“In all churches there shall be a consistory composed of the ministers of the Word and the elders, who at least in larger congregations, shall, as a rule, meet once a week. The minister of the Word (or the ministers, if there be more than. one), in turn shall preside and regulate the proceedings. Whenever the number of elders is small, the deacons may be added to the consistory by local regulations; this shall invariably be the rule where the number is less than three.”—Art. 37.
Related to this article are the following decisions which have been adopted by the Classes of our churches in June, 1934, and later ratified by the Synod of 1944. In connection with decision No. 4 below, it should be noted that when the Synod approved these decisions, it should have changed the word “Classis” in that decision to “Synod.” There are other instances also where this ought to have been done and when the present Church Order is re-edited, these changes should be made. The committee appointed by the 1958 Synod for this work does not mention these in connection with its report to Synod but it should, nevertheless, be taken care of because instances can be cited where this faulty wording has led to misinterpretation of the decision itself. The decisions pertinent to Article 37 are:
“1. The president and the secretary of the consistory shall function as such on the congregational meeting; the minutes shall be entered in the consistory’s minute, book and confirmed by the consistory.
2. No matters shall be treated on the congregational meeting which are not brought there by the consistory.
3. When members desire to have a matter treated on the congregational meeting, they shall previously have requested of the consistory the right thereto, and it shall be the prerogative of the consistory to determine the extent and the manner in which their request shall be granted.
4. Consistories shall every year furnish the exact count of the families comprising their membership to classis. The following shall be counted as families:
a. When the husband or wife is a confessing member.
b. Where either widower or widow functions as head of the family.
c. Further, three individual members shall be counted as one family.”
In the proposed revision of the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church, there is a note-worthy change in the last part of the article which deals with the matter of adding the deacons to the consistory. The proposed revision would read:
” . . . . In the interests of efficiency separate meetings may be held by the elders and by the deacons. However, in churches in which the number of officebearers is five or less, no such separate meetings shall be held.”
At first glance it may seem that the only thing that is changed in this revision is the three to five or less. This, however, is not the case. Actually the numerical aspect of this article is not effected by this change because the original speaks of the invariable rule that deacons shall be added to the consistory where the number of elders is less than three while the revision allows for separate meetings of elders and deacons only when the total number of office bearers is more than five. It is hardly conceivable that there would ever be a consistory with three or more elders that had less than two deacons and, consequently, as far as the numbers are concerned, this revision changes nothing. It would actually come down to the same thing in actual practice whether the original article or the revision were followed.
There is, however, a rather fundamental change here. The original reading plainly considers the consistory as consisting of ministers and elders. To this the deacons may in certain instances be added. The revision takes the viewpoint expressed in Article 30 of the Belgic Confession which is that the Council (Consistory) of the Church is composed of ministers, elders and deacons. In other words, the deacons belong to the consistory. The revision then makes provision for separate meetings of elders and deacons. Though they then meet separately, they are both equally as much a part of the body called the Consistory! This is obviously an attempt to bring Article 37 of the Church Order and Article 30 of the Confession into closer harmony and to eliminate what is apparently a conflict between them in their present form.
The question then is, “Which view is correct?” Are the deacons a part of the consistory or are they not? Is it desirable to hold separate meetings of elders and deacons merely from the point of view of greater efficiency as the revision states or is it principally imperative wherever, possible from a practical point of view because of the differences in the offices and their respective functions? If it is correct, as our Church Order states, that only ministers and elders constitute the Consistory, is it not then an error in our Confession to state “Elders and Deacons, together with the pastors, form the council of the Church . . .”?
Monsma and Van Dellen in The Church Order Commentary offer an attractive explanation of this difficulty. They write:
“Some have concluded that there is a conflict between our Confession and our Church Order on this score. But let it be noted that in Article 30 of the Confession we declare by whom the churches ought to be governed, and that in the Church Order we stipulate how the work of the office bearers is to be executed. Or again: In the Confession we have the declaration of a fundamental principle. In the Church Order the statement regarding a method of work. The Confession, as might be expected, commits itself regarding a fundamental principle, and the Church Order, without denying this fundamental principle, provides for a limited measure of division of labor in keeping with the peculiar duties of the offices.
“Inasmuch as this is a point of importance, and inasmuch as there has been a measure of confusion and misunderstanding in our circles regarding these matters, it may be well for us to state the whole situation in a summary way. First of all then, the three offices of the New Testament Church are derived from Christ’s threefold office and correspond to these. The threefold office of Christ was vested in the Apostles temporarily. In due time Ministers, Elders, and Deacons continued the work of the Apostles, that is to say, the abiding elements of their office. The Ministers of the Gospel (or teaching Elders) represent Christ as Prophet of truth; the Elders (or ruling Elders) represent Christ as King of righteousness; and the Deacons represent Christ as Priest of mercy. Each office has its distinct task, though the offices are more or less inter-related and they have their unity in Christ.”
In light of this the proposed revision is desirable provided that some of the above reasoning and argumentation is further incorporated into the Article. What we mean to say is that we would favor the change in the article that positively adopts the position that the deacons belong to and are part of the consistory but we would not favor this merely “in the interests of efficiency.” We would favor it because the church is to be ruled through the one office of Christ and the office of the deacon is an aspect of that office. It is proper to distinguish the office of Christ but the elements of it may not be separated.
If the view is adopted that the deacons do not belong to the consistory, various difficulties arise. Rev. Ophoff, as well as several other authorities on Church Polity, who have taken this view have also recognized this. The main problem is discussed in the following paragraph from the pen of Rev. Ophoff.
“According to Holy Writ, as we have seen, the consistory is formed of elders and ministers. Hence, if the deacons are added to the consistory they thereby are made elders and thus are elders in addition to their being deacons. This is the only possible view. Otherwise the article involves us in a difficulty; namely, how a deacon can function as an elder. The authorities on Church Polity in the Netherlands felt this. Joh. Janssen says that in matters of discipline the elders should have the say and that the voice of the deacons should prevail in all matters that belong to the office of deacons, Hence, the mind of four deacons and one elder should not be allowed to prevail over the mind of four elders, if the matter is one of church discipline. But this view is untenable. For if the deacons are added to the consistory, they have decisive vote in all matters and likewise the elders. It really means that the elders, in addition to being elders are also deacons and that the deacons in addition to being deacons are also elders. A deacon cannot function as an elder if he is not an elder. To cast a decisive vote respecting a matter of church discipline is to function, certainly, as an elder. Article 30 of the Belgic Confession, by the way, teaches that the consistory includes the deacons. This clause occurs, also elders and deacons, who together with the pastors, form the council of the church.'”
The view of Dr. Janssen, to our knowledge, is most commonly practiced. When deacons are added to the consistory, this is done in an advisory capacity with respect to disciplinary and like matters. They are not given a decisive vote. Rev. Ophoff is correct in his assertion, “if the deacons are added to the consistory, they have decisive vote in all matters and likewise the elders.” Also a deacon cannot function as an elder if he is, not an elder.” That is just the point. A deacon is not an elder and an elder is not a deacon and, therefore, neither can function in the other’s office. To do so would be contrary to the form for Ordination wherein the office bearers are asked to answer whether they feel called “to their respective offices” and whether they will promise to faithfully “discharge their respective offices.” By ordination a deacon is a deacon and not an elder and, consequently, he has no right to function in those matters that are peculiar to the office of elder.
We would, therefore, favor the view that includes ministers, elders and deacons in the consistory. Further, we would distinguish between the labors of each as prophets, priests and kings under Christ Jesus. Because the labors of each may be properly distinguished, we would advocate separate meetings wherever it is practically possible and where this is not the case, limit the function of the deacons in the consistory to those matters that belong strictly to the office of the elders to an advisory capacity.