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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.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The PCA’s New Dilemma about Deacons (VII)

We are drawing some principles from Acts 6:1-6 regarding the appointment of “the Seven” regarding modern deacons. This is being done in conjunction with the belief by some in the Presbyterian Church in America that deacons do not require the laying on of hands, ordination, and certainly not the identical charge given to the congregation regarding elders, since their functions are so very different.

Different Offices; Different Functions

It is not being argued here that the respective offices of elder and deacon have identical functions. That they are different is quite clear from the Acts 6 verses. The apostles had one function: to preach and to pray; the Seven were appointed to serve tables, to serve the needy. Alexander Strauch comments, “Some people might find it hard to believe that appointing men to care for poor widows and handle money would require the laying on of the apostles’ hands.”[1]To some, perhaps it seems odd that the laying on of hands was necessary for the Seven to serve the needy. Nevertheless, it is recorded that the laying on of hands was indeed the case (Acts 6:6).[2]

A couple of key points are noteworthy here. First, all seven of “the Seven” were men. If there were going to be a change or shift in the gender of office-bearers in general or of deacons in particular, Acts would have been a magnificent place to spell that out. That is not the case, however. The Church was no longer limited to Israel, but was now inclusive of all nations, peoples, and languages. The Old Testament tradition and background for leaders and elders was exclusively male. Keith Van Dam points out the following regarding elders: “The Hebrew term used for the office of elder in the Old Testament (zaqen) is derived from the word meaning ‘beard’ (zaqan).”[3] This is instructive because as far as I can remember, I never dated a woman with a beard. I did date an Italian girl in Charleston once, who I think had a bit of a mustache, but beyond that I’m not aware of anyone else.

Ed Clowney, writing in the book Order in the Offices, follows Van Dam when he states, “Even before the appearance of Israel as a nation, we find elders in the Old Testament. The zāqēn is a venerable leader, often a noble or administrator. Originally the term meant one who wears a beard, a mature man, then an older man (Judg. 19:16). Seniority and authority are closely joined in patriarchal society. The heads of families and clan exercise authority commensurate with their status.”[4] Throughout the Old Testament the elders represent the people in both political and religious activities. This was so much the case that “At the time of the Exodus, the ‘elders of Israel’ formed a definite body of men whose authority was recognized. The Septuagint translates ‘the elders of Israel’ as ‘the senate of Israel.’”[5] Clowney appends these instructive words, “What is striking about the place of elders in the Pentateuch is the way in which those who naturally exercise authority by their seniority, family position, or leadership are given ruling responsibility within the covenant.”[6] Of course, these men were not expected to rule either autonomously or in terms of leaning on their own understanding. As covenant leaders in the covenant community, the expectation was that they would exercise their derived authority by thinking God’s thoughts after him. In other words, they would follow the directives of Scripture and not deviate from them.

When we arrive at the New Testament, the principles are the same as those explained in the Old Testament. The difference between the testaments in terms of the office bearers can be summarized this way: “Certainly the great change in the pattern of government among the people of God is brought about by the fulfillment of all office in the mediatorial calling and work of Jesus Christ.”[7] That is to say, “the shift of the exercise of authority is to the community under Christ.”[8] The further explanation of what Clowney is saying is that “Men with prophetic gifts minister Christ’s word with authority, yet they are not originators the word: the authority is ministerial—not theirs, but Christ’s.”[9] In other words, authority in the New Testament Church is also derived from and based on Christ’s perfect, accomplished work. Both the office bearers as well as the congregation must remain acutely aware of this fact.

Clowney contends in addition that the New Testament offices must be viewed through the lenses of God’s providential preparation. Just as the Old Testament was the time of “promise” with regards to God’s coming Messiah, so the New Testament is the time of “fulfillment.” That being the case, “The offices that exist among the new people of God are constituted by Christ’s gifts.”[10] Quite practically, the providential angle expects us to realize that the older structures vis-à-vis “office” are not destroyed, not abrogated; rather, they are fulfilled in Christ.[11] With this as background, then, let’s look at the New Testament deacon.

Ordain or Commission?

The biblical example of laying on of hands at the ordination of deacons tends to be problematic for those in the PCA who desire to commission male and female—but really, this is mostly about females—deacons. Since that portion of the PCA Book of Church Order regarding ordination and installation of deacons is ignored, these colleagues are intentionally neglecting what God ordained to be done. That ought to count for something. For those who do go the route of laying on of hands on both male and female deacons, then I would ask where the biblical precedent and prescription for such an action can be found.

In some of the “site churches” in the PCA, there are no deacons at all. That’s just yet another means of avoiding what God teaches us in his Word. The argument for no ordained or unordained deacons goes something like this: Every member should be called upon to render service. That is correct as far as it goes, but it simply does not go nearly far enough, does it? It is rather remarkable that in a day and age when so many claim to have re-focused on ecclesiology or, to use the modern term, on what it means to be “ecclesial,” surprisingly few have tackled some of the most rudimentary aspects of the Church’s spiritual government and spiritual power.[12]

While it is patently true that the visible covenant community at large is given derived authority in the Word of God, and while it is also true that “the authority belongs to the whole membership, and is therefore democratic,” it does not follow that everyone in the congregation possesses equal derived authority.[13] The authority comes from Christ himself and “The Christian Democracy is also a Theocracy.”[14] In the Christian Church then, “A real authority is bestowed, and real powers are given” and the “ratification of the exercise of power depends on its Christ-like use.”[15] That is to say, this derived authority is to be employed in the way the Head of the Church declares it should be used—engaging the culture notwithstanding. What we observe in Scripture is an “ecclesiastical order and arrangement of service” that is ordained, delineated, and prescribed by the Lord.[16]

This Christian community is “self-governing” in the sense of self-governing following the precise dictates, commands, and instructions of the Word of God. The congregation is typically intimately involved in the election of those office-bearers that meet the biblical criteria and qualifications. For instance, “The vice-apostle Matthias and the Seven were elected by the assembly, and a similar assembly appointed Barnabas to be its delegate to Antioch.”[17]

There were, according to the Pauline corpus pastors, overseers, elders, and deacons in the early Church. This leads Lindsay to conclude that “The references to the office-bearers of the local churches are always in the plural, and the government must have been collegiate.”[18] My point here is simply that the man-made idea that “everyone is a deacon” is not biblical and needs to be put into a proper perspective. What Scripture clearly teaches is that in the early Church, in the last decades of the first century, elders and deacons were chosen by the local congregations. Moreover, “each Christian congregation had for its office-bearers a body of deacons and a body of elders—whether separated into two colleges or forming one must remain unknown—and that the elders took the ‘oversight’ while the deacons performed the ‘subordinate services.’”[19]

These established office bearers “watched over the lives and behaviour of the members of the community; they looked after the poor, the infirm, and the strangers; and in the absence of members of the prophetic ministry they presided over the public worship, especially over the Holy Supper.”[20] Many Southern Presbyterians wrote both frequently and passionately about how the equivalent of a teaching elder should not take on the tasks of the deacon, except when compelled to do so, and then only for a period of short duration. Lord willing, we shall examine some of those forebears in future issues.

There is a good lesson in this for PCA church planters who tend to be “the show” when they first start out. This is a dismal and precarious position to be in for any number of reasons, not least of which is that bad, unbiblical habits can be formed without elder and deacon wisdom to guide the church planter’s decisions. In addition, the church pastor can become all too accustomed all too quickly not to have to confer with others. Speaking about the early Church, Lindsay points out that “There is no trace of one man, one pastor, at the head of any community.”[21] Each congregation ought to strive to put a biblical model of office bearers in place as quickly as possible.

Into the Second Century

Reading through the New Testament, one can discern “the local churches creating their ministry.”[22] What did this look like? There were two changes in the understanding and application of the New Testament offices in the second century. The first change focused on the prophetic ministry and the other concentrated on the local ministry. The “prophetic” ministry passed out of existence, “its functions being appropriated by the permanent office-bearers of the local churches.”[23]

As we go forward in our investigation of this time frame, we are going to investigate the teachings of two particular documents: the Didache (or, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) and the Apostolic Canons. In the former, “we find the Christian society ruled by a college of office-bearers who are called ‘overseers and deacons.’”[24] The latter speaks to us about “a session of elders and a body of deacons.”[25]

In the previously cited article, Ed Clowney reminds us that “We find the Didache urging that bishops and deacons be honored with prophets and teachers (15:1-2).”[26] He opines that it is possible that the earliest “deacons” were also evangelists, given the exigencies of the early Church community. If this is the case, then there is no reason to doubt that those deacons possessed a form, some form of authority. It is also noteworthy that the Didache nowhere suggests that females should fill any of the ecclesiastical offices listed.

The Apostolic Canons show us “what a small Christian community was in the last decades of the second century.”[27] This document gives us a “snapshot” of the “birth and growth of a Church with its complete organization.”[28] Through the AP, it becomes manifestly clear that” every body of Christians however small is ordered to form itself into a congregation, and the implied thought that the Christian life must be lived within an orderly Christian society before the full benefits which accompany it can be enjoyed.”[29] “But,” someone may object, “what about church plants that have no office bearers from the outset?”

In a very real sense, the Apostolic Canons took such a situation into account. It was written in a time “when a few Christian families found themselves the only believers in the midst of a surrounding paganism.”[30] (Apparently, the Apostolic Canons were written by some surfer dude living in Southern California when for Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown served as Governor.) This document prescribes that “Every church must have at least three deacons, who are to be the ministers of the people in their private and home life. They are to report on any unseemly conduct which may call for discipline at the hands of the elders.”[31] In other words, the deacons not merely possessed authority in the early Church, but they also worked closely with the elders. Deacons had the duty to move among the people and to warn, to exhort, and, if necessary, to threaten.[32] It seems that early deacons knew mixed martial arts and were acquainted with 10-12 Christian hit men.

They also went to the wealthier members of the early Christian community and “insisted” that they open their hands to support the poor and for other ecclesiastical needs.[33] There is no hint in the Sources of deaconesses. Deacons are consistently and repeatedly described as men. It is also clear that the controversial and disputed text in 1 Timothy 3:11 was not taken to refer to female deacons.

Each congregation was to have “a ministry of women.” Aha! Deaconesses. Sorry, no cigar. Congregations were to appoint three women and “They are called widows. According to the Sources, two were to persevere in prayer for all those who are in temptation. One is to assist the women visited with sickness. “She must be ready for service, discreet, communicating what is necessary to the elders…”[34]

One final comment for this installment and that has to do with the appointment of a Reader. A number of PCA churches seem to find it chic and “culturally aware” to have a female “reader” in the service. This is viewed by some pastors as an indicator that the congregation is not comprised of luddites. They might not refer to her as that, but these congregations have females who read, lead in prayer, or both and that on a regular basis. In fact, it is expected that she will. There would be questions if a female did not read or pray or both. Briefly, the “Reader” described in the Sources was to be a male who was “an experienced Christian.”[35] In addition, “His duty is to read the Scriptures during Divine Service, and it is required that he should have a good voice and a clear delivery…. He is to be able to expound the Scripture that he has read.”[36] This is a far cry from being “hip” in a pagan culture and allowing a female to do what Scripture and the later Christian tradition forbids. Lindsay is spot on when he writes, “The Reader in these ancient times did what the pastor or bishop was expected to do in later times.”[37] Precisely.

God has carefully declared and outlined what ecclesiology is and how Christians are to “do church,” to coin the trendy phrase. It used to be that churches took Exodus 25:9 seriously and understood that when God told Moses how to construct the tabernacle, he was not interested in Moses’ creativity or his ability to reach out to the nations surrounding Israel. Rather, he was more concerned about Moses thinking God’s thoughts after him and doing things God’s way.

[1] Alexander Strauch, The New Testament Deacon, (Littleton, CO: Lewis & Roth Publishers, 1992), 40.

[2] These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

[3] Cornelis Van Dam, The Elder, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 2009), 27.

[4] Edmund P. Clowney, Á Brief for Church Governors,” in Mark Brown (ed.), Order in the Offices. Essays Defining the Roles of Church Officers, (Duncansville, PA: Classic Presbyterian Government Resources, 1993), 45-46. Emphasis added.

[5] Ibid., 46. Comp Ex. 3:16-18; 4:29; 12:21.

[6] Ibid., 47.

[7] Ibid., 52.

[8] Ibid., 53.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] For an excellent Reformed description of both of these, see Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics. Vol. IV, (John Bolt [ed.] & John Vriend [trans.]), (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 326-388 & 389-440.

[13] Thomas M. Lindsay, The Church and Ministry in the Early Centuries, (NY: Cosimo Classics, 2007), 25.

[14] Ibid. Comp. Rev. 3:7 where the real bearer of the “keys” is the Lord himself.

[15] Ibid., 27.

[16] Ibid., 32.

[17] Ibid. Emphasis added. Comp. Acts 1:23; 6:5; 11:22.

[18] Ibid., 153. Emphasis added.

[19] Ibid., 154.

[20] Ibid., 155. Comp. W.F. Dankbaar, Communiegebruiken in de eeuw der Reformatie, (Groningen: Instituut voor Liturgiewetenschap, 19872).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 169.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 170. Emphasis added.

[25] Ibid. Emphasis added.

[26] Clowney, “A Brief for Church Governors,” 55.

[27] Lindsay, The Church and Ministry in the Early Centuries, 177.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 178.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., 180-181. Emphasis added.

[32] Ibid., 181.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Adolf von Harnack, Sources of the Apostolic Canons, (Edinburgh: John Menzies & Co., 1895), 19-21.

[35] Lindsay, The Church and Ministry in the Early Centuries, 182.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.



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