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Newsletter, May-June 2017

Liturgical Diaconia. Part 1

Dr Alexandros Papaderos


Biblical and Theological View of Diaconia

From the history of the term 'diakonia' itself, it is clear that the ancient world's scale of values was reversed by Christianity and new ideals established.

The secular Greek idea of diakonein (waiting at table and, in its extended sense, providing for the maintenance of life) was associated with an inferior human activity unsuitable for all but slaves. But when related to the polis (service of one's country, city, or to the State as a statesman, with a view to doing the service entrusted to him and not to dominate), to the cosmos (in the sense of everything the human being, as microcosm, must do so as not to disturb the unity and harmony of the whole world, the macrocosm) and to God (e. g. the wise man as God's servant, instrument and witness, in Aristotle and Hellenism), the term diakonia took on a broader meaning which found an echo in early Christian writings and in the patristic literature. But in the sense of a sacrifice of oneself for the sake of the other, the term diakonia still had a long way to go: to rule rather than to serve was still what best befitted man. "How can a man who has to serve someone possibly be happy?" asked the Sophists.

In Judaism, on the other hand, the notion of service was strongly influenced by the oriental spirit, according to which it was not demeaning to perform services for another, least of all when that other is a great lord and even God Himself. It is significant that the LXX, which does not use the word diakonein, employs the term douleuein or, for Hebrew words referring to the cult, the terms leitourdein and latreuin. There are many examples of a helpful attitude to the neighbor in the Old Testament. But in late Judaism the supreme command of love to the neighbour (Lv. 19:18) tended to fade into the background and, as a result of the contrast drawn by the Pharisees between the just and the unjust, was eventually almost completely obscured. Service came to be practiced more as a work which is, meritorious in God's sight and less as an act of sacrifice.

Into this pitiless world came the Gospel as the Good News of God's great love and mercy. To demonstrate and attest this love to all men is the task of Christian diaconia.

The term diakonein is sometimes used in the N.T. in its original sense of waiting at table. But at the same time it undergoes a radical change of content.

Firstly, the verbal connection made in Hellenistiń Judaism between service and self-service was completely abandoned. On the natural' scale of values, the one who sits down and is waited on at table has more 'standing' than the one who serves him. 'But I am among you as one who serves' (Lk 22:27); precisely as He who, though Lord of the Kingdom of God (v. 29), voluntarily assumes the role of servant, thereby turns upside down the human style of values and shows the way to true greatness which is not the way of the princes and rulers of this world (Mk. 10:42; Mt. 20:25) but the way of the cross which He himself travels: 'If any of you wants to be great, he must be the servant of the rest; and if one of you wants to be first, he must become the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served; he came to serve and to give his life to redeem many people' (Mk. 10:43-45. Cf. the story of the feet-washing). This is certainly not just the establishment of a new pattern of ethical behaviour, a new 'law' whose fulfilment would be nothing more than a 'service which brings death' and condemnation. What Jesus seeks rather is a 'service of the Spirit', a 'service by which men are innocent', which surpasses in glory anything known in the past (2 Cor. 3:7-9).

Diakonia thus becomes a basic Trinitarian-christological-ecclesiological and eschatological concept. As love of the neighbour, diakonia is the fruit of God's love: the love of God to humanity which, in Jesus Christ, has revealed the type of the true deacon through kenosis and cross; and the love of man to God which is measured in service to the neighbour.

True diaconia, therefore, can only be properly understood in terms of God's mercy (eleos) and only properly be exercised by the power of God's mercy (eleos). In a world which, as I have said, is pitiless, its primary purpose is to communicate an atmosphere of mercy (eleos); the kind of atmosphere we experience in our liturgical life. The Kyrie eleison of the congregation which permeates every act of Christian worship as a constant dominant theme expresses its confidence in God's unspeakable mercy, His grace and favour, His goodness and faithfulness, the mercy, compassion, blessing and philanthropy whose 'fullness' we have experienced and are to communicate to others. Just as the creation of the world and of humankind is an expression of God's mercy (eleos), so too the restoration (apokatastasis, paligenesia) and the redemption (soteria, lytrosis), the whole economy of salvation, are due to the mercy (eleos) of God towards which the congregation too is eschatologically oriented, looking for the eleos of its Lord (Jude 21). The Church prays for the Jews that God may have mercy on them [1]. Christians show mercy to pagans in the hope of winning them to Christianity [2]. St. Isaac the Syrian would later describe eleemosyne as 'the ardour of the heart's love for the creation, for the animals, for man, indeed, even for the devil!' Human beings are to drink this pure wine until they are drunk with it and then really live!

In this universal atmosphere of love, of course, diaconia is neither simply a distribution of alms nor welfare service, though this too is certainly recommended frequently in the NT as a sign of genuine love. But the term diaconia actually becomes the very essence of all Christian love in action (service in relation to all human needs) as well as the essence of genuine discipleship (unity of diaconia, obedience and witness). The fact that the very first deacons did not refrain from preaching altogether (Stephen!) and that even the apostles continued to consider works of love as their task (e.g. the organization and delivery of collections, 2 Cor. 8:19-20) shows the unity of preaching and service, and the essential correlation of ministries in the life of the Church. Sharing one's daily bread and offering the Gospel as the bread of life are inseparable!

It is in this sense that diakonein takes place in the congregation and with a view to its mission to the world. It is in the life of the congregation that the one Spirit distributes charisms and ministries (1 Cor. 12) in order that the members of the Body may in unity care for one another, share each other's joy and burdens, for the upbuilding of the Church. Every charisma is given for a specific service, bestowed by God in the richness of His grace and exercised only by the power of the Spirit, in the one Lord. No charism and no diaconia has any arbitrary existence or any independent function, any more than does any member of the Body. No member can ignore the whole body or claim to represent or lead it alone. Nor is any diaconia to be despised or relegated to the margin by the others [3]. Finally, the various diaconia are not meant to foster any kind of works-righteousness or self-glorification. They are to be employed exclusively to the glory of God through Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 4:10f.). Unless this eschatological dimension is kept steadily and clearly in view, the servant of God is in grave danger of becoming the diakonos of Satan (2 Cor. 11:14) and of sin (Gal. 2:17).

I wish to draw attention here to one final aspect of diaconia, in the light of the choice of the first seven deacons (Acts 6). When thinking of this appointment of deacons, we tend to dwell on its importance in relieving the apostles of part of their burden; the apostles were to devote all their energy to preaching. But the aspect of that choice seems to me especially relevant today. As you remember, the Hellenistic widows were then being overlooked at mealtimes, i.e. when the daily distribution of food took place Probably under Pharisaic influence (the Jew could not eat at the same table with those who did not observe the law, i.e. with 'sinners') , discrimination and marginalization betrayed their presence in the early Church! It is therefore important to understand the decision of the Christian community correctly; it filled all seven 'places' with Hellenistic disciples In other words, with representatives of the oppressed minority! This was a radical decision: 'For the committing of this service to the Hellenistic Seven surely implies rather more than a purely external release of the leaders of the community from administrative duties' [4].

Understood in this sense, diaconia became the final and exclusive criterion for admission into the heavenly kingdom and to fellowship with God (parable of the Last Judgement, Mt. 25:31-46): Christ identifies himself with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner.

'Listen, you nations, listen carefully, you Christians! It is not with his own voice that the Lord speaks but through the mouth of slaves …' Basil the Great, PG 31, 324.

The development of the diaconal ministry and the shift of emphasis from the social to the liturgical cannot be discussed here. The ministry of deaconesses will be referred to later on.

Let me conclude this brief survey by way of summary with a final remark. As discipleship of Christ, Christian diaconia means action on behalf of Christ's brothers and sisters, those whom this world regards as the 'least', action even including the sacrifice of one's life. 'To serve the neighbor, Christ, or God, is one and the same thing. The resultant fellowship with the Father is the reward of such service' [5].

To be continued


  1. Justin Dial. 93.3 Migne PG 6, 704B.
  2. Justin I Apol. 57,1 PG 6 431C.
  3. Cf. Alexandros Papaderos, The Synod and its relation to the Pleroma of the Church and to the world, (in Greek), Chania, Crete 1978, p. 12 ff.
  4. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 2, ed. G. Kittel & Bromiley, p. 85.
  5. Ibid. p. 86, cf. Iren. Haer. 3.12, 7.

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