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Diakonia Studies: Critical Issues in Ministry

November 18, 2014

By Dr. John N. Collins. He is the author of the recently published Diakonia Studies: Critical Issues in the Ministry, and also Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources, both available on Oxford Scholarship Online.

Diakonia Studies

Church pews have been emptying faster than ecclesiological theories have been able to keep up with. In December 2013 the Roman Catholic Dutch Bishops Conference anticipated that a third of their churches would be closed by 2020 and two-thirds by 2025 (The Tablet 041213). Meanwhile, writings on ministry have faltered. For thirty to forty years leading up to the current millennium publications on ministry proliferated. In 1980 Edward Schillebeeckx closed his book Ministry: A Case for Change by excusing himself from assembling a bibliography on the ground that the preceding decade had seen more than 4000 titles on the subject.

More recently, authors have been staking out the new ground opened up by influential predecessors. In fact, these predecessors were the gatekeepers of a new approach to ecclesiology, and they bore names like Barth, Schweizer and Käsemann. To the work of such individual scholars we need to add the influence of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, particularly in its development of the ecumenically agreed statement Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry The code words of the new discourse were Spirit, baptism, charism, and service, and the new paradigm supposed a mutation of church office under the impact of a rejuvenating all-member ministry.

For a time the effect was to enliven churches that took their rise from the Reformation and to relax border controls between them, while, for the Great Church of the West and its episcopally-equipped sister churches, the new ecclesiology opened up alluring visions of a deceptively simple foundational past at the same time as it imperiled the relevance of organic connection with such temps perdu. Within ancient churches of the East, the realignments generated intemperance and a further distancing from the decadent West. The inevitable impact of confusion upon the churches’ pastoral efficacy is now exposed to view, while the main subversive force is conveniently identified as self-centered secularism.

Contemporary championing of at least one major element within the new rhetoric is, however, misconceived. This element is the baptismal call to charismatic service, although criticism is either disregarded or is taken as evidence of an attempt to reinstate an older hierarchical order – so allow me to clarify.

The rhetoric of service is widespread and pervasive, embracing the social and communitarian dimension of Christian existence itself. But that is when we are speaking English  or German, where ‘service’ is named Dienst (the term promulgated by the gatekeepers of ecclesiology in the 1940s-50s). When it is called diakonia (the German Diakonie and similar other neologisms in European languages), ‘service’ takes on an iconic quality reflecting the diakonia of the Son of Man himself, eg. Mark 10:45 .

What we may not realise when we engage with this rhetoric is that the gatekeepers were not just aiming to generate an earthier hands-on pastoral practice but were, instead, earnestly engaged in establishing ‘service/Dienst’ as a replacement for the conventional German term ‘Amt’ in talk of church and its functions (Amt would be ‘office’ in English).

If the service syndrome has been running hot in English, German, and indeed contemporary ecclesiology as a whole, my previous publication Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources (1990) has established that diakonia in the Greek New Testament should never have been invoked to fuel this powerful drive. In the eras before the Reformation virtually the only biblical text available within the Church of the West was the Latin Vulgate. In the Vulgate, passages about church functions drew on the Latin word ministerium and its associated terms. This feature is reflected also in the traditional English bible translations.  There we encounter terms like ‘ministry’ and ‘ministers’ in relation to church functions and functionaries.

Possibly the passage touching most closely on ecclesiology is Ephesians 4:11-12, where the Vulgate translates the Greek diakonia to ministerium. At this point in his German translation from the Greek, Martin Luther wrote Amt (in the spelling of his time, Ampt), but in striking contrast, 21st-century German translations write Dienst. In most contemporary English translations, similarly but not with such obvious editorial intent, we read ‘service’ or something equivalent. Thus the New International Version (NIV): ‘Christ himself gave the apostles … and teachers, to equip his people for works of service’.  And when the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) retains the term ‘ministry’, the ecclesiological principle is the same: ‘the gifts he gave were that some would be apostles … and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry.’

Whether translating by the terms ‘service’ or ‘ministry’, modern versions are virtually of one mind that the people gifted (with ‘charism’) to perform the ‘service/ministry’ are ‘the saints’, that is, the members making up the community. This dramatic ideological shift from a model of ‘ministers’ carrying out the responsibilities of ‘ministry’ to a model of  ‘members of the congregation performing works of service’ can be dated to the appearance of Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (vol. 2 of the German, 1935, Eng. trans. 1964, p. 87).

Such is the context within which my two volumes have appeared – albeit with a gap of nearly 15 years between them (1990 and 2014) – on semantic and exegetical issues relating to diakonia in the earliest Christian environment.  The current Diakonia Studies includes a full account of the reception of this linguistic research as well as my own prognostications regarding ministry within churches of our times.


If objective moral reasoning is possible, how does it get started?  Sidgwick’s answer is, in brief, that it starts with a self-evident intuition. He does not mean by this, however, the intuitions of what he calls “common sense morality.”  To see what he does mean, we must draw a distinction between intuitions that are self-evident truths of reason, and a very different kind of intuition. This distinction will become clearer if we look at an objection to the idea of moral intuition as a source of moral truth.

Sidgwick was a contemporary of Charles Darwin, so it is not surprising that already in his time the objection was raised that an evolutionary view of the origins of our moral judgments would completely discredit them. Sidgwick denied that any theory of the origins of our capacity for making moral judgments could discredit the very idea of morality, because he thought that no matter what the origin of our moral judgments, we will still have to decide what we ought to do, and answering that question is a worthwhile enterprise.

On the other hand, he agreed that some accounts of the origins of particular moral judgments might suggest that they are unlikely to be true, and therefore discredit them. We defend this important insight, and press it further. Many of our common and widely shared moral intuitions are the outcome of evolutionary selection, but the fact that they helped our ancestors to survive and reproduce does not show them to be true.

This might be taken as a ground for skepticism about morality as a whole, but our capacity for reasoning saves morality from this skeptical critique. The ability to reason has, of course, evolved, and clearly confers evolutionary advantages on those who possess it, but it does so by making it possible for us to discover the truth about our world, and this includes the discovery of some non-natural moral truths.

Sidgwick thought that his greatest work was a failure because it concluded by accepting that both egoism and universal benevolence were rational. Yet they pointed to different conclusions about what we ought to do. We argue that the evolutionary critique of some moral intuitions can be applied to egoism, but not to universal benevolence. The principle of universal benevolence can be seen as self-evident, once we understand that our own good is, from “the point of view of the universe” of no more importance than the similar good of anyone else. This is a rational insight, not an evolved moral intuition.

In this way, we resolve the so-called “dualism of practical reason.” This leaves us  with a utilitarian reason for action that can be presented in the form of a utilitarian principle: we ought to maximize the good generally.

What  is this good thing that we should maximize? Is my having a positive attitude towards something enough to make bringing it about good for me? Preference utilitarians have argued that it is, and one of us has, for many years, been well-known as a representative of that view.

Sidgwick, however, rejected such theories, arguing that the good must be, not what I actually desire but what I would desire if I were thinking rationally. He then develops the view that the only things that it is rational to desire for themselves are desirable mental states, or pleasure, and the absence of pain.

For those who hold that practical reasoning must start from desires, it is hard to understand the idea of what it would be rational to desire – or at least, that idea can be understood only in relation to other desires that the agent may have, so as to produce a greater harmony of desire.

This leads to a desire-based theory of the good.

One of us, for many years, became well-known as a defender of one such desire-based theory, namely preference utilitarianism. But if reason can take us to a more universal perspective, then we can understand the claim that it would be rational for us to desire some goods, even if we have no present desire for them. On that basis, it becomes more plausible to argue for the view that the good consists in having certain mental states, rather than in the satisfaction of desires or preferences.

- See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2014/06/the-point-of-view-of-the-universe/#sthash.LhtDta11.dpuf



Discover more: the chapter 'From Diakovia to Diakonia Today: Historical Aspects of Interpretation' in Diakonia Studies: Critical Issues in the Ministry is now free and available to read until the end of December. Get access to the full text of this book, as well as over 1,400 Oxford Religion titles, by recommending OSO to your librarian today.