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Newsletter, March 2018

Liturgical Diaconia. Part 3

Dr Alexandros Papaderos


Mission with a Diaconal Dimension

To be consistent, those who affirm that the Gospel is only concerned with the salvation of the soul ought to condemn the entire Christian mission as a mistake. For Christian evangelism has always gone hand in hand with Christian diaconia in the sense I have described. Although we repudiate today the frequent misuse of diaconia as a means of proselytizing, it is impossible to detect any divorce between witness and service in the history of the church. On the contrary, the Church has always understood mission as the proclamation of the Good News of the liberation and redemption of the whole human being. This is why the Church has in the past and still for the most part today also carried out its missionary diaconia as a contribution to the transformation of society as a whole. It is unnecessary to give examples of this understanding of missionary activity from the history of our Orthodox church. I merely point out that it was actually monasticism, with its denial of and withdrawal from the world, which provided the most powerful impulses to diaconal missionary activity and provided an outstanding example of concern for the preservation and creative development of society and culture (agriculture, crafts, manuscripts - to which we owe almost all we know of the ancient - pagan! - world; large-scale charitable undertakings in the monasteries and in their neighborhood, educational work, arts and sciences). Above all the monks were aware - none more so - that cultura agri, cultura amini, and cultura Dei belong inseparably together.

Commitment to Social Justice and Liberation

What macrodimensional diaconia means can best be illustrated by the leading church fathers who themselves developed a wide range of microdimensional diaconia. Their great concern for the whole human being and for mankind as a whole is well-known.

Evil in its myriad forms and with its far-reaching consequences grieved them deeply. Certainly they lived at a time which was not yet ready for radical changes. But this does not mean that we are free, today especially, to mistake, minimize, misinterpret ideologically, or even ignore altogether the deeper springs of their concern for a more just, free and peaceful world. Especially now that modern social research has more or less uncovered the structures of evil and humankind is beginning to engage resolutely in a life and death struggle for its liberation and for a worthier human world.

The first lesson we must learn from the church fathers is that it is high time we gave up rebuking evil cautiously and non-committally in abstract rhetorical language! The church fathers stigmatized the concrete forms and consequences of sin and named those responsible by name. They did so with prophetic zeal and spiritual power. They sided uncompromisingly with the hungry, the persecuted, the debtors, the oppressed, the deprived. They were not preoccupied with the Church privileges, its stability, its 'good' relations with the economic and political powers, not even with their own lives, which most of them also exposed to persecution, martyrdom and death. But not even the loss of the Church's great representatives, not even the conflicts which they provoked in the course of this struggle, ever in the long run damaged the Church. On the contrary, the Church was built up by the blood and suffering of its children and renewed by every struggle for truth and justice, emerging from these struggles all the stronger. Even in this present century, Orthodoxy has had very painful reminders of this experience. A Church which is no longer willing to risk anything has perhaps already lost everything!

A second lesson we must learn from the church fathers is how to guard ourselves from the above-mentioned quarrel about the dimensions. The church fathers were supremely aware of the eschatological dimension of the salvation, the eschatological dimension of the world and of the historical Church itself. They knew that the supreme criterion both for the contemporary world and the contemporary Church lies in the eschaton. Unlike the chiliasta and the messianic enthusiasts, they were not in a hurry to build the kingdom of God in this earth. And they, more than others, recognized sin for what it really is.

But the church fathers also knew why the masses in their days were tormented with poverty, why injustice was so rampant, why nations groaned under tyrants. They were not therefore confronted with the false alternatives of the sort we hear today: Is sin something within man or something all around him? Should the Christian heal himself first or society? At this point I want you to listen to what the church fathers have to say.

They did not glorify poverty as such, nor did they condemn riches as such. Nor did they cherish any illusions.

'…The Lord speaks through the mouth of slaves...: let not us who are rational creatures be more cruel than the irrational animals. The animals make use of everything which grows naturally on the earth as something they have in common … whereas we clutch to ourselves alone what belongs to all … 1et us emulate the pattern of life of the first Christians who had all things in common: property, spiritual life, harmony, the common board, indivisible brotherhood, unfeigned love, making them, the many bodies, into the one Body, uniting the many souls into a single harmony' [17].

'Tell me, what is yours, where did you get it? Where did you obtain these goods and bring them into your life? … If you say, they came to you automatically, you are wicked because you refuse to acknowledge your Creator and show Him no gratitude, who is the Giver. But if you acknowledge that you have it from God, explain why you keep it to yourself. Is God unjust - distributing to us inequitably the necessities of life? Why do you become richer while others are forced to beg? Surely not because you reap the reward of your honesty and thrift and another is honoured for his great struggles?' [18]

'The religious person is not the person who distributes alms to many but one who treats no one unjustly' [19].

'I tell you, wealth is an offence, since no one ever grew rich walking the straight way of Christ. He has either wronged some individual or else all his fellow human beings together… Do not therefore follow criminal and lawless ways so as to be able to eat and drink and satiate yourself more than your neighbour or to clothe yourself more lavishly than him… If Christ himself had only these two things (i.e. bread and water) and a garment to clothe himself against the cold, anything more than this is a fork of the devil. Rejoice therefore in your poverty and complain not. For only those who have lost sight of the vision of heaven have a blaspheming mouth and a burdened heart thirsting for the goods of this world' [20].

'To say "this is mine" and "this is thine" is to utter empty (meaningless) words. Money belongs to God wherever we get it from… Even your soul belongs to God, how then can the money be yours?' [21]

'Have you observed how gold prevents people from being human, transforming them rather into beasts and demons?' [22]

'The bread you have belongs to the hungry, the clothing you have stored away in your cupboard belongs to the naked, the shoes you no longer need belong to the barefooted, the silver you have buried away belongs to the person who needs it. You wrong so many people to whom you could have given these things' [23].

(The Greek word tokos means 'confinement', 'delivery', 'birth' but also 'rent' or 'interest').

'It seems to me that tokos (= interest, in the sense of the product of growth) was so called because of the fertility of evil. Or perhaps because of the griefs and troubles caused by interest in the souls of those who borrow money. Interest for interest; evil offspring from evil parents. Otters, it is said, are born by devouring the mother otter's belly. Interest, too, is bred by devouring the debtor's home. Seeds produce their shoots in due season whereas interest is born today and starts proliferating immediately' [24].

'Hades has never said: that's enough! Neither have the avaricious ever said: that's enough!' [25]

It must also be remembered that the Orthodox Church has always supported and promoted the struggle of its peoples to preserve or to recover their freedom. It counts among the most glorious pages of its history those which tell how it comforted and encouraged its members in the great decisive moments of their history; as for example when in times of enslavement the monasteries were transformed into centres of resistance, or when the Orthodox played their part in clandestine liberation organizations, kept underground schools going in order to preserve the faith and national identity, organized rebellions and even used force in conducting them sometimes taking over the national leadership (ethnarch) when the political leadership failed or broke down altogether. Will anyone who thinks that salvation means only the salvation of the soul disapprove of this concrete activity of the Church?

Finally, it should be pointed out that the Orthodox Church has consistently opposed all forms of racism. Typical of this opposition is an encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarch Metrophanes III to the Orthodox Christians of Crete in the year 1568. Crete was then still under Venetian rule. A quarrel between the Cretan Jews and Venice over the payment of certain debts provoked the Venetians to adopt antisemitic measures. The wave of antisemitism seems to have been initiated by the Latin Patriarch of Venice, Laurentius Justinian. The Jews had appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarchate complaining that even Orthodox Christians had taken part in hostilities towards the Jews. Whereupon the Patriarch wrote that those who unjustly treat the Jews in any way are excommunicated and condemned, since injustice and defamation were wrong whoever the victim was, and no one who committed such wrong could possibly regard himself as innocent on the pretext that he had only wronged someone of another faith and not one of the faithful. For even our Lord Jesus Christ tells us in the Gospel not to bully or blackmail anyone (Lk. 3:14) … 'making no distinction and not permitting Christians to deal unjustly with people of other faiths.' At the very time when Gobineau and Chamberlin were stirring up Europe with racist heresies, the Synod of Constantinople (1872) officially condemned contemporary racism with its nationalistic overtones (ethnopyletismos) - if not the first, certainly one of the first official pronouncements of the Christian Church on this subject!

Dilemma or False Dilemma?

In view of what has been said about the biblical, theological and historical aspects of our theme, the question arises as to why this conflict about the dimensions ever broke out at all and inevitably led to the present polarization.

We find ourselves presented with a dilemma: contemplation or commitment? The almost automatic alienation of the contemporary men and women, our congregations, our Church under the pressure of 'secular' anxieties, the endemic crisis and inflation of our economies, the absolute claims made on us by political and ideological conflicts, our captivity to the mass media, our 'wealth' or possessions and tasks turns out to be appalling emptiness! The popularity of the promises of oriental religions is an alarm signal which no one can ignore! This situation prompts many among us to point to the 'one thing needful' (Lk.10:42). In this context it is not difficult for us to understand the stringent demands of Christian asceticism:

'But you, if your wish to remain serene, must become like the cherubim who pay no attention at all to everyday things. Always remember that no one exists on earth except you and God… for unless one hardens one's heart and resolutely avoids charitable works (eleemosyne) and all other worldly anxieties and persists in prayer only… it is impossible to be free from unrest and fretfulness and to devote oneself to tranquility. If it then occurs to you to care for someone for virtue's sake, which will destroy your calm and peace of mind, say to yourself: Certainly the way of love and charity for God's sake is good; but also for God's sake I do not choose this way. Once a monk was running after a hermit and called to him: "Wait, Father! It is for God's sake that I'm running after you!" to which the hermit replied: "And it is for God's sake that I am running away from you!" Abbas Arsenios - for God's sake - would receive no one … He chose for himself silence and calm. He was consequently able to commune with the Holy Spirit in the very midst of the sea of this life… for complete silence is absolutely essential for tranquility' [26].

We know, of course, that such severity is appropriate for the monastic life and ascetism. But many of us make the mistake of turning such recommendations into general principles for the life of the Church as a whole. All the same, it cannot be said that this spirit is completely irrelevant to our problems.

But on the other hand, the cry of the hungry, the sick, the enslaved, the political refugees, the disillusioned, the desperate of this earth gets louder and louder. Can the Christian Church ignore this cry? Can it ignore this cry 'for God's sake'? Certainly this cry cannot be allowed to mislead us into making overhasty decisions, but when we think in terms of a macrodimensional liturgical diaconia the question cannot be avoided: Is this a real dilemma or only a false one? Do we really have to choose between these two alternatives? When we Orthodox employ trinitarian terminology and when we speak of the eucharistic fellowship, the doxological ethos, the mysteries of prayer and so on, we often give the impression that we are turning our backs irresponsibly on the world and history, shutting our eyes and our ears to them. The actual history of our Church, of course, gives the lie to this impression. But many of us when confronted with concrete tasks too easily take refuge in the twilight areas of mysticism and seek support for this in the monastic ideas just mentioned, ignoring the testimonies in the opposite sense, also drawn from the ascetic life. This, for example:

'A monk once met Abbas Silvanus on Mount Sinai. When he saw the monks working there, he said to the old man: "Labour not for the meat that parishes! For Mary chose the better part!" The old man then said to his disciple Zachariah: "Give this brother a book and conduct him to an empty cell!" When it was the ninth hour, the monk went to the door of the cell, expecting someone to call him to supper. When no one came to invite him to supper, he went to the old man and said to him: "Abbas, have the brothers not eaten today, by chance?" The old man replied: "Of course they have!" "Then they have not invited me as well?" The old man replied: "Because you are a spiritual man and don't need such food, whereas we are fleshly and need to eat, which is why we work. But you have chosen the better part, devoting the whole day to reading and refusing to avail yourself of any fleshly nourishment!" Hearing these words, the monk prostrated himself and said: "Forgive me, Abbas!" "Of course", the old man said. "Even Mary needs Martha, for even Martha contributes to Mary's glorification!" [27]


To sum up, let me stress the following points, which are to be regarded as no more than a contribution to further discussion:


4. In developing and articulating this common purpose in respect of diaconia as service to humankind, the Church has no other signpost than God's own purpose, revealed in the Holy Scripture, fulfilled in Jesus Christ and, by the 'dynamis' of the Holy Spirit (the Paraclete) experienced in the life of the Church as obedience or, because of the weakness of the flesh misunderstood and ignored in the form of indifference and apostasy. Measured by this purpose of God, Christian diaconia is understood as:

a) proclamation of mercy (eleos), God's great mercy and compassion for humankind and for the creation;

b) service of the neighbor, especially the 'least', after the manner of Christ, in unconditional sacrifice for the amelioration of personal and collective distress and need, as well as for victory over socially structured sin and death and all its accomplices (servitude, injustice, inequality, exploitation, etc.);

c) service of the creation, with the general human responsibility for the creation (ecological questions, protection of the environment, basic material resources, etc.);

d) service of the whole human being, in the unity of eucharistia, martyria and diaconia (overcoming the divorce, the dichotomy, between verticalism and horizontalism);

e) the service of the whole community (spiritual unity and complementary activation of offices and charisms, conscentizasion and commitment of all members of the community);

f) liturgical diaconia, therefore, in accordance with the catholicity of God's economy of salvation, a diaconia which equips us with the required 'spirituality for combat' (M. M. Thomas, at the Nairobi Assembly), (Liturgy as basis and focal point for every diaconal activity and as liturgical awareness of self and of the world, as 'liturgy after the liturgy') and finally,

g) eschatological diaconia (protecting diaconal aims from chiliastic-messianic expectations, and from the loss of the christological understanding of personal and collective suffering and its replacement by an immanent eudaemonism); diaconia as 'sign' and foretaste of the kingdom of God and as criterion for acceptance into fellowship with God.

5. Christian diaconia is to be performed simultaneously and in mutual interrelationship as microdimensional and macrodimensional diaconia, i.e., as therapeutic and prophylactic philanthropy, in accord with the aspects listed in point 4.

6. Microdimensional diaconia is to be understood as the extension of the Holy altar to the concrete sufferings of human beings, adapted flexibly to the given circumstances, performed in solidarity and cooperation with non-church efforts (by State and society) and not in opposition to them and with an effort to identify and make people aware not only of therapeutic but also of prophylactic concerns.

7. While not neglecting microdimensional diaconia, the Church today, in face of the present world situation with its unmistakable 'litany of the victims of the structures of injustice' (M. Manley at Nairobi) and its 'threat of suffering to come' (C. Birch at Nairobi) must give macrodimensional diaconia absolute priority in its theology of diaconia and in its social commitment.

8. In the history of the Church, Christian diaconia has been understood as a contribution of the creation of a fellowship of solidarity, in the sense of a metamorphosis of 'natural' orders and the outlook of a society composed of individuals into a koinonia of persons. This remains a constant task of the Church but one which is supremely urgent today when modern conceptions and conditions of life are forcing appalling paramorphoses (disfigurements) on human society.

9. Christian mission has always had a diaconal dimension (cf. 4 d). Evangelization of humankind and the liberation of human beings from inward and outward sufferings constitute one single task for the Church. The very fact that man has been created in the image of God lays upon us an inescapable obligation to defend the human dignity of the person in all its aspects. Cultura agri (living conditions), cultura animi (sanctification, 'theosis') and cultura Dei (eucharist, doxology) are, therefore, inseparably connected.

10. Being the service of the whole human being and of the whole humankind and of creation, diaconia involves a definite commitment to social justice and liberation yet at the same time respect for the divine commission to Christians to be messengers of reconciliation and sober insistence on the eschatological dimension of salvation. Love of the neighbour must also take the form of diaconia to 'tempted tempters'! When in exceptional situations Christians consider themselves obliged to endorse violence, the whole Christian family should feel itself exposed to temptation; here solidarity should help Christians to bear conscious guilt together.

11. On these assumptions and in face of the complexity of the world situation, Christians must pray fervently today that God may richly endow them with the charisma of 'discerning the spirits' (1. Cor. 12:10) so that they may discern between real dilemmas and false in the performance of their diaconia (Martha-Mary conflict, verticalism and horizontalism).

12. ... churches must persevere trustingly in their appointed role as 'bondservants of God', for only by so doing can they maintain their freedom over against ideologies and political systems which the Church cannot under any circumstances or for any considerations of expediency enter into coalition or even identify itself with, but of which it must always remain the prophetic 'crisis'.

13. As an act of love, diaconia is a life in love and therefore in God. Diaconia, therefore, is never merely a giving but always at the same time and above all a receiving and therefore a growth in love and fellowship, in mercy and hope. Diaconia in this sense can contribute to the renewal of the Christian life just as, conversely, the renewal of Christian life leads to the intensification and purification of diaconia. In view of the present situation in the Church and in the world, it is essential:

a) that diaconia be performed as the task of the whole community (4e) (i.e., including: renewal of the local congregation, activation of the laity, reintroduction of the office of deaconess and a reexamination of the task and role of the woman in every aspect of the Church's life, involvement of young people in diaconal ministries and projects);

b) that priorities should be established in the light of the world-wide situation of the Church and of humankind by the parallel practice of micro and macro-dimensional diaconia; and

c) that there should be cooperation in this with men of goodwill in order to disabuse them of prejudices about the Church's objectives and to show support for their own efforts to overcome and dismantle unjust structures and man-made tyrannies.


15. An authentic liturgical diaconia conducted in the light of the whole Gospel and with the whole human being and the whole Church in view is never to be sought outside the Church. We must all remember the trinitarian character not only of the Church but also of its diaconia. If the Church appears to be a threat to diaconia or diaconia to the Church, it means that one or the other, or both, has lost its trinitarian landmark. The unity of the Church, as expression of the triune nature of God, and diaconia as expression of the love of God and love to God are rooted in the Trinitarian 'as': the disciples are to be one as the Father and the Son are one (Jn. 17): and they are sent forth by the Son to bear witness and to serve as the Father sent Him (Jn. 20:21).


a) the idea of a 'Church outside the churches' is neither ecclesiologically legitimate nor sociologically and strategically viable;

b) this idea of a 'Church outside the churches' is nevertheless still an alternative which is actually practiced, and represents an increasing challenge not only to the unity of the Church but also above all to its apathy and indifference; it constitutes something new at the level of the total Christian family (although it is a phenomenon which has frequently occurred in the history of the Church) and must be heeded by the churches with all urgency and care;

c) at this juncture, with all its tensions and the decisions requiring to be taken, we need at least a minimum of reciprocity and trust in order to conduct 'our confrontation in love' (Prof. V. Borovoy at Nairobi), so that fresh division may not destroy the foundations of an effective diaconia and in order that we may on the contrary, fulfil our common mission in love and concord 'that the world may believe'.


  1. St. Basil the Great, PG 31, 324.
  2. St. Basil the Great, PG 31, 276.
  3. Hosios Neilos, PG 79, 1249.
  4. K. Bastias, Ho Papoulakos, New York 1952, p. 233 (in Greek). Cf. A. Papaderos, METAKENOSIS, p. 96 f.
  5. St. John Chrysostomos, PG 61, 84.
  6. St. John Chrysostomos, PG 61, 343.
  7. St. Basil the Great, PG 35, 892.
  8. St. Basil the Great, PG 29, 1177.
  9. St. Basil the Great, PG 31, 293.
  10. Isaac the Syrian, Serm. 79, ed. Papademetriou, Athens 1961, p. 267. (in Greek).
  11. Apophthegmata Pateron, in Threskeutike kai Ethike Enkyklopaideia, Vol. 2, Athens 1963, col. 1240 (in Greek).

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