In the discussion at Synod '11 about including deacons in the greater assemblies (see my previous blog post), I heard two words used quite often: "parity" and "equality." They were always used in a way that showed that the speaker believed that these had some substantial meaning, that they were highly relevant to the issue at hand.
As I said online in that other post, the paper that the delegates were given to discuss did not, in fact, argue for the inclusion of deacons based on some notion of "equality of ministry" or "parity of office." It really doesn't. The paper makes a different argument, one well worth considering.
I could speculate as to why delegates thought that the paper did turn on those notions of "equality of ministry" and "parity of office." Instead, I'd like to consider here what those terms really mean. For I can't help but recall those immortal words of Inigo Montoya to Vizzini (from The Princess Bride): "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
It would probably help to quote the paragraph from the BCO that is thought to be the source of these terms:
The Equality of the Ministry. The Reformed Church in America uses the term "parity" to describe its concept of the equality of ministers. It is not meant that authority can never be exercised by one over the other. But in every instance this authority will be delegated by the proper body, and the authority will cease to be exercised when the need for it is no longer demanded. The principle of equality pertains also among churches, among elders, and among deacons. The principle of the equality of the ministry, conceived now in its broadest sense as including the functions of the elder and the deacon, is based upon the fact that the entire ministerial or pastoral office is summed up in Jesus Christ himself in such a way that he is, in a sense, the only one holding that office. Every ministerial function is found preeminently in him. By his Holy Spirit he distributes these functions among those whom he calls to serve in his name.
Now, there are a few things to note about this paragraph. First of all, the concept originally applies to ministers. Ministers are equal in status, and when authority must be exercised over a minister it must be in the right way by the right body. By extension, the concept is then applied to assemblies and to the holders of other offices: one classis is not greater than others, nor is one elder superior to others. By further extension still, we may see an equality between all the offices insofar as they exercise ministry that is grounded in the one ministry of Christ.
I find it striking that nowhere in this paragraph do those beloved and oft spoken words appear: "parity of office." The word "parity" occurs only once. Instead, we find "equality of ministry" as the governing concept, and the paragraph grounds this on a thoroughly Reformed understanding of the offices having their basis and justification in the person of Jesus Christ.
So, here's my point: I don't think "parity of office" means what people think it means. The same thing with the proper term, "equality of ministry."
It does not mean that the offices are in all respects equal. To assert that they must be thus equal would be fairly meaningless. We don't help ourselves by holding up our practice against some abstract and ill-defined concept such as "equality," without significant definition and qualification.
It does not mean that there should be no separate boards of elders and deacons. Nor does it mean that deacons must be included or consulted in all the work the elders do, or vice versa. If you think it does, good luck with that.
It does not mean that there must be an equal number of each office in any assembly. Consistories never have as many ministers as deacons or elders, some classes always have more ministers in attendance than elders, and there is no BCO requirement for the consistory to have an equal number of elders and deacons.
The equality of ministry is an equality of status and mutual dependence. The church needs the functions of each office to be exercised, for those functions in their fullness reflect the breadth of the ministry of Christ himself. For that reason, too, each office needs the other offices. And so it is that each office holder needs called and gifted individuals ordained to the other offices as well as her own.