Can you capture what it means to be a deacon, ruling elder, or teaching elder in a short article that would serve as the last piece in a training curriculum?”
To tell the truth, given all the ink that has been spilled from wiser pens than mine, I had my doubts that I could deliver on that assignment. But, as it turns out, I think I can. In fact, I think I can capture what it means to be ordained in the Church in three words. More about that in a moment.
First, I want to offer a general observation about ordination. Ordination is about equipping the people of God to do the ministry to which the Spirit of God calls them. Ordination is not about holding office; it’s about ministry (which is the primary reason the Book of Order no longer speaks of “officers” and speaks instead of “ordered ministry”). And the ministry is not a description of our individual jobs; it’s about the ministry of the congregation, what the Scriptures call the “saints” (Ephesians 4:12) and what G-2.0102 calls “the whole people of God.”
The Church’s ordered ministries described in the New Testament and maintained by the Church are deacons and presbyters (teaching elders and ruling elders). Ordered ministries are gifts to the Church to order its life so that the ministry of the whole people of God may flourish (G-2.0102; emphasis added).
To put it another way, ordination as a deacon, ruling elder or teaching elder is never about authority or privilege; it is always about strengthening the witness of a congregation to the grace of God that recreates lives, communities, societies and creation as a whole. It is never about advancing one’s own agenda, and always about faithful imitation of the one who came “not to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20:28).
But I said there were three words, and here they are: proclamation, community and service. I would suggest that we might think about these words as informal “marks” or identifying characteristics of the Church, and of any particular church. I don’t mean that they have creedal status, like the famous Nicene Marks (“the Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic”). But I do mean that these core activities arise from the theological heart of the earliest church, and that they continue to identify a robust church today. And, I want to suggest, they live particularly in the work of each of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s ordered ministries.
Proclamation comes from the Greek term kerygma, “preaching.” It’s what Jesus did on the mountain in Matthew 5-7, what Peter did on the street in Jerusalem on Pentecost in Acts 2, what Paul did on the Areopagus in Acts 17, and what every preacher who mounts every pulpit every Sunday strives to do. At its core, it is bearing witness to the oldest truth of the Christian faith: Jesus Christ is Lord – of my life, of our lives and of the life of the world. But more significantly, proclamation is the task of teaching the Church and the world what it means that Jesus Christ is Lord.
What impact does the Lordship of Christ have on the way we spend our money, conduct our business, behave in traffic, vote, the causes we support, the attitudes we manifest to rest of the world … and on and on? In our polity, this calling—the ministry of teaching—is laid upon those whom we call “teaching elders.”
Teaching elders (also called ministers of the Word and Sacrament) shall in all things be committed to teaching the faith and equipping the saints for the work of the ministry (G-2.0501).
Teaching elders may be chaplains, pastors, educators, theologians and biblical scholars, administrators or any other calling to which the presbytery directs them. But no matter the calling, they are teachers of the faith, finding ways to tell the story of God’s transforming grace, “so that people are shaped by the pattern of the Gospel and strengthened for witness and service.” In these days in which the church (to say nothing of the world) has forgotten the Gospel, this task takes on a special urgency.
Community is one way to translate the ancient Greek term koinonia. The Church, and any particular church or congregation, is a community. Not just any sort of community, however; rather, the Church in all its forms is a community of witness, formed by God’s grace in Jesus Christ, at work in the power of God’s Spirit. As God changes lives, those whose lives are changed are called into community, called to bear corporate witness to the world that the same grace that changed them can and does change others. And so the koinonia, the Christian Church, is born.
Once born, the nascent community needs guidance and direction. And the early Church understood that this guidance came best from those who had experience in discerning the call of Christ amid the clamor of competing worldly claims. These mature ones – “elders” – are gathered together with the apostles to sort out the complex and vexing questions that plagued the Church. So, in Acts 15, the Jerusalem council is composed of “apostles and elders” who are charged with discerning what it means to be Christian. And in our own time, ruling elders in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) still gather to seek Christ’s will (F-3.0204) and govern the life of the Church in accordance with the Gospel. It’s a task not born of power, but of a deep and humble submission to the will of Christ:
Ruling elders are so named not because they “lord it over” the congregation (Matthew 20:25), but because they are chosen by the congregation to discern and measure its fidelity to the Word of God, and to strengthen and nurture its faith and life (G-2.0301).
Being a ruling elder is not about being a member of the board of directors of a small nonprofit corporation; it is the spiritual discipline of discerning the will of Christ expressed in the “rule of the Evangel.”
And service is perhaps the best translation of the Greek word diakonia, from which we derive our word “deacon.” Early in its life, the Church realized that it could not simply enjoy the bread and wine of the Eucharist without turning from the table and bearing the loaf and cup to the starving people around it. Rather than making the Eucharist a closed circle, it broke the circle and invited the community in to share the feast. But that quickly meant that there were more tables to serve than the leadership could handle.
And so, in Acts 6, the Church’s leaders appointed members of the community to diakonia – literally, “waiting tables.” But something powerful happens when the table on which you wait is the table of the Lord: you begin to understand that feeding the body and feeding the soul are only the beginning of serving God’s people. Before long, “deacons” served among the poor, and advocated for their needs and concerns. And, in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), deacons exercise this same “ministry of compassion and service” even now:
The ministry of the deacon … is one of compassion, witness, and service, sharing in the redeeming love of Jesus Christ for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the lost, the friendless, the oppressed, those burdened by unjust policies or structures, or anyone in distress (G-2.0201).
Service is what happens whenever God’s people hear the good news of transforming grace and are called into communities of witness. As the old camp song says, “you want to pass it on.”
In a very important sense, the ordered ministries of the Presbyterian Church keep us faithful to the basic identity of the Church from its earliest moments. Proclamation, community and service pulse through our ecclesiastical arteries and make us who we are. Teaching elders, ruling elders and deacons have a vital role: they keep the pulse beating, so that the church rises anew every morning ready to be the Church. That’s a pretty high calling. Welcome to this ministry.
PAUL K. HOOKER is associate dean for ministerial formation and advanced studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.