A Biblical Perspective on diakonia
Diakonia is a Greek word, used in the New Testament, but not in a uniform way. The use of the word “diakonia” in the New Testament is very comprehensive and varied, and includes everything, from the widows’ service at the table via the congregation’s preaching service (Acts 6:1 ff.) to the collection for the poor in Jerusalem and distribution of funds to people in need (2 Cor 8:19, Rom 15:25). Sometimes diakonia refers to specific material services to aid a particular person in need (Mk 15:41; 2 Tim 1:18). Diakonia, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says, “As distinct from other service terms, the verbal form diakoneoo has the special quality of indicating very personally the service rendered to another … but in diakoneoo there is a stronger approximation to the concept of a service of love.” In defining the word diakonia, from its use in the New Testament, G. Kittel came up with a four-fold definition: a) waiting at table or provisions for bodily sustenance.( Lk. 10:40). b) any discharge of service in genuine love, for example, charitable giving. (2Cor. 9:12). c) discharge of certain obligations in the community, for example apostolic office as service (1Tim.1:12). d) collections made for the Jerusalem saints during Paul’s missionary journeys. (1Cor. 8-9) [G. Kittel (Ed.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament vol. 2, p.87].
Some basic Biblical observations
Diakonia is not just the consequence of the gospel but part of it. Jesus (cf. Mt 4:23-24) was concerned with the preaching of the kingdom of God and the healing of the sick. The gospel includes proclamation and healing, forgiveness and recovery, word and deed. It is the word that creates, and the deed that proclaims. The gospel is both in the doing of the word and the preaching of the deed.
Diakonia wants to bear living witness to the fact that the power of Jesus is strong in the weak. It seeks and confesses Christ’s presence in the powerless, it strives to put its power and privileges at the service of the powerless, to lend them its power, at the price of becoming powerless itself and of sharing the tribulations of the life and the sufferings of the powerless.
The church becomes a sign of God’s kingdom of justice, peace and love by keeping the picture of the crucified before its eyes. The message the church has to proclaim is a message of love, but of crucified love that is victorious thanks to the confidence we have in God’s righteousness. Therefore we are called to recognize the face of Christ in every person who suffers from the injustice and violence of people and of the existing structures, and we have to be prepared to share their suffering while fighting for love and justice by their side: But as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; (2 Cor. 6: 4-5).
The Council of the Apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15) looked for an answer to the question of the meaning of Christ’s baptism. It decided against requiring the observance of the traditional Jewish customs (circumcision, etc.) as essential conditions for belonging to the church, with the few exceptions demanded out of consideration for Jewish Christians (Acts 15:20-21) and allowed mission to the nations. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul mentions a further reservation about their missionary work that the fathers of Jerusalem had expressed to him and Barnabas at the end of the council meeting, “… they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do” (Gal. 2: 9-10).
This warning not to forget the poor is consistent for a church whose experience encompasses not only prayers and miracles but also the sharing of food from house to house, and the community of property (Acts 2:43-47). This reminder not to forget the poor induced Paul to take at least two large collections for the poor congregations (Acts 12:29-30; 1 Cor. 16:3), and this has traditionally been seen as one of the beginnings of diakonia in the Early Church. Scripture repeats over and over again that God hears the cries of the poor (Ex. 23-25; Ps. 12:5; Jas. 5:4) and takes their part by setting up justice for them and creating righteousness.
The good news is not primarily intended for the church but for the needy and suffering (Mt 4; Lk 7:32), and they are called blessed (Lk. 6:20; Mt 5: 3-12). Their healing and liberation are signs of the approaching of the kingdom of God. These shows how serious and deep the challenge that the suffering and the poor present to the church is. The God of the Bible to whom the church wants to remain faithful primarily and basically confronts it with poverty. The light of God rises over the poor (Isa. 58:10), therefore the church can only be blessed if it opens itself to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Lk.14:13), seeks justice for them and in this way becomes the church of the poor. God’s Spirit will rest upon the church when it brings the good news to the poor (Lk. 4:18).
Therefore the poor and the marginalized are not primarily objects of charitable giving through diakonia, but they have to be seen and treated as the subjects and actors of God’s judgment, as signposts to God’s kingdom and call to repentance, even for the churches. Many think that the weak and the poor are the problem, and the rich and powerful the agents of its solution. The Bible, and in particular the prophets, indicate the opposite (Amos 8:4ff.; Micah 2:1;3ff.) and Jesus confirms it (Lk. 16:19; 18:18-27; Mt. 19:16-26; Mk. 10:17-27).
The church has to denounce and condemn all forms of injustice, violation of human rights, social and environmental conditions that make people ill. It is called to unconditional and boundless solidarity with the suffering and their efforts to fulfill their needs and obtain their rights, and to find justice. It demands constant repentance and reorientation towards the poor, and conversion to a sign of the kingdom of righteousness.
Diakonia keeps alive the perception of the wider horizon of the church’s mission: salvation and liberation for the whole inhabited earth, the oikumene, and for all humankind and nature that are all groaning for redemption (Rom 8). Diakonia is the part of the church that in principle helps every man and woman in need, i.e., the whole of humankind. The church is only the point of departure for this work, not its boundary or aim.
Diakonia is the church on the way to going beyond its own borders. The church is not only challenged to stretch out its hand to society, but also to cease being self-centered. It is both and never either or! The church follows Christ, its center, to the margins, the hedges and ditches, outside the gates of the city walls, away from the centers of power, away from Jerusalem, to go to the periphery, to the marginalized, to Galilee (Mt 8:7;10), away from the community of a culturally or ethnically defined church to go to the nations (Acts 10:45).
Concerning Jesus’ teaching’ on diakonia, it should be noted that the Christian church was founded by and on the basis of the teaching of Jesus. It is therefore of paramount importance to find out what the gospel writers say Jesus taught concerning diakonia.
Jesus taught those who wanted to follow him that they must not consider riches, but the plight of the poor. This is seen in the story of the rich young ruler (Mar.10:17-22). The young man asked Jesus what he was to do in order to inherit the kingdom of God. Jesus told him to observe the law to which the young man answered he had observed from his youth. It seems the young man was indeed an expert in the observance of the law since Jesus did not reject or question that. However, he noticed that the young man lacked only one thing, concern of other people’s needs. In other words the young man was not practicing diakonia in his community. Jesus then told him to sell everything and give the poor and then follow him. The young man could not accept this, so he went away sorrowful. Jesus then taught of the difficulty the rich encounter in entering the kingdom of God. Thus though his teaching was not on service, indirectly one can find that true belief and observance of God’s commandments involves sharing what one has with others. So though the young man observed all the commandments, it seems he did not practice diakonia and Jesus said this is the only thing he lacked.
Jesus’ teaching on diakonia is also seen in what he said concerning greatness (Luk.22:24-27, Mat. 20:25-28, Mark 10:42-45). He heard that his apostles were arguing on who the greatest among them was. Jesus then taught that greatness is achieved through diakonia. Luke recorded Jesus as saying, “—rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” Jesus also understood his whole mission to be an act of diakonia. Mark 10:45 records the statement of Jesus, “For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served (ouk elthen diakonoethenei) but to serve (alla diakonesai), and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Just as Jesus served, his followers were also to serve. Jesus also taught his disciples to love even their enemies (Luke 6:32ff.).
The Practice of DIAKONIA in the New Testament
The practice of diakonia in the Early Church is also seen in the election of the seven deacons. The growth of the church must have created difficulties as regards diakonia. The church had to choose people to be responsible for diakonia. Luke did not give ‘the seven’ the title diakonoi in Acts 6, however, in verses 1 and 4 he speaks of their work as diakonia. The work of the seven was to make sure that none among the brethren would be neglected. Thus in this way the Old Testament promise to God’s people that there would not be any poor among them (Deut. 25:4) was brought to fulfillment in the church by the generosity of the better off members (I.H. Marshal, The Acts of the Apostles, p.109). So, one finds the practice of diakonia being formalized with officers chosen to carry out the practice.
The early Jerusalem community’s practice of diakonia can also be seen in the area of health. Those who were ill were cured. Thus Peter (and John)’s acts of healing can also be considered as acts of diakonia. We have seen that the Jews practiced almsgiving and one way of practicing it was to help the lame and beggars. But at the Beautiful gate Peter and John provided the lame man with more than silver and gold. They gave him the strength to walk (Acts3:1-10). Peter alone did many other acts of diakonia, for example the healing of Aeneas (Acts9:32-35) and the raising of Dorcas (Acts 936-43). Many of Peter’s healing acts can be compared to those of Jesus. Dorcas herself also practiced diakonia. Acts 9:39 implies: “All the widows stood beside him weeping, and showing him tunics and other garments which Dorcas made while she was with them.”
Jesus summarized his ministry in being a servant to all. This focus also needs to determine the ministry of the church. In its service that transcends borderlines, seeks justice for the poor and the marginalized, and its preparedness to transform structures which threaten life, diakonia responds to the God who hears the cry of the poor. Following the example set by Jesus, the priorities of the work of diakonia are set by those who suffer.
Acts of the Apostles
Acts of the Apostles’ teaching on diakonia is the same as that found in the gospel of Luke with the two books having been written by one author. The author emphasized that the rich must share their wealth with the poor. One needs to see the practice of diakonia in the early Jerusalem community as reflected in this book. There is therefore very little to discuss on the teaching as this can only be deciphered from the practice. For example the story of Ananias and Sapphira teaches against hypocrisy in the practice of diakonia. We also learn from the community of goods (Acts 4:32-37) that the sharing of goods was not compulsory but sacrificial.
The genuine- Pauline letters
When it is said that the Christian Church was built on Jesus’ teaching, one must not underestimate the work of Paul. Thus in order to find the teaching of the early church on diakonia, one would leave much if Paul’s teaching on this is not considered.
Paul’s first statement on providing service to others is found in Acts 20:34 where he is said to have said, “You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me.” Sometimes Paul discussed ministry as diakonia and in this particular context Paul encouraged the elders of Ephesus to do just as he had done. He also quoted a statement of Jesus on giving, “It is more blessed to give than to receive”(`Acts 20:35). We do not know whether this statement is Jesus’ ippsissma verba or not. This is mainly because Luke did not mention it in his gospel. G.H.C. Macgregor, however, suggests that Luke was probably ignorant of it until he discovered it in his source of Paul’s speech (G.H.C. Macgregor, ‘Acts of the Apostles’ in the The Interpreter’s Bible Vol.9, p.274). Thus we can use it to reconstruct Paul’s teaching on giving. We are aware that there is the problem of the Paul of the Letters and Paul of Acts in New Testament scholarship. There is a school of thought that regards the Paul of Acts to be different from the Paul of the Letters. Such scholarship (For example, E. Haenchen, Acts of the Apostles) regards Paul’s speech in Acts 20:19-35 as a result of Luke’s tendentiousness. However, the teaching on using one’s hands so as to sustain oneself and even to give others is supported by evidence from genuine Pauline Letters. For example, Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to “—- work with your hands, as we charged you, so that you may command the respect of outsiders, and be dependent on nobody.” (1Thess. 4:11-12). Throughout his letters Paul also emphasized that love is the basis of Christian morality, for example in 1Cor. 13. Thus there is a high possibility that Acts 20:34-35 is genuine-Pauline!
Paul also taught that as believers, Christians are individually members one of another because they share together in common life (Rom.12). As a result he taught that those who are helpers serving the Church in various practical ways, must be active in such service. In Romans 12:13 he encouraged the Christians to contribute to the needs of others. G.R. Cragg says this contribution to the needs of others can be rendered as koinonountes which literally means ‘to share in’ or ‘participate in’ others’ needs, that is, sympathetically feeling with them as well as generously serving them (G.R. Cragg, ‘Romans’ in The Interpreter’s Bible Vol.9, p.590). Thus Paul understood the church as a community (koinonia) in which the necessities of one are suffered by all and the privileges of one are to be enjoyed by all.
Paul, however, did not teach Christians to practice diakonia only among themselves. He also taught them, like Jesus had, to love their enemies. One would be justified to go along with Cragg’s exposition that, “—-there can be little doubt that Paul is thinking of persons outside the church itself when he speaks of those who persecute you (Rom.8:35” (G.R. Cragg, ‘Romans’ in The Interpreter’s Bible Vol.9, p.590). Paul was therefore concerned with extra-church relations. Thus Paul’s use of diakonia in Rom.12 shows that the use of the word was already on its way to becoming a technical term referring to service to the needy, that is, practice of charity and other acts of mercy.
Paul’s teaching on diakonia is also found in his passages on the collections for the Jerusalem church, particularly 2Cor. 8 and 9. In these passages Paul taught that God loves a cheerful giver. He also taught that the provision of service to saints is proof of genuine love (8:8), agreeing with M. O’ Connor who defines love as earnest in action [M. O’ Connor in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Fitzmyer (ed.), p.822] and will produce thanksgiving to God (9:11) since, “he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully”(9:6). Paul thus used the Macedonian generosity to delicately challenge the Corinthians to move from eager acceptance of the idea of collection to actual giving.
In conclusion, one may say that in the genuine Pauline Letters, Paul taught that Christians must practice service out of love. He insisted on a personal decision taken in complete freedom. Though such service should be given even to one’s enemies, Paul mainly encouraged the Christians to help fellow Christians. He also believed that even governing authorities are doing a service to God. Compared to Jesus’ teaching as we have seen in the gospels, one can see that Paul emphasized diakonia in the church whereas Jesus’ teaching was outreaching. On the whole Paul’s understanding of diakonia encompasses Kittel’s four-fold definition of diakonia.
At one time all letters claiming Pauline authorship (2Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossions and the Pastorals) were called Deutro-Pauline letters. 2 Thess. says nothing on the concept of diakonia. The concept of diakonia is, however taught in the letter to the Ephesians. Chapter 4:11-13 discusses service of those appointed to fulfill special functions in the Christian community. The author mentions gifts of prophecy, teaching, apostleship and so on as works of ministry (eis ergon diakonias). Thus apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers offer a service to the church which enables it to grow in maturity. In chapter 4:28 the author taught on using one’s hands. He encouraged the thief not to steal again but to work using his hands, so that he may be able both to sustain himself and to help the needy. By helping the needy one will be rendering service. The author also teaches slaves to offer service to their human masters (6:5-8). Just as in Col.3:24, the author taught that in serving human masters slaves will be serving Christ and as a result, they will receive their reward. The Deutro- Pauline letters also teach service of believers in general. The works of people like Epaphras(Col. 1:17) and Tychicus( Col.4:7-8), who informed Paul of the faith of the Colossions is described as diakonia. Like in the letters of Paul, in some 45cases the nature of their service is not specified (Eph.6:21, Col.1:7) while in others it is clear that what is involved are activities such as gospel ministry (Phil. 2:22, Col.4:12). Also in Eph.3:7-8, the author regarded himself as a diakonos of the Lord to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.
Therefore the author of the Deutro- Pauline letters considered service as rendered by slaves to masters, service of church officials and service of believers in general as diakonia. In fact he considers any activities meant for the spread of the gospel of Christ and the growth of the church to be diakonia. The four-fold definition of diakonia by Kittel is encompassed in these letters [G. Kittel (Ed.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament vol. 2, p.87].
1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are called Pastoral letters. By the time these Letters were written, it seems the concept of service had been institutionalized. The author urged Timothy that the church should serve the needs of widows and the elderly (1Tim. 5:9). As a result the rich were taught “—to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous” (1Tim. 6:17). Thus the rich are taught to place their wealth at the disposal of the needy, as de Santa Ana says though without specific reference to 1Tim. 6:17, “The basic purpose of wealth is to help those who live in misery” (J. de Santa Ana, Good News to the Poor: the challenge of the poor in the history of the church, p.18).
Seven letters in the New Testament are called Catholic letters. These are 1and 2 Peter, 1, 2 and 3 John, James and Jude. The letters do not address specific recipients but the entire church. Thus ‘catholic’ is used in the sense of universal, general, that is, the letters were written to the whole church.
The letter of James is rather important on diakonia. In it we are confronted directly with the problems ordinary people of the time faced. It seems the letter was written at the end of the first century or beginning of the second century when the problem of the relationship between the rich and the poor in the life of the church was becoming more apparent (J. de Santa Ana, Good News to the Poor: the challenge of the poor in the history of the church, p.4). So if the early church was made up of the poor (1Cor. 1:26 has such implications though 1Cor.11:17ff implies the contrary), the church of James’ time was different. It had both the rich and the poor. In the letter the poor are the wretched, the weak and the oppressed of low social standing who are easily exploited and persecuted. Such people are the widows, orphans and slaves who in the ancient world were considered ‘living tools.’ The Greek word which best describes them is penes (destitutes) [J. de Santa Ana, Good News to the Poor: the challenge of the poor in the history of the church, p.48].
Teaching on faith and works, the author of the letter of James says, “If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?”(2:15-16). Though the author does not mention the word diakonia, he is teaching on service.
1Peter 2:13-17 exhorts Christians to be subject to governing authorities. The author does not mention that the governing authorities are douloi of God, but through punishing of wrongdoers and praising those who do right, they are offering diakonia to God. By being subject to governing authorities Christians will be offering service to God. As a result such service even to pagans can be a form of evangelism as it acts as a window showing the goodness of God (1Pet. 2:18, 3:1 and 5:5). The author also taught that Christians must maintain good relations with outsiders. The author believed that the best witness for Christianity is a good Christian life. Discussing this, A.M. Hunter says, “– one saintly life is worthy a dozen stout volumes of Christian apologetics” (A.M. Hunter, ‘The First Epistle of Peter,’ in The Interpreters Bible, Vol.12, p.113). It seems the church of the writer’s time had arrangements to serve one another to seek the welfare of others.
The writer of the Epistles of John also taught something on service. He, however, does not have the word diakonia, but teaches on the need for Christians to provide service. 1John 3:17-18 teaches that our material goods are an essential part of our lives and so have to be shared along with life itself. The author teaches against ‘overspiritualisation’ of religion but down-to-earth practical behavior (A.N. Wielder, ‘The I, II and III Epistles of John’ in The Interpreters Bible, Vol.12, p.265). For him the principle of sharing one’s goods is a Christian ethic applicable to economic ordering of human society. The ethic establishes the meeting of human need rather than the making of profits as the main motivation of a truly economic order. The author therefore teaches that Christian concern for human welfare, as an example of diakonia, is different from mere secular concern. 3John 3-5 is a thanksgiving for the report given by travelling missionaries that Gaius is a faithful member of the Johannine community. Gaius’ help of the missionaries is described as service. Commenting on this passage, A .N. Wilder says the author taught that the Church must never hesitate to present the challenge of missions as fundamental to its purpose to serve the whole world (Ibid.). In this service the church must understand that the support of missions is correspondingly a first claim to their money and prayer and requires an intelligent comprehension of the world’s need and of the gospel’s truth. Wilder says such service must be offered in abandoned, joyful love to God and must be kept pure from world compromise, commercialism, flattery and patronage if it is to be worthy to Christ (Ibid.).
The theological purpose of Paul’s service
The first theological purpose of Paul’s collections is that the collection was not only an expression of Christian love for needy brethren, but also the expression of a certain understanding of the church. The second theological purpose of the collections of Paul is believed by some to be bringing unity in the church particularly between Jews and Gentiles. Paul was motivated to demonstrate that just as the church has one Lord and one gospel, so it is also one, bringing together Jews and Gentiles. This motive is mainly seen in his letter to the Romans (15:30f).
Presented by the Daniel S. Thiagarajah. PhD
Bishop of the Church of South India in the Jaffna Diocese