Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin. Previous article in this series: August 2007, p. 449.
In our last article we presented evidence from the Reformed confessions and from Scripture that there must be a working relationship between the deacons and the consistory. Some of the work of the church requires the deacons to meet with the consistory in a body in which each pastor, elder, and deacon has one vote. With a right understanding of this relationship, we will better appreciate the fact that the deacons, whose work is particularly that of caring for the poor, will at times be busy performing other tasks in the church.
In this article we note several reasons why such a relationship is necessary.
The fact that Jesus Christ is the only and complete Mediator of His church in every age, and that each of the three special offices in the church—pastor, elder, and deacon— manifests only one aspect of His saving work, is the first reason why the deacons must work together with the consistory.
This is the theological reason, and the fundamental reason.
As Mediator, Jesus Christ is our chief prophet, who makes known to us the will of God concerning our redemption. He is also our only high priest, who offered Himself a complete sacrifice to God, thus securing our redemption. As high priest He also intercedes for us (prays on our behalf) and blesses us in the name of God. He is also our eternal king, who rules and governs us as members of His covenant.
Christ performs this work while holding one office—that of Mediator of God’s covenant. An office in the church is a position to which God calls a man, authorizing and qualifying him to function in God’s name, with a view to the saving of the church. Simply put, we are saying that we have one savior, only one whom God called, authorized, and qualified to save us (Acts 4:12).
This savior is now in heaven in His human nature, while part of His church remains on earth, in many different localities, and manifest in countless congregations. To each congregation He manifests Himself as the only Mediator of the church by instituting and working through three offices—pastor, elder, and deacon. Through the office of pastor and teacher He manifests Himself as prophet; through the office of elder, as king; and through the office of deacon, as priest.
Why did He institute and does He work through three offices in the New Testament church, when His own office is one? Not so that in the church there could be checks and balances. That is why our civil government has three branches. And not to provide three different viewpoints, or to represent three different segments of the congregation.Rather, to remind us emphatically that Jesus Christ alone saves His church; pastors, elders, and deacons do not.
So we come to the heart of the point that we are making: If the church is going to see that Jesus Christ is her one, only, undivided Mediator, these three offices must work together in harmony.
This does not rule out, but requires, that each office perform the work it has been particularly assigned. Our Church Order points out this distinction of work in Articles 16, 23, and 25. Briefly, the pastors are to be busy in prayer, in the ministry of the Word, in administering the sacraments, and in watching over the congregation with the elders (I Tim. 4:12-16, 5:17; II Tim. 4:1-5). The elders are to oversee the congregation, exercise church discipline, and conduct family visitation, as well as oversee the other offices of pastor and deacon (Acts 20:28; I Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7, 17; I Pet. 5:1-4). The deacons are to gather and disburse the alms (Acts 6:1-6).
This distinction of work must not be forgotten. Neither elder nor pastor has been called to do the work of deacon; nor has the deacon been called to do the work of elder or pastor. The church needs each office to do its own work, in order that Jesus Christ may be manifest in her midst as a complete Savior.
But, in order that Jesus Christ may be manifest in the congregation’s midst as one unified Savior, her offices must work together. They must work for the same goal—the glory of God in His church. They must work for the same purpose—the edification and salvation of the body of Christ.
This requires cooperation between the offices. They are found, after all, in the same congregation; and their work regards the spiritual welfare of the same souls. Any division between the offices, any working at cross purposes, results in the division of the congregation.
The beauty of it—really, the gospel of it—is that such cooperation is possible. We are not speaking of offices in the civil sphere, but in the church! This means, first, that all officebearers have one clear standard by which to do all their work—the Word of God. Second, this means that the officebearers have the power to do their work to God’s glory and the church’s salvation, for by their own testimony, Christ lives in them! Any differences regarding doctrine and life will be resolved by turning to the Word. Any differences that are not major will either be resolved, and in a brotherly way; or, if they are not resolved, will not be obstacles to the men doing the work they were called to do.
Am I being too idealistic? Is it not realistic to suppose that the old man of sin that is found in each of these officebearers will cause them to seek themselves, and to get their own way, and thus to work against each other? Of course, this happens. But when it happens, the men have forgotten the standard by which to do their work, and the power in which they can do it. Remembering these again, such cooperation is possible.
For, at heart, each godly officebearer desires that he personally decrease, in order that Christ might increase, in his own life, and in the life of the congregation (John 3:30)!
Our second reason for the necessity of this relationship, a church political reason, follows from the first as a corollary: the authority of the deacons is equal to that of the elders. We do not mean that their work is the same work. But their authority to do their work is as great for deacons as it is for pastors and elders; it comes from the same God, with a view to the same salvation of the same people.
Although Article 84 of our Church Order does not teach this in so many words, it does imply it: “No church shall in any way lord it over other churches, no minister over other ministers, no elder or deacon over other elders or deacons.” The real point of this article is that every individual office bearer is on a par with every other individual office bearer, as regards his authority. If this is true, however, it follows that the authority of each office is equal to the authority of another office. “The ministry of the Word, the office of the eldership and the office of the Deacons all stand on a par. Only the work assigned to each differs. But a Minister is not a bishop over the Elders. Neither do the Elders function as bishops over the Deacons.”*
It is true that the deacons are under the oversight of the consistory in two respects: their personal life as members of the congregation, and their work as deacons. The authority that God gives the elders is authority to rule: “The office of the elders . . . is to take heed that the ministers, together with their fellow-elders and the deacons, faithfully discharge their office . . .” (Church Order, Article 23). The elders are called to rule the congregation; the deacons are part of the congregation. Just as the Old Testament kings of Israel were to rule the priests and prophets, to ensure that they were living in obedience to God and performing the duties of their office properly, so are the elders of the church of Christ in the New Testament required to do the same toward the ministers and deacons.
Even though the authority of the elders is to rule, the scope of this rule is also spelled out in Article 23—the authority of the elders over the deacons is not to tell the deacons how to do their work, but to see that the deacons do their work faithfully and conduct themselves rightly. Elders are to see that the deacons do their work faithfully.
As regards the nature of the authority of each office, it is equal. This means that, in any matter pertaining to the church that is not part of the work of the elders particularly, the deacons have as much authority as the elders to do that work.
A third reason why such a relationship is necessary—a more earthly, practical one—is the fact that a local congregation becomes an entity within society, recognized by the civil government as a legal corporation. Implied in this is the fact that a church must own or rent property, maintain that property, and manage its own financial affairs.
But who is to see to these matters on behalf of the church? The fact is that Scripture is silent in this regard.
Some would therefore assign this work to one of the three offices. This option is not good. Not only does Scripture not assign this work to any of the three offices, but it does emphatically make clear what is the work of each of the three offices. The danger of this option, then, is the very danger we are trying to avoid with regard to the office of deacon—that of forgetting what the real work of the office is, and thinking of the offices as the financial or administrative arm of the church.
A second option that some use today is that of appointing an administrative board in addition to the consistory and diaconate. In this case, the church has the three special offices, as well as other men to administer her financial matters. This option we weigh and find wanting, particularly when this board is not answerable to the consistory. Because God has appointed the elders as the rulers of the church, all entities within the congregation must answer to the elders. It is true that the rule of the elders is primarily a spiritual rule over the souls of the people, but at the same time the elders rule the congregation as a whole in all matters, spiritual and temporal.
The third option, then, is that all the officebearers of the congregation carry out this work in conjunction with each other. This has historically been the way in which Reformed churches have addressed this issue. It makes necessary a meeting of deacons with pastor and elders to carry out this work.
Using this third option does not forbid the consistory or council from appointing men to attend to these matters on the council’s behalf. Many of our councils do this, by appointing a bookkeeper who is not an officebearer, or a building committee made up of other members of the congregation. But these work on behalf of the council, and are answerable to the council.
To summarize, the deacons must work with the elders and pastor, because all the officebearers together must carry out this earthly, temporal work in the service of the church’s true calling to preach the Word, administer the sacraments, exercise discipline, and relieve the poor of their needs.So how, practically speaking, does this relationship of deacons to consistory manifest itself in each congregation?
It does so in either of two ways.
In smaller congregations this relationship of deacons to the consistory is manifest in the consistory meeting itself. Remember that Article 37 of our Church Order designates a consistory as being “composed of the ministers of the Word and the elders,” but also allows that “whenever the number of the elders is small, the deacons may be added to the consistory by local regulation.”
In congregations in which the deacons are not added to the consistory, this relationship is manifest in the meeting of the church’s council. Remember that Article 30 of the Belgic Confession includes deacons in the church council: “. . . also elders and deacons, who, together with the pastors, form the council of the church.”
In future articles, the Lord willing, we will examine in more detail these two manifestations of the relationship of deacons to consistory.
*VanDellen and Monsma, Church Order Commentary, p. 343.