The PCA’s New Dilemma about Deacons (III)
What about Acts 6?
In virtually every study surrounding deacons and their place within the New Testament Church, one cannot avoid a discussion of Acts 6. Of course, the burning issue is whether Acts 6 actually speaks about the office of deacon, or, as some claim, is it speaking about an entirely different “animal”? This is not an unimportant question, so I want to address before we move on.
I have mentioned that there are some young(ish) as well as older pastors in the PCA that question the validity of the ordination and installation of deacons described in the PCA’s Book of Church Order, chapter 24. The issue is, they assert, that deacons should not be asked the same questions as the ruling elders since they are not to exercise the same authority. Thus, they are different offices with different responsibilities. Naturally, they are different offices with different tasks, aren’t they? Few in Protestantism have ever disputed that. Few in the PCA have ever questioned that and I certainly acknowledge that the office of ruling elder and the office of deacon have different functions. So why are there questions about asking deacons these questions? It seems that some in the PCA are not acquainted with the history of deacons, and with the history of deacons from the time of the Reformation in particular. It is a fact, therefore, that what we find in BCO 24 is not of recent vintage, but rather dates back to the time of the Reformation and can be traced at the very least to Martin Bucer in 1530.
Attached to this notion is yet another “dilemma” which is whether the deacons comprise an actual “office.” It is my settled conviction that this is a mere “red herring” used by those who are intent on “commissioning” males and females as deacons. In essence, according to this practice, no deacons, male or female, is ordained. The PCA is supposed to accept this practice without any questions, especially if it fits or suits the needs of a cosmopolitan city or some other trendy place. “Fly over” America PCA churches might still ordain males, but those in more important cultural area are free to make use of their “professional” women, who are among the movers and shakers in secular society.
After all, the reasoning goes, in keeping with our politically correct culture, commissioning is merely an acceptable “alternative” to “doing church.” Those with commissioned male and female deacons are living an alternative ecclesial lifestyle. I am going to suggest that rather than being a mere acceptable “alternative,” this practice is biblically aberrant; it cannot be supported from Scripture. The reason is because we are operating on manmade principles on not on what the scriptures demand. Back in the late 1800s, W.E. Boggs asked, “If the deacon’s office be, as it is generally admitted to be, a divinely instituted office, can the churches be guiltless in the neglect of it?” I would simply change Boggs’ question to read: or to commission males and females when Scripture gives us no warrant to do so? James Henley Thornwell said, “The great error of the Church in all ages, the fruitful source of her apostasy and crime, has been a presumptuous reliance upon her own understanding. Her own inventions have seduced her from her loyalty to God, and filled her sanctuary with idols and the hearts of her children with vain imaginations. The Bible cuts at the very root of this evil by affording us a perfect and infallible rule of faith, and practice.”
We will examine the notion of precisely what an ecclesiastical office is and what we are to understand by the words “ordain” and “ordination.” But before we do that, I want to walk us through the most salient aspects of Acts 6:1-6. I realize as I move through this text that there are those who do not believe that this text describes the New Testament concept of deacon. I agree, but only in part. There is rather overwhelming historical evidence that many Church Fathers considered this to be a text that spoke to the reality of the office of death in some sense. During the Reformation, one would be hard pressed to find a Reformer who denied that Acts 6 did not have something to say about the office of deacon. Moreover, there are some unique references in these verses that hearken back to Old Testament times, demonstrating a connection with the saints in the older covenant. As a result of these historical facts dating back to the time of the Reformation, I’m going to argue that these verses teach us quite a bit about New Testament deacons. Moreover, Southern Presbyterians such as Dabney, Girardeau, Peck, and Thornwell also had a great deal to say about deacons and Acts 6. Therefore, there are numerous principles that we can draw from this text that will help us immensely.
Some Salient Points
In addition to the statements by the theologians mentioned above, there are a number of remarkable aspects of this text that cannot be ignored in the current PCA discussion surrounding the place of the deacon in the New Testament Church. First, the “full number” of Christ’s disciples was called together (προσκαλέω; proskaléō) by the twelve. The reason given by the apostles in their presentation to the disciples was: “It is not right that we should give up preaching the Word of God to serve tables.” (v. 2.) R.C.H. Lenski makes the observation that it was “the twelve” who call the meeting and not Peter alone, just in case someone was thinking about going Roman Catholic on us!
Further up in verse 4, the apostles give us a blueprint of their office: “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry (τῇ διακονίᾳ; tē diakonía ) of the word.” By deduction, we can derive a broad blueprint for today’s teaching elder. If some wonder how much time should be spent in networking, drinking Starbucks, shooting pool, or drinking micro-brews, the answer is quite clear. For those who have neither consulted nor read William Perkins’ The Art of Prophesying, I highly recommend it.
Thus, second, the focus and concern of the apostles was preaching the Word of God. Previously, they had probably been engaged in the serving of tables, but as the young Church grew and expanded, the apostles found themselves in a “time crunch.” They could no longer preach and take care of the daily administration of food. It is instructive that the phrase “to serve tables” (διακονεῖν τραπέζαις; diakoneîn trapédzais.) also involves a derivative for the word “deacon.” Thus, even though it is correctly argued that the word “deacon” does not appear in Acts 6:1-6, there is certainly reference to deacon-like ministry. Simon Kistemaker is convinced that Luke’s use of the word “tables” here “points to either sharing food or doling out money designated for buying food.”
If he is correct, then this at the very least raises the question of whether any authority was involved, for it certainly seems that some degree of authority was associated with what “the seven” were supposed to do. We’ll leave the particulars of that question until later, but it is important to ask the question as this juncture. I do want to raise a couple of preliminary issues that we’ll return to in another installment. First, Thomas Lindsay argues that in both offices—ruling elder and deacon—“A real authority is bestowed, and real powers are given.” For both the ruling elder and the deacon, their authority is derived. All Presbyterian and Reformed pastors/theologians have argued to this end.
Second, when the Presbyterian and Reformed describe the office of deacon as manager, does that not imply some degree of authority? If you and I are dissatisfied with our service, we may ask to speak with the manager, correct? Why? Does the manager of the store have no authority? No, we ask to speak with him precisely because he has more authority than the high school drop-out who has been working there for about five minutes before we arrived.
Third, we’ll need to inquire why deacons were used during the time of the Reformation to help serve the Lord's Supper in some Reformed churches. There is a very good reason why and few have ever paused to reflect upon the relationship between the deacons, the Lord’s table, and mercy.
To our third point concerning Acts 6, the congregation was to “pick out” (ἐπισκέπτομαι; episképtomai) seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom. What is noteworthy here is that the congregation was fully involved. The apostles were in charge and had a plan about the direction in which the young Church should be heading, but the congregation was fully involved in the selection process. Lenski points us to the reality that “The selection of the men for this task is left to the congregation.” We’re going to emphasize the clear and obvious fact that all seven of the seven were men and not women.
Moreover, these men were chosen by the congregation because they possessed certain spiritual gifts. Each Christian possesses a spiritual gift, but not all are called to be leaders. Their call is to exercise their gifts for the whole. In Lord’s Day 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 55 reads as follows: “Q. What do you understand by “the communion of the saints”? A. First, that believers one and all, as members of this community, share in Christ and in all his treasures and gifts. Second, that each member should consider it his duty to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the service and enrichment of the other members.”
Where some in the PCA are endorsing pastors acting as “mercy chairmen,” we must object that this is certainly not according to the biblical mandate. In other words, this function is not to be fulfilled by a pastor, who has been tasked by the Lord to perform different ecclesiastical work. Presbyterians down through the ages have argued vociferously that the so-called “higher” offices (pastor, ruling elder) do not include other offices (deacon). Names such as Girardeau, Dabney, Thornwell, Peck, and others come to mind. John Girardeau worked feverishly to eradicate a similar notion that was growing up in some Southern Presbyterian churches of his day. In his assessment, this current notion of teaching elders serving as deacons, when it was not necessary and qualified men were available was to blame for the near extinction of the office of deacon.It is a purely manmade notion and should be rejected. In addition, it is equally wrong to suppose that everyone in the congregation should serve in this capacity. These men were given a specific, God-ordained office to fulfill. Were there others in the congregation in
 W.E. Boggs, “The Deacon’s Office in the Church of the New Testament,” Southern Presbyterian Review, 26:3 (July 1875): 425.
 James H. Thornwell, “Argument Against Church-Boards,” in The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, (B.M. Palmer [ed.]), Vol. 4, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1986), 163.
 R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of The Acts of the Apostles, (
 Simon Kistemaker, Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 221.
 Thomas Lindsay, The Church and Ministry in the Early Centuries, (NY: Cosimo Inc., 2007), 25. Note: This work was originally published in 1902.
 Lenski, Acts, 243.
 Comp. John L. Girardeau, “The Importance of the Office of Deacon,” Southern Presbyterian Review, 32:1 (Jan. 1881): 6.
Labels: The PCA