It is not surprising that our Church Order devotes no fewer than 27, out of a total of 86, articles to the offices in the church. Because of the nature of the Church Order, these articles are devoted to the special offices: minister, elder, and deacon. This is as it should be. The Church Order lays down regulations for the church institute, and the special offices are an essential part of the church institute.
But Scripture makes clear that the most fundamental office in the church is the office of believers. This is an office which all believers hold by virtue of the fact that to them is given the Holy Spirit of Christ, through whose anointing believers occupy the office of prophet, priest, and king in the church of Christ. This is the teaching of such texts as Acts 2:17-21, where the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32 is quoted; Hebrews 8:8-11, where Jeremiah 31:31-34 is quoted; and I John 2:27. It is an office in which believers are called to function. It is the basis for such admonitions in Scripture as Romans 12:6-8: “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness.” That each receives his own unique gift from the Head of the church is taught in Ephesians 4:7: “But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ.” The whole of I Corinthians 12 is “concerning spiritual gifts.” The office of believers is an office in which all believers are called to function.
So fundamental is the office of believers that the special offices proceed out of the office which believers hold: the office of the ministry is the carrying out of the prophetic office of believers; the office of elder is an outgrowth of the kingly office; and the office of deacon proceeds from the special office of the priesthood of believers. All authority in the church belongs to Christ. Christ exercises His authority through the offices He has ordained in the church. The most fundamental office is that of believer. The lawful call to the special offices, therefore, always comes through the office of believers.
Yet the church is not a democracy in which the majority of the congregation rules in ecclesiastical affairs. The relationship between the office of believers and the special offices in the church is unique to the church: one will not find anything similar to it anywhere in the world.
It is clear from Scripture that only male members are permitted to participate in the governing of the church. That is, only confessing male members are given the right to hold a special office in the church. Scripture makes this clear in I Timothy 2:9-15 and I Corinthians 14:34. Because Scripture insists on this as important for the church, women are not permitted to vote in congregational meetings, for the right to vote is the right to rule. Yet, all God’s people, including women and children, hold the office of believers, but each in his or her own place.
Scripture is equally clear that, while the fundamental authority of Christ exercised in the church is held by believers, nevertheless believers are obligated to be in submission to their officebearers. Not only is this injunction given to God’s people in Hebrews 13:7 and 17, but it is also found in I Thessalonians 5:12, 13. This is a strange situation from every human point of view: those who hold basic authority in the church are told to submit to the authority of those men whom the congregation votes into office; that is, believers who hold authority are told to submit to the authority of the ones answerable to believers. The believers in their office receive their authority directly from Christ in the anointing of the Spirit. They do not receive their office from Christ through their fellow believers as those holding the special offices.
Yet, as strange as that may seem, the Scriptures are quite insistent on that point. The Scriptures apparently not only recognize this relationship between the office of believers and the special offices, but also make it clear that this is the will of Christ, and, being the will of Christ, this is the only way in which the rule of the church can be effectively carried out.
The relation between the special offices in the church and the office of believers is a somewhat delicate balance, which will work properly only where both members of the congregation and the officebearers fill their responsibilities in a godly way, are conscious of the fact that they serve the Lord Christ, and seek each others’ good. In other words, the balance is properly maintained where there is love, trust, confidence, and willingness mutually to seek the unity of the Spirit.
Where such a relationship as I have defined is lacking, nothing is going to work properly in the church. Specifically, where officebearers rule as lords (I Pet. 5:3) over the flock, the principles of church government will not work. And where believers forget that the fifth commandment applies to the relationship of church members to officebearers in the church, no kind of church government will be successful. Submission to one’s officebearers in the church means, according to our Heidelberg Catechism, that believers show all love, honor, and respect to those in authority over them. Believers pray for their officebearers, submit to them, make their work as easy as possible, and always put down their own individual interests in their concern for the welfare of the church.
Officebearers must work so that they seek the spiritual welfare of each individual member and the spiritual growth and strength of the congregation as a whole. They are, in their positions of authority, servants to the flock who spend themselves in the cause of the salvation of the souls of God’s people.
When these things are present, the delicate balance between the office of believers and the special offices is a blessing to the church.
The Responsibilities of Believers
The Idea in General
Because the office of believers is the basic office in the church, those who hold this office carry out the responsibilities of their office through the special offices Christ has ordained in the church. That is, the final authority to preach the gospel, to rule in the name of Christ, and to care for the needs of the poor rests in the office of believers. But that there may be order and decency in the church and that Christ may be fully revealed as the one great Officebearer in the church, Christ instituted special offices.
The principle as it applies to the minister of the gospel is concretely and explicitly set down in Scripture in Colossians 4:17: “And say to Archippus, Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord that thou fulfil it.” The point is obscured in the English translation, but Archippus was the minister of the church of Colosse. The admonition of the text is not addressed to him, but to the congregation. This is evident from the Greek, which indicates that the object of the admonition is plural, namely the members of the church to whom the epistle is directed. They are to see to it that their pastor, Archippus, takes heed to the ministry which he has received. The believers in Colosse are responsible for faithful preaching; they carry out their responsibility as prophets through an ordained ministry.
The point is that the congregation preaches the Word through its ordained ministry. It is also, therefore, ultimately responsible for the work of its minister. This is not to deny that the elders are also responsible, for they have the oversight of the church and are responsible to see to it that the minister discharges his office faithfully (Art. 23). But Article 23 does not refute the point I am making, for the congregation also functions through the office of elder and the office of deacon. Holding the kingly office conferred on them by the Spirit of Christ, the believers rule in the church, although they do so through the elders. The same believers, as priests of Christ, help the needy, but do so through the office of deacon.
The implications of this are far reaching.
In the first place, the tasks and responsibilities of the officebearers are identical to those carried out in the church among the saints mutually. The saints come together to study God’s Word, through which study they mutually instruct each other, admonish each other, and encourage each other. They are called to let their light so shine before men that others, seeing their good works, may glorify their father in heaven (Matt. 5:16). Discipline is carried out among the saints apart from the work of the elders, as Jesus Himself makes clear in Matthew 18:15, 16, though it is something which is the final responsibility of the elders. Galatians 6:1, 2 gives us a concrete instance of the work of believers among themselves, but ultimately exercised through the elders: “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” And the work of mercy cannot be properly carried out by the deacons unless, behind their work is a congregation in which the saints bear each other’s burdens and assist each other in need.
Additionally, there is always the silent approbation of the congregation as it is witness to the work of its officebearers. Its approbation is sometimes merely implied as it submits to the preaching, opens its homes to the elders, and provides the deacons with the alms necessary for the care of the poor. Sometimes this approbation is specifically required, as in the case of the approval of those making confession of faith, the approval of those elected to the special offices, and the approval of various disciplinary steps, including, if necessary, excommunication.
The responsibility of approbation must be taken seriously, and the people of God must assume this responsibility before God. If things go wrong in a congregation because officebearers are not faithfully performing their duties, the congregation itself is responsible. So much so is the congregation responsible that, if officebearers fail totally in their work, the congregation itself may take matters in hand. This is extreme and most unusual, but it remains true nonetheless; and within the fellowship of a federation of churches, a congregation can and must seek the help of its sister congregations represented in the classis.
The male membership of the congregation is obligated to come together for certain matters in the work of the church. Usually these congregational meetings are called for purposes of electing men to the special offices, choosing one to be the pastor of the congregation during a vacancy, and deciding on matters of the operation of the church which are submitted to the congregation for its approval or disapproval.
The voting of men for the special offices is a serious and important calling. If anyone should doubt the seriousness of this matter, let him read Acts 13:1-3: “Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.” While we do not believe that fasting is required under these circumstances, the whole passage underscores the importance of the call to any office in the church. After all, the Lord calls to these special offices, as our forms for the ordination and installation of officebearers make clear (see the questions and answers which are put to those about to be installed into office). The congregation must recognize this fact and vote in this consciousness. Do the men nominated have the qualifications required by Scripture necessary for the work of their office? And among those nominated, all of whom may have the qualifications, who is the one most likely to be able to serve the church in its present circumstances? Such choices as believers must make must be made with much prayer. All tendencies to make the elections popularity contests, matters of individual preferences based on likes and dislikes, and mere haphazard voting are to be condemned.
Christ is present in the church through the officebearers, and the work of the church flourishes when believers take their calling in elections seriously.
The Relation between the Office of Believers and the Special Offices in Congregational Meetings
Congregational meetings are a unique illustration of the delicate balance between the special offices and the office of believers. While I will discuss this somewhat more in detail later, we ought to notice now that the authority of the elders over the congregation is evident in the fact that nothing may be treated at a congregational meeting but what is brought to it by the elders. The elders must bring matters to the congregation in the form of positive proposals, with grounds. Mere suggestions, ideas, alternative courses of action may not be brought. The elders to whom is entrusted the rule of the flock must consider what matters are to be brought to the congregation on the basis of what is most edifying for the congregation. These matters are recommended as most beneficial for the congregation. Careful consideration of the elders precedes the discussion and vote of the congregation.
However, the congregation votes on the recommendation, and once a congregation has decided an issue, the decision is binding on the officebearers. They may not change what the congregation has decided to do. The decision of the congregation is final. Thus the elders submit to the office of believers, and the office of believers is in submission to the elders.
As a footnote to this, if someone believes that a matter ought to be brought to the congregation, but the elders refuse, such a decision of the elders is always subject to protest and appeal. But an individual or a group of individuals may not introduce matters on their own initiative. The elders must control the agenda of congregational meetings.
A part of the responsibility of the male membership of the congregation is to prepare themselves to hold office in the church. Paul says in I Timothy 3:1 that “If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.” That statement carries with it several implications.
Surely, in the first place, it means that service in the three offices in the church is a privilege, a blessing, a desirable calling.
It means in the second place, that the very desire for such an office is a good work. This could stand some emphasis. There is an attitude sometimes that one shows genuine piety and a proper attitude towards the work of the officebearers when one shows reluctance to serve and when one humbly claims that he is unfit for the office and ought not to be called to it. While it is certainly true that no one may seek the office for personal gain or for the honor that comes to him personally, we ought to put more emphasis on the fact that it is a great privilege to serve in the church of Christ, and that we should consider it to be such.
I Timothy 1:3 means, in the third place, that one who truly desires the office of bishop (minister and elder, though the office of deacon is also included by implication when the apostle mentions the qualifications for this office in the verses that follow) also prepares himself for that office. He makes himself ready by studying what Scripture requires in the office, by immersing himself as much as possible in the Scriptures so that he may truly be apt to teach, and by living an exemplary life in the midst of God’s people.
This also is part of the responsibility of those who hold the office of believers.
A Word of Caution
I have spoken of the fact that the congregation has the responsibility to see to it that those holding special offices in the church carry out their tasks faithful to God’s Word. I have pointed out that those who hold special offices in the church must take the office of believers seriously and gain the congregation’s approval, approbation, or choice (when a nomination is presented).
It is possible that these things be misinterpreted, as indeed they frequently are.
On the one hand, the officebearers must not look with disdain on believers. They must never take a superior attitude towards them. Ministers must listen to their sheep and pay attention to what these sheep have to say, even when these sheep may make suggestions to a minister to improve his work. Elders must not lord it over a congregation and consider the members to be beneath their notice and insufficiently informed to judge properly what is going on. Deacons must not think that they have the last word on the high calling Christ has assigned them and that they can learn nothing beyond what they already know, especially from the members of the church. To hold an office is to serve. To have authority is to listen carefully and willingly to those over whom authority is exercised.
But, on the other hand, believers are not to take the duties of their calling to mean that they must be constantly critical of their minister, that they must listen with a view to detecting heresy, and that they must be guardians of orthodoxy. He who humbles himself before the preaching of the Word is in the best position to fulfill his responsibility towards the preaching.
The elders and deacons cannot work if believers in the congregation are constantly looking over their shoulders to examine every decision, weigh every proposal made with a certain air of suspicion, and constantly presuppose that the officebearers are unable to do a satisfactory task.
I said at the outset of this discussion that trust in those responsible for the work of the church is the one virtue which will make Reformed church polity work, and the delicate balance between the office of believers and the special offices can be maintained only when such trust prevails.
That brings up one very practical matter.
Generally speaking, the members of the congregation need not know, and indeed have no right to know, every decision which the consistory makes. Some have maintained that open consistory meetings are necessary and appropriate in the church. This is a wrong view of church polity. Mutual trust implies that the believers in the congregation are confident that their officebearers will do what is right. Only when it becomes evident that a decision of the consistory is contrary to God’s Word and/or the creeds of the church ought believers to question it. I word the matter this way because the consistory must frequently make decisions which are simply matters of judgment. The question of right or wrong does not enter in. The question is one of wisdom. If a believer considers such a decision to be unwise, he ought to give serious consideration to the matter before he brings a protest against it. It is not a matter of Scripture and the confessions; it is simply a matter of judgment. The collective body of elders must be trusted to do what is wise.
What then is the procedure to follow if one finds a decision to be contrary to God’s Word and/or the confessions of the church?
Step 1 in such procedure requires of a believer that he consult with the consistory at one of its meetings concerning the matter, to learn precisely what the consistory has done. He may, after all, be mistaken and may have wrongly interpreted some action. He may not consult an individual elder and ask such an elder about a matter. No individual elder has any right to divulge consistorial action on his own initiative or authority. Not even in matters which belong to the council may an individual speak for all the members of the body of which he is a part.
Example. A council may have a rule on its books that no moneys in excess of $5000.00 are to be spent by the council without prior approval of the congregation. A member witnesses that new floodlights are being installed in the parking lot and on the church property. He is quite convinced that the total cost exceeds $5000.00. He may, without too much thought about it, ask a member of the Building Committee why the council is spending over $5000.00. That member of the Building Committee ought not to answer the question on his own initiative. There may be good reasons. A certain amount may have been donated for that purpose. A real bargain may have been found which kept the amount below $5000.00. Because of a handicapped member in the congregation, the need may have been urgent. But the lone member may not, even with the best of intentions, speak for the whole council. If the decision itself, as it appears in the minute book of the consistory, is not presented, the decision may not be correctly quoted, and the result may very well be serious problems.
Step 2 requires that, if a man believes the consistory has done wrong, he ask for a copy of the pertinent minute. This is all he needs. He may not make a general request to the consistory to send him all the minutes relating to a case and all the documents which are connected to the case. He may ask for further information and specific decisions or documents, but he must show that he needs them. And if he intends to protest a decision, he must make the consistory aware of his intentions.
Step 3 requires that if in his judgment the decision is wrong, he bring his objection to the consistory. I will not deal further with this here because this belongs under our discussion of protests and appeals. But the point that needs emphasis is that the consistory is under no obligation to give copies of minutes when there is no good reason, and in fact may not give one who requests material anything beyond the pertinent minute or material to which objection is made. On the other hand, the consistory must do all in its power to give the believer who comes to its body all the help he needs to make his point.
The matter is one of wisdom, but also mutual trust.
Approbation of Nominations
Whether the congregation is voting for new elders and deacons at a congregational meeting, or whether it is voting to call a pastor, the consistory presents to the congregation a nomination. This is done for purposes of approbation. The approbation is given by the congregation.
This approbation by the congregation implies several obligations.
If anyone in the congregation knows of any reason why one ought not to be considered for any of the special offices in the church, he is obliged to go to the consistory to present his objections. The objections which one may have to a man being nominated are of two kinds: 1) In the judgment of a member of the congregation, one on nomination does not possess the necessary qualifications for the office. 2) A member of the congregation may know of some sin of which a nominee is guilty which disqualifies him for office.
Both possible objections present some problems.
With regard to an objection on the basis of lack of qualifications, several points must be considered. First of all, such objections would almost certainly be brought against one nominated for elder or deacon, not for minister. A minister has been approved by the churches in common as having the qualifications for the office, and his nomination on a trio or duo is simply a reflection of the judgment of all the churches. One may not object to a consistory concerning what a synod and a classis has decided.
It is possible that one may consider a minister as being unsuited to a particular congregation, even though he is qualified for the office. A minister may, for example, be an older man who is, in some respects, not at the peak of health. And the congregation calling may be one of over one hundred families. It would not be wise to nominate a man nearing retirement to take over such a congregation.
However, generally speaking, the consistory considers carefully the matter of qualifications, and presents men who possess the qualifications Scripture gives in I Timothy 3. To question this is difficult for a member of the congregation. It is a matter of judgment in many cases. If one should nevertheless be convinced that a nominee lacks the biblical qualifications, he must come to the consistory, but he must come with specific objections which define carefully the particular qualifications which a man may lack and specific proof that this is the case.
If, on the other hand, an individual knows of a sin on the part of one on nomination, which disqualifies the nominee, he must also be very careful. If the sin is one that has been present for some time, the individual should have, long before the nomination was published, gone to see the brother concerning his sin, following the procedure outlined by the Lord in Matthew 18. If he has not done this, he must still do it before he goes to the consistory with his information. If, however, he discovers the sin only immediately before the nomination is published, or in the two weeks between the publication of the nomination and the election, he may go to the elders to inform them, but he is still required to follow Matthew 18's requirements. In such a case as this, the consistory is wise to postpone the congregational meeting until the matter is properly settled.
A member of the congregation may think a brother whose name does not appear on the nomination to be qualified for a special office in the church. He has the right to go to the council and ask that an individual’s name be included in the nomination. The council, however, must decide whether the brother suggested possesses the necessary qualifications for the office, and whether, therefore, his name ought to be included on the nomination. But a name may not be submitted on the floor of the congregational meeting.