Deacons: Priests or Kings?

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Growing up in the CRC, attending CRC churches, and going to seminary, I often heard this comparison when thinking about the church offices: The three offices of the church, elder, minister, and deacon, correspond more or less to the offices of prophet, priest, and king seen in the Old Testament and shown in Christ. So, roughly, preacher=prophet, elder=king, deacon=priest. Hey, that sounds neat, I thought, fits pretty good. So the elders rule and the deacons serve. Everyone knows their place. And it is a neat concept. From what it seems, this has been the preferred way of looking at the offices for many years. But what do you think — is it biblical? Can we make such a neat distinction between ruling and serving?

When we look at the history of the diaconate in the CRC, we might say that if deacons are "servant leaders", then while we have never had a problem with the servant side of the equation, we have often struggled with the *leader* side of the equation. How much of this is due to the fact that we hold onto the prophet/priest/king distinction when looking at the offices? Three works have helped me see that the deacon is as much about being a "king" as it is about being a priest. They are Henry DeMoor's "Equipping the Saints", which is about controversies concerning the offices in the CRC from 1857-1982, Hans Kater's Calvin Seminary thesis "A Study on the Role of Deacon in the CRC of Western Michigan", and Leonard Coppes Who Will Lead Us: A Study in the Development of the Biblical Offices with an Emphasis on the Diaconate. Coppes especially takes pains to show how the office of deacon arises as much from the office of king as it does the office of priest. Also helpful is stuff by John Collins, who shows that the word diakonos means *ambassador* just as much as it does *servant* — a word that emphasizes the deacon's connection to mission.

The overture coming to Synod this year asks us to take a good look at the understanding of the office. I hope that this will lead to a study committee being appointed to take a good look at this prophet/priest/king distinction. And my personal hope is that they will give a recommendation similar to the one given already to the Synod of 1967, recommending the delegation of deacons to major assemblies: "Some development of the role of deacon in the ministry of the church is necessary if the church is to fulfill her total ministry. The diaconal office has not developed within the church as fully as the other two offices. Too often the function of the deacons has been limited to the collection and administration of funds and few other tasks. Too often the diaconate is considered a training period for the office of elder instead of an office in its own right with its own essential contribution to the church's total ministry."

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Community Builder

Hmmmm.... let's see. 1967. How prophetic was THAT?! 43 years ago. I was, ummm, a student at CTS. It's hard to imagine that this paragraph you quote comes from that long ago. Could it be a prohetic utterance spoken also to the church in 2010?

The whole report is on pp. 232-255 of the Acts of Synod, 1967. Its interesting that even though the recommendation was not followed, there was a long string of re-applications and requests in the 70s and 80s by those who were convinced of the larger role of deacon.

Also interesting are the other sources that they quote for the delegation of deacons to broader assemblies...like Herman Bavinck, Abraham Kuyper, who said in 1884 that the diaconal office "ought to be interwoven in the ruling organism of the Churches (that is, of Classes and Synods)", William Heyns who in 1928 had an entire chapter in his Handbook on Elders and Deacons called "The Unsatisfactory Condition of the Diaconate", and others.

We've been talking about this issue in our denomination for a long, long time.

What a great opportunity this motion could be, to look back as well as look forwards, and see what God might be calling us towards.

William Heyns, writing in 1910 about the concerns and limitations of diaconal conferences, said this "without a doubt, the ideal solution is the delegation of deacons to the major assemblies with the power to deal with all matters brought before them that concern the ministry of mercy."

Synod 2010 is only a week away, and one of the issues that they will take up is the overture mentioned earlier. I wonder what the result will be.

In 1982, Prof. De Moor wrote in his "The Office of Deacon at the Crossroads", that "the proportion of representation (to major assemblies) soon proves to be an issue that uncovers one's deepest convictions concerning ecclesiastical office." He also wrote "somewhere along the way this denomination must do what Calvin couldn't--grant it's dedicated diaconate an appropriate place in all assemblies of office--bearers that rule and equip the body in Christ's name. It certainly must not reverse whatever has already grown in that direction. *This* is the lesson of history."

I'm excited about the opportunity before this Synod to reflect on the truth of these words.

My dos centimos' worth Jeff & Karl: For more than a decade now Christian Reformed Church in the Philippines synodical meetings have deacons as official/voting delegates. Even earlier than that, deacons are official/voting members of both the classis and church councils. We believe that as all members of the body of Christ have the prophetic, kingly and priestly functions but a certain group of elders, ministers and deacons are chosen to "rule" and govern the church assemblies from the local congregation to the synod.

Community Builder

Very cool to see the Phils CRC is ahead of us on this one!   And I know that's due in large part to the work you did over the years, Brother Eli!   I think the task force now working on the office of deacon in the CRCNA will help us look hard at this and will bring us up to speed.  I pray for that.