Prof. Cammenga is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
“Furthermore, among the gross sins which are worthy of being punished with suspension or deposition from office, these are the principal ones: false doctrine or heresy, public schism, public blasphemy, simony, faithless desertion of office or intrusion upon that of another, perjury, adultery, fornication, theft, acts of violence, habitual drunkenness, brawling, filthy lucre; in short, all sins and gross offenses as render the perpetrators infamous before the world, and which in any private member of the church would be considered worthy of excommunication.” Church Order, Article 80.
Article 80 is closely related to Article 79 of the Church Order. Article 79 describes the proper procedure that is to be followed when suspension and deposition of officebearers become necessary. Now in Article 80 the Church Order mentions “the gross sins which are worthy of being punished with suspension or deposition from office.”
The article includes a list of sins that make an officebearer worthy of suspension and deposition. The list is not intended to be exhaustive, as if these sins and only these sins warrant deposition from office. Rather, the list is intended to be illustrative. The article contains a list of the main sins that make an officebearer worthy of ecclesiastical discipline and being stripped of his office. But there certainly are other sins that could be added to those listed in Article 80. In the language of Article 80 itself, these are the “principal” sins that call for deposition from office.
At the same time, these sins do requiresuspension and deposition from office. Article 80 does not contain a list of sins that might expose a man to suspension and deposition from office. Then, even though a man has made himself guilty of the sins listed here, it still remains in the judgment of the consistory whether or not he will be suspended and deposed. Rather, the proper understanding of Article 80 is that these sins must be dealt with by a consistory in such a way that the officebearer who has made himself guilty of them is suspended and deposed from office. It is not the case that he may be suspended and deposed, but he must be suspended and deposed, if indeed he is guilty of the sins that are here listed. Such is the nature of these sins, and so serious are the consequences of these sins that they disqualify a man from serving, at least for the time being, in the special offices in Christ’s church.
General Character of These Sins
Before turning to the specific sins that are listed in Article 80, we should notice some things about the general character of the sins that are mentioned.
First of all, these sins are “gross” sins. Twice Article 80 speaks of “gross” sins. This was also the terminology in Article 79. A gross sin is an especially grievous sin. A gross sin is a sin of the worst sort, gross by virtue of the nature of the sin itself and the consequences that attend the sin. All sin is sin. But there are sins that are especially gross. There are various forms of sin against the ninth commandment, the commandment that forbids lying. One of the grossest forms of lying is “perjury,” lying under oath before either the civil or ecclesiastical authorities. There are various forms of violation of the sixth commandment. One of the grossest forms is “habitual drunkenness.” There are various forms of sin against the seventh commandment. One of the grossest forms is “adultery,” the sin against the seventh commandment that involves someone who is married. “Gross” sin is punishable by suspension and deposition from office.
Second, the sins that are enumerated in Article 80 are sins that are public in character. Already Article 79 had referred to “any public, gross sin.” This article speaks of “public schism” and “public blasphemy.” An officebearer makes himself worthy of suspension and deposition when he sins publicly. Private, personal sins are not necessarily just cause for an officebearer to be put out of office. But public sin, just because it is public, exposes the officebearer to ecclesiastical discipline. The nature and consequences of public sin, both in the congregation and before the world, make suspension and deposition necessary.
Third, included in the list of sins mentioned in Article 80 are sins referred to already in Article 79 as sins that are “worthy of punishment by the authorities.” A sin that involves the breaking of the law of the land, and has the consequence of fine or imprisonment by the civil authorities, requires suspension and deposition from office. This is the nature of several of the sins enumerated in Article 80, such as perjury, theft, acts of violence, habitual drunkenness that results in such a thing as driving while intoxicated, and brawling. Sins that are punishable by the civil authorities are also sins that require suspension and deposition from office.
Fourth, all sins that “render the perpetrators infamous before the world” also require suspension and deposition from office. This would be the sad consequence of all the other sins listed in Article 80, but this may very well be the consequence of others sins as well. Any sin, therefore, that “give(s) great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme” (II Sam. 12:14) requires the officebearer’s suspension and deposition.
Some Reformed churches have removed this phrase from Article 80. W. W. J. Van Oene defends its deletion from the Church Order of the Canadian Reformed Churches.
In older editions of our Church Order one could find the expression “all sins and gross offences which render the perpetrator infamous before the world.” This expression has been dropped, because in the first place what the world thinks and regards as decent and proper is not a standard for the church; and in the second place the standards of this world change. In our days, for instance, people are no longer ashamed to admit to their homosexual practices, and various religious bodies openly and unashamedly admit those who are guilty of it to their pulpits (With Common Consent, p. 331).
The issue, however, is not whether the standards of the world are to be the standard in the church. This is not at all what the disputed phrase in Article 80 is suggesting. But what the phrase reflects is Scripture’s own insistence that officebearers “must have a good report of them which are without” (I Tim. 3:7). The officebearers will never be able to stop the mouths of the gainsayers (Tit. 1:9-11) if they are themselves a reproach in the world.
And last, the officebearer is subject to suspension and deposition from office when he makes himself guilty of sin “which in any private member of the church would be considered worthy of excommunication.” Any sin and impenitence in any sin that in the ordinary member of the church would require the exercise of discipline, in the case of the officebearer require suspension and deposition from office. Such is the Reformed view of the sanctity of the office of Christ in the church.
Particular Sins Requiring Suspension and Deposition
I Timothy 3:3, Titus 1:7 and Titus 2:3, and other passages expressly condemn the sins that are mentioned in Article 80 in officebearers. Article 80 is solidly grounded on Scripture. The sins mentioned in Article 80 are of two kinds. First, there are sins that have to do with the officebearer’s abuse of his office: false doctrine or heresy, public schism, public blasphemy, simony, and faithless desertion of office or intrusion upon that of another. Second, there are those sins that have to do with the officebearer’s walk generally, his deportment in the world: perjury, adultery, fornication, theft, acts of violence, habitual drunkenness, brawling, and filthy lucre.
Let’s look at each of these sins in order.
False Doctrine or Heresy
It is significant that this is the first sin mentioned as requiring suspension and deposition. This is certainly so because the Reformed churches, in line with Scripture, hold that the main calling of the officebearers, whether minister, professor of theology, elder, or deacon, is the maintenance of the truth. God’s glory and the church’s spiritual well-being demand this. By false doctrine or heresy is not meant that the minister, for example, teaches something that is wrong. This must, of course, be addressed, and this must be corrected. But this does not require suspension and deposition. What is in view here is the deliberate teaching of false doctrine. This would be especially teaching anything contrary to the creeds, which creeds the officebearer by signing the “Formula of Subscription” has promised to uphold (Church Order, Articles 53 and 54). Heresy is false doctrine that is condemned by the church. Knowingly and stubbornly to teach false doctrine and to promote heresy in the church requires suspension and deposition from office. How Reformed churches in our day neglect this important calling. Ministers and professors of theology teach false doctrine and openly espouse heretical views, teachings that contradict the creeds. Rather than being removed from office, they are permitted to retain their office and spread their evil influence in the churches. The very first sin that makes suspension and deposition necessary is the teaching of false doctrine or heresy.
Schism is the sin of creating division and disunity in the church. The officebearer has a particular calling on behalf of the unity of the church, “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:3). Rather than laboring on behalf of the unity of the church, the officebearer is responsible for scattering the sheep of Christ. He may do this in various ways. He may do this by promoting false doctrine and heresy. Since the unity of the church is grounded in the truth, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Eph. 4:5, 6), false doctrine and heresy are always inimical to the unity of the church. Public schism might also take the form of opposition to the settled and binding decisions of the assemblies, whether of one’s consistory, or the classis or synod. Whatever form it takes, public schism warrants suspension and deposition from office.
Blasphemy is disdain for the holy things of God and the right worship of God. The man who is guilty of blasphemy mocks at God and the Word of God. Ordinarily the officebearer would be guilty of this in the course of the discharge of the duties of his office. In the case of the minister, he would make himself guilty of this sin in his public preaching, teaching, and writing. Open disdain for the holy things of God requires that the officebearer be stripped of his office. From a certain point of view, the officebearer’s most sacred calling is to bring glory to the name of God. Public blasphemy of God is such a blot on the office as to make a man unworthy of retaining the office.
Simony is the sin of attempting to obtain church office by buying it or bribing one’s way into it. The name for this sin is derived from Simon the Sorcerer, who offered the apostle Peter money for the power of bestowing the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:18, 19). Simony was a prevalent sin especially at the time of the Reformation. Church offices were bought and sold, and often made available to the highest bidder. Even though this may not be a serious threat in Reformed churches today, the warning against this sin serves as a necessary reminder that officebearers must receive their offices in the church in the lawful, church orderly way.
Faithless Desertion of Office or Intrusion upon the Office of Another
These sins pertain primarily to ministers. These too were common sins committed by officebearers in the early days of the Reformation. Articles 10 and 15 of the Church Order address these evils. Article 10 binds the minister to the service of the congregation that has called him and in which he was ordained. Article 15 forbids ministers to preach indiscriminately, without a fixed charge. Leaving one’s congregation in an irregular way or improperly, without having received the proper release, makes one subject to this sin and worthy of suspension and deposition.
Perjury is the sin of lying under oath, before either the civil or the ecclesiastical authorities.
Adultery or Fornication
Adultery and fornication are sexual sins, transgressions of the seventh commandment of God’s law. A man who is unfaithful to his wife may not be allowed to minister to the wife and bride of Christ.
The public offense of stealing, whatever specific form it may take, calls for ecclesiastical discipline. It may be theft from the employer, theft from a business, theft from the neighbor, or even theft from the church itself. The thief brings dishonor to the office of Christ and makes himself worthy of suspension and deposition.
Acts of Violence
Any number of specific sins could be included as acts of violence. Threats against another person, as well as malicious destruction of the property or possessions of another would be acts of violence.
Article 80 speaks of habitual drunkenness. The officebearer who falls into the sin of drunkenness once would have to be dealt with, and confession of his sin and reconciliation with the church would be required. But what warrants suspension and deposition is habitual drunkenness, that a man is a drunkard, addicted to alcohol.
The brawler is a violent, quick-tempered man. He blows up easily and comes to blows with his neighbor, perhaps even with his brother in the church. Or the brawler may be abusive to his wife and children. A man who is a brawler may not continue in the office of Christ.
Filthy lucre is dishonest gain. Acquiring wealth dishonestly, in violation of the law of the land and the principles of Scripture, makes a man worthy of suspension and deposition. In our day, filthy lucre would include all the various types of fraud, including computer fraud, as well as cheating on one’s income taxes or refusing to pay income taxes altogether.
Article 80 concludes the Church Order’s treatment of suspension and deposition of officebearers. It ought to be clear that the Church Order maintains a high view of the special offices, the office of Christ in the church. May that high view of the offices continue to be embraced in the Protestant Reformed Churches and their sister churches, not only by the officebearers, but by every individual member. And may Christ Jesus continue to give to our churches men who are qualified for office, as well as men who serve honorably in office.