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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, December 03, 2010

The PCA’s New Dilemma about Deacons (VIII)

This is now the eighth look we have taken at Acts 6:1-6. In past installments, we have noted that this passage additionally teaches us an important lesson about under-shepherds and their spiritual priorities. In 6:4, the apostles outline the task of the shepherd this way: “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” All of us in the pastoral ministry would do well to heed these words.

There are a couple of other spiritual instructions that accompany their words that I want to draw to your attention before we move on. First, verse 3 demonstrates that the selection of these men to serve tables involved both the congregation and the apostles. The apostles urge the congregation (“brothers”) to make a search of seven qualified men of good repute, full of the Spirit, and full of wisdom. Not just anyone would do, but only those within the congregation that met specified criteria.

Second, once the selection was made, the apostles would appoint them to the position or office, presumably after they had fully ensured that those selected by the congregation met the biblical criteria set forth.

Third, verse 6 informs us that “they” (the congregation) set these men before the apostles, who then prayed and laid their hands on them.

John Owen (1616-1683) asserts that these principles still apply today. He writes, “The same care is still incumbent on the ordinary pastors and elders of the churches, so far as the execution of [charity] doth not interfere with their principle work and duty.”[1] Alexander Strauch contends that the Acts 6:1-6 passage solved the dilemma presenting itself to the early Church and as such, “the apostles formed a new body of church officials.”[2]

As the early Church was confronted with the necessity of mercy ministry, it needed to ensure that it maintained integrity, effectiveness, and good management of its funds and resources. It is true that “Mismanagement and disorganization ruins families, businesses, governments, and churches.”[3] Therefore, the congregation and apostles chose seven spiritually gifted men and recognized them publically for the task of administration and of mercy in particular. This public recognition was accompanied by the laying on of the apostles’ hands.

“But,” someone may object, “doesn’t 1 Peter 4:10 teach that every Christian has a spiritual gift from God that is to be used in serving others?” Yes it does. This begs the question: If all Christians are to be servants, why then were the seven designated, or singled out, as it were, from the rest of the gifted people and given an official office? These questions often come from church models that have no deacons because they are convinced that 1 Peter 4:10 says it all. They argue that everyone should be a deacon or have a deacon’s heart and be willing to extend mercy. There is an element of truth in that of course. All Christians should be willing and prepared to exercise mercy according to Scripture; not all are, but they should be. But even if they are willing, not all are equally proficient at acts of mercy. Some kind souls might give away “the farm” to the first person that gives them a sob story only to learn later that they’ve been scammed.

Administering charitable funds requires character that frankly and realistically some do not possess. Being a good steward with God’s money at the congregational level—at any level really, but especially at the congregational level—requires “irreproachable character, godly wisdom, and administrative skills…. Therefore, qualified, official servants are needed to perform these duties.”[4] The “everybody should be a deacon” approach is both naïve and unbiblical. Our Lord warned that religious scam artists abounded in his day, preying on widows and the elderly (cf. Luke 20:47). Strauch sagely warns, “No church should expose people who need the most protection and care to unknown or unstable people.”[5] The sequel to this truth is this: Churches should follow biblical prescriptions, not their own ideas, creativity, or ingenuity in understanding that “select servants will always be needed to officially represent the local church in delicate matters of trust and to coordinate the church’s charity.”[6]

Who Are Those Guys?

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has some of the best one-liners ever. One of the most notable examples is the question: Who are those guys? Who were “the seven” in Acts 6:1-6? We know their names and we understand that all seven were Greeks. The real question that has been posed down through the centuries regards whether they were deacons or prototypes for deacons.

Clearly, Acts describes, in part, the “developing Church.” As I have pointed out before, nowhere in Acts is Paul called an apostle, yet we known that he was. By the same token, it is unreasonable to conclude that merely because the seven Greek men in Acts 6 were never called deacons that there is absolutely no connection between them and the deacons described by Paul in his letters. It is clear that rather early in the Church’s existence “the office of deacon was a recognized position with an official title in at least two churches established by Paul.”[7]

The New Testament is clear that Paul was concerned about organizational matters in addition to preaching the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. (See Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; 5:17-25; Titus 1:5-9.) We are also aware that he appointed elders in most of the churches he planted (Acts 14:23). Finally, Paul’s great concern for the poor is expressed in his letters (Acts 24:17; Gal. 2:10; Rom. 15:25-27). Everything was to be done decently, in good order, and uniformly in all the New Testament churches (1 Cor. 4:17; 11:16; 14:40).

Thus, “Whatever position one takes regarding the relationship between Acts 6 and the later deacons, the concept of deacons, as derived from Paul’s two letters, is not altered.”[8] The italicized words ought to be decisive for modern pastors and their respective congregations. At the very least, PCA congregations and their leadership ought to be consummately concerned to “do church” (which is a lot like being missional and ecclesial) according to the Word of God. The aberrations that exist in the PCA currently regarding unordained, but commissioned deacons and deaconesses are unbiblical, simply put. The same holds true for those who preach the mantra that everyone is a deacon. That wasn’t true in the early Church and it is not true today.

We can argue and discuss among ourselves endlessly about these matters, but the bottom line is that when it comes to these two practices in the PCA there is not a shred of biblical support for not following the practices laid out in Acts 6:6 and 1 Timothy 3:8-13.

[1] John Owen, “Of Deacons,” in The Works of John Owen, Vol. 16, (William Goold [ed.]), (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1968), 145.

[2] Alexander Strauch, The New Testament Deacons, (Littleton, CO: Lewis & Roth Publishers, 1992), 30.

[3] Ibid., 32.

[4] Ibid., 43.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 53.

[8] Ibid. Emphasis added.



Blogger Eric said...

Rattlesnake 6,
Would be interested in seeing your work on Bavinck. Do you have copies of your work on unio mystica?

Thanks, Rev. Eric Irwin —

12:42 PM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

My entire doctoral dissertation is on Bavinck's doctrine of the unio mystica and how he developed it in his entire Reformed Dogmatics. What are you interested in in particular?

2:05 PM  

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