Theological and Biblical Reflections on Diakonia: A Survey of Discussion within the World Council of Churches

By Robra, Martin | The Ecumenical Review, July 1994 | Go to article overview

Theological and Biblical Reflections on Diakonia: A Survey of Discussion within the World Council of Churches


Robra, Martin, The Ecumenical Review


When the World Council of Churches was restructured in 1992, the former Commission on Inter-Church Aid, Refugee and World Service (CICARWS) became the Programme Unit on Sharing and Service (Unit IV). With the new name came a new mandate; and the unit commission asked for an historical survey of trends in diakonia as reflected in WCC texts and consultations, particularly since the world consultation on inter-church aid in Swanwick (UK) in 1966.

The survey which follows is an attempt to identify and systematically reconstruct the main line of those discussions,(1) using the paradigm-analysis model suggested by Thomas Kuhn and applied to the ecumenical movement by Konrad Raiser in Ecumenism in Transition.(2) The subheadings indicate the key words which mediate in the successive periods between the theological concepts of that time and the actual situation.

Given the impressive wealth of biblical and theological reflection during this period, other concepts might have been selected. It would be possible, for example, to relate the predominant theological ideas with the models of the church developed by Paulo Freire (traditionalist, modernizing and prophetic church) or with the distinction of church-centred, politics-centred and people-centred approaches used at the WCC's 1981 consultation on political ethics in Ayia Napa.(3) However, during the 1980s it became obvious that the ongoing paradigm-shift calls for an innovative change of concepts. The world consultation on interchurch aid in Larnaca (1986) revealed the importance of involvement by the local community in the struggle for justice, peace and integrity of creation. Concentrating on the local, Larnace attested to the vital diversity of diakonia. What are the consequences of this development for the biblical and theological reflection on diakonia?

Deacon, deaconess and service(4)

It has been difficult to implement the Greek word diakonia (from diakonein, to wait at table, from konia, dust) as a guiding principle in the WCC's interchurch aid section and its constituencies. The biblical basis and the understanding or interpretation of diakonia (the ministry of healing and sharing of the church as a whole and every Christian as well) were reduced in many respects as a result of historical developments in Europe at the time of the Reformation and during the 19th century, when capitalist industrialism was growing in the North hand-in-hand with imperialism and colonial domination in most of the world.

During the Middle Ages, charity and almsgiving were motivated by the fact that they were seen, under the influence of Matthew 25:31-46, as a means of salvation. Monasteries, religious orders and lay brotherhoods operated institutions like hospitals. The Reformation viewed diakonia both as the believer's spontaneous response of gratitude, directed to the suffering neighbour (Luke 10:25-37), and as a task of the community, demanding a system of relief for the poor with the support of the local government (Lutheran churches) or organized by congregations through the ministry of deacons and deaconesses (Reformed churches).

The nineteenth century saw the rise of new institutions in response to the rapid social changes taking place. The misery of the poor masses was seen as a missionary task (Innere Mission; cf. Luke 15:1-7), but these institutions were not engaged in structural change, due to individualism and a neo-Lutheran understanding of the doctrine of the "two kingdoms".

The broader sense of diakonia as rooted in the sacramental life of the church (as preserved in Orthodox theology) and in the vision of the kingdom of God was lost. With the emergence of functional subsystems (in particular politics and economics), diakonia was understood only as the function of a special ministry (the deacon or deaconess) or as an ensemble of institutions like hospitals, orphanages, schools, special services for marginalized groups ("ignorant, sick and handicapped") and individual aid for the poor (service). …

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