How did the Church of Jesus Christ think about the office of deacon during and after the time known as the Reformation? This is an important question to ask. We might end up disagreeing with what we discover about what the “fathers” of the Reformation thought and taught, but it is instructive to ask, especially if we are part of the Reformed and Presbyterian heritage. There is a reason, after all, that these men are called the “fathers” of the church. Our investigation is all the more urgent in light of the fact that there is both confusion and controversy regarding this ecclesiastical office.
Some today even question whether it is proper to speak of the “office” of deacon. Others wonder why there must be a specified number of deacons in a local congregation and why, for example, every person in the congregation cannot be considered a deacon. Of course, one of the areas of controversy these days has to do with whether or not deacons have female counterparts known as deaconesses. Those who use this title explain that they are not referring to an equivalent office or position, but rather merely want to use the honorific title of deaconess. In the course of this book, we will take a closer look at this and other positions.
Moreover, this book will be a combination of scriptural exegesis of the pertinent texts as well as an examination of some of the confessional statements of the Church and what was taught in Church History concerning deacons and deaconesses. It is my plan that at the end of the investigation you will be more fully and adequately armed to engage in this crucial discussion. I must point out that there is a lot at stake here. Whereas there are those who eschew the “domino theory,” there is an element of truth in that theory in this sense: Almost invariably and inevitably where church affiliations have started down this road—with, I might add, the best of intentions—the rule of “unintended consequences” has intruded into the picture and churches that have allowed an office of deaconess have wandered from orthodoxy. This has not been true in every instance; there are some churches that have deaconesses and yet still retain a great deal of their orthodoxy.
In the pages that follow, you will notice a wide diversity of churches that have employed deaconesses. A number of them fall outside the pale of either Reformed or Presbyterian congregations. Many of the more liberal mainline churches such as the United Methodists and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have even gone much further than having deaconesses and have ordained ruling and teaching elders who are women. We will not even discuss the fact that these so-called “mainline” churches have lengthy and time-consuming discussions regarding the ordination of practicing male and female homosexuals. Personally, it defies all reason and common sense that a church of Jesus Christ would even have that conversation.
I would hasten to add that denominations that have those conversations are usually embroiled in other conversations that defy common sense as well. These same groups engage in debates surrounding “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the environment, global and domestic poverty, wealth redistribution, universal health care, war/pacifism, racial relationships, multiculturalism, and the like. Do not get me wrong: It is not as if I am adverse to such debates and discussions. I believe that they are needed and are healthy. My objection to liberal congregations holding these discussions, however, is that as often as not they end up defending and mouthing the platitudes of liberal, progressive politicians. In addition, some of the spokesmen for these “gatherings” are people like Jim Wallis, a self-avowed Marxist, and Brian McLaren, who is either very confused or who simply refuses to answer tough questions or both—probably both. In other words, one of the greatest dangers for these church affiliations is that in the midst of their critique and criticism of what they call “the Religious Right” they are constantly in danger of becoming spokespersons for the Democratic Party.
Is that such a bad thing? In a very real sense, the answer is, “Yes, it is such a bad thing.” I will merely cite two examples of what I mean. Columnist and author Ann Coulter, in her book Godless, has chronicled how abortion is “The Holiest Sacrament” among liberals. Their hypocrisy is disclosed as Coulter writes: “To a liberal, 2,200 military deaths in the entire course of a war in Iraq is unconscionable, but 1.3 million aborted babies in America every year is something to celebrate.” In a separate and different article Coulter opines that liberals have it backwards when they assert that conservatives claim God is on their side. It is the liberals, rather, who “are demanding God’s banishment from the public schools, abortion on demand, and taxpayer money being spent on Jesus submerged in a jar of urine and a picture of the Virgin Mary covered with pornographic photos.”
The anomalies surrounding Christians joining hands with a liberal, progressive political party are legion and incongruous. That leads me to my second example. Christians are called upon to be generous and truly aid the poor, the orphan, and the widow. While liberals talk a good game about caring for the marginalized, the destitute, the homeless, and the down-and-out, their actions typically end at mere talk. But we hear them espousing the cause of this class of individual often? Yes, we do, but characteristically only when it involves other people’s money and not their own. For instance, one study of charitable giving concluded that, “Conservatives give 30 percent more to charity than liberals do, despite the fact that liberals have higher incomes than conservatives.”
There is a great deal more to be said, but we need to go forward and begin our investigation of the confessional statements which come to us from the time of the Reformation. I simply wanted to take a moment to draw your attention to this spiritual discrepancy. That being said, we shall now begin by looking at the Belgic Confession. From there we shall proceed chronologically to inquire what the Presbyterian and Reformed traditions have taught on the question of deacons and their office. As we perform this undertaking, we need to keep in mind that what we are dealing with is not merely the question of the office of deacon, but also the larger question of ecclesiology. Quite often that point is either neglected or forgotten in the current discussions surrounding deacons. The “deacon question” is merely one isolated comment in a much larger debate. Some today would call this a matter of how one “does church.”
But there is a major flaw in the modern jargon. “Doing church” is a far cry from patterning every aspect of our lives, including our worship of the Lord God Almighty, according to his Word. The modern terminology smacks of “doing your own thing” more than it does obedience to the will and Word of the Lord. In fact, that is precisely what occurs, as often as not, when you engage someone about how they define “doing church.”
Some might object that performing a confessional reconnaissance is tantamount to placing the confessions either above or on an equal plane with Holy Scripture. That is truly a tedious objection, so let us dispense with it from the outset. The best way to do that is to allow the confessions to speak to that issue themselves. Article 7 of the Belgic Confession, which we shall look at in more detail in a moment, says the following: “We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says. For since it is forbidden to add unto or take away anything from the Word of God, it does thereby evidently appear that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects.”
This confession makes it crystal clear that “the whole manner of worship which God requires of us” is clearly laid out in the Bible so that there ought not to be any confusion about how we are to “do church.” The exclusivity of the Word of God is laid out in no uncertain terms. But what about the relationship between the Bible and any of the confessions? Article 7 continues and states, “Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all; for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatsoever does not agree with this infallible rule which the apostles have taught us, saying, Prove the spirits, whether they are of God. Likewise: If any one cometh unto you, and bringeth not this teaching, receive him not into your house.”
The Westminster Confession of Faith uses the same tone when it says in 1.10: “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” To the reasonable and open mind, these statements are convincing.
The Belgic Confession
The primary author of the Belgic Confession, Guido de Brès, completed this confessional statement in 1561. He died as a martyr for this faith in 1567. A dependence on John Calvin is discernible in this work along with a number of independent declarations. In short, de Brès used a great deal of Calvin’s labors to his advantage but also expressed himself in a different yet orthodox fashion. “In the Netherlands it was at once gladly received by the churches, adopted by the National Synods, and held during the last three decades of the sixteenth century. After a careful revision, not of the contents but of the text, the great Synod of Dort in 1618-19 adopted this Confession as one of the Doctrinal Standards of the Reformed Churches, to which all office-bearers of the churches were required to subscribe. Its excellence as one of the best symbolical statements of Reformed doctrine has been generally recognized.”
Since I mentioned that the questions pertaining to deacons are set within the context of the question of biblical ecclesiology, it will behoove us to take a couple of moments and sketch what de Brès taught in this confession regarding the Christian Church. His discussion can be found in articles 27-29 of his statement. It is Article 28 that is particularly pertinent for our purposes here. That article begins by asserting the following: “We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and outside it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the Church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof…” Article 29 establishes the marks or note by which the true Church of Jesus Christ is known as well as the marks of Christians. It concludes with a paragraph describing the marks of the false Church.
From there, de Brès launches into a discussion of the government of the Church and its offices: the ministers, elders, and deacons of the Church, and the order and discipline of the Church, respectively. The opening salvo of Article 30 is reminiscent of what today is known as the “Regulative Principle.” It states, “We believe that this true Church must be governed by that spiritual polity which our Lord has taught us in his Word…” In other words, we are to derive how God’s Church must be governed (how we “do church”) from God. Three office-bearers are named in this article: ministers, elders, and deacons. The purpose of these God-ordained offices is that “by these means the true religion may be preserved, and the true doctrine everywhere propagated, likewise transgressors punished and restrained by spiritual means; also, that the poor and distressed may be relieved and comforted, according to their necessities.” What de Brès describes for us is a full-orbed, robust, and vibrant biblical ministry that includes the preservation of God’s truth, the propagation of biblical doctrine, church discipline where necessary, and mercy ministry. The concluding sentence of this article is the qualifier regarding who these office-bearers are to be: “By these means everything will be carried on in the Church with good order and decency, when faithful men are chosen, according to the rule prescribed by St. Paul in his Epistle to Timothy.”
Note how de Brès came full circle in his conclusion. He began with the government and offices of the Church being derived from Scripture and he ends the same way. He is also persuaded that it is when God’s Word is followed that “doing church” will transpire decently and in good order. The scriptural requirement is choosing faithful men to fill these ecclesiastical offices. The emphasis on Scripture carries over to Article 31.
The subsequent article starts out with a prescription: “We believe that the minister of God’s Word, the elders, and the deacons ought to be chosen to their respective offices by a lawful election by the Church, with calling upon the name of the Lord, and in that order which the Word of God teaches.” A few points of clarification are in order here. First, according to de Brès deacons hold an ecclesiastical office.
Second, even though there might be a sense in which it is true that everyone in a local congregation should exercise certain gifts of mercy, this does not preclude electing faithful men to fulfill the office of deacon.
Third, the calling to an ecclesiastical office must be done properly, and qualified men are not to put themselves forward, but are bound to wait until it pleases God to call them. The remainder of the article deals with the honor and respect due to ministers and other elders.
Article 32 is titled “The Order and Discipline of the Church.” Office-bearers are to perform internal personal checks to “take care that they do not depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, has instituted.”
This article also excludes the very popular notion of “creativity” as far as these matters are concerned. The Church is called upon to “reject all human inventions.” With this in mind, let us return to a somewhat popular notion among some in the Presbyterian Church in America that everyone is a kind of deacon. That is purely a human invention because Scripture teaches otherwise. It is a deviation from the Word of God. Do we know better than the Lord? As “cool,” plausible, or feasible as it sounds, a deaconry comprised of the entire congregation would make the meetings somewhat ungainly and cumbersome. Of course, we realize that in these manmade models everyone does not attend and everyone is not elected by the congregation. So where does this kind of thinking originate? It is certainly not found in Scripture in the sense in which it is meant and intended currently; it is a “human invention” and therefore must be rejected.
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