At issue here is a practice, reported in some quarters, of Deacons assisting in the distribution of the elements of Communion, rather than Ruling Elders exclusively, as is the received practice in Presbyterian churches of the American polity (the strict Scottish practice apparently being to restrict the act of distribution to the Minister alone.)
Many of the confusions of office in the modern churches are, I suspect, due to replacing the view in which office indexes an authorized function needed for the good of a human society, with something that is more akin to being chosen for an honor society. It becomes a way to recognize certain men — good men, successful men, big-giving men, whatever. Office is confused with and thus degenerates into being something like awarding a medal for bravery in battle. As with all missing of the mark, this error can lead to a praxis which deviates to the left or to the right: it can lead to a lack of exercise of authority or an arrogation of arbitrary power. The Eldership can become nothing but a special place to sit for the men that have been awarded medals, or it can become men imposing themselves based on mere willful assertion of power. Instead, we should always remember that the name of an office is a linguistic designator for the class of functions defined, required, and authorized for that office. In doing so, many of the seemingly difficult questions will resolve themselves quite easily.
The framework that I presuppose for this reflection has not yet in these pages been proved in every point, so this study leap-frogs over those still-owed arguments, taking them as assumptions. The framework may be summarized this way: the Minister, ordained by Presbytery, is the authorized agent of the holy catholic church to consecrate the elements authoritatively and to control the giving of the sacrament. The Ruling Elders are local men ordained locally to join the minister in rule, especially in the regular oversight of the members of the local congregation. The Deacons are local men ordained locally to minister physically to the congregation and world, doing so authoritatively in the name of the church of Christ.
The Ruling Elders are appropriate assistants to distribute the elements, since they, with the Pastor, constitute the Session, which receives members as communicants and pronounces excommunication. That is, their function in discipline is authoritative, and precisely and directly related to the distribution or withholding of the Lord’s Supper. This works itself out both directly, in offering or forbidding the elements to each person present, but also indirectly, in observing and noting members that might be refraining voluntarily, so that such lack of participation can be followed up on and addressed. The function of office thus has admitting and denying as the twin poles spanning a function, which is exercised in several degrees and modes between those poles. Thus, for example, “being under admonishment” is, we could say, a form of being admitted but with the specter of being denied looming more vividly than normally is the case.
Clearly, both the direct and indirect exercise of discipline so defined fall outside the purview of the Deacon. In no sense can the Deacon simply “fill in for” the eldership. If no elders (including assistant pastors) are present to assist, then the officiating Minister will have to distribute by himself, or Communion will have to be forsworn that week. As a basic, governing principle, this much seems clear.
But now, suppose that, it being granted that it must be done in such a way that neither the direct nor indirect function of the eldership were obstructed, it were thought that the bare logistics of the distribution would be materially aided by having assistants: would such a practice necessarily be forbidden?
For example, in many churches, the elements are passed on trays down each pew. Each tray proceeds pew by pew, right to left, left to right, and so forth. An attendant stands on each end of the pew to move the tray to the next pew. Provided there is at least one Elder in each pair of attendants, would it be permitted to have a Deacon as the other member of a pair, in the function of pure “logistics”? My friend Steve Hoffmeister dubs this the “ergonomics justification.”
If this seems far-fetched, consider that some churches might not have anyone at one end of the pew: the tray would be passed by the congregant at the end to his counterpart in the next pew, such as one sees even more often in the collection. Now there might be some arguments against this practice as well, hinted at in the next paragraph. The practice is described merely to make plausible an a fortiori, of having a non-elder at the end as tray-passing-facilitator, even though not performing the function of elder.
It must be presumed that if the answer turns out affirmative, then there would need to be some way for the Elder to signal certain commands to the assisting Deacon, such as “do not pass down the next row.” It would need to be understood that in areas, if any, that are served by a single attendant (such as, an overflow vestibule with seating), the single attendant would have to be an elder. At the pews, given the constraints of time and memory, a single elder would need to be able to scan and oversee the entire pew by himself — i.e. it were not intrinsically necessary to have two elders on each pew just to fulfill their basic function.
Just laying out the ground principles prior to answering the question at hand already raises a pointed question that every elder should ponder: are elders in fact doing the direct and indirect work of oversight, or has their role in the rite degenerated to mere symbolism? The widespread practice of libertarian fencing, whereby the pastor simply explains to the attendees what rule they themselves, in effect, are to use to admit or forbid themselves, is untenable in view of our view of office and its responsibilities. Yet the practice continues, and I dare say leads to an attitude on the part of many elders that they are simply symbolic accoutrements to the ceremony, not actually playing an active spiritual role. They are like a ceremonial, unarmed sergeant-at-arms. Many may be thinking more about the mere logistics of serving, and may not be actively performing the function of admitting and withholding at all. So, before even raising the question of whether a non-elder could help with the logistics, elders need to ensure that they themselves understand the requirements of their office and are diligently carrying them out. At the end of the service, for example, the pastor or Session should receive a report of all church members that voluntarily refrained from participating, and this should be entered into the minutes and followed up on.
This stage of the argument already opens up another aspect of the “Deacon as ergonomics” discussion. If the Deacon is just there for logistical support, if it is understood that he has neither the right nor the duty to perform the overseeing function associated with the Lord’s Supper, then you would expect that he would draw aside to his “station” and not be receiving the plates from the Minister. For, receiving the plates from the Minister for distribution is at once both the act and the symbol of the elders’ function, namely, authoritatively giving and withholding. A weak but perhaps illuminative analogy would be the handling of the tickets at the opera or ball game. Only certain authorized agents have the authority to sell tickets and accept tickets at the gate. In addition, ushers are stationed at various places to help people find seats and keep the flow moving. For an usher to take a ring of tickets and feign to distribute them though not authorized would be confusion. Why would he even give the appearance of doing so? Likewise here, the ergonomic assistants should stand at the station where their service will be rendered (e.g. at one end of the first pew), not participate at the point of official and authoritative distribution.
Once all the wrong ways to involve deacons in the distribution of the Lord’s Supper have been ruled out, then it raises the question, why do the ergonomic assistants need to be ordained (i.e. as deacons) at all? Why couldn’t any layman perform this function?
It is a question that should be pondered carefully. I can think of no reason for limiting the function to deacons, if the function is needed at all, other than for the convenience of the natural selection process that stands behind the ordination of a man to the office of deacon, allowing thereby the dignity of the ceremony to be maintained symbolically. It would be analogous to a king visiting a town, and needing some assistants for this or that logistical function, and choosing the Mayor and Town Council members to perform it, rather than just any assemblage of townsmen, even though those same townsmen might be on the Council next time. It saves time, it capitalizes on a selection process that has already taken place, and which moreover tends to weed out participants that were scandalous, and adds to the general dignity.
To summarize the results so far: when proper function of office is kept in view rather than simply honorific right, probably the need for non-elder assistants would be seen to be non-existent in almost every case; and in the few cases that remain, it would probably be done differently than what we often see, and would not necessarily need to involve Deacons per se, though that class might be the best to utilize for reasons of expediency and dignity.
This reflection on a practical question has keyed on examining the actual function of office directly: asking, what is required to do in order to fulfill the calling of one’s office. This approach leads to further results, one of which is surprising and initially counter-intuitive.
First, note that there is no principial reason why the minister (or assistant ministers) may not assist with the distribution of the elements. I can think of two reasons why, given that there are enough elders to carry out the distribution effectively, it might be deemed good for the minister to remain at the table and not distribute further than to the Elders. (1) To maintain the symbolism of office, emphasizing his function as executive agent of Presbytery, reflecting the principle of the holy catholic church as the controller of the sacraments, and that in distinction to the office of Ruling Elder. (2) For expediency and stamina, given the strain of his general function in the service. Just as, a manager of McDonald’s might deem it expedient not to take up the mop and pail, not for reasons of pride, but because maintaining responsibility for the operation requires not getting absorbed and distracted by the performance of the details. To refuse out of pride would clearly be wrong.
A more surprising result is this: elders emeritus and visiting elders and pastors would be in exactly the same category as deacons on this question. That is, an elder that has “retired,” or a minister that is not involved in the life of this local congregation is in no more of a position of authoritative exercise of the keys in concreto than a deacon is, in that he is no longer active in receiving, overseeing, and disciplining members. He has the right of rule, but not the occasion: he is not installed and exercising such rule. The criterion for participation is therefore not a simple matter of “being ordained to the office of elder” (whether Teaching or Ruling). It is always a temptation to think a problem is solved by labeling and pigeon-holing.