Patches and Wineskins: Responding to “The Office of Deacon and the Assemblies of the Church”

“I believe that the Commission’s paper neither makes a sufficient case for what it advocates nor goes far enough in what it advocates, and we are missing an opportunity.”

Patches and Wineskins:

Responding to “The Office of Deacon and the Assemblies of the Church”

A submission by Daniel Meeter, of Brooklyn, New York, draft of January 18, 2013

1. Introduction

Mark 2:21-22: No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.

In 2007 the General Synod of the RCA instructed its Commission on Theology to produce a study determining “whether there is a theological basis within a reformed and missional ecclesiology for the inclusion of deacons as full members of classes, regional synods, and the General Synod.”

In response, the Commission offered the 2011 General Synod its paper, “The Office of Deacon and the Assemblies of the Church,” which concludes that there is “clear theological warrant for including deacons in the broader assemblies of the RCA.” To facilitate the necessary conversation on this matter within the denomination, the Commission has distributed a study guide called An Invitation to Study and Conversation: “The Office of Deacon and the Assemblies of the Church,” which includes an introduction to the matter, a short study guide, and the full text of the Commission’s paper.

In my own response, which follows, I agree with the Commission that “there is clear theological warrant for including deacons in the broader assemblies of the RCA,” but I disagree that the means to do this is by including them “as full members” in the way that the 2007 General Synod envisioned it. I will argue two main points: first, that the Commission’s paper fails to make its case for including deacons as “full members” of the broader assemblies, and second, that the RCA must be more creative, and even radical, in its vision for “including deacons in the broader assemblies.” We need fresh wineskins for this new wine. Simply to make them members of classes and synods is to put a new patch on an old cloak.

I believe that the Commission’s paper neither makes a sufficient case for what it advocates nor goes far enough in what it advocates, and we are missing an opportunity. To include deacons, as deacons, with full understanding of their particular office, and with full understanding of the whole meaning and purpose of our assemblies, requires, it seems to me, a fundamental rethinking and recasting of our denominational structures for staff, program, mission, stewardship, and financing. This is the opportunity we ought not miss, although it is easier to amend the Church Order than to adjust these structures, which include careers, contracts, assignments, employments, salaries, and bailiwicks.

2. Patches—The Study Guide

The study guide (p.2) lists six historic “arguments against the inclusion of deacons with voice and vote.” We may quickly dismiss the first (“Presbyterian” order) because its premise is incorrect. The RCA’s version of Presbyterian order has never collapsed the three offices into the eldership. Ministers, for example, are not merely “teaching elders.” The second argument is the substantial one, and we will return to it again. We may dismiss the third argument because nothing in scripture suggests that elders are any more or less local than deacons. We may dismiss the fourth argument because elders and ministers are no more or less distracted than deacons are likely to be. We may dismiss the fifth argument simply because it begs the question. The sixth argument can be dismissed simply because the added expense cannot reasonably be predicted, but the sixth argument does inadvertently raise an important consideration. If one considers the total budgetary spending of the RCA, the amounts spent on the meetings of its broader assemblies is far less than the amounts spent on the staff and programs of the denomination. As they say, “follow the money.” The inclusion of deacons should be, it would seem, at the places in the RCA where the money goes. If including the deacons in the broader assemblies of the RCA ignores rethinking the structures and funding of mission, staff, and program for the sake of giving them “voice and vote,” then the particular essence and charism of the diaconal office is being ignored where it most counts.

The second argument against the inclusion of deacons with “voice and vote” is the only substantial one, although only if the argument is more radically and theologically understood, and only if it is used against one certain kind of inclusion, that is, in sharing the “voice and vote” of elders. The argument may be a good roadblock to redirect our vision toward a more valuable sort of inclusion which is truly appropriate to the diaconate.

The study guide also lists a number of arguments for the inclusion of deacons in the assemblies. But while all of these arguments speak to the participation of deacons in the assemblies, which is good, not one of the arguments addresses the point that such participation should take the form of “voice and vote”. Not all valuable participation in an assembly takes the form of “voice and vote.” Consider the voice and the influence within the textured deliberation of our assemblies which we have given to denominational staff, especially in the days before we adopted the Carver model.

On page 6, the study guide states that “it is important to maintain the distinction between an assembly and a judicatory.” The first question of section D1 calls this an “essential distinction.” This unfortunate idea has become a commonplace in the RCA, but it is not true to historic Reformed ecclesiology, even though the normal conduct of business occasionally and appropriately requires assemblies to declare themselves in “judicial session.” This is necessitated by the presence of great numbers of corresponding delegates to our assemblies, especially our synods, which is a recent development in our long history. It is a great flaw, however, to regard only the disciplinary procedures as judicatory in nature.

One discovers that this distinction is overwrought if one studies the minutes of our earlier assemblies in North America and in the even earlier history of the Reformed Church in the Netherlands. There is no distinction made between judicial business and missional business. So many of the missional decisions were judgment calls, such as, how shall our churches be organized, how shall they worship, who shall call the pastors, what practices shall be allowed, how shall we educate our pastors and laity, how shall we conduct funerals, shall we allow the use of pipe organs, shall we allow the ringing of bells, who shall be the trustees of the church corporations, how shall we pay for salaries and church buildings, how shall we care for the poor, how shall we direct our missionaries, shall we allow our missionaries to be accountable to indigenous churches, and so on. Discipline in the church is far more than “disciplinary procedures”. It is nothing less than the full orb of discipleship when practically applied in the life of the congregations.

Consider the adoption of the Belhar Confession. How we went about this shows that the distinction between an assembly and a judicatory is by no means essential. In the consideration of Belhar many theological judgments had to be made. Certain beliefs and practices were going to be ruled, not just out of order, but even sinful. But never did our assemblies go into judicial session to act on the matter.

Consider the account in Acts 11 of Peter’s meeting with the apostles and the brothers. Peter had to defend his action in having baptized Cornelius and his household. A missional judgment had to be made. Was this an assembly or a judicatory? It was obviously both, at the same time. Consider the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, where Paul and Silas had to defend their mission before the apostles and the elders (no deacons are mentioned). A judgment had to be made, and this judgment was missional by definition. The judgment call of the apostles and the elders resulted in their remarkable letter to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. The letter reflects their judgment and the discipline which they proposed. We may regard that letter as the very first confessional document of the church, and the ancestor of all such confessional and disciplinary documents like the Belhar Confession and the Canons of Dort. Both of these Biblical cases disprove the notion of an essential distinction of assemblies and judicatories. In Reformed ecclesiology, the broader assemblies are never not both.

3. Patches—Appendix I: The Office of Deacon and the Assemblies of the Church.

At this point, I will engage the Commission on Theology’s paper ad seriatim.

Page 9. The second paragraph notes that in the 1960s a committee recommended to the General Synod that the deacons be removed from consistory and organized into a separate order. The paper misses that the context of this was our intense negotiations for merger with the Presbyterian Church in the United States. The PCUS had never included deacons in its local sessions, and the proposal for merger would have excluded them among us too. The proposals would also have defined ministers as “teaching elders.”

The third paragraph regards elders (and ministers) as “delegates” to classis. They are so, but they are first and foremost “members” of the classis. They do not serve in classis as delegates so much as officers, by virtue of their particular sacred offices. They do not represent their churches—they represent Our Lord.

Page 10: The first full paragraph reports that in 1972 the Theological Commission affirmed that the New Testament contains “no theological grounds on which to oppose the concept of deacon delegates to higher judicatories.” While it should be noted that this affirmation still uses the word “judicatory” in its original use as a synonym for “assembly” without distinction (which is proven just by the idea of deacons being present), the affirmation itself can hardly be credited. What about Acts 15:2, 6, 24, and 16:4, where the apostles and elders are specifically mentioned but deacons are not? (The evidence of Acts 14:23 and 20:7 is only circumstantial, but it certainly does not support the commission’s affirmation.)

Page 11: As one reads the history, one wonders why the RCA did not consider a denominational diaconate. Granted that keeping deacons local cannot be substantiated, and also granting the need to “revitalize the diaconate,” why did the denomination not think more creatively of how to include the diaconate in the broader church instead of only in terms of “delegates” with voice and vote?

Page 12: The first full paragraph assumes the unbiblical and unhistorical distinction between the legislative and judicial functions of the various RCA assemblies. One wonders whether the general perspective is unduly influenced by the secular political principle of the “separation of powers” in the North American democracies. The result is that the Biblical unity of judicatory and assembly is broken in order to gain an apparent unity of including deacons in the assemblies.

Page 13: The discussion moves to a missional framing of the office of deacon. The final paragraph notes that deacons were included in the assemblies of the Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk (NHK) since 1951. But this can hardly be attributed to a missional vision of the diaconate, or of the church in general. The NHK still regarded itself as essentially a national church, and it was still established in limited ways. At best, the NHK understood itself as a “Christus-belijdende volkskerk,” (a Christ-confessing peoples’ church, of which the people were understood to be the Dutch nation insofar as it was Protestant). It is untenable to appeal to the inclusion of deacons in the Dutch church as an example of a “fully missional ecclesiology” which the RCA should emulate. The paragraph on page 14 which begins with “Perhaps” (a leading statement) hardly makes its case. Furthermore, it fails to show what it claims, that the office of deacon is any more missional than the offices of minister and elder. It seems to this writer that the whole wonderful discussion of mission from pages 14 to 16 is beside the point, and has no bearing on the question of including deacons in the assemblies with voice and vote.

Page 16: The third full paragraph makes the point that Calvin did not assign to deacons the responsibility for the finances of the church. This is true, but misleading. Neither did Calvin assign that to the consistory either. This is because church finances were the responsibility of the civil government, just as in the case of our own early history in North America. Our churches are no longer established churches, and we do not want to go back to that, so the point does not support the argument. It certainly does not support the claim that “the office of deacon is the quintessentially missional office.” And if it were so, the mission accounts in the second half of the Acts of the Apostles would report different activities with different characters. It is untenable that the ministry of the Word is any less missional than the diaconate.

The next paragraph, “Thus understood,” certainly over-reaches. The ministries described belong to all three offices working together. It describes what preachers do, what chaplains do, and what elders do.

The final paragraph makes a valid point, against the argument of locality, but it is irrelevant to the question of the inclusion of deacons in assemblies with voice and vote.

Page 18, the final paragraph: While the paper so far has argued, without any real grounds, “that the .office of deacon is the quintessentially missional office,” it has not demonstrated what it argues.

Page 19, the fourth paragraph: Neither can it be said that “on the basis of Reformed ecclesiology we have established the necessity of including deacons in all assemblies of the church” (assuming “voice and vote”). That necessity has been claimed, but not established. The arguments are not to the point at hand, but rather to the greatly increased appreciation of the office in theological terms, from which the inclusion of deacons at assemblies with voice and vote is merely implied.

Pages 19 and 20 adduce the distinction between assemblies and judicatories which we addressed above. The claim is made “that the exercise of discipline is what distinguishes a judicatory from an assembly.” Of course this is not so—the distinction does not hold. The Constitution is very clear, for example, that the first two steps of discipline are exercised by an assembly in the ordinary course of its proceedings. This faulty claim is made to carry a lot of weight in the whole proposal, though, because, prima facie, it would be almost impossible to argue for the presence of deacons at the broader “judicatories” with voice and vote. It would certainly be impossible if we still called our assemblies, as the United Church of Canada does ordinarily, the “courts” of the church.

Page 20: The last sentence on the page states that “this paper provides clear theological warrant for including deacons in the broader assemblies of the RCA.” Again ,while there has been provided clear theological warrant for including deacons in the broader life of the RCA, the question of how they are included, and whether this inclusion means that they should be members of those assemblies with voice and vote, has never actually been addressed. It has only been assumed and claimed. The paper represents a failure in both argumentation and imagination.

Page 21: The paper closes by suggesting a very simple and straightforward formula for how that inclusion might work, with one deacon being sent by each assembly to the next broader assembly. The assumption is that the only real change this would affect in the assemblies would be an addition and an enrichment.

4. New Wineskins

It seems a sorry result to me, and a minimal outcome with very little real benefit. While I am certain that the inclusion of deacons with voice and vote will have unintended consequences in the assemblies, and it may even be a shock the systems of our assemblies which will take some time to settle, that is not my main concern. What I care about is not the tearing of the patches but the bursting of the wineskins and losing the new wine. We will end up doing to deacons at the broader assemblies what we did to them in 1793 by putting them on consistories, and that is making them junior elders.

I think we need to be much more creative and imaginative with our structures. The commission’s paper never addresses the denominational structures of program, mission, and financial intake and stewardship, which consume most of our denominational funds, and which are closer to the specific interests of deacons than to the specific interests of elders and ministers. How do we include and empower deacons within these denominational structures, where so many decisions are made and courses charted and dollars spent? Why is the Board of Benefits Services not a function of a denominational diaconate, reporting and accountable to General Synod? Why is RCA Global Missions not an agency of the RCA denominational diaconate? Why don’t the deacons collect the funds which are donated for mission and benevolence, all the way from the offering plate to the denominational offices? Why doesn’t an RCA denominational diaconate, with its staff, manage Reformed Church World Service?

I believe that we will not have done justice to a whole new missional appreciation of the diaconate if we don’t seek to examine all of our denominational staff and mission structures in this light from top to bottom. As I said at the beginning, “follow the money.” Where most of the money is being spent is where the deacons should be involved and empowered, and most of the money is not being spent for meetings of the synods. I say this not because I see the deacons, in the old way, as the finance committee of the church, but because of the power of money to express the mission priorities of the church.

I don’t want to be too specific in what this might look like, because I believe the whole church, together, needs to start imagining new wineskins. But I could imagine there being a whole system of diaconates parallel to the classes, synods, and General Synod, with these diaconates having charge of most of the funds of the church (apart from assessments). These diaconates would empower boards and agencies with full discretion to carry out their works of mission and ministry, always accountable to their respective assemblies. Ministers and elders could serve on these boards and agencies, of course, but they would be essentially diaconal. The diaconates would report to the assemblies and have voice in them, just as denominational staff and corresponding delegates have done. Indeed, it might develop that most of the denominational staff present represent the diaconates and their agencies. The General Synod Council, being a board and not an assembly or judicatory, could well be constituted as one-third deacons.

Of course there would be lots to work out, and there could be variety of schemes within the denomination. And of course there would be unintended consequences. One circumstantial consequence to be hoped for is a simultaneous rehabilitation of our assemblies as theological judicatories appropriate to the offices of their minister and elder members. Another consequence would be that current employees of the RCA might feel that their jobs are at risk, and this would have to be addressed. Although, by Carver principles, the General Synod Council has a single employee, and the staff structures, in principle, are supposed to be extremely flexible as needed, there cannot help but be resistance to change and hesitation to carry out necessary changes when people’s jobs and livelihoods and obligations are affected.

I know that this little paper of mine has been rather critical of the report of the Commission on Theology. But the issue is important, and the opportunity is great. That I propose a whole different outcome than the commission is doing does not mean that I disagree with the main point of the full inclusion of deacons throughout the whole fabric of the Reformed church, but only that I disagree with how that inclusion happens for their best empowerment and for the revitalization of the missional structures of the RCA.

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