There has been a lot of chatter about Recommendation 7 from the PCA women’s study committee. Concerns arise from all sides about what it does or does not say about Church authority and whether the notion of a commissioned church worker constitutes the creation of a new church office. In this article I attempt to make some observations about the nature of authority as well as the propriety of the light of nature in Church organization. I’m neither advocating for nor against a change to the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO) but I do want to correct some poor argumentation in the hopes of focusing the discussion.
First, I want to make some observations about leadership and authority. Much has been said and written about leadership from both sides. On the one hand, some argue that the reason why it is appropriate to ordain women as deacons is because diaconal ministry is, inherently, not a “leadership” role because its domain of activity is mercy and service. I believe this is a category error. Indeed, Christ came to serve and to be Servant of all, but we hardly doubt whether He was a leader. The Women’s Study Committee panel, during their remarks at the plenary session, seemed to overemphasize the idea that they were not advocating for women to assume leadership roles within the Church. I understood what they were trying to communicate but I think they communicated too much. That non-ordained men and women take on different leadership roles within the Church ought to be non-controversial if we understand leadership and authority.
I believe a more helpful way of looking at the issue is one of authority and delegation and then to relate these notions to the ordained offices. I think it is my background in the military and other spheres of human activity that allows me to detect confusion where people are using the term “leadership” in a restrictive sense.
When we use the word authority, we always understand that authority to be limited. The only Person who has all authority in heaven and on earth is Christ. The rest of us who have authority have been delegated authority by Christ. The elders of the Church have authority at the local Church level over Word, Sacrament and discipline.
The diaconal office is attendant with the authority over the sphere of mercy within the local Church. At a very basic level, deciding who received bread and how much was the occasion in Acts 2 for the creation of the office. To fail to call this “leadership” simply because the scope of responsibility is mercy is to misunderstand what leadership and authority entails.
Anybody who has been in the domain of responsibility for some time understands that there are those who are followed who have no authority or office. They may be peers or even subordinates but their gifts or example are such that others follow. They lead not because they have authority but out of their moral example or charisma or giftedness. Likewise, there are those who have authority (or office) whom others must follow not because the person is exemplary but because they possess the authority or office. The goal in ordination is to ordain those who possess the qualities of leadership – to vest with office those who are already being followed. That said, not every leader in a Church is ordained and to limit leadership to the two offices misses the nature of leadership.
The Church has two ordained offices instituted by the Word of God. I think we need to move beyond discussions of “leadership” and focus upon the issue of the authority vested within the respective offices. It is simply improper to claim that the office of deacon lacks leadership or authority. By doing so we actually undermine a healthy understanding of leadership and authority that is helpful as we understand how authority can be delegated. It is better that we understand the kind of authority that belongs to certain offices within the Church. If we understand what authority the Scriptures have vested within Elders and Deacons then we can understand how members of the Church can support these activities without replacing them or over-stepping bounds of official authority.
We turn our attention now to the issue of commissioning and some of the concerns and confusion regularly expressed. I’m not seeking to bind any consciences on this but I do want to offer a few observations that may help us to look at these issues more carefully.
First, I’m sometimes bemused by the manner that we argue over things that are not necessarily in keeping with what the Confessions call the “light of nature”. I would caution Reformed thinkers from making the “show me the verse” argument in every case. We don’t appeal to Scripture to justify the use of committees or Robert’s Rules of Order because we recognize that the light of nature demonstrates the wisdom of certain forms of organization or rules for deliberation. If asked to quote chapter and verse for many things we do in Church life even the most strident fundamentalist would have to concede that wisdom cannot always be proof-texted.
I was a commissioned officer in the Marine Corps on active duty for over 21 years. I’m struck by those who have no idea what “commissioned” means because it is a very well understood term. A commission in the military is granted by the President and the commissioned officer serves at his pleasure. He swears an oath to the Constitution but he is under the authority of the lawful orders that the President issues. Within this construct, no commissioned officer has absolute authority but there are ranks and even commands within the system. A person may attain a certain rank but this does not grant him authority over every person of lesser rank. In fact, Military Police are trained to remind Officers who speed not to confuse rank with authority. The Sergeant, though outranked by a Major, has authority to issue a moving violation.
The military not only has commissioned officers but non-commissioned officers and staff non-commissioned officers. They have rank commensurate with age and experience and they are given authority by commissioned officers to act within ghe sphere of activity they have been charged with. For example, a sentry at a compound is given an order to protect the perimeter by his superior (a young NCO). If a General walks up to that compound in the dark of night, he will be challenged to halt and identify himself. After identifying himself he will be instructed to place his ID under the fence and then turn around where the sentry can see his hands. If the General does not comply and believes that his rank gives him the right to fail to heed these instructions he may be shot for trying to intrude. The sentry has authority, granted by general orders, and everybody up and down the chain of command understands that you don’t just start “pulling rank” on a Marine holding a deadly weapon. You had better comply. Confusing rank (or office) with authority is not only foolish but can be deadly.
What’s the point of these rank and authority notions? It should be noted that English Presbyterians, who wrote the Divine Right of Church Government, appealed to the manner in which men naturally organize themselves in government and professional conduct as a demonstrable proof of the God-ordained nature of Presbyterianism. If we can appeal to General Revelation to demonstrate that Baptists are wrong then what does the light of nature teach us about delegated authority within our Churches?
To rest objections to “commissioned church worker” on a lack of specific Biblical warrant is an inadequate argument. This is a light of nature issue. We have Elders and Decons – these are the ordained offices. Outside of the ordained offices we have a host of activities within a Church and the Elders and Deacons have the authority to organize and motivate the flock in order to carry out their God-ordained task. This involves delegating authority to others and, in some cases, giving titles to personnel within that organization.
Let me illustrate with nursery work. We have a nursery coordinator to whom the Session has delegated authority over the nursery. As an Elder in the Church, am I simply free to violate every policy we have put in place because I have the office of Elder? Does the nursery coordinator have the authority to tell me that, like everyone else, I must follow the procedures we have put in place to protect children?
In other words, the nursery coordinator has authority. She exercises leadership. It’s not absolute but she acts in accordance with the policies put in place by the Session and the Deacons and she has every right to hold each and every member, regardless of office, to the standards that have been put in place. Nobody may confuse office with specific authority at that point. It would not only be poor leadership on the part of an Elder but he would be violating the authority of the Session-as-a-whole whose authority looms behind the authority of the nursery coordinator as she executes their policies.
So what, exactly, is a commissioned church worker? I don’t know yet but, in principle, I don’t have a problem describing the authority of the nursery coordinator as a kind of commission. A commission simply means that authority has been vested in someone by an entity with the authority to grant it. A Session has authority it can delegate and there are people to whom that authority over tasks can be delegated (e.g. Treasurer). Thus, call them what you prefer, but commissions exist within the Church if we understand the semantic range of the term.
The session remains responsible and cannot escape this by delegating. There’s an old saying that goes like this: you can delegate authority but not responsibility. When the Session or Deacons delegate their authority to others in the Church for the work of ministry, they are still ultimately responsible. That said, it is simply not possible to accomplish anything within a Church if the ordained officers are not delegating authority within the Church and developing men and women within the Church to whom authority may be delegated.
The discussion so far neither commends nor discourages the title of commissioned church worker but a word of caution is in order about tax benefits for commissioned church workers. Before we embark down this path we need to study and receive counsel over the IRS tax guidelines: https://www.irs.gov/taxtopics/tc417.html
The tax code refers exclusively to ministers. It recognizes Churches install their ministers in differing ways. Thus, the IRS states that the rules apply to “…licensed, ordained, and commissioned ministers…” There is no category under the tax code for a “commissioned Church worker”. I’m very concerned about a potentially unethical equivocation over the term minister where we call the person a “commissioned church worker” to maintain Confessional integrity but we identify the person as a “commissioned minister” to the IRS for tax purposes. More study on this concept is clearly in order.
To conclude, my purpose in this article has been to capture some of my thoughts surrounding this issue. I would encourage all to give greater consideration the distinctions between office and authority. We err when we argue that deacons have no authority and even miss the important point that it is perfectly appropriate for non-ordained persons to exercise authority within delegated spheres of activity. Insofar as we are preserving the Biblical offices of elder and deacon then the notion of delegation (and titles where appropriate) should not be seen as inherently foreign. I am neither commending nor rejecting the notion of commissioned church worker but simply trying to help us understand the concept by way of analogy. Finally, much more study and conversation is needed before we encourage the Church as a whole to grant the tax benefits reserved to ministers by the IRS.