This reflection is taken from the 2015 CRCNA Synod Taskforce report called Diakonia Remixed.
As part of the biblical foundations for its recommendations, the taskforce looked at some of the CRC's foundational documents and creeds laying down the basis for dramatic changes in the role deacons play at all levels of church life in the CRCNA.
Calling the Church to Diakonia
(adapted from Diakonia Remixed report to Synod 2015)
Let’s look once beyond the Church Order to see how the church’s diaconal role is described in our creeds and confessions. From the vantage point of a lay person, it seems that the oldest church documents were primarily concerned with doctrinal and theological foundations that established the Reformed churches and distinguished them from others. They were less interested in guiding the church’s missiology as a whole, and even less so the church’s diaconal role. It is not until we get to the Heidelberg Catechism that we gain a clearer understanding of the Reformed teachings in terms easily accessible to the lay person. The law, the creeds, the sacraments and the Lord’s Prayer are explained in simple biblical terms and form a core of discipleship training that remains relevant and beautiful to this very day. Effort is made to help believers apply these core beliefs to daily heart motivations and summons to action. Diakonia begins to emerge as an intrinsic hardwiring of the heart— a source of inspiration or incentive. The more recent Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony makes many references to both the Great Commission and the Great Commandment as these were spoken by Jesus to the early church. What follows is a very brief summary of the diaconal content of each document.
- Our World Belongs to God: A Contemporary Testimony: From the Preamble through to the final section on the New Creation, the development of a diaconal heart in the life of a believer is threaded throughout the Contemporary Testimony. One of the greatest encouragements toward the maturing of that heart is in the section on the Mission of God’s People. With reference to the words of Jesus himself in Matthew 25, the Contemporary Testimony (para. 41) states, “the church is sent with the gospel of the kingdom to call everyone to know and follow Christ. . . . The Spirit calls all members to embrace God’s mission in their neighborhoods and in the world: to feed the hungry, bring water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and free the prisoner”. The Testimony also teaches that, as God’s people in new community, “the church is a gathering” equipped by the Spirit to live out “the ongoing story of God’s reconciling love” and to work “for a world of justice and peace” (para. 39).That includes an active involvement in calling “on all governments to do public justice and to protect the rights and freedoms of individuals, groups, and institutions so that each may do their tasks.” We are urged to “pledge ourselves to safeguard children and the elderly from abuse and exploitation, to bring justice to the poor and oppressed, and to promote the freedom to speak, work, worship, and associate” (para. 53). The Contemporary Testimony does not relegate that task to deacons, but assigns it to the whole church, clearly including every person who belongs to it. The testimony concludes with a beautiful picture of the new creation, where “God’s kingdom will fully come and the Lord will rule” (para. 55). As his people and by his grace, we can “live confidently, anticipating his coming, offering him our daily lives—our acts of kindness, our loyalty, and our love—knowing that he will weave even our sins and sorrows into his sovereign purpose. Come, Lord Jesus, come” (para. 57).
- The Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed: It is impossible to read and believe these creeds without an awesome appreciation and gratitude for the work of God in creation, the gift of Jesus Christ in redemption, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the present and future. Diakonia in these creeds is expressed in “the communion of the saints” and “the forgiveness of sins,” which, if truly lived out by every believer, would fill our churches and inevitably our world with hearts of mercy. While believers labor and look toward “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting,” our earthly labor could be described as a duty to use these gifts readily and cheerfully for the service and enrichment of others.
- The Heidelberg Catechism: As the writers of the catechism provide answers to questions related to the law, the creeds, the sacraments, and the Lord’s Prayer, there is a continuous acknowledgment of intractable human sinfulness, the abundant grace of our Lord Jesus, and the ever-present strength of the Holy Spirit equipping us to live according to the desires of God. As much as it is clear that our works cannot earn us salvation, the motivations and actions of a diaconal heart will openly declare our love for God and his people. The assurance and confidence of our salvation should be the foundation on which a heart for the care for others is grown. The comfort that “I am not my own” and that my Savior “makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 1, should be enough to have us look at just how we live. What does that really mean? The catechism goes on to explain that all God wants of us is to love him with our all, and to love our neighbors as ourselves—a simple heart of diakonia. “Because by faith I am a member of Christ,” and therefore called a Christian, “I am anointed . . . to strive with a free conscience against sin and the devil in this life” (Q&A 32). The catechism’s explanation of the eighth commandment clearly describes a diaconal heart when it says “that I do whatever I can for my neighbor’s good, that I treat others as I would like them to treat me, and that I work faithfully so that I may share with those in need.”
- The Canons of Dort: The Canons of Dort are statements of doctrine adopted by the Reformed Synod of Dort in 161819. That synod had an international dimension, since it was not only composed of the delegates of the Reformed churches of the Netherlands but also attended by twentyseven representatives of foreign churches. The Synod of Dort was held in view of the serious disturbance in the Reformed churches caused by the rise and spread of Arminianism. Arminius, a theological professor at the University of Leyden, and his followers departed from the Reformed faith in their teaching concerning five important points. They taught conditional election on the ground of foreseen faith, universal atonement, partial depravity, resistible grace, and the possibility of a lapse from grace. These views were rejected by the synod, and the opposite views were embodied in what are now called the Canons of Dort. In these canons, the synod set forth the Reformed doctrine on these points, namely, unconditional election, particular atonement, total depravity, invincible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. Although this last point makes reference to the working out of one’s salvation and the incentive believers have toward thanksgiving and good works, there is little mention of the believer’s service to others in acts of justice, mercy, or love.
- The Belgic Confession: Article 20 focuses on the justice and mercy of God in Christ but offers no expectation for humankind to do likewise. Article 24 delves into the sanctification of sinners and speaks briefly about the believer’s motivation for good works. Article 28 brings forth a clear statement in describing the obligation of church members that should resonate in the diaconal heart: All people are obliged to join and unite with [the church], keeping the unity of the church by submitting to its instruction and discipline, by bending their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and by serving to build up one another, according to the gifts God has given them as members of each other in the same body.
- The Belhar Confession: The language of unity, reconciliation, and justice is woven throughout the Belhar, but the final section (4) most clearly articulates the heart of diakonia. For the most part the Belhar simply recites Scripture when it articulates this most compelling diaconal challenge to the church in the globalized 21st century—the challenge to seek justice for the poor and destitute.
- that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people.
- that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.
- that God calls the church to follow him in this, for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry.
- that God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind.
- that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly.
- that for God pure and undefiled religion is to visit the orphans and the widows in their suffering.
- that God wishes to teach the church to do what is good and to seek the right...
- that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
- that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.
In summary, the task force observed that the historical confessions and the contemporary testimonies lead the church to a more fulsome self-understanding of her diaconal identity and mandate. It was on this basis then that Synod 2015 radically reframed the office of deacon in the CRC and has the diaconate present at all assemblies so that the voice calling for justice and mercy can be clearly heard. The deacon of today has a tremendous calling and needs to be generously supported by the members as well as all the church systems and structures.