Article 31 - The Officers of the Church
THE OFFICERS OF THE CHURCH
We believe that ministers of God's Word, elders, and deacons ought to be chosen to their offices by lawful election of the church, with prayer and in good order, as stipulated by the Word of God. Therefore everyone shall take care not to intrude by improper means. He shall wait for the time that he is called by God so that he may have sure testimony and thus be certain that his call comes from the Lord. Ministers of the Word, in whatever place they are, have equal power and authority, for they are all servants of Jesus Christ, the only universal Bishop and the only Head of the church. In order that this holy ordinance of God may not be violated or rejected, we declare that everyone must hold the ministers of the Word and the elders of the church in special esteem because of their work, and as much as possible be at peace with them without grumbling or arguing.
CHRIST GIVES OFFICE BEARERS
In Article 30 deBres had confessed God’s revelation about Christ’s headship over the church, and the fact that Christ rules through the means of office bearers. Just how, though, does one become an office bearer? May one demand that the congregation receive you as an office bearer on grounds that Jesus has personally called you through a vision to yourself – as the Anabaptists of deBres’ day insisted? May a group of powerbrokers foist an office bearer upon a congregation – as the Roman Catholics of deBres’ day maintained? Scripture said No.
The Corinthians questioned whether Paul was truly an apostle of the Lord. In his reply, Paul wrote: “For the love of Christ compels us” (2 Corinthians 5:14). The word ‘compels’ speaks of force. Yet it was not Paul’s love for Christ that forced the office onto him, for Paul hated Christ, in fact, he actively persecuted the church of Christ (Acts 9:1-3). Rather, it was Christ’s love for His people that compelled Christ to lay the office onto Paul’s shoulders. This man, with his particular gifts and education, was Christ’s chosen instrument to “bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15).
Though the manner of Jesus’ thrusting Paul into the office was unique, it is a principle of Scripture that Christ lays the office on men of His choosing. Note the way Paul addresses the elders of Ephesus: “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” (Acts 20:28). The Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ acted upon these brothers so that the office was laid on their shoulders.
This is the Scriptural truth deBres echoes in Article 31. “Everyone shall take care not to intrude [into an ecclesiastical office] by improper means. He shall wait for the time that he is called by God so that he may have sure testimony and thus be certain that his call comes from the Lord.” The question now is: how does the Lord call to office?
CHRIST CALLS THROUGH THE CONGREGATION
After Judas Iscariot committed suicide, the congregation got together under the disciples’ leadership to find another office bearer. We read in Acts 1 that the brethren “prayed ... and they cast their lots, and the lot fell on Matthias. And he was numbered with the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:24-26). With the calling of the first deacons, the apostles instructed the congregation to select seven men from their midst. This “saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen..., Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, ... whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them” (Acts 6:3-7). When Paul and Barnabas revisited the churches, “they … appointed elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). The word translated here as “appointed” describes literally the action of stretching out the hand. The word is used in 2 Corinthians 8:19 to indicate how the congregation indicated who was to bring the collected gifts to the Judean saints. It’s unclear how the raising of hands functioned in the appointment of the elders of Acts 14, but at a minimum some brothers were indicated.
Notice how the congregation was involved (certainly in Acts 1 and Acts 6) in settling the question of who was to become on office bearer. Notice too that the congregation’s involvement goes beyond casting lots or choosing (or showing hands) to include prayer. In fact, it is the prayer that forms the central part of the congregation’s activity in the process of calling a brother to office. The members of the congregation together, irrespective of age or gender or status, are to implore God publicly (and privately) that He make clear which brother He desires in the offices of His church. Then, trusting that the Lord will give the necessary guidance, the church undergoes a pre-established procedure (whether lot or election) through which the Lord indicates who should serve.
Reformed churches have historically opted for a procedure involving a ballot. This procedure arises out of the conviction that the Lord has poured out His Holy Spirit upon His people, and so His people are equipped to think and consider Scripturally who can best serve in the offices of Christ’s church. A brother who does not satisfy the criteria mentioned in passages of Scripture as 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 is not to serve, and so the members of the congregation are not permitted to vote for him. DeBres caught the Biblical teaching on the point: “We believe that ministers, elders, and deacons ought to be chosen to their offices by lawful election of the Church.” There is, consequently, no room for claiming an office on the basis of private feelings. There is no room either for influential persons to impose a man on a congregation.
When the Lord, then, calls a brother to an office in His church, both the brother concerned and the congregation wherein he becomes an office bearer may believe that the Lord will supply the wisdom and strength needed to fulfill the office. It is no shame that a brother feels inadequate to the demands of the office; in fact, which sinner is capable of looking well after the sheep of the Lord – given Satan’s cunning attacks and sinners’ inclination to evil – to say nothing of the candidate’s own evil heart? The task is simply too much even for the wisest, most energetic and skillful brother. Yet a brother whom the Lord has called may tackle his task with confidence, assured that the Lord who called will give the strength and the blessing. Meanwhile, let the office bearer carry out his task in humility, with a strong sense of dependence on his God.
THE CONGREGATION RECEIVES
Not every congregation member may be pleased to see a particular brother elected to an office in the church, and ordained. Yet the congregation is to receive the brother concerned as a man whom God in His wisdom has put into the office. The Hebrew Christians were told to “remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you” and to “obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls as those who must give account” (Hebrews 13:7,17). Timothy must ensure that “the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor” (1 Timothy 5:17). DeBres ties it all together like this, “We declare that everyone must hold the ministers of the Word and the elders of the Church in special esteem because of their work, and as much as possible be at peace with them without grumbling or arguing.”
A consequence follows. When an office bearer makes a visit to a home, it is not simply a man who appears at the door. Rather it is Christ who comes in the person of the elder. If my Savior sends an elder (of His choosing) to my home, I must receive that elder readily. More, I’m to be open with him for the Christ who visits in the office bearer knows my thoughts and circumstances already. He knows, and now seeks to encourage (or admonish or instruct, as the case might be) by means of this man. Whether or not I like a particular elder, or get on with my elders, is then not the criteria by which I decide how I shall receive a brother (or even whether I shall receive him). In faith I receive the man or men Christ sends.
Again, since office bearers are gifts of Christ, I can never consider them as my representatives when they approach another person or make decisions in the council of the church. Unlike a democracy in which the people elect for themselves a representative to Parliament (and expect that that person will speak on their behalf), office bearers do not represent segments of a congregation. Rather, office bearers are representatives of Christ and must therefore speak Christ’s Word at all times, be it in my home, my neighbor’s home, or at meetings of the Church council.
Since it is Christ who sends the elders, they are not to carry out their office or make their visits in order to satisfy personal egos or as a means to finding out as much gossip as they can concerning the members of the Church. Office bearers are to visit and listen and ask questions very much in the awareness that Christ has sent them. That reality also means that office bearers may not divulge to third parties what congregation members have confided to them!
IN SPECIAL ESTEEM
It bears mentioning that the brothers the Lord calls to office are invariably sinful men. In fact, the Holy Spirit stresses the responsibility office bearers have when Scripture says, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many things” (James 3:1,2). In truth, office bearers need the atoning blood of Jesus Christ every bit as much as any other member of the congregation!
The fact that office bearers are sinful men does not mean that the congregation is therefore free to disregard them, disdain them, or point fingers at the brothers. Paul himself had a most notorious past, but he never permitted the congregations to whom he wrote to despise him on account of it. Rather, his past was for him an opportunity to point up God’s mercy. Paul writes to Timothy, “And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and in insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 1:12-14). Though renewed by the Holy Spirit, Paul remained keenly aware that he remained a sinner. “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice…. O wretched man that I am!” (Romans 7:19,24). Every office bearer today equally has sins of youth he regrets, and continues to struggle with weaknesses. Yet Paul is emphatic to Timothy, “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:19). It is so easy to discredit an office bearer, and so hinder the work the Lord Jesus Christ has given this brother to do. That is of benefit to no one, for the Lord has given office bearers as gifts for the edification of His church. So deBres instructed his congregation to “as much as possible be at peace with [the office bearers] without grumbling or complaining.”
Yet being at peace with one’s office bearers is not sufficient for the good progress of their shepherding work in the congregation. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians are pertinent, “And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (1 Thessalonians 5:12,13). Similarly, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17). Notice: in both cases the apostle links esteem for the office bearers with the good progress of their work in the congregation. It is true that personal chemistries and awareness of weaknesses can make a congregation (member) cynical of an office bearer’s work. Yet the eye may never be on the man Christ has placed in the office, but must remain on the Christ who called the man to office.
EQUALITY AMONG OFFICE BEARERS
All office bearers in a given congregation are equal in authority. This conviction is rooted in Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:1-11. Jesus spoke to the multitudes and the disciples, “The scribes and Pharisees … love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the market places, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’” In contrast, Jesus’ instruction to the disciples was, “But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for one is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren” (vs 8) and “he who is greater among you shall be your servant” (vs 11). Christ has not instituted any ranking amongst the offices. Each office bearer is equal to the other. No one has more authority than another, despite the fact that one office bearer may have more gifts than another. Of him who has more gifts, God also requires more responsibility, but that does not make one office bearer more important than another. Therefore we also confess with Article 31, “Ministers of the Word, in whatever place they are, have equal power and authority, for they are all servants of Jesus Christ.” This leaves no room for the Roman Catholic practice of assigning varying degrees of honor amongst those in the office of bishop, depending (for example) on the size of the congregation or the importance of the city wherein the bishop serves. Even the fact that one brother (commonly the minister) is chairman of the Consistory does not give him more power or authority. The chairman of the consistory is not the captain of the ship, or the CEO of the church board. He is an elder with the other elders, of equal power and responsibility with the others before the church’s Head. In no way may he act differently. The same principle, of course, extends to the elders and to the deacons. No elder has more power or authority than another elder, and no deacon has more than another deacon either. Every office bearer, according to gifts, is bound to serve.
PREPARATION FOR OFFICE
Serving as an office bearer in the church of Jesus Christ is a privilege, and so it is commendable to desire an office in the church. Paul wrote to Timothy, “If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work” (1 Timothy 3:1). The term ‘bishop’ means ‘overseer’, and so describes the elder.
Why does the apostle Paul commend the desire for an office, and consequently encourage preparation for the office too? The answer is simple. If the Lord has given His own dear Son to pay for our sins in order to reconcile us to Himself, we in turn are to give ourselves wholly to the service of God wherever it is that God may call us to serve. It should not happen that the council finds it difficult to draw up a list of suitable candidates to fill vacancies for the offices. Gratitude for Christ’s redeeming grace drives God’s children to prepare themselves readily and eagerly for total service to the God who graciously saved us in Jesus Christ – even if that service be in the difficult (though beautiful!) task of being office bearer in the Church. All men in the congregation should be preparing themselves for the possibility that God may call them to the office – for the church (our children included!) are not served by ill-prepared men. One prepares by living close to the Lord in all the ups and downs of life already in one’s youth, and so being deliberate in His service before an open Bible all one’s days. This involves reading, thinking, meditating, and speaking of the will and way of the Lord in any question of life.
By the same token, the sisters in the congregation ought to prepare themselves well to be a good help to the men (for it was for this reason that she was created). In their work as an office bearer in Christ’s church, brothers need a helpmeet beside them as much as in any other area of life. Let the sisters prepare themselves well to listen, analyze, support, encourage a husband or other brother in his work as office bearer.
Points for Discussion:
- Who calls office bearers to office? How?
- Who in the congregation are to be involved in choosing office bearers? Explain your answer.
- Some churches call upon the men alone to cast a vote. Other faithful churches call upon both the brothers and the sisters to cast a ballot. Is resolving this discrepancy worth a struggle? Given the philosophical trends of our times, would it be wise (in churches where the sisters do not vote) to change the existing practice? Why or why not?
- Which persons in the congregation may become office bearers? Discuss the criteria the Lord mentions in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Why does He mention these criteria?
- Is the minister the ‘boss’ in the consistory? Is he (or any other chairman) the CEO? Why or why not?
- What should young men do with a view to possibly becoming office bearers one day? Have the young women a role here? If so, what is it?