The Deacon: Biblical Foundations for Today’s Ministry of Mercy

Cornelis Van Dam, The Deacon: Biblical Foundations for Today’s Ministry of Mercy. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016. 253 pp. $14, paperback.

Works concerning the officers of the church are few, and those which are helpful fewer still. In the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition, most titles focus on ruling elders rather than deacons. Yet there continues to be uncertainty as to the role which deacons ought to play in the church as well as whether or not the office is open to women. There are some helpful titles available on deacons, but where Cornelis Van Dam (professor emeritus at Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Ontario) excels in this book is anchoring our understanding of deacons and their ministry in all of Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments. (His book, The Elder: Today’s Ministry Rooted in All of Scripture [2009], does the same for the office of elder.)

How can an office which was clearly instituted in the New Testament church (Acts 6) be rooted in the Old Testament? While there is no office of deacon in the Old Testament, Van Dam focuses on God’s concern that Israel care for the poor in their midst. “At the base of the Lord’s special interest in the needy and oppressed was that He loved His people, and He wanted Israel to reflect this divine love to their neighbor” (15). The first chapter details the various types of the poor or disadvantaged whom God expected the Israelites to provide with assistance – poor farmers and those who were landless, widows and orphans, sojourners and foreigners, and Levites (the last being a somewhat odd inclusion which detracts from his argument). By identifying those in need, Van Dam clearly sets up a parallel with the needs discussed in the New Testament.

Van Dam proceeds to examine the ways Israel was to provide for those in need against the backdrop of their redemption from slavery in Egypt.

Deliverance from affliction and oppression, whether from the bondage of Egypt or from poverty, was not an end in itself. People were not granted freedom so that they could simply rejoice. Liberation from bondage had the overriding purpose of setting the people free to serve the Lord their God according to His will. … A person could function best in God’s service when unencumbered by affliction and material needs. Then he could truly do his calling joyfully and to the full, as God intended for His people” (17).

This becomes his thesis statement which will also underlie the New Testament office of deacons. There is certainly a biblical link between redemption and ethics, the former providing the basis for the latter, and Van Dam seems to honor that connection in his study of the treatment of the poor within Israel’s moral responsibilities.

The spheres in which aid was to be provided began with the family, both immediate and extended. Then the community as a whole was to fill needs where family means were not available or insufficient. As a last resort, the nation itself, as represented in the kings of Israel and Judah, was to be a stopgap in relief of the poor. Here also Van Dam is setting up a template for his discussion of New Testament principles. Overall, Van Dam’s discussion is brief yet helpful in providing a bridge into the New Testament era. It is an area which certainly would benefit by more scholarly study.

Van Dam then devotes a chapter to Jesus’s teaching on the poor and needy. Studies of this topic are not often linked to discussions of the diaconal office. He gives brief though at times disjointed coverage to Jesus’s actions and pronouncements on the subject. More detail, especially from the Sermon on the Mount, would have been helpful, though perhaps that would have expanded the size of the book more than the author or publisher wished.

It is only in chapter four that we finally reach a discussion of Acts 6 and the actual formation of the diaconal office in the New Testament church. Van Dam will begin to press his thesis that the neglect of the poor was a threat to the worshipping community of God’s people. The chapter raises no novel points compared to other works on deacons. The same is true of the next chapter where he gives an overview of the required qualifications of deacons and how they are to relate to the ministry of the Word in the church. He briefly raises the question of whether women are to be included in this office.

In chapter six Van Dam looks in detail at what the Bible says concerning women in the office of deacon, particularly from Romans 16, 1 Timothy 3, and 1 Timothy 5. He admits the difficulties with interpretation, but handles both sides fairly. Again, this is an almost too brief of a treatment, but the ample footnotes allow readers to delve into further study if they wish.

Van Dam then turns to the historical treatment of the office of deacon, another topic that most books on deacons overlook, but it is helpful in putting contemporary discussions in perspective. He begins with examples from the early church period, and then essentially skips to the Reformation era, where he focuses on John Calvin’s efforts in Geneva. He bridges into the next chapter to the modern period. Interestingly, he includes some discussion of the Eastern churches before moving on to Western examples. Van Dam’s background in a Dutch and Continental Reformed tradition is helpful, as most other titles in recent times largely focus on the Presbyterian heritage. He does not consider the historical patterns determinative, but the examples are certainly informative. Within this historical framework, he explores the role of women as deacons further. He concludes that there is no basis for women to serve as ordained deacons. Yet he does not see a warrant for excluding them from assisting in some form of diaconal service. Regardless of where readers stand on that issue, they would do well to consider Van Dam’s presentation.

The next couple of chapters are what most people expect of a book on church officers – a discussion of how they fit in the contemporary church along with suggestions on how they can carry out their service to the church in relation to the other officers and general ministry. One idea that may strike some as odd is that of diaconal visitation on a systematic basis to assess needs in the congregation. Whether that is realistic or not given current social norms is perhaps a hindrance to the idea. The idea might have been better presented as joint visitation with elders. But for churches where diaconal service is restricted to mowing lawns, unlocking doors, and handling offerings, his idea is worthy of discussion if for no other reason than to provide a better sense of the worthiness of the office.

He picks up the spheres of responsibility that carry over from the Old Testament, first family and then the church as a whole. The discussion could have been helped by at least acknowledging the challenges of families which are spread all over the map rather than residing in the same community. The question of how to interact with unbelieving family members would also have been helpful.

Van Dam moves to the last sphere to offer a thought provoking discussion of diaconal work in the context of the modern welfare state. He debates the church’s responsibility to the poor in the community beyond the bounds of the church, recognizing the context and limitations of such outreach. While he certainly places chief responsibility with the church to help their own members, he never carried the discussion as far as the question of weaning members from reliance upon state assistance. He has no objections in general to state assistance and even diaconal encouragement of it. But given the trajectory of American society, one wonders if a time will come when agencies of the state will cut off aid to Christians who refuse to capitulate to a secular orthodoxy on social issues.

Van Dam offers a valuable addition to existing literature on deacons and their ministry. His effort to anchor the discussion in the entirety of Scripture is especially needed. Works about the offices of the church which are more of a how-to manual are only so helpful. If they are not first rooted in the biblical basis for the offices, they can far too easily fall short of God’s expectations for His church. This book will benefit even those who are not in churches of the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition. Regardless of the titles we give to it, the office of mercy is one that is recognized across the church polity spectrum. It is an area in which few churches excel, and where all can improve to the glory of God.

Kenneth McMullen
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte