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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, November 06, 2010

The PCA’s New Dilemma about Deacons (VI)

I want to continue to talk about the biblical concept of “ordination” in this installment, along with the biblical notion of the laying on or imposition of hands in light of the confusion that some have concerning the non-ordination of male and female deacons, but before I do that, I want to direct our attention back to Acts 6:1-6. “The twelve” (this is the only time Luke uses this designation for the apostles) were to appoint spiritual men (anēr) for a particular “duty” (chreía). “The seven” were to serve tables (diakoneîn trapézais). In other words, they were to administer the daily distribution of food, but perhaps they were given even more to do. Let me explain. New Testament scholar Simon Kistemaker, for example, comments that the word “tables” “points to either sharing food or doling out money designated for buying food.”[1]

An important function, therefore, was placed in the hands of “the seven,” and with that function they were called upon to act as biblical stewards as administrators or mangers of God’s money and food. Alexander Strauch opines that “The task the apostles gave to the Seven was specific. Its nature is partially described as ‘the daily serving’ (Acts 6:1) and ‘to serve tables’ (v. 2). The Greek word for tables, trapeza, is often used figuratively to mean food or meals (Acts 16:34). But the term tables is also used figuratively for finances, a money table, or a bank (Luke 19:23).”[2]

According to Acts 4 (34-37), at the very least it appears that “the seven” were tasked with collecting funds for the needy in the young church, distributing either money or goods to the needy, ensuring that each local congregation justly, impartially, judiciously, decently, and effectively distributed those funds and goods, and coordinating each local congregation’s charitable services to the needy. Common sense dictates that someone has to be in charge of this and that (authoritative) decisions had to be made. Like it or not in our egalitarian world, someone had to be in charge, someone had to make (sometimes tough) decisions, and the buck had to stop somewhere with someone or with a body of responsible people. In this case, the New Testament office-bearers are the designated bodies.

I am convinced that if younger PCA pastors (and others) comprehend that the apostles, the New Testament elders, and the New Testament deacons all possess derived authority, then they will understand why the same questions are asked of both elders and deacons as well as why each congregation is given the charge according to the Book of Church Order 24-6.[3] Both the questions, the address to the congregation, the laying on of hands, the prayer, the extension of the right hand of fellowship, and the pronouncement are of a piece. In addition, they are all reasonable and plausible if you do not have an agenda somehow, by hook or by crook, to do an end run around Scripture and to please the culture by having unordained, commissioned female deacons. Also, as I mentioned in previous installments, what we find in BCO 24 is not of recent vintage. This, or something very similar to it, has been standard fare in both the Presbyterian as well as Reformed churches for centuries, especially since the Reformation. This is not to affirm that our forebears were infallible, but rather it does point us to a rich tradition and heritage that we should not be willing to jettison so easily and without substantial and substantive scriptural proof—both of which are missing from the current debate within the PCA regarding deacons generally and female deacons in particular.

Tasks Differing

“The twelve” entrusted this task of “serving tables” and all that is summarized in that phrase into the hands of “the seven,” while the apostles continued to preach the Word and to be in prayer. If there are TEs who are in a quandary about how they are to spend their time as pastors, preaching and prayer are excellent starting points. “Networking” and making sermons at Starbuck’s is way down the list. No extra charge for that. Let me ask a very simple, practical question. Here’s the scenario: If you and your wife are at dinner and there is something awry with your meal, say, a dead bee in your salad, you call the waiter over. If he is uncooperative, you do what? You ask to speak to the “manager.” Why? Quite simply because as the manager, he has some clout and can either “comp” your meal or rectify the situation. He has the authority as the manager to do what the waiter does not have the authority to do. Thus, in the New Testament, managing the food distribution and possibly money matters as well carried with it a notion of (derived) authority.

Let me give a more contemporary example of how this works in congregations with an active deaconry. Let’s say family Doe has hit a rough patch in their finances. Simultaneously, the shepherding elder has ascertained that family Doe has a history of making bad financial decisions. They have come to the deacons a couple of times before immediately after the worship service with the bad news that unless they get a check from the deacons today, their utilities are going to be cut off. That’s a problem. More than that, it’s a long-standing problem because we all know that Ma Edison does not just turn off the electricity (if you live in Mississippi, call me and I’ll be glad to explain what electricity is) without substantially good reasons. After deliberation, it is decided to cut them the necessary check. Grateful, they drive off in their newly leased SUV. The pastor scratches his head, climbs into his 1950 Ford Fairlane that has 6,000,000 miles on it, that he just paid off the week before, and heads home.

At the next combined meeting, it is decided that family Doe needs a visit from the pastor, the shepherding elder, and a deacon. At the meeting, it is discovered that those members of the congregation, who have visited family Doe, noted that they have cable TV, a nicely furnished and appointed house, and other amenities. They also wear “designer” clothes, dad and mom both have iPhones, wear Birkenstocks, and serve caviar at the home visit. (Well, okay, the caviar is a little bit of a stretch.) It is also discovered that they are deep, deep in credit card debt. They have some major financial problems. At the end of the day, it is decided that one of the deacons who is very good with finances and budgeting will be saddled, tasked with helping family Doe. In the course of time, family Doe falls back into its old, familiar habits. Finally, the deacon says something like this: “Look, here’s the deal: We are willing to help you, but you must submit yourselves to our directives or we’re done. We will not continue to finance your bad decisions. If you are willing to cooperate, we are more than willing to work with you any way we can. We will not, however, continue to pour the Lord’s money into your bad financial decisions.”

This is not only an effective, authoritative tool to employ for church members, who refuse to cooperate and to be good stewards with that which God has entrusted to them, but it is also highly effective against the “scam artists” that plague churches these days. At Grace, if an “outsider” needs assistance, he or she must attend worship first and then talk to the deacons after the service. The point here is simply this: Both the elders as well as the deacons are given “derived” authority from the Head of the Church. Without a doubt, each office has a different function, but it does not necessarily follow that the one office is an authoritative one (elder), and the other is not. It is simply that the type of derived, God-ordained authority is not identical.

I am aiming at two issues with this example. The first matter is the supposition from certain quarters that deacons have no authority whatsoever. It seems plain and clear from Acts 6:1-6 that “the seven” were administers and managers of sorts. Moreover, since each congregation is a covenant community, there is the added element of the family setting here. In a family, there are parents and usually children. God places the parents in authority and not the children. Dad and mom both have derived authority from God to be godly parents and not “buddies” and “chums” to the kids. That will come later perhaps (with any good predestination, about age 40 when the aliens return and re-insert the brains that they sucked out of dad and mom’s head when the children turned 18. That’s why it is such a good idea to keep the aluminum foil in your baseball cap).

The second issue is one of managerial authority that is part of the function of New Testament deacons. Alexander Strauch points out that “If any organization is to maintain integrity and effectiveness, good management of funds and resources is essential.”[4] Management requires (authoritative) decision making. Much of the waste in government spending today is due to and caused by poor management, mismanagement. Again Strauch is spot on when he declares that “Mismanagement and disorganization ruins families, businesses, governments, and churches.”[5] 1 Corinthians 14:40 is a constant reminder that Christ’s bride is to do everything decently and in good order.

What Does It Mean to “Ordain” to an Office?

What does the concept of “ordaining” a person to a biblically described ecclesiastical office mean? What does it mean “to ordain” an office bearer? Our English word for “ordain” comes from the Latin ordinare, which means “to set in order,” “to arrange,” or “to appoint to an office.” It is essential that we understand this: When, in Presbyterian and Reformed circles we ordain a teaching elder, ruling elder, or deacon, it is not merely a human undertaking, but rather an exercise commanded by God. The word has a wide variety of uses in the Bible (cf. Ps. 132:17; Isa. 30:33; Heb. 9:6; 1 Chr. 17:9; Hab. 1:12.)

What has precipitated some PCA pastors to question the notions of ordination to the office of deacon and ordination to the office of deacon? Both the Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart and the Evangelische Kirchen Lexicon cite several texts to validate the biblical concept of “office” (Amt).[6] Basically, fundamentally the notion of “office” carries with it the connotation that someone is in “charge.” Strauch comments that “The Greek verb that means ‘to put in charge,’ kathistēmi, is often used to express appointment to an official position, such as the appointment of a judge or governor (Acts 7:10). It can also express appointment in an unofficial sense. Either way, the verb indicates a sense of authority, as R.J. Knowling in The Expositor’s Greek Testament states: ‘The verb implies at all events an exercise of authority.’”[7]

One of the primary meanings of our notion of “to ordain,” and the one that comes closest to our purposes is, “to set apart for an office or duty.” (cf. Mark 3:14; Jer. 1:5; Dan. 2:24; John 15:16; Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 2:7; Titus 1:5; Heb. 5:1; 8:3.) It is all the more striking and important to note that the Greek word kathistēmi is linked to the laying on or imposition of hands. This symbolic gesture is repeated throughout the histories of the Presbyterian and Reformed churches. Furthermore, in both the Old as well as the New Testament, the laying on of hands played a significant role. It signified the conveying of a blessing (Gen. 48:14), the transfer of sin (Lev. 16:21), the transfer of defilement, or to “set people apart, such as in conveying a special commission, responsibility, or authority (Numbers 8:10, 14; 27:15-23; Deuteronomy 34:9).”[8] The last-mentioned use of the imposition of hands is also carried over to the New Testament where in Acts 6:6, 13:3; 1 Timothy 4:14; and 5:22 the clear implication is once again to “set apart or place in office.”[9] In other words, it is an official, authoritative position.

Strauch concludes, then, the following: “In light of this background, it seems reasonable to assume that the imposition of hands in Acts 6 visually expressed the apostles’ blessing, commissioned the Seven to a special task (Numbers 27:22,23), and transferred the authority to do the job.”[10]

It is more than just a little ironic that those PCA churches that are most vociferous about caring for the poor, the needy, the down-and-out, the homeless, and the disenfranchised are the most hesitant to ordain deacons to the task, office, and authority to which the scriptures call them. The office and their respective related functions and tasks are clearly defined and described in what we consider to be the infallible and inerrant Word of God. Why would we want to act in any way that is not in full accordance with and submission to Scripture? Do we know better than God? The Lord has given the Church of Jesus Christ offices and office-bearers. I can understand that the emergent church, for example, does not want any “leaders.” That movement was confused from the “get go” and matters have only devolved since then. People like Brian McLaren and others in the emergent church movement act as if it is a good thing not to have leaders when both testaments clearly, unmistakenly, and unequivocally teach the precise opposite. McLaren is a non-seminary trained loose cannon, who has a very high regard of his own self-importance. He is rapidly becoming the poster boy for modern evangelicalism. But for “Presbos” and conservative Presbos not to get it boggles the mind. What are they teaching in seminary these days?

[1] Simon Kistemaker, Acts, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1990), 221. Emphasis added.

[2] Alexander Strauch, The New Testament Deacon, (Littleton, CO: Lewis & Roth Publishers, 1992), 32-33. Emphasis in original.

[3] Do you, the members of this church, acknowledge and receive this brother as a ruling elder (or deacon), and do you promise to yield him all that honor, encouragement and obedience in the Lord to which his office, according to the Word of God and the Constitution of this Church, entitles him?

[4] Strauch, The New Testament Deacon, 32.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Old Testament: Ex. 28:1; 1:16; Gen. 40:13; 41:13; 1 Chr. 6:52; 23:28; Ps. 109:8; Neh. 13:14; New Testament: Luke 1:8-9; 1 Tim. 3:10; Rom. 11:13; Acts 1:20.

[7] Strauch, The New Testament Deacon, 38. Emphasis added.

[8] Ibid., 39.

[9] Ibid. Emphasis added.

[10] Ibid.



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