Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.
Of the three special offices in the church of Jesus Christ (those of pastor, elder, and deacon), that of deacon seems to receive the least attention. One man, writing on the subject of the diaconate, says that throughout the history of the church this office “has not found the recognition and appreciation to which it is entitled. It has been either totally discarded or else corrupted, because its true character was lost sight of.”1 In some denominations the office does not exist. In others, although the office exists, its character and the work assigned to it are not in accord with Scripture’s requirements for the office. Even in Reformed churches, in which the office exists and in which sincere effort is made to see that the deacons carry out their work in accordance with Scripture, the very real danger is that the office is denigrated either in practice or in thinking. In practice, perhaps the council of the church denigrates the office by expecting the deacons to focus more on the general finances of the church than on the work of distributing alms and caring for those in need. Also in practice, perhaps the people of the church denigrate the office by being reluctant to avail themselves of the mercies of Christ which the deacons administer. In thinking, perhaps the people of the church denigrate the office by viewing the diaconate as inferior to the eldership, and by thinking that a good deacon “graduates” to become an elder as he grows older.
We ought not — we must not — denigrate the office in such a way. The office of deacon is an important office in the church of Jesus Christ. It must be held in high esteem, and must be regulated according to the Word of God. The deacons must be faithful in doing the work which pertains particularly to their office. The people must be faithful in supporting the deacons with their alms, and in calling upon the deacons when legitimate needs require it. The office must not be viewed as being subordinate to, but on a par with, that of elder and pastor.
With this article we begin an examination of the office of deacon, with the goal that we as Reformed believers give the office the high place which God’s Word gives it.
As an introduction to this study, this article will compare and contrast the office of deacon to the offices of elder and pastor.
In the first place we must stress that both Scripture and the Reformed churches officially teach the parity, or equality, of the office of deacon with that of pastor and elder.
It is a fact that Scripture neither refers to the office of deacon nor uses the word “deacon” as often as it refers to the other special offices or uses the word “pastor” or “elder” (or “bishop”). In fact, the word “deacon” occurs only five times in our King James Version. Four of these five instances are in I Timothy 3:8-13, which lists the qualifications which God requires of a deacon. The other instance is in Philippians 1:1, in which Paul addresses the saints at Philippi “with the bishops and deacons.” Scripture explicitly refers to the office one other time, although the word “deacon” is not used. Acts 6:1-6 records the institution of the office in the New Testament church. Other passages of Scripture imply the office of deacon by referring to the saints’ duty to give for the relief of the poor, but nowhere else is explicit reference made to the office of deacon.
Nevertheless, the Word of God does set the office of deacon on a par with that of elder. In both I Timothy 3:8-13 and Philippians 1:1 the office of deacon is mentioned in connection with that of elder (bishop). Many of the qualifications for the offices of deacon and elder are the same (I Tim. 3). That Paul’s letter to the Philippians is addressed to the saints with the bishops and deacons indicates the equality of these two offices, and implies that both offices are essential for the organized congregation of saints in the new dispensation.
That the Reformed churches officially teach the parity of this office and the other offices is evident from several documents. First, one of our major creeds, the Belgic Confession, makes this clear. In Article 30 the diaconate is specifically mentioned in connection with the other two offices as being necessary for the proper government of the church. We read that, in addition to the elders and pastors, also the deacons “form the council of the church.” Article 31 explains that deacons, as well as ministers and elders, must be put into office only after an election by the church, no man may take the office of deacon to himself.
Second, although the Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons does not explicitly state the fact of the equality of the offices of elder and deacon, it assumes this equality, inasmuch as the same form is used for both offices.
Third, the church order of the Reformed churches makes this parity of office clear. Article 2 teaches that the diaconate is, in fact, one of the special offices in the Reformed churches. Articles 16, 17, and 27 mention “elders and deacons” in one breath, showing the equality of the two offices.
This being the official teaching of Reformed churches and the teaching of Scripture, we are obliged to view and treat the diaconate as being equal to the other special offices.
This parity is due to two basic similarities between the office of deacon and the offices of pastor and elder.
The first similarity is that all offices are fundamentally positions of service to God in the church. Herman Hoeksema defined an office as “the position in which man is authorized and qualified to function in the name of God and in behalf of God’s covenant and kingdom, to serve Him and to rule under Him.”2 This is true fundamentally of the office of Mediator which Jesus Christ holds. Secondarily it is true of the offices of elder, deacon, and pastor in the church to which Jesus Christ calls men.
That the office of deacon is a position of service is clear from the word “deacon” itself, which in the Greek means “servant.” Though the word “deacon” is found only five times in the KJV, the Greek noun diakonos, from which the word “deacon” comes, is translated “minister” twenty times in the KJV, and “servant” seven times.
Not only the diaconate, however, but also the other offices are positions of service. That the apostles viewed their office as such is clear from the record of the institution of the diaconate in the New Testament church. We read that the apostles resolved to givethemselves “continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). In this verse the word “ministry” is the translation of a Greek noun with the same root as diakonos, that is, service. This basic similarity among the offices requires of us that we consider the offices to be equal.
The second similarity is that in every special office, that of deacon included, the exalted Jesus Christ continues to function as Mediator of His church. Therefore each officebearer, whether minister, elder, or deacon, is the personal representative of Jesus Christ to the people.
The one Mediatorial office of Jesus Christ is threefold: He is Prophet, Priest, and King. He has exercised these three aspects of His one office throughout history, from the beginning of the church’s existence in the Garden of Eden until now. In the Old Testament He did so through the prophets, priests, and kings in Israel whom God raised up to their respective duties. While on earth He did so by His teachings, miracles, and death on the cross. During the New Testament He continues to do so through His Spirit working in the hearts of all believers, and especially through the work of His Spirit in the hearts of men whom He calls to the special offices.
Because Jesus Christ continues to work in His church through each of the offices, those offices are equal. The saints of the church must remember that the deacons are as much representatives of Christ to them, for their salvation, as are elders and pastors.
There are, however, important distinctions between the office of deacon and that of elder and pastor.
In the first place, through the office of deacon Christ carries out especially the priestly aspect of His Mediatorial office, while through the offices of elder and pastor Christ carries out the kingly and prophetic aspects of His office, respectively.
As our only High Priest, Christ did or does especially three things: first, He offered Himself as the only and complete sacrifice for the sins of God’s people; second, He intercedes for God’s people; and third, He blesses God’s people. By each of these three tasks God, in Christ, shows Himself merciful to His people. He sees the depth of our misery and our inability to escape that misery of ourselves, and, moved with compassion, lifts us up from the depths of our misery to the heights of joy and blessedness. Because sin is the source and cause of our misery, Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross took away in principle the guilt and corruption of our sin, and His blessing which He continually bestows on us through His Spirit consists of the progressive realization in us of the forgiveness of our sins and the new life of Christ.
The deacon carries out the priestly work of Christ in the church. He does so not in the way of adding to Christ’s atoning work. We know that Christ’s self-sacrifice for our sins was performed once and completely. To attempt to add to this work of Christ is to deny the sufficiency of His death on the cross, and to deny that He is the only Mediator. In no sense, therefore, does Christ continue to carry out His atoning work through the office of deacon. Nor, of course, is the deacon able to intercede for us at God’s right hand, or efficaciously to bestow upon us the spiritual blessings of salvation which Christ gives through His Spirit.
However, there remains a correlation between Christ’s atoning work and the work of the deacons: the deacons, on behalf of the church, must show mercy to those in need. To this correlation Paul refers in II Corinthians 8:1ff. In verse 8 we are told that Jesus Christ, who was rich, became poor through His incarnation and death on the cross, that we might be rich through His poverty. This doctrine serves as the basis for the commands of verses 7, 10, and 11 to the Corinthian saints to give of their goods for the relief of the poor. Although Paul does not explicitly mention the involvement of the deacons in this collection of alms, their work is implied. They must gather the alms, and distribute them or see that they are distributed. By doing this work, the deacons manifest the mercy of Christ to His people. As Christ took pity on us who are spiritually poor by nature, so the deacons must take pity on those who have needs of the body, and perhaps of the spirit. And as Christ gave of Himself for the salvation of those who are poor by nature, so the deacons must work for the good of those who are needy.
Having understood this, we can see the second distinction between the office of deacon and the other offices: the work of the deacons, specifically, is that of serving tables, that is, being sure that the poor of the church are cared for. It is that work which the apostles realized they were doing, at the expense of the ministry of the Word of God and prayer (Acts 6:4). To this work the first deacons were appointed. The deacons must care for the physical needs of the members of the congregation, and for their corresponding and related spiritual needs. This makes them distinct from the other offices. Pastors must busy themselves with teaching, and elders with ruling. Both pastor and elders serve in this regard — they serve God who appointed them to their office, and they serve the people. But this service is related more to the people’s souls than to their bodies. The deacons, on the other hand, care for the physical needs, not to the exclusion of any spiritual needs of the people, but rather with those spiritual needs which arise directly from their physical needs.
We see, then, that the office of deacon is a necessary office in the church, in its own right. The church always has her poor, and thus always has the duty of caring for her poor. This she does through the office of deacon. And in doing so, Christ exercises His priestly office in her midst, blessing her poor and needy, and blessing the whole congregation in their giving for the needs of the poor.
The necessity of having this office in the church demands that we honor it. Its distinction from the other offices demands that we ascribe to deacons the work which God gives them, and encourage them in this work. Its parity with the other offices demands that we not denigrate it in our midst.
Let us seek to do these things!