Christianity: Doctrine and Ethics

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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The PCA’s New Dilemma about Deacons (III)

What about Acts 6?

In virtually every study surrounding deacons and their place within the New Testament Church, one cannot avoid a discussion of Acts 6. Of course, the burning issue is whether Acts 6 actually speaks about the office of deacon, or, as some claim, is it speaking about an entirely different “animal”? This is not an unimportant question, so I want to address before we move on.

I have mentioned that there are some young(ish) as well as older pastors in the PCA that question the validity of the ordination and installation of deacons described in the PCA’s Book of Church Order, chapter 24. The issue is, they assert, that deacons should not be asked the same questions as the ruling elders since they are not to exercise the same authority. Thus, they are different offices with different responsibilities. Naturally, they are different offices with different tasks, aren’t they? Few in Protestantism have ever disputed that. Few in the PCA have ever questioned that and I certainly acknowledge that the office of ruling elder and the office of deacon have different functions. So why are there questions about asking deacons these questions? It seems that some in the PCA are not acquainted with the history of deacons, and with the history of deacons from the time of the Reformation in particular. It is a fact, therefore, that what we find in BCO 24 is not of recent vintage, but rather dates back to the time of the Reformation and can be traced at the very least to Martin Bucer in 1530.

Attached to this notion is yet another “dilemma” which is whether the deacons comprise an actual “office.” It is my settled conviction that this is a mere “red herring” used by those who are intent on “commissioning” males and females as deacons. In essence, according to this practice, no deacons, male or female, is ordained. The PCA is supposed to accept this practice without any questions, especially if it fits or suits the needs of a cosmopolitan city or some other trendy place. “Fly over” America PCA churches might still ordain males, but those in more important cultural area are free to make use of their “professional” women, who are among the movers and shakers in secular society.

After all, the reasoning goes, in keeping with our politically correct culture, commissioning is merely an acceptable “alternative” to “doing church.” Those with commissioned male and female deacons are living an alternative ecclesial lifestyle. I am going to suggest that rather than being a mere acceptable “alternative,” this practice is biblically aberrant; it cannot be supported from Scripture. The reason is because we are operating on manmade principles on not on what the scriptures demand. Back in the late 1800s, W.E. Boggs asked, “If the deacon’s office be, as it is generally admitted to be, a divinely instituted office, can the churches be guiltless in the neglect of it?”[1] I would simply change Boggs’ question to read: or to commission males and females when Scripture gives us no warrant to do so? James Henley Thornwell said, “The great error of the Church in all ages, the fruitful source of her apostasy and crime, has been a presumptuous reliance upon her own understanding. Her own inventions have seduced her from her loyalty to God, and filled her sanctuary with idols and the hearts of her children with vain imaginations. The Bible cuts at the very root of this evil by affording us a perfect and infallible rule of faith, and practice.”[2]

We will examine the notion of precisely what an ecclesiastical office is and what we are to understand by the words “ordain” and “ordination.” But before we do that, I want to walk us through the most salient aspects of Acts 6:1-6. I realize as I move through this text that there are those who do not believe that this text describes the New Testament concept of deacon. I agree, but only in part. There is rather overwhelming historical evidence that many Church Fathers considered this to be a text that spoke to the reality of the office of death in some sense. During the Reformation, one would be hard pressed to find a Reformer who denied that Acts 6 did not have something to say about the office of deacon. Moreover, there are some unique references in these verses that hearken back to Old Testament times, demonstrating a connection with the saints in the older covenant. As a result of these historical facts dating back to the time of the Reformation, I’m going to argue that these verses teach us quite a bit about New Testament deacons. Moreover, Southern Presbyterians such as Dabney, Girardeau, Peck, and Thornwell also had a great deal to say about deacons and Acts 6. Therefore, there are numerous principles that we can draw from this text that will help us immensely.

Some Salient Points

In addition to the statements by the theologians mentioned above, there are a number of remarkable aspects of this text that cannot be ignored in the current PCA discussion surrounding the place of the deacon in the New Testament Church. First, the “full number” of Christ’s disciples was called together (προσκαλέω; proskaléō) by the twelve. The reason given by the apostles in their presentation to the disciples was: “It is not right that we should give up preaching the Word of God to serve tables.” (v. 2.) R.C.H. Lenski makes the observation that it was “the twelve” who call the meeting and not Peter alone, just in case someone was thinking about going Roman Catholic on us![3]

Further up in verse 4, the apostles give us a blueprint of their office: “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry (τῇ διακονίᾳ; tē diakonía ) of the word.” By deduction, we can derive a broad blueprint for today’s teaching elder. If some wonder how much time should be spent in networking, drinking Starbucks, shooting pool, or drinking micro-brews, the answer is quite clear. For those who have neither consulted nor read William Perkins’ The Art of Prophesying, I highly recommend it.

Thus, second, the focus and concern of the apostles was preaching the Word of God. Previously, they had probably been engaged in the serving of tables, but as the young Church grew and expanded, the apostles found themselves in a “time crunch.” They could no longer preach and take care of the daily administration of food. It is instructive that the phrase “to serve tables” (διακονεῖν τραπέζαις; diakoneîn trapédzais.) also involves a derivative for the word “deacon.” Thus, even though it is correctly argued that the word “deacon” does not appear in Acts 6:1-6, there is certainly reference to deacon-like ministry. Simon Kistemaker is convinced that Luke’s use of the word “tables” here “points to either sharing food or doling out money designated for buying food.”[4]

If he is correct, then this at the very least raises the question of whether any authority was involved, for it certainly seems that some degree of authority was associated with what “the seven” were supposed to do. We’ll leave the particulars of that question until later, but it is important to ask the question as this juncture. I do want to raise a couple of preliminary issues that we’ll return to in another installment. First, Thomas Lindsay argues that in both offices—ruling elder and deacon—“A real authority is bestowed, and real powers are given.”[5] For both the ruling elder and the deacon, their authority is derived. All Presbyterian and Reformed pastors/theologians have argued to this end.

Second, when the Presbyterian and Reformed describe the office of deacon as manager, does that not imply some degree of authority? If you and I are dissatisfied with our service, we may ask to speak with the manager, correct? Why? Does the manager of the store have no authority? No, we ask to speak with him precisely because he has more authority than the high school drop-out who has been working there for about five minutes before we arrived.

Third, we’ll need to inquire why deacons were used during the time of the Reformation to help serve the Lord's Supper in some Reformed churches. There is a very good reason why and few have ever paused to reflect upon the relationship between the deacons, the Lord’s table, and mercy.

To our third point concerning Acts 6, the congregation was to “pick out” (ἐπισκέπτομαι; episképtomai) seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom. What is noteworthy here is that the congregation was fully involved. The apostles were in charge and had a plan about the direction in which the young Church should be heading, but the congregation was fully involved in the selection process. Lenski points us to the reality that “The selection of the men for this task is left to the congregation.”[6] We’re going to emphasize the clear and obvious fact that all seven of the seven were men and not women.

Moreover, these men were chosen by the congregation because they possessed certain spiritual gifts. Each Christian possesses a spiritual gift, but not all are called to be leaders. Their call is to exercise their gifts for the whole. In Lord’s Day 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 55 reads as follows: “Q. What do you understand by “the communion of the saints”? A. First, that believers one and all, as members of this community, share in Christ and in all his treasures and gifts. Second, that each member should consider it his duty to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the service and enrichment of the other members.”

Where some in the PCA are endorsing pastors acting as “mercy chairmen,” we must object that this is certainly not according to the biblical mandate. In other words, this function is not to be fulfilled by a pastor, who has been tasked by the Lord to perform different ecclesiastical work. Presbyterians down through the ages have argued vociferously that the so-called “higher” offices (pastor, ruling elder) do not include other offices (deacon). Names such as Girardeau, Dabney, Thornwell, Peck, and others come to mind. John Girardeau worked feverishly to eradicate a similar notion that was growing up in some Southern Presbyterian churches of his day. In his assessment, this current notion of teaching elders serving as deacons, when it was not necessary and qualified men were available was to blame for the near extinction of the office of deacon.[7]

It is a purely manmade notion and should be rejected. In addition, it is equally wrong to suppose that everyone in the congregation should serve in this capacity. These men were given a specific, God-ordained office to fulfill. Were there others in the congregation in Jerusalem with “gifts.” Yes, of course; no doubt. Nevertheless a selection process was undertaken to cull out the ones with specified gifts; those with a particular character and ability to put those gifts into practice. We will come back to this later.

[1] W.E. Boggs, “The Deacon’s Office in the Church of the New Testament,” Southern Presbyterian Review, 26:3 (July 1875): 425.

[2] James H. Thornwell, “Argument Against Church-Boards,” in The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, (B.M. Palmer [ed.]), Vol. 4, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1986), 163.

[3] R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of The Acts of the Apostles, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 19614), 242.

[4] Simon Kistemaker, Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 221.

[5] Thomas Lindsay, The Church and Ministry in the Early Centuries, (NY: Cosimo Inc., 2007), 25. Note: This work was originally published in 1902.

[6] Lenski, Acts, 243.

[7] Comp. John L. Girardeau, “The Importance of the Office of Deacon,” Southern Presbyterian Review, 32:1 (Jan. 1881): 6.


Friday, September 17, 2010

The PCA’s New Dilemma about Deacons (II)

When Presbyterians Don’t Understand Being Presbyterian

One might think that after being in existence for over three decades the PCA might have some inkling about who we are, what we’re about, and what it means to be Presbyterian and Reformed. When I read the “Strategic Plan” presented to this year’s General Assembly in Nashville, I discovered that I was mistaken. The SP asserted that the PCA had not yet quite figured out what it meant to be Reformed. That was shocking news. While at GA, I was told that there are some in the PCA who do not believe that deacons possess any authority and so the questions put to them and the charge addressed to the congregation at their ordination are bogus. (cf. Book of Church Order, Chapter 24, Election, Ordination and Installation of Ruling Elders and Deacons.) That, also, was shocking news.

I contend that not knowing why deacons are asked the same questions as ruling elders is an extension of not fully knowing what it means to be Reformed, because since the time of the Reformation this has been the practice. This truth will become increasingly evident as we go forward. I will not be citing esoteric, enigmatic sources, but rather those that are available to anyone willing to take the time to investigate this matter. I recommend these articles to professors, pastors, seminary students, college students, and the Presbyterian man and woman in the pew, not because I’m such a gifted writer. I’m not. I commend them because I believe that they will clarify some issues that are threatening the PCA currently.

In this sense, I want to counter and challenge some of the unbiblical thinking in the PCA surrounding the nature and notion of office in general, and concerning the office of deacon in particular. Why is that? Well, it is simply because the deacons have come under fire recently in the PCA and the denomination is struggling with a concept that, quite frankly, I did not think the PCA would have to address. You see, I supposed that, while not being infallible or 100% in its historical understanding of all things ecclesiastical, the PCA had at least thought through concepts such as “derived authority” and the like. Fortunately, many have; unfortunately, a growing number have not.

Therefore, what I will be endeavoring in the next while is an explanation of how the office of deacon has been thought of and implemented throughout Church history. I’m going to start simply and deal with some concepts generally and from there, Lord willing, we’ll move on to more specifics. At the end of the day, it’s my prayer that these articles will prove helpful. I should tell you at the outset that my intention ultimately is to work these articles into a book that I hope will be read within and outside the PCA.

Let’s Start in the South

John Lafayette Girardeau (1825-1898) was a remarkable man and southern gentleman. He was a theologian, pastor, professor, churchman, and philosopher. His life is aptly sketched by George Blackburn (ed.).[1] His work among the slaves in Charleston, SC is legendary. The volume edited by George Blackburn cites some notes that Girardeau kept concerning his life—a kind of brief autobiography. In a section of that material describing his youth, Girardeau cited these poetic words: “When in the slippery paths of youth, With heedless steps I ran, Thine arm unseen conveyed me safe, And led me up to man.”[2]

I read Girardeau with great delight and highly recommend him. I tell you this because quite recently, I read a number of articles he wrote concerning the office of deacon and the importance of that office. His words were clear, concise, precise, and to the point, as he wrote about “the timeliness and desirableness of considering the whole subject of the diaconate.”[3]

His words are timely and come at a time when the PCA finds itself in the midst of controversy and rather intense discussion (intense fellowship) regarding a wide number of subjects and issues that have not been handled in a timely fashion and now, for whatever providential reason, all of these issues are converging like a torrent or tsunami on a somewhat unsuspecting and apparently unprepared denomination. If the PCA admits that it has not grasped what it meant to be Reformed from the outset, that is problematic.

Someone should have seen these issues coming. In point of fact, some did. Their cries were ignored for a variety of reasons, and now those same people that were in the leadership positions and should have not only seen these things coming, but also should have been at the forefront and halting them in their tracks or dealing with them in a reasonable and timely fashion, seem flummoxed that so many in the PCA are “angry.” The origin of the consternation, concern, and general disgruntled attitude can be traced back to being Presbyterian and Reformed. When certain PCA pastors and congregations are able to disregard the clear teaching of Reformed history and the BCO with impunity; that is bound to cause unrest.

What the PCA is learning very late in the game is that, in a number of cases, we have not been served well by our committees at headquarters. When the buck stops with you and it is within your “pay grade,” it is essential that you have a plan and the resources to deal with what’s on your desk. Pretending it’s not there, that it will get better, or improve on its own, is a clear indication that someone in not acquainted with Murphy’s Laws.

By way of request, I will limit myself to dealing with some of the burning questions surrounding the office of deacon and leave the other questions to be settled in various Presbyteries and at General Assembly. I was told explicitly at the Nashville General Assembly that some in the PCA are questioning the use of the identical questions for the ordination of deacons that are used for the ordination of elders. In addition, the identical charge to the congregation is given irrespective of whether the ordination pertains to elders or deacons. Is it correct to do this?

Moreover, there are rumblings afoot that the office of deacon (if, in fact, it truly is an office) possesses no authority whatsoever. Some enterprising and creative pastors and sessions have, therefore, taken it upon themselves not to ordain deacons, male or female, but merely to “commission” them. Thus, they are convinced that they have convinced us that they have not violated their ordination vows, because they are not ordaining women to the office of deacon. The reality is that they are not ordaining anyone to the office of deacon. To their mind, by commissioning them they are within the bounds of accepted and acceptable Presbyterian polity. But is this truly the case? More important: does the refusal to ordain someone to an office that Scripture declares should be attended by the laying on of hands resolve the dilemma or further complicate it?

Is this a cultural problem or an attempt for the Church to be acceptable to the culture? Is the phenomenon of commissioning women as deacons something imposed on PCA congregations by culture or something that PCA congregations want to utilize in order to placate or ameliorate culture? In his latest book, James Davison Hunter contends “that the dominant ways of thinking about culture and cultural change are flawed, for they are based on both specious social science and problematic theology.”[4] My contention is that what is occurring in the PCA surrounding the commissioned male and female deacons is based on both. When congregations began to tell their respective Presbyteries that their intention was to commission males and females as deacons and not ordain them, those Presbyteries and presbyters should have stepped up to the plate with as much vigor and verve as they did with the Federal Vision issue in the PCA. In addition, those Presbyteries and presbyters should have consulted reliable history books that dealt with the Reformation, because they would have found that there was always ordination, the laying on of hands, and only male subjects in the ordination of deacons.

Barring that, headquarters in Atlanta (Okay. I know. It’s Lawrenceville) should have addressed this in the early stages before we moved down the ecclesiastical turnpike. My dear and lovely wife provided me with an appropriate illustration of this very thing. She said, “You know, it’s like cars running through stop sign after stop sign and now they’re out on the freeway (obviously not a California freeway, because there you’re always on the brakes!) and voices are shouting, ‘Stop!’ but it’s almost too late. Few cars are going to stop on an interstate highway for no apparent reason.” This means that the cavalier manner in which we have tolerated the “commissioned but not ordained male and female deacons” not only did no one any real favors, but more than that it was unbiblical, which is far more serious. Why hasn’t Atlanta/Lawrenceville said something before? Why haven’t our professors, whom we pay to teach our theological students, addressed the unbiblical nature of what is occurring in the PCA? Thankfully, some have; sadly, many have not. Why does this discussion have to come from a little old country parson in Yorba Linda, CA instead of someone else?

Thankfully, I do not have to tackle this question alone. I have a number of prominent and eminent theologians who will help me. They’re all dead white guys who smoked. Some even ate French Fries. Names like Bucer, Calvin, Bavinck, Kuyper, Girardeau, and others come to mind. They all wrote on this issue. Their writings are available and accessible. One can only wonder why someone hasn’t used them in this discussion before. They were neglected in the past; I do not intend for them to be neglected any longer. At the end of the day, things may not change at all, leaving some of us with very difficult decisions.

But I am growing very weary of some pastors and their congregations receiving preferential treatment and neglecting their financial obligations to the PCA, while the “leaders” curry favor with those congregations and neglect and/or denigrate those congregations that faithfully send in their askings. Here’s the message: send us your money, but don’t expect us to pay any attention to you, what you think, what you want, or anything else. Just send us the money. This is an elitist attitude that I expect from certain quarters of secular politics, but not from a denomination where I have labored and sweated for a decade and a half.

Prior to the article cited above by Girardeau, another article appeared in The Southern Presbyterian Review, authored by Dabney and Girardeau, et al. (Remember Al?) bearing the simple title, “The Diaconate.”[5] The authors present a number of cogent and much-needed arguments for and about the diaconate, but few as profound and yet simple as this one: “No one has a right to perform ecclesiastical functions unless he be ordained to their discharge.”[6] I italicized the word “ordained,” precisely because that is what is being neglected and refused by those who support unordained, commissioned male and female deacons. If Dabney, Girardeau, and the other white, dead, smoking, French Fry eating guys are correct every commissioned deacon—male or female—is illegitimate, since they have not been ordained to the office.

In Girardeau’s January 1881 article he wrote, “It has not infrequently been said, that the age in which we live is peculiarly called upon, in the providence of God, to take up Church-questions and subject them to a careful examination.”[7] In the case of the PCA, it seems that their rejoinder to Girardeau’s statement is, “Well, it depends.” Yes, with some hesitation and with the suggestion of erecting a study committee to study what teaching elders had already signed. One had to wonder if all the teaching elders in the PCA had actually read the Westminster Standards or understood them. If they didn’t understand them, one can once again only wonder why they signed them. Probably too many French Fries instead of apples and carrots. (They had never heard Michele Obama’s appeal for apples and carrots lifted [read: plagiarized] from Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge.)

Girardeau goes on to remind us of the following: “No doubt, it is the duty of every age to study the whole counsel of God as revealed in his inspired word. But there are peculiar circumstances connected with the Church, at particular times, which compel her attention to certain articles of faith and principles of order.”[8] How appropriate and spot on. The PCA is living in such a time, but unlike Dabney, Girardeau, and others, too many of our leaders are loathe to address the issue.

“But,” someone might object, “don’t we have more important issues to deal with and bigger ecclesiastical fish to fry—to go with the French Fries?” Girardeau concedes the point that some matters are of greater and weightier import than others. “It is true that, relatively to the salvation of the soul, doctrine is of infinitely greater importance than ecclesiastical polity, order and administration.”[9] That’s news, isn't it? Clearly Girardeau belongs to the past and his emphasis on doctrine would not be received well in the PCA in some quarters today. We’re too busy going “global” and saving culture. What I find especially applicable from Girardeau’s article, however, is the assertion that “The functions of some church-officers may be diverted from their appropriate ends, and those of others, as distinctive and separate, may be wholly obliterated.”[10] This begs the question of whether the current practice among some in the PCA is a mere diverting of the biblical office of deacon from its appropriate ends, or whether it is, by virtue that none of those in the office are elected and properly ordained, an obliteration of the office under the guise of good.

In our next issue, we will sail across the Atlantic and visited the small country of Holland where we’ll listen to Dr. Cees Trimp’s description of the reinstatement and proper understanding of the diaconate during the time of the Reformation and then we’ll head back to the South and hear what Rev. J. Aspinwall Hodge had to say about deacons way back in 1882. It’s a little known fact, but he was a big fan of French Fries.

[1] George A. Blackburn, (ed.), The Life Work of John L. Girardeau, D.D., LL.D., (Columbia, SC: The State Company, 1916.)

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] John L. Girardeau, “The Importance of the Office of Deacon,” The Southern Presbyterian Review, 32, No. 1 (January 1881): 1.

[4] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World. The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, (NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 5.

[5] Robert Dabney, John Girardeau, et al., “The Diaconate,” The Southern Presbyterian Review, 30, No. 1, (January 1879).

[6] Ibid., 18. Emphasis added.

[7] John L. Girardeau, “The Importance of the Office of Deacon,” The Southern Presbyterian Review, 32, No. 1 (January 1881): 1.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 3.

[10] Ibid., 4.


Thursday, September 09, 2010

The PCA’s New Dilemma about Deacons

Do Deacons Exercise Any Authority?

It might be difficult for some to believe, but in certain quarters of the Presbyterian Church in America, questions are arising about the legitimacy of the “office” of deacon, specifically in this regard: whether deacons possess authority. Thus the PCA is currently facing two “crises” with a view to deacons. The first deals with the question of whether a deacon possesses any authority in his office; the second is the question of whether the Book of Church Order makes room for unordained female and male deacons. I contend that it does not, but that must become evident as we go forward. As we do so, I intend to deal with the biblical notion of “office” for both elders as well as deacons, believing that a healthy, spiritual view of the one will aid us in understanding the other. It will also, I believe, enable us better to understand the concept of “derived” authority for both offices. Why has this controversy arisen? There are a number of reasons, but to get the discussion rolling, I’ll just cite what some say lies at the heart of the issue.

The current PCA Book of Church order delineates (Chapter 24) how Ruling Elders and Deacons are to be elected, ordained, and installed. Both Ruling Elders and Deacons are asked the identical six questions and the identical charge is given to the members of the local congregation irrespective of whether Ruling Elders or Deacons are presented to the congregation. The question has arisen: Since Ruling Elders and Deacons fulfill very different functions, is it correct for the local pastor to declare “I know pronounce and declare that ____________ have been regularly elected, ordained and installed a ruling elder (or deacon) in this church, agreeable to the Word of God, and according to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America; and that as such he is entitled to all encouragement, honor and obedience in the Lord: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” (BCO 24-6. Emphasis added.)

I italicized the word “obedience,” for therein lies the crux of the current discussion and debate. If, it is argued, the deacons possess no authority as the elders do, precisely what obedience is owed to them? It is important to note before we move forward that this issue has come to the forefront relatively recently in the PCA and is closely connected to the discussion among some regarding unordained female deacons or deaconesses. It is both correct and helpful to admit up front, at the outset that the authority issue concerning the deacons has not been a “burning issue” in the PCA until recently. That being the case, it is equally important to ask why and how the question began. Who or what precipitated the question and was the question fully investigated before people started jumping on the proverbial bandwagon and making it a point at Presbytery? Is it connected to the matter of unordained, commissioned female deacons, or is it part of another issue? Whatever the case may be, it seems most plausible, reasonable, feasible, and Presbyterian to attempt to effect change in the BCO through proper means. That is to say, if it is clearly evident to all or a large majority that Presbyterian polity has historically misinterpreted Scripture and has given deacons perceived authority that they do not deserve or that is not scripturally warranted, then by all means follow the proper channels and get the BCO amended. I am all for that.

My concern, however, is that some Presbyters in the PCA are elitists. That’s not a favorable word. What do I mean by using it? I mean this: A simple definition means that we all play by the same rules, so that if I give my word at my ordination to “approve of the form of government and discipline of the Presbyterian Church in American, in conformity with the general principles of Biblical polity.” (BCO 21-5.3.) “But wait,” someone might object, “it says general principles and I hold to those general principles, just not to every jot and iota. After all, the BCO is a fallible document.” Of course, that’s true, isn't it? Yes, it is. That is why Presbyteries allow exceptions. The exceptions are presented and each respective Presbytery must decided whether the exception taken strikes at the vitals of the Christian faith or not. If they decide that it does, then the ordinand is in a bit of a dilemma. Either he must accede or look elsewhere. To my mind, what he may not do ethically is to give the impression that he is acceding and once in his congregation “do this own thing.” Being Presbyterian allows a great deal of latitude but lying and disingenuousness are not included in the packet.

I fear, however, that this is precisely the case in a number of congregations in the PCA. Pastors are “mooning” certain portions of the BCO with impunity. In other words, in some congregations in the PCA we have a serious ethical problem among some teaching elders, who might condemn adultery, but have little or no problem tolerating their own disingenuousness when it comes to the vow they made regarding the BCO. It matters little that the BCO is a fallible document, which we all agree on. What matters most is the weight and value of giving your word. Is this a generational thing? I don’t know. Maybe somewhat, but truth should not be generational.

A group of us were talking at our Men’s Bible Study recently and a couple of guys mentioned how in their time, important business deals were sealed by a handshake and a word. It used to be that even among secularists your word and your handshake were adequate, sufficient. Have we come to the point today where teaching elders can give their word and not mean it? I’m just askin’, but it’s a very serious question. If we have come that far, we are in a world of hurt. I’m also not certain what would be adequate for the newer generation of pastors (thankfully not all by a long shot) to do some serious soul-searching about what it means to give your word and then to follow through on it. If the Constitution of the PCA states a particular thing, then all are required to abide by that instruction, especially when it comes to the ordination of elders and deacons.

From the outset the PCA settled the matter of who and of what gender deacons were to be. It is categorically incorrect that in the Receiving and Joining of the RPCES exceptions were made concerning deaconesses. I have heard that position defended in my own Presbytery and it is wrong, fallacious. In addition, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the respective offices of elder and deacon require different work. That is really not in discussion in this matter. What is in discussion, however, is the question of whether Scripture and the history of the Christian Church have ever taught authority for deacons or if deacons have ever been utilized in positions that carried authority with them.

I fear that a phenomenon has occurred where someone with some “clout” in the PCA made a statement to this effect: “The deacons do not have an ecclesiastical office that gives them any authority. Therefore, it is perfectly correct to have unordained commissioned female deacons, since they are not violating the biblical mandate that prohibits women from exercising authority over men.” That is to say, those who want to commission female deacons wanted a “loophole” and found one in an untried statement. It sounded good, plausible, and somewhat feasible and so it was a “go.” It is rather like the untried but rather widely accepted PCA statement, “A woman can do anything an unordained man can do.” Lord willing, we shall have the opportunity to address that notion as well.

The clear-cut explanation of what a deacon does and who he is can be found both in Scripture and the BCO. For example, in BCO 9-1 we read, “The office of deacon is set forth in the Scriptures as ordinary, and perpetual in the Church. The office is one of sympathy and service, after the example of the Lord Jesus; it expresses also the communion of saints, especially in their helping one another in time of need.” 9-3 further qualifies who deacons are in this fashion: “To the office of deacon, which is spiritual in nature, shall be chosen men of spiritual character, honest repute, exemplary lives, brotherly spirit, warm sympathies, and sound judgment.” (Emphasis added.)

Even to the untrained hermeneutician, this explanation is straightforward and easy to understand. It might not constitute what some today would consider to be a breakthrough on the frontiers of knowledge, but in the final analysis it describes, in no uncertain terms, what a deacon does and what kind of man he should be. This actually is very helpful and is designed to save churchmen a lot of time. You look it up; there it is; now go do it. A kind of “fly in the ointment” or “loophole” in the current conversation concerning having or getting females on board is ostensibly located in 9-7, which states, “It is often expedient that the Session of a church should select and appoint godly men and women of the congregation to assist the deacons in caring for the sick, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and others who may be in any distress or need.”

A kind of “quantum leap” is made hermeneutically in order to bend, shape, or otherwise treat this part of the BCO as a “wax nose.” Here is what I mean: Those who want female deacons attempt to use this as a way to create what does not exist: unordained, but commissioned, female deacons. To be consistent, the congregations that are in violation of the BCO attempt to further get around their dilemma by not ordaining either males or females, but merely “commissioning” them. Rather than doing an “end run” around the BCO those who favor and have actually practiced this approach have done terrible despite to the office of deacon and have shown disregard to the principles and practices our Lord laid down in the Bible. Attempting to make some kind of compensation to allow women to serve where Scripture does not allow them to serve and by adapting a secular mindset vis-à-vis women and their ability to “do anything an unordained man can do,” they have shown disregard for what they swore to uphold at their ordination.

Cees Trimp, emeritus professor of pastoral theology at a seminary in Kampen, the Netherlands, comments that Herman Bavinck made the rather remarkable comment that Reformed theology had never discussed the place of the diaconate in its exposition of the “The Church’s Spiritual Power.”[1] Bavinck contends that Christ gave to deacons a power that is of great significance and Bavinck termed that power the ministerium misericordiae. He considered the diaconate the third independent component of ecclesiastical power. Trimp opines that Bavinck’s statement, situated as it is in his locus de ecclesia, deserves our full attention.[2] What Bavinck desires for the Church to reflect upon is the concept of how, if at all, the diaconate functions within the context of the “keys of the kingdom.” (cf. Matt. 16:19.)

In Paragraph 516 of the Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck uses a heading entitled “The Power of Mercy.” That’s probably an unusual juxtaposition of words, because mercy typically connotes something very different to us. To Bavinck’s mind, the mercy exercised by deacons is connected with the threefold office (munus triplex) of our Lord Jesus Christ. He writes, “…Christ is also a priest who from heaven still consistently exercises this office in his church now. Just as he teaches his own as prophet and governs them as king, so as priest he demonstrates to them the riches of his mercy. When he was on earth, he went through all the towns and villages, not only teaching in their synagogues and preaching the good news of the kingdom, but also healing every disease and sickness among the people (Matt. 9:35).”[3] In a striking manner, Bavinck connects mercy to Christology.

Furthermore, Bavinck contends that Christ’s acts of mercy were “no secondary and incidental activity but a primary element in the work the Father had changed him to perform (8:17; John 5:36; 9:3-4; and so forth). Manifest in this activity were the fullness of his power and the riches of his mercy.”[4] His choice of words is intentional and telling. He negates the suggestion that for Christ mercy was a “secondary” or “incidental” activity and posits that was a “primary element” in his saving work. This led Bavinck to propose a number of improvements to the Church’s understanding of the office and work of a deacon.

First, in keeping with what we just cited he suggested “That the diaconal office be honored more than it has been up until now as an independent organ of the priestly mercy of Christ.”[5]

Next, I point us to Bavinck’s third proposal “That deacons be instructed to persuade all the members of the church, particularly the wealthier ones, in the name of Christ, to practice mercy and to warn and guard them against the sin of covetousness, which is a root of all evil.”[6] Persuasion, warning, and guarding are words that connote some kind of authority to do so. Incidentally, Bavinck adhered to the Church Order from the Synod of Dort (1618/1619) that prescribed that office bearers as only men. (broeders.)

I want to make two more points from Bavinck’s proposals before we close this installment. First, based on Dort’s church order, he recommends “That the diaconate stimulate, regulate, and guide—not kill—the practice of private benevolence.”[7] Regulating and guiding the practice of giving implies some degree of authority. Otherwise, what the deacons do is a mere suggestion. Finally, Bavinck writes that “along with ministers and elders, deacons be delegated to the major assemblies of the churches and be given a vote in all matters pertaining to the ministry of mercy.”[8] Bavinck was an active churchman and a keen observer of what was needed in the Church. Along with Abraham Kuyper he effectuated, by God’s grace, a union between his own church affiliation, the Secessionists, and Kuyper’s Doleantie. His RD breathes of the practical.

In our next installment, I plan to take a look at the concept of office and to take special note that in Scripture, it is used periphrastically of all “offices.”

[1] Cees Trimp, Ministerium. Een Introductie in de Reformatorische Leer van het Ambt, (Groningen: Uitgeverij De Vuurbaak, 1982), 203. See Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4, (John Bolt, [ed.] & John Vriend [trans.]), (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 389-440.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bavinck, RD, 4:427.

[4] Ibid., 427-428.

[5] Ibid., 428.

[6] Ibid. Emphasis added.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 429.