Deacons and Authority

One of the shifts made by those who are advocating including women among the deacons is to say that deacons do not exercise ruling authority. Therefore women can be deacons and not violate I Timothy 2:12. I will get to the exegetical arguments in the future. But here are some initial thoughts on that idea.

All church offices, by that I mean officially recognized positions in the body ordained or not, come with some level of authority.  When someone is ordained, appointed, instituted or whatever word is used into a position they are being given authority either by the bishop, presbytery, session, board, congregation or some other entity to do something.  Some offices have more and some have less authority. Some are pretty high up the authority ladder and some are on the lower rungs. Some offices have expansive authority, covering numerous areas in the church, while some have a very narrow authority. But all offices/positions exercise authority. All offices are also offices of service. They serve the church by exercising authority in the areas where authority has been given to them. Service and authority go hand in hand in the church. One cannot simply say women can be deacons because deacons do not exercise authority. One could argue that deacons do not exercise the type of authority Paul is forbidding to women in I Timothy 2:12 and therefore women can be deacons. But the issue is one of the nature of the authority in question, not the fact of authority. This also means that refusing to ordain deacons does not automatically bring a church’s diaconate in line with I Timothy 2:12. It is possible to not ordain deacons and still violate that verse.

My research on the diaconate is not extensive, so I am open to correction. But based on the research I have done I believe what I say below is accurate. Again I am focused on history here, not exegesis of relevant passages.

Deacons have not had equal authority to ministers/priests/elders throughout church history. They could at times perform the same functions, but that was usually when authority was delegated by the priests/elders to the deacons.

However, deacons have had ruling authority on some level. That is, throughout history putting women on par with men in the diaconate was seen as a violation of I Timothy 2:12, as well as the general tenor of Scripture. To decide that the diaconate has no ruling authority requires a reshaping of the office as it has been historically understood. This may be necessary, but it should not be undertaken without substantial exegetical and historical research. And it should be stated clearly that reshaping of the office is what is actually happening. Some women deacon advocates sound like they are making a modest proposal in line with how the church has always functioned. This is not the case.

Here is a list from this book on some of the things deacons did in the early church: assist in the Lord’s Supper, read the Scriptures in worship, read a sermon if the minister was absent, baptize on occasion, help the congregation follow the worship service, maintain order in worship, give a homily, and distribute gifts. From the same book in Calvin’s Geneva deacons received, sought out, and distributed money, goods, and skills among the needy sometimes seeking out those who were not giving regularly. They also were administrators of the hospital, which was a home for the sick, the elderly, homeless refugees fleeing persecution, and temporary homeless from Geneva. Some deacons functioned at these jobs full time. Deaconesses were an integral part of what the deacons did in Geneva. However, it does not appear from the books I have that they were equivalent to deacons in Geneva, though their jobs did overlap at points. Fast forward to the present, I recently read about some deacons who went into the home of a family requesting financial aid, evaluated whether or not the father was actually trying to work, determined how much aid the family was to receive and for how long, and finally determined where to send that aid.

Collecting, managing, and determining who receives the gifts given to the local body has traditionally been the duty of the deacons. There have been other duties, but this was at the core of what they did, especially if Acts 6:1-6 is taken as establishing deacons or being a prototype for deacons, as the passage has been historically understood. It is difficult to picture this task being accomplished without the deacons having some type of ruling authority. Also divesting the diaconate of ruling authority would seem to undermine one of their specific purposes: allowing the elders more freedom to administer the Word and Sacraments.

I understand that the early church’s view on church offices, ordination, and the sacraments are different from my views. I understand that in Geneva there was an intersection of church and charity that we do not have. That is, hospitals, homes for the elderly, orphanages, care for the poor, and homeless shelters are not normally under the direct oversight of a church today. But even with these differences noted, it is impossible to picture deacons doing the job they have done historically without ruling authority. We can debate whether or not they should have this level of authority.  However, this debate is not just about whether we should put women in the diaconate. It is about who deacons are and what they are supposed to be doing.  A shift to include women in the diaconate, if it is an honest shift, must redefine the office of deacon as it has been historically understood.