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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.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The PCA’s New Dilemma about Deacons (IV)

The school where Herman Bavinck taught in Kampen, Holland.

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.[1] 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.[2] Rule three explains how the deacons exercised contact with those receiving financial help and instructed them about that money could best be spent.[3]

In addition to Bucer, Trimp cites Johannes à Lasco, who served a Dutch refugee congregation in London from 1550-1553. He put many of Bucer’s ideas into practice not only in London, but in two other congregations he served: Emden and Frankfurt. Of him Trimp writes that à Lasco gave the office a secure place in Reformed ecclesiastical life.”[4] John Calvin built these two Reformers and spoke often of the place of deacons in the Church of Jesus Christ.[5] The French Confession (1559) of a plurality of elders and deacons (Art. 29). What is both striking and remarkable in the history of the Reformation is two things: First, deacons were all men; second, hands were laid on them to ordain them.

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 Scotland and with John Knox and the Reformed community. For example, the Book of Church Order, handed down from the Synod of Dort (1618/1619), speaks often about deacons and their tasks. Article 83 relates how deacons are tasked with making a number of decisions that can and should be termed “authoritative” in nature. They are to work closely with the Consistory to ensure that their work is accomplished properly.[6] If I may put it this way: both elders and deacons are perpetual ordained offices bearing derived authority from God. John Shepperson, in an article in the Southern Presbyterian Review (July 1854) entitled “Authority of Ecclesiastical Rulers,” stated the following: “None, we presume, can fail to observe that it resolved all the official power of ecclesiastical rulers into ‘the right of judging upon laws already made’ by Christ. If this doctrine be correct, it follows that all ecclesiastical officers not instituted by Christ are unlawful,—that every claim to ecclesiastical office must be tested by an impartial application of the law of Christ to facts existing in the case of the claimant,—and that no man may do officially in the church of Christ, any act which cannot be proved from Scripture to be legitimately connected with his office.”[7] The “it” in Shepperson’s quotation refers to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.

In the time of the rise of Neo-Calvinism under Herman Bavinck, Abraham Kuyper, Frederick Rutgers, and others, Holland witnessed a blossoming of true diaconal work, all of which were ordained to the office according to the Dort Book of Church Order and all of which were men. None of these deacons were females and each deacon entered his office by answering the requisite questions, with the laying on of hands by the elders. James Orr argues in The International Standard Bible Encyclopædia that the imposition of hands was no mere formality, but rather appears in the Old Testament in various connections. For example, the laying on of hands signified an act of blessing (Gen. 48:14ff) and in the ritual of sacrifice, where the hands of the one offering the sacrifice were laid on the head of the victim (cf. Ex. 29:10, 15, 19; Lev. 1:4; 3:2, 8, 13; 4:4, 24, 29; 8:14; 16:21).[8]

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).[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.”[10] 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).[11]

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).”[12] 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.”[13] 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.[14]

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. [15] 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.”[16] Nevertheless, there was the office of chazzan or Deacon of the synagogue.[17] 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.”[18]

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.

[1] Cees Trimp, Zorgen voor de Gemeente. Het ambtelijk werk van ouderlingen en diakenen toegelicht, (Kampen: Uitgeverij van den Berg, 1983), 185.

[2] Ibid., 186.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Calvin, Inst. 4.4.1ff.

[6] Trimp, Zorgen, 189.

[7] John G. Shepperson, “Authority of Ecclesiastical Rulers,” Southern Presbyterian Review, 8, (July 1854): 113. Emphasis added.

[8] James Orr, “Hands, Imposition,” in James Orr (ed.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopædia, Vol II, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 19763), 1335.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. Emphasis added.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid. Emphasis added.

[14] Trimp, Zorgen, 179.

[15] This article was excerpted by the PCA Historical Center and appeared in Hodge’s What Is Presbyterian Law? As Defined by the Church Courts, (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1882), 60-71. I will follow the pagination of the PCA Historical Center.

[16] Ibid., 60.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.



Blogger Pastor St. John said...

This series is well-written, informative and very important to the present situation. Thank you.

6:01 AM  
Blogger Pastor St. John said...

Great research and reasoning. When you put your articles all together, I think you will have a great little booklet to publish, and put on the bookstore table at the next General Assembly of the PCA. Keep up the good work!

4:35 AM  

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