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
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.” 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. 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).” 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.” 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.”
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.” 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
 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.]), (
 Bavinck, RD, 4:427.
 Ibid., 427-428.
 Ibid., 428.
 Ibid. Emphasis added.
 Ibid., 429.
Labels: The PCA