Prof. Cammenga is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
“When ministers of the divine Word, elders, or deacons have committed any public, gross sin which is a disgrace to the church or worthy of punishment by the authorities, the elders and deacons shall immediately, by preceding sentence of the consistory thereof and of the nearest Church, be suspended or expelled from their office, but the ministers shall only be suspended. Whether these shall be entirely deposed from office shall be subject to the judgment of the classis, with the advice of the delegates of the synod mentioned in Article 11.”
Church Order, Article 79.
Articles 76-78 of the Church Order concern the exercise of Christian discipline. Those articles lay down the procedure that a consistory is to follow in dealing with an impenitent member, beginning with suspension from the Lord’s Table and ending in excommunication. Articles 79 and 80 continue the Church Order’s treatment of discipline, but focus specifically on the discipline of officebearers. How is the church to deal with officebearers who fall into public sin? What procedure is to be followed in removing them from office? What kinds of sins warrant removal from office? These questions are answered in these two articles.
Although suspension and deposition from office are closely related to Christian discipline (the discipline of the “ordinary” members of the church), they are also distinct. Article 80 states that officebearers are subject to suspension and deposition for sins that “in any private member of the church would be considered worthy of excommunication.” Clearly, therefore, there is a connection between Christian discipline in the narrower sense of the word and the discipline of officebearers. The discipline of officebearers is an aspect of the discipline of Christ in the church, the third mark of the true church in the world.
Yet they are distinct. On the one hand, suspension and deposition do not take the place of Christian discipline, as outlined in Articles 76-78. The officebearer who is suspended and deposed from office for any of the specific sins mentioned in Article 80, may, even after he has been suspended and deposed, be the object of the discipline of the church. This would certainly be the case if he continued impenitent in the sins on account of which he was suspended and deposed.
At the same time, even though an officebearer has been suspended and deposed, it may not be necessary for the consistory to deal with him following the steps of Christian discipline. This would be the case if the officebearer was repentant over the sin(s) that occasioned his suspension and deposition. Then, although it would still be necessary to remove him from his office, no further discipline would be required.
A very important principle of Reformed church government undergirds Articles 79 and 80. That important principle is that the special offices reside in the local congregation. The local congregation, through its consistory, calls to office, ordains to office, and supervises the officebearers’ labors. On this same principle, the local congregation through its consistory can and must remove unfaithful officebearers. This is a precious right and a sobering responsibility.
This right of the local congregation and consistory was restored to the church through the great Reformation of the sixteenth century. This right was denied to the local churches at that time, one of the grievous evils in the Roman Catholic Church of that day, an evil that exacerbated all the other evils that the Roman clergy were guilty of. Because of the Romish hierarchical church government, unfit men could not be removed from their offices by the local congregations. Although they openly lived wickedly and worldly, there was virtually nothing that local church members could do about unfit officebearers.
This grievous evil still plagues the Roman Catholic Church today and has again been highlighted by all the publicity surrounding the sex scandals involving Roman Catholic priests. Although priests made themselves guilty of the vilest immorality, they were not removed from office by the local congregation—could not be removed by the local congregation—but were often simply reassigned to other parishes by regional bishops. This is a travesty! This may not happen in the Reformed churches. Articles 79 and 80 guard against this evil.
These articles demonstrate clearly the high regard that the Reformed churches have for the office of Christ in the local congregation. Those who are unfit representatives of Christ may not stand in the office of Christ. They ought not to be admitted to the office, if that unfitness is manifested before their ordination. And if after they are in office they demonstrate this unfitness, the church has the duty to remove them from office. The office is not inexorably tied to the person of the man who occupies the office, as is the case with the pope of Rome. Instead, an officebearer may rightfully have his office taken away from him. Articles 79 and 80 spell out the reasons on account of which a man may be removed from office, as well as the procedure that a consistory is to follow in carrying out this removal.
Articles 79 and 80 speak of “suspension” and “deposition” from office.* Suspension from office precedes deposition from office, although ordinarily suspension from office leads eventually to deposition. But there is a difference. Suspension is the revocation of the right to function in the office. The suspended officebearer still holds the office, but he is not permitted to carry out the rights and duties of the office. Deposition is removal from the office. Now the man no longer stands in the office, but is stripped of the office itself.
Public or Gross Sin
Article 79 calls for the suspension and deposition of officebearers who “have committed any public, gross sin which is a disgrace to the church or worthy of punishment by the authorities.” Article 80 mentions several specific sins on account of which officebearers ought to be suspended and deposed. In a future article we will look carefully at those specific sins. Additionally, Article 80 speaks of “all sins and gross offenses as render the perpetrators infamous before the world,” as well as those sins “which in any private member of the church would be considered worthy of excommunication.”
Not every weakness or sin on the part of an officebearer necessarily makes him worthy of suspension and deposition. There are many weaknesses and even sins that the members of the congregation may see in their officebearers, and that are probably especially evident to their fellow officebearers. These sins and weaknesses must be patiently borne with. These sins and weaknesses call for brotherly admonition and warning. But these sins and weaknesses do not require that an officebearer be suspended and deposed.
That, too, is an important principle behind Articles 79 and 80. That principle is that God is pleased to rule His people, who are all sinners themselves, by officebearers who are also sinners. It must not surprise us that officebearers manifest certain weaknesses and sins from time to time. How could it be otherwise? And God has His own purpose in this as well. That purpose is at least that God’s people learn not to put their trust in their officebearers. Respect them, honor them, submit to them—to be sure. But not put their trust in them. God’s people must learn to put their trust in the one of whom the officebearer is the servant and representative, the Lord Jesus Christ, theofficebearer in God’s church.
This is another reason that the members of the church must pray for their officebearers—pray for them earnestly and often. The officebearers need those prayers. They need those prayers not only because of the magnitude and gravity of the work to which they are called, but in addition, because the ones who are called to this great work are incapable and unworthy sinners. God’s people, and the officebearers themselves, recognizing this, are going to be diligent in prayer. They must beseech God that, notwithstanding their weaknesses and sins, He will use the officebearers to accomplish His saving work in the congregation.
Not every sin and weakness calls for suspension and deposition from office. But public, gross sins call for suspension and deposition. Public sins are sins that are or can be widely known in the church and in the community. Gross sins would be especially grievous sins, sins that are of a more serious nature just because of the kind of sins that they are. Gross sins are usually also public sins, but not necessarily so. Included among these sins, although not limited to them, would be sins “worthy of punishment by the authorities.” The “authorities” here are the civil authorities. However, not all the sins that are mentioned in Article 80 are punishable by the authorities in our land. Adultery or false doctrine, for example, are not sins that are punished by the civil authorities, at least not ordinarily. This, however, does not exempt the officebearer from suspension and deposition by the church. But sins that an officebearer commits that are punishable by the magistrate are by that very fact sins on account of which an officebearer may be suspended and deposed.
The reason for suspension and deposition is that by his sin(s) the officebearer has brought “disgrace to the church.” This disgrace to the church is disgrace to Christ and to the name of Christ whom the officebearers represent. This disgrace is disgrace in the eyes of the world. By his public or gross sin the officebearer is responsible for bringing reproach upon Christ and His church. He has given the enemies occasion to blaspheme. That is what the prophet Nathan said to David after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and had murdered Uriah: “… by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme” (II Sam. 12:14). Because of his scandalous behavior, the officebearer has forfeited the right to continue to hold the office of Christ. By his public or gross sin, he has disqualified himself from the office.
Besides occasioning the reproach of the world, the officebearer who has committed public, gross sin has also offended God’s people. Such is the offense that the officebearer can no longer labor effectively in the office. Even though he is repentant over his sin, even though he confesses his sin, and even though he makes a clean break with his sin, because of the seriousness of his sin his future labor in the office is brought under suspicion. Human nature being what it is, it will be hard for God’s people to receive the brother as a representative of Christ. There will often be doubts and fears in the minds of the members of the church regarding the genuineness of his repentance, whether he has in fact broken with the sin. Under these circumstances, the brother simply will not be able effectively to work in an edifying way in the congregation. For the sake of the congregation, too, the right course of action is that the officebearer be removed from office.
This is not to say that the congregation does not forgive the brother. If he is repentant, the congregation will forgive him and assure him of that forgiveness. Accordingly, the brother will also be welcomed as a member of the church and be encouraged to participate in the life of the church. But from the fact that he is forgiven does not automatically follow that he also should remain in office. High regard for the office of Christ, as well as deep concern for the well-being of the congregation, requires that the officebearer nevertheless be suspended and deposed. In that way the glory of God and of Christ in the church are honored. And in that way the church is best served.
Next time we will continue our consideration of this article by considering the proper procedure to be followed in suspension and deposition. We will take note of the difference in procedure between elders and deacons on the one hand, and ministers on the other hand. We will also look at various matters related to suspension and deposition, including the question whether an officebearer once deposed may again hold office in the church.
* Article 79 speaks both of officebearers being “expelled from their office” and “deposed from office.” The article makes plain that these are to be considered identical. To be expelled from office, therefore, is to be deposed from office.