Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.05.06


John N. Collins, Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. Pp. xi, 368. ISBN 0-19-506067-9.


Reviewed by Peyton G. Craighill, Diocese of Pennsylvania School of the Diaconate.

Should a review of this book appear in a journal for classical scholars? The first reaction would be no. John Collins intends the study for New Testament theologians and church leaders. But further examination will show that this is indeed a challenging and thought-provoking presentation for those in classical studies as well.

Collins' study grows out of a contemporary movement of major importance for the life and mission of the Church. During the past three decades, particularly in the Roman Catholic and in Anglican Churches, an effort has been made to return the diaconate to its position in the early centuries of church history. In that period it was considered to be a full and equal order on a par with the episcopacy and the priesthood. Only after the age of Constantine did it become what in recent times it has been assumed to be -- a stepping stone on the way to the priesthood.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, in fact, church leaders in growing numbers have been rethinking fundamental questions about the Church -- what it is, its relationship to society, and its mission and ministry. The split between a secularized society and a Church that found itself increasingly removed from the issues of the day led pioneers in the Church to reconsider the New Testament concept of diakonia. In it they found a ministry of servanthood in outreach to the poor and the suffering that could serve as a bridge to bring Church and society together.

The earliest practical expression of the renewed interest in diakonia appeared in the middle of the nineteenth century in Lutheran and Anglican churches with the establishment of communities of deaconesses. They were not ordained but were set apart for their ministries of social service. The reinstitution of what was then called the permanent or perpetual diaconate as an ordained ministry took place shortly after World War II in Anglican Churches. The motivation for the change came not from a concern for social outreach, but out of the needs of the liturgical movement and the renewal of the practice of weekly celebrations of the Eucharist. Deacons were ordained primarily to assist the priest in the administering of Communion.

The change that has had a wider influence took place during the Second Vatican Council. Because of their disillusionment with the ineffectiveness of their Church's opposition to Naziism, a growing number of German Catholics pressed for the reestablishment of the perpetual diaconate as a way of bringing the Church closer to the world. Their efforts were rewarded when the Council acted on their petition and reinstituted the order.

Even more important than the reestablishment of the primitive diaconate was the redefinition of the Church as a whole -- laity and clergy together -- as a community of diakonia in the world. Ministry, in particular servant ministry in society, was recognized as being as much a calling of the laity as of the clergy.

The changes brought about by Vatican II were foreshadowed by the 1961 New Delhi Assembly of the World Council of Churches, in its study entitled "Service." Both councils presented a thoroughgoing reappraisal of the Church and its structure of power and authority as being essentially hierarchical, authoritarian, and internalized. Ministry came to be defined not as the work of the clergy alone but as that of all Christians; the object of ministry, as not just the Church but also the world; and the power and authority of the Church, as expressed not through domination but through diakonia.

Collins outlines these developments in the opening section of his book and then goes on to raise a question of major importance about them. Have they, to some extent at least, been brought about by a questionable interpretation of the New Testament meaning of diakonia? More specifically, has the emphasis on humble social service been read into the ancient evidence as a result of contemporary interests in social ministries? And have the studies of the word in reference books been influenced by this bias ?

The author's contention is that a great deal too much stress has been placed on diakonia as implying humility and lowliness of status and service to one's fellow human beings. To demonstrate his point, he provides an extensive study of the word as it a ppears in a wide variety of Greek literature.

Collins concludes that the term is used in connection with three kinds of activity: message, agency, and attendance upon people. In its usage as "message," it signifies service in the sense of one person serving another as a spokesperson or courier and the performance of representative activities. "Agency" refers to the diakonia of an agent executing a commission or acting as a mediator. The deacon as "attendant" is carrying out responsibilities in doing tasks for others. The service performed usually implies a position of authority and responsibility, as for instance the messenger of a god or of a ruler. Even when used for those who wait on table, service does not necessarily imply a menial status. Thus Collins finds little in the Greek texts that suggests that deacons' positions are lowly or servile. To the contrary, they could be people of considerable position in society -- just as today in some governments "minister" is a title for a person holding cabinet rank.

The author carries on his investigation of the use of diakon-words into the New Testament, with similar results. He finds little if any support there for the assertion that they are used in a sense different from their usage in non-Christian texts. And the service that the deacon performs is for a superior, such as God, the Church, or a church official, rather than to the poor or the disadvantaged. Nothing necessarily implies servility in the deacons' ministry. They serve, rather, as spokesmen, emissaries, and agents of a divine commission.

In the final chapter of the book, the author begins by saying that he is reluctant to draw conclusions from the study. The implications are so vast and complex that he has neither the space nor the qualifications to explore them fully. Nevertheless, he does make several comments. Perhaps the most important is that to limit diaconal ministry simply to the care of the needy does not "accord with early Christian idiom." Those engaged in diaconal ministry are not merely sanctified social workers. They are messengers and agents of God, of the Gospel, and of the Church, as well as being attendants upon the needs of others.

What can be found in this study that is of interest to the classical scholar? In regard to the book's content, unless the scholar happens to have an interest in the Church or New Testament studies, the answer must be very little. But from the viewpoint of process, it should be of considerable value.

Collins has used the tools of classical scholarship to make a contribution of considerable significance to an important development in church life. His way of using the tools illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of the method. By doing a word study, he has explored at much greater depth an understanding of what diakonia meant to the writers of the New Testament. From his study, the Church today can learn the the generally accepted understanding of the concept has been more limited and shallower than it should have been.

But on the negative side, a word study alone can leave out nuances that provide an even richer insight into what the term signifies. As an example, Collins' position that diakonia refers only to service to a higher authority and not to the poor and suffering may well be supportable on a narrow consideration of word usage alone. But a broader look at New Testament texts, particularly Matthew 25:31-46, in which Jesus asserts that service to the downtrodden is service to himself, indicates that service to God and service to one's fellow human beings can never be separated. Word studies, particularly those that cover classical as well as biblical literature, may provide one kind of insight of great value into the meaning of scripture. But they must be interpreted in the context of a wider understanding of biblical tradition.