Article 30 - The Government of the Church
THE GOVERNMENT OF THE CHURCH
We believe that this true church must be governed according to the Spiritual order which our Lord has taught us in His Word. There should be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and to administer the sacraments; there should also be elders and deacons who, together with the pastors, form the council of the church. By these means they preserve the true religion; they see to it that the true doctrine takes its course, that evil men are disciplined in a spiritual way and are restrained, and also that the poor and all the afflicted are helped and comforted according to their need. By these means everything will be done well and in good order when faithful men are chosen in agreement with the rule that the apostle Paul gave to Timothy.
DeBres has written three articles confessing what the church is. Three more articles now follow about how things are to be done in the church. In the three ‘practical’ articles deBres continues to listen to Scripture and repeat after God what the Lord has revealed. He knows: the practical side of church life is as much a matter of faith as the question of what the church is. “We believe that this true Church must be governed according to the Spiritual order which our Lord has taught us in His Word.”
THE CHURCH IS A CHRISTOCRACY
The ascended Christ from heaven on high is active in this world gathering, defending and preserving His church. The product of His work is the church of which confession is made in Articles 27 to 29, the assembly of the people of God to which all believers must join themselves, and in which all things must be done in submission to Jesus Christ the only Head. Though the church is made up of people, these people –irrespective of wealth or influence or birth do not make up the rules for fitting conduct or leadership in the church. The Church belongs to Christ, and so Christ determines what ought to happen in church, and how.
Christ has revealed His will in His holy Word. Holy Scripture does not give any place for the power of the sword in the church of God, nor do you find any place for the influence of bullies. Christ governs His church through a “spiritual order”, a manner of government empowered by the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ uses men of the Spirit to lead and govern His church. These men speak from God, and their authority lies only in their use of the Word of God. It is to that Word, therefore, that office bearers must constantly appeal when they seek to carry out their office in Christ’s church. They cannot ask the congregation to listen to them; they are instead repeatedly to set before the congregation the will of God found in Scripture as it pertains to their specific circumstances. They are to speak the Word of God in such a way that a rejection of their instruction or admonition is never a rejection of particular brothers (or their opinion), but a rejection of the Word of the Master (see 1 Samuel 8:7).
OFFICE BEARERS: CHRIST’S GIFTS TO THE CHURCH
On the cross Christ purchased the Church for Himself with His own blood. He thereafter ascended into Heaven to receive a throne at God’s right hand. His physical absence from earth, however, does not mean that Christ has deserted His Church. Rather, when Christ “ascended on high, He … gave gifts to men” (Ephesians 4:7,8). These gifts included “some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” (4:11). Christ’s purpose in giving these particular gifts to His Church was “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (4:12). In His good pleasure the Lord is pleased to rule over and care for His bride by means of office bearers. These men, though sinful and needing forgiveness in the blood of Christ as much as any other, are “God’s fellow workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9; 2 Corinthians 6:1).
Ephesians 4 mentions the following offices:
- Apostles: this was a temporary office in the New Testament Church, filled by Paul and the twelve disciples. Characteristic of the office of apostle was that these apostles were eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ (cf Acts 1:22). Their function was to pass on to others what they had heard and learned from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. In the course of the years, these apostles did so, teaching others through word of mouth as well as through their writings. They were not replaced after they died.
- Prophets: this office both continued as well as lapsed. Shortly after the Lord God established His covenant of grace with Israel at Mt Sinai, Moses expressed the wish “that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put His Spirit upon them” (Numbers 11:29). In fulfillment of this wish, Joel foreshadowed that, “And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (Joel 2:28). With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the entire congregation –irrespective of age, talent, gender or gifts– spoke “the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11; see 2:17). So, when persecution beset the church of Jerusalem, “those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4; 11:19,20). This is the gift Paul exhorts the Corinthian saints to strive for; “therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:39). In the Heidelberg Catechism, the church confesses that a Christian shares in Christ’s anointing “so that I may as prophet confess His Name…” (Lord’s Day 12.32).
On the other hand, there appear to have been in the early church particular persons who, like the prophets of the Old Testament, “spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). So we read in Acts 21:10 of “... a certain prophet named Agabus” who indicated that Paul would be imprisoned in Jerusalem. Once God’s revelation had been completed in the Bible, the Lord no longer gave new revelation. So the office of prophet in the technical sense of the word disappeared.
- Evangelists: examples of evangelists in the New Testament are Philip (Acts 21:8) and Timothy (1 Timothy 4:5). The exact nature of this office is difficult to define, but it appears it should be understood in the context of the missionary expansion of the early church. The word ‘evangelist’ simply describes one who passes on the good news. Though Christians everywhere must and do pass on the gospel, we do not read anywhere about specific persons being appointed to the office of evangelist, and so we conclude that this office –as an official office– also expired.
- Pastors and Teachers: this is the only office that Scripture describes as continuing since its institution in Paul’s days. In Acts 20 we read of Paul calling together the elders of the Church at Ephesus and giving them this charge, “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” The word used here for ‘shepherd’ is the same word translated in Ephesians 4 as ‘pastor’. The pastors the ascended Lord has given to His church, then, are elders. The apostles appointed new elders in the congregations as the Lord Jesus Christ gathered them. Paul and Barnabas, for example, “returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples….” More, “they … appointed elders in every church…” (Acts 14:21-23). Similarly, Paul instructed Titus to “appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5). Peter tells “the elders” to “shepherd the flock of God which is among you” (1 Peter 5:1,2). Here, then, is an office that remains throughout the New Testament dispensation.
PASTORS AND TEACHERS
DeBres in Article 30 confessed that “there should be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and to administer the sacraments; there should also be elders and deacons who, together with the pastors, form the council of the Church” (See Figure 30.1). How does the single gift of “pastors and teachers” in Ephesians 4 become three offices?
The first part of the answer lies in the apostle’s words in 1 Timothy 5:17: “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.” All elders (= pastors) rule and teach, but for some their primary task is to teach, while the primary task for others is to rule. We are accustomed to calling the teaching elder a minister, and the ruling elder an elder.
1) ELDERS = Ministers + Elders
MINISTERS: The “Form for the Ordination of Ministers of the Word” (Book of Praise, p. 620, 621) lists four tasks for ministers, in which the accent lies on the preaching. These four tasks are:
- Proclamation of the Word: “... he must declare the whole counsel of God to his congregation, proclaiming the Word according to the command of the apostle Paul ... in public and from house to house. He shall expose all errors and heresies as unfruitful works of darkness, ... shall teach the Word of God to the youth, ... visit the members of the congregation and ... comfort the sick and the sorrowing.” The main purpose of all these duties is to bring the Word.
- Administration of the Sacraments: as the sacraments are the visible preaching of the Word (see Article 35) only those called to administer the word audibly are entitled to administer the Word visibly.
- Lead in Prayer in public worship.
- Exercise Christian discipline. This last aspect of his work is done very much in conjunction with the ruling elders.
Notice that the minister of the Word is first of all a preacher and teacher. He is not an administrator, nor is he a counselor (in the clinical sense of the word). He is preacher of the Word, and both consistory and congregation need to insist (and make possible) that the minister focus his energies and skills on sermon preparation and delivery. This is vitally important for the spiritual health of the congregation since (growth in) “faith comes by hearing,” and one does not “hear without a preacher” (Romans 10:14,17).
ELDERS: The “Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons”, (Book of Praise, p. 630) lists three tasks for elders, in which the accent lies on ruling and governing the Church. These three tasks are:
- To have supervision over the congregation. The purpose of the elders’ supervision is “that every member may conduct himself properly in doctrine and life, according to the gospel.” In the New Testament, elders are also referred to as ‘bishops’, ie, one who is an overseer, one who supervises. This role of supervision includes the activities of comforting, instructing and admonishing the members of the congregation, much of which is done by visiting the members.
- To govern the Church (together with the teaching elder = minister).
- To assist the ministers with good counsel in relation to the preaching.
Notice that here the focus lies not on teaching but on supervision, ruling over the congregation. Where administration or counseling needs to be done through elders, let the ruling elders take the bulk of the work.
For both ministers and elders, the emphasis in their work lies on the vertical dimension: the relation between God and His people. The emphasis in the minister’s work is that he brings God’s Word to the members of the Church, and the emphasis in the elders’ work is that they see to it that the members serve God in obedience to that Word.
The church after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit experienced a very dynamic communion of saints. The 3000 souls of the Pentecost church “were together, and had all things in common” (Acts 2:41-44). The 5000 men (plus women and children) that Christ gathered to His church in the following months (Acts 4:4) also “were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common” (Acts 4:32). Here was harmony, and warm caring for each other. The sheer size of the congregation, though, presented its own problems. “Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.” Since it would not be advisable for the apostles to “leave the word of God and serve tables”, they set about appointing deacons (Acts 6:1-7). The task of these deacons was to “serve tables”, and, given the context, that means that they had to see to it that the Hellenist widows were not neglected in the daily distribution – be it in receiving according to their needs or in giving according to their means, (depending on which side of the table they were standing). The task of the deacons, therefore, focuses on the relations between the members of the congregation, seeing to it that one believer is looking well after his fellow believer – as members of one body.
Here, then, is another gift the ascended Christ later gave His church. Under their supervision, “no one in the congregation of Christ may live uncomforted under the pressure of sickness, loneliness, and poverty” (Book of Praise, p. 631). It is not that deacons need to do the actual comforting themselves; rather, it is for them to see to it that the communion of saints functions so well that no one in the body of Christ is neglected. “For the sake of this (above-mentioned) service of love (by members of the congregation amongst each other), Christ has given deacons to His church.” Deacons are “to see to the good progress of this service of charity in the church” (Book of Praise, p. 631). So, while the focus of the Elders’ work lies on the vertical plane, the focus of the Deacons’ work lies on the horizontal plane.
In order to fulfill their task, it is beneficial for the deacons to visit all the members of the congregation. Through visits they come to know what needs individual members may have, as well as learn what gifts members have for the benefit of another. On the basis of their knowledge of both needs and gifts, the deacons are to encourage members to give of their abilities for the benefit of the other such that no one is uncomforted in his needs. The healthier a communion of saints is, the less there is for deacons to do.
OFFICE BEARERS: SERVANTS OF CHRIST AND HIS CHURCH
Christ’s gifts to His church are to care for His church in a particular way. As gifts of Christ they are not permitted to rule the Church for personal aggrandizement. As the Head of the Church laid down His life in order to serve the Church, so too must the office bearers give of themselves in order to serve the Church. The Church is not there for the sake of the office bearers, but the office bearers are there for the sake of the Church. 1 Peter 5:1-4: “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.”
This instruction on Peter’s part comes from Jesus’ instruction to His disciples after “the mother of Zebedee’s sons” requested Jesus to “grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.” Jesus used the occasion to teach the twelve: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:20-28). The operative word here is service. On the basis of instruction as this, Peter tells the elders to empty themselves, willingly and eagerly, for the benefit of the flock of Jesus Christ.
WOMEN IN CHURCH GOVERNMENT?
The Lord God created the human race male and female. Approximately half the world’s population, and about half the church’s membership too, is female. Yet, historically, women have not become office bearers in the church. Especially in our day of egalitarianism, this phenomenon needs explanation. Does the Lord open the offices of the church to His daughters?
The Bible is emphatic that the woman is in no way inferior to the man. God created both male and female in His image (Genesis 1:27). Both fell into sin and stand guilty before God (Genesis 3:16-19). God has sent His Son to redeem man and woman alike (John 3:16). Those who embrace the gospel of redemption in Christ are equally justified before God and sanctified through His Spirit; in Christ “there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28), for both are equally saved by grace alone.
Emphatic as the Bible is about the equality of man and woman before God, the Bible is equally categorical about the different tasks the Lord has assigned to the man and to the woman. In His good pleasure the Lord first created the man by himself, and instructed him to “tend and keep” the garden in which God placed him (Genesis 2:7,8,15). Thereafter the Lord determined that “it is not good that man should be alone,” and set out to “make him a helper comparable to him” (Genesis 2:18). The woman God created from the man was not to be simply a companion-and-no-more, just a female copy of the man with identical rights and privileges; rather, the Lord created her to be a “helper” to the man-who-was-tender-and-keeper of the garden. God gave the man, then, a function as head and leader, and gave the woman the function of being helper. None less than God Himself, in Paradise already, established a hierarchy in the genders.
The fall into sin did not alter God’s ordinance about a hierarchy, nor did it change the mandates God gave to man and woman as leader and helper respectively. In keeping with His creation ordinance God called Abram away from his country and his family, with as result that Sarai followed (Genesis 12:1-5); the Lord did not call Sarai so that Abram followed her. When God set about to deliver His people from Egypt, He described Himself as “the LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob” (Exodus 3:16), and not as “the LORD God of your mothers, the God of Sarah, of Rebekah….” Similarly, God commanded that the male offspring (not the female) receive the sign and seal of His covenant (circumcision) – not because the sign of the covenant had to be circumcision, but rather because of the hierarchy God established in the genders.
Again, when the Lord appointed leaders and priests in Israel at Mt Sinai, He did not appoint female elders or priests, but appointed men only. The Lord Jesus Christ chose twelve apostles, and all of them were men. In neither instance is this simply an echo of the culture of the day. The Lord God is not bound by cultural suppositions and norms (see John 4:27), and is also mighty to change culture to suit His standards. Rather, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament the Lord appointed only men to the position of leaders amongst His people because this is the standard of Genesis 2.
It is for the same reason that the Old Testament repeatedly uses the masculine pronoun ‘he’ to describe the person who brings a sacrifice (see, for example, Leviticus 1-4). It is not so that the woman does not have to bring sacrifices for sin or for thanksgiving, but God includes His instruction to her in the instruction He gives to him. The modern habit to use the designation ‘he/she’ does not do justice to the norm of the Bible.
In a culture that did not respect the differing positions and roles God intended for man and woman, Paul makes a point of reminding Christians of God’s revealed will. When the brothers of the Corinthian congregation permitted the sisters to give leadership in church through their speaking, the apostle corrected them. “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says” (1 Corinthians 14:34). Paul repeated the point to Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence” (1 Timothy 2:12). He makes a point of insisting that this is an ordinance of God for all times and places. “For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression” (vss 13, 14).
Because of this principle as found in God’s Word, the churches have historically not ordained sisters of the congregation to offices in the church. For the same reason a culture stamped with Christianity has historically encouraged men, not women, to take up roles of leadership in public life (be it political, educational, business, etc). It has nothing to do with chauvinism or even with gifts, but has everything to do with humble submission to the revealed will of God. DeBres captured this instruction of Scripture when he wrote in Article 30 about “faithful men” being chosen to the offices of the church.
ACTIVE CONTRIBUTION OF WOMEN
Does this mean that the sisters of the congregation may give no leadership at all amongst God’s people? No, that’s not so. After the crossing of the Red Sea, “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances” (Exodus 15:20). The Holy Spirit gives no criticism of Miriam’s initiative; on the contrary, her initiative receives echoes in Paul’s later instruction to women (Titus 2:3-5, see below). Deborah fulfilled a function as prophetess in Israel, and even as military leader (Judges 4,5). Yet Deborah does not serve as a role model approving female leadership, for she used her influence to urge the man Barak to take up the leadership to which God called him (Judges 4:6). She understood that she could function as leader only because of the negligence of men, and so did what she could to encourage men to give the leadership Israel required. Her leadership was an embarrassment to the men, and a summons to them to be the leaders God created them to be.
When we turn to the New Testament, we read of “Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea” (Romans 16:1). The term ‘servant’ translates here a Greek word used elsewhere for ‘deacon’ (Philippians 1:1), and so some exegetes conclude that Phoebe was an official deaconess. Yet it should be borne in mind that the identical word appears frequently simply to describe a servant (eg, Matthew 22:13; John 2:5,9; Romans 13:4). To argue for official women deacons on the basis of this one alleged precedent is, then, hardly convincing – especially in light of the principle of Genesis 2.
Still, the apostles were very conscious of the fact that the sisters of the congregation could and must play a vital role in the well being of the congregation of Jesus Christ. Paul instructs Timothy not to “let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number, and not unless she has been the wife of one man, [is] well reported for good works: if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work” (1 Timothy 5:9-10). The phrase “taken into the number” in all likelihood refers to a designated group of sisters in the congregation whose task it was to labor in some way in the congregation. Notice that the qualifications a widow must fulfill has many similarities with the list that potential elders and deacons must fulfill according to 1 Timothy 3. We receive an indication as to what these sisters had to do from Paul’s words to Titus. Titus must ensure that “the older women … be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things – that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed” (Titus 2:3-5). As “teachers of good things” these older women were to visit in the homes of the younger women of the congregation, discern the situation in the home, and admonish, instruct, and encourage as the case might require. We need to note: in those days, too, the temptation and the trend was for mothers to be out and about, to focus on things other than loving husband and children (and ‘love’ means self-emptying; see 1 John 4:9,10), and to be negligent in making the home an attractive place for the family to be. Yet inasmuch as the Lord God gathers His church primarily through families (for He entrusts His children by covenant to the care of believing parents), good family atmosphere is an extremely fundamental component of kingdom life. So important is healthy family life that older sisters in the congregation have, by the ordinance of God, the responsibility to guide the younger sisters. In our age of individualism and mind-your-own-business, this is a principle we do well to relearn. It means concretely: let the older sisters of the congregation, as health and means allow, take up contact with the younger sisters in the congregation (their own children in the generations first of all, of course), in order to encourage and instruct in good family life. Flip side: let the younger sisters in the congregation receive the older readily and humbly, and perhaps even seek out their instruction and guidance. As with anything else, obedience to God’s instruction is a matter of faith.
The Lord, then, has entrusted the leadership in the church to men. In a time when society demands equal treatment for men and women, the people of God may not seek to be wiser than God. Parents must train their boys to be leaders, and their girls to be helpmeets. At the same time, women as helpmeets have a specific task in building up the congregation. As we come to grips in our modern time with the respective role God has given to man and woman, we ultimately need to bow before God’s revelation and humbly accept what He in wisdom has ordained.
Points for Discussion:
- Who is the Head of the church? What difference does this make in practice?
- What means does Christ use to rule His church today? For what purpose?
- Describe the task of the
- One detects somewhat of a habit in the churches to have brothers appointed first to the office of deacon and thereafter, if they have functioned well, ‘graduate’ them to the office of elder. Consider the merits and demerits of such a habit. Which task is harder: the work of the elder or the work of the deacon? Explain your answer.
- What is the purpose of home visits? How can elders best achieve this purpose? Do you feel that the elders are in fact achieving this purpose in the visits you have received? If not, consider whether it would be beneficial to pass on your thoughts to your elders.
- Do the sisters of the congregation have a Scripturally agreeable role in your congregation? Explain.
- Read the instruction of the Holy Spirit in Titus 2:3-5. Are the older sisters in your congregation carrying out this mandate? Do the younger sisters welcome and make use of the resources the Lord has given in the older generation? Why or why not? What can be done to make your congregational life conform more completely to the Spirit’s instruction in this passage?