“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 (particular) synod mentioned in Article II.”
—Article 79, D.K.O.
The above article treats the matter of the discipline and censure of the officebearers of the church in distinction from the discipline of the individual members. The presence of a separate article in the Church Order covering this matter does not mean or imply that officebearers are not subject to the usual disciplinary procedures which we have already discussed. Neither does this mean that there are two separate standards for discipline by which officebearers and common members of the church are to be treated. The provisions of the above article are simply in addition to the general rules of discipline. This is necessitated by the fact that an office bearer in the church holds one of the special offices in addition to his standing in the office of all believers. His discipline as a member of the church then does not exempt him from discipline as an officebearer. Neither does his discipline as an officebearer negate his discipline as a member of the church. The fact of the matter is that where public, gross sin is committed by an officebearer of the church he must be treated with proper disciplinary measures as both an officebearer and a common member of the church. The former is first and if there is no repentance the latter follows. For this reason we have a separate article in the Church Order stipulating the course of action that is to be taken with respect to the officebearers in the event such sin is committed.
The article states that disciplinary action follows when an officebearer commits any “public, gross sin which is a disgrace to the church or worthy of punishment by the Authorities.” By “Authorities” here is meant the civil courts or the government. Certainly when one has committed an act for which he is liable to arrest and punishment by the civil authorities he has also made himself unworthy to continue as an officebearer of the church. By de same token this statement of the article implies that not all sin or every sin is punishable with suspension and deposition from office. The article itself does not catalog which sins do deserve this course of action but mentions those that (I) are public in character, i.e., that give public offense; (2) that are “gross” sins, i.e., sins of a serious nature; (3) those that bring disgrace upon the church, and (4) those punishable by the Authorities. Although Article 80 of the Church Order does specify a number of these sins, it is evident from the article itself that this list is not intended as a complete list and certainly the conclusion is unwarranted that any other sin not listed here is then not sufficient ground for suspension and deposition from office. The consistory and classis in each case must determine whether the wrong done is of such consequence that punitive action is required.
We note that Article 79 makes a rather pronounced distinction between the ministers of the Word and the elders and deacons. The latter, upon the conviction of guilt, are to be immediately “suspended or expelled” from their office. This is deposition. The ministers of the Word, however, are only to be suspended and whether or not they shall be deposed from office shall be determined later by the Classis with the advice of the Synodical Deputies For Examination. The question as to why this distinction is made must be answered in order that any possible misunderstanding concerning the rank and relation of these officers may be removed.
It must be said then that the reason for this distinction does not lie in this that the ministerial office is of higher legal rank than that of the elders and deacons in the mind of the ecclesiastical courts. Such a concept would introduce a hierarchical principle that is unknown in Reformed church polity. The office of the ministry, the elders and the deacons is a three-fold reflection of the prophetic, kingly and priestly office of Christ. Though they differ in function, they are essentially equal and that equality must not be distorted.
In his “Church Right” the late Rev. Ophoff cites four reasons for the distinction in this article. They are:
“a) First, it involves more for the ministers of the Gospel than for the elders and deacons. Deposition of a minister of the Gospel loses for the deposed one his whole life’s task, purpose, and position. This is not true of the elders and deacons. They serve for a time only. And the total of duties belonging to their office is not their life’s task.
“b) Second, more is involved for the congregation. This stands to reason. The minister of the Gospel administers the Word and the sacraments and leads in prayer on the meetings for public worship. He gives instruction to the youth and is the leader of the congregation.
“d) The deposition of a minister of the Gospel concerns not only the deposing congregation but all the churches. Though he is minister of but one church, he nevertheless may at any time be called by any of the other churches included in the federation. He may be invited by the consistory of any of the other churches to serve for a Sunday in the Word and Sacraments on the meetings for public worship. On the other hand, the service of elders and deacons is limited to their own churches. But not so the services of the ministers of the Gospel. And therefore when it is a question of his deposition, all the other churches must be heard.”
We will then discuss the matter of suspension and deposition of elders and deacons separate from that of the ministers of the Word. All are agreed that this matter is of most serious importance. Even as the Word itself enjoins in I Timothy 5:9 that an accusation against an elder should not be brought except at the mouth of two or three witnesses, so this should invite extreme caution when we are confronted with an actual circumstance in which an accusation is made.
The Church Order states that “elders and deacons shall immediately by preceding sentence of the Consistory thereof and of the nearest Church, be suspended or expelled from their office.” This does not, of course, preclude a fair trial or hearing for the accused. It is assumed that the accused has been heard and found to be guilty. The article simply means that without waiting for the judgment of the Classis in the matter the consistory, together with that of the neighboring church, must proceed with the prescribed action. This was not always the case. In former times the inherent right of the consistory to do this by itself was recognized. The first redaction of our Church Order prescribed that consistories could and should suspend and depose officebearers when necessary. The Wezelian Convention in 1586 ruled that ministers and elders guilty of grievous public sins should be deposed by the consistory without awaiting the advice of the Classis. The Synod of Emden in 1571 ruled that elders and deacons who had made themselves guilty of public sins, bringing disgrace and slander upon the church or punishable by the civil authorities, should be deposed from office forthwith by the consistory. The Church Order of Dordt in 1578 maintained this position also. However, the Synod of Middleburg in 1581 provided that elders and deacons should be deposed only when their own consistory and the consistory of the nearest church judged this to be right. This is also the provision of our church order today. This gives the churches an additional safeguard against abuse and partiality. In de interest of fairness and good government the churches have agreed to limit themselves in the execution of their inherent right.
When such a case arises the procedure that follows is prescribed in “The Church Order Commentary” as follows:
“When a consistory finds that one of its number is guilty of a gross public sin, it should meet immediately to consider the case. If it is judged that suspension or deposition is in order, it ought to notify the nearest consistory that its judgment is needed. The two consistories should meet simultaneously and together consider the case. Then each consistory should vote separately. If the judgment of both consistories concur, if both consistories vote in favor of suspension, the decision stands and the party concerned is notified to this effect. Almost needless to say, the brother in question should be notified concerning the double consistory meeting to be held regarding his person, and he should have a full right to speak for himself before both consistories.”
It would seem that in the event the consistories could not agree the matter would be referred to the Classis and, if necessary, an early classis could be called.
With parts of the above opinion the late Rev. Ophoff disagreed as is evident from the following quote in which he expresses his thoughts on the proper procedure in such cases. He wrote: “The right procedure is this. The two consistories hold a combined consistory meeting. On this meeting the case is discussed and the officebearer suspended or deposed by a majority of votes of the combined consistories. That is to say, the consistories do not vote separately and then compare the issue of the two separate votings, but they vote jointly.” Which of these positions is correct we are not prepared to say but as we remember the former procedure was followed in the De Wolf case in the First Church in 1953. The consistory of the Fourth Church had been called in and after the matter had been discussed at length with the consistory of First Church, the Fourth Consistory left the meeting and presented its decision in the matter in writing.
It seems that this is the more proper and fair way. Suppose, for example, that you have a consistory of twelve elders that decides one of its officebearers must be suspended and deposed. It calls in a neighboring consistory that has only six elders. It would not be fair that these eighteen elders then vote together. Let the smaller consistory, in this case, hear the matter and then decide by itself. If it agrees with the other consistory the matter is settled. If not the Classis must hear the case.