An Orthodox Approach to Diaconia

Consultation on ‘Church and Service’ at the Orthodox Academy in Chania, Crete, from November 20 to 25, 1978


The Commission on Inter-Church Aid, Refugee and World Service (CICARWS) and the Orthodox Task Force of the World Council of Churches (WCC) responded to the New Valamo call for further Orthodox reflection on the Orthodox approach to diaconia by convening a consultation on ‘Church and Service’ at the Orthodox Academy in Chania, Crete, from November 20 to 25, 1978. Participants represented the various Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The following report reflects the discussions in the two work groups. In none of the aspects developed is it to be regarded as exhaustive but only as a first step in the continuing endeavour to examine diaconia from the Orthodox standpoint.

Theological Background

Christian diaconia is rooted in the Gospel teaching according to which the love of God and the neighbour are a direct consequence of faith. The diaconal mission of the Church and the duty of each of its members to serve are intimately bound up with the very notion of the Church and stem from the example of the sacrifice of our Lord Himself, our High Priest, who, in accordance with the Father’s will “did not come to be served but to serve and to give up his life as a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:28).
Christian diaconia also flows from the divine liturgy in which our offerings are sanctified by Christ’s offering and requires our active cooperation (synergeia) with God in the exercise of our freewill which is rooted in our common agreement (symphonia) (Mt. 18:19).Diaconia is therefore an expression of the unity of the Church as the Body of Christ. Each local celebration of the Eucharist is complete and universal, involving the whole of creation, and is offered for the material and spiritual needs of the whole world.

Christian diaconia is not an optional action, duty or moral stance in relation to the needy, additional to our community in Christ, but an indispensable expression of that community, which has its source in the eucharistic and liturg¬ical life of the Church. It is a ‘liturgy after the liturgy’ and it is in this sense that diaconia is described as a judgment upon our history (Mt. 25:31-46).
The main emphasis in this eucharistic and loving diaconia is not on quantity, money or material aid, but on quality and intention. The widow’s “tiny coins” (Lk.21: 2-3) are worth more than offerings from our “more than enough”. To offer out of the little that we have is an expression of our need to engage in diaconia.
In church collections and agapes from the earliest days right down to the present, diaconia is understood by the Orthodox Church as an offering intended for the whole man, for his total spiritual and material needs.
The ultimate goal of diaconia is the salvation of man. But poverty, oppression and material penury often constitute an obstacle, jeopardizing man’s salvation, as the teaching of the apostles and the Church fathers points out. Diaconia therefore embraces the need to liberate mankind from everything which oppresses, enslaves and distorts the image of God, and by doing so to open the way to salvation. In this sense, diaconia is liberation for salvation.

Christian diaconia today requires a renewed spirit of asceticism, i.e., of self-denial and concern for our neighbour leading to a simpler life-style. The witness borne by monastic communities in our midst through fasting, prayer, metanoia, the contemplative life and solidarity with the poor and the oppressed, as well as through active service, inspire us to grow in genuine Christian community.
Diaconia challenges us, therefore, to sacrifice, self¬denial and sometimes even to martyrdom. It knows no limits. It is not something we do spasmodically to alleviate certain needs and sufferings as they arise but rather an integral part of a living Christian community’s concern and pastoral care for all those within the community and for all those who come within range of its knowledge and loving care.
The object of Christian diaconia is to overcome evil. It offers deliverance from injustice and oppression. When the Church fails to offer its witness and to be prophetic, the reaction of the world will be indifference and apathy. Diaconia is therefore an essential element in the life and growth of the Church.

Because of the varied and adverse historical circums¬tances within which the Orthodox Church has had to struggle and continues to struggle in order to live, its diaconia has not always found visible expression in highly organized forms.
Confronted today with rapid social change, modernization, secularization, industrialization, etc., the Orthodox Church recognizes that it must remain open and flexible in order that it may offer various forms of diaconia in a variety of complex situations. Some forms of its diaconia will be directed to individuals, others to groups and institutions. Some forms of diaconia are needed in local situations, others are required to respond to regional or international needs. Some will be spiritual in character, assisting people who are lonely and in despair; others will be material in character, feeding the hungry and liberating the captives.
Clearly therefore, money alone will not be enough for the diaconal ministries which the Church must seek to perform. It is also clear that preventive diaconia is just as essential as therapeutic diaconia.

Suggestions for the Orthodox Churches

In order that our Orthodox faith and spirituality may find practical expression in more effective diaconal work, the following suggestions are offered for consideration by the Orthodox Churches.
In order to strengthen their diaconal work, our Orthodox Churches should renew the role of deacons and deaconesses in the total life and witness of the Church and make it possible for both laywomen and laymen to participate more fully in diaconal service, this being understood as a leiturgia and as an extension of the Holy Eucharist.
Since the basis of our diaconia is the deaconship of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice was made for the redemption of all humankind, our Churches should develop more vivid and compelling ways of communicating to their members the biblical imperative to serve the neighbour whoever that neighbour may be, in order that in our diaconia we may attain the ultimate goal of the ecumenical movement, namely, the unity of the Church, and indeed, according to our Lord’s will, the unity of all humankind. Due attention should therefore be paid by our Churches to WCC concerns for a macrodiaconia in the field of peace as well as in the fields of disarmament, human rights, racism, development, ecology, etc.
Through their diaconia of prayer and their use of material and human resources, our Churches everywhere should contribute to local, regional and worldwide efforts to restore human dignity and to serve humanity.

Suggestions for the WCC and CICARWS

As an integral part of the WCC, the Orthodox Churches have found in it an open platform for encounter and cooperation. We would nevertheless offer the following suggestions for pro¬moting a more effective participation of the Orthodox Churches in the life and work of the WCC.

1. We endorse the request placed before the officers and staff of the WCC by the Orthodox members of the Central Committee that membership rules, staff patterns and unit membership should be reviewed in order to facilitate greater participation by the Orthodox in the life and work of the World Council of Churches.
2. We recommend a periodic review of WCC structures, style, publications and services with a view to a greater effort to present points of view in a more inclusive way, one which permits the expression of Orthodox perspectives and concerns.

3. In respect of CICARWS, we suggest:
(a) more attention to the Orthodox understanding of their priorities and the interpretation of diaconal needs in each situation;
(b) assistance to be given to Orthodox Churches in their efforts in the field of macrodiaconia;

(c) the development of better forms of communication with a view to the discovery of better and new forms of diaconia;

(d) the encouragement of relationships and exchanges between Orthodox Churches and other Christian commu¬nions;

(e) that CICARWS should be the instrument for the participation of Orthodox Churches in diaconal service in other Christian communions through its project list, country programmes and emergency appeals;

(f) that the attention of CICARWS be drawn to the fact that specialized agency mandates as applied in current proce¬dures may hinder a response to the real needs of the Churches. Conscious of the need to foster direct relationships between donors and recipients and fully respecting the interests of the different Churches in specific situations, we believe that non-earmarked contributions will help the Churches to express their real needs instead of seeking to meet the requirements of the funding agencies.

(g) We look to CICARWS to give greater expression to the spiritual dimension of diaconia: prayer for one another; receptivity to guidance from the Holy Spirit; concern for non-physical suffering and distress; sensitivity to the expression of love in “I, thou, God” relationships.

Other matters discussed at the ‘Church and Service’ Consultation, regarded as important and as requiring fuller development by the staff of the WCC and of regional councils or by other conferences, included:

1. The issue of Church/state relations in the area of service, as well as church relationships with other non-governmental agencies and with multi-national corporations.
2. The question of violence.
3. The need to develop new and better forms of communication between Orthodox Churches and the WCC, and between donors and recipients.
4. The need for historical and theological research and for a survey of contemporary efforts to evaluate Orthodox diaconia.
5. The need for a WCC delegation to visit the occupied areas of Cyprus to determine the situation of Christians living there.