Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Lutheran Deacon: What a Deacon Is Not

There is a growing interest in the office of deacon in today's Lutheran Church. Much of the interest is terribly misguided, however, and in need of correction. It is misguided into more than one wrong direction. With some correction, and with renewed emphasis and study, I am confident that a wholesome and lively interest in the office of deacon will grow among us, and bear much good fruit. To that end, I will be exploring in some depth the office of deacon, as it could and should be conceived and employed in Christ's holy Church in the modern age. Just what exactly is a deacon? This is the basic question, the exploration of which can open up great vistas of discussion.

It will help, however, to first establish what a deacon is not. That is what I would like to discuss today. There are two basic ways of looking at the deacon which need to be critiqued and condemned in Christian faith and love. And unfortunately both are more common in today's Missouri Synod than are the proper ways of seeing the deacon. So let us jump right into some controversy, why don't we.

First, the deacon is not merely a layman who fills a role of helping like unto that of the so called deaconess. Such a statement might bring the inference by some that I do not view the deacon as one who helps and serves. Trust me, I will treat at length the diaconal role of the deacon, so to speak. It must be established first, however, especially in today's milieu, that the deacon is not basically a male version of the deaconess. One of the problems with the modern Missouri Synod deaconess situation is that, in being so much more prominent and trendy than even the talk of a deacon program, it has led many to view the deaconess as the prototype, the paradigm, through which the deacon is viewed. Perhaps this is partly caused by nomenclature, that is, by the very use of the term deaconess, which is not wrong in itself, but might, I wonder, contribute to confusion in an age wherein the vocations of priest, deacon, hearer, and various helpers, are far less properly understood and distinguished than in the age of the venerable Wilhelm Loehe, who gave modern Lutheranism the deaconess. (Nothing like a quasi-Proustian sentence to wake a reader up.)

My intent is not to condemn the deaconess program, though it is not without need of critique. I aim here merely to point out that it is improper and dangerous to think of the deaconess as more needed than the deacon, which the synod obviously does today, and that it is improper and dangerous to view the deacon as merely an analogue to the deaconess. The Missouri Synod seminary, an inherently masculine institution, whose very name signifies a seedbed of the Church's sacred ministry, has become just as co-ed as the seminaries of the mainline churches, where women who will have "calls" and "ministries" are sitting in some of the very same classes as men studying for the holy priesthood. Indeed, they cohabit in a certain but very real sense. That is, they sleep, eat, study, and live together in the insular world of a seminary campus. Whereas the seminarian in a previous age had to get official permission to get betrothed, today even dating goes on among these students. Such things are open secrets and in some cases openly encouraged. There have been deaconess students who have argued that since they are students at the seminary, they are "seminary students," and even "seminarians." As I say, this is not a rant on the deaconess program, though I have included a minor rant of a few aspects of the seminary versions of this program. I reiterate that I do not condemn the synod deaconess program per se, but that it is in real need of critique, which will merit a separate discussion. I make these observations in order to make the point that there is great confusion in today's deaconess "ministry," which does harm not only to a healthy view of deaconesses, but also to all other roles in the Church, including that of the traditional and venerable office of deacon.

Second, the deacon is not equal to the presbyteral office. He is not a pastor or priest. This is a very common problem in the practice, even officially endorsed practice, of today's Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. It seems to have started at least as far back as the 1980s, and then in 1989 the Synod itself began to officially promote the improper and scandalous intrusion of "deacons" into the priestly functions of the Church. Right here in Milwaukee there is at least one parish staffed by a deacon who is playing pastor, right in the open and with the approval of the system. He is playing pastor, and he is playing church.

A layman celebrating the Sacrament of the Altar is an inherent impossibility. Today, however, the Missouri Synod pretends that it has the power to make such a thing happen just by granting official approval for it. Furthermore, such "Word and Sacrament ministries" are rationalized by the claim that they are needed, and that they are unusual and rare. Of course a wrongful and illicit thing can never really be needful. Nor can a practice be justified by being unusual. Nor, I would add, is it as unusual or rare as some think. It is happening in a city near you, and it is being increasingly celebrated at all levels of ecclesial bureaucracy.

What is the need, by the way, for additional pastors in a church that has many good, qualified men languishing on CRM (or whatever they call it these days), that is, ordained men qualified for placement but denied it? Some of these men would do better in other areas of ministry than as head pastor of a parish, but there are many possibilities which can be explored, other than merely abandoning these men, and refusing to even show any interest in taking care of them. And in light of such ranks of ordained men suffering for a living without a Call, the "ministry" of these "Word and Sacrament" deacons is all the more scandalous.

The deacon, then, ought in no way be seen as someone who can take care of a parish, with its vital and weighty sacramental needs. Only a priest can say Mass. Only a priest can hear Confession. Lutherans love to speak of the possibility of lay Baptism, yet we must make a couple of qualifications for this. One is that it ought never be done if a priest can be found. Another is that it is for truly emergency situations. Another is that it must be done by a Christian. Another is that the Church must be notified as soon as possible to the circumstances, and given opportunity to approve, and then publicly affirm such Baptism. Such considerations are out the window with many of today's deacon situations. Regarding preaching, I would argue that there are a couple of circumstances where preaching would be appropriate for a deacon, but they are truly irregular, unlike today's "Word and Sacrament ministries" where preaching is the centerpiece and indeed expected. Those circumstances are the following: 1. a transitional deacon, who is being formed for the priesthood; such would be ideally the last stage of seminary study, and 2. a situation where there is a deacon who is well trained and qualified for preaching, and who once in a while is needed by his bishop for this task. Neither of these situations are the same as the play pastor "deacons" out there today, some of whom are given added "legitimacy" by being enrolled in DELTO or SMP courses, thereby bringing the seminaries themselves into complicity and culpability with these open violations of the Confessions (CA XIV).

The deacon is not a male deaconess. The deacon is not a pastor, and ought in no way be allowed to operate as such. Such negatives are very important to establish in a discussion on the diaconate. Such ideas are like brush and bramble in a field that is not only annoying, but dangerous fire hazards. It must be cleared away, so that a proper foundation can be built for a wholesome and evangelical diaconate in the tradition of the Church.


calov said...

Oh Mr. Gaba, taking on the Lutheran nuns. Now you've gone and done it.

To this day, I am not too clear on the reasons for the seminaries to each start their own deaconess program. Maybe it was the new trendy thing to do?

Granted, there were flaws with the offical program for LCMS deaconess training at Concordia River Forest (or whatever the hell they call it now). The one big flaw was that the director of the deaconess program was not allowed to place those who completed their training. In the infinte wisdom of the instition, this responsibility was given to the director of placement for the other programs, namely Lutheran school teachers, and, shudder, DCEs. A former placement director at River Forest, who shall remain nameless at this time, would actively try to convince congregations that inquired about calling a deaconess to get a DCE instead.

I do not like the idea of deaconess programs at the seminaries. It really does muddy the waters. When the two seminaries can't even agree when it comes to training their pastors, now they have another group to influence? There are now FOUR deaconess programs,lest we forget Valpo, that have hold and sway over, what seems like, a very popular program.

It does amaze me how Lutherans in America enjoy picking and choosing the parts of Lutheran history (and church history, for that matter) that suits their needs.

I am tired tired of the bastardization of the historic office of deacon that has been done by the LCMS. It has been turned into a convenient title to take care of problems that DPs don't want to deal with.

And no, you Lutheran nuns in training, you are NOT seminarians. If you want that title, there are institutions out there that you can go to for that title.

Dcn. Muehlenbruch said...

Latif, as a validly ordained Deacon who has been in Holy Orders for 38 years, I must disabuse a few of your remarks.

According to Canon Law, there are only two things that a Deacon cannot do. He cannot celebrate Mass, and he cannot pronounce sacramental absolution. Other than this, without exception, a Deacon is authorized to perform any and all rites, blessings, sacramentsls and sacraments which are not specifically reserved to priests and/or bishops. Depending upon the laws of the state of residence, deacons may also officiate at weddings.

You state "Regarding preaching, I would argue that there are a couple of circumstances where preaching would be appropriate for a deacon, but they are truly irregular,..." When a deacon is ordained, he is presented with a Bible as a sign that he is authorized to proclaim the Gospel at Mass, and to preach the same.

Regarding your remark that an emergency baptism "ought never be done if a priest can be found" fails to realize that deacons can validly administer this sacrament.

I will grant you that "the deacon is not equal to the presbyteral office"; but remember, the distinction between bishop, priest and deacon are of human derivation.

In my ministry as a deacon, I have done many things. I have had many opportunities to preach. I have assisted my pastor in visiting the hospitalized and home bound; and I have taken Holy Communion to them. I have also been at the bedside of the dying, especially that of my own nephew who was called home at the age of 6 years. This included the included extreme unction and the commendation of the dying.

When I was ordained, I was ordained into the fullness of the Apostolic ministry. I accepted the role of deacon by choice. Therefore, should I ever be called upon to accept priestly responsibilities, I cannot (and would not) be (re-)ordained as a priest. Ordination is a rite/sacrament that cannot be performed more than once.

When the question of reestablishing the office of deacon arose 38 years age, there was never a consideration of "card-carrying" deacons. Without ordination there is no valid ministry. Of this, we had no doubt. But do not forget that an ordained deacon is most certainly in a "Word and Sacrament" ministry.

Those many years ago, we were looking at the reestablishment of the office of deacon as the replacement for vicarage. This would have developed to transitional and/or permanent deacons. These postings would have included a "call" to a specific parish, and would have replaced the "vicarage" and moved it to follow a three-year academic program. I think that this is a discussion that should be renewed today. DELTO & SMP courses leading up to "card-carrying" status is not in keeping with the understanding of the ministry as a "called and ordained" office in the Church.

Forgive me if my comments seemed out of order. This entire debate has been a "pet peeve" of mine for 40 years.

Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

always good to have Dr. Calov's perspective.

Good Deacon:
Thanks very much for your comments. Your contribution to a conversation of this sort is sine qua non. To respond to your points, however, I must wait a few hours; I will be busy at work. thanks again.

Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Deacon Muehlenbruch,
Hi. I'm back. I'm still very much in the stage where I'm learning to get used to third shift.

Anyway, my comments on the deacon in my post may have struck you as a bit restrictive, but I would ask that you bear a couple points in mind. Note, eg., that I was careful not to say that only a priest can Baptize. Or that only a priest can preach.

My comments regarding Baptismal administration are, yes, partly colored by my desire to counter the all too common Lutheran senitment that emphasizes the possibility of emergency Baptism. I am not denying emergency Baptism, neither does Catholic tradition, but I have heard too many Lutherans speak of their right to do so, and many have actually done it, when I know that their pastor could have been contacted in time. I consider this to be a rude and unnecessary insult to the ministry of the Church. Your point, however, is that Diaconal Baptismal (by which I do not mean Baptisms by deaconesses, for all you synodical readers out there) is not the same as emergency lay Baptism; and I agree with you. I should not have implied, & it's one thing I normally strive to avoid implying, that the ordained diaconate is the same as being a layman. My essential aim was to urge what would be most appropriate, not to list what can be done. I think that the pastor ought to be the one, normally, to baptize. Later, I plan on discussing at greater length what the deaconal ministry can look like.

In regard to preaching, again, my aim is simply to speak of what is most appropriate. The deacon can certain preach, by right. (Though, here I would immediately add that he ought not do so against the wishes of the pastor.) The point, or aim, of my comments of the other day, however, was not to address his right to preach, but when it is most appropriate for him to preach. There are deacons who ought never preach. And if the pastor of bishop can prevent bad preaching by restricting a deacon or by getting him better training or whatever, then he ought to do so. Further, indeed, I posited the opinion that the deacon ought not preach often, even if he is good at it, except for the two scenarios I outlined. That, I think, only helps preserve good order in an age and setting where 1. the priesthood is sorely disrespected, and 2. the "word & sacrament" play pastor deacons out there need to be stopped, and not encouraged. Surely this discussion will continue, but for now, I must go.

Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

One more thought for now, my dear Deacon:

You say: "But do not forget that an ordained deacon is most certainly in a "Word and Sacrament" ministry."

To this I can agree. However, when I speak against, write against, and generally attack mercilessly, as i am wont to do, the "Word & Sacrament ministry" of deacons in the Missouri Synod, let me be clear about that to which I am referring. I am referring to what the Missouri Synod means by that term, which is why I put it in quotes, viz., the DELTO students, SMP students, "deacons," "4th year convertible vicars," and others, who are violating the Confessions, the Scriptures, and the tradition of the entire Catholic Church by playing Church, and deceiving the people, especially when they pretend to be celebrating the Most Blessed Sacrament.

I pray, and in my own way will work, for the rise of a healthy and ordered diaconate among us, but I want from the start to mark a clear and unmistakable distinction between it and the scandalous activity of these pretenders. The irony is that the seminaries champion them, and have no interest in a real diaconate. Things can change, though. God can renew the face of the earth; He can even change the hearts of men, even my heart.

Father Robert Lyons said...

Dear Latif,

Interestingly, I have changed my perspective a lot over the years, and now I find myself holding to a slightly different position than you.

Keep in mind that I am speaking for myself here, and, not being a Lutheran, this is more of a reflection about how the Lutheran tradition has impacted me.

First, I agree with the idea that the presbyterate and episcopate are variations on a theme, and their distinction is a valable, yet human, one.

As far as the diaconate goes, however, I have actually taken more to the view of both deacons and deaconesses as being specially commissioned laypersons, for several reasons.

First, in the ancient Eastern Churches, deacons and deaconesses were vested identically, both at least held (there is some question on if deaconesses actually ministered) the chalice. Both performed the physical act of baptism for people of their own gender, then leading them to the bishop for chrismation.

Second, the diaconal role as a preparation for the priesthood was a later invention. In the early church we see direct ordination and consecrations of presbyters and bishops - no diaconate necessary.

Third, a deacon in the East performs no sacramental function that a layperson cannot - for the only sacrament they can properly administer is Baptism. Deacons may serve the consecrated Eucharist, but no consecrate it themselves. Deacons can witness marriage in the west, but cannot pronounce the nuptual blessing (they cannot do so in the East). Deacons cannot anoint with oil but can lay hands upon the sick. Deacons can preach when deputed to do so, where the presbyterate (these days at least) carries with it a blanket license to preach. Deacons can lead services when deputed. Any layperson can lead Matins and Vespers if so deputed. In several countries, lay-workers can witness marriage on behalf of the Church legally and by Church law (though I consider that practice irregular) since Western theology says that it is the mutual consent of the couple, not the minister, who effects the Sacrament.

Now, we come to the question of deaconesses and deacons - their differences and their similarities.

I think both should be in charge of education and benevolence for their own gender. They should take roles in liturgical services at the direction of the presbyter or bishop. A deaconess should never preside, not even at Matins and Vespers, in mixed company. Leading corporate worship still remains a male distinction, but it seems to me to be the only necessary distinction between deacons and deaconesses.

That's just my point of view, and "Power and Primacy" together with other research, has taken me to that place.

Nevertheless, we can definately agree that deacons need to be doing diaconal things, and priests doing priestly things...


Latif Haki Gaba, SSP said...

Thanks Fr. Rob, for your comments.

I like your musical concept that the episcopate and the presbyterate are variations on a theme. That's probably a pretty good way of putting it. As a traditionalist Lutheran I would prefer to have a consecrated bishop, to ordain priests and deacons, and to execute the other aspects of the episcopal office. As a Confessional Lutheran, I know that having to live without a bishop does not scandalize my faith. It scandalizes my sense of taste, my respect for tradition, my longing for wholesome churchly order, but it doesn't scandalize my faith.

Regarding the office of deacon, various readings of the pertinent New Testament texts can be found within the Missouri Synod. I don't say this to skirt having to take a stand, but I honestly believe that the role of the deacon is less than explicit in the New Testament, maybe even in the evidence available to us of the first century or two. This is one case where I suggest it is best to look to the explicit witness of the third and fourth century (which I will show in later posts) as organic development, or manifestation, of what is present in the NT in a less than fully explicit way. I don't know if this begins to sound convoluted, but what I'm saying, basically, is that while on the one hand, I refuse enter into disagreements with those who view texts, like Acts 6, according to their own studied approach, neither do i believe, on the other hand, that any such readings ought to be taken as dogma. My own approach to the office of deacon follows traditionalist Western lines, yet I do not claim sedes doctrinae for it. I think it is appropriate and healthy to read the diaconal texts in light of this tradition, but I won't demand that there is a one-dimensional way to see those texts.

By the way, not only the Lutheran present, but also Lutheran history, knows a variety of approaches to the diaconate. I have heard much talk of the "Reformation" view of the deaacon, but there have been Lutheran churches all along that have kept the traditional three-fold ministry of deacon-priest-bishop.

One thing that I think entered as a factor in the early church practice of deacons baptizing men, & deaconesses baptizing women, is that baptism was a nude enterprise. Let us keep that in mind.

Transitional diaconate was indeed a later development; you are right. I believe the modern practice of having both transitional and permanent deacons is a very good way to go. This does not mean, let us note, that "permanent" deacons cannot ever be ordered priests. Things can change in a man's life, etc, etc.

I agree with you that women (deaconesses) ought not teach or lead worship in mixed groups. My thinking goes one more step, however, in that they shouldn't teach or lead worship ever, even for all women groups, if a qualified man is available. A deaconess teaching a parish Bible study for women, for example, is less than fully healthy and appropriate, if that parish has a pastor, or a qualified deacon.

Dcn. Muehlenbruch said...

Fr. Robert,

Regarding your observation that "I have actually taken more to the view of both deacons and deaconesses as being specially commissioned laypersons,...," I would remind you that deacon have always been ordained in both the East and the West. This would put the question of specially commissioned to the test.

In the past, Rome has has seven orders or ranks of clerics. It is only the deacons, priests and bishops who have been said to be in Major Orders. All other orders were considered minor.

Bear in mind, also, that in the
West (and, I believe also in the East) deacons and priests are ordained; but bishops are only consecrated. In this case, once one has received Major Orders, he is no longer a layman. Therefore, considering a deacon to be nothing more than a consecrated layman is in opposition to Canon Law.