Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin.
We have concluded our treatment of the work of the office of deacon—both the work that pertains specifically to the office, and the work that deacons do in conjunction with the elders.
Perhaps some male readers, realizing more clearly what the deacons’ work involves and understanding better why the office is necessary in the church of Christ, desire to serve in that office. Then the question arises, “What can I do to prepare?” We devote several articles to an answer to this question.
Let it be understood at the outset that actively preparing to hold an office is no guarantee that God will ever call one to that office. More men prepare for the ministry by taking pre-seminary courses, or by going to seminary, than actually enter the ministry. And men have died who desired to serve as elders or deacons, but never did serve in those offices, for whatever reason.
One who actively prepares himself to hold office must do so in the conviction that if God never does call him to office, God still used his preparations to enable him better to serve God in the office of all believers. And one who actively prepares himself to hold office does so in order that, if God does ever call him to office, he may serve readily and without reservation, saying with Isaiah: “Here am I; send me” (Is. 6:8).
Asking the question “How do I prepare for office?” indicates that one has the desire for office. If he has no such desire, he would not bother himself with the question.
Sometimes we think suspiciously of one who desires the offices of elder and deacon. This is inconsistent of us, for we would not expect a man to go to seminary who did not desire the office of minister. So if we know that one desires to be an elder or deacon, we should not, without good cause, be suspicious of his motives and goals, but should encourage him to pursue his desire, subject to the Lord’s guiding hand.
Scripture and the Reformed confessions speak of a proper desire on the part of godly men for the offices of the church, regardless of which office that might be.
I Timothy 3:1 says: “If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.” While the word “good” describes the work of the office, the text suggests that the desire for that office is also good. A desire for a good work is a good desire. It leads a man to exert himself to get that which he desires—this is the picture suggested by the Greek word translated “desire.” The same word is used in Hebrews 11:16to refer to the believing patriarchs who desired a better country: this desire led them to live as pilgrims and strangers on earth, longing for heaven! Desiring office in the church, a man lives a certain way. This is good.
Commenting on this verse, John Calvin makes the same point.
Here a question arises: “Is it lawful, in any way, to desire the office of a bishop?” On the one hand, it appears to be highly improper for any one to anticipate by his wish, the calling of God, and yet Paul, while he censures a rash desire, seems to permit it to be desired with prudence and modesty. I reply, if ambition is condemned in other matters, much more severely ought it to be condemned in “the office of a bishop.” But Paul speaks of a godly desire, by which holy men wish to employ that knowledge of doctrine which they possess for the edification of the Church.¹
Although I Timothy 3:1 speaks specifically of the office of bishop, or elder, what it says applies as well to the office of deacon. The work of the diaconate is a good work; the office of the diaconate is God’s institution in the church; to desire that office and its work in a proper way is good.
Article 31 of the Belgic Confession presupposes that a man desires office—any of the three special offices—when it says:
We believe that the ministers of God’s Word, and the elders and deacons, ought to be chosen to their respective offices by a lawful election by the church, with calling upon the name of the Lord, and in that order which the Word of God teacheth. Therefore every one must take heed not to intrude himself by indecent means, but is bound to wait till it shall please God to call him, that he may have testimony of his calling and be certain and assured that it is of the Lord.
None would intrude by indecent means, and none need the reminder to wait until it pleases God to call him, except those who desire the office, regardless of the reason.
As Calvin intimated in the quote above, not the desire as such, but the reason for the desire is either proper or improper, and makes one’s desire either good or bad.
Bad reasons to desire an office include a desire to have influence and power over others; a desire to cause things to go one’s own way; a desire to correct what one thinks the officebearers have done wrong in the past; and a desire for personal honor and glory. More specifically, bad reasons to desire the office of deacon include the desire to be sure that this member gets more help or that that member gets less help from the deacons; to have some say in the general finances of the church, trying to see that one’s own preferred causes get support; or any other desire to gain a personal advantage from holding the office.
All of these reasons boil down to pride, which leads one to seek oneself.
The man who desires to hold office in the church must guard against such reasons. He must pray the prayer of Psalm 139:23-24, applying it specifically to his desire for office: “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
The proper, godly reason for desiring to hold office is that one seeks to serve God by doing the work of the church, and to serve the church by doing the work of God. The proper, godly reason for desiring the office of deacon is that one has a heart of compassion for the poor and needy of the church, and desires to assist them by giving good gifts and by bringing them comforting words from Scripture.
The heart from which such a reason will flow is a godly, humble heart, which desires to emulate the example that Jesus set. It understands the words of Jesus in Matthew 20:26-27: “but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.” It is a heart renewed and sanctified by the grace of God.
Possessing such a heart, and examining the thoughts and intents of one’s heart to be sure that they are thoughts of love for God and His people, one properly desires the work of the offices in the church.
Not only the reasons for the desire, but also the manner in which one expresses his desire, can be proper or improper. To this the Belgic Confession alludes, when it says that “every one must take heed not to intrude himself by indecent means.”
“Indecent means” include usurping the office—simply taking it, assuming one has the right to function in it. King Uzziah did this to the priesthood, and was smitten by God with leprosy as a judgment upon him (II Chron. 26:16-21).
“Indecent means” include any attempt to manipulate the election process. The man must wait until God calls him, so that he can have the assurance that his call is of God. When God has truly called a man, He will cause that man to be put into office, apart from any attempt on the part of that man to try to get into office.
So may one suggest his own name to the council for nomination? Article 22 of our Church Order allows for the council “to give the members an opportunity to direct attention to suitable persons” for the offices, which our councils often do in the fall of the year by means of a bulletin announcement. May a man direct attention to himself? Or, if he is nominated, may he encourage others to vote for him? (The question applies as much to pastors, with regard to being on trios and getting calls, as it applies to elders and deacons being nominated and elected).
I suggest that no man ought do these things. Even if a man is truly convinced in his heart that his reasons for desiring office are right, and that the church has need of a godly man of his sort in office, he ought not. From an earthly viewpoint, his doing so might make people question his motives, the result of which would be that he is emphatically not considered for office. But the real reason why no man ought do these things is not merely earthly: such a man is not waiting for God to call him. For one to suggest his own name, or to encourage others to vote for him, are manipulation attempts— not only attempts to manipulate men, but attempts to manipulate God. Our sovereign God, who knows the hearts of men, and who knows the needs of His church, will be sure to do right; He will put into office the right man at the right time! And if He has called you or me, who have waited long and prayed often for an office in which to serve, He will answer our prayers apart from our attempts to bring the answer to pass.
I do not mean to suggest that a man who desires office may never express that desire at all. He may. Perhaps he will be asked, either by his officebearers or by other members of the church, if he desires office in the church. He may answer truthfully. Perhaps this desire weighs on his heart, and he wants to discuss it with another person, to deal with it rightly. Let him seek out a godly man in the church, possibly even the pastor or an elder, to whom he can confide this desire. These are not manipulation attempts.
But when the council informs the congregation that it is nominating men for office, and solicits the congregation’s input, no man should then draw attention to himself.
How, properly, does one express his desire for office?
First, not so much by telling certain men, but by telling God in prayer.
God knows the godly desire of our hearts, of course; He created those desires, and caused us to desire them. We do not speak to God in prayer of our desires in order to inform Him of them. Rather, we tell God our desires in order to seek His grace. We need His grace to prepare us more to hold the office to which He might call us. We need His grace to submit to His will. If in fact what we desire is not His desire, we need grace to say, “Thy will be done.” If He does desire us to serve, we need grace to wait patiently on Him to put us into office in His time and in His way. His time might be farther in the future than our time. His way might involve personal trials that we must endure in faith and obedience, as a means to draw the church’s attention to us and our qualifications.
Having prayed, one expresses his desire for office by working. The old Latin expressionOra et Labora, Pray and Work, applies here too. Not the work of manipulating, so that our desires come to pass. But the work of devoting oneself to the service of the church in any way possible, the work of fighting sin and living godly in one’s own personal and family life, the work of reading and studying. We will develop this point in future articles, God willing.
As I indicated in the beginning, praying and working with a view to holding office is no guarantee that one will ever hold that office.
Nevertheless, in those whom God from eternity appointed to hold office and whom He in time is raising up for that purpose, such desire and preparation for office is His means to bring them to the church’s attention as suitable men, and to cause the church to call them.
¹ John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House 1989 reprint), p. 74.