Deacons and the Non-local Assemblies

The 2007 General Synod has directed the Commission on Theology to study whether there is a theological basis for including deacons as full members in Classis, Regional Synod, and General Synod.

I have written an opinion on this and sent it to the chair and two other members of the Commission on Theology. As this opinion touches on issues of office, the sacraments, and the nature of the Church (topics which are much discussed on this blog), I have made it available to those of you who wish to read it.

You may find it here.

A teaser:

… proposals to include deacons in the non-local assemblies betray a misunderstanding of the nature of the office of deacon. They also suggest an uncertainty with regard to the purpose of these higher assemblies.



7 thoughts on “Deacons and the Non-local Assemblies

  1. Good paper, Dan.A bit of recent history may be encouraging. It seemed to me that the CT members at GS 2007 were happy to receive this instruction for the same reason they were happy to receive the instruction to write something on the marks of the church: to have an opportunity to point out why fooling with these things is wrongheaded.The brings up the fact that the General Synod has become a place not for reformation, but for revolution, and rather anarchic revolution, at that. The Missional Structures Task Force report was the latest example of this. The RCA seems to be literally infested with people (many of whom are ministers who came in through routes that didn’t exist a few decades ago) who have a contempt for all things Reformed, and they seem to be able to convince people of good will and otherwise sound mind that this is somehow the will of the Holy Spirit. And so we propose the elimination of Reformed polity, we attack our fourth office–and our second and third offices while we’re at it–and now we seek to render our first office, that of Deacon, impotent by distracting it with other tasks. Through in the little registered trademark symbol that we see next to the new logo, and we could complete the transformation from church to franchise operation.What’s interesting is that part of what persuades people in this argument is the idea that it should be an honor to be allowed to vote in these assemblies, and not an honor in terms of service, but power. How far have we come in reclaiming the office of Deacon if the church/franchise can be convinced that power is the point?

  2. Thanks, guys. RM, I, too, think that the second half is the money part. But the first half sets things in place for what comes later.Sadly, I hurt someone’s feelings in classis last April by saying that one doesn’t truly understand our polity when one argues for this change in our polity. (I was a bit steamed at the time.) I regret that, and have tried to find a better way to say it. But, fundamentally, I still think it is in some sense true.I’ve made some html changes that should make the document easier to read.James, the recent history you cite is very helpful, as usual. I do hope that you’re right about where the Commission is likely to head. I found myself feeling a little threatened, however, by your reference to “ministers who came in through routes that didn’t exist a few decades ago.” Indeed, I am one of those!!! TEA/MFCA certified, UTS in Virginia (Richmond) M. Div. And then there’s my doctoral work with United Methodists! Am I part of the infestation?

  3. Dan,I want to poke you at a couple places.First, “local” might be understood as more than congregational. A classis is also “local” in a very real sense. While we are not episcopal, it helps sometimes to remember that for the Roman church, e.g., local is the diocese. But second, if deacons are local in their office, so are elders. Both derive their ministry from the congregation. And in fact, the ministry of the elder is to the congregation — and its environ (no less than the deacon).Then I want to poke a bit at the notion that the classis’ sole or primary concern is the congregation gathered around Word and Sacrament. That’s too Barthian for me. The church is set outward into the world. It is drawn outward and forward by the Spirit. It’s for that reason that the preamble was amended some time back to state that teh church is “a gathering…in order to embody God’s intentions for the world.” And there the deacon comes into play. And, I’d argue, that does not remain local in the congregational sense. As you might guess, I don’t think that deacons on higher assemblies betrays what is fundamental to Reformed church order. I say that knowing that I’ll get an argument. I’ve been on the other side!Thanks for the work.Al

  4. O.K. Dan, I tried to make my remarks about “infestation” measured, but I guess they need to be more measured. Coming in through alternate routes does not make one non-Reformed, of course (and I can cite other examples of that reality), but it does tend to open the door more widely than it once had been. In the alternate routes, the task of making sure people are Reformed falls much more strongly upon classes, which have, historically, not always paid too much attention to that.To be fair to classes, there is a larger problem. Mark Ennis has said that the chief disease in most classes is the desire to be liked, which leads classes to not do important disciplinary work because it will be seen as “negative” (the same reason many congregations cite for not reading the law in worship). That disease creeps, quite naturally, into synods and MFCA as well, and so people who don’t seem quite Reformed, or quite comfortable with being Reformed, come into RCA ministry . . . and sometimes they become comfortable with their Reformed identity, and sometimes they seek to deny it. Expand this small bit of denial over several generations of ministers, and we have a Pharoah who did not know Joseph, at least not very well.On the other hand, it’s hard to be more Reformed (and ever reforming?) than Al Janssen, and look where he’s coming out. Perhaps we need to seek a way in which deacons can speak to the higher assemblies without changing the nature of their office. That will required a nuanced approach and implementation, however, which we do not often find in the assemblies of late.

  5. Dan, Much like the writers of the earlier comments, I appreciate the thoughtful considerations you sent on to the Theology Commission with regard to the ‘standing’ (or ‘sitting’) of Deacons in assemblies broader than Consistory. Like you, I also came into the RCA from ‘the outside, even before there was MFCA or even TEA.. . In spite of having lived in Iowa for a year as an exchange student, I had never heard of the RCA until I came back ten years later to New York. (I lived among Norwegian Lutherans in Iowa…).Over the years I have become rather fond of some of the almost unique ecclesiastical traits such as the ‘fourth’ office, and the incorporation of a Board of Deacons into Consistory. Indeed, like you, rather than being a hostile ‘infester’, I find myself being more of a protector and defender of this manifestation of faith…! Among WARC members, the RCA should not too easily squander its particular voice and gift to the broader Reformed Church. I would not be too surprised if some of the newer non-western churches-in-formation would be emboldened and inspired to find local ‘solutions’ in their contexts by taking a look at historical RCA structural adaptations.You know as well as I do the history of why the Board of Deacons became part of Consistory. A very small congregation with -say- two Elders (and in Colonial times churches were local and quite small because of travel difficulties) is well served by a larger representation of communicant members, especially since the reading of those early minutes reflect a preoccupation with stewardship of buildings, grounds and finances. Yet I would be more emphatic than you have stated it on one point. As I see it, it is in principle the Board of Deacons, and not the deacons as individuals, who are integrated into RCA Consistories. With regard to higher assemblies I would rather see those assemblies of the office holders of elders and ministers be more cognizant of the important work that the many Board of Deacons carry out in their (local) region. For example, in the Classis of Rockland-Westchester, almost every Classis meeting begins with an informal ‘sharing of joys and concerns.’ And almost invariably, the members report on the good work of ‘their’ deacons! Moreover, during the Classis meal we get a more in-detail taste of a local presentation, also almost always focused on the diaconate (or its history, if the present is embarrassing…). This is a concrete way of reminding Classis what the church is ‘about:’ protect the local Missio Dei and bring to the fore that God’s Sovereign Spirit is made present incarnationally.I do not know of a healthy and vital church without such a Board of Deacons or diaconate, and even some dysfunctional congregations with regard to the other two offices often still manage to maintain diaconal outreach.I do think that delegating the judicial business in our assemblies (except for Consistories) to special commissions is a good and timely move as it will be brought before the classes for ratification this year.. And I, too, have advocated such a move by citing the ‘advantage’ that it will be easier to integrate deacons into the broader assemblies because they will no longer operate as judicatories. But that is a very qualified argument.Here is a link with the discussion of the ‘notae ecclesia’ that was also directed to the Theological Commission by the 2007 Synod. To me this is a more primary evaluation, so allow me to get off on that issue, because it is not tangential, but goes radically to the heart of the matter (along radial lines.…).Calvin early on only speaks of two ‘marks’ (Preaching/Hearing the Word, and the two proper Sacraments). The often tauted ‘third’ mark of the Reformation’s ecclesiology came later, and much less essentially. In his theology Calvin speaks subsequently of discipleship and piety where the (Roman) theological reflection historically would veer off into ‘supervision’ (episcope and the petrine office). Calvin’s successors, like Calvin himself, increasingly had to deal not with the latter issues (hope for a conciliation with Rome was lost), but with the opposite trend: the ‘anarchy’ of Anabaptists, Independents, and the like. That context caused ‘discipline’ to be dragged into the notae ecclesia as a ‘third’ mark of a true church (not explicitly so named as a mark by Calvin, but certainly by others (e.g. Belgic Confession 29, 1561) after him. It is easy to see how communal ‘supervision’ could morph into individual ‘discipline,’ given the era.In the RCA we clearly are confused about all this. Again, not so much over against the personal episcopal churches (for that order of supervision we have matched with our corporate assemblies), but now, once again over against those who want to replace a third mark by the mark of ‘mission’ (and not always being clear that mark on and two are not to be discarded as well….)I like Calvin’s original perspicuity best. Here are the two ecclesiological notae, and then there are ecclesiastical notae. They are of different degree! It is among the latter that I would place the need for classical (as well as classis’) ‘supervision’, certainly, but also’mission.’ [And –inter alia- also the insistence by the Roman Church that the Sacraments are only efficacious if they are performed by a Roman Catholic (or Orthodox) priest. That would go a long way toward putting on a debatable ground the key issue that flared up recently again about why and how ‘defective’ the non-Roman churches are].What about the discipleship (Calvin) of the ‘liturgy of daily life’ (Noordmans), or especially the more scholastic ‘discipline’ for which later calvinists are known? Certainly, these are necessary elements but they are not pivotal (central) in their specifics. All this, by way of saying that ecclesiastically we can and need to do more to recognize and highlight and even elevate the office of Deacon. But I am not at all sure that we need to go much further than a Classis to make explicit room for the diaconate in Church Order and governance. Al Janssen’s challenging suggestion seems to be in concord with that. For him it hinges on how local that assembly is. If I understand you, Dan, for you it is not as much a matter of locus as of topos. Such a distinction helps me to be swayed toward allowing a role for a representative of a local Board of Deacons in Classis, but not in the higher assembly, because the Classis would not have a Board (and thus could not send a delegate).Well, all this is a bit lengthy for a blog comment, but that seems to be my signature…

  6. Gentlemen,Thanks for the helpful comments. Sorry that I haven’t replied until now. There was sermon-prep, then some time away in the mountains.A few brief responses.For Al I have two items.First, I did have some misgivings about using the word “local,” and now I’d be inclined to remove it, because of how it misleads. I had chosen that phrase initially because I wanted to get away from the word “higher,” as in “higher assemblies,” because of its implicit hierarchicalism. Such hierarchy is itself misleading, and contrary to the spirit and intent of classic reformed polity. But this desire to avoid one problematic term led me to adopt another.Second, I want to address the issue of the purpose of the classis. Here I think I could have been a little clearer. But I also think, Al, that you may have forgotten or discounted as unimportant some of what I say. I speak about the “constitutive responsibilities of the Classis,” and also of certain things being a necessary “part of the Classis’ work when convened as an assembly.” I write about how classes (and synods) do other very important work besides their work as assemblies or judicatories. This distinction is essential for my whole point. As an assembly, the classis has certain things that are essential to, consitutive of, and definitive for its existence and purpose, as an assembly. The classis may do other important things, but as an assembly certain work is proper to it.That work (again, as an assembly) is focused on Word and Sacrament. That focus is seen in our government, as the authority a classis has over a congregation is not over everything, and certainly not over the important and proper work of the congregation in the world, but is over issues having to do with the marks of the church: the proclamation of the Word and administration of the sacraments. And it is also seen in our Liturgy, in which we must make a distinction between constitutional and non-constitutional liturgies therein: those liturgies that are consitutional have to do with Word and Sacrament, and those offices charged with protecting them.Perhaps, Al, I am so much a Barthian that I don’t recognize how my position is “too Barthian” for you! You’ll have to help me out with that!James, I was joking, as you know. However, I have often had the feeling of an outsider, even though I was raised in this denomination and have participated faithfully in its institutions. Yet I do see the problems that have come about through certain alternatives.You go on to say, “Perhaps we need to seek a way in which deacons can speak to the higher assemblies without changing the nature of their office. That will required a nuanced approach and implementation, however, which we do not often find in the assemblies of late.”And to that I say that I really do think that the nuance is to be found in my distinction between the work of the Classis as an assembly (or judicatory) and its other work.Another part to the solution, however, is to continue getting our congregations to treat the office of deacon with its proper respect, or rather, to allow the office to be exercised properly. In too many churches are deacons viewed as second-class members of the consistory. In too many congregations are deacons understood to be “junior elders” or “elders in training.” It will do us little good if we give deacons the privilege to vote in the “higher assemblies” (there, I’ve said it!), but keep them marginalized in the congregation.Okke, the historical background you gave was very helpful. I, too, would like to see communication among boards of deacons happen more. It is sad that a recommendation by (I think) the Comm. on Church Order a few years ago to establish classis level diaconal conferences failed to be approved. (Al may want to chime in with specifics.) Your comments about representation of boards of deacons, and the polity implications of that, were intriguing.Thanks again,Dan Griswold

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