The Churchly Authority of the Office of Deacon
Part 3 - Deacons and Church Power
In my previous two articles (Part 1 & Part 2) I have attempted to draw out something of the churchly authority that has been invested by Christ into the over of deacon as it is set over the church. This has been done with a view towards addressing the question of the theological merits of the case for ordaining deaconesses to church office within a complementarian Presbyterian polity. Central to the discussion about ordaining deaconesses among complementarian Presbyterians is whether or not the office of deacon is an authoritative office and thus whether or not ordaining women to it would violate Paul’s injunction 1 Timothy 2:11-12. In my first article I examined the way that the office of deacon is contained in the office of elder and thus is invested with a specific subset of the churchly authority of the office of elder. In the second article I examined the way that Presbyterianism has conceived of church government as representative in nature and drew out the implications of this for the office of deacon as it is a representative organ of the Body of the Church with its own kind of authority exercised on behalf of the Body and over the Body. In this third article we will now turn to look at whether or not the office of deacon exercises any sort of authoritative church power and if so what sort of church power it might be.
Tim Keller has written about how he is not in favor of ordaining women to the office of deaconess but rather commissioning them to it. Arguing for a reconfiguration of the office of deacon in the PCA from the language of the BCO which has congregations take vows of obedience to the deacons, Keller appeals to the fact that deacons do not exercise any sort of juridical authority. James Hurley has made a similar appeal for his case for deaconesses.
“Elders teach with a formal authority and exercise disciplinary authority to protect the flock; deacons do not share this task. As described, the task of a deacon does not involve the sort of teaching and exercising of authority which 1 Timothy 2:11-12 reserves to men.”
The nub of this complementarian argument seems to be that since deacons do not exercise the same sort of teaching authority or juridical authority in church discipline as elders that therefore they do not exercise any sort of authority in the church.
However, what these lines of reasoning miss is the fact that historically Presbyterian polity has not divided church power into just two categories, but rather into three. The PCA’s BCO has expressed this triplex in its chapter on the jurisdiction of church courts in BCO 11-2: “The jurisdiction of Church courts is only ministerial and declarative, and relates to the doctrines and precepts of Christ, to the order of the Church, and to the exercise of discipline.” Doctrine, order, and discipline are the three categories of church power assumed by the PCA. The teaching power of elders mentioned by Hurley falls under the power of doctrine. The juridical/disciplinary power of elders mentioned Hurley and Keller falls under the power of discipline. But what of the third category which neither Keller nor Hurley consider? What of the power of order? Do deacons exercise a specific type of this division of church power?
In order to answer that question we need to look at what exactly the power of order is. Using the older designation for the power of order (i.e. diatactical power), James Bannerman defines it succinctly as “the power belonging to the Church in the way of administering ordinances and government in the Christian society. This power comprehends the right to carry into effect the institutions and laws which Christ has appointed within the Church…” When it comes to the general government of the church, the power of order encompasses the broad prerogative of the church to arrange the details of its governance and implement them. Guy Waters provides helpful illustrations of this exercise of the power of order. “We see evidence of the exercise of this aspect of church power when churches adopt a form of government, rules of discipline, a directory for worship, or a standard of parliamentary procedure such as Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised. This is not only a legitimate exercise of church authority. It is also a necessary exercise of church authority.” When the General Assembly adopts changes to the Book of Church order, this is not an exercise of the power of discipline, nor an exercise of the power of teaching, but it is an exercise of the power of order. When a Presbytery votes to erect a new standing committee, this is an exercise of the power of order. When a Session votes to change the time of the Sunday morning service from 10am to 11am, this is an exercise of the power of order.
So, we can ask this question then: When the diaconate votes to distribute to a person or family in financial need a portion of the collective benevolence fund of a congregation, have they exercised a form of church power? They certainly have not exercised a teaching power in doing so. And they have not exercised a juridical power of discipline. But have they exercised the power of order? It would seem so. As we saw in my last article, deacons have been elected by a congregation and ordained by a Session to act on behalf of the congregation in the representative authority of their office as they have been placed over a congregation. It seems then that when we ask the question: “What sort of church power might they exercise in that representative role?” the answer that presents itself is “the power of order.” They are administering and overseeing the concrete circumstances of one particular aspect of the representative government of the church, and that is the management and distribution of the benevolences of the church.
Connected to this is the way in which the BCO describes the relation between church office and Christ himself. BCO 16-2 – “The government of the Church is by officers gifted to represent Christ…” As officers of the Church deacons represent Christ and in so doing have been invested with a specific kind of ministerial church power as the servants of Christ. Stuart Robinson helpfully parses out how this representative function of church power relates to Jesus and the exercise of that power in his name.
“The source of all Church power is primarily Jesus Christ, the Mediator… The preamble to the apostolic commission asserts this power as the foundation of their authority. ‘All power is given me, [as Mediator] go ye, therefore,’ &c. And, accordingly, all power in the Church is exercised by him and in his name. His apostles teach in the name of Jesus. In the name of the Lord Jesus the offender is cut off. His promise to the courts of the Church is to be present when two or three are gathered together in his name. And, in like manner, all the prophetical views of his relation to the Church declare in effect the government shall be upon his shoulder. Nay, as actually containing in himself, by way of eminency, all the offices of the Church, he is styled the Apostle, the Shepherd, the Chief Shepherd and Bishop, the head of the Church.”
Deacons are “officers gifted to represent Christ” (BCO 16-2). They exercise church power in Christ’s name. And by way of eminency, Christ contains in himself the office of Deacon, along with the other offices of the church. The diaconate carries forth the work of Jesus’ ministry of “sympathy and service” (BCO 9-1), his work of caring for the physical needs of poor, the hungry, and the sick. Just as we say that Christ is the Chief Shepherd and Bishop, we may also rightly say that Christ is the Chief Deacon. When the diaconate exercises the church power of order as it has been uniquely entrusted to their hands, they do so as the ministerial representatives of Jesus himself and it is Jesus himself who acts through them to minister to the needs of his people.
This is consonant with the fact that the BCO implies the fact that deacons have been given oversight of one of the ordinances of the church. Among the ordinances of the Church which are established by Christ as its head BCO 4-4 includes “making offerings for the relief of the poor and for other pious uses.” The deacons, as overseers of the benevolences of the church, are overseers of a ordinance in the church’s life which is directly integrated into the worship of the church. As all ecclesiastical power is wholly spiritual (BCO 3-2), their power is a uniquely spiritual power. Even though it is in attendance to physical needs, the work of the diaconate is nevertheless a spiritual work and an exercise of churchly, spiritual power. Samuel Rutherford speaks to this in answer to the following objection: “Distribution of earthly goods is not such a thing, as requireth a spirituall Office; for money given by a Church-officer hath no spirituall influence on the poores necessity, more then money given by the Magistrate, or one who hath no Church-office.” Rutherford replies to this objection:
I deny the consequence: for then the Priests killing of Bullockes to God had no more influence, if we speake physically, then a Bullocke killed by another man. Now the Churches bounty and grace, 1 Cor. 16. 3, being a spirituall offering to God, by vertue of Christs institution, hath more in it then the common charity of an Heathen, if it were but for this, that the wisdome of God, in his Ordinance is to be considered; and if we speake physically, the Word of God hath no more influence when spoken by a Pastour in publique, then when spoken by a private man; yet if we looke to God’s Ordinance, the one hath more assistance when it is spoken, then the other, caeteris paribus. 
To boil down Rutherford’s point, even though deacons oversee and distribute earthly goods, what they oversee and distribute has been given by the members of the church as a spiritual offering to God in their corporate worship, and as an ordinance of Christ entrusted to his church it also has a spiritual nature to it that transcends ordinary civil welfare given to the poor. Hence the BCO stipulates “To the office of deacon, which is spiritual in nature, shall be chosen men of spiritual character…” (BCO 9-3). Though they minister to the physical needs of people their activities are nevertheless spiritual activities and an exercise of the spiritual power of the church. This churchly, spiritual power fits perfectly within the category of the power of order. It is natural then that the BCO has included into its delineation of the several actions of ecclesiastical power activities uniquely entrusted to the deacons under the power of order.
BCO 3-2 – Ecclesiastical power, which is wholly spiritual, is twofold. The officers exercise it sometimes severally, as in preaching the Gospel, administering the Sacraments, reproving the erring, visiting the sick, and comforting the afflicted, which is the power of order; and they exercise it sometimes jointly in Church courts, after the form of judgment, which is the power of jurisdiction.
The distributions of the diaconate are of course connected to the calling and power of mercy entrusted to the general office of Christians, as we are all called to be benevolent and merciful. However, what they do as ordained officers is distinct in that it is not the act of an individual Christian, but rather a corporate act. It is an act of the Church as a Body expressed through the representative organ of the diaconate. It is not just an exercise of the general command to be merciful and generous. It is an exercise of the spiritual power of the visible church manifest in mercifulness and generosity. When the deacons show care for the widow, the orphan, the family in need, they are not doing that merely as private Christians discharging the general office of all believers in obedience to Christ. They discharge that spiritual care as an act of the visible church as they are officers of that church. It is an act of public office. It is irreducibly ecclesial and corporate as an action. It is this because it is not the distribution of the funds of a single Christian, but the distribution of the funds of the Body of Christ given as a spiritual act of worship and ministered in the name of Christ on behalf of the Body to those in need.
“The Church, with its ordinances, officers and courts, is the agency which Christ has ordained for the edification and government of His people, for the propagation of the faith, and for the evangelization of the world.” (BCO 3-5). The deacons as part of the officers of the church are a feature of the agency which Christ has ordained for all these things listed in this paragraph of the BCO. They are ordained for the edification of Christ’s people as they care for their needs and lead them in the grace of generosity. They are ordained for the government of his people as they representatively oversee and distribute the benevolences of the Body and the finances of the church. They are ordained for the propagation of the faith and the evangelization of the world as the mercy ministry of the church is inextricably bound up with its witness to the world as they see the good works of the church and glorify our Father who is in heaven. This last point is evidenced clearly in Acts 6:7 – “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” Luke notes that the Apostolic word spreads and church grows in direct response to the establishment of the office of deacon. The church power entrusted to the ordained office of the deacon is in service to the mission of the Church.
Again then, 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, and a particular species of the power of order in the church. Deacons do not teach like elders and do not exercise a juridical authority of discipline like elders. And they do not exercise the power of order over all the circumstances of the government of the church like elders. But they do exercise the power of order with respect to the unique prerogatives of their office. 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 great concern of the church should always be to conform the entirety of its life to the Word of God with all of its manifold implications. One of the implications of this is that we must be very circumspect in the concrete outworking of our polity. At stake in the larger debate over deaconesses is not merely the narrow question of what is and is not permitted for women in the life of the Body of Christ, but also the broader question of the nature of the office of deacon, the nature of the representative character of church government, the nature of church power as it relates to ordained office.
A survey of the classic ecclesiological writings of Presbyterians reveals that the office of deacon frequently receives much less developed and focused treatment than other questions of ecclesiology and polity. But theological controversy often engenders the maturation of theology. It forces the Church to engage afresh and in focused detail questions which it may have taken for granted and left rather undeveloped. Certainly, theological controversy comes with great risk and often great cost to the health, unity, and peace of the Church. But it also frequently yields hard won theological spoils for the Church. Or to put the matter in less militant terms, theological controversy focuses our attention on theological questions which have lain dormant in the life of the church and its confessing appropriation of God’s Word. It forces us to engage the latent richness and complexity of those questions afresh so that the Church can glimpse a little more of the scope of the breadth and length, and height and depth of the full counsel of God. Perhaps in God’s grace the past decades of controversy over the office of deacon can yield such lovely theological fruit in the end. Perhaps it might, after all is said and done, lead the Body of Christ to a greater understanding and cherishing of the gift of the office of deacon which Christ in his victorious exultation has lavished upon his church.
James B. Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective,(Grand Rapids: MI: 1981), pg. 228.
The older designations of these three types of church power are dogmatic, diatactical, and diacritical. See Guy Prentiss Waters, How Jesus Runs the Church, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2011), pg. 70fn29; James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1960), vol. 1, pgs. 225-228; For an explanation of diatactial power in relation to the circumstances of church government see Thomas E. Peck, Notes on Ecclesiology, (Richmond, VA: The Presbyterian Committee Publication, 1892), pgs. 119-120.
Waters, How Jesus Runs the Church, pg. 71.
Stuart Robinson, The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel,(Willow Grove, PA: The Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2009), pgs. 61-62.