“Among the ministers of the word equality shall be maintained with respect to the duties of their office, and also in other matters as far as possible, according to the judgment of the consistory, and if necessary, of the classis; which equality shall also be maintained in the case of the elders and deacons.”—Art. 17, D.K.O.
Among officebearers in the church equality shall be maintained as far as possible. If the church in the world was perfectly free from sin and if the officebearers in the church would always conduct themselves according to the word of God, it would be unnecessary to express a rule such as this. However, the reality in the church in the world is that there is still a great deal of the spirit of James and John found among the disciples of our Lord. Each seeks to be the greatest and the words of Christ, “But, it shall not be so among you, but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister, and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant,” are frequently forgotten. (Matt. 20:26, 27) Each one seeks too often the things of self instead of looking upon the things of others. (Phil. 2:4) Jealousies and envies which are rooted in the flesh are manifest among those who ought to co-labor together. It requires an abundance of grace always to maintain the Scriptural rule of equality. Without this order and decency cannot prevail in the congregation.
The first part of this article applies to the larger congregations which have more than one minister. This does not imply that equality is not also to be maintained among ministers, elders and deacons denominationally but only that this is not included in the scope of the present article. Articles 41 and 54 of the Church Order cover that matter. The present article has its origin in the Netherlands where, it must be remembered, it is not uncommon to find one church in the larger cities, governed by one consistory but having several ministers and church buildings. We have only one congregation that has more than one minister so that throughout our denomination the need and practice of this rule as applying to the ministers of the word is hardly felt. We should not forget, however, that the article also speaks of the elders and deacons and this phase touches every congregation. This is a rule that everyone privileged to serve in those offices does well to constantly bear in mind. Doing this much offense will be removed from the church of Christ.
The occasion of the present article is an attempt to avoid the hierarchical error of the church of Rome. In the Romish Church we find various ranks among the clergy which are arranged in an ascending scale from priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, to the office of the pope which is over all. Each rank is higher than the preceding and, consequently, vested with higher authority. There is no equality here. Also in the Lutheran Churches we find superintendents over the clergy. This, too, is one of the remnants of Roman Catholicism retained by that church. When, therefore, the Reformed Synod of Middelburg in 1581 considered the overture of delegates from Zeeland, East Vlaanders and England to appoint Inspectors or Superintendents to take oversight of the churches of their respective locality, the Synod declined to do so, considering this was an unnecessary and dangerous practice, and instead adopted the above cited article of our church order. In doing so they acted wisely and in accord with the expressions of several other Reformed Confessions and Church Orders. For example in the Second Helvetic Confession of 1562 we read: “To all ministers in one church is given one and the same authority and office.” In the French Confession of Faith of 1559, which agrees with our own Belgic or Netherlands Confession, Article 31, we read: “As for the ministers of God’s word, they have equally the same power and authority wheresoever they are, as they are all ministers of Christ, the only universal Bishop, and the only head of the church.” And the Scotch Church Order of 1581 states: “En om weg te nemen alle gelegenheid voor tirannie, wil Hij (Christus) dat zij zouden regeeren met wederzijdsche goedkeuring der broederen en gelijkheid van macht, alles in overeenstemming met hunne functies.”
The article speaks first of equality with respect to the duties of the office. This is not the same as speaking of equality with respect to the person or gifts of the officebearers. A rule concerning the latter could not possibly be made. Each officebearer does not conduct himself in his office in the same manner so as to merit equality of honor and respect. Some are more zealous than others, more faithful in the performance of the duties that belong to the office, more devoted to their calling, more godly in their conversation. Others sometimes do things that cause them the loss of all respect. We do not refer to censurable sins that in themselves would deprive them of the office but rather of those things which in themselves are not transgressions but which, nevertheless, are not expected of the officebearer. A minister, for example, who spends half of the week on a golf course or at the lake or sitting in front of the television set instead of performing the duties of his office cannot expect to receive the same respect of the people of God as one who labors faithfully in his calling. Nor can we speak of equality of gifts and talents. God has not made His servants thus. To one He gives more than to another. All do not have the same ability and no rule could possibly legislate that equality shall be maintained with respect to these.
With respect to the duties of the office, however, this rule must be applied. This means that in a congregation each elder and each deacon shall share equally the labors peculiar to their office. The mere fact that there may be one elder in a congregation who is especially gifted does not mean that he shall do all the work. And, when there is more than one minister in a congregation the work shall also be equally distributed. One is not to do all the preaching and another all the sick visiting or catechetical work. Both shall do some of each. In as far as possible it shall be apportioned and divided equally.
There are also other matters concerning which equality is to be maintained that do not belong to the functions of the office as such. Such matters as vacations, salary, housing, etc. no doubt may be included in this category. This does not mean that each minister is to be paid exactly the same amount and that they are to-live in identical houses but it does meant that there shall be no partiality shown by the consistory in dealing with these matters and each minister shall be treated fairly and honorably. It may appear superfluous to even mention these things as they are of irrelevant importance and, yet, it is because of the flesh that these things have in many instances become the occasion of jealousies causing no small trouble in the church. Things like these could create quite a disturbance in a consistory and even cause a marked division. If ever there is a place where these troubles are obnoxious it is in the church of Christ where it is expected that we live by the rule of faith and seek the things above where Christ, our Lord, sits at the right hand of God. Fight the church must but then let her warfare always be spiritual and let her rise valiantly in defense of the truth and let her never quibble about insignificant things.
The consistory is the proper body that is to regulate .these things and see that equality is maintained. Not to the ministers, nor to the congregation but to the ruling body of the church this function belongs. If agreement on certain matters cannot be reached in the consistory, the matter necessarily goes to the Classis. The Classis in that case has the authority to pass a judgment which then becomes binding. This is in accord with Article 41 where the question is asked of each consistory: “Do you need the judgment and help of the Classis for the proper government of your church?” Suppose that there are two ministers in a congregation. The consistory fails to find a satisfactory way in which the labors are to be distributed between them. They request the Classis to express a judgment which it does. Do you suppose that the decision of the Classis is just some brotherly advice that may be accepted or rejected according to the desire of those involved or is it an authorative judgment according to which the labors of the ministers involved are to be distributed? One feels the complete inability of a Classis to help in a situation such as this if its decisions are to be taken only advisedly.
Finally, the article says, “As far as possible.” This phrase qualifies both “the duties of the office” and “the other matters.” Dr. Bouwman says, “Men kan het leven niet ophangen aan de letter van eene bepaling.” You cannot suspend life on the letter of a rule. Life is broader than any set of rules and circumstances frequently not only allow for but even demand an exception. One minister may be advanced in years while another is at the prime of life. Common sense dictates that the latter will carry a greater share of the work of the congregation. One elder may be in ill health, justifying his being released from a certain amount of labor that otherwise would be apportioned to him. If there is an occasion for several reading services in a church and there is one elder of exceptional reading ability, should not his services be sought for this work instead of having another elder do this who, in a stammering manner, would fail to edify the congregation? And so there is more. Rules of order are certainly necessary and will be most effective toward the maintenance of good order in the church when applied with wisdom and sanctified thinking.