to neglect the word of God so as to distribute food" (Acts 6:3). The fact that the preaching of the word of God enjoys priority among the Apostles does not debase the distribution of food. Precisely because this is seen as an important duty, the Apostles suggest to the community to choose seven men to carry out this service. This kind of diaconia is praised by Christ, who emphasizes that the one who serves is great among men (Mt 20:26). The special value of this service is testified by the fact, that the deacons are chosen by vote, in a similar way to the election of the apostle Matthias. Even after the election of the deacons, this diaconia should not be pictured as an institutional form, since philanthropy still carries a personal character (comp. Uhlhorn, 21959, p. 49).

The philanthropic works of the Christians happen not only through and for the local community, but also spread beyond their own local church. Due to a famine in Jerusalem the Apostle Paul organizes the so-called logeia, a collection for the Jerusalem community. He even instructs the communities of Galatia and Corinth how to organize such a collection in order to finish them on time and thus provide the funds to the needy. With this type of collection, each person should take care to contribute, but on the other hand no one's personal budget should be strained. Each should help only within his own personal means (comp. 1 Cor 16:1), without incurring hardship on himself (2 Cor 8:13). Paul understands the call to donate not as a strict directive, but rather as advice (2 Cor 8:8-10). The donation is made not under a clear specification of an obligatory sum, but should correspond to the attitude of the donator and be made freely (2 Cor 9:7). Not the donation as such is decisive, but rather the entire structure of motivation and action. The communities of Macedonia are mentioned as especially exemplary, for "their constant cheerfulness and their intense poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity" (2 Cor 8:2). Characteristic is the understanding of the non-Jewish Christians of this community in that they have a deep inner desire to serve the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem. Due to the common participation in the fulfilled promise, the participation in the spiritual welfare of the Jewish Christians, they cannot help but to become servants themselves, providing earthly goods (Rom 15:25-27).

As a minority in a pagan surrounding, the Christians of course could not systematically organize their charitable activities. However they were so distinguished by their ethics that active philanthropic works were perceived as a Christian trait. Not only does this differentiate them from the pagans (Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, PG 5,712C), but the Christians even find recognition from the pagans, since their charity is shown to Christians and pagans alike (comp. Sozomenos, Ecclesiastical History, Tome V, PG 67,1258A-1264B). Money is collected at the Sunday services, given to the head of the community and he then distributes it to the needy, such as orphans, widows, the sick, the imprisoned and strangers (Justin the Philosopher an Martyr, First Apology, PG 6,429C). The divine service, service to God, thus goes hand in hand with service to fellow man. Tertullian reports similarly. Each believer could pay his contribution on a certain day of the week, according to his wishes. It was then used for food for the poor and their burial, to support orphans, the aged, the disabled, etc. (Tertullian, Apologeticus adversus gentes, PL 1,467B). There is no pre-set norm on the amount to contribute, but rather the donation should be made freely and according to the donor's means.1

The Church as a whole and the individual faithful develop an important philanthropic activity. A greater expansion and organization of charitable works depends also on the social, political and economic preconditions in which the Church exists (see Mantzaridis, 1981, p. 149). Organized philanthropic activity is hardly possible during the persecutions, but due to their belief the Christians continue to be characterized by their new ethos, witnessed up to martyrdom. In turn, this fact influences many to become Christians themselves. As Christianity begins to find acceptance in varying segments of the population and its history takes a new turn after Constantine the Great, a change takes place in the surrounding social and political circumstances in which the Church finds itself. Although Emperor Constantine is only baptized just before his death, he is beneficent to the Church. While in former times Christians experienced persecutions, in Constantine's Age being a Christian has developed into a privilege. Inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire see themselves as Christians as well as Byzantine citizens, especially after the introduction of Christianity as the state religion by Emperor Theodosius the Great. A clear separation of Church and State in today's sense is hardly possible. The political situation allows the Church to develop freely in many aspects, including her philanthropic activities.

Under Byzantium the philanthropic works of the Church align itself with the practice of apostolic tradition and develop further. The Church continues to take care of the poor, shelter strangers, assist widows and orphans and care for the imprisoned and the sick. Regardless whether on the congregational level or in the meantime in the form of special facilities, leadership of the philanthropic activities lies with the head of the community, the bishop. The bishop himself is bound to pursue the philanthropic works of the Church (Apostolic Canon 59. In: Agapius, a hieromonach, & Nikodemus, a monk, 1998, p. 75f). Even at election to the office of bishop, a candidate's philanthropic reputation is taken into consideration (more detailed in Constantelos, 1991, p. 61). The bishop not only administrates the philanthropic tasks of the Church, but he should also give witness to Christ's love through his own personal moral conduct.

Many could be named whose life and activities as bishop lay witness to Christian philanthropy, each in his own way. Special mention here is awarded to Basil the Great, who in his function as bishop and because of his monastic identity, takes new paths in the organization of Christian philanthropy. His philanthropic deeds serve as an example and inspiration for philanthropic facilities, even in later times. His entrance into the monastery meant a rejection of the world, so that he sold all his possessions, but out of love of God and man, so that the profit benefits the poor.

Using this profit he builds as Bishop of Caesarea a monastery complex in the diocese with diverse philanthropic institutions, known as "Basilias." The institutions consist of poor houses, hostels for travellers, which can also accommodate pack animals and escorts, and hospitals for the care of the sick with proper doctors and attendants as well as wards for lepers (Basil the Great, Epistle 94, PG 488BC; Gregory of Nazianz, Oration XLIII, PG 36,577C-580C). St. Gregory the Theologian, a close friend of Basil the Great, calls Basilias a "new city" of charity, in which Christ is emulated not only in words, but also in deeds (ibid.). Although Basil the Great does not himself give the complex in Caesarea a name, he understands it as a place of active charity. After all, turning away from God and a cold heart, the absence of charity, are the cause of suffering. Man's spiritual condition triggers his unfortunate state2.

According to Basil the Great hospitality, sympathy for the suffering and service to the sick should be characteristic hallmarks for monks (Basil the Great, Oration on Ascetic Life, PG 31,649B). Even as facilities such as Basilias do not stand alone, but are based within a monastery and its church, so also is charity to be understood not as a value for its own sake, but as complementary to ascetic life and the liturgical experience. For that reason charity expresses itself twofold: in satisfying physical needs in the form of shelter, nourishment, clothing and medical aid as well as spiritual needs in the form of liturgical life.

Even though not to the complexity and extent as "Basilias", monasteries often carry out the Church's philanthropic works. The commandment of hospitality, known from the beginning as a Christian trait and successor to Abraham's hospitality, is valid for desert as well as for suburban monasteries. It begins with hostels caring for guests and strangers, then also for sick travellers, developing into the nursing sector (comp. Uhlhorn, p. 193). Especially monasteries founded near towns support services for the needy. Profit made from the sale of the monks' earthly possessions before their entrance into monastic life, donations from wealthy faithful and favored treatment by the state serve the philanthropic activities of the monasteries, enabling the emergence of hostels for strangers, poor houses, hospitals and homes for the elderly and orphans (Constantelos, 1991. p. 80).

In Byzantium organizations called "diaconia" are established, not in the strict sense as part of a monastery, but probably according to the example of monastic settlements in the Egyptian desert3. Normally a "diaconia" is administered by priests and monks and is supported by wealthy donors or by a monastery or diocese, in which case their names then hint at the neighboring monastery (Constantelos 1991, p. 72). Diaconia emerge at very lively spots in a town, at the harbor, at market places - wherever the poor, strangers, workers and those seeking work can be found. Diaconia care namely for those who live in poverty, with no work or means to support themselves, or are strangers in the town. But their service is open to all needy, regardless of origin and religion. Not only material needs are satisfied, such as alms, warm meals and clothing as well as health and hygiene services, but the needy are also counseled and encouraged and receive religious instruction. Employees see to the provision of material goods and the clergy are responsible for the spiritual well-being of the needy (Constantelos 1991, p. 72). The very name "diaconia" recalls the deaconate of deacons and deaconesses, serving man in his very specific distress.

The deaconate of men and women experiences a change in the life of the Church. In the time of the Apostles, the deaconate service is connected to material service, but in the course of time only the liturgical function remained. Deaconesses originally attend to order in the church, instruct women catechumens in the faith, help at baptisms and beyond that are involved in philanthropic duties. After infant baptism becomes the norm, they pursue exclusively philanthropic tasks of the Church (comp. Theodorou, 1978, p. 170f).

In all of Byzantium service to the needy is not accomplished solely through facilities of the Church and through monasteries, but also through private persons as well as by the State, through the Emperor. Similar to the way in which bishops pursue philanthropic works of the Church, the emperors also view philanthropic tasks as their duty, no matter whether through their own personal act or through law. If the Church provides special measures to support the needy, then this happens as an act of charity and takes a view to man's entire well-being. If the State provides social facilities or supports the needy by means of passing appropriate laws, then this usually occurs to successfully implement certain social politics, thereby establishing an orderly society. Here we should not picture Church and State as two elements, fully independent of each other, because the "Church from the beginning was counted among the pillars of the Byzantine State. She constitutes in a sense the State's inner logos, the meaning of and reason for the State's existence. Even though this does not apply generally for every epoch and for all involved parties, the general assertion is valid that the Church in Byzantium had a say in the entire political, social and cultural life of the State" (Nikolaou, 2002, p. 135). As the highest level of authority in the State, the Byzantine emperors always supported philanthropic works. Generally their motive is religious and can be traced to the Christian understanding of philanthropy, although socio-political reasons cannot be excluded. Philanthropy in Byzantium is considered to be an imperial virtue, exceeding all others, not based simply on one ethical norm that must be fulfilled, but rather based on emulation of God's philanthropy4.

The Emperor's philanthropic works are expressed in different ways. On the one hand, churches and monasteries are granted special favors through laws and decrees, e.g. exemption from taxation, enabling the upkeep of their philanthropic facilities (orphanages, hostels, poor houses, hospitals, schools). On the other hand the Emperor and especially Empresses are conspicuous for their own personal activity as well as for organization of philanthropic facilities. Personal adoption of the needy (especially orphans stand in the Emperors' favor), feeding the needy, receptions of the needy at the Imperial Court, generous donations, building philanthropic facilities (poor houses, hostels, hospitals, orphanages) count among the numerous philanthropic works by Byzantine emperors5. Even when philanthropic facilities are donated by the Emperor or wealthy private persons, their administration is often transferred to the bishops6. Former facilities of the Church, no longer active, are likewise rejuvenated by the State. State facilities can hardly be distinguished from those of the Church, and Byzantine citizens take advantage of both.

This cooperation between Church and State can be clearly demonstrated by the example of the Pantocrator Monastery in Constantinople. This is a monastery complex, donated in 1136 by Emperor John Comnenos II and his wife Irene. Although a donation of the State, it has great similarity to "Basilias" almost eight centuries earlier. Philanthropic facilities are erected within the monastery: hostels for guests and strangers, homes for the elderly and specialized hospitals. As capital of the Byzantine Empire and destination of pilgrimages, Constantinople was the target of many visitors who had to be accommodated. Providing for them is certainly part of Christian tradition, but the erection of philanthropic facilities is also part of social politics of that epoch (Constantelos, 1991, p. 129). Medical attention is outstanding for the 12th century, providing specialized wards for specific illnesses as well as trained, specialized physicians, nursing and medicines. To the monastery also belong two churches where priests carry out their assignments and care for guests in spiritual matters. According to early Christian tradition the Divine Liturgy is celebrated four times a week, attended by the faithful. A priest is assigned to hear confessions and prepares the terminally ill for death (comp. Constantelos, 1991, p. 135). One could say he prepares them for life after death since the priest's diaconia does not consist merely in psychological care, but really in passing on God's philanthropy in its entirety, as experienced in the Church (Kofinas, 2003, p. 42). As the Church's cooperation with the State no longer exists during the Osman Empire, the Church still retains her pastoral role in health care, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople founds and sustains hospitals according to Byzantine example (Kofinas, 2003, p. 47).

In viewing the diaconia of the Orthodox Church in modern times in more detail, it is first necessary to capture important points of the historical retrospect. Even though the experience of Divine philanthropy and its expression as diaconia in the Church's history are exhausted neither in the Apostolic age nor in the Byzantine Empire, this era still left its mark on interaction with needy persons. The Church primarily cares for the salvation of man through God; therefore the "service of the word" has priority. The "service at the table" does not exist for itself alone, but rather emerges from faith as a natural consequence, since faith is based on Divine philanthropy. In this way diaconia spreads also to tangible physical needs that can be viewed in a comprehensive light. Diaconia occurs to all men, especially to those whose circumstances demand greater support. Diaconia to the needy has taken various forms over time. At first Christians expressed charity in their own personal lives, each according to his own capabilities and means. In their capacity as members of the Church and conscious of a community, they commonly carry out philanthropic tasks, led by their bishop. The spectrum reaches from single philanthropic works, especially in mastering unexpected emergencies, to continual support of the needy and to creation of corresponding facilities. Historically speaking, not only is an exclusively ecclesiastical diaconia formed, but cooperation with the State is realized to provide the needy with the best possible support.

Also today the Orthodox Church can demonstrate philanthropic effect; nothing has changed in the Church's theological understanding of philanthropy nor in its consciousness of expressing this understanding. According to local possibilities, the Church in its own right supports philanthropic facilities on the diocesan level. These are institutions that can look back on a long tradition, e.g. homes for the elderly, hospitals and orphanages, also institutions for needs of the present day and age, e.g. facilities for addicts and shelters for young single pregnant women or mothers. These institutions care not only for direct needs, but also provide spiritual guidance and the opportunity to participate in liturgical life. If several dioceses lie in close proximity to each other, they can commonly support philanthropic tasks. For example, one diocese supports a home for the elderly, the neighboring diocese administers an orphanage and a third runs a school for the deaf and dumb.

In countries where close cooperation between Church and State is possible, the philanthropic acts of the Church tie in with experiences already made. There are e.g. in Greece many philanthropic institutions, founded and administered by a diocese, but fostered by the State. The Church accepts the State's support and can still realize its ideals of diaconia. Likewise there are state social facilities in which priests administer spiritual guidance. In a state hospital there is often a chapel and, for those who wish it, the chance to participate in the Mysteries as well as pastoral guidance from the responsible clergy. The Church's particular contribution is always one that the State cannot afford. Although both sides administer to the same public, the State exhausts its possibilities on the horizontal or social level, whereas the Church, going beyond that, has the task of administering to the vertical or transcendental level (Larentzakis, 21980, p. 2019f). Certainly Church institutions offer more possibilities on this level, but the Church's experience has demonstrated that she can achieve her objective also in state facilities.

Especially for the Orthodox Church in the diaspora, cooperation with the State is often the only way for long-term support of the needy, since she enjoys the backing of a large number of the faithful and the resources for establishing philanthropic institutions are not necessarily available. Her efforts for diaconia do also further the State's social assistance, just as the State's social assistance is useful to the Church's diaconia, as they both serve the needy in their specific situations. People with chronic or long-term illnesses need in-patient care, just as children who cannot grow up in a family need to live in a facility as well as continual assistance. State organizations and institutions support diaconia and at the same time provide possibilities of strengthening the community by means of spontaneous and personal charitable activity. The faithful could help relieve the institutions' burden by visiting or even temporarily administering to the needy, thereby also enriching their lives. The solidarity of church community life and philanthropy further carries a personal trait, characteristic of Orthodox countries as well as for the Orthodox Church in the diaspora. No matter in which form diaconia of the Church is expressed, it embraces man out of love and thus is witness to God's love for man.


In its historical development the Church experienced mainly two basic forms of diaconia on the needy. First, she carries out diaconia herself and sponsors corresponding philanthropic institutions, similar to the example of "Basilias". Second, she acknowledges the value of state social institutions and cooperates with them, similar to the example of the Pantocrator Monastery. In our opinion, both forms of diaconia are appropriate in tangibly assisting deprived persons and in addressing their specific needs.

If the Church sponsors philanthropic facilities, then she can organize them according to her own wishes. That means she cares not only for physical needs, but also at the same time furthers the spiritual life of her charges. Through the offered liturgical activity, homilies and pastoral counseling she can prepare the needy for a life in society or for life after death. Special emphasis is placed on the chance of reflection on one's life and repentance, thus orienting oneself to God. As state institutions place more value on the psychological level and strengthening self-confidence, Church institutions however focus more on union with God in an ecclesiastical life. Church institutions offer more possibilities for a regulated liturgical life, something that, while not unimaginable in state facilities, is certainly more limited there. On the other hand, cooperation with state institutions opens further chances for the Church's diaconia. As especially religious Christians usually choose a Church facility, in a state facility the clergy in charge come into contact with those Christians, who have less association with the Church. Thus the clergy is readily available to them as contact person in spiritual matters. And especially in their difficult times they can find support in the faith, if they feel the need.

Whether in the form of institutions or organizations or on the personal level, whether in the form of State or Church initiatives - the Orthodox Church today certainly cannot enforce one absolute model for her philanthropic activities that can be utilized everywhere and at any time. Based on the social, political and economical conditions of the time, she can only act locally out of her self-conception and bear witness to Divine philanthropy.


1On philanthropic works of the Church in post-Apostolic times in Ignatius of Antioch, Apologist Justin and Tertullian, comp. Mantzaridis, 1981, p. 150-151.

2Basil the Great sees the cause of a famine in Cappadocia (378) in the indifference of the people to God as well as in indifference to the poor on the part of the wealthy and their lack of love for fellow man. The famine therefore is to be understood as a Divine instrument of instruction, meant to tear man out of this indifference. (Basil the Great, Sermon In Time of Famine and Drought, PG 31,309B).

3Spreading from the old Egyptian monastic settlements, the "diaconia" extended into the Holy Land, to Italian towns and the Byzantine Empire.

4Comp. Hunger, 1963, p. 10. In Hunger's detailed investigation, philanthropy is regarded already in ancient times as a godly attribute and at the same time as a special characteristic of the ideal ruler. Therefore this ideal continues in the Byzantine Empire in the form of the Emperor's philanthropy, also on an understanding based on Christ.

5The philanthropic deeds of the Byzantine emperors and their cooperation with the Church, beginning with Emperor Constantine the Great to Emperor Alexios Comnenos, are commented in detail by D. Constantelos in his book Byzantine Philanthropy and social welfare (1991).

6Even today Metropolitans in Greece are chairmen or honorary chairmen of state welfare institutions (Mantzaridis, 1981, p. 153 and 156).


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