Deacons are to be affirmed in this life is instructive: “For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 3:13). In contrast, the elder’s affirmation comes later: “. . . when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (I Peter 5:4).
On Saturday, October 22, 2022, Southeast Alabama (SEAL) Presbytery held its second annual deacons’ conference at the First Presbyterian Church in Montgomery. This year’s conference was built on last year’s, which was organized by deacon Samuel McLure and hosted by Eastwood Presbyterian in Montgomery. The theme of both conferences, “With Much Advantage,” is taken from the PCA Book of Church Order (BCO) 9-6 which states, “The deacons may, with much advantage, hold conference from time to time for the discussion of the interests committed to them.” The conference’s opening prayer was offered by Pastor Reed DePace of First Presbyterian.
Last year’s conference featured Pastor Harry Reeder of Briarwood Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Alabama, who recorded an interview conducted by McLure. This year, however – even better – we secured Pastor Reeder in person, a most generous act on his part given his demanding schedule.
In the opening session, Reeder spoke about leadership in the church. Whenever God is about to do something, he said, “He raises up leaders.” But these are not unaccountable leaders. The essence of Presbyterian government is that “every person is accountable to someone.” His words were a good reminder for any church body, including a presbytery that has seen its share of discipline cases, the effects of some of them rippling until today.
In Acts 6, the account of the establishment of the office of deacon reveals that the work of serving “tables” was not, as one might suppose, the idea of waiters serving food to guests at their tables. Rather, serving tables referred to first century financial accountability. Pastor Reeder pointed out that when Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers, that was the place of handling financial accounts. He emphasized that the reason deacons are ordained is because they perform elder duties; duties that have been delegated to them (such as church finances).
Pastor Stephen Estock followed Reeder. The coordinator for the PCA’s Committee on Discipleship Ministries (CDM) – and from 1995-2002 the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Montgomery (in whose former building the conference took place) – Estock reminded the gathering of a maxim of one of the PCA’s founding fathers, ruling elder W. Jack Williamson, who referred to the BCO’s preface and preliminary principles as “the spectacles by which we read the Book of Church Order.” If we find ourselves using some portion of the BCO to violate the preface or preliminary principles, “we are probably in error,” noted Estock.
He went on to focus on the office of deacon – although no small part of his commentary applied to elders as well. If you have been elected by your church to an office, then according to our constitution, which is subordinate to the Scriptures, “God has placed you there.” And that should be of great encouragement. Estock observed that because deacons exercise spiritual authority, that is why the office is open only to men. In exercising this authority, deacons, he said, “. . . are stewarding the gifts and administering them in the life of the congregation.” Noting that he was ordained as a deacon in 1989 and remains conscious of his call to serve, Pastor Estock also observed that BCO 9-7 allows a session to “appoint” (not ordain) godly men and women to assist the deacons. In some churches this is termed a “shepherdess” ministry.
Referring to the account of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet (John 13), Estock said, “This practical service was pointing to a greater spiritual reality,” one to be fulfilled by Christ within hours. Significantly, the Spirit who enabled Jesus to wash His betrayer Judas’s feet is the same Spirit who enables officers today to serve those whom they may be disinclined to serve. “Those you serve must see you as a servant,” he concluded.
Following Estock’s presentation, the attendees enjoyed a delicious luncheon prepared by the ladies of First Presbyterian which also provided an opportunity to catch up or connect with other brothers in the presbytery.
In an afternoon panel discussion moderated by Mr. McLure, there were a number of thoughtful questions and exhortations mentioned, including the following:
- “How can I be a friend in a way that happens to line up with my calling as a deacon?”
- There is benefit in the ministry of listening, assisted by the acronym WAIT (Why Am I Talking).
- As a leader, you ought to always have somebody else with you, learning.
- There are times when the Aquila-and-Priscilla model is appropriate, such as when visiting a woman in the hospital after surgery.
- The Church’s narrow mission is to make disciples; the Christian’s broader mission is to be salt-and-light.
- Cultural transformation is not the Church’s objective; individual transformation (discipleship) is the Church’s objective; cultural transformation is the consequence of aggregate, sinner transformations.
Pastor Reeder wrapped up the program, returning to the theme of leadership in the context of church officership. He noted the term “likewise” in I Timothy 3:8-12’s list of requirements for deacons “throws elders and deacons back into each other’s laps.” Beginning with the officers, “. . . the church needs to become a leadership factory,” Reeder asserted. (Especially in days of cultural dissolution and some of the worst ecclesiastical and political leadership in human history, this exhortation is desperately needed – see also Exodus 18:21’s teaching on leadership.) Reeder added, “The relationship of deacons and elders needs to be cohesive and not competitive. . . . We don’t do leadership teams, we do teams of leaders. . . . Godly leaders are office-bearers, not office-wearers. . . . Godliness is more important than giftedness.”
In his closing comments, the longtime pastor of Briarwood suggested that Paul’s statement that deacons are to be affirmed in this life is instructive: “For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 3:13). In contrast, the elder’s affirmation comes later: “. . . when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (I Peter 5:4). Perhaps the deacon’s affirmation (high standing) while in the earthly tent is intended to recognize that his service, oftentimes, entails laborious duty that remains mostly unseen, except, that is, by the True Deacon, Jesus Christ.
Forrest Marion is a ruling elder in Eastwood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Montgomery, Ala.