This valuable book seeks to restore the diaconate to its biblical purpose: not the maintenance of church buildings, but the care of the needy. Van Dam presents a solid scriptural basis for his case. He reviews Old Testament law, the teaching of Christ, and other New Testament passages which relate to provision for the afflicted.
He argues that it is the responsibility of every Christian and the whole church to love their neighbours, but deacons are there to step in when that isn’t happening. Van Dam presents the deacon’s work as an opportunity to demonstrate the love of Christ to those in need, including not only material poverty, but other vulnerabilities like loneliness, poor health, unemployment and family difficulties.
There is helpful discussion of practical issues, including the diaconate’s relationship with the eldership, the place of deaconesses (the author comes down against such), length of service, laying-on of hands, training, the place of state welfare and the risk of dis-incentivising those who aren’t helping themselves. These are important questions which prompt much fruitful thought.
For all its stimulating content, the book is hampered by its sheer verbosity. Its review of diaconal roles in church history is lengthy, yet somehow the reader doesn’t learn a great deal from it. Other parts feel like a machine gun pummelling of proof texts — I think the record was 25 references on p.9 — but without shedding much light on those passages.
The book hovers on the line between exhaustive and exhausting; it could have been half as long and just as useful. I’m not against long books, but at times the wordy style makes this vital subject dull.
Assuming a Presbyterian church government, Van Dam’s advice can be highly prescriptive. For example, he sets out a detailed geographical method of diaconal visitation, and even how deacons ought to pray during these visits. It’s hard to imagine what kind of diaconal superman could manage all the tasks he recommends should be carried out. These include systematic visitation of all local residents (whether church attendees or not), running conferences, assisting with job-hunting, welfare applications, debt management, raising money for international aid, providing pre-marital advice and supporting refugees. More counsel on how to prioritise these tasks would have been welcome.
In conclusion, this book is a hard-going and sometimes frustrating read. But it is worth persevering with to get the good meat off the bone. It is recommended for church officers, who will benefit from its positive biblical teaching. It will help them ‘obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus’ (1 Timothy 3:13).