The Meaning and

Nature of Diakonia



The Meaning and Nature of Diakonia. Geneva: WCC, 1988.

The Divine Diakonia

An Introduction to "The Meaning and Nature of Diakonia"

                                                                                                                John Kunnathu

After Paulos Mar Gregorios became a president of the World Council of Churches in 1983, he felt restless about several erroneous theological formulations propagated by the WCC, and he offered to give a series of lectures to the WCC staff in Geneva to correct those errors. Dr. Emilio Castro, the then General Secretary, welcomed the idea, and Mar Gregorios gave a series of lectures on the theme of Diakonia, and later in 1988, five of those lectures were published by the WCC as a book entitled The Meaning and Nature of Diakonia

Diakonia, the Greek word, means service, and is often translated as ministry in the New Testament. The word Deacon, which means servant or minister, is a derivative of Diakonia.

In these series of lectures, Mar Gregorios answers the very basic question of why the World Council of Churches exists because it can function effectively only if its workers have a clear grasp of the purpose for which it exists. The central task of the World Council of Churches is Oikodome or upbuilding of the church. This leads to the next question which is about the purpose of the existence of the church. The church is the body of Christ, and its ministry is the same as the ministry of Christ.

The Diakonia of Christ

Reconciling God’s world to God is the ultimate goal of Christ’s Diakonia. In order to attain this goal, Christ plays the role of a mediator between God and the world. God is love, and Christ, in perfect unity with God, manifested that love, and offered himself to the world on behalf of God. In response to that self-giving love of God, Christ offered himself as a sacrifice to God on behalf of the world.

The role of Christ is traditionally understood in the roles of a priest, prophet, and king.  As a prophet, Christ speaks to the world on behalf of God.  As a king, Christ rules and takes care of the world on behalf of God. Unlike the other kings, Christ’s throne is cross. As a priest, Christ offers himself as a sacrifice to God on behalf of the world.

The Diakonia of the Church: Ideal and Real

The church as the body of Christ has no other diakonia but the diakonia of Christ. It stands as the mediator between God and God's world. On behalf of God, the church offers itself to the world, and on behalf of the world, it offers itself to God.  As prophet, the church speaks to the world on behalf God. As king, the church rules from the cross and takes care of the world. As priest, it offers itself as a sacrifice to God on behalf of the world.

However, the church will be able to perform this diakonia of Christ only when it becomes fully one with Christ. Only as the church approximates Christ’s personality will it become truly one and fully participant in Christ’s ministry. The Holy Spirit is guiding the church into all truth and to full obedience. The unity of the church is a primary aspect of that personality, and division in the church is a denial of Christ-likeness. This is where the relevance of WCC comes in.

Until the church becomes fully one with Christ, the diakonia of the church cannot be the same as the diakonia of Christ. Christ’s ministry remains wider, and ranges farther than the ministry of the church. The church cannot claim monopoly of Christ or his ministry until it becomes fully one with Christ.

Our erroneous ways

Using the diakonia of Christ as a model, we can figure out where we have gone wrong. It seems we are mistaken in our very goal. Christ’s diakonia was to unite the world to God. We seem to have a very selfish interest of gaining salvation for ourselves. We are not concerned about our fellow beings and the rest of God’s world. We don’t manifest the love of God to the world. On the other hand, we hate people of other religions and ideologies. We struggle and fight for our own existence and our own rights, but never raise a finger for the poor and the oppressed, and for the rights of the people who are denied basic human rights.

•    Our Priestly ministry.
We pray to God only to gain something for ourselves. We don’t sacrifice ourselves to God on behalf of our fellow beings. 
•    Our Prophetic Ministry.
We have become unable to speak on behalf of God to the world. We only condemn and judge the world.
•    Our Kingly Ministry.
We rule the world from thrones, and not from the cross. Instead of being a good shepherd to the world, we have become a hired servant, unconcerned about the sheep. The world no longer trusts us, nor does it respond to our voice. We don’t open the gates to liberate people from the captivity of exploitation and oppression, and we don’t lead them to the green pastures of a just, free, secure and peaceful life. We are unwilling to oppose the wolves of oppressive structures for fear of losing our own privileges and power.


Mar Gregorios cites a number of references and incidents to illustrate his central message.
•    In the first lecture he refers to the incident of John and James bringing their mother to recommend for special power and privilege for them.  Their ambition is to be seated at the right and left of Christ when he assumes power. Based on this incident, Mar Gregorios makes this observation:

“Nothing has been as divisive of the churches as the ambitions, the jealousies, the power struggles among the Christian workers and leaders.”

•    As an example of the suffering servant in the second Isaiah, Mar Gregorios, with no hesitation, points his finger to a non-Christian: Mahatma Gandhi.

“He walked into the village of Noakhali, where Hindus and Muslims were shooting and stabbing each other, in 1947. Clad in loincloth, without sleep and without eating, with just the old man’s walking stick in his hand, this frail and fragile servant walked into Muslim homes and Hindu homes, saying to Muslims: “I am a Hindu; kill me if you want to kill a Hindu, but do not kill others.” To the Hindu household, brimming wit the same passionate and murderous hatred as the Muslim household, Gandhi walked in and said: “I am a friend of the Muslims; kill me first, but do not kill others.”

      Then he continues:

“Christians, I must say to the shame of my own community in India, should have seen, but did not acknowledge, their Lord as Suffering Servant, in this exceptionally free and dedicated “non-Christian”, who held to the truth as his breast-plate and manifested the love of God in laying down his life that others may live. Draw what lessons you can from this episode of a man of another faith fulfilling the role of the Suffering Servant in our time”

•    As an example of how the present-day Christian mission has become a means of exploitation and oppression rather than a means of liberation, Mar Gregorios draws before us a picture of the modern international aid empire.

“It uses aid to capture markets and to exploit people in such a way that many times more than the aid flows back to the aid giving economy through unjust trade relations.”


What precedes is a humble attempt to introduce the major ideas presented by Mar Gregorios in his book, The Meaning and Nature of Diakonia. The writer sincerely hopes that this will encourage the readers to make an attempt to explore the rich literary heritage left by Mar Gregorios.