Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin. Previous article in this series: January, 15, 2008, p. 184.
The working relationship of the deacons to the consistory (elders and pastor) is evident, in larger congregations, in the church’s council. The council is the body comprised of all officebearers in the congregation (pastors, elders, and deacons), which body undertakes all the work of the congregation that is not specific to any particular office. In our last article we explained what is included in the work of the council, and what it means that the deacons are involved in that work.
In some congregations there is, strictly speaking, no council, but only a consistory. In such congregations all three special offices are found, but the elders do not meet with the pastor as consistory to rule the congregation, and then also with the deacons as council to care for the work of the congregation that is not specific to any particular office. Rather, all three offices meet together in the consistory meeting. The deacons are added to the consistory.
This raises questions regarding the work and authority of the deacons that were not raised when we treated the deacons’ involvement in the work of the council. Does this adding of deacons to the consistory mean that they do the work of the elders? Has God given them the authority to do the work of the elders?
From early on, Reformed churches in the Netherlands have permitted the deacons to be part of the consistory. We referred to this history in our first article of this series (August 2007) to demonstrate that the Reformed churches understood the need for a working relationship between the three offices. Let us briefly call attention to this history again in light of our current purpose, to show that the Reformed churches have permitted deacons to be part of the consistory.¹
At first the Dutch Reformed churches used the word “consistory” in such a way that deacons were always included. The Synod of Emden, 1571, declared in its sixth article: “In each church there shall be meetings or consistories of ministers of the Word, elders, and deacons, which shall be held at least once every week at a place and time that each congregation shall deem most suitable and convenient.”
Clarification of this point was sought, and the Synod of Dordrecht, 1574, decided: “To clarify the 6th Article of the Synod of Emden, the minister of the Word, elders and deacons shall constitute the consistory. Furthermore, the ministers and elders shall meet and the deacons shall also meet by themselves to handle their own affairs concerning the poor. However, in places where there are few elders, the deacons may be admitted according to the desire of the consistory.”
Since 1574 the Reformed churches in the Netherlands have clearly stated that the consistory is composed of ministers and elders. Article 28 of the Church Order approved by the of the Synod of Middelburg in 1581 stipulates: “In all churches there shall be a consistory, consisting of ministers of the Word and elders, who shall meet at least every week….” The church order of the national synod of ‘s Gravenhage, 1586, made the same distinction: “In every church there shall be a consistory, consisting of ministers of the Word and elders.”
Though clear on this distinction between consistory and deacons, the same synods permitted the deacons to be part of the consistory under certain circumstances. The Synod of Middelburg permitted churches with few elders to include deacons in the consistory “as often as the consistory needs their advice and help. Besides, they shall ordinarily be allowed there if they fulfill both the office of eldership and diaconate.” And the Synod of ‘s Gravenhage said: “Where the number of elders is very small, the deacons shall be included in the consistory.”
The Synod of Dordt, 1618-1619, adopted the Church Order that Reformed churches have used since. Article 37 originally read: “In every congregation there shall be a consistory consisting of ministers of the Word and elders….” This is substantially the same requirement as is found in the Protestant Reformed Church Order today. Then, Article 38 of the Church Order of Dordt required: “It is understood that in places where the consistory is to be newly established, the same cannot take place except with advice of the classis. And where the number of elders is very small, the deacons shall be included in the consistory.” In 1905, when the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands adopted a revised church order, this last sentence was moved to Article 37, and revised to read: “Whenever the number of the elders is small, the deacons may be added to the consistory by local regulation; this shall invariably be the rule where the number [of elders, DJK] is less than three.” In 1914 the Christian Reformed Church adopted this revised church order, and the PRC inherited it when they became a separate denomination in 1924.
To sum up the view of Reformed churches: the consistory is comprised of ministers and elders. Under certain circumstances, the deacons are added to the consistory— that is, the consistory is then comprised of ministers, elders, and deacons. Those certain circumstances are spelled out: when the number of elders is small.
Against this position of Reformed churches, two arguments are lodged, from opposite directions.
The first is that the deacons should be part of the consistory always, not only when the number of elders is small. Those who take this position point to Article 30 of the Belgic Confession: “We believe that…there must be…elders and deacons, who, together with the pastors, form the council of the church.”
In answer to this argument, we point out that in every church, the deacons do work together with the pastor and elders—either in the consistory, or in the council. Reformed churches who do not add the deacons to the consistory are not in violation of Article 30 of the Belgic Confession, for in them the deacons meet with elders and pastors in the council.
Furthermore, VanDellen and Monsma write in response to this argument: “But let it be noted that in Article 30 of the Confession we declare by whom the Churches ought to be governed, and that in the Church Order we stipulate how the work of the office-bearers is to be executed.”² That is, in the Belgic Confession Reformed churches confess that the offices of pastor, elder, and deacon must be found in churches. In our Church Order, we spell out in more detail what the work of each office is, and how each office does its work in relation to the other offices. The Confession does not touch on these points; therefore, the Church Order does not contradict it.
The second argument is that the deacons should never be part of the consistory. The deacons are an office distinct from the elders, with a distinct work; to make them part of the consistory is to require them to involve themselves in the work of the elders.
Our answer to this also is twofold. First, we have already argued in our second article in this series (November 15, 2007) that the deacons must work with the elders and pastors because the three offices in the church manifest the one office of Jesus Christ, with its three aspects. Cooperation between the offices is required.
Second, more to the point of the smaller congregations in which the deacons are added to the consistory, Reformed churches also maintain that there must be at least two elders and at least one deacon in every congregation. “A consistory, in order to be a consistory, must have at least two elders; there must be a plurality of elders. The Synod of ‘s Gravenhage, 1624, declared that one elder and one deacon do not constitute a legitimate consistory.”³
Two elders are required; more than two is better. “In the multitude of counsellors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14). But in the smaller congregations there are not always more; then the deacons are added to the consistory so that as many authorized men (officebearers) as possible might have a say in the church’s government.
Remember, too, that in smaller congregations there are few deacons—in very small congregations, only one deacon. But one deacon cannot do the work of the diaconate alone. He can take collections alone, perhaps; but to assess need and distribute money or gifts to the needy requires at least two. Part of the reason, then, why the deacons are added to the consistory is so that the deacons also can do their work in conjunction with other officebearers.
When the deacons are added to the consistory, they are given the full right to be involved in all discussions regarding the work of the elders, and to vote in matters that pertain exclusively to the work of the elders, such as discipline.
Church polity experts have long raised and debated this question, both in the history of Reformed churches generally and in the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
The esteemed Rev. Ophoff seems to have changed his own view on the matter. In an early volume of the Standard Bearer, he wrote:
when this rule is followed [the rule regarding adding deacons to the consistory, DJK], it is manifestly the desire of the Church Order that the deacons be admitted not as a body that belongs to the structure of the body of elders, but merely as an addition to this body, an addition with an advisory vote. Even when this rule is followed the body of elders remains the council proper, the only body in the church vested with the right to regulate, to fix by vote, matters of discipline and doctrine (vol. 8, p. 44).
However, in his manuscript entitled “Church Right,” he wrote:
Hence, if the deacons are added to the consistory they thereby are made elders and thus are elders in addition to their being deacons…. For if the deacons are added to the consistory, they have decisive vote in all matters and likewise the elders. It really means that the elders, in addition to being elders are also deacons and that the deacons in addition to being deacons are also elders. A deacon cannot function as an elder if he is not an elder.”4
It seems, then, that at first Rev. Ophoff considered deacons, when added to the consistory, to have advisory vote only, because they were not elders; and later said that they had a true vote because by being added to the consistory they were made elders in addition to being deacons.
Rev. VandenBerg took the position, as apparently Rev. Ophoff had at the first, that the deacons are not elders, and so must be given only an advisory vote (SB, vol. 35, p. 381).
Taking the stand that when deacons are added to the consistory they become fully a part of the consistory, with the right to speak to and vote in all matters that come before it, are Prof. Cammenga (SB, vol. 69, p. 226) and Prof. Hanko (Notes on the Church Order, p. 67), as well as VanDellen and Monsma (The Church Order Commentary, p. 166). TheStandard Bearer has published a detailed and capable defense of this position written by Mr. Martin Swart (vol. 75, pp. 185-187, 206-208).
The point we are making is that when deacons are added to the consistory, they are given the authority to be involved in the work of the consistory.
It is good that, as much as possible, the ones going on family visitation, making discipline calls, and doing other work that is specific to the elders’ office, are themselves elders. But the deacons, when added to the consistory, are permitted to enter into the discussion of this work, and vote on matters that pertain to it. The deacons may even assist the elders on such calls in emergency situations. Perhaps a congregation has only two elders, and one of them is seriously ill or taken in death. While the congregation waits for that elder to recover or be replaced (assuming these are real possibilities), the deacon may assist the other elder in the work of his office.
The reverse is true, too. Situations might arise in which it is necessary for an elder, in conjunction with the deacon(s), to enter into the work of the deacons. I did not say that the elders as a body take over the work. Rather, that an elder assists the deacon(s) in the work that belongs to the deacon’s office, either if a congregation has only one deacon, or if it has more than one but one is incapacitated for a time.
By this explanation of the relationship of deacons to consistory, we maintain the distinction in offices, arguing that the elders must be busy in the work of the elders and the deacons in the work of the deacons. But we also avoid another danger—the danger that, if God in His providence should remove an officebearer from active labor in the congregation, the work of an office does not get done, because only one elder or deacon is left. The work of the church must get done. It must be done by officebearers. When necessary, and with the consent of the consistory as a whole, the work of the elders may be done by a deacon in conjunction with an elder, and the work of the deacons may be done by an elder in conjunction with a deacon.
This will promote good order in smaller congregations.
¹ All quotations from the Dutch Reformed synods are taken from Richard R. DeRidder’s translation of Ecclesiastical Manual, including the decisions of the Netherlands Synods and other significant matters relating to the government of the churches (originally authored by P. Biesterveld and Dr. H.H. Kuyper), Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1982. I will not give page references.
² VanDellen and Monsma, The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1941), p. 165.
³ Rev. Ronald Cammenga, “The Consistory,” Standard Bearer, vol. 69, p. 226 (February 15, 1993).
4. “Church Right” is an undated syllabus published by our seminary, prepared for use in teaching Church Polity. The above quote is also found in Standard Bearer vol. 35, p. 381.