The Relation of the Deacons to the Consistory (1)

Martin Swart was an elder for many years in the First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, MI.

The question concerning the relation of the deacons to the consistory is one of the most debated questions in connection with the office of deacon. Various answers have been given to that question. According to some, the deacons belong to the consistory, and the consistory, therefore, is composed of the ministers, the elders, and the deacons. Others would exclude the deacons from the consistory and make of them a separate body, though standing under the supervision of the consistory. Finally, there is the tendency to separate the deacons from the consistory completely, so that they become independent of any consistorial control.

To this it must be added that there is an apparent conflict between the Netherland Confession and the Church Order. Article 30 of the Confession definitely includes the deacons in the consistory, while the Church Order seems to exclude them. Besides, there is the seemingly conflicting position of the Church Order itself. The Church Order, on the one hand, seems to exclude the deacons from the consistory, while, on the other hand, it permits that the deacons be added to the consistory when the number of elders is small, and even demands this when the number of elders is less than three. Even more confusing, the Church Order really includes the deacons in the consistory again when it requires that much of the affairs of the congregation shall be discharged at combined meetings, or what is usually called, the general consistory.

The question arises, how must all the confusion and difference of opinion be explained? Then we must bear in mind, first of all, that the New Testament does not give us a detailed pattern for church organization. Hence, it has little to say, directly, about the office of deacon, and, especially, about the relation of the deacons to the other officebearers. According to the oldest and most generally accepted view, we have the origin of the office of deacon recorded in the sixth chapter of the book of Acts. Although this is most likely correct, the fact remains that this opinion is a conclusion that is based largely upon what we read elsewhere in Scripture. Because Scripture elsewhere speaks of deacons in distinction from bishops, it is concluded that the origin of this office is to be found in Acts 6. It is for that reason that by no means all share this opinion. According to some, Acts 6 speaks of no ecclesiastical office at all. The appointment of these seven men was simply a temporary measure, due to the peculiar circumstances at the time. Others are of the opinion that because of the complaints that certain widows were being neglected these men were merely appointed to look after the widows and no more. Still others hold that the appointment included both the office of elder and that of deacon, seeing that at least two of the men appointed also labored in the Word.

Several other things must be taken into consideration. In the first place, we must not overlook the fact that the appointment of these men concerned only the congregation at Jerusalem. In how far all three offices were immediately instituted in all the congregations is an open question. But in the light of what we read in Titus 1:5, it is safe to conclude that the offices were only gradually instituted in all the churches. Calvin is of the opinion that they were instituted only as the need arose. In the second place, as already mentioned, at least two of the men appointed for the office of deacon also labored in the Word. They, therefore, functioned in both offices. In the third place, it is evident from Acts 11:30 that some time after the appointment of the deacons the gifts for the poor were still sent to elders. Calvin explains this by saying that these deacons were appointed in such a way that they nevertheless stood under the elders, in order that they should do nothing without their consent.

Finally, it is also evident that, with the appointment of deacons, the apostles did not mean to cast the care of the poor entirely off their own shoulders. At least the apostle Paul continued to take an active part in this work. He not only ordered collections to be taken, but he also instructed the churches as to how and when they should be taken, and how they should be sent. He even takes an active part in the distribution of the same (cf. I Cor. 16:1-4; II Cor. 9:3-5; Acts 24:17; Rom. 15:25-28). From all this it is evident that the fact that Scripture speaks of the office of deacon as a distinct office does not yet mean that this office has nothing in common with the other offices. After all, Scripture also distinguishes between ruling elders and teaching elders without separating them.

Turning now to the history of the offices, we find that there has always been, and still is, much confusion with respect to the question concerning the relation of the deacons to the other officebearers. There are many different, and even conflicting, opinions with respect to this question. Lightfoot, in his study on "The Early Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries," sums up the situation by saying that in the last decades of the first century each congregation had for its officebearers a body of elders and a body of deacons, but whether they were separated into two colleges, or formed one, must remain unknown. But however this may be, that there was some relation between the two offices would almost seem certain. Otherwise you cannot explain the history through which the office of deacon passed.

How else, for example, is it to be explained that already in the post-apostolic age, although the office was recognized as a distinct office, the deacons, nevertheless, performed their labors under the supervision of the bishops, to whom they had to give account and to whom they were responsible. Already in the second century the deacons were regarded as assistants to the bishops and were assigned to the double task of caring for the poor and of assisting in the public worship. By the third century the care of the poor was entirely under the control of the bishops, and the office of deacon disappeared as a distinct office and remained dead until the Reformation. Now it is rather difficult to explain this history unless we may assume that there was a relationship between the offices which was gradually corrupted.

Calvin restored the office of deacon to its rightful place as a distinct office. But the degree in which it was restored was by no means the same in all Reformed churches. Calvin himself, on the basis of Romans 12:8, made distinction between two kinds of deacons, the one for the ingathering and distribution of the gifts for the poor, the other to render aid to the sick and the infirm.

In the Church of Hesse (1526), and also in the Church of Basil (1529), it was established that each pastor should have at least three deacons to assist him in the care of the poor. In these churches, therefore, the deacons were merely assigned to the task of assisting the pastors in the care of the poor.

The French Reformed churches followed the pattern of Calvin, except that they recognized only one class of deacons. These deacons administered the gifts for the relief of the poor, but under the supervision of the consistories. So strong were the French churches for cooperation between the offices, that, whenever possible, the pastor was to meet with the deacons, especially at the time when financial reports are given. The deacons also belonged to the consistories and, as deacons, were delegated to the synod of Clairac (1560). To remove all possibility of suspicion, the elders were charged with the distribution of the gifts for the poor, but the deacons visited these homes weekly, not only to inquire if there was need, but also to make sure that the poor received the gifts. The Walloon congregations, organized in the southern Netherlands, followed the pattern established by the French Reformed churches.

In the Dutch Reformed refugee church in London, under the leadership of John รก Lasco, the deacons were restricted to caring for the poor and were not part of the consistory. Yet even here an exception was made, and in unusual circumstances they were added to the consistory. Besides, once in six weeks the deacons met with the elders and the ministers, to render an exhaustive report of their activities. They also helped the elders collect funds for the support of the ministers.

The first regular synod of the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, Emden 1571, considered the deacons as belonging to the consistory. But there seems to have been some difference of opinion regarding this decision. The question seemingly arose whether the synod had meant that all three offices must meet in one gathering, or whether the deacons might, or perhaps should, constitute a separate gathering. In most of the churches the elders and the deacons met separately. In some churches the deacons definitely were not admitted to the consistory. In still others the deacons refused to meet with the consistory. Three years later, therefore, the synod of Dordt (1574), being questioned in regard to this matter, declared: that the meaning was that the ministers and the elders shall meet by themselves and the deacons by themselves. But in places where there are only a few elders, the deacons shall be permitted to be part of the consistory and, having been called into the consistory, they shall be obliged to come. The churches in the Netherlands (1905) decided that they must be reckoned with the consistory, if the number of elders is three or less.

This same synod of Dordt (1574) decided that the alms were to be collected and distributed by the deacons personally. But it decided at the same time that the deacons were to render periodic reports to the consistory, whose advice they must seek in all weighty matters. The above-mentioned synod even declared it to be proper for the ministers to ask the deacons as well as the elders to visit the sick and comfort them with the Word, since this was in harmony with their office. A similar definition of the task of the deacons was given by the synod of Dordt (1578).

...to be continued