The Diaconate and Its Work: Introduction

Few Christians step back to carefully consider the nature of the church of Jesus Christ. To be clear, I’m not making reference to a particular organized church by that name but rather to the whole body of which Jesus is the head. In previous articles we have considered the nature of the Session and its work. Now that’s all good and well, but only passing mention was made of the office of the deacon. In this series of articles, it’s time to highlight the importance of the office of the deacon, and the responsibilities thereof.

Jesus the Head:

Before we begin, a level-set is in order. The church is made up of several distinct offices. You may ask: Is it four, or five? There are indeed four offices, however one of these is a bifurcated office: the office of elder consists of two distinct categories by which the work of shepherding God’s people is distributed so that this work is not concentrated in one man. Ruling elders are called to work with the minister and to assist him in all his labors. Thus we may say that there are five offices:

• Christ the Head
• The body of the Christ which is an office that all believers hold in common
• Deacons
• Ruling Elders
• Ministers

The last three above are the special offices to which men are called, trained, ordained, and installed by appointment of the local body of believers. Men are called to these offices by a local body of believers who share in the body of Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit. Previously we have considered the Session and its work. In this series it is good to find proper context for the office of deacons. Everything knits together in Jesus Christ who holds all authority and power in the church. There is no other source of lawful authority, and there is no other power than that of the head of the church.

Let’s look further:

Jesus Christ holds the chief of offices, also referred to in Isaiah 28:16-17 as the cornerstone. See what the Lord says through the mouth of Isaiah says about Jesus: “Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation:” Paul makes clear that this refers to Jesus Christ in Ephesians 2:19-22, “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”

The functional roles that Jesus fulfills as the Chief Head who holds all things together as the cornerstone holds together the ancient gates includes the three offices of Prophet, Priest, and King. These offices are well described in the catechisms of the Westminster Confession of Faith. See the Shorter Catechism questions 23-26.

The OPC Book of Church Order (BCO), Form of Government (FG), Chapter V, has this to say regarding the offices in the church:

1. Our Lord Jesus Christ established his church of the new covenant on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. The apostles were appointed to be witnesses to the risen Christ, testifying in the Holy Spirit to what they had seen and heard, heralding the gospel to the world, and grounding the church in the teaching of Christ. Together with the prophets they spoke by revelation, recording in the Scriptures of the New Testament the fullness of the truth as it is in Christ Jesus. When their testimony was completed, their calling and office were not continued in the church and the powers and signs that endued and sealed their ministry ceased.

2. Our Lord continues to build his church through the ministry of men whom he calls and endues with special gifts for teaching, ruling, and serving. Some of these special gifts can be most profitably exercised only when those who possess them have been publicly recognized as called of Christ to minister with authority. It is proper to speak of such a publicly recognized function as an office, and to designate men by such scriptural titles of office and calling as evangelist, pastor, teacher, bishop, elder, or deacon. There are diversities of ministry within any office, for every man is called to be a steward of his own gifts. At the same time, a general designation of office may be applied to a group of functions within which separate offices could be distinguished.

3. The ordinary and perpetual offices in the church are those given for the ministry of the Word of God, of rule, and of mercy. Those who share in the rule of the church may be called elders (presbyters), bishops, or church governors. Those who minister in mercy and service are called deacons. Those elders who have been endued and called of Christ to labor also in the Word and teaching are called ministers.

In our next article, we’ll consider the functions of the special offices.