The PCA’s New Dilemma about Deacons (IV)
Do Deacons Exercise Any Authority?
Just how far back does the history of deacons go? Is what the PCA’s Book of Church Order contains of recent vintage, or do the roots extend farther back? Cees Trimp reminds the Presbyterian and Reformed world that the Reformation was a pivotal time not merely for the re-discovery of the centrality and indispensability of Scripture, but also in the re-discovery of the offices or elder and deacon. With a particular view to deacons, Trimp points to Martin Bucer, who in 1530, reintroduced the biblical doctrine of deacons into Straßbourg. Bucer instituted “five golden rules” for the office of deacon, the second of which had to do with the (authoritative) instruction regarding respect for 1 Timothy five, and especially the relatives of those referred to in that chapter. Rule three explains how the deacons exercised contact with those receiving financial help and instructed them about that money could best be spent.
In addition to Bucer, Trimp cites Johannes à Lasco, who served a Dutch refugee congregation in
What this means for the Presbyterian and Reformed world is that the current phenomenon of “commissioning” female and male deacons instead of ordaining the males, apart from what is clearly noted in BCO 9-7 (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.), is of very recent vintage. In fact, one could scour Reformed Church history and not find an instance. Besides, one also gets the impression that as far as BCO 9-7 is concerned, the males fade, if they are not totally neglected.
It was interesting that during the Overtures Committee discussions prior to GA this year the notion was put forward to call the females and males of 9-7 “diaconal assistants.” Not surprisingly, there was opposition, but one has to wonder why. Is that title not lofty, worthy enough? Why would anyone balk at such a phrase, unless, of course, they had a different agenda?
My point here is simply this: The form that is used in the current PCA Book of Church Order has its historical roots in
In the time of the rise of Neo-Calvinism under Herman Bavinck, Abraham Kuyper, Frederick Rutgers, and others,
We find other instances of the laying on or imposition of hands when the tribe of Levi was set apart for its particular duties (Num. 8:10) and when Moses appointed Joshua to be his successor (Num. 27:18, 23; Deut. 34:9). Orr constitutes conjoins two important concepts to the imposition of hands in the Old Testament: “The primary idea seems to be that of conveyance or transference (cf. Lev. 16:21), but, conjoined with this, in certain instances, are the ideas of identification and of devotion to God.” All of this provides interesting background for the New Testament concept of the laying on of hands. Again, we are apprised that the imposition of hands was employed in a variety of situations. The Lord Jesus laid hands on the children (Matt. 19:13, 15; Mark 10:16) as well as on the sick (Matt. 9:18; Mark 6:5), and the apostles laid hands on those whom they baptized in the early Church that they might receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17, 19; 19:6).
While this is all true, Orr points out that it was especially the imposition of hands that “was used in the setting apart of person to a particular office or work in the church. This is noticed as taking place in the appointment of the Seven (Acts 6:6), in the sending out of Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13:3), at the ordination of Timothy (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6), but though not directly mentioned, it seems likely that it accompanied all acts of ordination of presbyters and deacons (cf. 1 Tim. 5:22; Heb. 6:2).” With this background it hardly seems likely that the laying on of hands for the ordination of deacons is a “take it or leave it” proposition. Therefore, those who fancy themselves to be “cutting edge” and eliminate this important, indeed essential, ceremony and symbol do so at the peril of disregarding what Scripture so clearly lays out for us.
This is concept conveyed by the laying on of hands is important for our purposes for as Orr states, “The presbyters could hardly convey what they had not themselves received (1 Tim. 1:14). Here again the fundamental idea is communication. The act of laying on of hands was accompanied by prayer (Acts 6:6; 8:15; 13:3), and the blessing sought was imparted by God himself.” Thus, instead of demonstrating by commissioning female deacons is a manifestation that we are culturally astute and attuned, it is more illustrative of our blatant disregard for the Word of God at this point.
All told, since the time of the Reformation the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches have understood that it was not in the name of humanity, or the public order, or the welfare ideals of a welfare state that deacons have served, but rather they have labored in and for the name of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his kingdom.
In reality, the history of the deacon goes back further than the Reformation, however. In an article by J. Aspinwall Hodge, he traces the seminal thoughts of diaconal work back to the Old Testament.  This should come as no surprise. In Hodge’s article (Chapter 6, Of Deacons), he points out that even in the Old Testament “The contributions of money were under the care of the Levites and Priests (Ex. 38:21; Num. 1:50, 53; Ezra 8:24-30, 33). Special provisions were made under the law for the relief of the poor by individual, instead of official contributions and care.” Nevertheless, there was the office of chazzan or Deacon of the synagogue. These chazanim “had charge and oversight of all things in it, kept the sacred books of the law and the prophets and other Holy Scriptures, as also the books of their public liturgies, and all other utensils belonging to the synagogue. The order of the synagogue was, as all Presbyterians hold, the model of that of the Church under the New Testament dispensation.”
Thus, there is an Old Testament background to the New Testament Deacon, even if there is not a one-to-one correspondence.In our next installment, we’ll begin an investigation of Acts 6 and what we can learn from this New Testament text.
 Cees Trimp, Zorgen voor de Gemeente. Het ambtelijk werk van ouderlingen en diakenen toegelicht, (Kampen: Uitgeverij van den Berg, 1983), 185.
 Ibid., 186.
 Calvin, Inst. 4.4.1ff.
 Trimp, Zorgen, 189.
 John G. Shepperson, “Authority of Ecclesiastical Rulers,” Southern Presbyterian Review, 8, (July 1854): 113. Emphasis added.
 James Orr, “Hands, Imposition,” in James Orr (ed.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopædia, Vol II, (
 Ibid. Emphasis added.
 Ibid. Emphasis added.
 Trimp, Zorgen, 179.
 This article was excerpted by the
 Ibid., 60.
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