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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.

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.



Blogger Infinity8Ball said...

Do you think there are some "cults of personality" in the PCA that prevent certain people from getting looked into more closely than others? Thus how some of these problems could arise?

7:55 PM  
Blogger Dave Sarafolean said...


The 36th General Assembly through the Review of Presbytery Minutes Committee addressed churches who commission men and women to do the work of deacons instead of ordaining deacons. I will quote the final sentence of the RPR response to Northern California's first exception:

"In addition, this practice, coupled with the minister's expressed view that he intends not to ordain deacons "until the BCO is amended," denies qualified men their constitutional and biblical right to be considered for this office."

Source: Minutes of the 36th General Assembly (Dallas, Texas). See page 282. Similar advice was given to Philadelphia Presbytery and Metro New York Presbytery as well.

5:57 AM  

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