From Scripture to Elders and Deacons Today
May 27, 2015
Updated December 5, 2017
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Synod 2013 received a report from a Task Force that studied the place of deacons in the life of the church. It was entitled "Diakonia Remixed."
Based on the report’s recommendations, synod addressed what has been an issue in the Christian Reformed denomination since at least 1906: whether deacons should be delegated to the broader assemblies of the church.
Specifically, this Task Force recommended going ahead with the delegation of deacons to classis and synod and proposed changes in the Church Order to that effect. On the other hand, synod had some questions that would need to be addressed first. Now Synod 2015 should be able to make the final decisions.
Not the least of Synod 2013's questions had to do with how we allow the Scriptures and our confessional basis to speak to this issue. Delegates also wondered how we distinguish the tasks of each, yet maintain some form of unity of all who serve as elders and deacons. Then there is the whole issue of parity of the offices and what that looks like in the life of the church.
An expanded Task Force to Study the Offices of Elder and Deacon was formed to address those issues and report to Synod 2015. That new report has been available to the churches since the fall of 2014.
Four classes and one council now have overtures in the Agenda for Synod that will be considered along with the Task Force's recommendations for appropriate changes in the Church Order of the CRC.
The new Task Force asserts that "the New Testament does not present us with a normative and rigid pattern of church leadership -- institutionalized offices that must be scrupulously maintained at all times and in all places" (Agenda for Synod 2015, p. 382) and that "the assignment of specific tasks to distinct offices is for the church to sort out in its context in every new age" (p. 384).
Overture 12 (an overture from the council of the Dorr CRC that was not adopted by Classis Grandville) says that these claims are "false" and "incompatible with both Scripture and the Belgic Confession" (p. 445). It ascribes to the Task Force the notion that "the number of offices that the CRC has and the tasks that the CRC assigns to them are based solely on pragmatic considerations ..." and even speculates that this argument "... would permit Synod 2015 to legitimately abolish the offices of elder and deacon altogether ..." (p. 444).
Overture 12 gets this wrong. The new Task Force, after all, goes on to say that "preaching or teaching, fellowship and the sacraments, and giving to those in need as stewards of God's gifts -- these already point to what does appear to be normative for the church of all time: the three dimensions of the church's mission," namely, "kerygma, koinonia, and diakonia." Note the word "normative."
Overture 12 suggests that the issue before Synod 2015 is either obedience to Scripture and creed or pragmatic considerations. But that is not the issue. The issue is how Scripture and creed are normative. Or, to put it another way, exactly how must we interpret the Bible on the origin of elders and deacons and how should we apply it to office titles and assignment of duties today.
That is the issue Synod 2015 must settle, just as we eventually settled on a new title for the fourth office: from "evangelist" to "ministry associate" to "commissioned pastor."
We must decide what is at the heart of all that office bearers do. The new Task Force suggests that they are all ordained to equip God's people for works of service, for the believers' ministry to one another and the world (Eph. 4:12) and that this binds them together in the "common administration" of the institutional church at all levels. It goes on to say that Scripture teaches parity of office, a concept that we must honor and build into the system.
The Belgic Confession says that ministers, elders and deacons together form the council of the local church. Not only is there not a hint of hierarchy -- in its context it is decidedly anti-hierarchical.
On the other hand, the traditional interpretation within CRC circles claims to find the origin of diaconate in Acts 6:3 and concludes on the basis of the apostles' words that this office is inferior to that of minister or elder. Similarly, this interpretation claims to find the origin of eldership in Acts 14:23 etc. and suggests that ministers and elders are therefore the true "overseers" of the church, the ones with ultimate authority. As we used to say too often: "Elders rule and deacons serve." Is that truly how it is?
Synod 1967 said that the delegation of deacons to major assemblies is "neither prohibited nor demanded by Scripture and the Reformed confessions" and then shied away from this practice by reason of "practical considerations."
The new Task Force, however, believes that Scripture and creed do in fact provide a norm: that of three-dimensional office structures that must make their way into how we organize our local and supra-local assemblies. The choice, therefore, is whether at broader assemblies we have full representation of all the ordained or whether we continue the notion that deacons simply don't have the authority to "rule" or participate in the government of the church. But aren't they called by God through His congregation to equip His people?
I urge all members and delegates to read carefully the second major section in the Task Force report (pages 382-387) so that we might address the real issue at stake: how to move from Scripture to the offices of elder and deacon today.
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Thank you for sharing your perspectives and insights with us regarding the recommendations from the Task Force to Study the Offices of Elder and Deacon. I also appreciate that you took time to respond to Overture 12. I hope and pray that this year's delegates to Synod will take the time to carefully read the full report (pp. 380 - 401) in this year's Agenda. (The full agenda is available to download here.)
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