A Pamphlet Concerning the Reformation of the Church

(In the last two paragraphs Dr. Kuyper has discussed the functioning of the office of all believers in the church and has made some remarks concerning the church’s material possessions. He now continues with the discussion of the government of the church.)

28. Through Which Gathering the Church Is Governed. 

The government of the churches is exercised by the consistories which in a wider sense are composed of preachers, elders, and deacons, but in the narrow sense of the word are composed of as many as are entrusted with the exercise of the second key of the kingdom of heaven, i.e., only preachers and elders. The deacons form a separate group for the ministration of the tables. Although in smaller churches the deacons also take part in the rule of the church in the narrower sense, this is a concession to necessity and does not proceed from principle. Decisions are, out of principle, the responsibility of the full council of the church in which deacons as well as preachers and elders have a place in all cases where neither the exercise of the keys nor the ministration of tables is treated but where the common interests of the church are discussed and decided. Those concerns of a common character include the calling of ministers, the appointment of elders and deacons, the representation of the church with the magistrate, the care of the church’s possessions, etc. In the broad consistory as well as in the consistory which meets for the exercise of the keys, the preachers preside, but they are always on a par with the elders and deacons as far as their authority is concerned. This consistory ought itself to dispose of the matters coming before it in good order and must never appoint others to do the work except for the carrying out of a specific task. It ought to receive into its meetings the members of the church who desire to do this. And it keeps the best contact with the church by granting to believers opportunity to be present at the gatherings as listeners. Although, naturally, the exception would be when a consistory is gathered in closed session when the nature of the work requires this. 

The ministers of the Word can form for themselves a gathering for the discussion of their activities. And in the same way the ruling elders can organize their own circle to discuss the division of the work. But this so-called ministerial gathering, or this gathering of elders never possesses might, right, or competency and was not recognized in former times in our Reformed churches. The deacons possess a distinct ministry and form for that reason 1 a separate group. But teaching and ruling elders are members of the same group, bound together by the ministry of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and cannot, also according to the language of our Formula of Subscription, form another group or fellowship which would possess power or legal competency different from the common consistory in which they function with an equal vote and the same competency. 

29. Concerning the Administration Of the Means Of Grace. 

The means of grace of the church are the treasures which are laid away in Christ for the elect and which are presented to us in the Word and sealed by the sacraments. Word and sacrament are therefore rightly named the two means of grace of the church. These means of grace are now administered through the church and received by the members. Hence the sacrament is bound to Presbyterial service because no one can receive a sacrament unless there is an administration.¹ On the other hand, it is different with the Word. This can be received without administration, be it in a less rich way. The means of grace of the Word is therefore only bound to the office for its exposition and application, understanding with this that the office of believers administers this means of grace to everyone who will hear the admonition.² The priestly office of the father in his house administers the Word in his own household. The office of the ministry of the Word administers it publicly to the whole congregation. This administration of the Word bears a twofold character, according as milk must be administered or solid food. The administration of milk is the administration of the Word through catechetical instruction. The administration of solid food is the administration of this means of grace through the exposition and application of the Word. In the distribution of this milk the minister of the Word is officially mandated for public and private instruction; the father or also the mother, within the family; and each believer, for such children for whom neither the parents nor the relatives nor the church perform their obligation. The administration of the solid food, on the other hand, takes place officially only by the father as priest in the home, and, in the midst of the congregation, by the minister of the Word. It is in both cases an exercise of the first key of the kingdom of heaven, not as the so-called proclamation of the gospel, but as a speech in the name of the Lord and with power. It can, only in the way of transfer, be passed over to the ruling elders. And it takes place only in a subordinate way in the so-called prophets or by the common church members in default of office bearers. Further, however, the obligation rest on the ministers of the Word to bring this means of grace also to the homes of the church members: in family visitation before every Lord’s Supper; in sickness and sorrow to the oppressed; and in connection with the approaching danger of death to the dying. Only faith is mighty to preserve and there is no other means of grace than the Word to arouse faith and to maintain it in a lively way. 

The sacrament seals the Word, and by this strengthens faith in the church as a whole as well as in each one who becomes a partaker of faith. Just as every seal to be a seal must have a public character, so it is also with the administration of the sacraments. They must be administered in conformity with their public character and are, for that reason, bound to the public worship of the church. They are, on that account, administered by the church to the church under the guidance of the consistory and under the application of the service of the shepherds. Only in the church, under the guidance of the consistory, administered by the pastors, are the sacraments sacramental seals. Being seals of the Word they then must also not be separated from the ministry of the Word and they are best administered after the preaching is concluded. Thus baptism and the Lord’s Supper never take place independently. 

Every member of the church has the right to the administration of both means of grace—as well to that of the Word as to that of the sacraments. But the reception and use of them is an obligation for both means of grace. From this it follows that not adult baptism, but infant baptism is the rule, and no one must be denied baptism who in any way is to be considered as a member of the church. The Word and the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper must be given already to the smallest children in case these are ready for it. On the other hand, if this is impossible, the child receives first the right to the Word when he can hear, and then the right to the Lord’s Supper when he can make confession. He who is no member of the church or comes from elsewhere out of churches which are not recognized must not be permitted to come to the sacraments, just as, in the same way, all who through error or evil are under discipline must be shut out or excluded from the sacraments. 

But even so, and vice-versa, each church member is obligated to use the sacraments. Each is obligated to present his child for baptism and, likewise, each believer stands under the obligation, as often as the Lord’s Supper is administered, to receive the sacrament. This is not because his salvation hangs on the sacrament. There is no good Christian who does not know better. But also there is no good Christian who, because God is free and can save him without the sacrament, repays the Lord God for His mercy with contempt for His holy sacrament. 

30. Concerning the Exercise of Christian Discipline. 

The administration of the means of grace must be kept holy and the church of God ruled with a spiritual polity. The exercise of Christian discipline which is bound to the official authority in the church has a twofold purpose. Therefore this discipline is exercised, 1) by each and every believer in the way of warning when one sees his brother fall; 2) be each and every believer to a lesser degree in connection with personal offenses; 3) by all the believers together at the time of excommunication or readmittance of those who misbehave, when the believers express agreement with the decision of the consistory or oppose that decision; and, finally, 4) in the most principle way by the consistory over the members of the congregation and by the classis over erring churches. 

This discipline is not a brotherly warning of love, but a spiritual right of punishment which is exercised authoritatively in the name of King Jesus. This right of punishment does not aim at the state of the heart or the motive of the heart. (de intimis non judicat ecclesia: the church refrains from passing judgment on the hidden things.) Nor is it inquisitorial. It does not search out transgression which takes place within the home. It is exclusively directed to public transgression, i.e., which is either committed publicly, or privately, but has become publicly known. This discipline is concerned with confession and walk and that without respect of persons. It is exercised over the ministers of the Word and magistrates as well as over the forgotten citizen. 

It follows a regulated procedure which properly ought to produce a guarantee that only the guilty will be condemned. It proceeds along definite steps to final excommunication from the congregation, but it retraces its steps as soon as there is evidence of contrition. And when this happens no trace of infamy continues to rest upon the contrite saint. 

It checks the working of the means of grace because the means of grace are only for believers; and through the application of discipline the status of a disciplined person as a believer is made doubtful even in an ecclesiastical way. Anyone who is under discipline can be worked with by the Word, but the Word comes to him just as it comes to others who are outside the church, i.e., to judge him and to urge him to repentance, but not to comfort him with God’s promises. And in a yet narrower sense, the sacrament is checked because the church can no longer seal the promises to anyone whose faith is in doubt church politically. Only in connection with holy baptism is this not applicable because a newly born baby cannot wander or transgress, and the notion of punishing the child for the transgression of the parents, while it can and does happen from God’s side, never results in the exercise of punishment because the church possesses no power for this. 

It does not belong here to treat of the discipline in the family because the authority of the father is civil and not ecclesiastical in character.

1.It is interesting to note that Dr. Kuyper emphasizes here the administration of the sacraments. The church world today is slipping away from this emphasis. A very common expression used in the churches today is the expression, “the celebration of the sacraments.” But this emphasis on celebration rather than administration is not Reformed. The Reformed view is that the sacraments areadministered. And this is Reformed because Christ is the one who dispenses the means of grace within the church. 

2. In this remark, and in the remarks which follow, Kuyper seems to place the office of believers on a par with these special offices in the church. This is a mistake. It has always been a teaching of the Reformed Churches to make the office of believers dependent upon the church. The believer, functioning in his office, is dependent up on the administration of the World and the sacraments within the church institute.