Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Church polity: Biblical church polity (part 3)

[continued from previous posts here, here and here]

The office of the deacon

The office of the deacon, unlike that of the elder, is less mentioned in the Scriptures. The concept of a deacon was first mentioned in Acts 6:1-6 whereby seven men are chosen to take care of evenly distributing the alms among the brethren. We can thus see from this that the deacons are mainly in charge of the more practical business of the church, while the apstles and the elders are more in charge of the spiritual business of the church.

With such being the case, we can see from the pastoral epistle in 1 Tim. 3:8-13 the qualifications of a deacon. Deacons are to be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain, holding fast the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience, tested and found blameless, having wives who are dignified, not slanderous but sober-minded, faithful in all things, husband of one wife, managing their children and their households well. As we can see, most of the qualifications have to do with the conduct of the deacon, which is also rather similar to that of the elder. Like elders, deacons are to be the husband of one wife and to manage their households well, not having children who are given over to sensuality. A notable difference is the emphasis in the deacon's qualifications on issues of honesty and integrity. Deacons are not to be double-tongued, not greedy for dishonet gain, tested and found blameless, faithful in all things, which are all traits associated with issues of integrity and honesty. Clearly, this does not suggest that deacons are more honest than elders, as elders are to be upright and holy (Titus 1:8), but to emphasize the qualifications which are important for the office of deacons. Since deacons would be dealing with practical issues like the distribution of alms which involve money, such traits are emphasized.

With regards to aptitude, it is noted that deacons are not told to be able to teach, which shows that deacons do not have to able to preach sermons and tend to the flock's spiritual needs, although they could do so, as in the case of Steven in Acts 7:1-53. Rather, their primary focus is on the practical needs of the church. Nevertheless, deacons are told to hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience (1 Tim. 3:9) which shows that deacons must also know enough doctrine that they would be able to defend the faith. Practically speaking, it means that they could serve in the church without having reservations about the church's orthodoxy, and thus do so unreservedly.

One question that may crop up is regarding whether there is an office of a deaconess, or a women deacon. Certainly, since deacons do not preach, they are not subjected to the prohibition stated in 1 Tim. 2:12. Furthermore, Rom. 16:1 seems to indicate that Phoebe was a deaconess in the church at Cenchreae. However, we know from Scripture that deacons are to be the husband of one wife, thus Rom. 16:1 must indicate that Phoebe was ministering in the same way as that of deacons, rather than she was actually holding an office of a deaconess, especially since the Greek word translated deacon, diakonos (διακονος), can also refer to 'a minister' generically in other contexts.

Practically speaking, in what manner do deacons serve in the church then? Deacons, being tasked mainly with the practical needs of the church, are to meet those needs. Thus, deacons would serve in areas such as the collection of tithes, distribution of alms, dealing with the church's finances, church building fund, and other items like the maintance of church property and assets etc.

Interactions between elders and deacons

Having thus established the various roles and functions, and number of the offices as established by Scripture, let us look at the interactions between the two offices with respect to their practical outworking.

As stated, elders are to care for the spiritual well-being of the flock while deacons meet the practical needs of the flock. In areas such as providing for a member who is having trouble financially and spiritually, there would be an overlap of the ministry of the elders and the deacons. However, generally speaking, the two offices are seperate from each other. In Acts 6:2, the apostles remarked that it was not wise for them to give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. This was made not to demean the ministry of the deacons, but to show a clear demarcation between the two offices. Elders, following the apostles, are to focused exclusively on the spiritual well-being of the flock, rather than the practical, material needs in the church, which is the domain of the deacons' ministry. Elders are NOT to do the work of the deacons, nor deacons the work of the elders! However, this is not the case in many churches in Singapore, and perhaps even around the world. From what I have seen, judging by the work they do, elders seem to be just senior deacons. These elders do the finances of the church, they are basically doing the job of deacons, except that they are more respected and are higher in status. In such a system, it is no wonder that people want to be elders, since it has become a symbol of prestige. This occurred in my former church, Covenant Presbyterian Church, so I know what it is like, and I wouldn't be surprised that such is the case in many churches.

Let's be clear about this. The Scriptures do not support the transformation of elders into senior deacons in any shape reformed. Elders are elders; deacons are deacons. If they keep to their specific ministry roles according to Scripture, that would solve a lot of the problems plaguing the church today. Elitism would be much less. Furthermore, since elders do not have access to the church's finances, and more spiritual responsibilities, businessmen would be less inclined to desire to be an elder. Elders would be respected not because of their seniority in years of service, but because of their good work in tending to the flock and in instructing them in sound doctrine. Furthermore, since that is 'all' the elders do, churches would be 'forced' to grow deeper in the Word, since otherwise the elders are not doing anything and there wouldn't be a need for them anymore. Instead of spending time to discuss the practical problems of the church, the elders should spend their time teaching and discussing doctrinal issues. Deacons are after all NOT second-class elders, and they are tasked with an important and vital task in the churches which only they should be in charge of. Elders should not therefore exercise oversight over the diaconate in every meeting they have, as if the deacons are serving under the elders positionally, but the two boards (Session and Diaconate) should be seperate and independent and elders only exercise oversight over the deaons in the area of doctrine, as they do over the entire congregation. Other than that, the finances, church building fund etc should be revealed only at the AGM (Annual General meeting) of each church, whereby all the congregation would then know of the exact details.

With the number, roles, functions, responsibilities and the interactions between the offices of the Church settled according to Scripture, let us look more closely into the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, and then evaluate the various church polities that we still have not analyzed according to the Scriptures.

[to be continued]

1 comment:

vincit omnia veritas said...

Couldn't agree more!

Understanding where we come from, and the context of Reformed churches in Singapore, I pray that this message gets read. But as I had heard it before, I would expect perhaps such a response, “Who is this schismatic ant? Is he trying to whine about something?”