It has been a long time since last we corresponded. It seems that the hot summer months, when all the work of the Church lets up somewhat, are not conducive to correspondence, and the result is that our contacts with each other have flagged. But now with the work of the Church in full swing once again, it is time to resume our discussion.
Because the interim has been long, it might be well to try to pick up the thread of our discussion. We were talking about the various offices in the Church: the idea of these offices, their relation to each other, and the work for which Christ appointed them in the Church.
We had discussed the office of minister and were busy with the office of elder. You recall that we talked about the fact that the office of elder was primarily one of rule and supervision within the Church. In, our last letter we talked about how the elders had to exercise this supervision over the work of the ministers. In this letter we ought to touch briefly on the supervision which elders are called to exercise over themselves, the deacons, and the congregation as a whole.
First then, the supervision of elders over themselves and over the office of deacons.
We might be inclined to conclude from the fact that elders have this obligation to supervise the work of deacons that the office of elders is some kind of superior office. It is strange that this idea persists in the Church. For some reason, in our denomination, there is always that lingering notion that the deacons are somehow inferior to the elders. This is so often expressed in the notion that the office of deacons serves as a kind of training ground for the office of elders. If a person is nominated. for the office of elder, some in the congregation are bound to raise their eyes and ask: How can he serve as elder? he has never even been a deacon. Or if one has served one or more terms in the office of deacon, then the consistory is inclined to consider his name for nomination for elder, and the congregation thinks to itself that he perhaps ought to be chosen as elder because he has proved himself a capable officebearer in the office of deacon. He has, as it, were, undergone a period of probation and testing, and has now shown himself worthy of being “advanced” from deacon to elder. We ought not to think along these lines. It is contrary to the whole idea of the offices. They are on a plane of equality as far as authority is concerned though they exercise that authority in different ways within the Church. While it is true that there are certain men who may possess the qualifications to be either an elder or a deacon, it is also true that there are some men who are eminently suited to be deacons according to the qualifications of Scripture, yet who are not suited to be elders. Nor ought it to happen that only the older men of the Church are chosen as elders and the younger men exclusively as deacons. To my mind, the ideal balance in the diaconate is the balance between younger deacons and older deacons. And it would certainly be for the welfare of the Church of Christ if every diaconate had in it one or more older men who have served in that office before—perhaps many times.
But however this may be, the fact that the elders are called to exercise supervision over the deacons in no way implies that they hold a superior office. Their calling is to rule in the Church. And they must rule over the ministers and deacons as well as over the rest of the congregation.
Before we look into this a bit more closely, there is one point here that we ought to mention. The elders must not only exercise proper supervision over the ministers, the I deacons and the congregation; they must also, exercise supervision over themselves. The Church Order is quite clear on that point. .Article 23 reads: “The office of elders . . . is to take heed that the ministers, together with their fellow-elders and the deacons, faithfully discharge their office.”
There is one article in the Church Order which spells out one way in which this is to be done. Article 81, reads: “The ministers of the Word, elders and deacons, shall before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper exercise Christian censure among themselves, and in a friendly spirit admonish one another with regard to the discharge of their office.” Because of this article it is, so far as I know, the practice in all our Consistories to spend a few moments at the Consistory meeting prior to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, to talk about this among the members. It is sad that as often as not this becomes somewhat of a formality. Near the end of the meeting, the chairman of the Consistory asks each individual officebearer in turn whether he has anything to bring up which ought to be discussed. Van Dellen and Monsma state in theirCommentary that this practice really has no connection with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper even though the article mentions this. However, it is only very rarely that this actually results in some officebearer raising some point concerning the conduct of one or more of his fellow officebearers. And it is not surprising that only rarely is something brought up, because if a consistory member has a matter which troubles him concerning the walk of any one of his fellow consistory members he ought to bring the matter to the attention of his brother privately without waiting for censura morum—as it is called. It seems to me that some improvement can be made in this respect in our Consistory meetings. The article speaks of the fact that the officebearers, “in a friendly spirit admonish one another with regard to the discharge of their office.” This should be taken more literally. And the time allotted for this in the Consistory meeting ought to be used to discuss mutually how the Consistory as a whole and each member in particular could better fulfill the work to which God has called him in his office. Some time could be profitably spent on discussing whether all the work that needs to be done is actually being done, whether too much of the work is falling upon the shoulders of some officebearers to the exclusion of others, whether the congregation under the rule of the Consistory is, prospering, whether there are any changes which ought to be made in the work of the Consistory to make this labor more, effective, whether there are any pressing problems within the congregation which require the special attention of the officebearers, etc. This would make the discussion, a profitable one and would give some real content to what is actually often a rather formal matter within the Consistory.
But the supervision of the elders by the elders is broader than all this. Such discussions as mentioned above could perhaps be carried on from time to time within the Consistory. But the point is that the walk and conduct of the elders individually is subject to the supervision of the Consistory as a whole. And the Consistory as a whole bears the responsibility to see to it that the walk of the individual elders is in accordance with the Word of God and the Confessions of the Church. No Consistory may ignore this important part of its calling.
But this supervision extends also to the deacons. There are three different places where this supervision is mentioned in the Church Order. We already quoted Article 23 which speaks of the fact that elders must take heed that the deacons faithfully discharge their office. Article 25, which speaks particularly of the office of deacons, mentions that the deacons “shall render an account (of their work) in consistory.” And Article 40 reads: “The deacons shall meet, wherever necessary, every week to transact the business pertaining to their office, calling upon the Name of God; whereunto the ministers shall take good heed and if necessary they shall be present.”
Now this latter article seems to put the responsibility for the supervision of the deacons in the hands of the ministers. But this must be taken in connection with the other two articles. The minister is also an elder to whom belongs the work of supervision. And so he too, along with the other elders, has a responsibility for this. But when he attends the meetings of the deacons, he does so particularly in his capacity as elder.
Usually these requirements of the Church Order are met in our churches by appointing one elder to attend the meetings of the deacons. He is present not only for the counting of the money, but also for the whole meeting so that he may hear what work the deacons are doing and what is the nature of their labors. It is not, so far as I know, customary for the deacons to hand in a monthly report to the elders concerning their work, but it is customary for the deacons to bring all matters of importance and all unusual matters to the attention of the elders so that the elders may direct the deacons in their work. And this is as it ought to be. The deacons ought always to work in close cooperation with the elders and the minister in their labors so that the work of supervision and rule is not hindered.
And so this supervision of the elders extends also to the entire congregation. We need not go into this in detail here because within our Churches the elders are not only very busily engaged in this work, but do, on the whole, an outstanding job. Quite frankly, I am amazed at the work which our elders do in our congregations. You must not forget that these elders, especially some of our older ones, never had the education which most of our children receive today. Nor ought you to forget that our elders work hard all day at their daily tasks in order to earn their daily bread and support the causes of God’s kingdom. But they come home weary of a day’s work to face the responsibilities of their homes and families, and, as often as not, they must hurry to get ready—especially spiritually—for work within the Church. That they continue to do such outstanding work within the Church is reason for profound thanksgiving to God. On the whole, God has given to our Churches elders who are eminently equipped for the work and who labor long and hard for the cause of Christ. And God blesses their work too, for under their faithful labors in the congregation, the Churches prosper. We ought to pray for our elders every day.
Well, Timothy, we ought, to talk yet about the work of deacons; and we will do this, the Lord willing, next time.
Fraternally in Christ,