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Home » General Diaconate

Re-thinking about the diaconate in Germany

Submitted by on 3 February, 2009 – 9:30 am3 Comments
Re-thinking about the diaconate in Germany

A few things have been happening in the basement theology of the diaconate. We all know that the Second Vatican Council presented three sectors of ministry for deacons: ‘the service of the liturgy, of the Gospel and of works of charity’ (LG 29). What has happened in the last forty years is a juggling act. Around the globe up have gone the coloured balls, and up the cheers and harangues and thanksgivings of thousands of aficionados of the diaconate, including numerous local bishops. On closer observation, however, we notice that some of the coloured balls keep falling to the ground. Nothing predictable about this.  No consistent pattern is immediately evident. But, if we call the yellow ball ‘works of charity’, we eventually come to notice that no yellow balls are lying on the ground. Perhaps the jugglers are practising some sleight of hand here.

On matters relating to the diaconate, over the last decade especially I have spoken at conferences here, have contributed to a discussion board or two, but mainly have written in print publications about the value of understanding what we can learn about the diaconate from the early Christian churches. Principally my focus has been on what meaning the diaconate carried for the Greek-speaking peoples who were members of those churches.

These were not all ethnic Greeks, of course, but they were all members of the far-flung and multi-ethnic Hellenistic culture inaugurated by Alexander the Great prior to 300 BCE.  The fact that in their common language they decided to call the diaconate diakonia is likely to present us with a major clue as to how they envisaged the diaconate.  It is not the only clue, by any means, but it is one that can take us into an interesting area.

My own studies in diakonia were not undertaken with the diaconate in mind, but inevitably issues touching on the diaconate kept hovering around the edges. The focus of my work remained, however, just what was it that ancient Greeks had in mind when they used the word diakonia and its few close cousins. (To the surprise of many, the Greeks called on the words only quite occasionally. Another clue, this, but we cannot follow that one up here.)

My results – or, if you like, the semantic profile I produced for this little family of words – appeared in my 18-year old book, Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources. (Its publishers – Oxford University Press – have recently told me that they are preparing a paperback reprint.  This should be good news for those people who ask me how to come by copies of the original.)

The book argued – among numerous other claims – that the various meanings of diakonia had nothing to do directly with the idea of ‘works of charity’. It also illustrated that for ancient Greeks – whether Christian or not – diakonia was a rather special expression and that it was always saying something about carrying out tasks (of whatever kind) under a mandate (political, social, domestic, civic, religious).

Given this basic claim, it was not initially surprising to me that those in the church today who have been traditionally committed to a diaconate of ‘works of charity’ have hesitated to take the results of the linguistic research of 1990 on board.

Numerically the most prominent church here is the German Evangelical Church.  Its numerous state Lutheran churches support their own diaconates of charity – these were established in the 19th century – but also a federal system of social welfare named Diakonisches Werk. The latter manages over 500,000 employees in programmes under the general German designation Diakonie.  Over the last few years, however, there have been signs of some uneasiness in regard  assumptions underlying this nomenclature.

In the northern spring of 2007 a German-language publication finally exposed these assumptions to a German audience as misconceived.  This was in Dr Anni Hentschel’s dissertation from the leading German academic publishing house, Mohr and Siebeck, Diakonia im Neuen Testament.  In this independent study Dr Hentschel totally endorsed the principles of interpretation laid down in my ‘re-interpretation’ of diakonia.

An article of mine reviewing her impressive volume appeared in the rather new but increasingly significant Brill/Netherlands journal Ecclesiology (5/1, January 2009). There I opened on the following theme:

The whole [German] Protestant church membership has understood for more than a lifetime that Diakonie (the German term) is a foundational expression of lowly service and self-emptying love. Hentschel’s claim will engender unease, at the least, once the media brings the claim to the attention of the general church membership, while sections of the German Protestant theological establishment, the church administration and its pastoral arm will voice a mixed chorus of incredulity, protest, and perhaps dismay before this dismantling of one of the key constructs within modern Lutheran and Reformed ecclesiology and spirituality.

In addition to her book Dr Hentschel has already published a further lead article in the German journal from the University of Göttingen, Pastoraltheologie (97/9, 2008) under the provocative title (in my translation), ‘Was there ever a Diaconate in the Early Church characterised by involvement in charitable activity in the social sphere?’ Here Dr Hentschel made no bones about what she was on about in regard to the deeply revered German tradition going back to the 1840s in relation to deaconesses and deacons and ‘Diakonie’- all of it under the name of ‘lowly loving service to the needy’. I quote a couple of sentences:

It is not possible to establish that the diakon- words have an inherent semantic orientation towards expressing activities of a specifically charitable character. (p. 304)

In the New Testament diakonia is definitely not a technical term for a community’s way of life, that is, for an ethic of self-denying service and of loving service of one’s neighbour.  (p. 305)

Importantly, the editor of the journal, Prof. Eberhard Hauschildt of the University of Bonn, followed up Dr Hentschel’s article with an article of his own (in my view, an unusual move by an editor), in which he acknowledged the correctness of her views. He wrote (p. 307-08):

The term [diakonia] never occurs in the New Testament as part of discourse about love of neighbour… The diakonia of the Bible is part of general currency and has nothing to do specifically with the radical Christian emphasis on love of neighbour.

If this would seem to signal the need for the Lutheran diaconate to take a radical look at its underlying theology, we need to acknowledge that, in the way it has positioned itself in ministry, today’s Roman Catholic diaconate itself has not been immune to the influence of the German ‘Diakonie’.

If a deacon should doubt this, let him ask another deacon how important it has been to him to take his model from ‘Jesus the Servant’.  Readers could also look at the rugged debate that has taken place over the last two years in the pages of The Pastoral Review of London.  The ruckus began in reaction to Bishop Evans’ article on ‘The Deacon: An Icon of Christ the Servant’ (July 2006) and concluded (so far as I know) ten articles of varied provenance later in July 2008 with my contribution, ‘Deacons – Searching for an identity’.  This piece was directed mainly against the ‘diaconate of love’ resolutely promoted by the retiring Bishop O’Donoghue of Lancaster/UK.

If they haven’t already done so, deacons and their bishops and pastoral directors need now to cue in to the level at which the wide-ranging and intense discussion of more than a decade has been conducted. The focus for the contemporary theology and praxis of the diaconate has broadened to include the relevance for today of the historical and cultural roots of the diaconate.

Would it be unfair of me to say that by and large within the United States, which, with some 17,000 deacons, is by far the broadest field of diaconal endeavour, the diaconate has not been exposed to the implications of the now fully accredited re-interpretation of diakonia?

Having raised that question, I do need to make exception for the voice there of Richard Gaillardetz.  In the essay he contributed to Theology of the Diaconate: State of the Question (Cummings, Ditewig, Gaillardetz, 2005) he broke new ground in the search for the specific character of the modern diaconate.  In a review of the book (Worship, 80/3, May 2006, 277) , I reported his contribution as compared with those by his co-authors, Owen Cummings and William Ditewig, in part as follows:

A different direction opens with Richard Gaillardetz’s resolute pursuit of a diaconal identity – again in the midst of ‘a startling diversity of theological understandings’ – in the deacon’s ecclesial relationship with the bishop and his episcopê. This is ‘not by way of exercising pastoral oversight’ but of ‘assisting or serving the needs of pastoral oversight as determined by the one who exercises that oversight’…  At this point, in a quite singular gesture for these times, Gaillardetz declines to base his theology on the iconology of ‘Christ the Servant’ and does so by reason of my critique of diakonia as service.

In this his view is in close accord with the pastoral dimension I attempted to delineate for the diaconate in Deacons and the Church: Making connections between old and new (2002).  Such an accord, however, promises little in a diaconal environment in which any disturbance of the still widespread assumption that diakonia is a synonym for ‘works of charity’ appears to create anxiety among practising deacons.

Will the vigorous re-thinking in Anni Hentschel’s new German investigation force open the Pandora’s Box of the re-interpretation of diakonia?

Dr John N. Collins is an Australian New Testament scholar with a special interest in issues of ministry. Another version of this article was originally posted on

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  • If I may offer a brief post in my defense, I disagree with Prof. Collins that his research has not been received in the United States in general. I was particularly surprised that he cites my work as an explicit example of the way in which in the US “the diaconate has not exposed itself to the implications of the now full accredited re-interpretation of diakonia.” In my main contribution to a theology of the diaconate, I cite Prof. Collins research and conclude that, in the light of his research “it is no longer acceptable to try to define the ministry of the deacon in terms of such service, as many have done in the past…” I then propose a theology of the diaconate grounded in the ways in which the historical diaconate was configured generally toward service of the bishop’s ministry of episkope. He may not approve of this constructive theological trajectory, but he cannot responsibly accuse me of failing to take into account his work, unless of course, the only appropriate way to take into account his research is to agree with his every conclusion.

  • John N Collins says:

    Lucky I checked in here – first time – after Peter Rennie’s indication to me a day or two ago that he intended to post my Australian blog about ‘a re-think in Germany’. However, I am sad that my slack expression has given some offence to Richard Gaillardetz. I do apologise to Richard for the apparent slight of his contribution. I say apparent because my intention was actually the opposite to what the text appears to say. The comment was undrafted, and one can see that the language needs editing. In particular in regard to the nature of Richard’s contribution. I did identify him as ‘up-to-the-minute’, by which I was alluding to his distinctively collaborative attention to my research, and I was meaning to single him out as a significant voice different from the normal. A great pity I did not recheck my unfinished sentence.

    So I seize this opportunity to state clearly how appreciative I have long been of Richard’s endeavours. To re-inforce that, may I cite my comment on his essay in the 2005 book by Cummings, Ditewig, Gaillardetz, Theology of the Diaconate: State of the Question (Worship, May 2006, 277):

    “A different direction opens with Richard Gaillardetz’s resolute pursuit of a diaconal identity – again in the midst of “a startling diversity of theological understandings” – in the deacon’s ecclesial relationship with the bishop and his episcopê. This is “not by way of exercising pastoral oversight” but of “assisting or serving the needs of pastoral oversight as determined by the one who exercises that oversight”. Along such a way we reach something like the broad pastoral role envisaged by Owen Cummings but, theologically, we are more securely belted in.
    “At this point, in a quite singular gesture for these times, Gaillardetz declines to base his theology on the iconology of “Christ the Servant” and does so by reason of my critique of diakonia as service.”

    And this is not the only place in which I have alluded to his liberating approach.

    Such are the dangers of blogging!

  • Peter Rennie says:

    Note from the editor: the original text of this article was posted on 3 February from the deaconsplace forum. The text has been updated on 6 February by Dr Collins to make the language more suitable for a public website as opposed to a private forum.

    For this reason, some of the earlier comments may now appear out of step with the text of the article as it now stands.