There are a lot of books on leadership in the church. There are even quite a few books dedicated to the ministry of elders. It is not the same for deacons (though it is improving!). Now one issue is variance in how the office of deacon operates within different church denominations. For many Baptist churches a deacon functions much the same way as a ruling elder in the Presbyterian church. In reformed Baptist and Presbyterian churches, elders and deacons are called to different, yet vital works of ministry. Cornelis Van Dam’s The Deacon: Biblical Foundations for Today’s Ministry of Mercy is a concise, yet thorough treatment of diaconal ministry.
The first part of the book covers the Old Testament background focusing on Israel’s care for the poor. Part two surveys the New Testament data about deacons. There is a whole chapter devoted to the issue of female deacons. Part three surveys the history of diaconal ministry in the church. The last part looks at how the office of Deacon operates in churches today. Amazingly, Van Dam (yes I made Timecop jokes while I read this) is able to accomplish all this at around 200 pages. This book is a treasure trove of biblical data and careful thought about the office of Deacon.
In Part 1: Old Testament Background
The Deacon is normally associated with care for the poor. Who were the poor in Old Testament Israel? Van Dam identifies the poor as those in Israel who were “materially poor, powerless in society, and afflicted or oppressed (4). There also was an unusual focus on care for the poor, widows, orphans, and foreigners than you would find in other ancient codes of law. How Israel cared for the poor was a testimony to the nations about the God who ruled them.
According to Van Dam, the heart of care for the poor is that “God wanted everyone to share in the joy of redemption, and for that reason no one was to be in bondage to affliction and poverty” (30). This meant that it was incumbent upon the family and society at large to care for the poor. The care for the poor protected society by upholding the family.
Part 2: New Testament Times
Van Dam summarizes Christ’s teaching in 5 points (we reformed people LOVE 5 points!):
1) Serving others is a requirement of loving God and neighbor
2) We are stewards of our possessions and accountable to God for how we use them.
3) How we give and serve matters to God.
4)We are to love the needy who are in our path even if they are outside our comfort zone.
5) Helping the poor includes material, emotional, and spiritual needs.
Like the OT Israelites, God’s concern in the church is that believers would not have the joy of their salvation hindered because of poverty or affliction. This concern was so important to God that he created an office in the church: the office of Deacon. Van Dam writes:
The joy of salvation in Christ and of liberation from the dominion of the evil one must not be threatened in any way, certainly not because of material wants.Pages. 59
It is important to understand that “wants” doesn’t mean iPhone’s and TVs. “Wants” refers to basic human needs like clothing, food, and shelter, but most of all Gospel grace and comfort.
Thus Van Dam argues that deacons are “to safeguard the communal joy of the fellowship of believers so that everyone in the church can function according to the God-given responsibilities each has been given.”Page 71.
As one of the two ministries come from Christ, deacons collect, mobilize, and deploy resources of all kinds to meet the various needs to those who are suffering in the church.
Part 3: The Office of Deacon in the History of the Church
This part is what makes this book excellent. I have heard and read about deacons in Acts and arguments about diaconal ministry from the New Testament. I had not heard consideration of the OT (part 1) or what in the world happened to the office of deacon in church history. Here is the skinny:
Deacons in the early church functioned alongside elders and focused on caring for the poor members of the church. The emphasis here is on function, not rank. Sadly, that came later on.
I love the Council of Nicea because it gave me a beloved creed. But it also did something wrong: They issued a decree subordinating the office of deacon under the bishop. The effect of this was to make deacons assistants to the pastor. This practically ended the diaconal ministry to the poor. Other groups arose to fill the void, but by the time of the Reformation deacons barely existed. Couple that with the rise of the false belief that giving money to the poor could get you into Heaven and you have a real problem.
In the Reformation, the office of Deacon was rediscovered. Justification by faith alone wiped out the terrible “meritorious giving” doctrine. Poverty as an ideal for monks was tossed out as well. There was a recovery of work as a positive good and giving to be done out of love for God. The office of deacon was reconstituted. Calvin was the most influential as he “stressed the ecclesiastical nature, holiness, and dignity of the office, which was to be focused on helping the poor” (111). That takes us up near the modern period.
Now any discussion of deacons raises the question of deaconesses. Van Dam argues from scripture and church history against the idea of an ordained office of deaconess. But he is careful here not to focus on what women aren’t allowed to do:
As long as it does not have official ordination in view, a church has considerable freedom as to how it engages the help of women in the diaconate…In any case the diaconate should make use of the gifts within the congregation as much as possible in executing their task, and that most certainly includes the gifts of women.Page 129.
Part 4: The Official Position of the Deacon Today
First, Van Dam reaffirms the office of deacon is an ecclesiastical office (an official office in the church) that bears spiritual authority and requires ordination. Second, he highlights the necessity of the office. As the church grows the needs of the congregation grow and elders need help or the ministry will fail. There is also the clear scriptural establishment of the office as one of the two distinct offices in the church: elder and deacon. These offices are distinguished by function, not rank of importance. Elders and deacons function in a complimentary way caring for all the needs of God’s people.
In order for deacons to function well they must be trained and equipped for the work. The privilege and obligation to support the work of deacons must be taught to the congregation. When it comes to meeting the specific needs of church members there is an order: first, the family is to care for their needy family member. If they cannot, then the church community steps in. First, individual Christians should see if they can help. If there is no one then the diaconate can assist. There is also nothing wrong with making use of state assistance in the care of the needy.
Now in this section Van Dam makes some interesting suggestions. He argues that the offering taken up in worship should only be for the needy and that anything else ought to be collected outside the worship service. He also argues that bags should be used over plates so that what is given is hidden from everyone else.
The final part of the book is taken up with how deacons care for those inside and outside the congregation. As for church members in need Van Dam argues that deacons should go with elders on visits as this best represents the ministry of Christ. While both elders and deacons are concerned for all the various needs of church members they have their own particular areas of focus.
Van Dam then gives a list of 9 principles for diaconal ministry. Some of them draw on what he has previously stated. Here are a few that stand out:
- The Lord commands to love your neighbor as yourself and the golden rule are the motivations behind all diaconal work.
- Diaconal assistance should not encourage idleness or laziness.
- Prayer is extremely important in all aspects of diaconal ministry.
Remember that the goal of the deacon when ministering to a church member is to safeguard their joy in the gospel by helping to alleviate the affliction they are enduring.
Deacons are also involved in assisting people outside the congregation. Generally, there is an obligation on all Christians to do good to all men. This applies to deacons as well. However, the work of the deacon specifically gives priority to the care of church members who are suffering. When ministering to those outside the church it is a ministry of outreach. When deacons care for those outside the church they are showing the love of God to strangers in hope that these unbelievers might turn to Christ in faith.
The last chapter highlights the blessings involved in serving the poor and needy. There are blessings for those who help the poor: opportunities to show others our love for Jesus, a way to shine the light of grace in an unbelieving world, a growing sense of our status as pilgrims. The blessings to poor and needy believers go beyond temporary relief: the knowledge that theirs is the kingdom of God, that their God is with them and will not abandon them, that what they have in Jesus cannot be taken away.
We might look at history prior to the Reformation and think we are glad that we recovered the office of deacon. It would seem we still have work to do. Too often the primary work of the Deacons is counting money and fixing the building. These are bad or unnecessary things.
I once heard the chairman of the deacons at a church (not mine) who described the deacons as “janitors with a budget.” That’s about as cynical as you can get. But he wasn’t to blame. That was the culture that had been built and he was speaking from experience. He was frustrated.
The sacrificial service of deacons glorifies God. But what is often missing is what is at the heart of this book: Deacons as the safeguards of a Christian’s joy. I think if that was placed at the heart of diaconal work things would be much better.
This was a fascinating book to read. I have read several books on church government and church officers. Van Dam’s book is biblically rich and practically challenging. It got me thinking about my own church, how we train deacons, do visitation, and mercy ministry.
The Bottom Line
We need deacons in the church and this book is a tremendous resource. I plan to incorporate this book into officer training for deacons if not for the elders as well. If you are interested in diaconal ministry, this is a book I would highly recommend you read and digest thoroughly.
What do you think? Does your church have deacons? What are some of the best and worst practices you have observed? Is there an unhealthy split between church offices today? You can contact me here. Thanks for reading!