What are some main Biblical sources of diaconal ministry?
While there is little evidence for a formal distinct order of the diaconate in the New Testament, there is much evidence of the importance of diaconal ministry. Deacons are mentioned in the New Testament including in Acts 6.1-6, Romans 16.1-2, Philippians 1.1, and 1 Timothy 3.8-13. New Testament writings emphasize the importance of a variety of ministerial gifts and activities within a non-hierarchical, egalitarian spirit of imitating the example of Jesus and waited for his imminent return.
Although Acts 6.1-6 cannot be used to describe an official office of Deacon, in can teach us much about the importance of diakonia, including that addressing conflict within the community can create new opportunities for ministries, we are called to foster just structures in church and community, division of labor is crucial for both inward and outward mission, diaconal ministry is multi-dimensional, the qualifications for becoming a diaconal ministry include community discernment and the wisdom of individuals, and the Holy Spirit remains sovereign to direct our ministry as we observe in Acts 8 that these diaconal ministers were also called to teach and preach as needed.
The gospels also emphasize servant ministry in Jesus’ teachings including in Mark chapter 10: “but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (verses 43b-45, NRSV), and again in Luke when the disciples argue over who among them is the greatest, Jesus flips the order upside down and tells us that Jesus came as one who serves:
But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22.25-27, NRSV)
When studying diaconal ministry in New Testament scripture it is useful to go back to the new testament greek use of the words connected to diakonia. The noun form, diakonos, “one who gets something done, at the behest of superior, assistant to someone.” (BDAG) is the form used, for example, in Mark 10.43 “But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.” We translate this to simply servant; however, the meaning expands for me when looking at that translation of the Greek I quoted above and realizing that the superior I am serving is Jesus Christ. The verb, diakoneo follows this passage in reference to Jesus’ own ministry: “For even the son of humanity did not come to be served [diakoneo] but to serve [diakoneo], and to give his life as liberation for many.” (Mark 10.45; Rick Carlson translation handout). Diakoneo is defined as “to function as an intermediary, act as go-between/agent, be at one’s service” (BDAG). The same word, diakoneo, is also used in Luke 22.24-27 as Jesus refers to himself as one who serves. In Jesus I interpret this service as his work being an intermediary for us. When I think of this definition in terms of the service that a diaconal minister does I think of our role, sometimes seen as a bridge, between the church and the world. Although our role is not limited to being a “go-between” it does affect our world view as well as our church view, and is the lens we interpret our ministry through.
**Disclaimer? — please remember that I am sharing these as first response answers to questions to my Diaconal Ministry Formation Event and not as polished, researched essays. Although I welcome responses, please do keep this in mind when you respond (as well as the fact that my current schedule limits how often I can reply to comments) **