Shouldn't Deacons Be More Than "Elders in Waiting"?


In our church, deacons are very little more than “elders in waiting.” They learn the ropes of church government a little, but busy themselves more with “material” than with “spiritual” things. Every time a big decision about the church’s ministry is to be made, they are told they must “defer to the elders.” Is this true elsewhere in our denomination?

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Your church is certainly not alone in such a disposition toward the deacons. It is also true that many other churches have redefined what ordination and leadership are really all about and militate against what you’re experiencing. It’s been that way for as long as the CRCNA has existed. The tensions have never been totally resolved.

Just for the fun of it, I’ll give you a taste of both sides in our historical narrative.

The minutes of Classis Holland, meeting on April 30, 1851, tell of a certain Mr. Paul Van Vulpen of Grand Haven who “declined the election to the office of deacon, being angry that the office of elder had not been entrusted to him.” Four years after the CRCNA came into existence, Classis Michigan ruled that a deacon presently serving a term could be placed on nomination for the office of elder; if elected, nominations for a new deacon would follow; if not, he would simply serve out his term (February 6, 1861, p. 15). You hear nothing, of course, about an elder being nominated to the office of deacon. It sounds a whole lot like what you call “elders in waiting.” H. Beuker, seminary professor, taught that elders may do the work of a deacon, but not vice versa, based on the theory that the diaconate finds its roots in the “seven” of Acts 6. And the spin on that text was that the ruling offices (apostles) are focused on the “spiritual,” the serving offices (deacons) on the “material” (Wenken over Kerkrecht en Kerkregeering, p. 25).

On the other hand, William Heyns, also a seminary professor, once applauded the formation of diaconal conferences, but insisted that these were “insufficient solutions” because they had no authority to act on behalf of the churches. The ideal solution, he said, would be to delegate deacons to major assemblies with the power to deal with all matters brought before them that concern the ministry of mercy (Gereformeerde Amerikaan, January, 1909, pp. 54-57; September, 1909, pp. 484-88; October, 1909, pp. 497-502; December, 1913, pp. 542-58). More recently, Trinity CRC of Iowa City admitted to a “long-standing practice” of having “the elders conduct annual home visitation accompanied by deacons.” The consistory flatly denied that in this way the deacons were doing the work of the elders. On the contrary, “in a congregation with a large number of students in which there is rapid turnover and [there are] cases of acute, short-term financial need,” such an arrangement actually helped the deacons “in fulfilling their office.” Upon hearing of it, Classis Pella declared that this practice was “in violation of the Church Order” since Church Order Article 65 “assigns the task only to ministers and elders” and the council promptly appealed. Synod 1981 was perplexed enough to “withhold action on the appeal” even though it hinted that, technically speaking, deacons on home visitation might well constitute a “deviation” (Acts of Synod, 1981, pp. 101-02).

There are many more such stories recorded in the annals of our denomination, some of them quite delightful. Very notable is the unauthorized “experiment” on the part of Classis Muskegon in the 1970s to have its churches delegate deacons to a governing assembly, and the subsequent recommendation of a minority report to the Synod of 1980 to carry that experimentation into the rest of the denomination. That recommendation was ruled out of order (Acts of Synod, 1980, pp. 105-06) and twenty-two delegates had their negative votes recorded. Just seventeen years later, synod changed course and permitted the delegation of deacons to classis (Acts of Synod, 1997, p. 621). I could go on and on.

Instead, I’ll just remind you that the offices do not differ in “dignity and honor” (Article 2) and that by our common consent, “no officebearer shall lord it over another officebearer” (Article 85). I would hope that a greater sense of that parity might penetrate the walls of your church.