Rev. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
The deacons shall be chosen, approved, and installed in the same manner as was stated concerning the elders. Church Order, Article 24.
Articles 24-26 of the Church Order describe the office and work of the deacons. Article 24 concerns the appointment of the deacons. Article 25 describes the work peculiar to the office of the deacons. Article 26 deals with cooperation of the deacons with others who are involved in caring for the poor.
There are other references to the deacons in theChurch Order. Article 27 concerns the length of term of elders and deacons. Article 37 provides for the addition of the deacons to the consistory where the number of officebearers is small. Article 40 prescribes the time, purpose, and manner in which the deacons’ meetings are to be held. Article 83 speaks of the assistance given by the deacons to the poor who out of necessity are compelled to move from one place to another and lack the financial means to do so.
Some worthwhile reading on the office and work of the deacon would include: The Deacons Handbook, by Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster; The Ministry of Mercy for Today, by P.Y. DeJong; and Handbook for Elders and Deacons, by Wm. Heyns.
Early in the history of the Roman Catholic Church the office of deacon, like so much else, was corrupted. Several factors combined to bring about the degeneration of this office. For one thing, the giving of alms was no longer regarded as the fruit of thankfulness for salvation and motivated by love for the poor, but was taught to be meritorious. In addition to this, the work of relieving the poor was more and more taken away from the deacons, and the deacons were made the assistants of the priests and bishops. The care of the poor was largely taken over by the nunneries and monasteries. At times there was not a readiness to help the poor, because poverty was regarded as a direct judgment of God, or a life that was itself meritorious. There were even those who took vows of poverty.
Especially harmful was the subordination of the deacons to the priests and bishops. Their calling to “serve tables” (Acts 6:2) was interpreted to mean that they were to render assistance at the celebration of the Mass. Gradually the work of the deacons became the task of maintaining good order in the worship services; removing, before the celebration of the Mass, those who had not yet been admitted to partake of it; arranging the altar for the celebration of the Mass; and taking care of the utensils that were used in its administration. The Roman priests were considered to represent the priests of the Old Testament and the deacons the Levites, who were supposed to assist the priests. In the Roman Catholic Church today this conception of the office of deacon still prevails.
The need for the recovery of the office of deacon was apparent to Martin Luther. Luther expressed the conviction that “… the office of deacons ought to be m-established in such a manner, that it would not be an office for Scripture reading in public worship, as is now the case, but for distributing among the poor necessities of life provided by the church, since it is evident fromActs 6 that for that purpose the diaconate has been installed.”
There was a beginning of this in Lutheranism, but in time the Lutheran churches surrendered the care of the poor to the princes and the civil authorities. For all practical purposes the office of deacon is lost in modern Lutheranism.
The Anabaptists, on the other hand, promptly dispensed with the office of deacon altogether. They rejected the right of private property and attempted to restore the practice of community of goods. In the Anabaptist scheme of things there was no need for the office of deacon.
Only in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition has the office of deacon come to its rightful place.
This is due largely to the influence of John Calvin. Calvin did much to restore to the church the office of deacon, making this office once more a useful office in the church.
Calvin insisted on two fundamental principles. First, he insisted that the work of the deacons was properly the care of the poor. And second, he taught that the office of the deacons was not inferior but equal to the offices of elder and minister.
Peculiar to Calvin’s teaching, however, was his notion that there should be two kinds of deacons in the church. He appealed to Romans 12:8 “. . . he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity . . . he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness.” Calvin interpreted this as referring to two different kinds of deacons. There ought to be deacons who care for the poor. These Calvin called “procurers” or “stewards.” And there ought to be deacons who care for the sick. These Calvin called “hospitallers.” He writes in his Institutes:
The care of the poor was entrusted to the deacons. However, two kinds are mentioned in the letter to the Romans: “He that gives, let him do it with simplicity . . . he that shows mercy, with cheerfulness.” Since it is certain that Paul is speaking of the public office of the church, there must have been two distinct grades. Unless my judgment deceives me, in the first clause he designates the deacons who distribute the alms. But the second refers to those who devoted themselves to the care of the poor and sick…. If we accept this (as it must be accepted), there will be two kinds of deacons: one to serve the church in administering the affairs of the poor; the other, in caring for the poor themselves (Institutes IV, 3, 9).
This idea of Calvin did not find general acceptance in the Reformed churches. One synod, the synod of Wezel, 1568, did speak in favor of this arrangement.
It would, however, be helpful if especially in larger localities two sorts of deacons would be established, one part of which shall apply itself to the gathering and distribution of the alms and at the same time see to if that, in case there are any goods that have been bequeathed to the poor, these will be claimed from the heirs in a lawful way and distributed faithfully to those for whom they had been intended in the bequest. The other kind will in the main care for the sick, the wounded, and the prisoners; these deacons ought to be gifted not only with faithfulness and diligence but also with the gift of comforting and a better than average knowledge of the Word; and they must diligently inquire from the elders if in their district there are perhaps sick or infirm people who are in need of comfort and encouragement.
Later Reformed synods, however, dropped the distinction between two kinds of deacons. Both the care of the poor and the visitation of the sick were made the duty of all the deacons, two aspects of one and the same office.
Various methods of appointing deacons have been followed by the Reformed churches in the past.
Worthy of mention is the method outlined by the Polish Reformer, John a Lasco, minister of the refugee churches in London. In his work entitledForma ac Ratio Tota Ecclesiastici Ministerii, written in 1560, in which he described biblical church government, he specified the following procedure for the appointment of deacons.
The consistory would prescribe a special day of fasting and prayer on which the minister was to preach twice, explaining the nature and functions of this holy office. Thereupon the congregation would join in prayers for the wisdom and guidance of God. Within the next week the ballots: of the members would be collected at the homes by the elders. From those designated by the members, the consistory would erect the necessary number. All of those who presented no legitimate objections to their own election would be publicly presented to the congregation on the next Lord’s Day in the morning service. If the congregation did not protest against any during the next week, they would then be appropriately installed in their office.
Article 24 prescribes three steps in the appointment of the deacons: election, approbation, and installation.
Election of deacons may take place in one of two ways. The consistory may select the appropriate number of deacons and present its choices to the congregation for approval (Aristocratic Method, cf. Article 22). Or the consistory may present a double slate of nominees to the congregation, from which half are elected (Aristocratic-Democratic Method, cf. Article 22). As in the case of the election of elders, the second method is to be preferred and is generally followed in our churches.
Nominations are to be announced to the congregation on at least two successive Sundays. This provides the members of the congregation the opportunity to register with the consistory any objections against the nominees.
Barring all lawful objections, the election is held, after which those who have been elected are to be duly installed into office. Installation is the actual induction of a man into the office, so that after his installation he begins to function as a deacon. Installation is to take place during a formal worship service and with the use of the “Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons.”
In light of the current movement to have women ordained to the special offices, particularly to the office of deacon, it may be well to say a few things about deaconesses.
The Synod of Wezel, 1568, provided for the appointment of worthy women.
In those places where it is convenient we are of the opinion that women of proven faith and pious walk and who are of an advanced age, according to the example of the Apostles, can also be admitted to this office.
Evidently, however, the Synod of Wezel did not intend that women should be ordained as deaconesses, female deacons, but that they should be appointed to assist the deacons. This is also why the Synod did not require their appointment, but only made it a matter of “convenience.”
The Synod of Middelburg, 1581, expressed its disapproval of an attempt to re-institute the office of deaconess.
The Christian Reformed Church is one denomination that has in recent years opened up the office of deacon to women. Article 3b of the revised Christian Reformed Church Church Orderstates: “All confessing members of the church who meet the biblical requirements are eligible for the office of deacon.” This article deliberately does not restrict the office of deacon to “male” confessing members of the church, but allows “all” confessing members to be eligible for this office, including women.
Without involving ourselves in a lengthy discussion of the ordination of women into the office of deacon, there can be no doubt that this practice is expressly forbidden by Scripture. Anyone who reads Scripture without the “aid” of the tinted spectacles of the women’s movement can come to no other conclusion. This certainly is in keeping with those passages of Scripture which enjoin the women to be silent in the church and forbid them to exercise authority: I Corinthians 14:34, 35; I Timothy 2:11-14. This is also consistent with those passages which set down the qualifications of the deacons, which qualifications themselves make plain that a deacon must be a man, not a woman:Acts 6:1-6; I Timothy 3:8-13.
For a fine defense of the historic Reformed position forbidding women to occupy the office of deacon, and an examination of the Scripture passages often appealed to in support of this practice, the interested reader is referred to the pamphlet “Phebe: An Example Ear the Christian Woman,” by Prof. H. Hanko. (This pamphlet can be obtained by writing to the Business Office ofThe Standard Bearer at the address listed in the inside cover.)
Regarding the ordination of deaconesses, VanDellen and Monsma state:
It cannot be proven from Holy Writ that so-called deaconesses were actually called and ordained to office, just as the deacons were.
. . . does indicate that women had a share in the work of mercy practiced by the early Churches. But in the absence of any indication that women were ever inducted into office we conclude that these deaconesses were appointed to assist the deacons in an unofficial capacity (The Church Order Commentary, p. 113).