In my previous article, I looked at how the office of deacon is established in Acts 6 and how the details of the narrative of Acts indicate that the office of deacon is contained in the office of elder. In this article we will look at the way that Presbyterian polity understands church office to be representative in character and apply the implications of this fact to the office of deacon. The representative government exercised uniquely in the office of deacon invests the deacons with a species of church authority over the Body whom they represent in their office.
Much has been made of the fact that the PCA’s Book of Church order defines the office of deacon as “not one of rule, but rather of service” (BCO 7-2). This phrase seems to be a way to try to explain the discrepancy between the offices of deacon and elder. After all, the oversight of the entire government of the church does not rest in the hands of the deacons in Presbyterian polity. It rests in the hands of the elders. D. Clair Davis ponders the puzzle this distinction has presented to Presbyterians:
Still, why did the Presbyterian Church from its beginning in America in its installation form of deacons include that the congregation should obey deacons? Obey servants? What can that mean? Neither Hübner nor anyone else I know has addressed that question. It couldn’t be simply quoting the bible, could it, that the Lord calls upon you to care for the poor? I don’t know.
The definition of the office of deacon as one of service and not of rule has been pressed as one reason to evacuate the office of any ecclesial authority and thus open the way for complementarian Presbyterians to ordain women to the office without running afoul of 1 Timothy 2:12. The rationale, put simply, is that since the office is one of service not of rule (or at least not coextensive with the rule of the office of elder), that therefore it is not an authoritative office.
This reasoning is problematic for one conspicuous reason though. If Davis’ question creates problems for the diaconate, then it equally creates problems for the idea of obedience to Teaching Elders who are ministers (i.e. servants) of the word and indeed for Christ himself who is the chief Servant/Minister of his Church. Obey servants? What can that mean? Whatever it means in the end it applies to all the officers of the church. As Edmund Clowney observes, “All government in the church is stewardship: i.e. its leaders are servant-managers, who use their authority only to advance the interests of those they represent and serve.”
The title of “servant” unto itself in no way precludes the proper structure of authority which Christ has instituted in his church and the obedience which it entails. What it does accomplish, however, is to situate that authority and obedience in the cross-shaped, servant form which flows out of Christ’s own three-fold office (munus triplex). What can it mean to obey a servant? Whatever it means, it is the obedience which the Church owes to all of its officers, who are all servant-managers. To obey a servant is the nature of all obedience to lawful authority in the Church which has been entrusted with a power which is everywhere and always only ministerial. As Herman Ridderbos observes, “Decisive for the significance of the concept of ministry… is that young Christianity learned to consider and to characterize every activity in the church important for its upbuilding as diakonia.” So, the servant character of the office of deacon unto itself is not sufficient grounds for us to evacuate the office of authority over the church.
To answer the larger question about whether or not the office of deacon is authoritative in some way and thus that it is entirely proper for congregants to take vows of submission unto its deacons, it is better to ask another set of related questions. Is the office of deacon part of the government of the church? Is their office an office which is representative of the whole Body of Christ in a congregation in its function? And do they exercise a particular kind of church power which has been authoritatively invested in their hands? Here we will attempt to develop an answer to the first two questions which will then help us to answer the third question in the next article.
The PCA’s Book of Church Order has taken its stand on a particular debate within the history of Presbyterian polity. That issue is the question about where exactly church power has been invested by Christ. Has Christ invested the power of his church in its government in the officers of the Church exclusively or in the whole Body of Christ? BCO 3-1 takes a side on that question. “The power which Christ has committed to His Church vests in the whole body, the rulers and those ruled, constituting it a spiritual commonwealth.” But, being a Presbyterian document, the PCA BCO goes further. “This power, as exercised by the people, extends to the choice of those officers whom He has appointed in His Church.” The act of a congregation electing church officers is an exercise of church power. It is the church exercising the power of the whole body recognizing in a man the calling of Christ to church office by the manifest approbation of God’s people (BCO 16-1). That principle of Presbyterian government finds expression again in BCO 16-2: “The government of the Church is by officers gifted to represent Christ, and the right of God’s people to recognize by election to office those so gifted is inalienable. Therefore, no man can be placed over a church in any office without the election, or at least the consent of that church.”
This aspect of Presbyterian church government is bound up with another feature which is crucial to the overall question of the authority of the office of deacon, and that is the representative character of the government of church officers. This principle finds expression in BCO 1-1: “The scriptural form of church government, which is representative or presbyterian, is comprehended under five heads: a. The Church; b. Its members; c. Its officers; d. Its courts; e. Its orders.” Church officers have a special representative relationship to the Body of Christ which has recognized the calling of Christ in them unto Church office. They are representative organs of the Body of Christ as a whole in the exercise of the government of the Church which has been entrusted to them.
Now we need to return to our question: Is the office of deacon part of the government of the church? The answer to that question should be painfully obvious to any blue-blooded Presbyterian, so obvious one might even scoff at the question even being posed. Of course they are a part of the government of the church. The deacons are part of the government of the church as officers. They stand on the other side of the dividing line in the relationship between the ordained officers of the church and the Body of the church. As James Bannerman puts things, “…the members at large should have organs who represent them, and are invested with something of their power and rights, and act on behalf of the whole. In other words, every society, be it what it may, must have its office-bearers.”
Deacons, as office-bearers of the church, have such a representative function in relation to a congregation. In their election and ordination unto office, the deacons are invested with something of the power and rights of the congregation, and they act on behalf of the whole congregation. Charles Hodge expressed this principle in a debate with Thornwell with respect to church courts, “The union of two elements in these Church courts is embraced in the assertion of the right of the people to take part in the government of the Church, for this right can only be exercised through their representatives sitting as constituent element in ecclesiastical courts.” Even though Hodge is speaking specifically about courts of elders, the principle of representation involved still applies in a way to the function of the office of deacon. The right of all the members of the church to take place in the government of the church is exercised in a representative way. “…the right of God’s people to recognize by election to office those so gifted is inalienable. Therefore, no man can be placed over a church in any office without the election, or at least the consent of that church.” (BCO 16-2). That elected, representative authority obtains in its own way with the office of deacon, as well as with the office of elder. In fact, the only New Testament proof text we have to establish the divine right of a congregation to elect its own officers is explicitly with respect to deacons. Acts 6:3 – “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.” Presbyterianism has rightly insisted that this Apostolic example by good and necessary consequence applies to the congregational election of elders as well. But the elected, representative nature of church office in the New Testament is shown originally in the office of deacon.
In the division of church government between the members of church who elect the officers who govern, and the officers of the church who govern the Body in a representative way, the deacons fall clearly on the side of the line which is set over the Body. In the “spiritual commonwealth” of the church, with respect to the boundary between the “rulers and those ruled” (BCO 3-1) deacons fall on the side of the governing officers who are ruling (though in a way unique to their office and not commensurate with the rule of elders). The deacons act on behalf of the Body of Christ as its ordained representatives.
Even James Hurley, who argues for the ordination of women to the office of deacon, recognizes this representative character of the office of deacon. “The formal, representative aspect and the idea of serving others can come together, as with the deacons of Acts 6 who ministered to the needs of the widows as representatives of the church. The term ‘deacon’ points to their representative role and their actual function in serving.”
Entailed in the representative office of deacon is that they have an authoritative representative function with respect to the Body which is well deserving of the congregation’s vows of submission to them. When the deacons act and exercise the specific kind of church power which has been invested in their hands, they exercise that power not as individual members of a congregation, but as the ordained officer-bearers of that congregation. Their actions in the oversight and distribution of the common benevolence funds of the church are representative actions of the whole Body. In “sympathy and service,” in expression of “the communion of the saints” (BCO 9-1), the deacons “minister to those who are in need, to the sick, to the friendless, and to any who may be in distress” (BCO 9-2) and they do so on behalf of the whole Body of Christ. Thus, when deacons are elected as officers the PCA’s BCO rightly uses the preposition “over” to describe their relationship to the church – “…no man can be placed over a church in any office without the election, or at least the consent of that church.” (BCO 16-2). As ordained, representative officers, deacons are placed over the church.
Dan Doriani has written of deacons, “Deacons lead, but they lead from alongside, not from above.” However, this is not a particularly enlightening way of getting at the leading function of the office of deacon in the debate over deaconesses. First it is not particularly enlightening because as we have already seen, this does not distinguish the office of deacons because it can be said in a certain sense of the office of elder as well, as they are called not lord themselves over the church (1 Pet. 5:3). Biblically speaking, elders should in a sense “lead from alongside” as well as servant leaders. But secondly, it is not particularly enlightening because the PCA’s BCO, in working out the implications of the nature of the representative government of the church, explicitly says that church officers (including deacons) are placed over a church in their office by their election and ordination. So, there is a certain sense in which deacons are “above” in their leadership.
Furthermore, as the deacons are part of the representative government of the church, they are not only representative of the people, but representative of Christ in their office as well. BCO 16-2: “The government of the Church is by officers gifted to represent Christ…” R.B. Kuiper has very beautifully drawn out the implications of this for deacons. “There is a measure of authority bound up with this office. By Christ’s authority the deacons are to remind the members of the church of their duty to help the needy. And in Christ’s name the deacons are to give aid to those who need it, for which reason this aid should be accepted humbly as well as gratefully.”
To draw this all together in as concrete a way as possible, consider this: Deacons administer and oversee the mercy ministry of the whole of the Body of Christ. When you put money in the offering plate and designate it to be used for the benevolence fund of your congregation, the deacons of your congregation determine what to do with that money on your behalf. The whole of the Body of Christ contributes it, but the deacons are invested with the authority to determine how to distribute it. Presbyterian congregations do not call a congregational meeting every time a financial need crops up with one of their members or from someone outside the church. The deacons make the decisions with what to do with the funds which the whole Body has contributed as the deacons are representative organs of the Body acting on its behalf. That is an authoritative function. In those actions they are ministering in Christ’s name to the physical needs of people the financial resources which the whole Body has entrusted to them and as the whole Body has appointed them as its representative officers to lead them in caring for the poor. Your contribution to the benevolence funds of the congregation is an implicit act of submission to your deacons who oversee and administer it as the representatives of Christ and his Church.
It is with good reason that PCA congregations explicitly promise to yield to their deacons obedience in the Lord. The office of deacon exercises a particular kind of representative, governing authority in the church. It is not coextensive with the churchly authority of the elders, but it is real churchly authority nonetheless. And again, that churchly authority of the office of deacon makes it very problematic for those who confess that Presbyterianism is the Biblical form of church government to ordain women to that office and not run afoul of Paul’s injunction in 1 Timothy 2:12 – “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man…” The exegetical ambiguities of two different Greek words in Rom. 16:1 and 1 Tim. 3:11 provide a very flimsy and incredibly uncertain basis upon which to overturn the whole way that Presbyterianism has organically enfolded the office of deacon into its understanding of the representative authority of church government.
In James Hübner, A Case for Female Deacons, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015), pgs. vii-viii.
Edmund Clowney, The Church, pg. 202.
Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), pg. 443.
James Bannerman, The Church of Christ,(Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1960), vol. 1, pg. 188.
Charles Hodge, The Church and Its Polity, (London: T. Nelson, 1879), pg. 127.
James B. Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective,(Grand Rapids: MI: 1981), pgs. 226
Dan Doriani, Women and Ministry, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), pg. 183.
R.B. Kuiper, The Glorious Body of Christ, (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), pg. 154.