The Churchly Authority of the Office of Deacon, Part 3

Deacons and Church Power

At stake in the larger debate over deaconesses is not merely the narrow question of what is and is not permitted for women in the life of the Body of Christ, but also the broader question of the nature of the office of deacon, the nature of the representative character of church government, the nature of church power as it relates to ordained office.


In my previous two articles (Part 1 & Part 2) I have attempted to draw out something of the churchly authority that has been invested by Christ into the over of deacon as it is set over the church.  This has been done with a view towards addressing the question of the theological merits of the case for ordaining deaconesses to church office within a complementarian Presbyterian polity.  Central to the discussion about ordaining deaconesses among complementarian Presbyterians is whether or not the office of deacon is an authoritative office and thus whether or not ordaining women to it would violate Paul’s injunction 1 Timothy 2:11-12.  In my first article I examined the way that the office of deacon is contained in the office of elder and thus is invested with a specific subset of the churchly authority of the office of elder.  In the second article I examined the way that Presbyterianism has conceived of church government as representative in nature and drew out the implications of this for the office of deacon as it is a representative organ of the Body of the Church with its own kind of authority exercised on behalf of the Body and over the Body.  In this third article we will now turn to look at whether or not the office of deacon exercises any sort of authoritative church power and if so what sort of church power it might be.

Tim Keller has written about how he is not in favor of ordaining women to the office of deaconess but rather commissioning them to it.[1]   Arguing for a reconfiguration of the office of deacon in the PCA from the language of the BCO which has congregations take vows of obedience to the deacons, Keller appeals to the fact that deacons do not exercise any sort of juridical authority. James Hurley has made a similar appeal for his case for deaconesses.

“Elders teach with a formal authority and exercise disciplinary authority to protect the flock; deacons do not share this task.  As described, the task of a deacon does not involve the sort of teaching and exercising of authority which 1 Timothy 2:11-12 reserves to men.”[2]

The nub of this complementarian argument seems to be that since deacons do not exercise the same sort of teaching authority or juridical authority in church discipline as elders that therefore they do not exercise any sort of authority in the church.

However, what these lines of reasoning miss is the fact that historically Presbyterian polity has not divided church power into just two categories, but rather into three.  The PCA’s BCO has expressed this triplex in its chapter on the jurisdiction of church courts in BCO 11-2: “The jurisdiction of Church courts is only ministerial and declarative, and relates to the doctrines and precepts of Christ, to the order of the Church, and to the exercise of discipline.”  Doctrine, order, and discipline are the three categories of church power assumed by the PCA.[3]  The teaching power of elders mentioned by Hurley falls under the power of doctrine. The juridical/disciplinary power of elders mentioned Hurley and Keller falls under the power of discipline.  But what of the third category which neither Keller nor Hurley consider?  What of the power of order?  Do deacons exercise a specific type of this division of church power?

In order to answer that question we need to look at what exactly the power of order is.  Using the older designation for the power of order (i.e. diatactical power), James Bannerman defines it succinctly as “the power belonging to the Church in the way of administering ordinances and government in the Christian society.  This power comprehends the right to carry into effect the institutions and laws which Christ has appointed within the Church…”  When it comes to the general government of the church, the power of order encompasses the broad prerogative of the church to arrange the details of its governance and implement them.  Guy Waters provides helpful illustrations of this exercise of the power of order.  “We see evidence of the exercise of this aspect of church power when churches adopt a form of government, rules of discipline, a directory for worship, or a standard of parliamentary procedure such as Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised.  This is not only a legitimate exercise of church authority.  It is also a necessary exercise of church authority.”[4]  When the General Assembly adopts changes to the Book of Church order, this is not an exercise of the power of discipline, nor an exercise of the power of teaching, but it is an exercise of the power of order.  When a Presbytery votes to erect a new standing committee, this is an exercise of the power of order.  When a Session votes to change the time of the Sunday morning service from 10am to 11am, this is an exercise of the power of order.

So, we can ask this question then: When the diaconate votes to distribute to a person or family in financial need a portion of the collective benevolence fund of a congregation, have they exercised a form of church power?  They certainly have not exercised a teaching power in doing so.  And they have not exercised a juridical power of discipline. But have they exercised the power of order?  It would seem so.  As we saw in my last article, deacons have been elected by a congregation and ordained by a Session to act on behalf of the congregation in the representative authority of their office as they have been placed over a congregation.  It seems then that when we ask the question: “What sort of church power might they exercise in that representative role?” the answer that presents itself is “the power of order.”  They are administering and overseeing the concrete circumstances of one particular aspect of the representative government of the church, and that is the management and distribution of the benevolences of the church.

Connected to this is the way in which the BCO describes the relation between church office and Christ himself.  BCO 16-2 – “The government of the Church is by officers gifted to represent Christ…” As officers of the Church deacons represent Christ and in so doing have been invested with a specific kind of ministerial church power as the servants of Christ.  Stuart Robinson helpfully parses out how this representative function of church power relates to Jesus and the exercise of that power in his name.

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