Monday, February 4, 2013

The Deacon's Chair

From the November 2009 E-Block.


In our last issue, I did a review of Frank Viola's Reimagining Church. As we have noted, Viola frequently decontextualiuzes New Testament texts in the service of promoting his ideals of "organic" church (a code word for "house" church). His errors in this regard are many, which is hardly surprising given Viola's lack of serious credentials. As it happened, at any rate, a book I received hoping for some insight for the next Building Blocks book, though it provided none for that project, did manage to drive a stake through the heart of another of Viola's refrains. 

The subject is the word diakonia, from which we get our modern word deacon, but which is frequently translated "servant". Viola makes much of this in the service (pun not intended) of arguing that the first century church did not have an "authoritarian" (306) structure. According to Viola, the past translation of diakonia in terms of a hierarchical office (mainly, as "minister") was an error which is corrected in it being rendered "servant." (305) Noting that this word means "servant" or "waiter" (173) Viola uses this as a bludgeon to correct ideas of church leaders as "officers and professional clerics". Or as he also says, "Ministers are busboys, not clergymen." (282) 

This is far from Viola's only error on the subject of authority, and to be fair, far from his only argument. However, it typifies Viola's heavy-handed, decontexualized approach to his subject matter. 

In contrast to what Viola offers, we have the extensive study of the diakonia and its cognates by John Collins in his book Diakonia (Oxford U. Press, 1990). I have found a review of this book by the Bryn Mawr Classical Review here that sums up the book using the same words I would, so I will just borrow from it:
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 appears 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 implications for Viola's thesis are thus quite devastating. Despite his comments, ministers are NOT busboys and can indeed be clergymen or other authority figures. In addition, this also answers one of Viola's objections that the NT never uses certain authority-words of believers, like archon. God of course must occupy those positions; but believers can become go-betweens, or brokers, of God's work, and this is indeed an office -- as was a broker in a patronage relationship.

It is worthwhile to briefly discuss some points from Collins; it is also an excellent book for the serious student (though sadly, out of print):
  • The "root idea" (194) of diakonia is that of being a go-between or intermediary. Hence while it can indeed refer to someone doing servile work, like a waiter, or something like ministry to the poor, this is by no means inherent to the word itself. It was also used of Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Functionally a diakonia carried something from one person to another. Hence as well, despite Viola's anachronism, it can apply to a waiter but not a "busboy." In the NT it frequently referred to someone who was a messenger of the Gospel.
  • The diakonia is invested with whatever power and authority is given them by the one they "carry" for. (194) It does not in the least indicate, as Viola supposes, someone who has humbly refused authority or does not practice it. Indeed, the word is used of persons in secular authority in Romans 13:4.
  • A text frequently used to reduce diakonia to menial/servant status is Mark 10:42-45:
    Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
    Collins notes the parallel in Luke 22, in which Jesus literally acts as a waiter, and supposes this to be the original context (246), but if we allow that the metaphor extended into Jesus' ministry, the result is the same: The contrast is between one who is a patron (as Luke 22:25 indicates) and a broker. The message is that God is the patron; we are the brokers of his message and work. There is nothing here of status inherently, though being God's broker may at times mean menial work. (Nor does it indicate humility as we would understand it, which is another issue, as we discuss here.
  • Relatedly, in this context the "to be served" of Mark 10:45 means that Jesus came into the world in such a way that he was not someone who, like the rich and powerful of that day, had his brokers scurrying about doing what he commanded; generally, he did it all himself, acting as God's broker -- which is an example the disciples are to follow.
In conclusion, Viola's use of diakonia is simply yet another anachronism, one that we find in other writers as well.

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