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The Church Order of Dort - Articles 16-27

Principles and Practice of Reformed Church Polity 


Articles 16-27

3 The Nature Of The Offices


In Scripture one finds the following references to the presence of elders in the New Testament church in its founding years:

Acts 11:27-30

Here one finds the first reference to elders in action in the church of the New Testament:

"And in these days prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch. Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea. This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul."

This was not the first incidence of believers getting money together and handing it over to the church leaders for distribution. Acts 4:34-37 relates that the proceeds of the sale of land and houses were"laid at the apostles’ feet." On comparing these two passages, though, one notices a development in church leadership. The apostles of Acts 4, after they had completed their task of instituting Christ’s church in Jerusalem had moved on to preach the Word to the ends of the earth. Although the Lord has not revealed how the elders of Acts 11 received their office, it is clear that they took the place of the apostles in the leadership of the Jerusalem church. The elders represented as it were the public face, or the address, of the church at Jerusalem. It was to them that Saul and Barnabas handed over the gifts from the brothers in Antioch.

Acts 14:23

In the preceding chapters one reads of Paul and Barnabas preaching the gospel in Cyprus, Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. From Derbe the apostles turned back to visit Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch in order to strengthen and encourage the believers. However, Paul and Barnabas could not continue indefinitely to visit and encourage the converts in these towns; they had other work to do. So we read in Acts 14:23, "So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed." Under the apostles’ leadership churches were instituted in these cities and elders were appointed from the local membership to take over from the apostles the leadership of the local church. 

Acts 20:17

"From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church."

From the context it is evident that these elders were the leaders of the church at Ephesus.

Acts 21:18

"On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present."

Paul went to discuss matters with James in Jerusalem. That the elders were also present points up that these brothers were seen as the leaders of the congregation.

In the above texts Scripture calls the leaders of the churches elders. Although the word elder denotes a person of older age, it is not so much their age as their responsibility in giving leadership that is stressed by the term. Having been appointed as elders, these men, in their person and conduct, became role models in their congregations. Importance was attached to them not on account of their age but on account of their office.


In Acts 20:28 one reads of the term ‘overseer’ (Greek: episkopos) being connected to the office of elder. Says Paul to the elders of the church at Ephesus, "Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers ...." What then is an overseer to do? One finds the answer in Acts 15:36 where one reads, "Then after some days Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing." Although the word ‘visit’ is used in our translation, the original word means to ‘oversee’. Paul says as it were, "Let us go and oversee our brethren." The apostle’s intent, then, is to go and keep his eyes open to learn how the brethren are doing. This, then, is the meaning of the English term ‘oversee’. It means to have oversight, to see or keep an eye on how things are going. 

One also finds the word in Matthew 25:36. Jesus tells the parable of the separation between the sheep and the goats. Christ, the shepherd, will say to the sheep gathered at his right hand, "I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me...." Here again, the Greek word is ‘oversee’. In the context of Jesus’ parable the purpose of the visit is not simply to go and see someone. Rather, the visit is an expression of care and genuine interest. So, in their task as overseers, the elders are to visit the members of the congregation. The purpose of such visits is not just to socialise, but rather, with a genuine interest in the members’ well-being, to find out what they are up against in life, seeking to stand beside them, to encourage, and if necessary, to admonish. SHEPHERD

This title appears repeatedly in John 10 as a description of Jesus. The Lord says in verse 11, "I am the good shepherd" (Greek: poimen). The Lord goes on to describe what He as shepherd does for His sheep: "The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep." In contrast to this, the Lord describes what the hireling does: "... he who is a hireling and not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep" (vs 12). The shepherd cares for his sheep, and so he does what he can to defend and protect them, even going so far as laying down his life for the sheep. Hebrews 13:20 also describes the Lord Jesus as "... that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant." Jesus, the Good Shepherd, shed His blood so that His sheep might live. In 1 Peter 2:25 likewise, one reads of Jesus the Shepherd: "For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls."

The task of shepherding is not the task of our Lord Jesus Christ exclusively. In Scripture one reads how the role of shepherd is also assigned to the office of elder. In Acts 20:28 Paul says to the elders of the church at 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." Here the word ‘shepherd’ appears as a verb. It is the elders’ task to shepherd the flock for which Christ has laid down His life. It is in the Lord Jesus, the Good Shepherd as He is described in John 10, that the elder finds his role model.

The Old Testament too uses the term ‘shepherd’ in relation to the Lord, and in so doing expounds further the elder’s task of shepherding according to the model of the Good Shepherd. The psalmist confesses in Psalm 23 that "The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want." Why shall he not want? Because the Lord, shepherd that He is 

"makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over" (Psalm 23:2-5).

Over against the way the Good Shepherd carries out His office, there is the way of the hireling of John 10 who, in the interest of his own well-being, leaves the sheep to fend for themselves in the face of danger. The prophet Ezekiel had to admonish the shepherds of Israel for the irresponsible manner in which they shepherded the flock of Israel: 

"Thus says the Lord God to the shepherds: "Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock. The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the beasts of the field when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and on every high hill; yes, My flock was scattered over the whole face of the earth, and no one was seeking or searching for them" (Ezekiel 34:2-6).

The shepherds in Israel were not shepherding as true shepherds. 

The elders of Ephesus were to shepherd their flock, following in the footsteps of their Good Shepherd. Paul did not command them to be shepherds in order to build up their own reputation or to make the congregation do what they wanted them to do. The flock was not there for the benefit of the elders, but the elders for the benefit of the flock. The elders are even to "lay down their life" for the flock, for that is what the Good Shepherd did. In order to preserve the life of their sheep the elders are to "feed them in good pasture ... (to) seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen what was sick" (Ezekiel 34:14-16). Paul, listing in Ephesians 4:11 the various offices that Christ gave to the church, uses for ‘elder’ the word ‘pastor’ (=shepherd): "And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers." Pastor is an apt synonym for elder, for it captures well the elder’s task of shepherding, feeding the sheep. STEWARD

In Titus 1:5-9 Paul enumerates the qualifications of elders. Paul writes to Timothy, "For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you." In this quote (vs 5) Paul uses the word ‘elder’ (Greek: presbyter), but in verse 7 he uses for ‘elder’ the word ‘overseer’ (or ‘bishop’; Greek: episkopos). Then he says concerning the bishops / elders that he "must be blameless, as a steward of God ..." (Greek: oikonomos). Matthew 24:45 draws for us a picture of what a steward is and does. In His parable concerning the faithful and evil servant Jesus says, "Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his master made ruler over his household, to give them food in due season?" The word translate here as ‘ruler’ is the word used by Paul and translated as ‘steward’. This is the person who is responsible for managing a household, a servant appointed to care for the other servants (even providing their food) and who is accountable to his master. 

Paul likens the elder to a steward: a person ‘over the household’ and yet under God and so accountable to Him. For what purpose does God make the elder a steward over His congregation? Not for the elder’s own benefit, but so that he may give the congregation "food in due season." The elder, then, serves the congregation with the possessions God has entrusted to him for the benefit of the congregation. LEADER

In Hebrews 13:7,17 & 24 the apostle gives the following instruction to the Hebrews, "Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct.... Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account... Greet all those who rule over you, and all the saints." The word translated here as ‘rule’ (Greek: hegoumonos) is properly the word ‘lead’, and this is spoken of here in relation to the elders. Characteristic of a leader is that he gives a proper example to those whom he leads; he guides. Again, the elder does not lead for his own benefit, but for the benefit of the congregation ("for they watch out for your souls"). Given this task of the leaders, the Hebrew saints are instructed to submit to the elders; it is in their best interest to follow the leadership of their elders. IN SUM: ELDERS MUST USE THE WORD OF GOD

Elders must oversee, shepherd, be stewards over and lead their congregation for the sole purpose of directing the congregation to God. For that reason God has also given the elders the One Resource they need to perform these tasks, and that resource is of course the Word of God. If the elder must shepherd the sheep, feeding them in good pasture, he must feed them in the Word of life. But before an elder can begin to shepherd, or even to lead, oversee or manage His Master’s flock, he himself must be spiritually healthy. To use the words of Titus 1:9, an elder must "(hold) 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." For an elder to be an elder in the scriptural sense of the word, it is imperative that he himself stands by that Word and be "able to teach" that Word (1 Timothy 3:2). How can an elder oversee, visit, feed, rule, show care and stand beside people in their circumstances if he is unable to teach what God’s Word has to say to them in their need?


On the basis of 1 Timothy 5:17 we may speak of two kinds of elders: the teaching elder (the office of the ministry) and the ruling elder (the office of elder). All elders, be they teaching or ruling elders, are overseers, shepherds, stewards and leaders. But teaching elders and ruling elders carry out these tasks with their own particular focus. 

The minister’s task very much focuses on teaching and preaching, or, to use the words of 1 Timothy 5:17, he "labours in the word and doctrine." How does the minister oversee, shepherd, and lead his congregation, managing over the congregation so that it gets "food in due season"? He does so specifically by the preaching. Timothy, for example, was a minister of the Word. How can Timothy be the minister God wants him to be? Paul is moved by the Holy Spirit to write to Timothy like this: "I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ ... Preach the word!" (2 Timothy 4:1,2). If Timothy is to be a shepherd of the people of God, then he needs to preach; preaching is critical to the task of the minister. The office of Minister of the Word had also been entrusted to Titus. Paul writes to him also, "But as for you, speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine ... likewise exhort ..." (Titus 2:1,6). 

Preaching is of prime importance in shepherding God’s flock because it is by the preaching of the gospel that the Lord works faith in the hearts of His people. As Paul wrote in Romans 10:17, "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." Through faith in Jesus Christ one is reconciled to God, and this reconciling faith is worked by the Spirit through the preaching. So Paul can even call preaching the "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:18). A minister, on the pulpit and when he visits, is a steward of the revelation of God by which he leads and feeds the flock, teaching, encouraging and admonishing.

In addition to preaching, a minister fulfils his tasks of being an overseer, a shepherd, a steward and a leader for his flock by the means of prayer. Acts 6:4 serves to illustrate what priority prayer receives in the work of the minister. A problem had arisen in the church at Jerusalem, a complaint by the Hellenists against the Hebrews, which warranted the apostles appointing seven men chosen by the congregation to attend to the matter. These seven men were needed so that the apostles could give themselves "continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word." It is interesting to note how this text first speaks of prayer and then preaching. 

In Article 16 of the Church Order the fathers made an effort to summarise what they gleaned from Scripture into a brief task description for ministers: 

ARTICLE 16 - Task of ministers

The task of ministers is to faithfully lead in prayer, preach the Word and administer the sacraments. They shall watch over their fellow office-bearers and over the congregation. Together with the elders they shall exercise church discipline and see to it that everything is done decently and in good order.
A minister’s task receives a changed emphasis when he receives a special mandate, such as specified in Article 12: "Some ministers may be appointed for the training of students for the ministry, others may be called for mission work." However, a missionary remains a minister, and performs on the mission field the same duties as a minister. On the mission field too, lost sinners are saved through hearing the gospel of reconciliation through Christ. For that reason a missionary’s focal task is also the preaching of the Word. Hence, in describing the task of missionaries, the fathers wrote:

ARTICLE 19 - Task of missionaries

When ministers of the Word are sent out as missionaries, they shall in the specific region assigned to them proclaim the Word of God, administer the sacraments to those who have come to the profession of their faith, teaching them to observe all that Christ has commanded His church, and ordain elders and deacons when this appears feasible, according to the rules given in the Word of God. RULING ELDERS – FOCUS ON GOVERNING

The terms overseer, shepherd, steward, leader also apply to the office of the ruling elder. However, the description of the task of the ruling elder is given a different emphasis in Article 20. There one reads:

ARTICLE 20 - Task of elders

The elders shall together with the ministers of the Word govern the congregation with pastoral care and discipline. For the upbuilding of the congregation they shall make homevisits as often as is profitable but at least once a year. They shall watch that their fellow office-bearers are faithful in carrying out their duties and ensure that in the congregation everything is done decently and in good order.

Here the task of governing is emphasised. After all, 1 Timothy 5:17 speaks of the elders "who rule." The focus is pastoral care and discipline. As overseers the elders make it their business to visit the members for they cannot build up, nourish, instruct, encourage or admonish the members appropriately with the Word unless they know what the members’ particular needs are. Hence the fathers stipulated that it is the task of the elders to make homevisits as often as possible. Article 20 is an attempt of the fathers to formulate a brief task description for the elders, based on what they gleaned from Scripture. More detail can be found in the Form for ordination of elders and deacons. MINISTERS AND ELDERS MUST WARD OFF FALSE DOCTRINES

It has pleased God to save a people for Himself through the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross. This gospel comes to the world through the ministry of the church (1 Timothy 3:15; 4:6). That is why the apostle Paul instructs Timothy to "guard what was committed to your trust" (1 Timothy 6:20).

But this gospel is desperately hated by the evil one. He, therefore, does what he can to distort the gospel. The apostle Paul already wrote of "false apostles, deceitful workers" who "transform themselves into apostles of Christ" (2 Corinthians 11:13). He adds that these deceitful works imitate Satan, who "transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness" (2 Corinthians 11:15). 

Paul warns the Ephesian elders of the challenges they will meet as they carry out their office. These challenges, says Paul, include the need to deal with heresies. Said Paul to the elders:

"… 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. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch..." (Acts 20:28-31).

Paul was qualified to instruct the elders of Ephesus, for he himself had performed the tasks of an elder. He taught and proclaimed, publicly and via homevisits (cf vs 20), the gospel of reconciliation for the purpose of working repentance and faith in his listeners. It was a dangerous task for Paul, but no chains or tribulations were going to stand in the way of him fulfilling the office to which God had called him. Following in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd, Paul was prepared to carry out his office at the expense of his own life. Even false teachers and heretics would not silence the apostle. He dared even to confront Peter publicly about his errors (cf Galatians 2:11) and publicly also to expose the heresy of the Judaizers (Galatians 3). Here was an example the elders of Ephesus had to follow.

If God’s people, then, are to be fed in the good pastures of the Word, ministers and elders alike must both be on guard for false doctrines which aim to undermine God’s Word and so mislead His people. This task of warding off false doctrines is captured in the Church Order as follows: 

ARTICLE 26 - False doctrine

To ward off false doctrines and errors the ministers and elders shall use the means of instruction, of refutation, of warning and of admonition, in the ministry of the Word as well as in Christian teaching and family visiting.


Due to the influential nature of the office, it is imperative that the men who are ordained to office are faithful men. Paul’s warning to the elders at Ephesus concerning impending attacks on Christ’s church are equally valid for all office-bearers today. In order to be able to guard the flock against attacks from ‘wolves’ from without and heretics from within, office-bearers must themselves be sound in faith. In accordance with Titus 1:9 and 2:1 an office-bearer must be "… 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…", and he is to "… speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine: … sound in faith …." Amongst the office-bearers there is no room for deviation from the Word of God. Therefore, upon their ordination, in accordance with Articles 24 and 25 of the Church Order, all office-bearers sign a form in which they promise to hold fast, teach and defend God’s faithful Word. Articles 24 and 25 read as follows: 

ARTICLE 24 - Subscription to the Confession by ministers and teaching staff 

All ministers of the Word and all teaching staff at the theological seminary shall subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity of The Free Reformed Churches of Australia by signing the Form(s) adopted for that purpose. Anyone refusing to subscribe in that manner shall not be ordained or installed in office. Anyone who, being in office, refuses to do so shall because of that very fact be immediately suspended from office by the consistory, and classis shall not receive him. If he obstinately persists in his refusal he shall be deposed from office.

ARTICLE 25 - Subscription to the Confession by elders and deacons 

Elders and deacons shall also subscribe to these Three Forms of Unity by signing the Form adopted for that purpose. Anyone being in office who refuses to do so shall because of that very fact be immediately suspended from office by the consistory. If he obstinately persists in his refusal he shall be deposed from office.

The forms referred to in Articles 24 and 25, which ministers, elders, and deacons are required to sign, are the "Subscription Form for Ministers of the Word" and the "Subscription Form for Elders and Deacons" respectively. These two forms are very similar in their wording. "The Subscription Form for Ministers of the Word" reads as follows: 


We, ministers of the Word in the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, signatories to this Subscription Form, sincerely, solemnly, and with a good conscience before the Lord, declare by our signature that we wholeheartedly believe and are fully convinced that all articles and points of doctrine contained in the three Forms of Unity, namely the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort, are in full agreement with the Word of God.

We promise therefore that we will diligently teach and faithfully defend the aforesaid doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same in our public preaching or writing. We also promise not only to earnestly reject all errors which conflict with the aforesaid doctrine, but that we shall at all times be willing to refute and contradict them, doing our utmost in reproving, combating, and helping to resist such errors.

Should at any time in the future reservations regarding the said doctrine arise in our minds we faithfully promise not to propose, teach, or defend them, neither in our preaching nor in our writing, publicly nor privately, but to first disclose these reservations to the ecclesiastical assemblies in the ecclesiastical way so that they may examine them.

Furthermore, we promise that we will always be prepared to submit ourselves willingly to the judgement of the ecclesiastical assemblies. Should we refuse to submit ourselves to the judgement of the ecclesiastical assemblies or should we persist in our reservations we agree by that very fact to be suspended from our office.

Moreover, should the consistory, the classis church, or synod at any time upon sufficient grounds and in order to preserve the uniformity and purity of the true doctrine deem it necessary to require of us a further explanation of our opinion regarding any part of the said doctrine, we promise always to be willing and ready to comply with such a request, upon the understanding that by the very fact of our refusal we will be suspended from our office. However, we reserve for ourselves the right of appeal should we believe ourselves aggrieved by the judgement of the consistory or classis church. 

Until such a decision is made upon such an appeal we will submit to the determination and judgement of the consistory and/or classis church.
In Christ’s church there is no room for any office-bearer who teaches any doctrine not in full accord with the Word revealed in Scripture. Any office-bearer refusing to sign the Subscription Form, or who by word or deed gives the lie to his signature, will be suspended from the office to which he has been called. The church is the Lord’s and therefore it is His Word alone, the only Truth, which must prevail, and so be defended. 


The office of elder, be it in a teaching or in a ruling capacity, is a position of great influence. Just as a flock of sheep is in danger of being scattered when led by a false shepherd, so a congregation is in danger of being deceived and misled when led by a false teacher. Owing to the influence an elder has as overseer, shepherd, steward and leader, it is imperative that the elder abides by the faithful word of God. That was also Paul’s instruction to Titus. A bishop must be someone "…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" (Titus 1:9). 

The elder who wishes to teach must himself be taught. Timothy, a young assistant who had accompanied Paul quite extensively on his missionary journeys, had been charged by Paul to take charge of affairs in the church at Ephesus. Paul knew the situation in this congregation, and so wrote Timothy words of advice and encouragement. Paul knew that fierce wolves would seek to infiltrate the flock (Acts 20:29). So elders had to be equipped to recognise error and fight it. So Paul’s instruction to the local minister was this: "…the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Timothy 2:2). Timothy was to find for himself in Ephesus faithful men, men who met the qualifications of office-bearers as listed in 1 Timothy 3, and then teach them all that he had learnt from Paul. These men would in turn pass on this teaching to other faithful men who would serve after them. TRAINING FOR THE MINISTRY

This instruction to train a new generation of elders receives practical content in Theological Colleges for the training to the ministry. The need for such training is recognised in Article 17 of the Church Order:

"The churches shall support or, if possible, maintain an institution for the training for the ministry."

The Australian Free Reformed Churches support the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches in Hamilton. 

The training is carried out by professors of theology, who remain ministers of the Word but who have accepted "a call or an appointment to an extraordinary task." In this case they are ministers who have been "appointed for the training of students for the ministry" (Article 12). The professors of theology are responsible for training the next generation of ministers (2 Timothy 2:2). They are to train men to be the overseers, shepherds, stewards and leaders that God wants them to be, capable of fulfilling the task of a minister as described in Article 16:

"…to faithfully lead in prayer, preach the Word and administer the sacraments. They shall watch over their fellow office-bearers and over the congregation. Together with the elders they shall exercise church discipline and see to it that everything is done decently and in good order."

To that end the professors are to 
"expound the Holy Scriptures and to defend the sound doctrine against heresies and errors, so that the churches may be provided with ministers of the Word who are able to fulfil the duties of their office as these have been described above" (Article 17).

Since the theological college is a part of church life, the churches are to see to it that the College is provided with suitable professors, and that these professors are provided for. Therefore Article 17, like Articles 11 and 13, concludes, 

The churches together are obliged to provide properly for the professors of theology and for their widows and orphans."

Since the churches need ministers, the theological colleges need more than just professors of theology; they need students too! Therefore "the churches shall strive to ensure that there are students of theology, extending financial aid where necessary" (Article 18). The churches: that is to say, the members of the congregations are to be on the lookout for likely men who show signs of having the talents required to become ministers of the Word, to encourage them to pursue this path, and if necessary, offer them financial support. TRAINING FOR THE ELDERSHIP

The churches have adopted no formal training course to prepare potential ruling elders for their office. This is not because training is not necessary. Rather, Paul’s instruction in 2 Timothy 2:2 is satisfied with respect to potential ruling elders in a different manner than for teaching elders. The preaching of the gospel and the normal appetite of the spiritually healthy brother (encouraged, no doubt, by an equally spiritually healthy spouse) prompt study and reflection on the Word of God and the issues that live in the churches. It should be noted too that the qualifications for eldership listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 do not include a degree of formal study. 



In 1 Corinthians 12 the apostle Paul describes the congregation at Corinth as a body: "Now you are the body of Christ" and all the Corinthian believers are "members individually" (1 Corinthians 12:27). In order to impress upon the Corinthians how important each individual believer is for the proper functioning of the congregation as a whole, Paul compares the spiritual body of Christ to the physical body of man. The human body too is the sum total of all its members, each member having its unique contribution to the well-being of the whole body. 

"The body is not one member but many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body", is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the smelling be? But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased. And if they were all one member, where would the body be? But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you"; nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. And those members of the body which we think to be less honourable, on these we bestow greater honour; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honour to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honoured, all the members rejoice with it."

Now, the body of Christ functions no differently than the human body in that all the members individually make up one whole, and all the members need each other. So Paul concludes, 

"Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually" (1 Corinthians 12:14-27)

This reality described here by the apostle was evident in the way the believers in Acts 2 interacted with each other. 

"And they (the Christian converts) continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.... Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved" (Acts 2:42-47).

These people realised that as a group they were united into one body through their shared faith in Christ, and they expressed this unity in deeds that sought each other’s benefit. 
The same can be found in Acts 4:32. Just as a body made up of many members has only one heart and one soul, so it was with the body of believers in Jerusalem: 

"Now the multitude of those who believed 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."

This is the direct result of the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. He alone works the unity of His body, the church: 

"Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfil my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others" (Philippians 2:1-4).

Paul urges the Philippians to be ‘other-minded’ instead of ‘self-minded’. To be ‘other-minded’ means total self-emptying for the benefit of the other and it is only Christ’s example of willing and total self-emptying for our sakes which motivates us to imitate Him. Says Paul, drawing our attention to Christ, 

"Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross" (Philippians 2:5-8).

Therefore, it remains for each of us to do the same: to give of ourselves for the benefit of the other. Just as the hand comes round to scratch the shoulder that itches, so let the able member come round to assist the member in need. Captured in the above Scripture texts is the whole notion of the ‘communion of saints’. 

The first few chapters of Acts give a most positive account of how the believers gave concrete expression to their shared faith and unity in Christ. See the texts quoted above from Acts 2 and Acts 4. In the same chapters one reads of great numbers of people coming to faith. Acts 1:15 records 120 persons; on the day of Pentecost about 3000 souls were added (Acts 2:41). In Acts 4:4 one reads that the number of men alone totalled 5 000 to which "believers were added increasingly ... multitudes of both men and women." Hence by the time one gets to Acts 6 one could guess that there may well have been a sizeable congregation of some 20,000 people. 

Based on what one reads in Acts 6, it becomes apparent that as the church grew in numbers it became increasingly difficult to let the communion of saints function effectively. A complaint had arisen; there was something wrong within the communion of saints. "Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a murmuring against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution" (Acts 6:1). There were some Greek speaking widows who were being overlooked in some way – either they were not given food or they were not involved in the work of distribution. Whatever the details of the problem may have been, the limitations of this life caused the body to malfunction. That things would operate well within the communion of saints numbering some 20,000 people was simply more than the twelve apostles could supervise. The problem was compounded by language barriers.

How were the apostles to address this problem? Recognising the importance of devoting themselves totally to the ministry of reconciliation, that being THE way by which they were to bring people to faith, the apostles came up with the following solution: "Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, "It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:2-4). If the apostles had to involve themselves in the actual functioning of the communion of saints, they would have to do so at the cost of their real work. So they appointed and ordained seven men to the office of deacon. The seven men are not called ‘deacons’ in so many words, but their task description ("serve tables") captures the work characterising the deacon; he serves. The Greek word ‘serve’ is simply the verbal form of the noun deacon; these seven men had to deacon the tables. 

Altogether we need to conclude that the deacons’ role is to ensure that the communion of saints functions the way it should. 


Reference is made to the office of deacon per se in two other places of Scripture. In Philippians 1:1 one reads, "To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons", and in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 Paul enumerates the qualifications of deacons. Although one cannot draw up a task description for the office of deacon on the basis of these texts, one can work with what one reads in Acts 6 and Scripture’s emphasis on the church functioning as one body of which all are members individually. This requires organisation, and here lies the responsibility of the deacons. 

This comes out in Article 21 where the fathers described the task of the deacons as follows: 

ARTICLE 21 - Task of deacons

The deacons shall perform the ministry of mercy. They shall acquaint themselves with difficulties; visit, help and encourage where there is need; and urge church members to render assistance where necessary. They shall collect and manage the gifts of the congregation, and after mutual consultation distribute them where there is need. The deacons shall give account of their policies and management to the consistory.

The deacons’ ministry is described here as the ministry of mercy: letting people taste the mercy of God. To that end deacons help and encourage the members of the congregation as is needed. However, in order to know the needs and give the appropriate support, the deacons need to go into the congregation and visit the members. 
One should be no more surprised at seeing a deacon at the door as seeing an elder come to pay a visit. Although the collection and distribution of money seems to constitute the profile of the deacon’s task (for that is what we all see them do in church), that is only a part of the ministry of mercy. A more important duty of the deacons is to make sure that the communion of saints functions well. Deacon visits to all members are to serve the twofold purpose of ascertaining whether there are any needs at that address which requiring assistance as well as ascertaining whether there are gifts at that address which might be of assistance to others in need. Deacons ask the members, then, if they are well cared for via the communion of saints or if perhaps they are lonely, poor or hungry. They also inquire whether the members are readily using their gifts for the benefit and well-being of other members of the body. For the sake of a healthy communion of saints, the members do well to receive the deacons heartily and respond to their queries openly.

Yet the proper functioning of the communion of saints ultimately depends not on the deacons but on spontaneity amongst the saints. Just as the foot cannot but willingly co-operate with the leg, so likewise I need not wait for instructions from a deacon to go and help a person in need. It is when spontaneity does not cover a need that the deacons must get involved. That does not mean that the deacons have to do all the assisting themselves. If the deacons have become the ‘Mr Fix-its" of the congregation, then the communion of saints is sick. The deacon’s main task is not so much giving assistance as ensuring that the members are willingly assisting each other, and if not, stimulating them to do so. 


Where are office bearers to carry out their task? There is one place only, and that is in the place where Christ has put him. Where has Christ stationed the office-bearer? Unlike the apostles, who received a place of authority in all the early Christian churches, be it in Jerusalem, Corinth or Thessalonica, office-bearers today do not have such an extensive authority. Rather, office bearers have authority only in the local congregation where they were called to office. This is scriptural:

Titus 1:5 

Paul instructs Titus to "appoint elders in every city." Titus was not to appoint elders for the whole island of Crete, but instead in each city. The inference is that each city has its own elders. The elders of the church in yonder city, then, are not to carry out their office in the church of this city.

Acts 14:23

"So when they had appointed elders in every church …." Again, Paul and Barnabas did not appoint regional office-bearers but local office-bearers. Each church had its own elders. 

Revelation 2,3

"To the angel of the church of Ephesus write … And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write … And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write …."

The term ‘angel’ means literally ‘messenger’. Each church had its own angel or messenger. This is understood to be the teaching elder, the minister who opens the Word. It is striking that John is not instructed to write a letter to one angel in charge of several churches but individual letters to the angels of seven different churches. 

An office-bearer’s work, then, is locally directed. This principle comes back in the Church Order. A minister has no right to demand access to the pulpit in another church. "No one shall preach the Word or administer the sacraments in another church without the permission of the consistory of that church" (Article 10). An elder does not have authority within various congregations but is ordained to office in one congregation, and hence his authority extends no further than that congregation. Therefore Article 20, in describing the task of elders, speaks of the congregation, in the singular: "The elders shall together with the ministers of the Word govern the congregation with pastoral care and discipline." The deacons likewise, in performing the ministry of mercy, do not collect gifts from several congregations, nor do they have any authority over the distribution of gifts collected in other congregations. "They shall collect and manage the gifts of the congregation …" (Article 21). 


The twelve disciples shared equal status; there was no pecking order among them. Said Christ to them, "But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’: for one is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren…. And do not be called teachers; for one is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be abased, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Matthew 23:8-12). In like manner, ministers, elders and deacons share equal authority, and as much as possible share the duties between them equally. Although a minister usually has the duty of chairing a consistory meeting, that gives him no more authority in the meeting than any other office-bearer. This concept is captured in the Church Order in Article 20 in the description of the task of elders. The elders govern the congregation together with the minister; they share equal responsibility in this. "The elders shall together with the ministers of the Word govern the congregation with pastoral care and discipline…. They shall watch that their fellow office-bearers are faithful in carrying out their duties" (Article 20). The equality of the offices is more specifically stated in Article 22 which reads as follows:

ARTICLE 22 - Equality of respective duties

In the local congregation equality shall be maintained among the ministers, among the elders, and among the deacons, regarding their respective duties, and in other matters, as much as possible.


With relation to the civil government, the Church Order has formulated the following article: 

ARTICLE 27 - Office-bearers and the government

The office-bearers shall impress upon the congregation its obligation to be obedient and show respect to the government, because God has instituted it. They must set a good example in this regard and by means of proper communication invoke the government to protect the ministry of the church.

The fathers recognised, on the basis of Scripture, that office-bearers have received from the Lord an instruction to lay before the congregation the need to obey the authorities of the land. Via His servant Paul, God instructs us in His Word:

"Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practises evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’s sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honour to whom honour" (Romans 13:1-7).

Titus too was to remind those under his charge to "be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey …" (Titus 3:1). Not only must the authorities be obeyed, but they also require our prayers: "Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence" (1 Timothy 2:1,2). 

Office-bearers are therefore to set good examples, living as good and honourable citizens of their country and urging the government to serve the protection and best interests of the ministry of the church. The fathers deemed it correct that this aspect of the office bearers work receive a mention in the Church Order.