Diaconal Cooperation at a Regional/Classis Level
Why It’s Important
“An agenda for the future of evangelical ecclesiology must continue to include a growing awareness of the church as the visible society of God’s people who are called to act as the presence of the future, the eschatological community of the world made new through Christ.”
These were the words of Robert Webber in 1978 in his book Common Roots; a Call to Evangelical Maturity, where he challenged the church back to its historical roots of the early church. Few people would disagree that this call is even more urgent in 2019 than it was in 1978. Deacons play a leadership role in implementing that vision. Any deacons that resonate with this call quickly realize that it takes a community of faith to accomplish impact on this scale. It cannot be accomplished in isolation.
Both the RCA and CRC have recognized the need for this community approach and have historically called for deacons to work together at a regional level. In fact as recently as 2017 the RCA Synod called for the formation of deacon conferences at the classical level, exactly for the reasons above. The CRC has a long history with diaconal cooperation at a classical level with varying levels of success. The CRC Synod of 2015 reiterated a call for this kind of diaconal leadership.
The same CRC Synod recognized that there was a disconnect between Church Order articles and the church’s much richer self-understanding of its diaconal calling as these are articulated in the church’s testimonies and liturgical forms. Synod called for the diaconal mission of the church to be described in more complete, holistic, and robust terms that recognize both the intensified urgency of needs in our broken world, as well as the scope of the church’s giftedness as the Holy Spirit equips us to meet ever greater challenges.
The following guiding principles were then utilized to refresh the CRC Church Order with a reinvigorated vision of deacon leadership in the local context, as well as regionally and globally:
1. The whole Church is called to Diakonia
It is not simply the case that the church has deacons, but rather it is the case that the whole church is itself called to diakonia, which we understand as God glorifying service that is rendered to the world in obedience to Christ. A key text is found in Ephesians 4:11-13: "So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service [Greek: diakonia], so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ."
The biblical teaching that elaborates just what those “works of service” are that lead to “unity in the faith,” “knowledge of the Son of God,” “maturity,” and “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” is rich and vast and spans both testaments. Beginning in Genesis, with the summons to be in right relationship (shalom) with God and one another and to care for the creation; through the Old Testament calling of Israel to be constituted as a kind of “demonstration plot” among the nations, exemplifying the communal life of a holy people called to bring light and blessings to the nations; and on to the New Testament summons to follow Jesus into the world renewing life of the kingdom, marked by both humble sacrificial service and radical neighbor love—the entire biblical narrative can be understood as an extended commentary of what it means to render service to God, others, and the whole creation. (A much fuller presentation, written by Dr. Mariano Avila, professor of New Testament at Calvin Seminary, served as background for this principle and is worth the read)
2. More Than Charity
Diakonia cannot be reduced to simple acts of charity and the distribution of alms (as suggested by the use of Acts 6 in the CRC form for ordination), but includes a much broader and richer mandate. The Contemporary Testimony articulates a broad and comprehensive mission for the church as a people gathered “to live out the story of God’s reconciling love . . . working for a world of justice and peace.” The scope of the Testimony’s vision for the church includes creation care, service to the poor, prayerful political participation, peacemaking, advocacy, economic stewardship, and education for prophetic watchfulness over our world.
The church must embrace a broad description of mission. As the form for the ordination of deacons suggests, deacons are called to lead the church in living out this high calling in all of its holistic multidimensionality, “fervently desiring to give life the shape of things to come.” Deacons are not called simply to perform acts of service on behalf of the church but to lead the whole church in faithful obedience to its multifaceted participation in the mission of God.
3. A Call to Biblical Justice
The church’s role in society is described thus not only in terms of mercy but also in terms of justice, reconciliation, and peacemaking. As Micah 6:8 reminds us, these two rich biblical ideas, justice and mercy, belong together, for justice is the public enactment of the mercy of God. Mercy, spoken of by itself, can often be misunderstood simply as charity, but coupled with justice, together they speak to the healing of relationships and the restoration of shalom. In terms of diaconal outreach to the poor, mercy is analogous to relief that addresses immediate needs which are often symptomatic of deeper problems; but justice seeks to understand and address the root causes of poverty. The form for ordination charges deacons to “be prophetic critics of the waste, injustice, and selfishness in our society, and to be sensitive counselors to the victims of such evils."
4. Parity in Leadership
The “principle of parity” between the offices is clearly stated in Church Order Article 2. As long as the Church has deacons in a leadership role, deacons then also need the place of leadership to ask for accountability around the mandate they take on when they accept the charge the church gives them. Deacons in the CRC now have role at both Classis and Synod recognizing the diaconal dimensions of managing the vision and mission of these assemblies that also have a clear diaconal component , if not a mandate. It is a person’s ordination as such and not his or her specific office or mandate that qualifies a person for delegation to a Classis or Synod. Our times urgently call for this level of diaconal leadership.
Delegation of deacons to major assemblies is not about equal representation, as if there should be some balance of power; but rather it is about the full representation of the whole church which these offices represent. When deacons are missing from major assemblies, the full voice of the church is not heard, nor is the full ministry of the church under discussion. The purpose of the major assemblies is not simply governance and adjudication but deliberation about the church’s character and ministry, a deliberation in which the deacons ought surely to participate. Full participation of deacons at major assemblies will help to nurture and advance the missional dimension of these deliberative assemblies. Diaconal Ministries Canada has created a pdf file that gives us seven reasons why this is good for the church.
5. Structural Flexibility
Yet another guiding principle is one which we might call “minimal regulation for maximum impact.” The church has considerable “freedom in obedience” to structure itself for the greatest engagement by its members and for maximum kingdom impact in the world. For example, John Calvin states, “If the church requires it, we may not only without offense allow something to be changed but permit any observances previously in use among us to be abandoned” (Calvin Institutes, 4.10.32). Reflecting on Calvin’s handling of Church Order, one commentator concludes that, according to Calvin, “As long as the church is apostolically carrying out the task, the form of the office is not constrained to a particular historical or geographic interpretation of it” (Thea Leunk, “The Office of Deacon: Calvin’s Ecclesiology, Geneva’s Practice, and the CRC Diaconate,” 1999. More flexible terms of office along with more intentional training may help to unleash ministry potential, change the minimalist perception of the role of deacons, and lead to healthier churches with dynamic ministries. Of course, changing Church Order articles cannot, by itself, effect any sweeping change, but it can remove structural hindrances that inhibit flourishing diaconates.
For the church to reflect the community made new through Christ it needs the broader community. Accomplishing this through ministry together as churches in a community or in a Classis context, allows for effective sharing of resources. More than that it reflects the unity we have in Christ.