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Chapter 4.-Of the Relations of the Deacons to the Other Ecclesiastical Officers, and to the Courts of the Church.


Chapter 4.-Of the Relations of the Deacons to the Other Ecclesiastical Officers, and to the Courts of the Church.

James Dodson

The deacon cannot be an independent officer. To suppose that when ordained he becomes a separate and isolated portion of the Church’s organization, would be an anomaly in social arrangements, and inconsistent with the fundamental principles of Presbyterian church government. The fact that the deacon is ordained does, of itself, show that after ordination he is not independent in the administration of his office. As a rite, ordination is not only the instituted mode of imparting office-power, it likewise contains a very direct intimation of the subordination of its subject, in his official acts, to the spiritual authority of Jesus Christ, and to this, moreover, as exercised in the constituted courts of the Church. No one therefore supposes it possible for a minister or a ruling elder to become independent in his official character, of the government of the church in which he is ordained to office: nor does the deacon. However, as this part of the subject is more liable to be enveloped in doubt, or obscured by prejudice, than any other, it is necessary to examine with some minuteness and care, the relations of the deacon to the government established in the Christian Church. This will be done from the Scriptures, from the footsteps of the flock, and from the rules of prudence and wisdom, as these are illustrated in the various departments of the social organization.

I. The Scriptures Exhibit the Deacon as Subordinate to the Courts of the Church, in the Discharge of His Functions.

The circumstance of the ordination of the seven,[1] as has been observed, fully establishes this statement. The twelve say to the multitude, verse 3; “Look ye out among you seven men . . .whom WE may appoint over this business.” They give no intimation that they were about to institute an independent order of officers; but in the very act of directing their election, the apostles claim the appointment as belonging to themselves. If the apostles had no concern in the “business,” and were to have none, could such a course have been pursued? As plainly as actions can speak, do they show, in this instance, that the deacons were to be responsible to the apostles. In the narration of the events of the following thirty or forty years, contained in the Acts of the Apostles, and in the Epistles, there are frequent and decisive proofs that the duties for which the deacons were ordained as their special charge, might still be, and often were, performed by the apostles and elders. Paul says, that the apostles with whom he conversed in the city of Jerusalem, upon his return from Arabia, about three years after the ordination of the seven, “would only that we should remember the poor; the same which I also was forward to do.”[2] This distinguished apostle was very active during his whole ministry, not only in giving directions, as he did to the Galatian and Corinthian churches,[3] respecting the poor and the maintenance of gospel ordinances, but likewise in actually ministering at times to the wants of the poor saints. His last visit to Jerusalem was for the express purpose of bringing alms to his nation and offerings.[4] These he brought, not by a commission received from the people, but as an official duty.[5] And in another instance, we find the contributions sent to the city of Jerusalem, directed, not to the body of the people, nor even to the deacons, but to “the elders.”[6]

These facts establish, beyond all reasonable doubt, the position above stated. Because, if the oversight and charge of those very things, which have been specially omitted to the deacon, are still, in any way, incumbent upon the spiritual officers of the Church, then is not the deacon the sole, nor an independent officer, in performing his functions. It may, perhaps, be supposed by some that this doctrine is true, so far as it is applicable to the case of the poor; but that it does not hold respecting the other functions of the deacon’s office. If we remember, however, that the whole revenues (as has been attempted, at least, to be shown in the second chapter of this essay), were originally managed by the apostles; and that they made the same kind of transfer of the whole of “the daily ministration,” as of any part of it, at the ordination of the deacons: and then connect with these established truths the fact just now ascertained, namely, that the care of the poor, at least as to the general charge and supervision, still belonged to the apostles; we infer as the only conclusion from these premises, that the general charge and supervision of the whole temporalities still rested upon them. If the apostles did not divest themselves of all responsibility in regard to the poor (and this is universally admitted), neither did they in regard to the other interests of the Church, that were specially entrusted to the deacon; for the very identical language which informs us of the one, informs us of the other. There is not even a hint that two funds were afterwards to be formed, instead of the one which had previously existed. Indeed, there is no scriptural authority whatever, for separating the funds appropriated to the use of the poor in the Christian Church from those destined to other uses.[7] The idea, then, of joint charge in the case of the former, and independency in the part of the deacon with regard to the latter, has no scriptural foundation to rest upon, for the Scriptures recognize no such distinction of funds. Consequently, if the other officers of the Church have no oversight of the temporalities generally, they can have no other charge of the interests of the poor, than that which rests upon all the faithful: they have none in their official character. This is a conclusion that few would admit; if not admitted, the proposition which we have laid down contains the only true and scriptural view of the subject.

The statement contained in Acts 6:4 may be deemed opposed to these views. The apostles say that they would “give themselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.” To those who may consider this text as containing an express relinquishment of all charge over the Church’s temporalities, we might reply by employing the argumentum ad hominem; for they, probably, in most instances, likewise entertain the idea, that “this business,” verse 3, signifies only the care of the poor. If the deacon is an officer to attend solely to the poor, and the apostles relinquish entirely, in verse 4, all concern in that which they transfer to the deacons, what then becomes of the universal]y admitted, and certainly scriptural doctrine, that the apostles were still charged with the care of the poor? According to the objection, they conveyed all this to the deacon! This text cannot therefore, upon any view of the deacon’s office, be supposed to contain an entire abandonment, upon the part of the apostles, of all the fiscal duties which they had heretofore performed. How is it to be explained?

The word, προσκαρτερήσομεν (for it is in the original but one word), translated, “will give ourselves continually to,” is used eight times in the New Testament;[8] and in every instance, but two, it refers to the performance of religious duties, such as prayer and partaking of the Lord’s Supper. It is compounded of πρὸς, with, and κράτος, strength; and means, as its roots import, vigorous and persevering attention, but not exclusive attention. Stockius translates it, “semper alteri proesto esse,” to be always in readiness for another’s service. In none of those texts where it refers to devotional duties[9] can it mean exclusive attention; for the Christian has many duties to perform besides acts of worship: but he is so to engage in them, as “always to be in readiness for” God’s service: he must not become entangled with natural and civil duties, so as to be encumbered and hindered in his devotions. This is finely expressed by this word. The use made of the same word in Acts 10:7, throws much light upon its meaning. Cornelius, the centurion, sent for Peter, “στρατιώτην εὐσεβῆ τῶν προσκαρτερούντων αὐτῷ", a devout soldier of them that waited on him continually. Now, this soldier was not merely the attendant of Cornelius; he was still a soldier. In the mean time, however, he was released from the most burdensome part of his military duties, that he might “always be in readiness for the service” of Cornelius.[10] This was precisely the situation of the apostles. They were “stewards of the mysteries of the gospel.” To dispense these, was their business, their employment. Connected with this, were the care of the poor, and the oversight of the Church’s contributions. For a short time, the spiritual officers performed, unaided, the whole of their functions; until the less important had so increased, that to have attended to them properly, they must have “left the word of God to serve tables.” To relieve themselves from the burden which rested upon them, they direct the people to choose certain persons, whom they would appoint over this business, so that they might have the opportunity of devoting their labors “to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” There is no intimation, throughout the whole narrative, that the business was improper for them, but merely that “ it was not reason that they should leave the word of God, and serve tables.”

The deacons were, therefore, appointed not as independent officers, but as “helps,” or assistants, to the spiritual officers. They are so called in 1 Cor. 12:28.[11] That the deacon is meant by this title, is nearly, if not altogether, certain. Ruling elders cannot be intended: for they are the “governments” mentioned just after. The pastor cannot be the “helper;” for his is the highest office in the Church. The “helps” must then be the “deacons.” This interpretation is strongly confirmed by the narrative in Acts 6 of their original institution; for in that passage they evidently appear as “helps.”

Presbyterians have always taken the same view of this subject, when they say, as they often do, that the higher offices include the inferior; the pastoral including the eldership – the latter, the deaconship. This Presbyterian doctrine is clearly and beautifully stated by the LONDON DIVINES. “For who,” say they, “is so little versed in the Scriptures, but that he knows that apostles, pastors, elders, and deacons, are distinct officers one from another; yet all the inferior offices are virtually comprehended in the superior, and may be discharged by them; elders may distribute as well as deacons, and beyond them rule; pastors may distribute and rule as well as deacons and elders, and beyond both, preach, dispense sacraments and ordain ministers.”[12] And by DR. M‘LEOD, who says, “the ruling elders are their (the teaching elders’) helps; and the deacons the helps of both.”[13] DICKSON, on this word “helps,” says, “the deacons not a little aided by their ministrations,” etc.[14] “Aided” whom? The elders, unquestionably. If the deacons are the “helps” of the ruling and teaching elders, then are they not independent of them in the discharge of any part of their functions.

If we cast our eye over the Old Testament dispensation, we find the same principle pervading it likewise. From the time of the giving of the law in the wilderness, until the canon of the Old Testament revelation was completed, the Levites, who were generally the actual administrators, of the ecclesiastical revenues, always performed their official duties in cooperation with the superior functionaries.[15] They were never independent. Nor were the deacons of the synagogue. We are informed by Prideaux, that the “chazanim, or deacons of the synagogue, had, under the rulers, the charge and oversight.” [16] Brown of Haddington, says that “these two, (the chazanim), with the other rulers, form a council.”[17] Indeed, it is unquestioned, that the deacons of the synagogue were not independent, but subordinate officers.

These investigations show us that the apostles, to whom at first the management of all the ecclesiastical affairs was committed, still retained, after the ordination of a distinct order of officers to take charge of a specified portion of them, a general supervision. And it also appears, that this was in accordance with a principle which ran through the divinely organized ecclesiastical constitution of the Christian Church under the Old Testament dispensation.

II. This Principle has been Always Acted upon by the Christian Church, in Her Purest Times.

On this branch of our investigations, it is not necessary to do more in reference to the doctrines and usages of the primitive Church, than merely refer to them. That the deacon was not an independent officer in the Church in the early periods of the present dispensation, is so well known that any detailed proof upon the subject would be superfluous. Therefore, passing the primitive times, let us descend to the age of that great Reformation, to which the reader has been so frequently directed. In none of the Reformed churches was the deacon considered to be independent in the exercise of his office. Indeed, as we shall soon see, in most of them there were formed consistories composed of the pastor, ruling elders, and deacons, of particular congregations. The Book of Common Order used by the Scottish congregation in the city of Geneva, and which is substantially the same with that of the other congregations of Geneva, thus speaks of the exercise of the deacon’s office. “The deacons must be men of good estimation and report, discreet, of good conscience; charitable, wise, and finally adorned with such virtues as St. Paul requires in them. Their office is to gather the alms diligently, and faithfully to distribute it, with the consent of the ministers and elders.”[18] The principles of the Reformed church in France are very strongly and pointedly expressed. In her Discipline, Sec. 12, Chapter 3, Canon 2, it is said: “The elder’s office is, together with the pastors, to oversee the Church, etc. In general, it is to have the same care with them in all concerns about the order, maintenance, and government of the Church.” And Canon 4: “The deacon’s office is to collect, and distribute, by the advice of the consistory, moneys to the poor,” etc. And in Chapter 1, Canon 21, noblemen were, “every one of them desired to constitute, in their families, a consistory, composed of the minister, and of the best approved persons for godliness in their said families, who shall be chosen elders and deacons.”[19]

The Holland churches were constituted in the same manner. They had “consistories (or assemblies composed of ministers, elders, and deacons) for overseeing church affairs.”[20]

The Scottish congregation that was formed in Rotterdam by exiles from Scotland, during the persecution which followed the restoration of Charles II, not only had deacons, but these deacons sat in consistory with the minister and elders: for we find the following minute inserted in the register of their “consistory.” “The session unanimously concluded that there should be five elders besides Mr. Wallace, whom we yet own as such notwithstanding what is gone against him: and also five deacons.”[21]

The Scottish church, from the rise of the Reformation until her order was buried in ruins by the tyranny of an apostate king and Parliament, held without any wavering, the same doctrines substantially on this subject, with the Genevan, French, and Holland reformers. First Book of Discipline, Chapter 7: “ The office of deacon is to gather and distribute the alms of the poor, according to the direction of the session.” We discover, by comparing this paragraph with Chap. 17, that they did not limit the duties of the deacon to the care of the poor, but extended it to “the taking up of all the rents of the Kirk, and disponing them to the poor, the ministry,” etc. And by comparing it with Chap. 8, § 9; that “the ministers, elders, and deacons, were to consult together,” in disposing of the fiscal matters. In the Second Book of Discipline, Chapter 7, they say that “ it pertains to the eldership, to take heed that the word of God be purely preached, etc.and the ecclesiastical goods uncorruptly distributed.” They did not, of course, believe the deacon by whom these goods are distributed, to be an independent officer, or an officer accountable only to the people.

During the Second Reformation this church continued to hold the same principles. We find the Second Book of Discipline revived and ratified, and still held as law in that church, throughout this period of her prosperity and independence. In the year 1645, the General Assembly issued, in overture, one hundred and eleven propositions on church government and order. The fifty-fourth mentions as one of the “things wherein the ecclesiastical power is to be exercised, the treasury of the Church and collections of the faithful.” There is no evidence that this part of these propositions was ever objected to. The same principles pervaded her ecclesiastical legislation. The law of 1648 respecting meetings of session has the following clause. “The deacons are always present, not for discipline, but for what relates to their own office.”[22] In Stewart’s Collections, Book 1, Title 8, after some general statements respecting the duty of the deacons to examine the state of the poor, and collect funds for their supply, it is added, “that the money so received be faithfully delivered up to the session, according to whose judgment and appointment, the deacons are to distribute the CHURCH GOODS. In which matters they have a decisive vote with the elders; but in other cases their opinion is only consultative, and they may always be present.” This embodies the whole doctrine of the exercise of the deacon’s office. He is to distribute the “church goods,” and to have a special concern for the poor. The pastor, elders, and deacons, were to meet and act together; in making distribution, all having a “decisive vote;” while in regard to discipline, the pastor and elders alone voted. There is nothing here like official independence ascribed to the deacon.

The Form of Church Government adopted in the year 1645, as a part of the covenanted uniformity with England and Ireland, states the same doctrine. After enumerating the three orders of officers, a pastor, ruling elders, and deacons, as belonging to a particular congregation, this document goes on to say, “These officers are to meet together at convenient and set times for the well ordering of the affairs of that congregation, each according to his office.”[23] The pastors, elders, and deacons are to “meet together:” so far all is plain. It would be the merest quibbling to say, that the pastor and elders are to “meet together,” but that the deacons are to meet by themselves; for then we must explain the whole paragraph accordingly, and we would have the pastor meeting by himself!” They are to attend to “the affairs of that congregation;” the whole affairs, temporal and spiritual; for in this manner unlimited expressions such as this are to be explained, unless necessarily limited, and here no such necessity exists. Besides, what is commonly understood by “the affairs” of a congregation? Certainly, its whole interests – its pecuniary affairs, as well as the affairs of the poor, and the spiritual affairs. None need to be told that the first of these – the pecuniary – are not only “affairs,” but often very important ones. They are to transact these affairs “each according to his office.” To arrive at the genuine sense of this clause, the reader has only to remember the laws of the church quoted above. The pastor, elders, and deacons, in the Scottish church met together. Discipline was managed by the pastor and elders alone – the other affairs by the joint action of all.

This cursory view of the exercise of the deacon’s office in the Church of Scotland, satisfactorily establishes the fact, that this, the purest of all the Reformed churches, always considered the deacon an officer under authority, who was to be associated with the eldership in the discharge of his official functions. The most intelligent of the English divines agreed with the Scottish church in this principle, as appears from that part of the Form of Church Government compiled by the Westminster divines, to which reference has just been made. The London divines frequently express similar sentiments in their valuable essay from which we have already quoted so often. They say, “how it (the alms) shall be best improved, and disposed of, cannot be denied to be an act of government, and for this did the elders meet together, Acts 11:30.” Again: “The deacons being specially to be entrusted with the Church’s goods, and the disposal thereof, according to the direction of the presbytery, for the good of the Church.” Again: “The apostles, in the constitution of elders in every church, derogated nothing from their own authority, nor discharged themselves of their care. So, when they appointed deacons to take care of supplies for the poor, they did not forego their own right, nor the exercise of their duty as their other work would permit them. Gal. 2:9-10.”[24]

JOHN OWEN says, “yet did not the apostles herein utterly forego the care of providing for the poor, which being originally committed unto them by Jesus Christ, they would not wholly divest themselves of it. But by the direction of the Holy Ghost, they provided such assistance in the work, as that for the future it might require no more of their time and pains, but what they should spare from their principal employment. And the same care is still incumbent on the ordinary pastors and elders of the churches, so far as the execution of it doth not interfere with their principal work and duty, from which those who understand it aright, can spare but little of their time and thought.”[25] Again: “But whereas there are three things that concur and are required to the ministration unto the poor members of the church; (1.) The love, charity, bounty, and benevolence of the members of the church in contributions unto that ministration; (2.) The care and oversight of the discharge of it; (3.) The actual exercise and application of it: the last only belongs unto the office of deacons,[26] and neither of the first is discharged by the institution of it. The care also of the whole work is, as was said, still incumbent on the pastors and elders of the Church, only the ordinary execution is committed to the deacons.”

This distinguished divine then defines more particularly, the extent and exercise of this office. “Whereas, the reason of the institution of this office was, in general, to free the pastors of the Church who labor in word and doctrine from avocations by outward things, such as wherein the Church is concerned: it belongs unto the deacons, not only to take care of and provide for the poor, but to manage all other affairs of the Church of the same kind; such as are the providing for the place of the church assemblies, of the elements for the sacraments, of keeping, collecting and disposing of the stock of the Church, for the maintenance of its officers, and incidences, especially in the time of trouble and persecution. Herein are they obliged to attend the elders on all occasions, to perform the duty of the church towards them, and receive directions from them.” Again, he asks: “What is the duty of the deacons towards the elders of the churches?” And answers thus: “Whereas the care of the whole Church, in all its concernments, is principally committed unto the pastors, teachers, and elders, it is the duty of the deacons in the discharge of their office: 1. To acquaint them from time to time with the state of the Church, and especially of the poor, so far as it falls under their inspection. 2. To seek and take their advice in matters of greater importance relating to their office. 3. To be assisting unto them in all the outward concerns of the Church.’’

This concludes our review of the principles of the churches, and of distinguished writers, at or near the period of the Reformation, in regard to the exercise of the deacon’s office. We find among them a very remarkable unanimity. Indeed, they entirely harmonize in their views. From the latter part of the seventeenth century, it need hardly be observed, darkness begins to settle down upon us on this subject. Within a short time, however, the doctrines of the Reformation have been, by some, recognized and reiterated. The Reformed Presbyterian Church in Scotland has expressed her views very lately with sufficient clearness in the following language, already quoted: “Deacons are ordained upon the choice of the congregation, and are associated with the teaching and ruling elders and distributing to the necessities of the poor, and managing other temporalities in the church.”[27] The Associate Presbyterian Church, in the United States, in her Book of Discipline, Article 9, refers to this subject in the following terms: “Deacons are admitted to sit in session when met to consult about the secular affairs of the congregation, and to give their advice, but not to vote in any judicial decision, except in matters relating to their office.” [28] The same principles substantially are expressed by DR. M‘LEOD. He says of the deacon, “his official duty entirely respects temporal affairs.”[29] And Question 80, “Is the sole right of managing the pecuniary affairs of the congregation lodged in the deacon’s hands?” he answers as follows: “The apostles were the primary depositories of power, and after them, teaching elders are competent to the management of ALL ecclesiastical concerns; ruling elders are their helps; and deacons are the helps of both: the apostles and elders had in trust the collections for the poor.”[30]

III. The Accountability of Deacons.

In our endeavors to establish the subordination of the deacon to the ruling officers of the Church, or, in other words, the right of these rulers to a general superintendence over, or virtual cooperation with the deacon in discharging his functions, we have, thus far, drawn our arguments from the highest sources, the Scriptures, and the footsteps of the flock. The doctrines of the Bible and of the Church, respecting the exercise of the deacon’s office, are, as we might expect, altogether wise, judicious, and safe. The least reflection will satisfy us, that to remove entirely the management of the fiscal concerns of any society out of the hands of those who have the direction of its other affairs, would be unwise and unsafe. Such an arrangement, any where, would probably terminate by clashing between these independent powers in the same body. For example, the legislature, in a state so constituted, might legislate, but in every instance where an appropriation was requisite for carrying laws into effect, the will of the legislature might be thwarted by the fiscal officers, and rendered ineffectual. Often, unquestionably, would this occur. Consequently, we find no society so constituted. Nations, whatever their form of government, and whatever their character in other respects, never have formed an imperium in imperio – a government of this kind within the government. No such arrangement is found any where in churches constituted upon Presbyterian principles, except in reference to the affairs of congregations. Churches, considered in their collective capacity, have revenues. These are managed under the direction of the supreme judicatory, Synod, General Synod, or Assembly – and appropriated to the support of theological seminaries, for missionary and education purposes; and, in general, for the accomplishment of such objects as are of public interest and obligation. Sometimes, these revenues are large. Subordinate, or provincial synods and presbyteries, have their distinct funds, which are appropriated under their control and supervision. Now, it may be asked, and it will be hard to find an answer that would satisfy a man of sense, why a principle of so universal application, should not apply to the concerns of the church in a single congregation? If the eldership of a congregation have no voice in secular affairs at home, how do they acquire it in those larger bounds which the presbyterial and synodical limits embrace? If it be right that a synod should take the oversight, in fiscal matters, of what is synodical – and a presbytery, of what is presbyterial – why should not a session of what is congregational? If there is something undignified, or profane, in the funds devoted to religious objects in a congregation, that renders it indelicate for the eldership to touch them, what sanctifies those of a presbytery or synod employed in the same way? The truth is, that, although these revenues are in some respects different, there can be no reason why they should not all be managed under the general supervision and control of the eldership.

It will here be asked, and very properly, what guarantee will contributors have, that the funds which they contribute will be judiciously and faithfully applied to the objects contemplated? Happily, this inquiry can be met by more than one satisfactory reply. Indeed, it may be safely affirmed, that no other system furnishes as many, or as strong guarantees for the wise and faithful distribution of the ecclesiastical goods.

In the first place, they will be administered by men of the people’s own choice. And if the elective franchise is properly exercised, men will be chosen to fill all the offices connected in these affairs, possessing a measure, at least, of the scriptural qualifications. And, unless the state of religion and morals in a congregation be exceedingly low, they will be, at least, honest men. And it may be observed that, after all, this is the chief and best guarantee for a faithful administration, either in Church or State. In vain will nations form “checks and balances,” if they neglect the scriptural direction, and do not set over them “able men, such as fear God, men of truth, and hating covetousness.”[31] And just so, in the churches. The system advocated in this Essay, is that which is most likely to furnish this best of all guarantees. Deacons are chosen by the people, and then, after examination, solemnly sworn, in their ordination vows, to discharge their official duties conscientiously.

In the second place, the deacons should render, and may be required to render, a full and certified account, at suitable intervals, to the congregation, of all their transactions, making as complete a statement as circumstances warrant;[32] so that their whole doings are known to the church. If anything has been done wrong, unintentionally, or ignorantly, it may thus, being pointed out in a friendly spirit, be rectified; while serious injustice or mal-administration may be rectified at the stated presbyterial visitation,[33] or even be carried up through the courts according to their regular gradation.

In the third place, if the deacons persist in neglect of duty, or in mal-administration, they may be subjected to the censures of the Church. And in case suspension, or deprivation of office, becomes necessary, others are chosen at once to fill their place. Their office is inseparably connected with their church membership; in losing the privileges of the latter, they lose, likewise, the exercise of the former. Thus, while the action of the government and discipline of the Church retains even tolerable purity, there is this strong check upon the deacons, and guarantee for the proper execution of the trust committed to them.

In the fourth place, the deacons are personally liable to the church courts, and the whole board are responsible to the legal tribunals.

These considerations sufficiently establish the fact of the deacon’s responsibility. Some would, perhaps, desire a more direct accountability to the church assembled in a congregational assembly. And some, perhaps, would desire the whole responsibility to be to the congregation, as a check upon the ministry and eldership. To these we would say, that the responsibility we advocate, is not only sufficient, being a responsibility to the Church through her representatives, but has the additional advantage of being entirely harmonious with the whole structure and principles of Presbyterianism; while the opposite views have a strong leaning towards Congregationalism – as they seem to intimate that Presbyterianism requires to rest upon a basis of Congregationalism, to render it equable and firm.

It is not supposed, indeed, that the system developed in our pages, will, in every instance, secure a faultless administration. This would be, indeed, Utopian, and fanatical in the present state of human nature. It will not be looked for. Nor is it asserted that this scriptural system will, in its operation, countervail the difficulties to which the Church is subjected, in a state of things where the civil administration is so often in the hands of men, either indifferent or directly opposed to the interests of truth. But assuredly, so far as any danger may be apprehended from other quarters, where can the property of the Church be considered so safe as under the wing of the Church herself? Under what circumstances will it be likely to be so well employed in the promotion of the interests of Christ’s kingdom, as under the supervision of the Church herself? And under what management can we look for so full an effusion of the divine blessing, as in that which is of Christ’s appointment?[34]

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[1] Acts 6:1-6.

[2] Gal. 2:10. 

[3] 1 Cor. 16. 2 Cor. 9. The deacons must have been addressed in these instances, in their official character, as well as private church members. 

[4] Acts 24:17. 

[5] 1 Cor. 16:3-4. “And when I come, whomsoever ye shall approve by your letters, them will I send to bring your liberality unto Jerusalem. And if it be meet that I go also, they shall go with me.” In this passage, Paul seems to speak of the sending of those whom the Corinthians might “approve,” to Jerusalem, as his act: that he would give them the appointment. The mere carrying of funds, as has been remarked above, does not constitute an officer; but when Paul, suo motu, by his own act, takes this business upon himself, asking for no fresh appointment by the people, it is plain he thought himself competent to do it, as a minister of Christ. Moreover, it is worthy of notice that this appears to have been the way in which such contributions were commonly sent. Long before, Paul and Barnabas had borne to Jerusalem the contributions of the church of Antioch. Acts 11:30. 

[6] Acts 11:30. Most judicious commentators and critics, have deduced the same inference that we have, from this text. The Westminster Assembly directs us to this text, proving that to the pastor and elders belongs the care of the poor. The London divines say (Church Government, p. 184), “The disposing and appointing how it (the alms) shall be best improved and disposed of cannot be denied to be an act of government, and for this did the elders meet together, Acts 11:30.” Dr. M‘Leod, Ecclesiastical Catechism (ed. 1831), page 130, “all collections were delivered into the hands of the apostles and elders, the presbytery, Acts 11:30.” 

[7] See HERE

[8] Mark 3:9; Acts 1:14; 2:42, 46; 6:4; 10:7. Rom. 12:12; Eph. 6:18. 

[9] Acts 1:14; 2:42, 46; Rom. 12:12; Eph. 4:18.

[10] The passage in Mark [3:9] is similar to this one. Christ directs a boat to be kept in readiness for him.

[11] For the views of many commentators on this text, see HERE

[12] Divine Right, etc., p. 112.

[13] See Ecclesiastical Catechism, p. 47.

[14] See HERE

[15] Num. 8:19. 2 Chron. 24:5, 11. Neh. 10:37-38; 13:13. Our space does not admit of pursuing farther this part of the investigation. The reader is referred to the list of passages relating to this subject in Note B, HERE

[16] Prideaux’s Connections, Part I, Book VI.

[17] Dictionary of the Bible, on the word “Synagogue.”

[18] Dunlop’s Confessions (Edinburgh, 1722), p. 383. The reader will have no difficulty in understanding, after the explanations that have been given in this Essay, that by “alms,” is not meant what we call “poor’s money.” It will be remembered that Calvin uses, as synonymous terms, “alms,” and “treasures of the Church,” and “church goods,” meaning as he himself explains them, “the goods dispensed to the ministry, schools,” etc. See HERE and HERE.

[19] The word consistory, which occurs so frequently in the old books of ecclesiastical policy, requires explanation. It is not found in the Scriptures. Neither is session, synod, or General Assembly. It is an old appellation in the Reformed Churches for all their church courts. Stewart’s Collections, Book I, Title xv, § 35, “All church judicatories, but especially this (the session), were called consistories, where the judges did stand in administering justice.” The word consistory is compounded of two Latin words, con and sisto, and signifies to stand together. Session is from the Latin, sessio, a sitting. Synod is from the Greek, “συνοδος” – meeting, or going together. This name was more common among the Reformers on the Continent, than in Scotland or England. Yet, it was not at all unusual there, as Stewart truly says in the above quotation. Stevenson (History, Vol. I, p. 164, on the year 1637) enumerates, among the grievances of the Scottish Church which led to the Second Reformation that “consistories, or sessions, were reckoned in the number of conventicles, and laick elders and deacons were rejected.” This old presbyterian word is now sometimes used as a title by which to designate a “meeting together of all the officers of the congregation,” to consult respecting its secular interests chiefly; the name “session,” being reserved exclusively for meetings of the teaching and ruling elders for government. (The reader should know, indeed, it is plain in the extract [from Stevenson], that the “consistory, or session,” in that church, was “constituted of elders and deacons.”)

[20] Gerard Brandt’s History of the Reformation in Holland, Vol. I, p. 314.

[21] John Brown, of Wamphray, the author of the Apologetical Narrative, was long the pastor of this congregation. The “Mr. Wallace” referred to was Colonel Wallace, the gallant leader of the Covenanters at the Pentland Hills, in 1666. After that battle, he withdrew to Holland, and in 1676, was chosen and elder of the church in Rotterdam. The next year he was ordered to remove from the territories of Holland, in consequence of the threats of England. This was “what had gone against him.” It appears from the fact above mentioned, that the Scottish congregation of Rotterdam, composed of some of the choicest of Scotland’s sufferers, at that time, for religion and liberty, was constituted with “elders and deacons,” who sat together in a body called a consistory. This form, it should be observed, was not adopted by them after the example of the Holland churches; they had been accustomed to it in the Scottish Church. The fact above stated, will be found in the March number of 1839 of the Covenanter.

The following account of the form of government in the Waldensian churches, at the present time, possesses no inconsiderable interest in itself, and likewise, in connection with this subject. The account is taken from the Presbyterian of Dec. 12, 1840. “They have their Synod, and their representative pastors, deacons, and elders. The pastors are elected by the parishes by free and open choice; and the elders are selected by their peers after a rigid examination. Out of their number, one is selected to fill the office of deacon, in whom is vested the alms, and the properties of the churches. The consistory is just a church session, consisting of the pastor, as chairman, the elders, and the deacon, and it is vested with the charge of the ecclesiastical affairs of the parish.”

[22] It has been shown in the second chapter of this Essay, that the Church of Scotland considered the distribution of all the ordinary revenues to belong “to the office” of the deacon. 

[23] Confession of Faith (Philadelphia edition, 1838), p. 574.

[24] Divine Right, etc., pp. 184, 248. The last quotation is from Dr. Owen, chapter VII of The True Nature of a Gospel Church.

[25] The True Nature of a Gospel Church, chap. IX. These extracts are long, but they will amply repay the trouble of perusal.

[26] As peculiar to it, is evidently meant.

[27] “Testimony” (edition 1837), chap. XI, § 11. In the following paragraph, it is said, “Rulers meet in presbytery, synod, etc. Each of these courts is a consistory of elders.”

[28] Published in 1817. In the revised form of this book, now in overture before that body, this is expressed as follows, Art. II § 15: “The deacons of a congregation, in conjunction with the session, shall form a consistory (the pastor presiding), for the management of the temporalities of the congregation; from whose proceedings, however, an appeal may be taken to the presbytery.”

[29] Ecclesiastical Catechism (edition 1831), p. 47. 

[30] The sentiments of this distinguished divine were not mere theory. He was instrumental in introducing deacons, and establishing a consistory in his congregation, nearly a quarter of a century ago; where it continued until his death. There is an expression in a note to his Ecclesiastical Catechism, which does not exhibit that correctness which usually characterizes Dr. M‘Leod’s views on this subject. He says (p. 130), “They (the deacons) are founded upon the circumstance of a class of paupers belonging to the Church.” This idea has in it something that is even repulsive. Read the narrative, in Acts 2 and 4, of the the remarkable liberality of the Christian converts, and say, is this a fair representation of the matter? If so, then the apostles themselves must have been paupers – for they were supported out of these contributions.

[31] Exodus 28:21. 

[32] Some expenditures, it is evident, may be of such a character as to render a public statement of them in a promiscuous assembly, improper. But even in such cases, the deacons should go so far as to certify to the faithful distribution of the church goods.  

[33] Such visitations are essential to the proper working of the Presbyterian system, even in spiritual things.

[34] The subordination of the deacon, we have attempted to illustrate and establish, in the principle only. As to the manner of applying this principle, or the precise mode of exercising the supervisory power belonging to them, on the part of the eldership, there is something to be said. The old form adopted in the Scottish church, differed somewhat, though not materially, from that in use in the foreign Reformed churches. The elders taking part in all that came before them, the deacons advising upon all matters, but voting only in what concerned their own office. In Scotland, the elders met, and it appears that the court was constituted as a court of elders. (See Stewart’s Collection.) The deacons were always present, and took part, as in the French churches. Some apply the principle a little differently. The deacons transact the pecuniary affairs of the congregation, and at stated periods the whole transactions of the board of deacons are laid before a body composed of all the officers of the congregation, and called a consistory, to distinguish it from the meetings of the session. This body examines, consults, and determines as to what may be deemed best in reference to those matters which fall under the cognizance of the deacons, until the succeeding meeting. According to this arrangement, as in the Scottish and other Reformed churches, the deacon is not a mere executive officer, he has a voice in the direction; while, at the same time, the other officers of the congregation exercise a general supervision, and that in the most unexceptionable way in which it appears possible to do it. There is something similar to this in many congregations which have not deacons. As in most of the congregations, at least of the Reformed Church, in Ireland, where the committees appointed to settle the annual accounts make their settlements with the session, and in acknowledged subordination to that body. Many advantages connected with this system might be pointed out, did our limits allow.