Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin. Previous article in this series: November 15, 2007, p. 80.
In speaking of the deacons’ relationship to the consistory, we are speaking of a working relationship between the three offices (bear in mind that the consistory includes both elders and pastors). In saying that there is such a relationship, we mean that 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.
In our last article we argued the necessity of such a relationship. That necessity has to do with the fact that Jesus Christ manifests Himself as the only Savior of the church through all three offices, working together. Also, the fact that the church on earth must necessarily have budgets and buildings to serve it in its real work indicates that such a relationship is necessary.
We pointed out that, practically speaking, this relationship of deacons to consistory is evident in every congregation in either of two ways: in smaller congregations, in the consistory itself, when the deacons are added to it; or, in larger congregations, in the work of the council. Article 30 of the Belgic Confession includes deacons in the church’s council: “…also elders and deacons, who, together with the pastors, form the council of the church.” To this latter manifestation of the relationship between elders and deacons we now turn our attention. What follows assumes, then, that the deacons are members of a congregation in which they do not meet with the consistory at its monthly meeting, but in which both consistory and diaconate have their own monthly meetings, and also the council has its own monthly meeting.
The council is the body that includes all the pastors, elders, and deacons in any given congregation.
In its meetings, the deacons work with the consistory in carrying out those aspects of the work of the congregation that are not specific to any particular office. The work relating to the ministry of the gospel and administration of the sacraments is dealt with by the consistory in its separate meetings, as is the work of ruling and discipline. The work relating to the care of the poor and needy is dealt with by the diaconate in its separate meetings. All of the other work that must be done in the church is taken care of by the council.
This other work, regulated by the council, falls into three general categories.
The first pertains to the earthly affairs of the church. Drawing up a budget, determining the collection schedule, and overseeing and maintaining the church’s property fall into this category. Any proposals that come before the congregation at a congregational meeting must be dealt with and approved by the council beforehand. So is the receiving and answering of any general correspondence that does not relate particularly to the work of elders or deacons.
The second pertains to the offices in general. Forming trios from which to call a minister, approving the minister’s acceptance of a call elsewhere, receiving and signing the Ministerial Certificate of Dismissal and Testimonial, deciding to release a minister from office in the congregation or from office altogether, approving the request of its minister for retirement—all of this is the work of the council. So is the matter of nominating men for the office of elder and deacon in the congregation, considering and acting on objections to such nominations, and releasing an officebearer from his labor in the congregation (with the exception of suspension and deposition). Also the work of “censura morem,” of encouraging and admonishing each other with regard to the duties of office, is the work of all.
The third pertains to the work of the church that it undertakes in cooperation with the denomination. In every church, this includes the receiving of church visitors. In some churches this includes the oversight of the office and work of the missionary or minister-on-loan, in the case of those churches that have been appointed to call such on behalf of the denomination.
Two matters that we might think to be the work of the council are actually the work of the consistory. The first is the discipline of officebearers, including their suspension and deposition. Even though the whole council nominates officebearers, their suspension and deposition from office is properly the work of the consistory, the body that is called upon to rule and judge the church according to God’s Word. If an officebearer requested to be released from office for any reason, he would make his request to the council. But if he fell into a sin that made him worthy of deposition, the consistory would deal with the matter.
Second, the oversight of the preaching is also properly the work of the consistory. In many of our churches the deacons join the elders in shaking the minister’s hand after the worship service. This might leave the impression that the deacons join with the elders in overseeing the preaching. Not so, however; the oversight of the preaching in the local congregation belongs to the consistory, the elders.
Being officebearers, the deacons are properly involved in the work of the council.
But what deacons may never forget is that they are first and foremost deacons. That is, they must not use their involvement in council matters as a reason to let the real work of their office suffer.
This warning, of course, is as pertinent to elders and pastors as it is to deacons.
Perhaps a deacon enjoys his involvement on the building committee, or perhaps the treasurer of the diaconate finds pleasure in the work of overseeing the church’s finances and trying to be sure that the church is a good steward of its financial resources. This is fine. But he must not use these labors as a reason to neglect the real work. The care of the poor, sick, and needy in the congregation is more important than the building and the financial affairs of the congregation.
That the deacons work with the elders in such meetings has several implications.
First, it means that the deacon has as much authority in the meeting as the elder and pastor. Remember what Article 84 of our Church Order says: “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.” In our last article on the relationship of the deacons to the consistory, we referred to Article 84 to show that the authority of the office of deacon is equal to that of the office of elder. But the real point of Article 84 is the point that we are now making—every individual officebearer is on a par with every other individual officebearer, as regards his authority.
The authority of the deacons in the council meetings, like the authority of the pastors and elders, is the authority to discuss the matters that come before the meeting; the authority to shed light from God’s Word on the issues at hand; and the authority to vote on the issue when the president calls for the vote.
Second, it means that committees of the council might be appointed, which committees consist of one or more elders and deacons. Committees to draw up the church’s annual budget or collection schedule, or to study some issue that pertains to the earthly affairs of the church such as the feasibility of a building project, or to serve the council with advice regarding matters of the mission field that it oversees, may include both elders and deacons. In fact, an argument can be made that these committees ought to include both, for the work that they are doing pertains to neither office in particular, but is work that the church must carry out through her officebearers. Just as in the council as a body, so in such committees of the council, the deacons have an equal voice and vote.
Third, it means that the elders must be ready to listen to men who are deacons, and deacons to men who are elders, in an effort best to serve the church.
Even society recognizes that she is best served when those who are appointed to the same body listen to each other and consider the arguments others bring. All the more must this happen in the church, in which things must be done decently and in order (I Cor. 14:40), and in which our speech must always be with grace, seasoned with salt (Col. 4:6).
When this happens, church polity is exercised in a godly way.
When it does not, church polity becomes just “politics” in the bad sense of the word, even uglier than secular politics. After all, the church’s leaders claim to have received God’s grace, and they are required to make that claim. Many of society’s leaders do not make that claim, and cannot be expected to make it.
The point is that in the discussions of the council, there must be no partisan spirit. The council is not the meeting of two political parties in the church (elders and deacons), each set on advancing its own agenda. The council is the place where men come together, called to office by the same Lord, in the service of the same Christ and His church, to do the work of the church together.
Much of what we have said regarding the deacons working with the elders in the council meetings can also be said regarding deacons working with elders in the consistory meetings, when this is the practice in smaller congregations. But the adding of the deacons to the consistory is a more controversial matter. It raises the question, may a deacon really participate in the work of the elder? Is this a blurring of the offices? Does the deacon have authority to do this?
Next time, the Lord willing, we will explore this second way in which the deacons’ relationship to the consistory is evident in the church, doing our best to answer some of these questions.