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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.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The PCA’s New Dilemma about Deacons (V)

What about Acts 6?

It is a legitimate question to ask whether Acts 6:1-6 refers to Deacons; if it forms a kind of “prototype” for the later Deacons; or if it makes no reference to Deacons at all. It is certainly the case that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between what the find described in Acts 6 and our current office of Deacon. That should not, however, be a deterrent to us because we understand that the early Church was a “work in progress” in much of what Luke describes in Acts. It is not until chapter 8, for example, that we find the Church moving outside of Jerusalem. In addition nowhere in the book of Acts is Paul called an apostle, even though that is the common designation he uses for himself in his letters.

There are some unusual designations in Acts 6 that need to be taken into account. For instance, it is only in verse 2 that Luke refers to the apostles as “the twelve.”[1] Equally unique is his designation of Gentile names constituting the administrative assistants to the apostles. According to Luke, these seven spiritual men became known as “the seven.” (cf. Acts 21:8.) The end of verse 3 states that these men were appointed to a particular “duty” (chpeía).[2] Gordon Fee sees no particular need to view “the seven” as Deacons. He argues, “An appeal to Acts 6:1-6 is of no value, since those men are not called deacons. In fact they are clearly minister of the Word among Greek-speaking Jews, who eventually accrue to title ‘the Seven’ (Acts 21:8), which distinguishes them in a way similar the ‘the Twelve.’”[3]

While Fee is correct that the word Deacon does not appear in the text, it is equally true that the ESV translates tē diakonía as “distribution” and diakoneîn as “to serve.” The point being here that while it is true that the seven spiritual men chosen for the task are not specifically called Deacons, derivatives of that word are used to delineate precisely what their duty is.[4] R.C.H. Lenski states, “These seven were in no sense presbyters of the Jerusalem congregation and they were not elected for that purpose. What is later reported about Stephen and about Philip has nothing to do with their official duties in the congregation. These activities were the result of gifts and of opportunities that extend beyond their specific office. The offices that came into being in the apostolic church were not fluid, but well defined.”[5]

Furthermore, “It is a mistake to conclude that because the Seven are not actually called deacons, there is no connection between the Seven mentioned in Acts and the deacons mentioned in Paul’s epistles.”[6] F.F. Bruce, speaking of the development in the Book of Acts, says, “The record of Acts is true to its ‘dramatic’ date, i.e., to the date of the events and developments it relates.”[7] In a similar vein, Sir William Ramsey reminds us of the following point: “It is rare to find a narrative so simple and so little forced as that of Acts. It is a mere uncoloured recital of the important facts in the briefest possible terms.”[8] For these reasons, it would be unwise and imprudent to deny any relevance for us today regarding what is said in Acts 6:1-6 simply because the word “deacon” is missing. Moreover, most Reformed commentators are in agreement that there is some correspondence between Acts 6 and contemporary circumstances. Calvin, for instance, believes that there is a great deal we can derive from Acts 6 for the New Testament Church.

In addition, when looking at this text we should also compare Scripture with Scripture. When we do so, it becomes evident that “The word diakonos is plainly used three times in the New Testament to refer to the holder of a specific office (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8, 12). It is quite likely that the official title diakonos corresponds to the specialized use of its related noun and verb: diakonia and diakoneō.”[9] C.E.B. Cranfield adds, “We have now seen that there is in the New Testament a specialized technical use of diakonein and diakonia to denote the practical service of those who are specially needy ‘in body, or estate’, and that it is highly probable that the specialized technical use of diakonos also has the same reference.”[10] In light of this, Strauch concludes, “Therefore, since an office in the church called diakonos is concerned with the physical needs of the people (1 Timothy 3:8-13) and since an official body of men was appointed to help meet (diakoneō) the physical needs of the poor (Acts 6:1-6), we cannot but assume there is a connection between the two groups.”[11]

One of the “connection points” between Acts and the practice of laying on of hands found variously throughout the New Testament. It is important to keep in mind that this practice is also found in the Old Testament as well. What were some of the reasons for the imposition of hands in the Old Testament? Generally, the idea conveyed has to do with giving or conferring of a blessing (Gen. 48:14), to identify with a sacrifice offered to God, where the sinner laid his hands on the head of the sacrificial beast (Lev. 1:4; 3:2; 4:4; 16:21),[12] the transfer of defilement (Lev. 24:14), to identify man’s actions with God’s (2 Kgs. 13:16), for the commissioning of a successor (Num. 27:23), and to “set people apart, such as in conveying a special commission, responsibility, or authority (Numbers 8:10, 14; 27:15-23; Deuteronomy 34:9.”[13]

When we examine the New Testament, we find similar and parallel meanings to the Old Testament context. The imposition of hands symbolizes the conveying of a blessing (Matt. 19:15; Mark 10:16), the conveying of the Holy Spirit’s healing power (Mark 6:5; 8:23, 25; Luke 4:40; 13:13; Acts 9:12; 19:11; 28:8), the conveying of the Holy Spirit to believers through the instrumentality of the imposition of the apostles’ hands (Acts. 8:17-19; 19:6), the conveying of a spiritual gift to Timothy through Paul’s hands (2 Tim. 1:6), and finally, to set apart or place in an ecclesiastical office (Acts 6:6; 13:3; 1 Tim. 4:14; 5:22). Thus, in terms of the Deacons, they shared in the derived authority that accrued to them for their office from the apostles by the laying on of hands, just as the apostles, pastors, and other Elders were granted a derived authority to fulfill their respective offices from the Lord Jesus Christ as Head of the Church.

Without attempting to set down hard and fast rules for the concept of the laying on of hands identical to what was done in the early Church, it is plausible to draw conclusions from both the Old as well as the New Testament and to relate to how the Reformation, the Reformers, and the Puritans applied the laying on of hands for Presbyterianism and the Reformed faith. We shall do that in just a moment. Before I do, however, I want to draw your attention to something that is an anomaly. There are those in my church affiliation, the PCA, that against their vow (with notable exception) and against the clear teach of the PCA’s Book of Church Order.

Dr. David Coffin, in a paper presented to Potomac Presbytery (January 2009), clearly demonstrates from the Preface of the BCO[14] and from the BCO itself (4-2; 7-2; 9-1; 9-3) that deacons are to be men and they are to be ordained, which in fidelity to the BCO and the vow taken by the pastor includes reading the pertinent questions in the BCO, their ordination and installation, involving the imposition of hands, and the requisite charge to the congregation. Coffin concludes, “For a minister and/or Session to hold as policy that there shall be no ordained deacon in a congregation is to say that Jesus has not given the diaconate as necessary to the edification of the church and the perfection of His people, and is to take away from his commands concerning the church’s ordinary and perpetual officers.” I would take Coffin’s comments a step farther: Not to ordain deacons according to the command of Scripture is to be disobedient to the Word of God—irrespective of who you are.

Coffin has some more conclusions on this same issue and in the same paper that I want to present to you. After citing BCO 16-1; 16-3; 17-2; and 17-3 he deduces, “For a minister and/or Session to hold as policy that there shall be no ordained deacon in a congregation is to deny that God by the Spirit may call a man from that congregation to the office of deacon, or is to deny a man called and gifted of God by the Spirit his right to be elected and ordained to the office and exercise his gifts in the diaconal labor for which they were given.” In light of BCO 3-1 and 4-1 Coffin construes the teaching there to mean the following: “For a minister and/or Session to hold as policy that there shall be no ordained deacon in a congregation is to deny the congregation the Christ-appointed administrator of part of the church’s power, and to deny the right of the people to exercise their power in choosing deacons.” Finally, according to the instruction received from BCO 24-1 and 24-3 Coffin opines, “For a minister and/or Session to hold as policy that there shall be no ordained deacon in a congregation is to transgress the rights of communicant members to nominate candidates for the diaconate and to vote on their election if found qualified; and to deny the right of the congregation to require the Session to hold an election for the diaconate, as well as the right of the congregation to set the number of deacons to be elected.”

I would merely add to this that whereas the BCO makes provision for the elders to fulfill the functions of the deacons where there are no deacons available (cf. 9-2), this does not mean that congregations—standard, site, or otherwise—are to have TEs and REs interminably filling what should be a deacon’s calling. The scriptures, Reformed Church History, and the BCO make provision for the office and tasks of deacons that are decidedly different from TEs and REs for a reason. No amount of “ingenuity,” “engaging the culture,” or “creativity” can or should alter or attempt to correct that. I know for a fact that certain congregations in the PCA that use the “site church” model not only do this with impunity, but MNA actually sponsors symposia using PCA money to promote such a practice. Unconscionable.

But here is something else to consider: Against all this clear evidence from Scripture and the history of the Presbyterian and Reformed Church, certain PCA pastors are attempting to eviscerate the BCO for what is a “new kid on the block” interpretation. The concept of “commissioning” deacons and/or deaconesses the way it is being conceived and put into practice currently among some PCA pastors is neither found in Scripture nor in the history of the Presbyterian and Reformed churches. It is almost as new in Presbyterian and Reformed circles as Dispensationalism. Historically, we might be able to trace this phenomenon back to the Second Great Awakening, but we would be very, very hard pressed to cite instances of this precedent in Presbyterian and Reformed circles.

What is an Ecclesiastical Office?

I find it more than odd that this question concerning to office of Deacon has to be addressed in conservative Presbyterian circles. If this type of question was raised in a liberal congregation, in a broadly evangelical church, or among those in the laughable “emergent conversation,” it would be totally understandable. What is most disconcerting is that the PCA is not only raising the matter, but in some cases is either accepting the commissioning (non-ordination) of male and female deacons or is being silent about it. How does the old adage go? Oh, yeah, I remember: Silence is assent. If someone objects that they are not necessarily assenting then I ask why are you not objecting?

What do we understand about the word “office”? According to The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, the concept is often used in a periphrastic manner in the Old Testament.[15] For instance, in Exodus the Hebrew word for “priest” is used periphrastically to mean “to serve as a priest.” The actual word “office” is missing, but the concept clearly points to Aaron and Aaron’s sons fulfilling an “office;” in this case, the office of priest.[16] It is a known fact that a variety of Hebrew words are used in this periphrastic manner in different texts. (cf. Gen. 40:13; 41:13; 1 Chr. 6:32; Ps. 109:8; 1 Chr. 23:28; Neh. 13:14.)

This periphrastic usage carries over to the New Testament and can be found in texts such as Luke 1:8-9; 1 Timothy 3:1, 10; and Romans 11:13. A classic New Testament instance is found in Acts 1:20, where Matthias takes Judas’ place by the casting of lots. Luke cites Psalm 109:8 concerning another taking his “office.” In actuality, the word “office” does not appear in the text, but rather simply these words: Tēn episkopēn autoû labétō héteros.[17]

With this as background, the words of Old Testament scholar Cornelis Van Dam are to the point when he writes, “An ecclesiastical office can be defined as a task given by God for a specific continuous and institutional service to his congregation with a view to its edification.”[18] Van Dam also insists that it is the Lord “who calls one to the office.”[19] As a sidebar, it is highly instructive to note that there is no biblical evidence of the Lord calling a woman to the office of elder or deacon.

Those perpetual offices are God-ordained and the Lord “in his good pleasure calls certain persons to serve him in a special purpose.”[20] Both the providence of God and being chosen by the people are active in the election, ordination, and installation into a biblical office. Van Dam comments that “The involvement of the people in the Old Testament dispensation in the receiving of office bearers with authority over them is noteworthy.”[21] Thus, when Paul charged Titus “to appoint (kathistēmi) elders in Crete (Titus 1:5), this duty did not mean that the congregation had no part to play. Such participation would not be unexpected given the involvement of the congregation in the Old Testament in the receiving of office bearers. Indeed the congregation had chosen the seven in Acts 6. The apostles had then laid their hands on them and set them aside for the distribution of food among the needy.”[22]

More, Lord willing, in the next installment. Believe me, there is a lot more to this and we have only begun to scratch the surface of this very important issue.

[1] Simon Kistemaker, Acts, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 226.

[2] The word should be translated “office,” “duty,” or “service.” Walter Bauer, Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1971), 1750.

[3] Gordon Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988), 86.

[4] Comp. Kistemaker, Acts, 226.

[5] R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 19614), 247.

[6] Alexander Strauch, The New Testament Deacon, (Littleton, CO: Lewis & Roth Publishers, 1992), 45.

[7] F.F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 19903), 27.

[8] William Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1897), 20-21.

[9] Strauch, NTD, 48.

[10] C.E.B. Cranfield, “Diakonia in the New Testament,” in Service in Christ: Essays Presented to Karl Barth on his 80th Birthday, (J.I. McCord & T.H.L, Parker [eds.]), (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 39.

[11] Strauch, NTD, 49.

[12] Bruce, Acts, 130.

[13] Strauch, NTD, 39.

[14] BCO, Preface, I states that the Lord Jesus “gives all offices necessary for the edification of His Church and the perfecting of His saints.” Moreover, Christ has ordained “His system of doctrine, government, discipline and worship, all of which are either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary inference may be deduced therefrom; and to which things He commands that nothing be added, and that from them nothing be taken away.” (Emphasis added.)

[15] James Orr et al. (eds.), “Office,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Vol. IV, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 19763), 2180.

[16] Ibid.

[17] ESV: For it is written in the Book of Psalms, “May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it”; and “Let another take his office.”

[18] Cornelis Van Dam, The Elder, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 2009), 4.

[19] Ibid., 5.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 6. Van Dam cites George Knight, The Pastoral Epistles, 288 where Knight reminds us that “The basic mean of cheirontoneō is ‘stretch out the hand, for the purpose of giving one’s vote in the assembly.’”


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