Prof. Cammenga is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: February 15, 2008, p. 229.
“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.
Suspension and Deposition of Ministers
Article 79 distinguishes between the suspension and deposition of elders and deacons on the one hand, and ministers on the other hand. Elders and deacons may be both suspended and deposed by their consistories, with the concurrence of a neighboring consistory. Ministers, however, may only be suspended. Before the consistory may proceed to the deposition of its minister, it must obtain the approval of the classis and the concurrence of the delegates ad examinaof the synod. Only after the approval of the classis and the delegates ad examina has been obtained may the consistory formally depose the minister from office in the church of Christ.
This is not because a consistory does not inherently have the right to depose its minister, whereas it does have the right to depose any of its elders or deacons. It does have this inherent right. For this reason, the early church orders prescribed that consistories could and should both suspend and depose also the ministers when necessary. The Convent of Wesel, 1568, prescribed that ministers who “polluted themselves with some public crime or misbehavior” should be “removed from office with shame and dishonor without waiting for the judgment of the classis.”
However, already the Synod of Embden, 1571, made the distinction between the deposition of ministers and the deposition of elders and deacons.
If ministers of the Word, elders, or deacons have committed a public sin that brings shame and slander to the congregation or one that should be punished by the power of the government: elders and deacons shall immediately be deposed from their office by the authority of the consistory, but the ministers of the Word shall be suspended from their office for a time. Whether they shall be completely deposed from office shall be decided by the classis, and if they are not satisfied with that decision, they shall appeal to the Provincial or General Synod.
The stipulation of Embden that required the involvement of the classis in a minister’s deposition was adhered to in subsequent church orders produced in the Dutch Reformed churches, including the redaction of the church order approved by the Synod of Dordt, 1618-19.
When ministers, elders or deacons commit a public, gross sin which is a disgrace to the church or is punishable by the authorities, the elders and deacons shall immediately be deposed from office, but the ministers shall be suspended. Whether they shall be completely deposed from office shall be up to the judgment of the classis.
Our Article 79 is basically that of Dordt, 1618-19, with the addition of “the advice of the delegates of the synod mentioned in Article 11.” These delegates are the synodical delegates, the delegates ad examina.
The procedure in the case of a minister, therefore, is that his own consistory takes a decision to suspend him from his office on account of some public, gross sin. (It should be noted that emeriti ministers are also subject to suspension and deposition. Although they do not actively perform the duties of the office, they nevertheless continue to hold the office— Church Order, Article 13.) Having taken the decision to suspend, the consistory seeks the advice of a neighboring consistory within its classis. In a joint meeting of the two consistories, the details of the case are laid out before the neighboring consistory, after which it meets in order to approve or disapprove the decision the consistory has taken. If it concurs, the minister is suspended from his office. Suspension means that although he retains the office itself, he is forbidden to function in the office. He may not preach, administer the sacraments, teach catechism, lead consistory and council meetings, serve as a delegate to the broader assemblies, or perform any of the other duties that belong to the office. If the neighboring consistory does not agree with the decision to suspend the minister from his office, the matter must be presented to the classis for adjudication.
After the minister has been suspended, the consistory must seek the approval of the classis before it proceeds to his deposition from office. Ordinarily in closed session, the classis will consider the material of the case and render its judgment concerning the minister’s deposition from office. Additionally, the delegates ad examina must concur with the decision of the consistory and classis. Only after a consistory has received the concurrence both of the classis and of the synodical deputies may it proceed to the minister’s deposition from office. In case of a difference between the consistory and the classis, or between the classis and the synodical deputies, the matter must be brought to synod for final resolution.
Why the Difference in Procedure?
Why the difference in the procedure for deposition between elders and deacons, on the one hand, and ministers, on the other hand? The difference is not that the office of the ministry is higher or holier. It is not that at all. But there are at least two reasons why deposition of ministers requires classical and synodical approval.
The first reason is that in the case of the minister a man’s livelihood is at stake. The minister devotes himself full time to the work of the ministry. His entire support comes as a result of his devotion to the work of his office. Elders and deacons do not ordinarily derive their livelihood from the work of their offices. They are usually gainfully employed in some secular vocation. Because the minister’s livelihood is at stake, it is proper that an additional safeguard be introduced in order to prevent any wrongful dismissal from office.
A second reason for the involvement of classis and synod in the case of the deposition of ministers is that in a unique way ministers belong to the churches in common, not just to the local congregation that they are serving at the time. The churches in common approve their entrance into the ministry. They exercise their office throughout the churches of the denomination, often preaching and administering the sacraments in other churches. They are eligible to be called and to serve in the other churches of the denomination. For this reason, the churches in common ought rightfully to be involved in the process that ends in removing a man from the office of the ministry.
Because a minister belongs in a unique way to the entire denomination, the churches must all be informed of a minister’s deposition from office. In the case of elders and deacons, an announcement is made only in the congregation in which they serve. In the case of ministers, an announcement must be made in all the congregations of the denomination, as well as the sister churches, since he was eligible for a call also in the sister churches.
It should be noted that during his suspension, a minister ought to continue to receive his salary. But when he is deposed, the financial obligation of the church ceases, including salary, housing, and emeritus benefits.
Possibility of Reinstatement
The question arises whether a minister who has been deposed from office may be reinstated. May a minister who has been deposed ever be permitted to serve in the office again? Or, having been deposed, is he necessarily for the rest of his life barred from serving in the office?
This question has been faced by the Reformed churches in the past.
Whether the minister of the Word and the elders and deacons who have been deposed should be readmitted to their office after they have satisfied the church by their penitence and have again been chosen: as regards the elders and deacons, that shall lie in the discretion and judgment of the consistory; but as far as the ministers of the Word are concerned, the classis shall judge (Synod of Embden, 1571).
Whether minister, elders, and deacons who have been deposed may be readmitted after they have satisfied the churches with penitence and again have been elected: as far as the elders and deacons are concerned the consistory shall decide, but as far as ministers are concerned this shall be decided by the classis (Synod of Dordt, 1578).
To the Synod of Middelburg, 1581, the question was put: “Whether deposed ministers, elders and deacons, if they by their penitence have satisfied the congregation, may again be chosen?” Undoubtedly in consideration of what the Synods of Embden and Dordt had decided, the Synod of Middelburg responded: “Answer: As far as the elders and deacons are concerned it shall be left to the judgment of the consistory. But as far as ministers are concerned, this shall be decided by the classical gathering.”
The church order authorities, for the most part, concur on the possibility of a minister’s reinstatement. The Rev. K. DeGier, in hisExplanation of the Church Order of Dordt in Questions and Answers, in the questions and answers relating to Articles 79 and 80, writes the following:
14. Does the Church Order mention the possibility of reinstating a deposed minister? No, not the Church Order, but the preceding synods did.
15. What were the judgments of these synods about this? Restoration into office of deposed ministers may not take place except with the greatest caution. Foreknowledge and approbation of the deputation according to Article 49 (synodical deputies, R.C.) are required.
16. What two distinctions were made in France, Scotland and Holland in regard to the deposition of ministers? a. Deposition on account of minor offensive sins (deposition minor). After repentance and confession of guilt by the minister, the Classis could pronounce him eligible for a call to another congregation. b. Deposition on account of scandalous sins (manslaughter, adultery, political offences, etc., deposition major) was irrevocable.
17. What may be done by the Classis when a request is made for reinstatement (of a minister) into office? It must decide whether or not he is eligible for call. After he is called by a congregation, he may be reinstated into office.
In The Church Order Commentary, Van Dellen and Monsma address the issue of reinstatement after deposition.
Regarding deposed Ministers Synod of 1918, Article 52 decided that re-instatement must be effected by the Classis which acted in the deposition. The Holland Synod of Groningen, 1927, decided that a deposed Minister is not to be re-instated by Classis without the knowledge and approval of the Particular Synod. It might be well if our decision of 1918 were amended so that no deposed Minister can be re-instated without the approval of the synodical delegates according to Article 11.
The Holland Synod of 1927 also decided that it would not be advisable to make general stipulations as to when a deposed Minister should be re-instated. Each case should be judged on its own merits. Classis should consider the question why the deposition took place, whether true penitence be evident, whether reconciliation was made and whether the deposed brother will be able to labor to the edification of the Church of God and without detriment to the holy character of the Church and the glory of God. No doubt this is wise counsel….
It is necessary that the Churches act with great prudence, especially when sins have been committed which indicate a weakness of will-power, steadfastness of character, and complete consecration, such as adultery and drunkenness (p. 329f.).
In his commentary on the Church Order, W.W.J. Van Oene, minister and theological professor in the Canadian Reformed Churches writes:
As an elder or a deacon can be made a candidate for office again, so a deposed minister might again be declared eligible for call after a period of time, when things have calmed down and he has proved his repentance by an exemplary conduct. It will not happen very often that this is done, but it should not be deemed impossible or impermissible. We can see no valid reason why it should be prevented or forbidden. In God’s Word we also read of officebearers who fell into serious and grievous sins but who were maintained by the Lord in the office He had given them (p. 328).
A number of Reformed churches have incorporated an article concerning reinstatement in their church orders.
Article 80b. Restoration in office of deposed ministers may only take place with the greatest carefulness and the approval of the synod (Church Order of the Free Reformed Church of North America).
Article 84: Reinstatement to Office. Persons who have been suspended or deposed from office may be reinstated if they give sufficient evidence of repentance and if the church judges that they are able to serve effectively (Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church in North America).
The decisions of the past synods of the Dutch Reformed Churches and the practice in various churches of Dutch Reformed extraction indicate the possibility of reinstatement of ministers who have been deposed from office. As has been noted, this will be a rare occurrence. It may be done only with the approval of the classis that concurred in his deposition, along with the approval of the synodical deputies. It may be done only when a man clearly demonstrates true repentance over the sin(s) that occasioned his deposition. And it may be done only when, in the judgment of all concerned, he will be able to function effectively, for the edification of the church. Not the desires of a particular man, or group of men even, must carry the day. But what must carry the day is the welfare of the church and churches as a whole.