Book Review: The Deacon, by Cornelis Van Dam
Cornelis Van Dam, The Deacon: The Biblical Roots and the Ministry of Mercy Today. Reformation Heritage Books, 2016. 256 pp. $18.00.
Jesus said, “The poor will always be with us” (Matt. 26:11). That truth is evident every day. But what responsibility does the church have in mitigating suffering? What is our biblical responsibility in meeting the needs of the sick, the lonely, the poor, or the oppressed?
Cornelis Van Dam’s new book, The Deacon: The Biblical Roots and the Ministry of Mercy Today, sets forth a broad view of ministry to the poor, not only for deacons but for the church at large. He sees both obligation and opportunity. Our obligation to the poor is established first in the Old Testament which is further developed in the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. Van Dam understands this obligation to be both deep and wide. The obligation is deep, so the church must generously meet the needs. The obligation is wide because God is generous when identifying those who are poor; we can “never conceive of helping the needy too narrowly (13).
Our opportunity is found in providing for those in need as we reflect God’s love for humanity through these efforts of mercy.
ORGANIZATION AND ARGUMENT OF THE BOOK
Van Dam organizes his book in four parts. The first two parts review the biblical basis for generosity to the poor, discussing both the Old and New Testament witness. Part Three reviews the history and development of the role of deacons, including the recovery of the biblical role of deacons in the Reformation. Part Four’s final chapters discuss practical matters.
SCRIPTURAL FOUNDATIONS FOR DIACONAL MINISTRY
Part One: The Old Testament Background
Van Dam develops a brief theology of poverty and the poor that’s foundational to his thinking. In two chapters, he reviews the powerful vocabulary of the Old Testament identifying the poor as materially poor, powerless, afflicted, oppressed, and exploited. Poverty in Israel included peasant farmers, widows, orphans, sojourners, strangers, and foreigners. But identifying the poor is just the beginning.
Van Dam emphasizes that Israel was also called to provide for the poor—a calling that’s rooted in God’s love for his people. We see this in God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt. Van Dam concludes: “The principles embedded in God’s generous provision in the past are normative for God’s people today” (13).
In the Old Testament, God met the needs of the indigent through established societal structures. God prioritized this obligation first with the family, then society at large, and finally the state. This obligation is a demonstration of God’s love. Clearly, the tenor of the Old Testament demonstrates God’s concern for the poor and oppressed. He writes, “Liberation from affliction and oppression brings the joy of deliverance” (30).
Part Two: New Testament Times
Emphasizing the continuity of the testaments (as a Presbyterian would), Van Dam’s exegetical work in the Old Testament is further expounded in the teaching of Jesus, which carries forward to the church’s obligations to the poor. All of us are stewards of possessions that belong ultimately to God. We’re entrusted both with resources and a concurrent obligation to meet the needs of the needy “as fully as possible so that all needs can be satisfied” and to do so “willingly from a generous heart” (43). Christ serves as our example in this service.
Van Dam’s exegesis of Acts 6 agrees with those who see this historical crisis in the church as the catalyst for the establishment of a new diaconate office. He emphasizes the duty of the seven to provide for the needs of the indigent and concludes that the description of the tasks delegated to them is clearly diaconal.
The relationship of elders and deacons is an issue where churches differ. Van Dam argues that deacons are not servants to the elders, which is my own view. Both elders and deacons are servants of Christ, so these offices must cooperate together in that service (75–76). But elders do have the high obligation of assuring that the efforts of the deacons support the congregation’s ministry efforts.
As we would expect, Van Dam explains the qualifications of deacons well. He concludes that Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 3:12, “the husband of one wife,” requires marital faithfulness to one’s wife (69), and that this suggests an argument against women deacons (89).
Van Dam says we should appoint deacons “to protect the joy of the fellowship of believers” (71). This is a recurrent theme sounded that motivates all diaconal ministry.
A full chapter is devoted to the widely-debated question about whether women should serve as deacons. Van Dam reviews the evidence and arguments on this issue and concludes that the answer is no—the weight of the evidence is strong against women deacons. But Van Dam does not provide decisive arguments, so those who hold the contrary conclusion will likely remain unconvinced.
Part Three: The Office of Deacon in the History of the Church
Continuing with his chronological review, Van Dam explores the role of deacons in post-apostolic times, including the practices advocated by Irenaeus, Polycarp, and Ignatius.
However, soon after the first centuries, the theology of Rome distorted the role of deacons, so that the diaconate became a stepping-stone to the priesthood. But the Reformation was instrumental in bringing the diaconate back to a more biblical role.
Now that we’re 500 years after Luther’s 95 Theses, we can appreciate how Reformation theology changed the role of the diaconate. Van Dam offers three helpful observations on how the Reformation changed the diaconate:
- God’s grace by faith alone removed from the church the motivation of performing good works to gain God’s favor, so giving to the poor remained an obligation, but did not merit God’s grace.
- “Beggary” was no longer a positive Christian virtue.
- The biblical vision for the diaconate was renewed.
An additional chapter explores the role of women and the diaconate in the centuries following the apostles, particularly among Reformed churches. This detailed historical review is unlikely to be found in most books on deacons. This chapter slows the pace of the book with details with which many will agree but most will not find compelling. Perhaps this chapter would have been better as an appendix.
Van Dam has much to say about practical questions. But because he writes from a Presbyterian perspective, readers from other traditions may need to reformulate his advice.
Part Four: The Current Functioning of the Office
Van Dam writes from a Reformed and Presbyterian perspective (xi). This tradition shapes his discussion of some practical issues including deacons’ ordination, length of service, and the diaconate’s relationship to the session or consistory. A wider reading audience will be less interested in the practices of various Presbyterian churches. Perhaps Presbyterians will appreciate this background.
In another chapter, Van Dam proposes equipping deacons for service with special training to better enable their service. But deacons need the resources to accomplish their tasks, so the question of tithing and the diaconal offering reminds us of our obligation to give generously.
The obligation to meet the needs of others isn’t limited to the deacons. Instead, a better first responder may be the family, the church community, and even the state. In addition to the deacons, these three institutions have a role to play. But the church must not allow the role of the state to supplant the place of the church in ministry—and the church should not expect that it can.
Some readers may be concerned about the burden of the obligation of the diaconate Van Dam places on the church. The author advocates very broadly for those in need that the diaconate should target. He writes, “The diaconal service of the congregation extends to all those who—regardless of their background, creed, or nationality—need compassion and who God, in His providence, brings to our attention (192).
In a section on the global village (202), the author extends the obligation of deacons to those in need anywhere in the world. I believe most churches have a more limited role for their deacons, local to their own congregation and community. Most churches look to the needs of the world through their missionary efforts. To be fair, Van Dam does advocate the role of deacons to be more modest in this regard as they work with other mission agencies, but perhaps he goes too far in conflating the concerns of worldwide missions into the job description of deacons.
The last chapter reminds us that the poor will always be with us. But Van Dam properly sees this as an opportunity to minister to their needs, which is our way of showing the love of Christ to them and the world.
Van Dam has written a helpful book with many strengths. We sense his heartfelt care for the poor and those in need. He writes persuasively that the church has an extensive obligation to help the poor. The book moves forward quickly from the beginning with powerful theological statements from the Old and New Testaments. But the book’s momentum is slowed too much by some of the historical details in the middle.
However, the concluding chapters are reinvigorated with passionate calls for supporting diaconal ministry with practical advice on how to help. Because there are widely divergent practices among churches today on the role deacons play in the church, readers will naturally agree with Van Dam on some particular practices even as they modify his practices in others.
Van Dam’s book is a helpful contribution to our continuing discussions of the role of the diaconate, even where we disagree with his conclusions. Readers outside of the Presbyterian tradition will find some parts of the book less useful, but all can agree that Van Dam offers a powerful argument that deacons serve a vital role in the life and ministry of the church.
Van Dam is also the author of The Elder: Today’s Ministry Rooted in All of Scripture.