Tuesday, December 1, 2009

LHP Review: The Servant Church

Collins, John N. Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. 368 Pages. Paper. $35.00. www.oup.com/us  (LHP)

Congregation members are usually surprised by the books their pastors bring with them to a parish study. Many of those books are references, encyclopedia-size dictionaries of Greek and Hebrew. Collins' Diakonia is now back in print for the first time in years. It is a thick book on one word: diakonia. What does this mean?

"This is the first comprehensive study of the Greek word 'diakonia,' from which the word 'deacon' is derived. Diakonia and its cognates appear frequently throughout the New Testament, but its precise meaning has long been disputed. Today, it is usually translated 'service' or 'ministry.' As Collins shows, this understanding of diakonia has been important to the development of a modern consensus about the nature of Christian ministry. Based on the understanding that diakonia is 'service' and that the diakonos (deacon) is a 'servant,' nearly all Christian bodies today agree that the central idea of ministry is that of helping the needy, and that the ''servant'' church should be humbly devoted to helping the world, after the model of Jesus. Collins conducts an exhaustive study of diakonia in Christian and non-Christian sources from about 200 BCE to 200 CE. He finds that in all such sources the word is used to mean 'messenger' or 'emissary,' and has no implications of humility or of helping the needy. This discovery undermines much of the theological discussion of ministry that has taken place over the past fifty years" (publisher's website).

Collins, as in his later sequel to this volume, appears to be open to the ordination of women (38ff, et al). He fails to make a faithful case from the scriptures, and even seems to give opponents to the unbiblical practice more ammunition against it.

Diakonia carries some of the freight of the German Amt, as in the title of C. F. W. Walther's work Church and Ministry, which should be more correctly translated, Church and Office (39).

Why read this book? To better understand Acts 6. Who are the so-called "deacons" and what have they been given to do? Are they pastors or more like our lay "elders" in our LCMS congregations? Consider the preaching of Stephen and the catechizing and baptizing of Phillip in the next few chapters of Acts. Are they not giving the appearance of being pastors, a new generation of apostles? This book is food for thought at the very least.

Such a study and critique should be noted by Lutherans, since German Lutherans of the 19th Century first spoke of diakonia in the "human care" sense questioned by the author (8ff). I come away from this book humbled by the depth of scholarship found there, amazed at the depth of the Lord's message to us in the Greek New Testament, and committed to be a faithful emmisary of Christ Jesus in a ministry of both Gospel Outreach and Human Care.

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.