Published on June 24, 2024 by Eugene Ho

Reformation Heritage, 2021 | 256 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

by Ryan Speck



So, what do deacons actually do? We become members of a church by speaking to the elders and pastors. We see elders and pastors standing in front of us every Sunday. We may even receive pastoral visits or counseling from elders and pastors. Yet, what exactly do deacons do? Do they collect the offering? Are they in charge of the money? They take care of the building, right? So, are deacons primarily charged with money and facility management? If so, should we not simply find the most savvy businessmen in our midst and throw in a few janitor-types to compose our diaconate? Cornelis Van Dam (p. xi) contends: “Stated briefly, deacons are those charged with the ministry of mercy to show the love of Christ by providing for the poor and afflicted.” Deacons are primarily defined as those who care for the needy. Is that your experience? Is that what your deacons do? Is that work not, essentially, rendered moot by government agencies? Of what use is the diaconate in a country of plenty with government assistance for any in need? Van Dam insists (p. xii): “Although the office of deacon is often undervalued and perceived to be of little importance, Scripture shows that this is far from the truth. It is a tremendous gift of God, and a church neglects this office to its detriment.” Dividing his book into four parts, Van Dam presents a biblical case for the diaconate, its work, and its important role in the church. 


Part One: The Old Testament Background (pp. 3-32)

In Chapter 1: The Poor in Israel (pp. 3-14), Van Dam provides a definition of the poor according to OT law. Namely, the “poor” included those who were physically impoverished, powerless, afflicted, and oppressed.  Van Dam specifically cites Hebrew terms to describe the variety of people who would be included in this broad definition of poverty and need. “God’s care for the poor, however, went beyond the purely physical aspects of poverty. He included the disadvantaged, the downtrodden, and the helpless” (p. 5). Since God codified His compassion in Israel’s laws, Israel was “duty bound” to help anyone in such need. These laws not only revealed God’s character of compassion to Israel but to the world. Compassion for the needy always includes an evangelistic purpose. 

In Chapter 2: Providing for the Poor (pp. 15-32), Van Dam shows why such laws were important. Since helping those in need was motivated by Israel’s own experience of being freed from oppression in Egypt, Van Dam concludes: “Helping the poor and needy is a vital part of ensuring that all can share in the liberating joy of redemption” (p. 17). Since Van Dam argues that in the OT there was no equivalence to the NT deacon, this help of liberating joy came through one’s family first, then from society generally (which equates to the church today), and finally from the state. 


Part Two: New Testament Times (pp. 33-92)

In Chapter 3: Christ’s Teaching on the Poor and Needy (pp. 35-46), Van Dam emphasizes that, although circumstances change, the NT compassion upon the needy is grounded in God’s character that never changes. Thus, in NT times—with no theocracy—the Temple, synagogues, and individuals were to provide for the needy. Christ Himself teaches us five principles regarding serving the poor: (1) such service is absolutely necessary (Matthew 7:12; 22:36-40; 25:31-46; 1 John 4:21); (2) we are stewards of God’s resources (Matthew 25:14-30); (3) we must give gladly and generously (Matthew 12:44; Mark 6:3-4); (4) this giving must be extended to all we come across in need (Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 10:25-37); and (5) we must broadly define the poor and needy—as the OT laws did (Matthew 25:31-46). 

In Chapter 4: Ministering to the Poor in Acts 6 (pp. 47-60), Van Dam exposits Acts 6 as the basis for the NT office of deacon. The neglect of Hellenistic widows threatened the joy of the early church. Accordingly, men were chosen to minister to these needs to ensure that “the liberating joy of redemption” continued in the church. While today it is debated whether Acts 6 establishes a perpetual and specific office in the church, Van Dam argues that it does: “First, a specific justification was given for this new position—namely, that the apostles should not give up preaching the Word of God to serve tables (Acts 6:2). Second, an ordination took place. Third, when the apostle Paul later gives the qualifications for the office of deacon, he obviously assumed its existence” (p. 52). Yet, if these deacons were to serve tables so the Apostles could preach, why do we later find Philip and Stephen preaching? Van Dam argues that part of the diaconate service is ministering the Word also (pp. 56-57). For, the mercy ministry should help not only the body but also the soul. And, if all people “went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4), certainly deacons should. 

In Chapter 5: The Office of Deacon (pp. 61-76), Van Dam addresses the qualifications for deacons (by expositing 1 Timothy 3, supplemented by other passages), the task of deacons, and the separate and distinct authority of deacons (from elders). Thus, Van Dam explains, “Their task, in a nutshell, was to see to it that there were no needy so that everyone could rejoice and celebrate the salvation and freedom given by Christ” (p. 71). This task is accomplished by focusing upon needs within the church, by mobilizing resources and talents in the congregation to alleviate these needs, and to help alleviate needs outside the church also. To this end, deacons and elders should work closely together, but a deacon “should not be characterized as being a servant to the overseer [elder].” 

In Chapter 6: Are Female Deacons Biblical? (pp. 77-92), Van Dam takes up the explosive question of whether women should be deacons, expositing Romans 16:1-2, 1 Timothy 3:11, and 1 Timothy 5:9-10. After an even-handed and fascinating discussion of the question, Van Dam concludes that the exegetical evidence is not in favor of women deacons, and the principle forbidding women from having authority in church supports that conclusion. However, he argues that 1 Timothy 5:9-10 sets the example for enrolling a specific group of women to serve in mercy ministry, and “there is nothing to prevent the church from following [this] model” today (p. 87). 


Part Three: The Office of the Deacon in the History of the Church (pp. 93-130)

In Chapter 7: The Testimony of the Early Church and the Heritage of the Reformation, (pp. 94-112), Van Dam notes that the early church appears to have accepted Acts 6 as the origination of the office of deacon and that the deacon had his own dignity and authority as a minister of Christ. The mercy ministry of the church during plagues, for example, when “pagans abandoned their sick” (p. 97), but Christians did not, astounded the world. However, when hierarchy grew in (now) state churches, deacons were subordinated and viewed as mere servants to the higher-ups, so that, “All through the Middle Ages until the time of the Reformation, the office of deacon ceased to function in any biblical way” (p. 99). However, the reformers and their heirs restored the office of deacon to its Biblical position. To prove this point, Van Dam presents evidence from different reformers (especially citing Calvin’s writings), as well as official decisions of various church bodies. 

In Chapter 8: Women and the Diaconate (pp. 113-130), Van Dam surveys church history regarding women deacons, concluding (pp. 129-130): 

The first evidence for female ordination into the diaconate in the early Christian church is found in the third century in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Women deacons were needed to protect female modesty at baptisms, to minister to sick women, and to teach new female members of the church the basics of Christianity to preserve their purity. The involvement of female deacons in the church was, however, by no means universal in the East, and by the end of the eleventh century it had disappeared. Although women deacons are not clearly attested in the Western church until the sixth century, the issue of the female diaconate was discussed and possibly practiced. But the ordination of women was not widely supported and was frequently prohibited in ecclesiastical councils in the fourth and fifth centuries. An order of widows existed from the second century on. These women were appointed—not ordained—for diaconal tasks. Eventually female deacons began to take over their duties, and in the end the order of widows became the origin for female monastic orders. By the thirteenth century women deacons working in the church had disappeared. 


Part Four: The Current Functioning of the Office (pp. 131-217)

In Chapter 9: The Official Position of the Deacon Today (pp. 133-150), Van Dam discusses the office of deacon (as ordained and authoritative), the length of his ordination (as lifetime or limited), his auxiliary duties (in the Lord’s Supper and as steward of church assets), and the relationship between diaconate and session or consistory. Van Dam argues that a deacon should be ordained (and so acknowledged to be one who holds true authority in the church) by the elders after being elected by the congregation. Most surprisingly, perhaps, Van Dam includes stewardship of the church assets as one of the diaconate’s “auxiliary” duties! Is this not what many believe is the deacon’s primary work? Yet, given how Van Dam develops the role of deacon primarily with regard to ministering to those in need (so they can experience more fully the liberating joy of Christ), physical assets must play a minor role in diaconate service. Further, while Van Dam argues for a close, working relationship between deacons and elders, he frequently and emphatically declares that deacons are not subordinate to elders. 

In Chapter 10: Enabling and Prioritizing (pp. 151-170), Van Dam provides practical direction on how deacons can be equipped and resourced to fulfill their labors, encouraging such labors by noting the great blessings involved. Interestingly, he argues against a mandatory tithe (pp. 156-157) as well as against taking up money for “regular” church items during worship—maintaining instead that only money for diaconal ministry (alms) should be given during worship by the discrete use of money bags, not open plates (p. 159). Further, he counsels deacons to seek help from someone’s family first, before the church community helps. In addition, individuals in the church should seek to provide for those in need before involving the diaconate. That is, if an individual member of the congregation sees a need, he should seek himself to minister to the person in need (inside and outside the church), only bringing in the diaconate if the need proves too much for him to meet. In addition, Van Dam argues for a role of the state in helping those in need, advising the diaconate to connect those in need with state resources. 

In Chapter 11: The Diaconal Ministry within the Congregation (pp. 171-190), Van Dam provides concrete, practical ways for the diaconate to function to meet the needs of the congregation. These include diaconal visits, for which he provides clear guidelines. Van Dam, likewise, walks deacons through “typical scenarios” of need and how to respond to them. Finally, he addresses pro-active strategies and discusses challenges that deacons face. 

In Chapter 12: The Diaconal Ministry Outside the Congregation (pp. 191-208), Van Dam argues from Galatians 6:10 that, while the diaconate should focus especially on the congregation, helping those outside the church is also necessary. Paraphrasing Calvin, Van Dam writes: “We share a common humanity, and if we do not provide for the needy neighbor, we are disfiguring ourselves and no longer wish to be human” (p. 193). However, this falls to all Christians, not simply to the deacons. Thus, as individual Christians, we should help our neighbors, only bringing cases too large for us to handle to the diaconate. Further, the diaconate may devote church funds to support local ministries to fulfill this mandate. Helping those outside the church provides an opportunity to evangelize, but it also provides its own challenges—such as asking appropriate questions before giving so as not to misappropriate church funds. Likewise, deacons should not get “involved in social and political activism” (p. 197). Finally, Van Dam provides tangible ways in which church members and deacons, working together, can reach the “global village.” 

In Chapter 13: The Blessing of the Poor (pp. 209-217), Van Dam notes that the poor will always be with us (John 12:7-8), which is a blessing! For, while recognizing the task may be daunting and overwhelming at times, Van Dam encourages his readers in this task, writing: “In His providence God gives both those who help the poor and the poor themselves the opportunity to experience His special blessings” (p. 210). For those helping the poor, these blessings include “a wonderful opportunity for Christians to show their love for their Lord and Savior,” an opportunity for evangelism, and an increasing awareness of “sorrows and imperfections” in the world that leads us to long for heaven. The blessings for those in need who are helped by the church include “receiving the love of God through deacons and through merciful diaconal acts of church members” so that “the needy can already savor the rich blessings of the Lord” (p. 213). Likewise, for afflicted or impoverished believers “it is an incredible blessing to know that when it comes to what really counts [spiritual blessings], they are rich, and those riches cannot be taken away from them” (p. 214). For deacons in particular, their service brings them honor (1 Timothy 3:13). Van Dam concludes his book on this note: “This labor of love and compassion is not easy and is sometimes downright exhausting, but it is never done in vain. It is done to God’s glory in anticipation of that great day when the joy of redemption will be fully realized. Knowing that is a real blessing and encouragement for all diaconal work” (p. 217). 



Van Dam has done valuable work on the office of deacon, both exegetically and historically. When reading this work, I realized how much emphasis the church today has placed upon painting the building and presenting budgets, neglecting the heart of diaconal work—caring for those in need so that they might experience greater joy as those liberated from bondage by the love of Christ. 

Even though this main point is clear and refreshing, I don’t think Van Dam proved all of his arguments. For example, his emphasis upon deacons not being subordinate to elders seems curious. Why such an emphasis? It appears Van Dam is concerned not to repeat the failure of the Middle Ages—in which the diaconate was subordinated into oblivion under a man-made church hierarchy. Yet, since elders ordain deacons (and deacons don’t ordain deacons), how can the office of deacon not be subordinate to the eldership? Likewise, as valuable as mercy ministry is, the prayer and Word ministry is more so, as I understand the Scriptures. For example, the miracles of Jesus were done largely to prove His message (e.g., Matthew 9:2-7). His mercy ministry supported His message. So too the diaconate ministry supports the Word ministry. Yet, to say deacons are subordinate need not imply that they are either without authority or without their own sphere of authority—only that they are accountable to the elders and minister in support of the elders. 

Likewise, the role that Van Dam gives the state is grounded, in my estimation, upon a flimsy basis. He cites but one passage (Deuteronomy 4:27, pp. 27-28; cf. p. 165) and seems not to account sufficiently for the difference between the OT theocracy and today. 

It is not a perfect book, in my estimation—I reserve that designation for Scripture alone! However, it is a very valuable work that is extremely useful to provoke and direct the church’s thinking about the importance and role of deacons today. Clearly, Van Dam drives home his point—that the primary role for deacons is alleviating the needs of the people in order that we may experience a fuller liberating joy in Christ. May the church rightly esteem deacons for this crucial work, and may God grant us such deacons today! 


Ryan Speck 

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Reformation Heritage, 2021 | 256 pages

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