(Dr. Kuyper has finished his discussion of the special offices in the church: minister, professor, elder, and deacon. In this paragraph he turns to a discussion of the office of believer.)
26. The Office of Believers in the Church of Christ.
In Article 28 our Belgic Confession states, among other things, that there is an office of all believers. In this way the Confession reproduces clearly and accurately what Scripture means when it adorns the people of the Lord with the honorable title of kings and priests. This honor comes to all, without the character of the office being lost. What you do by virtue of your office you do, not out of your own person, but as a result of a dignity laid upon your person. On the other hand, that which I do outside of my office is done by me as an outflowing of my personal good pleasure without any reference to a delegated power. In the United States of America, just as in France, a common right of voting belongs to the citizens, but between both lands this right exists with a definite difference. The Frenchman says, “I vote because this is my right as a man, a right which I possess and for which I have no one to thank.” The American who understands his Constitution would say, “I do not vote by virtue of my right as a man but by the grace of God because God has loaned me this office.” This same difference now exists between the ideas of the fanatics and those of the Reformed. Both recognize that power rests in the church with believers. But, while the fanatic shouts, “I, I as personal believer have to decide in Jesus’ church,” the Reformed man testifies, “As believer I have nothing but the obligation to thank eternally my God for His grace. Because King Jesus has laid an office upon me, I possess in the church a responsible power.”
This office of believers exists first of all in this that where the ruling office falls away, the office of believers takes its place. In a church on a solitary island, where a plague drags all the office bearers to the grave, the believers themselves, by virtue of their office, would have to take the place of these office bearers and execute the official work of the church. Further, they would have to choose new office bearers. The one office, by falling away, pushes its task over to the next office. If the minister of the Word falls away, then the ruling elder takes his place. If the elder falls away, then the deacon takes up his task. And if also the deacon falls away, then the office of all believers enters in its place. This rule, as we shall see, also holds where the office bearers are not taken away through death nor through moving to a different place, but apostatize through unbelief or unfaithfulness, or are deficient through neglect or pride. Unfortunately, this is so broad an area that, as an accusation against office bearers and parents, the Sunday School or some other organization (unnaturally and, therefore, unlawfully) sometimes took the place of office bearers. Yet this did stand as an unmistakable corrective and is, because of this, to be appreciated with thankfulness. Yet this official work of other organizations is a product of the more common task which is locked up in the office of all believers, to wit, the obligation to exercise constant control in matters of confession, church rule, liturgy, and the activities of the other office bearers. Never may a believer acquiesce simply because the ministers of the church say so. This is Romish, not Reformed. In a Reformed church each believer must have spiritual judgment and must permit this judgment to operate, not out of pedantry or censoriousness, but out of spiritual obedience. The believer must do this, never on the ground of his opinion, but only according to a spiritual understanding of the Word of God. Thus all that is confessed within the church, decided, and carried out, must have its constant support in the spiritual enlightening of the conscience of believers. And if strife arises between this enlightened conscience of the believer and the decisions or acts of overseers, then it is the office of believers to form a judgment concerning this, to deal secretly with this judgment; first, out of respect for the ruling office, then to bring the matter in as a complaint, and finally, if need be, to make it generally known as a public witness. This is a very serious task out of which another official obligation follows. This other official obligation is to join the true church or to reveal the true church anew when it appears that every attempt to keep the ecclesiastical ruling body faithful to the truth is fruitless. Then one must sever himself from overseers who prove to be no more of the church.
Yet also in normal times there is in this office of believers another very active and positive calling. Not only is the office of believers (as we touched on a moment ago) to be constantly filled by the youth who, short in knowledge, are trained by Sunday Schools and other organizations, but the office also involves the obligation to proclaim the gospel where this has not taken place or where the gospel has been preached in pretense. This happens only when God gives the gifts for it; provided that (and everything hinges on this) one does this officially, by virtue of his office, and not in a fanatic way. One must not have a lust for this work as one imagines he feels an impulse of the Spirit.
The old Reformed Churches, following the example of the early church, forced this even to the extent that they instituted what were originally called prophecies, i.e., gatherings within the congregations in which common believers, under the guidance of the consistory, attempted to edify the congregation out of the Word of God so that all the gifts put in the church by Jesus might be used for the benefit of the church. It has been said that Comrie encouraged this ministry of the Word by virtue of the office of believers. With this also stands connected the idea that the way to the office of the ministry of the Word is open for men of “extraordinary gifts” who obviously were qualified for this by the Lord without university training.
27. Concerning the Church’s Possessions.
Ownership or possession of property is not indispensable for the essence of the church. Even without a fixed church building a church of God can come together in the open air, in a barn or warehouse, without the nature of the church being abridged in any way. As the church expands in peaceful times, on the other hand, especially in our climate, the possession of one or more church buildings is indispensable. A definite place is also indispensable for smaller gatherings of office bearers or meetings of the congregation. Besides these buildings, a church usually possesses a fixed capital of movable or immovable possessions, donated by testators or donors, the income of which is intended for the maintenance of buildings, public worship, or the salaries of church ministers. And if the income of these fixed possessions is not sufficient to take care of the rent of buildings and the salary of the people who work for the church, to maintain the worship services and to pay a proper salary to the office bearers, then the church ought to make up the difference by collections of free gifts or by a head tax.
The management of these possessions and incomes belongs to the church itself. They are her goods, her money which must be used for her benefit and for which she is responsible. The manner in which the church can carry out this management differs. In former times this was usually left to the Reformed magistrate. Now that the Reformed magistracy has disappeared, the church has appointed its own guardians and managers and they take care of these things partly directly and partly through the consistory. As a matter of principle, the following rules are helpful. 1) In very small churches this management can be given over to the deacons as part of their common service of tables, i.e., of all the money and not only the money for the poor. 2) In larger congregations this is neither practical nor advisable. It is not practical because the deacons, due to their faulty organization, must already leave two-thirds of their own work unfinished. And, in similar fashion, it is not advisable because the spiritual character of the diaconate suffers when this is done. 3) One does better by not permitting the consistory to do the providing in this matter because the consistory, as an official group, has its own calling, and church finances are not official work but only a matter of a commission. 4) One proceeds in a better way, therefore, if one names a special group of church trustees taken from the membership of the church at large and which is under the direction of the consistory to do this work. Further, other church members, in addition to these, ought to be appointed to do the auditing.
The budget does not rest upon the principle of love, but on the principle of obligation, according to right. An assessment such as the budget must never be used to take up alms and to provide for the poor in their need. It must be used to pay the expenses which people as a church incur. A church which uses a building, hires church personnel, permits an organ to be played, and binds itself to pay a preacher, incurs each year a joint expense and joint costs, and thus acquires a yearly debt. All that which is expense for its own use, its cost for its own enjoyment, and debt for its own expense, never comes under the heading of alms, but is and remains a tribute, i.e., what one is rightly indebted to pay. The people can bring this money up by freewill offerings, or, if that does not work, then the people must make a reckoning and divide the cost among themselves. And even when people bring this money up by free-will offerings, the money is not yet alms, but always is payment for that which has been or will be enjoyed. He who imagines that with the practice in our churches the collections for the church and for the poor are on a par is in danger of ascribing to himself a good work which is not his due. Even he who gives more in the church collections than he is obligated proportionately to give does not in any way contribute to the church alms, but pays, in addition to his own indebted part, another part in the debt of less willing payers.
If the church is to function, well people should, in ordinary churches and times, have to pay about five dollars per person or twenty-five dollars per family per year. The rule in this matter is that one should pay according to his ability. But, even though the enjoyment of the things of the church is for all alike, nevertheless those who are unable to pay, pay nothing while the more ordinary citizens must pay as much as thirty or forty dollars per family per year and the more able as much as one hundred or more dollars per family per year. (We must remember that this was written in the latter half of the 1800’s, H.H.)