The Church Order of Dort - Articles 1-15
Principles and Practice of Reformed Church Polity
THE CHURCH ORDER OF DORT
The Church Order commences with an article about its Purpose and Division. Article 1 reads,
For the maintenance of good order in the church of Christ it is necessary to have:
I offices and supervision of doctrine;
III worship, sacraments and ceremonies, and
What follows below is a thematic discussion of the articles contained in the above divisions. Since classes have not yet been formed in the bond of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, the 1994 Synod of Byford adapted some of the articles in order to make allowance for this situation. These adaptations are printed in italics in the text of the Church Order of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia as published in 1995. When an article of the Church Order is quoted in the notes that follow, where applicable, the adaptation to suit the present situation in Australia will appear in a footnote.
1 Offices and Supervision of Doctrine
1.1 The offices
Article 2 tells us that "The offices are those of the minister of the Word, of the elder, and of the deacon."
This article echoes Article 30 of the Belgic Confession. (The Belgic Confession was written by Guido deBres in 1561 and adopted shortly thereafter by the churches as a faithful summary of the teaching of Scripture.) In Article 30 we confess, "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." Article 31 also makes confession concerning three offices: "We believe that ministers of God’s Word, elders, and deacons ought to be chosen to their offices by lawful election of the Church ...." Both what is confessed in Articles 30 & 31 of the Belgic Confession, and what the fathers stipulated in Article 2 of the Church Order, is material drawn from Scripture. Each of the three offices specified are explicitly mentioned in the following Scripture texts:
Ephesians 4:11: "And (Christ) himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers."
The offices of apostles, preachers, and evangelists were temporary offices used by the Lord in the founding years of the New Testament Church. However, in the span of one generation these offices ceased. The office which continued, and by which the Lord is pleased to rule His Church today, is described here with the phrase "pastors and teachers" (see Section 2.2 above).
The phrase "pastors and teachers" describes the office of elder. That is evident, for example, from Paul’s words to the elders of the Church at Ephesus. "From Miletus he (Paul) sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church" (verse 17). He encouraged them to their work with these words: "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" (vs 28). The word translated here as "to shepherd" is the same word as is translated in Ephesians 4 by "pastors". The point is that elders are pastors, pastors are elders.
This office is in mind in other passages of the New Testament where reference is made to the elders. For example:
Acts 14:23: Concerning Paul and Barnabas who were returning from a missionary journey it is recorded, "So when they had appointed elders in every church…."
Acts 15:2-4: "Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.... And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders ...."
Acts 21:17,18: Concerning the situation in the church at Jerusalem we read, "And when we had come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present."
188.8.131.52 Teaching elders and ruling elders
The task of elders to shepherd God’s church can be divided into two areas of responsibility, namely teaching and ruling. Although all elders teach and rule, for some elders their main responsibility is to rule (these are the persons we call ‘elders’) while for others it is to teach (these are the persons we call ‘ministers’). This distinction is derived from 1 Timothy 5:17 where one reads, "Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in the word and doctrine." These two areas of responsibility can also be found in Hebrews 13:7: "Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you ...."
Deacons receive a mention in a couple of places in the New Testament.
Philippians 1:1: "... To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops (=overseers, elders) and deacons."
1 Timothy 3:8-13: Having listed the qualifications necessary for service in the office of elder in the verses 1-7, Paul continues in verse 8, "Likewise deacons must be ..." followed by a similar list of qualifications necessary for service in the office of deacon.
NOTE: In order to be complete it must be noted that when the Church Order of Dort was formulated at the Synod of Dort, Article 2 actually stipulated four offices. The fourth office was that of ‘doctor’; here was not meant a person trained in the medical profession, but a person who, as the Latin origin of the word suggests, is ‘learned’ and therefore able to teach. The fathers included this fourth office on the basis of what is written in 2 Timothy 2:2 where one reads, "And the things that you have heard from me (Paul) among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able teach others also." The fathers understood this to be a command to appoint teachers (i.e. professors of theology), beside the ministers, whose task it is to teach the next generation of ministers. However, over time it was agreed that this fourth office was incorrectly derived from 2 Timothy 2:2. In the passage Paul instructs Timothy to train the next generation of ministers, but such a command to train others to be ministers does not give to Timothy a special office as ‘doctor’ or ‘professor of theology’.
With regard to the training of ministers, the Church Order sees this as a task given to ministers, be it that it is "an extraordinary task." Article 12 stipulates, " If a minister accepts a call or an appointment to an extraordinary task the nature of the relationship between him and the church to which he is bound must be arranged with the consent of the classis. Some ministers may be appointed for the training of students for the ministry, others may be called for mission work." The professors of theology engaged in this task at the theological colleges of our churches are ministers who have been appointed as professors by the churches, and so "called to an extraordinary task." They remain minsters and can continue to perform the tasks of the ministry, i.e. they may still preach and administer the sacraments.
2 The Calling to Office
2.1 Who calls to office?
How does a person become an office-bearer? Who calls a person to office? It is God who calls. God did so in the past, and He continues to do so today. The Old Testament prophets were called to office by God. Concerning the prophet Jeremiah one reads in Jeremiah 1:4,5: "Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you; And I ordained you a prophet to the nations." Then said I: "Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I cannot speak, for I am a youth." But the LORD said to me: "Do not say, ‘I am a youth’, for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and whatever I command you, you shall speak." Admittedly, Jeremiah’s case was very special, but it serves well to illustrate that it is God who calls to office. Jeremiah himself did not choose to become a prophet. Moses, Gideon, Samson, Samuel, Saul, David, and Isaiah all serve as other examples of men who were very obviously called by God to a particular office amongst God’s people.
That God calls to office is drawn out forcibly in Hebrews 5:4. Concerning the office of high priest one reads, "And no man takes this honour to himself, but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was." The one who is called becomes the high priest. Verse 5 continues that for Christ it was no different. "So also Christ did not glorify himself to become high priest, but it was he (God) who said to him: "You are my Son, today I have begotten you." God made Christ an Office-bearer. The same is true of the elders of Ephesus. To them Paul said, "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 ..." (Acts 20:28).
Office-bearers, then, receive their office from the Head of the Church. That is why no man is permitted to elbow his way into the office, nor is any to push his friend into the office. The principle that it is God who gives the office is reflected in Article 3.A.:
No one shall take any office upon himself without having been lawfully called thereto. The calling to office shall take place by ....
2.2 How is a person called to office?
2.2.1 In Old Testament times God called directly
How does God call persons to office? In the Old Testament God called many to office by a direct approach. The next high priest in line was the oldest son of the high priest currently in office. God Himself determined who the oldest son of Aaron was. Hence it was God Himself Who called Eliezer (Aaron’s oldest son) to office. So it was with the prophets; God called them. The quote mentioned above in relation to Jeremiah serves as an example. The disciples were very directly called to their office by the Lord Jesus.
2.2.2 In New Testament times God calls indirectly
Through the congregation’s involvement
In New Testament times God’s approach is not as direct. Though it is still God who calls, He does so more indirectly, placing responsibility for this task upon the congregation. Acts 1:15-26 serves to illustrate the congregation’s involvement in calling brothers to office. The Lord Jesus had appointed 12 disciples. But with Judas having committed suicide after Jesus’ arrest, a vacancy existed. One does not read that Peter or the others said anything to the effect that they wanted Matthias to replace Judas. Rather, Peter approached the congregation and sought their assistance in filling the vacancy. In verse 23 we read, "And they proposed two: Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias." It is unclear who is meant in this passage by ‘they’, but the context suggests that it was the congregation under the leadership of Peter and the other 10 disciples. "And they prayed and said, "You, O Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which of these two you have chosen to take part in this ministry and apostleship .... And they cast their lots, and the lot fell on Matthias. And he was numbered with the eleven apostles" (Verses 24-26). The congregation was involved, possibly in proposing the candidates and certainly in praying. Then "they" cast lots, and the term ‘they’ in this instance certainly includes the involvement of the congregation. But it was God who called to office, for "the lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD" (Proverbs 16:33).
A second example of God calling a person to office through the involvement of the congregation can be found in Acts 6. One reads in verse 1 that the number of disciples was increasing but that the widows were being neglected. Consequently, the twelve apostles called together the whole congregation and charged them, "brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation ..." (verses 2-4). "And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them" (verses 5,6). These seven men were called to office by God through the involvement of the congregation. The congregation had a role to play in their appointment.
In Acts 14:23 we read of Paul and Barnabas appointing elders: "So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed." The word "appointed" means literally "elect by raising hands". Although our translation does not seem to suggest the congregation’s involvement in the appointment of the elders, the use of the word ‘appoint’ does suggest the congregations direct involvement.
The above material finds an echo in the Church Order, where the manner of calling to office is described in Article 3.A as follows:
The calling to office shall take place by the consistory with the deacons, with the cooperation of the congregation, after prayer, and in accordance with the local regulations adopted for that purpose.
The reference to "local regulations" refers to minor items as what to do with blank votes, what percentage of congregation members constitutes a quorum, what length of time a brother should serve or be free from being nominated again, etc. Each local church is free to make "local regulations" on points as these.
Through the congregation’s prayers
The passages quoted above from Acts 1, Acts 6 and Acts 14 all make mention of prayer as a critical step in the calling procedure. This need for prayer was considered so important that Guido deBres included the element in the Belgic Confession. He wrote in Article 31:
"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…."
Here recognition is given to the fact that it is ultimately God who calls to office, and the congregation forms the tool by which God shows the man of His choosing. In the Church Order this same directive received specific mention in the election procedure described in Article 3.A:
The calling to office shall take place by the consistory with the deacons, with the cooperation of the congregation, after prayer, and in accordance with the local regulations adopted for that purpose.
Article 3.B. goes on to give some guidelines for the calling of elders and deacons. Just as in Acts 1, the consistory requests the congregation to submit names of brothers considered suitable to serve in the offices of elder or deacon. Although there was only one vacancy to be filled in Acts 1, two names were nominated: Barnabas and Matthias. Although the option is there for "twice as many candidates as there are vacancies to be filled" this is not imperative. In Acts 6 seven men were to be nominated for the office of deacon; seven were chosen and set before the apostles. After prayer, these seven were appointed as deacons. Hence the stipulation of the Church Order:
"The consistory with the deacons shall present to the congregation at the most twice as many candidates as there are vacancies to be filled."
The exact number of nominees, then, may vary, so that where four vacancies exist the consistory may nominate any number from a minimum of four brothers to a maximum of eight. From this number, the congregation may choose.
Yet, when all is said and done, it is not the congregation who calls to office. It remains God who calls. When a person becomes an office-bearer he, in his affirmative response to the questions put to him at his ordination, must be able to say in so many words that he is convinced "that God Himself, through His congregation, has called (him) to (his) office" (see the Form for Ordination of Elders and Deacons, Book of Praise, p. 632). This is the first question asked of a brother at his ordination. The conviction that it is God who calls is what makes the office so serious. Equally, this conviction makes the office glorious and bearable. If God calls to office, He also gives the strength to serve in that office, and this service is indeed a most beautiful task.
2.3 Who is eligible to be called to office?
2.3.1 Eligibility for the offices of elder and deacon
The church is the Lord’s. So it is God Himself Who determines who is eligible to be called to office in His church. The following comes to light:
In 1 Timothy 3 the apostle Paul writes to Timothy concerning the qualifications of elders and deacons. Concerning the elder, Paul is moved by God to stipulate that he
"must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil" (vss 2ff).
Likewise, in his letter to Titus, Paul says of the elder that he must be
"blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict" (1:6ff).
Concerning the men who had to "serve tables" in the congregation of Jerusalem, the apostles stipulated that they had to be
"men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business" (Acts 6:3).
In I Timothy 3 Paul writes that
"deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money, holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. But let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless. Likewise their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus" (vss 8ff).
These Scriptural criteria are echoed in the Church Order with the term "suitable". Says Article 3.B:
The consistory with the deacons shall give the congregation the opportunity to draw the attention of the consistory to brothers deemed suitable for the respective offices.
When, therefore, the consistory requests the congregation to nominate brothers "deemed suitable" to serve in the offices of elder or deacon, the members need to work with Bible passages such as these. Nominations need to be substantiated, not just with a statement that a brother meets the qualities listed in the above passages, but with an explanation as to how the brother meets these qualities. If a brother is known not meet the above qualifications, no consistory has the right to nominate that brother, and no member the right to vote for him, simply because God Himself has declared this brother unsuitable for office in His church.
It is also deliberate that the Church Order specifies that the congregation has opportunity to draw the attention of the consistory to brothers. This is because the Lord has been pleased to close the office in His church to the sisters of the congregation – even though in His eyes they are as precious as any brother. This is the Lord’s word in a passage as 1 Timothy 2:12:
"Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence."
Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 14:34 Paul is moved by the Lord’s Spirit to write,
"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."
In passages as these, the Lord instructs us unambiguously that He does not deem the sisters of the congregation eligible to serve as office-bearers.
2.3.2 Eligibility for the Ministry
A minister, like elders and deacons, must meet the qualities listed in passages as 1 Timothy 3. However, the Scriptures indicate that a minister needs more qualifications still. In 1 Timothy 3, Paul mentions that an elder must be "able to teach." The term translates the Greek word ‘didactic’, and means exactly what it says. But in 2 Timothy 2:2, where Paul instructs Timothy to train young men for the office of minister of the Word, Paul describes the required faithful men in terms that are somewhat stronger. These young men, says Paul (in our translation), need to "be able to teach others also." Though it does not come through in the translation, Paul uses here a term that means "fit, appropriate, competent, qualified, able". These future ministers, then, need to be qualified, made competent, trained to handle the Word of God so that they are specifically equipped to teach others.
Further, these future ministers had to be "faithful men". That is, they were to be trustworthy, dependable persons, in whose hands the gospel of Jesus Christ was safe. Given that the office of minister is a highly influential office (for a minister preaches from the pulpit every Sunday, teaches Catechism to the youth, leads consistory meetings, visits the members’ homes, etc) it is certainly important that these future ministers be "faithful". This is the more important since, as Paul also notes (cf 2 Timothy 2:25; 4:3,4), there are those who oppose the gospel.
These data from Scripture are reflected in the Church Order when it broaches the question of eligibility for the ministry. Article 5.A stipulates the following concerning a person’s eligibility for the ministry:
Only those shall be called to the office of minister of the Word who
(1) have been declared eligible for call by the churches; or
(2) are already serving in that capacity in one of the churches; or
(3) have been declared eligible or are serving in one of the churches with which The Free Reformed Churches of Australia maintain a sister relationship. The churches shall observe the general ecclesiastical ordinances for the eligibility of those ministers who have served in these sister-churches.
How though can one church within a bond of churches be confident that a minister of a sister church is eligible for call and service in its church? This is addressed by Article 5.B. There one reads:
Only those shall be declared eligible for call within the churches who
(1)have passed a preparatory examination by the classis in which they live, which examination shall not take place unless those presenting themselves for it submit the necessary documents to prove that they are members in good standing of one of the churches and have successfully completed a course of study as required by the churches; or
(2)have satisfied the requirements of Article 8; or
(3)have satisfied the requirements of Article 9.
Article 5.B.1 speaks of a ‘preparatory examination.’ One cannot be given such an examination unless he satisfies two conditions.
Firstly, he must prove, by way of an attestation from his consistory, to be an upright and God-fearing man. Here the Church Order echoes Paul’s instruction to Timothy that those who would be ministers of the Word must be "faithful" men (2 Timothy 2:2).
Secondly, he needs to have graduated with the appropriate academic qualifications from a theological college of one of our sister churches. With this requirement, the churches take seriously the instruction of Paul in the same text, that future ministers must be "able to teach," trained, qualified, made competent.
If a person can prove that he has met these two conditions, he can then undergo a preparatory examination by the classis. This examination requires a person to demonstrate his abilities in Old and New Testament exegesis, the preaching of a sermon and a sound knowledge of reformed doctrine. On successful completion of a preparatory examination the young man is declared eligible for call.
Article 5.B as quoted above indicates that there are two other ways by which a person may become eligible for call to the ministry of the Word. They are the following:
(2)have satisfied the requirements of Article 8; or
(3)have satisfied the requirements of Article 9.
Article 8 gives recognition to the fact that the Lord, sovereign as He is, can in His good pleasure provide ministers for His churches in non-ordinary ways. Normally spoken, the Lord moves the person whom He one day will call to the ministry to enrol at the Theological College. In the course of time, then, this young man is "qualified", trained to teach the Word to others. However, in His care for His churches, the Lord may grant exceptional gifts to a brother so that he is "qualified to teach" the Word to others without having gone through the formal course of studies associated with the training for the ministry. For such persons the door to the ministry is opened in the well-known "Article 8":
ARTICLE 8 - Exceptional gifts
Persons who have not pursued the regular course of theological study shall not be admitted to the ministry unless there is convincing evidence of their exceptional gifts of godliness, humility, modesty, good intellect, and discretion, as well as the gift of public speech. When any such person presents himself for the ministry, classis shall (with synod’s prior approval) examine him, and upon a favourable outcome allow him, as candidate, to speak an edifying word in the churches of the classis for a set period of time. Thereafter the classis shall further deal with him as it shall deem edifying, observing the ecclesiastical regulations adopted for this purpose.
The Lord may also bring into the churches a man who has been minister in a bond of churches not recognised by the marks of Article 29, Belgic Confession. A minister from such a bond cannot straightaway be called to the ministry in the churches he joins. After all, God has stipulated that a minister must be known to be "faithful". Given that false teachers can easily appear (cf Acts 20:29f), it is important that such a person first undergo the test of time. Article 9 stipulates that, when he has been proven to be faithful, the door can be opened for him to become eligible for call to the ministry.
ARTICLE 9 - Admission of ministers who have recently joined the church
A minister of the Word who has recently joined one of the churches and originates from a church with which the churches do not maintain a sister relationship shall only be admitted to the ministry with great caution. He shall not be declared eligible for call within the churches unless he has been well tested for a reasonable period of time and carefully examined by the classis in whose area he lives. This classis examination shall be conducted with the cooperation of the deputies of synod.
184.108.40.206 Ordination and installation of ministers of the Word
Articles 6.A. and 6.B. stipulate the procedures to be followed for those who "have not served in the ministry before" and "those who are serving in the ministry" respectively.
those who have not served in the ministry before
Those who have not served in the ministry before need to be examined for a second time (they have already been once examined with a view to being made eligible for call; this exercise was called the preparatory examination. See above). The outcome of this second examination (called the "peremptory examination") is by no means a foregone conclusion – as if being declared eligible for call automatically ensures that one will also enter the ministry. Given the influence one has from the pulpit and in the work of the ministry at large, this final exam is necessary, and must be taken seriously.
A. Regarding those who have not served in the ministry before, the following shall be observed:
1. They shall be ordained only after classis has approved the call.
Classis shall approve the call
a. upon satisfactory testimony concerning the soundness of doctrine and conduct of the candidate, attested by the consistory of the church to which he belongs; and
b. following a peremptory examination of the candidate with satisfactory results. This classis examination shall take place with the cooperation and concurring advice of deputies of synod.
2. For the ordination they shall also show to the consistory good testimonials concerning their doctrine and conduct from the church(es) to which they have belonged since their preparatory examination.
Note the emphasis here on the candidate’s responsibility to demonstrate to both classis and consistory that he is sound in doctrine and conduct. Here is the application of the principle of 2 Timothy 2:2, that the minister-elect must be "faithful".
As to the peremptory examination, the candidate is expected to show that he can make and deliver a sermon. Further, he must display competence in Old and New Testament exegesis, knowledge of the reformed confessions, doctrine of the church, church history, church polity, diaconiology (i.e. the practical aspects of carrying out the office of the ministry: preaching, visiting the sick, teaching catechism), and ethics.
those who have served in the ministry before
A vacant congregation is not bound to call as minister only persons who have not yet served as minister. Such a congregation can also extend a call to a man who is already serving elsewhere. In the event that a call is accepted, the Church Order stipulates the following:
B. Regarding those who are serving in the ministry the following shall be observed:
They shall be installed after classis has approved the call.
1. For this approval as well as for the installation the minister shall show good testimonials concerning his doctrine and conduct, together with a declaration from the consistory with the deacons and from classis that he has been honourably discharged from his service in that church and classis, or from the church only in case he remains within the same classis.
2. For the approval of a call of those who are serving in one of the churches with which The Free Reformed Churches of Australia maintain a sister relationship a colloquium shall be required which will deal especially with the doctrine and polity of The Free Reformed Churches of Australia.
Notice again the application of the principle of 2 Timothy 2:2 regarding faithfulness.
Further, a competency examination is not required for established ministers because, essentially, a minister who carries out his office is regularly ‘examined’ by his consistory and congregation as he carries out the duties of his office.
For those who are already serving in the ministry in one of the sister churches, a colloquium (i.e. a learned discussion) is held concerning doctrine and church polity. This is because there can be differences between bonds of churches, spread as churches are over the face of the world, in differs cultures and differing traditions.
In Article 6.B.1 one reads that a minister in office, having accepted a call from another church, requires a "declaration from the consistory with the deacons and from classis that he has been honourably discharged from his service in that church and classis ...." A classis is made up of a number of local churches (see Section 2 below, on Assemblies). Although a minister receives a call from a local church, by nature of his office he also has a role to play in the other churches within that classis. The task of a minister extends also into the bond of churches. For that reason classis gets involved in both the discharge of a serving minister and in the approval of a call to another minister. Classes, after all, want to be sure that the work of ministers within the classical resort is scripturally sound.
2.4 Duration of the call
In the church of Jesus Christ, it is Christ alone who calls to office. This reality in turn means that it is also Christ alone who can releases from office. It is understood that no-one is called by Christ to serve forever, for in this life all men must die, and by death their service in the office is terminated.
The Lord, though, sovereign as He is, can use less obvious means to make clear that an office bearer should no carry out his office. Yet, as the Lord used the congregation (through the consistory) to call to office, so also the congregation (in the consistory) must be involved when the time arises to depart from the office.
The principle that Christ alone can release from the office is captured in the Church Order by Article 15. There one reads,
A minister of the Word, once lawfully called, is bound to the service of the church for life and therefore not allowed to enter upon another vocation unless it be for exceptional and substantial reasons. The decision of his consistory to relieve him of his office in order to enter upon another vocation shall receive the approval of classis, with the concurring advice of deputies of synod.
A minister does well, then, when he accepts a call (to a given congregation), to be aware that he accepts it until the Lord releases him from that call. And Yes, the sovereign Head of the church is free to release a minister at any time of His choosing – be it from the church where the minister is currently serving, or even from the office altogether. The Church Order recognises the following possibilities:
A CALL FROM ANOTHER CHURCH (Article 7)
A minister can only move to a different congregation if he is called and if he has received the required consent. This possibility is captured in Article 7 as follows:
A minister once lawfully called shall not leave the church to which he is bound to take up the ministry elsewhere without the consent of his consistory with the deacons and the approval of classis. Likewise, no church shall receive him unless he has presented a proper certificate of release from the church and the classis where he served, or from the church only if he remains within the same classis.
In this instance the Head of the church calls His servant from the office He had given in one congregation to serve in the office in another congregation. He is released, then, from his office in the first congregation and installed into the office of Minister of the Word in his new congregation.
A CALL TO AN EXTRAORDINARY TASK (Article 12)
If a minister accepts a call or an appointment to an extraordinary task, the nature of the relationship between him and the church to which he is bound must be arranged with the consent of the classis. Some ministers may be appointed for the training of students for the ministry, others may be called for mission work.
One can be called out of the active ministry in a given congregation to serve as instructor at the Theological College or to serve as missionary on the mission field. In both these instances the person concerned remains a minister, but does not carry out the normal duties of a minister in his congregation. As such, the Lord who called to the task of instructor or missionary relieves the minister from the office he had earlier received in Christ’s church.
The tasks of the instructor at the College and the Missionary will receive attention in Articles 17 and 19 respectively.
RETIREMENT (Article 13)
If a minister of the Word, by reason of age, sickness or otherwise, is rendered incapable of performing the duties of his office he shall retain the honour and title of minister of the Word. He shall also retain his official bond with the church which he served last, and this church shall provide honourably for his support. The same obligation exists towards a minister’s widow and orphans.
The Head of the church can take away from one of His office bearers the gift of health and/or strength so that he is no longer able to carry out the office effectively. It is fitting that people recognise what the Head of the church does in their midst by taking away the health and/or strength of His office bearer, and respond accordingly.
DISMISSAL (Article 14)
Christ gathers His church in a broken world. In fact, the ministers He calls to office are men very much touched by the fall into sin. And the members of the congregation also are very much touched by this fall. The renewing work of the Holy Spirit in no way undoes the effects of the fall altogether. The result is that the ‘chemistry’ between a minister and his congregation may be (or become) negative. It is possible, for example, that members of the congregation stumble over the minister’s character so that his person gets between the pulpit and the pew. Then the minister, together with his consistory, needs to be sober and level-headed, and assess whether it may be more beneficial for the church of Jesus Christ that he request dismissal. This possibility is recognised in Article 14:
The consistory with the deacons shall not dismiss a minister from his bond with the congregation without approval of classis and the concurring advice of the deputies of synod.
Should a minister not receive a call after his dismissal, he could lose his office altogether. After all, there is no such thing as an office bearer-at-large, or an office bearer without a congregation.
A final instance considered in the Church Order where the call of a minister is terminated is mentioned in Article 76:
If a minister, elder or deacon has committed a public or otherwise gross sin, or refuses to heed the admonitions by the consistory, he shall be suspended from office…
In this instance he is minister no longer.
2.4.2 Elders and deacons
Article 23 stipulates that the term of office for elders and deacons shall be as follows:
The elders and deacons shall serve two or more years according to local regulations, and a proportionate number shall retire each year. The places of the retiring office-bearers shall be taken by others unless the consistory with the deacons judges that the circumstances and the well-being of the church render it advisable to call them into office again. In that case the rule of Article 3 shall be observed.
Throughout church history ‘term-eldership’ versus ‘life-time-eldership’ has been a point of discussion. Those in favour of a life-time service in the office reason that if it is the Lord who calls a man to serve in the office, then who is man to say that a man is to serve for only a set number of years? Those in favour of term-eldership offer practical reasons for their position. It is healthy for a congregation to receive ‘new blood’ in the office on a regular basis. To have the same persons in office year after year can produce ‘stale’ brothers. Further, the realities of life are such that both the raising of a family and service in the office are demanding and time-consuming tasks. Fathers need to be available for their responsibilities towards their families too.
Term-eldership, as compared to life-time eldership, is anti-hierarchical. With a regular changeover of office-bearers, there is less danger of a few brothers lording it over the congregation. The prospects of having to be re-nominated and re-elected to office can also serve as a catalyst to brothers to do their best; in this way brothers remain accountable.
The Bible itself is vague on the matter of elders and deacons serving in the office for a term versus life. Hence, if the Bible is not absolute, man should not be absolute about this matter either. In the Church Order we have agreed to the principle of term eldership. Presumably, the fathers judged term eldership the wiser way to go.
Of course, the Church Order’s requirement for term eldership does not mean that Christ’s call to office is suddenly ignored after the required two or three years is up. In an instance where the Lord in His Word does not specify directly what the Lord wishes, He uses also the practical arguments of daily living to bring into focus His will for church life.
2.5 Support for the office
If a man is called to full-time service in his office in Christ’s church, how is he to receive his daily keep? On this point, the Lord gave particular instructions in His Word. In the Old Testament the people of Israel had to support the priests and the levites; they receive a portion of the people’s sacrifices. The principle recurs in the New Testament, where Jesus says to the seventy that they weren’t to go from house to house, but rather "remain in the same house, eating and drinking such things as they give, for the labourer is worthy of his wages" (Luke 10:7). Paul reminds the Corinthians that "the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel" (1 Corinthians 9:14). And the Galatians are told, "Let him who is taught the word share in all good things with him who teaches" (6:6).
The fathers, on the basis of scriptural directives as these, considered it to be the privilege and responsibility of the congregation to support the brother who gives his time to her edification. Therefore, concerning ministers of the Word, Article 11 reads,
The consistory, with the deacons, on behalf of the congregation which it represents in this matter, shall provide for the proper support of its minister(s).
A minister is not paid wages. The money he receives should not be a reflection of the responsibilities of his job or the quality of his work. That is the principle by which people receive their respective wages in society. If a minister is ‘in it’ for the money, then he is in office for the wrong reason. It is a congregation’s privilege to receive a minister who may devote himself full-time to the responsibilities of the office. Let the congregation, which benefits spiritually from the preaching and other work of its minister, in turn support him financially so that he and his family receive what they need to live.
In view of the fact that a minister is a minister for life, a congregation remains responsible for his support after retirement too, as well as responsible for the support of his widow and orphans. This is agreed in Article 13: after his retirement his church
shall provide honourably for his support. The same obligation exists towards a minister’s widow and orphans.
Again, since instructors at the Theological College remain ministers,
the churches together are obliged to provide support for the professors of theology and for their widows and orphans (Article 17).
There is no reason why this principle of supporting those who give of their time to labour in the offices of the church cannot be applied to elders and deacons also. In a minor way we do this already when elders need to travel far afield in order to visit a family of the congregation, or if delegates need to be sent to a Synod; their time and expenses are paid for by the congregation. It could also be that a consistory sees a need for employing an elder to full-time pastoral work. In principle there is no reason against that. That this has not been allowed for in the Church Order is because historically elders and deacons have carried out their offices in their free time. It is our privilege to support not only the work of the ministers but also the work of the other offices, and therefore in principle Article 11 could also be extended to the work of elders and deacons.