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Deacons, Secularism, and the Welfare State

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A few weeks ago Hunter Baker posted some thoughts on secularism and poverty, in which he wrote of the common notion that since private charity, particularly church-based care, had failed to end poverty, it seems only prudent to let the government have its chance.

Hunter points out some of the critically important elements in creating a culture of prosperity and abundance, what Micah Watson calls “cultural capital.”

But it’s worth examining in more detail the point of departure, that is, considering the relationship between the church’s approach to charity and the creation of the welfare state. Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef write of this in a brief essay contained in their book, The Deacons Handbook: A Manual of Stewardship, first published in 1980.

DeKoster and Berghoef argue in “The Church and the Welfare State” that “The Church is largely responsible for the coming of the modern welfare community.” But they also contend that the diaconal office is the key to answering the challenge posed by the welfare state: “The Church could be largely responsible for purging welfare of its faults and problems. IF enough deacons caught the vision!”

The church helped to bring about the welfare state in two ways. First, the Church embodied the idea of loving self-sacrifice in service of others. “The Word which the Church proclaims demands charity and justice for the poor. As this Word has permeated at least the Western world, an alerted public conscience has demanded public welfare,” write DeKoster and Berghoef. “The Church is the parent of the welfare community.”

But this “welfare community” became secularized when the Church “did not, and perhaps in some respects could not, measure up to her own ideals. Not all the starving were fed, not all of the homeless given shelter, not all of the oppressed and exploited relieved. The cries of the needy ascended to heaven. The Lord answered with the welfare state. The government undertakes to do what the Church demands and then fails to achieve by herself.”

In this sense, the welfare state is understood to be God’s preservational (thus imperfect) answer to the failed duty of the Church:

Thus the Church is, both by commission and by omission, author of the welfare state. Deacons start from here. Government has undertaken to do what conscience, tutored out of the Scriptures, demands but fails, through the Church, entirely to achieve.

In the brief essay Berghoef and DeKoster go on to outline some practical steps that can be taken to address this failing and rein in the scope of governmental responsibility. Some of these specifics need updating given what has happened in the United States over the last thirty years. But the vision of The Deacons Handbook, that the core of the answer lies in the diaconate, is a worthy and compelling insight.

Hunter will be pleased to note that among the practical advice given by Berghoef and DeKoster is that the meaning of the First Amendment needs to be reconsidered. Their advice for the deacon? “Do a study of what is so readily called ‘the separation of Church and state’.” This aligns with the argument Hunter makes in his new book, The End of Secularism.

This much remains true:

What is important, with an eye on tomorrow, is to discern what constructive relations may be developed between alert diaconates and public welfare. And it is immediately obvious that diaconates are uniquely qualified to amend what are commonly perceived as defects in the welfare system.

Check out an excerpt from the original edition of The Deacons Handbook containing the essay, “The Church and the Welfare State.” And sign up over at Christian’s Library Press to keep informed about upcoming releases in 2010, including new editions of The Deacons Handbook, The Elders Handbook, and more.

Deacons Handbook Excerpt

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • From reading the early Church Fathers, there were three levels of Holy Orders: Diakonos (Deacons), Presbyteros (Priests), and Episkopos (Bishops). This reflects the Judaic heirarchy of Levites, Priests and High Priests. Both the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox (Greek and Russian) have preserved this sense of heirarchy. This three-tiered system (God does things in three – think about it) is missing from many Protestant churches and a deacon in such denominations is generally not what a deacon was in the early Church. Indeed, technically, they don’t have valid Holy Orders (which doesn’t mean that there aren’t good men of God in Protestantism preaching the Word, shepherding their people, acting as stewards, etc. – I didn’t say that!)

    That being said, right now in the Catholic Church it takes 5 years of schooling (at least in my diocese) before one can become qualified as a permanent Deacon. (NOTE: anyone becoming a priest must first be a deacon). Deacons can be married in the Latin rite, but if on being ordained as deacon they are single, then they must remain single for life. No married deacon can become a priest (Anglican inductees under Pope Benedict XVI’s recent Apostolic Consitution are a different matter). And no priest who was Anglican and is married can ever become bishop. As far as I know, the Pope appoints bishops, and the local Ordinary Bishop appoints deacons and priests.

    By the way, NO woman can be appointed to Holy Orders simply because by virtue of her gender no woman can act in Persona Christi. Equality in diginity is NOT equality in function. This includes the diaconate (yes, I know the New Testament has instances of diakona – the feminine for diakonos – but the Church early on phased that out, and I am not sure that diakona was ever regarded as a Holy Order anyways).

    Sadly, as I recall, the permanent diaconate languished for many long centuries in the Latin rite and has only recently (the last century and this one) been resurrected (because of the shortage of priests). My parish has just one deacon and that’s way too few to do all the things that need to be done. Personally, I think that the entire qualification process is too long and arduous and many people who probably could be good deacons are deterred. This is especially true if we stop to consider that deacons were appointed specifically to take care of the “secular” or “physical” needs of the congregation in the Book of Acts. St. Stephen didn’t go through five years of training before appointment, and remember the fate that the first deacon suffered. Oh, don’t get me wrong – I am a training instructor as well as a nuke negineer, so I am all in favor of lots and lots of training. But I think the Latin rite Church is hamstringing (is that a word?) itself, and I suspect the same might be said of our Orthodox brethren.

    PS, I considered going through the five years of training as deacon, but didn’t because there are personal reasons that likely disqualify me (e.g., divorced with very young children).

  • Hunter Baker

    Wow, that sounds like a terrific resource. It is heartening that someone would think of the deacon’s office in this fashion. I hope your post will encourage churches to begin brainstorming along these lines.

  • Vincent Penzo

    There is a good reason why “not all the poor were fed.” Because the church did not have the means to FORCE the public to contribute enough to feed all the poor. In essence, the welfare state says, “Well, we have the police, the guns, and the jails, so let us do it.” But the government can not do it either. Why? Because as they raise taxes, they create disincentives to the creation of wealth. The fact is, whenever you introduce force into society, you create disorder. The welfare state will never abolish society’s ills, because it creates others by its very nature. Notice also, that when the church was the preeminent agency for helping the poor, capitalism was in its infant stage. There simply was not a lot of wealth to go around to feed all the hungry mouths that were surviving instead of dieing due to disease (also thanks to capitalism). The answer is to abolish the welfare state and unleash the creative engine of capitalism (constrained of course by the rule of contractual and property laws of course) and let people donate freely to the church and charity of their choice. It is abundantly clear that socialist style redistribution does not work. The state also undermines the moral teachings of the church as it usurps its influence.

  • Ralph

    There seems to be some very obvious difficulties in expecting the Church to provide for the welfare of the poor in society.

    What about places where the Church doesn’t exist? Is the Church to care for the poor outside of the Church? What about countries with small numbers of Christians, how are they to support a large population? How can the Church deliver consistent care across a large population and in the case of the US across such a large continent?

    Fundamentally I don’t understand why the emergence of governments that care for the most vulnerable of socities is equated to the failing of the Church in this area. I think we should be thankful that the resources of the state are spent on the poor and vulnerable. Do they get it right? Not always. Would we, the Church, get it right? Not always. The assumption here is that the Church is better placed then the government. But why would we believe this? Sin affects both people in the Church and people in government. Be thankful for good government and good churches that uphold justice and the case of the poor and oppressed.

  • Steve

    The social welfare state has made caring for the poor entirely devoid of Christian Love.
    If Christians were responsible for the formation of the modern welfare state it is akin to the isrealites turning thier back on God and demanding Samuel appoint them a king, not the proliferation of Christianity.