Brothers, Ordain Your Deacons

It is becoming a more common practice in some PCA churches for sessions to make the intentional decision not to ordain the deacons of the church. I could spell out in more detail my understanding of why that is, but instead I’d like to do something more focused. I’d like to explore the idea of ordination and ask the question: what does ordination do? Why would someone want to be ordained? Why not just serve the church without being ordained? What are we missing out on as a church if we have officers functionally serving without the church actually ordaining them?

Perhaps one of the most helpful discussions of the nature of ordination itself comes from James Bannerman’s magisterial work, The Church of Christ. In this book Bannerman spends a chapter dealing with two errors regarding ordination: on the one hand, those in independent churches who refuse to practice ordination at all; on the other hand, those in the high church party who make it a sacrament with an ex opera operato (latin for “from the working of the worker”) character. To combat these two errors he lays out the Presbyterian position, which skews to neither extreme.

First, Bannerman asks, what is ordination? He defines it as “the solemn act of the Church admitting a man to the office of the ministry, and giving him a right and title to the discharge of its functions” (Bannerman, James. The Church of Christ, Banner of Truth, 2014, 496). Bannerman then adds an important rejoinder: “In all ordinary circumstances it is necessary to a man’s entering to the work of the ministry lawfully; and without it he has no authority to exercise his office” (496).

Bannerman uses this “ordinary circumstances” qualifier because he is concerned to defend the Reformers, arguing that it was lawful for them to “revive the office of the ministry, and, without seeking ordination from those previously ordained, to set apart men to its duties” (496). Notice, though, how important ordination is: “without it he has no authority to exercise his office.”

Does ordination do anything? In one sense, Bannerman is careful to say no. “[The act of ordination itself] does not confer the office. Christ confers the office by His own call, addressed to whom he will….the act of ordination itself does not, and cannot, confer the blessing as if ex opere operato. It is not a charm.” On the other hand, Christ still uses the act of ordination and the laying on of hands just as he uses people as instruments in other areas of life. Says Bannerman:

[I]n the act of investiture, or admission by the Church with the laying on of hands, and prayer, we have warrant to believe that, in answer to prayer, all the promises connected with the office are fulfilled, and the special blessing or grace suited to the office will be conferred. (496)

In other words, in order to fulfill the office God calls a man to, there is an extraordinary amount of blessing and grace that is needed. I speak from experience that if the Lord had not sustained me in my short time in the ministry I would already have failed or found some other line of work. And I trust this is true of others in ordained office, as well—ruling elders, teaching elders, and deacons. Most of those I know would confess this is true, as well.

Bannerman goes on:

[T]here are special promises connected with the office of the ministry, and special grace to be warrantably expected by all who are rightly called to the office; and in the act of admission to the office those promises may be claimed in faith, and those graces entreated for; and we have a right to believe that then and there the promise will be fulfilled, and the grace conferred. (496)

However, Bannerman is also careful not to take a superstitious view of the practice:

When the church proceeds with prayer and imposition of hands to admit to the office, and when the person previously called by Christ seeks entrance to the office from the Church in a right spirit, it is no superstition, but a scriptural and reasonable faith, to believe that in the ordination the promises will be found true, and the blessings will be made effectual…Without or apart from this solemn admission to office, we have no assurance that, in ordinary circumstances, that grace can be enjoyed. Ordination is less than a charm, but it is more than a form. (497)

Notice the consequence of not ordaining: without it we have no assurance that the grace needed to be an officer in the Church of Christ can be enjoyed. Ordination gives us that assurance, and I must again say that I have personally benefited from the blessings, the prayers of those men, and the laying on of hands at my own ordination. I sometimes will remember that day when the going gets tough, and I am sure that the Lord remembers and honors the prayers of those men who ordained me.

What would Bannerman say to those who do not ordain at all when they could? Well, he reiterates that “if the ministry be an office of Christ’s appointment, and if admission to the office by ordination be also of Christ’s appointment, then such ordinances will not be empty of the blessing” (498). Bannerman goes on to remind, though, with fair qualifications:

When conducted in a right and scriptural manner by all parties, [ordination] stands connected with the bestowment of grace and the fulfillment of promises appropriate to the office of the ministry, and necessary for the performance of the solemn and responsible duties to which the minister is there and then set apart. (498)

I will just conclude by asking a question to those churches in my own denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America) who are currently not ordaining their deacons: absent ordination, what assurance do you have that God is giving your deacons grace to fulfil their office? If your church has an unofficial diaconate of unordained individuals, is it possible that your church is being robbed of blessings that could potentially be yours if you would ordain your deacons? What blessings could the Lord have in store for your congregation? Your session? Your deacons themselves? Is it possible that God has withheld grace and blessing from your congregation because you chose not to avail yourselves of ordination when you ought to have?

To put it slightly differently, and to address the elders of churches that are functioning with an unordained diaconate: are you so strong as men and as sessions that you can actually labor without ordained deacons when even the Apostles themselves in Acts 6 seemed to be in need of ordained deacons? They laid hands on the men in Acts 6 and prayed for them and set them apart to their work. The Apostles believed they and the Church needed ordained officers and that they couldn’t fulfill their own ministry as elders without ordained deacons. Are you stronger than the Apostles as a session? My own session is not. And they would be the first to admit that: we need deacons, and we need them ordained.

Brothers, ordain your deacons.

Adam Parker is the Senior Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Beaverton, Oregon. He is the husband of Arryn and a father of four. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS.

Related Links

Podcast: "Presbycast and MORE in the PCA"

"Three Things I Love About an Ordination Service" by Rick Phillips

"God's Waiters" by Ken Golden

"A Workman Not Ashamed," a review by Brian Najapfour

A Place to Belong by Megan Hill

What is the Church?, with Michael Horton, Greg Gilbert, and Robert Norris

Adam Parker