This is part of a series of posts about the items and topics before the General Synod 2017.
Other posts in this series:
Commissioned Pastors, Part 1: Foundations
Commissioned Pastors, Part 2: Recommendations before General Synod
Overtures on Declarative Authority
While human sexuality will be the topic on everyone’s mind (even if it is not the majority of the business before the General Synod), there are many other topics which are of great significance for not only the functioning of the church, but also how for how the church understands itself. The Report of the Task Force on Diaconal Ministries is one of those such areas which is far less divisive or emotionally charged but is quite significant. This is contained on pages 76-85 of the General Synod Workbook.
Deacons are members of the consistory of the local church and participate in the governance and oversight of the local church. However, this is, currently, the extent of their participation in the government of the church. All of the broader assemblies, classical and synodical, are composed solely of ministers and elders. The reason for this will be discussed below, but there has been a renewal of the movement, as of late, to provide for deacon participation in broader assemblies. If we are striving to renew a focus on mission, then why, the question goes, do we exclude the deacon, which is the office charged with (what is often thought to be) the most missional ministry? (See MGS 2007, pp.88-103).
While the General Synod in 2007 did not approve recommendations to bring deacons into the classical and synodical assemblies, they did request the Commission on Theology “to prepare a study on whether there is a theological basis within a reformed and missional ecclesiology for the inclusion of deacons as full members of classes, regional synods, and the General Synod…”(MGS 2007, pp. 102-103). The Commission brought a paper to the 2011 General Synod (pp. 289-304). In 2015, the General Synod authorized the creation of a task force to bring recommendations to the General Synod regarding diaconal ministries and assemblies (MGS 2015, p. 242). The report in the workbook this year is the work fo this task force.
The Ministry of the Deacon
To begin the discussion, we must consider the unique ministry with which the office of deacon is charged.
The office of deacon is once of servanthood and service representing Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit. In the local church deacons are chosen members of spiritual commitment, exemplary life, compassionate spirit, and sound judgement, who are set apart for a ministry of mercy, service, and outreach. They are to receive the contributions of the congregation and to distribute them under the direction of the consistory. The deacons give particular attention and care to the whole benevolence program of the church. They have charge of all gits contributed for the benefit of the poor and distribute them with discretion. They visit and comfort those in maerial need and perform such other duties as the consistory may assign them. (BCO, 2016, 1.I.1.10).
Whereas elders are “set apart for a ministry of watchful and responsible care for all matters relating to the welfare and good order of the church” (BCO, 2016, 1.I.1.8), Deacons are charged with a ministry of “mercy, service, and outreach.” One might say that the elders are charged with care over the household of faith, whereas deacons are charged with care for the greater community. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but one can see that when elders, deacons, and ministers serve together, the “fullness of Christ’s ministry” (BCO, 2016, Preamble, p. 3) is present.
The history of diaconal membership on the consistory is interesting, as well. The church order of Dort (1619) mandated the office of deacon, however, the consistory was made up of ministers and elders. The Articles of Dort did allow for deacons to be members of the consistory “where the numbers of Elders is too small” (Art. 38). However, as the church order of 1833 observes, the deacons have always been joined to the consistory “in America, where the congregations were at first very small…” (Art 50). And so the Reformed Church is somewhat unique in the universal practice of membership of deacons on the consistory.
The understanding of the role of the deacon, however, has been somewhat problematic throughout history. In my own experience, deacons were treated as “junior elders.” In the church in which I grew up people would often serve a couple of terms as a deacon and then they could “progress” to elder. This experience is not unique to me but is a common experience. So in practice, deacons are often reduced to “junior elders” as well as the people who collect and count the money. Therefore, the lived understanding of the ministry of the deacon is often tragically shallow.
Equality of the Ministry
A common argument for including deacons in the broader assemblies is that of the equality of the ministry, often called “parity of office.” This principle, in many ways, is an ecclesiastical Rorschach. It is used as a basis for a multitude of things. So, then, let us look at what the Constitution says about this historic and foundational principle.
The Reformed Church in America uses the term “parity” to describe the concept of the equality of ministers. It is not meant that authority can never be exercised by one over another. But in every instance this authority will be delegated by the proper body, and the authority will cease to be exercised when the need for it is no longer demanded. The principle of equality pertains also among churches, among elders, and among deacons. The principle of the equality of the ministry, conceived now in its broadest sense as including the functions of the elder and the deacon, is based upon the fact that the entire ministerial or pastoral office is summed up in Jesus Christ himself in such a way that he is, in a sense, the only one holding that office. Every ministerial function is found preeminently in him. By his Holy Spirit he distributes these functions among those whom he calls to serve in his name. (BCO, 2016, Preamble, pp. 4-5).
There is, of course, a great deal condensed in this paragraph. The essence of this principle is as old as the Reformed. At least as far back as the Synod of Emden in 1571 this principle was the very first article, “No church shall lord over another church; no minister of the Word over another minister, no elder over another elder, neither any deacon over another…”* The essence of this is the rejection of hierarchy. There are no cathedrals (more important churches) nor are there bishops (more important clerics). The purpose of this principle is to talk about equality in standing, not lack of distinctness in ministry.
This principle does not intend to say that there are no distinctions between the offices, or that there are no particular ministries given to the specific offices. Indeed, there are particular ministries that are given to the minister that are not given to the elder or deacon; particular ministries given to the elder that are not given to the minister or the deacon; particular ministries given to the deacon that are not given to the minister or the elder. Naturally, these are not clear distinctions, there is overlap. The point is not clear difference, but nuance of calling. Because these offices are given different central ministries means that the people that are called to these offices will often have unique gifts which may be different from one another. A gifted minister may not be a very good deacon, and so forth.
And so when we consider the concept of parity or equality, we must understand that this first means equality among offices — all ministers are equal, all elders are equal, all deacons are equal — and among churches. However, we might be able to expand this concept even further and say that one office is not fundamentally more important than another. All of the offices are needed and essential for their various ministries. But even if we stretch the principle of equality this far, there is still no grounding for the argument that all offices are the same.
And so when we think about this, we must consider what the principle of parity or equality is saying as well as what it is not saying. It is saying that the deacon is not less important than the elder. It is not saying that the deacon and the elder are the same.
Classical and Synodical Assemblies and Elder Participation
To understand the appropriateness of deacons in classical and synodical assemblies, we must first understand why elders are part of these assemblies and the reason that these assemblies exist. And herein lies much of the issue about deacons in broader assemblies. Classes and synods are often seen as “higher” or “more important” assemblies, and so it seems unjust that elders participate in these but not deacons. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
Much of this rests on the question of the reason that classical and synodical assemblies exist. As I have written about previously, the church is at its fullest expression in the local church, as the people of God gather around pulpit, table, and font — around Word and sacrament. The local church is the beating heart of the Church. In fact, if we want to create a hierarchy with the most important body at the top, the local church would be at the top. The local church is where ministry happens. It is where the people of God gather, worship, live the faith in the community in which the church has been placed. The deacon currently participates only at this level because this is the core of where the ministry of “mercy, service, and outreach” lies. The local church is where ministry happens.
The broader assemblies, classical and synodical, are not agents of ministry themselves but they oversee and enable ministry. The broader assemblies, both classical and synodical are not strictly church. Therefore, much of this question hinges on the function of these broader assemblies. Are they agents of ministry or do they oversee and enable ministry? Historically they have been understood to oversee and enable ministry. This is why elders and ministers participate in these broader assemblies, because their work is the work of governance and oversight — which is the ministry of the elder. The elder is “set apart for a ministry of watchful and responsible care for all matters relating to the welfare and good order of the church” (BCO, 2016, 1.I.1.8).
Elders, then, participate in these broader assemblies because this is the ministry which is given to this office. Deacons do not participate in the broader assemblies because oversight over the household of faith is not the ministry of the deacon. This in no way implies that a deacon is less important or “lower” than an elder, but that they are different.
We may want to rethink the purpose of the assemblies, and perhaps we are backing into doing so. But if we are going to do this, we must discuss this rather than the piecemeal approach which has been so common as of late.
Including deacons in classical and synodical assemblies in the way proposed by the recommendations before the General Synod, namely that the assemblies consist of ministers and elders or deacons, are simply distorting the unique ministries given to the elder and the deacon. Namely, that the deacon may now be involved in governance, oversight, and discipline instead of their crucial ministry of mercy, service, and outreach, and it is quite possible that this may make the problem of seeing deacons as junior elders even worse. While the goal, I think, is to make the assemblies more missionally-minded, the likely outcome is that deacons will simply be doing the work of elders.
This is not to say that there is no place for deacons in broader bodies, but those ought to be bodies which are specifically geared toward the ministry of the deacon, which leads to an excellent recommendation, to encourage the creation of diaconal assemblies.
There certainly is a place for broader collaboration between deacons, and this is where deacons participating in some way in broader assemblies would be proper, helpful, and right. The creation of diaconal assemblies opens a world of possibilities for deacons to collaborate and work together on shared ministries in a way that respects their unique ministries.
The shape of these diaconal assemblies are limited only by the imagination and this avoids the problem of reducing or eliminating the disctinctives of the office of deacon and also goes further to remedy the problem of seeing deacons as junior elders. One might even envision diaconal assemblies parallel to the classes and synods, which are given real and important responsibilities in ministries which relate to mercy, service, and outreach. This is the more difficult path because, in many places, this would involve beginning something that is not yet existent (although nothing at all prevents its creation, and in some places such bodies exist). This is the more difficult path, but it is the best path.
There would certainly be a benefit to the church for deacons participating and collaborating in broader bodies. In addition to diaconal bodies, however, there may be a place for deacons in broader assemblies, but this is not it. Because the Government is constitutional, such a change is not simply an operational change but a change in the foundation of how we understand how the church functions. I do not oppose such changes, quite to the contrary, however, these changes must be carefully thought out and the consequences must be acknowledged. Changes of this magnitude ought not be done hastily or quickly, and these proposed amendments do not offer sufficient rationale or substantive change toward a way of rightly and fully incorporating deacons into the broader life and ministry of the Reformed Church.
Indeed, if we would wish to truly and rightly include deacons in the ministry of the broader church, we might consider thinking bigger than simply making deacons delegates to the broader assemblies. Perhaps we might even rethink how these assemblies work and how they might work in the future to better reflect the ministry of the deacon.
*Coertzen, Pieter. “Dordt and South Africa.” In Protestant Church Polity in Changing Contexts I, edited by Allan J. Janssen and Leo J. Koffeman, 137-53. Zurich: LIT Verlag, 2014, 141.