Return of the Servant Myth

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Return of the Servant Myth

John N. Collins

Eric Hodgens’ appeal in La Croix (19 Dec., 2017) to service as an antidote to hierarchical power displays the usual characteristics of his theological journalism. Succinct, relevant, ‘the-rest-is-up-to-you’ effect. So I don’t feel comfortable raising a question about the line he takes on service.

Certainly power in the church has shown itself to be destructive and, as he says, ‘intoxicating’. A problem begins for me, however, when he draws on the New Testament to show Jesus presenting ‘service’ as the Christian antidote to power.

Let me say at once that this line on service is not just a quirk on Hodgens’ part. The next day I was reading the same in Pope Francis’ Christmas address to members of the Roman Curia.

In fact the emergence of ‘service’ as an ethical and pastoral theme is a story going back only to the early 19th century. Some people comment as if it were older than that, citing the sixth century signature phrase of the pope, ‘servus servorum Dei’ (‘Servant of the Servants of God’). Pope Francis made his own allusion to this custom. But the Latin term ‘servus/slave’ is a cultural world apart from the 21st century service theme, which, as will appear, is of Greek origin.

In the mid-1960s the service theme greatly appealed to me, a priest in Canberra recently graduated from theological and biblical studies in Rome and Jerusalem. Like most, I was inspired by the promulgation in the very last days of the Second Vatican Council of its Pastoral Constitution (Gaudium et spes), where service became a prompt for a new Catholic idiom.

Addressing ‘the Church in the Modern World’, the Council positioned the church in the midst of ‘the joy and hope, the grief and anguish’ of human existence, maintaining that its motivation in this was ‘to carry on the work of Christ … for he came into the world … to serve and not to be served’ (referencing Mark 10:45).

I noted this reference well. Mark’s Greek word for ‘to serve’ was from the diakon- group of words, the noun ‘service’ being diakonia. In 1969 Cardinal Augustin Bea, recognised as a significant voice at the Council, published We Who Serve, subtitled A Basic Council Theme and its Biblical Foundations. This too I noted because Bea had been my Roman professor of humble Methodology and had also examined me in New Testament Greek. Little did I know then that the lack of a sense of diakonia/service in the ministry we priests performed would lead to my resignation from the priesthood and to the loss of my priestly voice in the church. Even less did I envisage that by the 1970s the pastoral and theological problems presented by diakonia/service would become a preoccupation across the second half of my life.

Our 20th century translations of the New Testament reflect the attention theologians and church committees were giving to ‘service’ as a foundational requirement of discipleship. The following citations are from four well known translations (NRSV, TEV, CEV, NIV).

Jesus himself says that he ‘came not to be served but to serve’ (Mk 10:45). The Christian leader ‘must be like one who serves’ (Lk 22:26). The disciple ‘must be the servant of the rest’ (Mk 10:43). The Eleven elect Matthias ‘to serve in the place of Judas’ (Acts 1:25). Paul speaks of ‘Christ’s life of service’ (Rom 15:8) and takes financial aid to Jerusalem ‘in the service of God’s people there’ (Rom 15:25). All of God’s gifts to the church are ‘different ways of serving’ (1 Cor 12:5). Paul and his collaborators in the apostolic mission are ‘only servants’ (1 Cor 3:5); they ‘have devoted themselves to the service of the saints’ (1 Cor 16:15), and their task is ‘to prepare all God’s people for the work of Christian service’ (Eph 4:12). A later teacher instructs believers to ‘serve one another with whatever gift you have received’ (1 Pet 4:10).

Such understandings of the Greek text have led to widespread convictions about the existence of a comprehensive biblical call to Christian service. The selected statements (and 90 other instances could be added) are translating one set of Greek words. This set (nouns, verb) is based on the stem diakon-. Translations of such passages pre-1945 spoke in the main of ministers ministering. We notice, however, that commentaries upon the text made little of this cluster of ministry terms, nor did theologians turn to construct theories about what should happen ‘ministerially’ in the churches.

In the early 1970s, as part of my doctoral thesis at the University of London, I was confronted by the need to identify the nature of the ‘service’ of the Son of Man (Mk 10:45). Soon I came to recognise that the English ‘service’ words were totally inadequate to represent the range of meanings ancient Greek authors intended by their use of diakon- terms. Accordingly my task expanded and I had to advise my wife that, instead of the two years I had suggested we would need to be absent from Australia, four years was more likely to be the case. Add a post-doctoral fellowship at the Ecumenical Institute of Tantur in Israel, and the four became five.

My investigation of the diakon- words not only took me into centuries of ancient Greek literature but also confronted me with the rapidly expanding literature, especially within the German academic scene, centred on diakon- as expressing a specifically Christian style of service. Hans Kung’s pages on this in his famous and influential book of 1967, The Church, introduced his consideration of ‘Service as the Imitation of Christ’. We are informed that early Christians chose to avoid standard Greek terms for office and officers because they wanted to avoid expressing ‘a relationship of rulers and ruled’. So they turned ‘to develop a new word’, a word ‘which carried no overtones of authority, officialdom, rule, dignity or power: the word diakonia, service.’

Every Greek would recognise diakonia/service as an act of ‘self-abasement’ implying ‘a completely personal service’. This service was ‘an essential element in being a disciple’ of Jesus, whose ‘fundamental concern is with living for others’ (one reference here being Mk 10:45). Such was the essence of ministry, and consequences for the church were ‘enormous’.

In this Kung was not claiming to be original. Since the 1930s the great German dictionary of Christian Greek (TDNT) had in fact identified diakon- terms as expressions of ‘active Christian love for the neighbour and … a mark of true discipleship’. In alarming contrast, my survey of the terms in ancient Greek literature revealed that these terms never gave expression to the notion of benevolent or loving service.

On our return to Melbourne in 1977, as I began the work of making a book out of the thesis, I welcomed an invitation from the Australian Broadcasting Commission to deliver a lecture on its main religious programme. For my theme and title I chose ‘The Servant Myth’, and gave all Catholic bishops advance notice of the event. After the presentation, just one bishop responded – as it happens, a childhood friend of my mother. Bishops seem to have little interest in theological developments with bearings upon their station in the church.

The day did come when my research volume was published by Oxford University Press as Diakonia: Reinterpreting the Ancient Sources (1990). The late Jerome Murphy-O’Connor of the Ecole biblique in Jerusalem was to state in his review that the research ‘had made us rethink one of the dogmas of New Testament scholarship’. Namely, diakonia does not denote loving Christian service.

In fact, in 2000 Frederick Danker incorporated the re-interpretation in his revised edition of the Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich lexicon. The same year Hans-Jürgen Benedict, a professor at the Rauhes Haus of the revered Johann Wichern, the 19th century promoter of diakonia in Germany, would ask why German scholarship had ignored the re-interpretation by the Australian scholar – as it would ignore (he told me) his own protestation. In 2007, in her doctoral publication, the German scholar Anni Hentschel reviewed the 20th century lexicography of diakon- terms to conclude that the re-interpretation superseded preceding treatments. In 2013 she published a second book to examine implications for ministry in the church arising from the re-interpretation of diakonia.

At this period Michael Evans, the Catholic bishop of East Anglia, UK, published an article in the English Pastoral Review entitled ‘The Deacon: An Icon of Christ the Servant’ and received a studied rebuttal of his theme from the Brisbane deacon and theologian, Anthony Gooley. He wrote under the title, ‘Deacons and the Servant Myth’. That was 2006. Over 2007-2008 the Pastoral Review carried an expanding debate on this theme in 9 more articles in consecutive issues. Two bishops, two deacons, and myself participated. The defence of the service syndrome was vigorous, indeed, relentless.

My own contribution continued in four other books, many academic papers, and numerous conference presentations in Europe, USA, and Australia. These initiatives led me to expand on issues that I considered to have been affected by the new semantic profile of diakon- terms. The priorities in this were to identify the nature of ecclesial ministry itself and who was responsible for exercising it. Here the impact of the service paradigm was most dramatically displayed in a revised notion of office in the church.

Karl Barth had famously insisted that ‘the fatal word “office”’ should be replaced by ‘service’, concluding that ‘either all are office-bearers or none; and if all, then only as servants.’ The reality is that the so-called ‘service’ words in Greek (diakon-) always imply activity under mandate, and they carry no reference at all to any benevolent intention. Activities so designated occur not in response to a perceived need in another person but exclusively in response to a received mandate.

Thus the ‘wicked’ servants were expelled from the royal presence in Matthew’s parable not because they had failed to ‘take care of’ the king (Mt 25:44 NRSV) but because they had failed to provide food, drink and protection to the disadvantaged. These servants had been perfectly correct in insisting that they had never neglected the diakonia owing to their king, that is, they had never failed to respond to his commands. They were loyal ‘officials’. Upon hearing the term diakon- in this narrative set in a royal court, an ancient Greek audience would have immediately recognised its reference to attendance upon the royal figure.

A similar reference is equally clear in Jesus’ response to James and John when they asked to sit right and left of him in his glory (Mark 10:47). Recognizing their gross misunderstanding of the nature of discipleship, Jesus sets his response in the context of the ‘great ones’ of this world and their absolute power (v. 42), commenting, ‘it is not so among you.’ In other words, power is not a function within discipleship. And leaders among disciples (Luke calls them that, 22:26; Mark names them ‘great’ and ‘first’) will indeed have responsibilities but will remain as powerless as the staff in the court of a tyrant (10:42).

Paul actually expressed his own apostolic mandate through diakon- terms. He did this precisely because these words determined his authenticity and his authoritative role, and signalled these values to his Greek audience. The terms said nothing about power over the clientele. The terms did, however, indicate to the Corinthians that the Word which Paul ‘ministered’ to them became the possession and the responsibility of all members of the community. In fact, this kind of diakonic process empowered the Corinthians themselves, thus creating a crucially different scenario from the one envisaged within a ‘service syndrome’.

Such a diakonic turn of phrase is yet to be appreciated by Pope Francis. I suspect he was attracted to the service syndrome under the allurement of Liberation Theology, his friend Leonardo Boff in particular being deeply influenced by the contemporary evaluation of diakionia/service (Church, Charism and Power, 1985, 158: ‘Charism is service.’). This dimension was a thread running through the ecclesial reconfigurations envisaged in the Concluding Document of the Aparecida conference of Latin American bishops (2007) to which Pope Francis so often alludes. In his studied 2017 address to the Roman curia he created a novel phrase to emphasise the singular importance he attaches to the service dimension at all levels of ecclesial life. He named this a ‘diaconal primacy’.

Virtually nowhere outside the Collins/Hentschel re-interpretation have the authentically Pauline dimensions of diakonia found expression in the ceaseless, urgent modern searching for reformulations of outmoded inherited models of church. The Pauline dimensions are not measured by quality of service. In fact diakonia never speaks of benevolent service, the demands of which in the name of the gospel are more than adequately met in keeping the ‘new commandment of love’ (John 13:34).

In the pastoral sphere, diakonia speaks instead of the proclamation and reception of the Word of revelation. This process is life-giving (‘so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’, 2 Cor 5:21) and illuminating (‘all of us with unveiled faces seeing the glory of the Lord’, 3:18). As the Pauline theologian put it, the outcome of diakonia in the church (Eph 4:12) is ‘all of us coming … to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ’ (4:13).

These reflections on the place of diakonia in the church were sparked by encountering on 20 December a promotional piece on Christian service by Eric Hodgens, followed then on 21 December by encountering the Christmas address of Pope Francis about the diaconal primacy of service. In the light of this, I had already modified the original piece when on 22 December the postman delivered a packet from Germany containing a copy of Diakonie-Lexikon, a 480-page reference book on diakonic issues from the birthplace of diakonic theologizing. This third encounter in three days seemed to leave me no option but to further round out what I had begun.

On the biblical background to the German term Diakonie, the authors note how in the German tradition the term had always spoken of lowly service but that a ‘recent discovery’ in the Collins research ‘amounts to a new orientation for contemporary diaconal activity’.

Writing on Dienen (German for ‘to serve’), another author reports that the semantic shift introduced by the Collins/Hentschel studies of diakon- words have not yet been fully absorbed in German scholarship. That this should be the case more than 25 years after publication of the original research would seem to point – on Thomas Kuhn’s reckoning at least – to difficulties associated in academic circles with paradigm shift.

Not to be overlooked, however, is the fact that in the work of Diakonie sponsored by the German Evangelical Churches more than 450,000 professional social workers are engaged in providing service to those in need, an extraordinary witness to the vigour and integrity of the mid-19th century founders of the diaconal movement.

Since churches of today, however, should no longer misrepresent in their pastoral practice the values enshrined within the diakon- terms of the New Testament, could they instead begin to set themselves to embrace an authentically Pauline diakonic process? So long as we doubt the possibility of such a development, we will continue to misrepresent in our institutional arrangements the teachings of our founding documents. We would also be leaving the church exposed to deepening levels of degradation in a misconceived pursuit of a mythic Christian service.





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  1. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    @1 PC – much better, thank you.

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