Is It Time To Understand Deacons?

In my PCA we don’t agree on everything, no surprise. What shall we do about it?

Our world has changed; women now do other things besides secretary, nurse and teacher. Now they’re senators and executives and doing well. Do we welcome that or were the Amish right after all: we should have stayed on the farm? But we won’t be wiser than God on that either! We’re all learning about gifts we never knew we had.


I keep rereading Luder Whitlock’s Divided We Fall. Where should we draw those lines, the ones that make our faith in Christ clear while taking away all those ambiguities that unnecessarily divide his church? In my PCA we don’t agree on everything, no surprise. What shall we do about it?

Way back then I was a mid-trib, confident that at the end of this world persecution of believers would be very hard but that they wouldn’t have to suffer through the worst part at the end. Others around me were pre-trib, confident that believers would be removed before that suffering even began. (Remember that Scofield was Presbyterian!) I was out of step and got prayed for—but the prayer was that I would stop resisting what was so clear in the Bible. By now we know how to think about it: life with Jesus is hard, going to get harder, learn fast about trusting him. That’s enough.

I grew up in the last dry county in Iowa, where we were convinced that the only sure way to avoid drunkenness was never to drink. When that was repealed the former mood lingered. On the town square were The Chocolate Shop and The Candy Kitchen, both with windows full of piles of ancient boxes of candy. Inside were the bars! Did any preacher there ever preach on the feeding of the 5000 with the very best wine ever? Our testimony comes out this way: God forbids this and he doesn’t forbid that, so stop being wiser than God. Especially don’t be wiser than God when it comes to loving each other.

This one is harder. How should we live on the Lord’s Day known as Sabbath? Here’s Westminster Larger Catechism #117:

How is the Sabbath or the Lord’s Day to be sanctified? A.: The Sabbath or Lord’s Day is to be sanctified by an holy resting all the day, not only from such works as are at all times sinful, but even from such worldly employments and recreations as are on other days lawful; and making it our delight to spend the whole time (except so much of it as is to be taken up in works of necessity and mercy) in the public and private exercises of God’s worship: and, to that end, we are to prepare our hearts, and with such foresight, diligence, and moderation, to dispose and seasonably dispatch our worldly business, that we may be the more free and fit for the duties of that day.

That’s one way to think about it. Underline “all the day” and resting from “recreations,” that’s the biggest in this one. I still feel the pain from the OPC’s judgment that my friend and pastor Frank Breisch’s views on this disqualified him to be a minister. I don’t remember the church talked about how much of the Standards were that important, it sounded like “all of it.” Frank kept on being Reformed, but moved on to the Christian Reformed Church with its summary of our faith in #103 of the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q.: What is God’s will for you in the fourth commandment? A.: First, that the gospel ministry and education for it be maintained, and that, especially on the festive day of rest, I diligently attend the assembly of God’s people to learn what God’s Word teaches, to participate in the sacraments, to pray to God publicly, and to bring Christian offerings for the poor. Second, that every day of my life I rest from my evil ways, let the Lord work in me through his Spirit, and so begin in this life the eternal Sabbath.

Now underline all that last sentence: every day of my life, I rest from evil ways and begin in this life the eternal Sabbath. So what is “rest” anyway? Is it all about looking back at Creation, or about looking ahead to our final rest when Jesus comes back?” Both/and! (Hi-tech theology folks call that the “eschatological Sabbath.”) So when we have that conversation, there always has to be two questions: how does God’s Sabbath express itself in your life on Sunday? Now tell us about Thursday? But some see Sunday a lot bigger and it’s hard to get over that. Hebrews 4 helps: 

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’ “although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” And again in this passage he said, “They shall not enter my rest.” Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:1-16).

Nothing needs underlining there, it’s all what the Lord is saying to us right now. Do you put together that great rest ahead of us together with Jesus our high priest? “In every respect tempted as we are, yet without sin?” It’s going to be a long hard fight till we arrive and we’ll need all the Jesus we can get. That’s bigger than avoiding “recreation.” In two PCA presbyteries I’ve heard candidates routinely say they don’t agree to “no recreation,” and they were easily received. Also, what happened to Sunday evening worship? Wasn’t that better than in the morning, no pressure about “roast in the oven,” or guests coming over? Now some of us have Sunday evening small groups.

We’ve been changing our hearts and minds. Safe place for Frank now! Is that good enough, that we just drop the no-recreation-Sabbath by common consent? Or should we vote to amend our Standards? That’s been done; it’s fine to do that. When our Revolution happened, we dropped that it’s the state’s job to make sure our religion is biblical. In the 19th century we dropped that the Pope is the Antichrist and that you can’t marry “your deceased wife’s sister.” The good thing about amending is that it’s more than a General Assembly thing and gives the presbyteries some time to think it over, with wisdom from those ruling elders who find it hard to come to GA.

Should we do some wholesale amending by adding Heidelberg and other Reformed creeds? Westminster Seminary California did that, but they spoiled it by saying that when there’s conflict the Westminster Standards always win. I’ve long been partial to B. B. Warfield’s words that our faith is where all Reformed standards agree, that’s what we just did with Sabbath. (Now, I can’t find where Warfield says that, how could I lose it, would someone please find it for me?) I suppose that would be too much, so we’re counting on you folks who know those other Reformed ways of saying things to keep on reminding us what they say.

What happened to that heavy “intinction” debate? In the Supper, can you dunk the bread into the wine when the NT account says, first bread then wine? That one seems to have disappeared (my students were drawing presbytery maps to find where they would be at home). How long are the creation “days”? That’s still on the table somewhere, but not that prominent. Another map? Again, GA lack of interest, at least when it comes to amending, seems to be more important than bringing in presbyteries and ruling elders, is that good?

The pressing one right now is: how shall we, especially women, use our gifts for the Lord and his glory? We all know that the answer isn’t, clergy do all the work and the rest of us observe gratefully. It’s really this way:

The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:7-11).

The end is near, time is running out, you each have a gift, now use it for God’s glory. Grassroots all the way, this is for everyone. Look for your talking and serving opportunities and challenges, and go to work! Don’t talk to each other just about the Phillies, pass on where you’re struggling and how this place in the Word helps so much. Have people over for meals and then don’t complain afterwards. “Priesthood of all believers.”

Our world has changed; women now do other things besides secretary, nurse and teacher. Now they’re senators and executives and doing well. Do we welcome that or were the Amish right after all: we should have stayed on the farm? But we won’t be wiser than God on that either! We’re all learning about gifts we never knew we had. Pastors should reach out to those not-yet-believers but it goes even better when we all do. Preachers can “apply” the Word in general ways, but it’s up to us all to get specific, for ourselves and for our friends. We’re missing “single-women ministry” in our churches so we count on them to show us the way. The Lord wants us to have “officers” in our churches, but they’re not there to go off and hide while they do their work, but to share vigorously with us all the grand gospel vision, with what that means for all of us.

We all do deaconing things, of course. We learn from that and then we can help others do it better. Should women pass on their insights to the deacons, and not just at dinner time? We all know deaconing isn’t a leadership role, so why can’t women be deacons? Our cousins in the ARP have done that for years, what can they tell us? The recent PCA General Assembly got this on the table more clearly and helpfully than before, so what’s our next step? Or do we really need a next step, since our committee reminds us how well we’re doing with “mutual respect?” Enough so that we can do near-deacons well? And respect those nearer than we are?

Respect, along with love when we are struggling to understand each other, is a remarkable gift. But some aren’t that hopeful, and believe instead that we’re close to selling out our biblical heritage. I never met any of these feelings in my three presbyteries, but I respect that judgment, too. We all know that we shouldn’t paper over things that others are so concerned about. With some reluctance, I think it’s time to go the way of amendment: affirming that we believe women may be elected deacon.

Of course, that will be hard. But it will respect those who think differently, and we need to do that, especially our presbyteries. I hope that as we consider what that would mean that we will learn from our OPC, ARP, EPC and ECO cousins. Perhaps we will discover that our own mutual respect image is so unreal as to be imaginary? That there’s no reason our conservatives shouldn’t be OPC and our progressives ARP or EPC? But all that is too negative, our hope right now is for godly discussion in unhurried regional levels, with much prayer and constant waiting on our Lord.

Clair Davis is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is retired from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia after a long tenure as Professor of Church History. He lives in the Philadelphia area.