The diaconal meaning of the church

Lecture by Rev. Mrs. T. Geels

“A church is diaconal or she is not.” This is a remarkable start of a short lecture about the diaconal meaning of the church.
Although the church is male in her organisation, with a long patriarchal tradition;
she is female in her essence, a body of mercy. With care for those who lost their way in life. Sharing in love, searching for wholeness and happyness.
This female origin of the church is, with a male sturcture of organisation, rooted in the old Jewish tradition of the Bible.

In the heart of this old tradition we hear about care for the widows, orphans and aliens. We are tought how to feel responsible for our neighbour. Think of Deuterony 24:17,18. “You must not deprive aliens and the fatherless of justice or take a widow’s cloak in pledge.”
Due to her origin the church is diaconal or she is not… Diaconal in the meaning of serving God and mankind.
So the church is a social and spiritual community more than an institute, although we do need forms of stucture and organisation.

Considering this background and tradition I was very much surprised about the recent debate in our country where engaged ministers talked about stopping the Diaconia within the churches as social care and support.
They emphazised that our society took over this social suppOrt. Why should we continue with all these initiatives and social projects? It is spoiling time and energy, and does not bring in new churchmembers.
We had better spend our time and energy in our mission in the world: proclaiming the message of Jezus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.
But I think if we will loose the Diaconal basic of our believe, the church will become an unbelieveble institute. If there is no longer any social action as a consequence of our believe, how shall we transmit our mission?
A church is Diaconal or she is not…
This means that this serving in daily life, is the reason of existence of the church anyway. How can we proclaim our mission, liberal or orthodox if there is no consequence in our way of living, in making choices, in sharing of all the blessings we receive in our daily life?
The incarnation, where the apostel John speaks about at the end of the first chapter of his gospel, means that
the lifestyle of justice and mercy has become reality. In this way it is our confession that justice and mercy is the heart of our mission, of our creed.
Our belief is not a free philosohpy good for me, it is not an ideology but a special style of life which asks from us commitment in taking certain decisions.
It is a style of life which also gives us that special responsibility for the well- being of others as well as for ourselves. Physical, mental and spiritual.
Or social/ political, psycological and spritual. These fields of explanation are all in the stories, parables and lessons we find in the Bible, the source of our religious life.
In this sense the Bible- with its basic in the old Jewish tradition, is our guide:
How to learn and take our responsibility for real humanity on earth, nearby and far away.
If we want to explain this special spirituality, down to earth, we can consider one of the capital words in the OT. DABAR- which means: word and action, in one. Not only words without any consequences for our daily life.
At the same time is our action rooted in this same centre of belief.
One of the other basic words in the OT is- JUSTICE. We do justice, like Jesus where we can heal people, with love and attention. Where we can come to real solidarity with those who did not win in their live, in sympathy. By listening, by being nearby.
By sharing of our blessings, material and spiriual.
We find this way of living also in the Sermon on the Mount. In the Golden Rule:
“Treat others as you would like them to treat you”. (Matthew 7:12)

Back to the OT, we find examples of this SEDAKA in many words of Moses and the prophets. We find the exact meaning of Justice in the heart of the Thora, the 5 books of Moses. In the middle of Leviticus, chapter 19:17-“You must love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.” And we refind this word in the gospel of Mark, 12: 30- 32. “Hear O Israël, the Lord our God is the One God. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. And you must love your neighbour as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.”
So the Bible is a religious book but also a ethic book. It leads us on the way towards the fullfilling of the Kingdom, the city of peace- Jerusalem.
In this way Jesus was guiding his pupils. In a new way he gave the impuls to do Justice, inspirated by the Holy Spirit. The spirit of love.

Now we can put the question: how to create these locations of peace and charity?
How to handle in this direction, we find in the epistles of Paul. He gives the people
Advice and tools how to found real christian congregations. How to settle places of charity.
F.E. in 1 Tim. Paul is concrete, when he speaks about the proffesions of the Episkopos, the presbuteros and the diakonos. There mission is mentioned several times.
Unfortunately these professions were organized in the early church in a strict
hierarchatical way, analogue to the organisation of the social and political life during the hellenistic period. Although the charity was not neglected. It was taken seriously from the very beginning of christianity. The Diaconia belonged to the essence from the christian faith. The first christians shared their lives, material and spiritual.
We can read about it in the Acts of the Apostles. 2: 41- 47. The first christians were exeptional in their lifestyle. They felt responsible for their neighbours. They gave a funeral for them who could not afford. F.e.
This was irritating and strange, but strong and brave as we know.
During the Reformation, back to basics, we find a new impuls in churchlife, referring to that moving, starting period of christianity. The church did keep her tradition of justice and mercy. Unfortunately stongly dogmatic rooted as well in a new Calvinistic structure. This was the mainstream of the Reformation.

Still when we look to the tradition of the Remonstrants Brethern, this basic principe of christian belief- the Diaconia was not strongly mentioned.
Maybe of the severe, dogmatic struggle against the Orthodox protestants, which took so much energy. The later liberal christian church in Holland was more interested in philosohpy of reilgion than in Justice and mercy.
Of course not all of them.
I think on account of the great oecumenical movement in Holland during the second half of the 20e century, the diaconal mission of the church became more visible in the liberal christian churches, the Remonstrants as well.
There was charity in her tradition but not really related to the basics of christian faith. We must also consider that the Remonstrant Brethern became a church only in the French time. Before thas period they called themselves a Society with members.
Becoming a church the Remonstrant Brethern got more tools for the congregations in the stucture and the organisation of church- life. And we became more intergrated in the oecumenical movement in Holland. Member of the WCC in the beginning peroid.
Sharing also liturgical riches from the past, including the katholoic tradition of the church. Sharing now the diaconal mission and responsibility for justice in society.
That is why we do have a seperate Diaconal institute in the central organisation of the Remonstrants. I am the secretary of this institute. We have four departments: For Inner Diaconia, Peace, Durable Development and European Contacts. We organize central meetings and try to give inspiration to the local Diaconal committees of the Remonstrant congregations.
Where possible we try to coöperate in the eucumenical fields of the Council of Churches in Holland.
We are conscious of our liberal protestant tradition as Remonstrants, still we are part of the mainstream of the Protestant churches with a similar democratic organisation in the congregations, the heart of the protestant church in all her diversity, with her pastoral care and diaconal statements. Inspirated by the Spirit of God. With the responsibility for justice.
How can we put out the Diaconia?
Our root, reason of existence, is not to expell if we believe in the kingdom of God. That is why we do say: a church is diaconal or she is not.
This inspiration for mercy and justice leads us on the way towards God.
C. Halkes in Handbook for Diaconia, p. 187:
“Where we do justice in mercy there we see how church is growing.”

Utrecht, 15th of April 2005
Rev. Mrs. T. Geels

Claudia Pietryga
Claudia deed zowel een sociaal-agogische als journalistieke opleiding en is alweer bijna tien jaar freelance journalist. Ze schrijft het liefste over maatschappelijke onderwerpen en publiceerde onder meer stukken in de Flair, Hallo Jumbo, Spits, Het Parool, diverse blogs, lokale bladen en uiteenlopende (online) media voor met name ondernemers.
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