The Ruling Elder

by Samuel Miller



These offices have been so often confounded, and opinions attempted to be maintained which tend to merge the former in the latter, that it is judged proper to make the difference between them the subject of distinct consideration.

The only account that we have in Scripture of the origin of the Deacon's office is found in the following passage, in the Acts of the Apostles vi. 1-6. And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said-it is not reason that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men, of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom eve may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch: whom they set before the Apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.

On this plain passage various opinions have been entertained. It will be to our purpose to notice a few of them.

I. Some have doubted whether these were the first Deacons chosen by the direction of the inspired Apostles. The learned Dr. Mosheim supposes that the Church of Jerusalem, from its first organization, had its inferior ministers, in other words, its Deacons; and that there is a reference to these, in the fifth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, under the title of young men, (vewteroi, and neaniskoi,) who assisted in the interment of Annanias and Sapphira. He is confident that the Seven Deacons spoken of in the passage just cited, were added to the original number; and that they were intentionally selected from the foreign Jews, in order to silence the complaints on the part of the Grecians, of partiality in the distribution of the offerings made for the relief of the poor. To this opinion there seems to be no good reason for acceding. The objections to it are the following:

1. It is by no means probable that a class of officers of great importance to the comfort and prosperity of the Church, should have been instituted by divine authority, and yet that the original institution should have been passed over by all the inspired writers in entire silence.

2. In this narrative of the election and ordination of the seven Deacons, there is not the most distant allusion to any pre-existing officers of the same character or functions. The murmuring spoken of, seems to have proceeded from the body of the Grecian, or foreign Christians, and to have been directed against the body of the native, or Hebrew Christians.

3. It is evident, from the spirit of the narrative, that the appointment of these Deacons was expressly designed to relieve the Apostles themselves of a laborious service, with which they had been before encumbered, but which interfered with their discharge of higher, and more important duties. Surely the address of the Apostles would have been strange, if not unmeaning, had there been already a body of officers who were intrusted with the whole of this business; and they had only been solicited to appoint an additional number, or to put a more impartial set in the place of the old incumbents.

4. It is plain that these officers were not chosen from among the young men of the Church, as Dr. Mosheim seems to imagine; nor was the office itself one of small trust or dignity. The multitude were directed to "look out for seven men of honest report," or established reputation, "full of the Holy Ghost and of wisdom;" and when the Apostle Paul afterwards writes to Timothy, and points out the character of those who ought to be selected for this office, he speaks of them as married men, fathers of families, distinguished for their gravity, men who had been "first proved," and found "blameless" as orthodox, just, temperate, holy men, regulating their own households with firmness and prudence.

5. Dr. Mosheim is not borne out by the best authorities in his interpretation of the words newteroi, and neaniskoi. The most skilful lexicographers assign to them no such official meaning. Besides, the nature and responsibility of the office, and the high qualifications for it pointed out by the Apostles at the time of this first choice, and required by the Apostle Paul afterwards, when writing to Timothy, respecting proper persons to be chosen and set apart as Deacons; by no means answer to the view which Dr. Mosheim takes of the inferiority of the office, or the propriety of bestowing it on young men, as the Church's servants.

6. Finally; it may be doubted whether there had been any real need of the Deacon's office, until the time arrived, and the events occured which are recorded in the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. But a short time had elapsed since the Church had been organized on the New Testament plan. At its first organization, the number of the poor connected with it was probably small. But very shortly after the day of Pentecost, the number of foreigners, who had come up to the feast, and had there been converted to the Christian faith, was so great, and the number of these who, at a distance from all their wonted pecuniary resources, and their friends, stood in need of pecuniary aid, had also become so considerable, that the task of "imparting to those who had need," became, suddenly, a most arduous employment. This had been accomplished, however, for a short time, under the direction of the Apostles, and without appointing a particular class of officers for the purpose. But, when the foreign Jews came forward, and made complaint of partiality in this business, the Apostles, under the direction of heavenly Wisdom, called upon the "multitude" to make choice of competent persons whom they might appoint over this branch of Christian ministration. This appears to be a plain history of the case, and to resort to Dr. Mosheim's supposition, is to throw a strange and perplexed aspect over the whole narrative.

II. There are others who have doubted whether the "seven," whose election and ordination are recorded in the 6th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, where Deacons at all. They allege that the office to which they were chosen and set apart was a mere temporary function, not designed to be a permanent one in the Christian Church, and which, probably, did not last much if any longer than what is commonly called "the community of goods," which existed sometime after the day of Pentecost.

Against this supposition, the following reasons are, in my view, conclusive.

1. If this supposition were admitted, then it would follow, that there is no account whatever in the Scriptures of the origin or nature of the Deacon's office. The office is mentioned again and again in the New Testament; but if the narrative in the beginning of the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, be not a statement of its origin, nature and duties, we have no account of them any where. Can this be considered as probable?

2. Is it likely, judging on the principles, and from the analogy of Scripture, that a short occasional trust, a mere temporary trusteeship, if I may so speak, would be appointed with so much formality and solemnity;-marked not only by a formal election of the people, but also by the prayers and "the laying on of the hands" of the Apostles? What greater solemnities attended an investiture with the highest and most permanent offices in the Christian Church?

3. It is a well known fact, that in the Jewish Synagogue which was assumed as the model of the primitive Church, there was a class of officers, to whom the collection and distribution of alms for the poor, were regularly committed. We may venture to presume, then, that the appointment of similar officers in the Church would be altogether likely.

4. When it is considered what an important and arduous part of the Church's duty it was, in the apostolic age, and for some time afterwards, to provide for the very numerous poor who looked to her for aid, it is incredible that there should be no class of officers specifically set apart for this purpose. Yet if the "seven" are not of this class, there is no account of any such appointment in the New Testament.

5. The language of some of the earlier, as well as the later Christian Fathers on this subject, clearly evinces that they considered the appointment recorded in the chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, now under consideration, as the appointment of Christian Deacons -- and as exhibiting the nature of that office, and the great purpose for which it was instituted. A small specimen of the manner in which they speak on the subject will be sufficient to establish this position. Hermas, one of the apostolical Fathers in his Similitude, 9,-27, expresses himself thus: -- "For what concerns the tenth mountain, in which were the trees covering the cattle, they are such as have believed, and some of them have been Bishops, that is presidents of the Churches. Then such as have been set over interior ministries, and have protected the poor and the widows. Origen, (Tract. 16, in Matt.,) evidently considered the Deacons as charged with the pecuniary concerns of the Church. "The Deacons," says he, "preside over the money tables of the Church." And again, "Those Deacons, who do not manage well the money of the Churches committed to their care, but act a fraudulent part, and dispense it, not according to justice, but for the purpose of enriching themselves; these act the part of moneychangers, and keepers of those tables which our Lord overturned. For the Deacons were appointed to preside over the tables of the Church, as we are taught in the Acts of the Apostles." Cyprian speaks (Epist. 25.) of a certain Deacon who had been deposed from his "sacred Diaconate, on account of his fraudulent and sacrilegious misapplication of the Church's money to his own private use; and for his denial of the widow's and orphan's pledges deposited with him." And, in another place, (Epist. 3, ad Rogatianum,) he refers the appointment of the first Deacons to this choice and ordination at Jerusalem. It seems, then, that the Deacons, in the days of Cyprian, were intrusted with the care of widows and orphans, and the funds of the Church destined for their relief. It is incidentally stated in the account of the persecution under the emperor Decius, in the third century, that by order of the emperor, Laurentius, one of the Deacons of Rome, was seized, under the expectation of finding the money of the Church, collected for the use of the, poor, in his possession. It is further stated that this money had really been in his possession but that, expecting the storm of persecution, he had distributed it before his seizure.

Eusebius; (Lib. ii. cap. 1,) says; -- There were also "seven approved men ordained Deacons, through prayer and the imposition of the Apostle's hands," and he immediately afterwards speaks of Stephen as one of the number. Dorothoeus, Bishop of Tyre, contemporary with Eusebius, also says; (Lives of the Prophets, &c.,) "Stephen, the first Martyr, and one of the seven Deacons, was stoned by the Jews at Jerusalem, as Luke testifieth in the Acts of the Apostles."

Ambrose, in speaking of the fourth century, the time in which he lived, says, (Comment. in Ephes. iv.) "The Deacons do not publicly preach." Chrysostom, who lived in the same century, in his commentary on this very passage, in Acts vi, observes, that "the Deacons had need of great wisdom, although the preaching of the word was not committed to them;" and remarks further, that "it is absurd to suppose that they should have both the offices of preaching and taking care of the poor committed to them, seeing it is impossible for them to discharge both functions adequately." Sozomem, the ecclesiastical historian, who lived in the fifth century, says; (Lib. v. cap. 8.) that "the Deacon's office was to keep the Church's goods." In the Apostolical Constitutions, which, though undoubtedly spurious as an apostolical work, may probably be referred to the fourth or fifth centuries, it is recorded; (Lib. 8, cap. 28.) "It is not lawful for the Deacons to baptize, or to administer the Eucharist, or to pronounce the greater or smaller benediction." Jerome, in his letter to Evagrius, calls Deacons "ministers of tables and widows." Oecumenius, a learned commentator, who lived several centuries after Jerome, in his commentary on Acts vi., expresses himself thus: -- "The Apostles laid their hands on those who were chosen Deacons, not to confer on them that rank which they now hold in the Church, but that they might, with all diligence and attention, distribute the necessaries of life to widows and orphans." And the Council of Trullo, in the sixth century, expressly asserts (Can. 16,) that the seven Deacons spoken of in the Acts of the Apostles, are not to be understood of such as ministered in divine service, or in sacred mysteries: but only of such as served tables, and attended the poor.

Another consideration, which shows beyond controversy that the early Christians universally considered the "seven" spoken of in the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, as the proper New Testament Deacons, is that, for several centuries, many of the largest and most respectable Churches in the world considered themselves as bound, in selecting their Deacons, to confine themselves to the exact number SEVEN, whatever might be their extent and their exigencies, on the avowed principle of conformity to the number of this class of officers first appointed, in the mother Church at Jerusalem. The Council of Neocoesarea enacted it into a canon, that there should be but seven Deacons in any city, however great, because this was according to the rule laid down in the Acts of the Apostles. And the Church of Rome, both before and after this Council, seems also to have looked upon that example as binding; for it is evident from the Epistles of Cornelius, written in the middle of the third century, that there were but seven Deacons in the Church of Rome at that time, though there were forty-six Presbyters. Prudentius intimates that it was so in the time of Sixtus, also, in the year 261; for speaking of Laurentius, the Deacon, he terms him the chief of those "seven men," who had their station near the altar, meaning the Deacons of the Church. Nay, in the fourth and fifth centuries, the custom in that city continued the same, as we learn both from Sozomen and Hilary, the Roman Deacon, who wrote under the nature of Ambrose.[1]

6. The current opinion of all the most learned and judicious Christian Divines, of all denominations for several centuries past, is decisively in favor of considering the passage in Acts vi., as recording the first appointment of the New Testament Deacons. Among all classes of theologians, Catholic and Protestant, Lutheran and Calvinistic, Presbyterian and Episcopal, this concurrence of opinion approaches so near to unanimity, that we may, without injustice to any other opinion, consider it as the deliberate and harmonious judgment of the Christian Church.

The very learned Suicer, a German Professor of the seventeenth century, in his Thesaurus Ecclesiasticus, (Art. Diakonos,) makes the following statement on this subject: -- "In the apostolic Church, Deacons were those who distributed alms to the poor, and took care of them: in other words, they were the treasurers of the Church's charity. The original institution of this class of officers is set forth in the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. With respect to them, the 16th canon of the Council of Constantine (in Trullo) says: -- "They are those to whom the common administering to poverty is committed; not those who administer the sacraments." And Aristinus, in his Synopsis of the Canons of the same Council, Canon 18th, says: -- "Let him who alleges that the seven, of whom mention is made in the Acts of the Apostles, were Deacons, know that the account there given is not of those who administer the sacraments, but of such as 'served tables.'" Zonaras, ad Canon. 16, Trullanum. p. 145, says, those who by the Apostles were appointed to the Diaconate, were not ministers of spiritual things, but ministers and dispensers of meats. Oecumenius also, on the 6th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, says: -- "They laid their hands on the Deacons who had been elected, which office was by no means the same with that which obtains at the present day in the Church, (i.e. under the same name;) but that with the utmost care and diligence, they might distribute what was necessary to the sustenance of orphans and widows."

From these considerations, I feel myself warranted in concluding with confidence, that the "seven," chosen at Jerusalem, to "serve tables," were scriptural Deacons, and the first Deacons; and that, of course, every attempt to evade the necessary consequence of admitting this fact, is wholly destitute of support.

III. A third opinion held by some on this subject is, that, although the passage recorded in the beginning of the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, is an account of the first appointment of New Testament Deacons; and though their primary function was to take care of the poor, and "serve tables;" yet that the appropriate duties of their office were afterwards enlarged. Thus the Prelatists say, that Philip, one of the "seven," is found, soon after his appointment as Deacon, preaching and baptizing. Hence they infer that these functions of right pertain to the Deacon's office, and have belonged to it from the beginning. On the other hand, some Independents say, that the word Deacon, according to its Greek etymology, means minister or servant; that this general term may cover a large field of ecclesiastical service; and that New Testament Deacons were, probably, at first intended, and now ought to be employed, to assist the Pastor in counsel and government, as well as in serving the Lord's table, and attending to the relief of the poor. And even some Presbyterians have expressed the opinion, that our Ruling Elders were a kind of Deacons in disguise, and ought so to be considered and called; and that there ought not to be, and cannot be, consistently with Scripture, any office bearer, charged with the duty of assisting the Pastor in counsel and rule, other than the Deacon.

I am fully persuaded that this is an erroneous opinion. It appears to me manifest, not only that it is inconsistent with the form of government of the Presbyterian Church; but what is a much more serious difficulty, that it is altogether irreconcileable with the New Testament. For,

1. An attentive and impartial perusal of the record of this first institution of Deacons, must convince anyone, that preaching, baptizing, or partaking in the spiritual rule and government of the Church, were so far from being embraced in the original destination of the New Testament Deacon, that they were all absolutely precluded, by the very terms, and the whole spirit of the representation given by the inspired historian. The things complained of by the Grecian believers, are not that the PREACHING was defective, or that the GOVERNMENT and DISCIPLINE of the Church were badly managed. Not a hint of this kind is given. The only complaint was, that the poor "WIDOWS had been neglected;" in other words, had not had the due share of attention to their wants, and of relief from the Church's bounty. To remove all cause of complaint On THIS SCORE, the "seven" were chosen and set apart. The sphere of duty to which they were appointed, was one which the Apostles declared they could not fulfil without "LEAVING THE WORD OF GOD TO SERVE TABLES."[2] They say, therefore, to the members of the Church, "look ye out seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and of wisdom, whom we may appoint OVER THIS BUSINESS," i.e. over the "serving of tables." "And we will give ourselves to PRAYER AND THE MINISTRY OF THE WORD." Now, to suppose that these very Deacons were appointed to officiate in "the ministry of the word and prayer," is an inconsistency, nay an absurdity, so glaring, that the only wonder is how any one can possibly adopt it after reading the passage in question. If the object had been to adopt a supposition fitted to exhibit the Apostles, and the "multitude" too, as acting like insane men, or children, one more directly adapted to answer the end, could not have been thought of.

2. The circumstance of Philip, sometime after his appointment as Deacon, being found preaching and baptizing, in Samaria, and other places, does not afford the smallest presumptive evidence against this conclusion. Soon after his appointment to the diaconate in Jerusalem, the members of the Church in that city were chiefly "scattered abroad by persecution." Philip was, of course, driven from his residence. Now, the probability is, that about this time-seeing he was a man "full of the Holy Ghost and of wisdom," and therefore, eminently qualified to be useful in preaching the gospel, he received a new ordination as an Evangelist, and in this character went forth to preach and baptize. He is expressly called an "Evangelist," by the same inspired writer who gives us an account of his appointment as a Deacon; (Acts xxi. 8). Until it can be proved, then, that he preached and baptized as a Deacon, and not as an Evangelist, the supposition is utterly improbable and altogether worthless. It is really an imposition on credulity to urge it. And that certainly never can be proved as long as the sixth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles remains a part of the inspired volume. As to Stephen, another of the "seven," disputing with gainsayers in private, and defending himself before the Council; it was not official preaching at all. It was nothing more than every professing Christian is at all times not only at liberty, but under obligation to do, when assailed by unbelievers, or when brought before an unjust tribunal.

The truth is, the practice of connecting the functions of preaching and baptizing with the Deacon's office, is one of the various human inventions which early began to spring up in the Church, and which turned almost every ecclesiastical office which had been divinely instituted more or less from its primitive character. "But from the beginning it was not so." It is a departure from the apostolical model. We find, indeed, in several of the writers of the first three or four centuries, frequent intimations of Deacons being permitted to preach, and administer the ordinance of baptism. But in almost every instance it is represented as done in virtue of a specific permission from the Pastor or Bishop in each case, and as entirely unlawful without such permission. A very different thing from a function inherent in an office, and always lawful when a proper occasion for its exercise occurred! In fact, ecclesiastical history, I believe, will bear me out in saying, that, within the first three centuries, it would be just as correct to assert that private Christians in general had a right to preach and baptize, as to maintain that Deacons, in virtue of their office as such, had this right, because we meet with some instances of their being both called upon to do so in cases of supposed necessity, or when specially permitted by superior ecclesiastics. Mr. Bingham, the learned Episcopal antiquary, explicitly tells us, on the authority of several early writers, that private Christians, who sustained no office whatever in the Church, were sometimes called upon to address the people, in the absence, or at the special request of him whose official duty it was to preach. The same learned author goes on to state, that, in the apostolic age, or as long as the special gifts of the Holy Spirit, enabling men to prophesy, continued, all who possessed such special gifts, whether in office or not, might use "the word of exhortation" in the Church. "But then," he adds, "as such extraordinary gifts of the Spirit of prophecy, were in a manner peculiar to the apostolical age, this could not be a rule to the following ages of the Church. And, therefore, when once these gifts were ceased, the Church went prudently by another rule, to allow none but such as were called by an ordinary commission to perform this office, except where some extraordinary natural endowments (such as were in Origen before his ordination) answering in some measure to those special gifts, made it proper to grant a license to laymen to exercise their talents for the benefit of the Church. Or else, when necessity imposed the duty on Deacons, to perform the office of preaching, when the Bishop and Presbyters were by sickness, or other means, debarred from it. For the aforesaid author (Ambrose) plainly says, that Deacons, in his time, were not ordinarily allowed proedicare in populo, i.e. preach to the people, as being an office to which they had no ordinary commission. And the same is said by the author of the Apostolical Constitutions, and many others. Therefore, since Deacons were not allowed this power, but only in some special cases; it is the less to be wondered at, after the ceasing of spiritual gifts, it should, generally, be denied to laymen."[3]

A mistake on this point, in reference to the Deacon's office, has arisen from misinterpreting certain terms which are used by some of the early writers to express their public service. The words khrugma, khrux, khrussw, &c. are frequently used in the New Testament to express the public preacher, and preaching of the gospel. Now, when the same words are applied by some of the earlier Greek Fathers, and the corresponding words, proeco, proedicatio and proedicare, by the Latins, to the Deacon's office, it has been hastily concluded that they were, habitually, preachers, in the New Testament sense of the term. But the truth is, as every one in the least degree acquainted with those writers, knows, these terms, when used by the Fathers, signify an entirely different thing. The Deacons, in the third, fourth and fifth centuries, are every where represented as the common heralds or criers of the Church. -- That is, when any public notice was to be given; when the catechumens or the penitents were to be called upon aloud to come forward, or to withdraw; or when any public proclamation was to be made, in the course of the service in the Church; -- it belonged to the Deacon's duty. Hence he was called the office to perform this khrux, or crier, and was said khrussein, to cry aloud, or make proclamation. It belonged to the Deacons, also, to keep order at the doors, when the service was beginning; to see that the worshippers were seated in a quiet and orderly manner; to stand around the communion table, when it was spread, and with fans made either of dried skins, or peacock's feathers, to keep off the flies from the consecrated elements; and, after the consecration of the sacramental elements, to bear them to the communicants. These, and a variety of subordinate duties, were considered as pertaining to their office, and hence they were regarded, not as having any part of the priesthood, according to the language of that day; but as being the "Church's servants." All this is so explicitly acknowledged, and so abundantly proved, by the learned Bingham, (Origines Ecclesiasticoe, Book ii. Chap. 20, and Book xiv. Chap. 4,) that any further enlargement on the subject is altogether unnecessary. The original office of the Deacon was one of high trust and dignity; requiring much piety, wisdom, prudence and diligence. But when the purity of the Church, both in doctrine and practice, declined, and especially, when the ardor of her charity to the poor had greatly slackened, that officer, having little to do in his appropriate department, sunk, for a time, into a kind of ecclesiastical menial.

3. The directions afterwards given by Paul to Timothy, (Tim. iii.) respecting the proper qualifications of candidates for the Deacon's office, are decisively opposed to the view of the subject which I am now examining. When the Apostle speaks of the qualifications indispensable in a Teaching Elder, or Bishop, he says he must not only be grave, pious, and of good report, but also "APT TO TEACH," &c. But he prescribes no such condition in the choice of Deacons. He gives no intimation that teaching made any part of their official work. It is said, indeed, that they ought to be men "holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. By which I understand to be meant, that they must be men holding the true faith in sincerity. in other words, that they must be orthodox, and pious; qualifications which ought to be found in all who bear office in the Church of God.

4. We have not the least evidence, from any source, that the function of government was ever connected with the Deacon's office. We read of Ruling Elders, but never of Ruling Deacons. Among all the multiplied witnesses drawn from the Synagogue and the Church, and from almost all denominations of Christians, ancient and modern, in favor of a bench of Elders in each congregation for conducting its government and discipline, I recollect no example of the members of that bench being called Deacons, or of Deacons having any place among them. Nay, it is perfectly manifest, that if, according to the scriptural model, there ought to be a bench or college, made up of a plurality of Elders in each Church, to be intrusted with the inspection and rule of the whole body; then there is not a shadow of evidence to support the claim of the Deacons to a seat in that body. But if such a bench of Rulers, under the name of Elders, or Presbyters, be given up; then I will venture to assert, there is not a shred of evidence, either in or out of the Bible, that similar powers were ever assigned to Deacons, as such. We may, indeed, call our Ruling Elders, by the name of Deacons, if we please. And so we may call them Dervises, or Imams, with the Turks; and say that we mean by these titles, to designate the members of the parochial Presbytery, or Consistory, in each Church. But the real questions which present themselves for solution are such as these:-Is it agreeable to the New Testament model, that there be in every Christian congregation a plurality of pious and prudent men, invested with the office of inspection and government in the Church? Or, ought all ecclesiastical authority and discipline to be exercised by the Pastor alone? If the former be admitted, then, ought the body of spiritual rulers to be styled Elders or Deacons? If the latter name be contended for, as the more scriptural, then what passage of Scripture, or of early uninspired history, can be mentioned, which countenances the application of this title to ecclesiastical rulers, as such? The truth is, it is not perceived how any can consistently maintain, that the officers whom Presbyterians are wont to call Ruling Elders, are really Deacons, and ought to be so designated, without abandoning the Church Session, as destitute of all scriptural warrant. He who does this, however, must hold, either that the Pastor of each Church has the whole government and discipline in his own hands, and that the persons called Elders, or Deacons, are only a set of convenient advisers, without any rightful judicial authority; or that all authority ought to be exercised by the body of the communicants, and every question of admission or discipline submitted to their vote. In the latter case, he may be a very pious and excellent Independent; but he has no claim to the character of a Presbyterian.

It is deeply to be regretted, that the office of Deacon, in its true nature, and its highly important and scriptural character, is not to be found in many Presbyterian Churches. In some, this office is wholly dropped. Neither the name nor the thing is to be found in them. In others, the Ruling Elders, or the members of the Church Session, are constantly styled Deacons, and scarcely ever designed by any other title; while the office really indicated in Scripture by that title is not retained. And in a third class of our Churches, those who are meant for real Deacons, that is, who are chosen and set apart as such, as well as called by that name, are employed in functions for which the office of Deacon was never instituted. The cases, it is feared, are few in which the offices of Elder and Deacon are both retained, and the appropriate functions of each distinctly maintained.

Perhaps in a majority of our Churches the office of Deacon, strictly so called is entirely dropped. This, it is believed, is also virtually the case, to a considerable extent in the Church of Scotland, and among the large and respectable body of Presbyterians in the North of Ireland. The origin of this extensive disuse of an unquestionable scriptural office, is probably to be traced to the peculiar form of the provision made in some countries for the support of the poor, which was supposed to render the deaconship, as a separate office, unnecessary. Deacons had a place in the original organization of the Protestant Church of Scotland; and, for many years after the Reformation, were universally retained and much employed in that Church, as a distinct class of officers. But, in later times the office has either been suffered to fall into disuetude altogether, or, as is more common, has been united with that of Ruling Elder, in the same individuals. So that the Ruling Elders in the Church of Scotland, are generally expected, and undertake, to act as Deacons also. The same arrangement it is believed is also generally adopted among the Presbyterians in Ireland.

As to those Churches in our own country in which the office of Deacon has been suffered to fall into disuse altogether, this event is certainly, on a variety of accounts, to be regretted:-among others, for the following reasons

1. Every scriptural precedent is worthy of serious regard. The office of Deacon was evidently brought into the Church by inspired men. And although it is not contended that it is essential to an organized Church to have officers of this class inasmuch as the Church, undoubtedly, did without them for a short time, after its first organization; yet as the office is an institution of infinite wisdom, and necessary to a full array of all the officers which belong to the visible Church, it seems expedient to retain it, in all cases in which it is possible.

2. We know that, in every Jewish Synagogue, before the coming of Christ, there was a class of officers whose peculiar duty it was to collect and dispense the monies contributed for the support of the poor. This seems to have been an invariable part of the Synagogue system. And as that system was evidently the model on which the Christian Church was formed, we may presume that a feature of it so strongly recommended by age and experience, is worthy of adoption.

3. Although some Churches may plead in excuse for discontinuing the use of this office, that they have no Church poor, and, therefore, no occasion for the appropriate services of Deacons; yet the question is, ought they to allow this to be the case? What though the laws of the State make provision of a decent kind for all the poor? Are there not commonly within the bounds, and even among the communicants, of every Church of any extent, and of the ordinary standing in point of age, generally found a greater or less number of persons who have seen more comfortable days, but are now reduced;-aged widows; persons of delicate, retiring spirits, who are struggling with the most severe privations of poverty in secret, but cannot bring themselves to apply to the civil officer for aid as paupers; who, at the same time, would be made comparatively comfortable by a pittance now and then administered in the tender and affectionate spirit of the gospel? Now, ought the Church to take no measures for searching out such members, who are not and cannot be reached by the legal provision, and kindly ministering to their comfort? But if there be no class of officers whose appropriate duty it is to make this whole concern an object of their attention, it will too often be neglected, and thus the interest of Christian charity seriously suffer. It is not a sufficient answer to this argument to say, as those who philosophize on the subject of pauperism, say, and, to a certain extent, with great truth, that this very provision would probably invite application, and perhaps, in some instances, induce improper reliance upon it, to the neglect of economy and diligence. Supposing this, in some decree, to be the case; would it not be better to relieve some portion of the poverty brought on by improvidence, than to allow humble, tender piety to pine in secret, unpitied, and unrelieved, under the pressure of that helpless penury, which was induced by the hand of a sovereign God? Nay, is no pity, no active sympathy due from the Church even to indigence notoriously induced by sin?

The considerations which have been suggested, furnish, indeed, a good argument for having Deacons of suitable character;-men of piety, wisdom, benevolence, practical acquaintance with the world, and with human nature, who would be likely to perform their duty with discernment, prudence, and unfeigned Christian charity, cautiously guarding against the evils to which the relief they are commissioned to bear is exposed; but no argument at all against affording such relief when really needed.

4. It is a great error to suppose that Deacons cannot be appropriately and profitably employed in various other ways besides ministering to the poor of the Church. They might, with great propriety be made the managers of all the money-tables, or fiscal concerns of each congregation; and, for this purpose, might be incorporated, if it were thought necessary, by law, that they might be enabled regularly to hold and employ all the property, real and personal, of the Church. But, even if it were thought inexpedient that boards of Deacons should allowed thus to supersede the boards of "Trustees" which are, at present, commonly employed to manage each ecclesiastical treasury; still there are very important services in reference to pecuniary concerns, which they might manage, and which, it is believed, would be greatly beneficial to the Church if they were considered as at all times bound to manage, and should actually manage with wisdom, energy and zeal. I refer to the Church's contributions to the various great objects of Christian enterprise which distinguish the present day. That these contributions to the cause of the Bible; of Missions, foreign and domestic; of Sabbath Schools; and of the various other Christian and benevolent undertakings for promoting knowledge, virtue and happiness, temporal and eternal, among men, ought to be continued, and greatly increased, -- no one who looks into the Bible, or who knows any thing of the Christian spirit, can for a moment doubt. It is quite evident, too, that these contributions ought to be perfectly voluntary, and that any attempt to render them otherwise, would be both unscriptural and mischievous. But would it not tend to render the whole business of liberality to the cause of Christ more regular, more easy, more abundant, and ultimately more productive, if it were placed under the enlightened advice, and wise management of six or eight Deacons in each Church? Suppose the Pastor and the Elders of every congregation to be animated with a proper spirit on this subject, and to be habitually uttering and diffusing proper sentiments; and suppose the whole business of collecting the contributions, and paying them over to the respective treasuries for which they were destined, were devolved on the Deacons, as an executive board, who might call to their aid, and would really confer, as well as receive a benefit, by calling to their aid, in the details of collection, a number of active, pious sub-agents? Can any one doubt that the contributions of the Churches would be more systematic, more regular, more conveniently received, better proportioned, and a part, at least, and, in some cases, a large part, of the expenses paid to travelling agents, saved for the cause of Christ? The truth is, an enlightened, active, pious board of Deacons might place this whole subject on such a footing, and when they had gotten it fairly arranged, and under way, might manage it in such a manner, as without adding in the least degree to the burdens of the people, would render their contributions more productive, as well as more easy and economical in every part of their management.

With respect to the mode of disposing of the Deacon's office adopted extensively in our sister Churches of Scotland and Ireland,[4] and in a few instances, in this country, namely, laying it on the Ruling Elders, and uniting both offices, in the same individual -- it is, undoubtedly, liable to very strong objections, as will appear from the following considerations.

1. One office is quite enough to be borne by the same person; especially an office so important, so responsible, so abundantly sufficient to employ the heart, the hands, and the time of the most active and zealous, as that of the Ruling Elder. However pious, wise, and unwearied he may be, he will find the work pertaining to his office as Elder, enough, and more than enough, especially in this day of enlarged Christian activity, to put in requisition all his powers. Why, then, add another office to one already occupied, if he be faithful, to the utmost extent of his faculties? Similar remarks may be made, to a considerable extent, concerning the Deacon's office. It is enough, when faithfully discharged, to occupy all the leisure time of the most active and faithful incumbent. Both certainly cannot be undertaken by the same individual, without some of the duties pertaining to one or the other being neglected.

2. Where there are suitable candidates for office among the communicants of a Church, it is commonly wise to distribute offices as extensively among them as circumstances will conveniently admit. If, indeed, there be a dearth of proper materials for making ecclesiastical officers, the difficulty must be surmounted in the best way that is practicable. But if there be individuals enough to sustain it, the diffusion of office power among a considerable number, is so far from being an evil, that it is manifestly, and may be highly, advantageous. It brings a greater number to take an interest in the affairs of the Church. It makes a greater number intimately acquainted with the concerns of the Church. And by calling a greater number to pray, and speak and act in behalf of the Church, it tends to promote the spiritual, and, it may be, the everlasting benefit of them and their children. Why, then, heap a plurality of offices upon a single person? It is depriving the Church of a manifest advantage; and may be the means of depriving the individuals themselves of both comfort and edification.

3. If there be not an absolute incompatibility between the offices of Ruling Elder and Deacon, there is at least, such an interference between their respective duties, as is certainly undesirable, and ought by all means to be avoided. There is a collision in this case analogous to that which takes place when a man visits the sick in the double character of a physician and minister of the Gospel. For although, in many cases, the duties and services of each character may happily harmonize, and help one another; yet, perhaps, in many more, it will appear to the discerning eye that they had better be separated. When an Elder, as such, goes forth to the discharge of his official duties it is to promote the spiritual interest of the flock of which he is made one of the "overseers." To this purpose it is important that he should have the most unreserved and confidential access to all the members of the flock, and their children, and that nothing should be allowed to intervene which was adapted to disguise the feelings, to divide the attention, or to clog the operations of either party. But if, when this Elder visits the poor for the sake of benefitting their souls, they receive him with smiles, with apparent cordiality, and with much pious talk, chiefly for the concealed purpose of increasing the allowance which, as Deacon, he may be disposed to minister to them:-or, when he visits them as a Deacon, they feel jealous, or alienated, on account of some supposed deficiency in that allowance, and, of course, in some measure close their minds against him as their spiritual guide: -- or, when the mind of the Presbyter-Deacon himself becomes divided and perplexed between the rival claims of these two classes of duties, less good is done; less pure unmingled feeling exercised; and less comfort enjoyed on either side.[5]

On all these accounts, the two offices in question, as they are entirely different in their nature, ought, undoubtedly, to be separated in practice, to be discharged by different persons, and to be carefully guarded against that interference which is adapted to render both less useful.

We are led, then, by the foregoing facts and arguments, to the following conclusions: --

1. That the Deacon is a divinely instituted officer, and ought to be retained in the Church.

2. That the function to which the Deacon was appointed by the Apostles, was to manage the pecuniary affairs of the Church, and especially to preside over the collections and disbursements for the poor.

3. That Deacons, therefore, ought not only to be men of piety, but also of judgment, prudence, knowledge of the world, and weight of character.

4. That preaching was not, in the primitive Church, any part of the Deacon's duty, but came in, among other human innovations; as corruption gained ground.

5. That there is no warrant whatever for assigning to Deacons the function of government in the Church; and that their undertaking any such function, is nothing less than ecclesiastical usurpation.

6. That confounding the office of Deacon with that of Ruling Elder, is an unwarranted confusion, both of names and offices, which are entirely distinct.

7. That even the uniting of these two offices in the same persons, is by no means advisable, and tends materially to impair the comfort and usefulness of both.

8. That Deacons ought to be ORDAINED by the imposition of hands. In this ordination the hands of the Pastor and of the Eldership ought to be laid on. I know not the shadow of a reason why this solemnity should be omitted. The venerable Dr. Dwight, in his System of Theology, when treating on the office of Deacons, unequivocally declares his conviction that the laving on of hands ought always to be employed in setting them apart; and pronounces the omission of it to be "incapable, so far as he knows, of any defence." The disregard of scriptural example in the omission, is as painful, as it is obvious and unquestionable.

9. That the Deacons, although they ought always, if possible, to be present at the meetings of the Church Session, for the sake of giving information, and aiding in counsel, can have no vote as Church Rulers; and, therefore, cannot give their vote in the admission or exclusion of members, or in any case of ecclesiastical discipline. [1]


1.BINGHAM's Origenes Eccliasticae, B. ii. ch. 20, sect. 19. [back].

2.It has been supposed by many that the phrase, "serving tables," in the history of the institution of the Deacon's office, had a reference either to the Lord's table, or to the overseeing and supplying the tables of the poor, or perhaps both. But I am inclined to believe that this is an entire mistake. The word, trapeza, signifies, indeed, a table; but, in this connexion, it seems obviously to mean a money-table, or a counter, on which money was laid. Hence trapezeths a money-changer, or money merchant. See Matt. xxi. 12. xxv. 27. Mark xi. 15. Luke xix. 23. The plain meaning, then, of Acts vi. seems to be this;-- "it is not suitable that we should leave the word of God, and devote ourselves to pecuniary affairs." [back]

3.BINGHAM's Origines Ecclesiasticae, B. 14. Ch. 4. sect. 4. [back].

4.The same mixture of offices has also long existed, it is believed, in the Church in Geneva. See LE MERCIER's , Ch. Hist. of Gen. p. 214.[back].

5.See this subject treated in a striking manner, and at considerable length, in Dr. CHALMER's Christian Economy of Large Towns. Vol. i. Chapter. vii. [back]


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