The query from the Church in Stephentown and Petersburgh, relative to the office and work of the Deacons, was, at our last session, referred to a committee; but the query involves too many things to be left intelligible in a short answer, in common form. We, therefore, agree with the committee to make that the subject of our Circular Address to you, the present year.
The query is as follows, viz: Whether a Church, to stand in gospel order, requires a fund? If not, are deacons necessary? If so, is it right for a Deacon to exercise his office before he is ordained? If so, what is his duty?
We can think of no better method for the solution of this, and all other queries of a similar nature, than an impartial search for the examples and precepts of our Saviour and apostles. As to a fund's being necessary for the visible order of a Church of Christ, we may notice, that when Christ was on
earth, he and his twelve apostles had a bag, or purse, in which they deposited something, as a precaution for those necessary expenses that might arise, either for them selves, or for the relief of the poor. Though this may not prove the necessity of every Church's having a fund; yet as in all Churches some expenses must arise, this may be considered a worthy example for us to take suitable precaution, so far as to be prepared to meet such expenses.
The next thing we may notice, is the Church at Jerusalem, Acts 4:34, who being persecuted to that degree that they could not enjoy their professions as usual, sold them, and laid the money down at the apostle's feet, in one common stock; and equal distribution was to be made, as each one had need. This however, does not appear to have been the practice of any other Church, neither do we find any direction given for the continuance of such a practice in the Christian Church. Yet this circumstance may teach us some important lessons.
1st. That the genius and spirit of the gospel dictate that kind of friendship and fellowship which make those which possess them, willing freely to dedicate their all to God; to be disposed of for the promotion of his cause, according as he hath directed in his word. 2d. Those who profess the Christian religion, while they make a reserve of their worldly property, are not honest in their professions, but are too much like Ananias and Sapphire, who kept back part of the price. 3d. That those who possess Christianity are willing to be partners both in the joys and sorrows of life.
We next learn from the apostles, particularly from 1 Corinthians 16, and 2 Corinthians 9, that the Churches were directed to make suitable collections, that they might be ready to answer those necessary expenditures. From the whole, we learn, that a church in gospel order has dedicated their whole interest to God, and so much of it as gospel rule requires for the promotion of that cause, they freely devote to that use. It cannot be thought, either from scripture or reason, that a Church can long maintain the visible order of the gospel, without some pecuniary expenses, for the conveniency of worship, the utensils, and elements for the Lord's table, the relief of the poor, the support of the gospel ministry, and the spread of the gospel in destitute parts of the earth. For your further satisfaction in these things, turn to 1 Corinthians 9. and 14. chapters, and 2 Corinthians 9. Phil. 4. 1 Timothy 2:4.
But the question before us is, as expenses must arise, in what manner must she proceed in order to defray them, or is a fund absolutely necessary for that purpose? Answer -- If by a fund is meant the depositing a sum of money in stock, distinct from their interest in common, the income of which stock shall be sufficient to meet the exigencies of the church, we find no such rule in the scriptures. Yet we think that in some sense, a fund may be necessary; for,
according to the scriptures before cited, we have both precept and example for taking a suitable precaution, so far at least as to be prepared to meet those unforeseen expenses which often arise. We therefore think, that were churches to travel in gospel order, they would be so liberal, either at their stated contributions on communion seasons, and other times, or (which we think would be more according to the nature of gospel rule) for the Church, from year to year, to determine how much is necessary to meet such expense, so as constantly to have enough in the treasury to answer the above purpose. In this sense only do we mean to be understood in our answer, that a fund is necessary.
There is scarce any precept in all the scriptures more explicit than that each member shall bear their equal proportion of all the necessary expenditures of the Church. We therefore think that a Church may not be said to walk in gospel order, unless they proceed in such a manner in this business, as to be able every year to know whether each member does their duty in this respect, or not; so that one may not be eased, and another burdened.
As to the office of Deacons, we think they are of absolute necessity, without which a church cannot be said to be completely organized according to the gospel. It will be acknowledged, that some of the most essential parts of the visible order of a gospel Church stand connected with a punctual and regular compliance with those duties that relate to her necessary expenses. It must therefore be thought reasonable that some be appointed over this business.
It was a wise conclusion of the apostles, that it was not meet that they should leave the word of God and serve tables, and it was equally so for the preachers of the gospel at this day. The apostles, therefore, directed the Church to look out men of honest report, full of the graces of the holy Spirit, to be appointed over this business, and them they set apart by the laying on of hands. These officers are called Deacons in Philippians 1:1. and in 1 Tim. 3d chap. It appears to us that Bishops, or teaching Elders and Deacons, are the only standing officers to be ordained in the Church. These are both called Elders, 1 Timothy 5:17. Let the Elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor; especially they who labor in word and doctrine. By this we learn, that there were some Elders whose special office-work was not to labor in word and doctrine. Paul directed Titus to ordain Elders in every city; and it is said of Paul and Barnabas, Acts 14:23, that they ordained them Elders in every church: and when they had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed. By these Elders, we understand Bishops and Deacons; and we have not learned from the scriptures, but that these two are the only officers to be ordained in the Christian Church. One principal reason why we thus think, is, that the apostle, 1 Timothy 3. hath particularly delineated the characters suitable both for Bishops and Deacons; but we cannot
find either the character or work of any other officers described in the New Testament. To attempt, therefore, the ordination of any other, we see nothing at present but that we should act without any scripture rule, either to know the character suitable for the office, or the work to set him about, which we think would be both unscriptural and dangerous. But we cannot think, that if the offices both of Bishops and Deacons were not to be continued in the Church, that the Holy Ghost, by the apostle, would have been so particular in describing both their character and their work. As to the duty and work of Deacons, they are to take the oversight or charge of the Church, in all matters that relate to her necessary expenses; to call the attention, and lead the Church forward in all matters of this nature; to watch over the members, and see that the engagements of the Church are punctually fulfilled; to exhort and admonish delinquent members to their duty in these matters. Some have thought that the office of Deacon particularly respected the poor; this, indeed, is one part of their work; but every other branch of the public expenditures of the church come equally under the cognizance of their office. When this office was first appointed in the Church at Jerusalem, the interest of the whole was in one common stock, and therefore one could not be said to be poorer than another. The truth is, the work to which these officers were appointed, was to serve tables; not only the table of the poor, but to see that equal distribution was made to each one, as their stations and circumstances require, according to the rules of the gospel. In a word, the Deacons are trustees of the Church, and are to take care of her prudential concerns in those matters; not only to see that her public expenditures are punctually attended to, but as far as possible to prevent unnecessary expense. The Deacons also are to provide for the Lord's table, and may assist in the distribution of the elements. As to the Deacon's right to exercise himself in the office before he is ordained, we think that the sense of the apostle, in 1 Timothy 3:10, And let these also first be proved, then let them use the office of a Deacon, being found blameless, is not that he should exercise in the office, in order for the proof of his qualification, but that the church, by examination, should endeavor to gain sufficient proof, that he may in a good measure answer the character given, and that it is the mind of God that he should be set apart to that office, then let him be ordained before he attempts the work.
On the whole, to conclude, Brethren, we think that the office of Deacon is essential to the proper organization and true visibility of a Church. We wish you to examine the scriptures for yourselves, and strive to be found walking according to the due order of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: While we openly reject the aid of civil power to enforce the observance of our duty in these things, let us be careful to avoid that extreme which may lead us off from those precepts of the gospel, which require a punctual observance of those duties which relate to the necessary expenditures of the Churches. It is
said by those who plead for the aid of civil power in these things, that without it the visibility of religion cannot be supported; and that men will not do their equal proportion freely without having recourse to civil law. But were we, beloved, closely to observe the order of the gospel in these matters, our practice would soon convince the world that all such arguing is vain.
That the Lord would enable us all to walk in the order of the gospel, that others may see the light, and glorify our Father which is in heaven, is the earnest prayer of your Brethren in Gospel bonds.
N. B. -- DEAR BRETHREN! We wish to have it ever remembered, that this Association disclaims all pretensions to any jurisdiction over the Churches that compose it; so that no resolution of the Association, as such, ought to be considered obligatory on them - but only advisory, or opinionative: And we think questions, or disputable points, are too often introduced into our meetings, which occasion ouch trouble, and tend to scatter, rather than unite or convince. And we desire to add, that we do not mean to consider the ideas expressed n the foregoing Letter as a test of our fellowship -- although we think a reformation is necessary in the practice of many (if not all) of our Churches, in those respects.
LEMUEL COVELL, Clerk.
CALEB BLOOD, Moderator.
[Stephen Wright, History of the Shaftsbury Baptist Association, 1853, pp. 79-82. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
More Vermont Circular Letters
Baptist History Homepage