Separate Meetings of Elders and Deacons

Rev. Moore is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa.

My sectional is intended to deal with the practical and spiritual implications of having separate meetings of elders and deacons. My contention is that if a congregation grows to a size such that the number of officebearers makes it possible to have separate meetings of the elders and deacons, then it is profitable to do this. It is profitable for the work of both the elders and the deacons, and thus also for the congregation. We will attempt to draw attention to some of these points of profit during the course of this paper. We will attempt also to set up certain guidelines for the division of labor when a Council decides to hold separate meetings for the elders and deacons.

There is a definite distinction made in the Scripture and in the church order of our churches between the consistory and the deacons. The articles of the church order that speak of the Consistory make reference to the ministers and the elders, and this in distinction from the body of deacons. We refer especially to Articles 4, 5, 10, and others that speak of the Consistory and make this distinction. In the church order, Article 37, there is however provision made for deacons to be included in the Consistory. But this article also makes clear that the rule is that there is to be a distinction made between the Consistory and the deacons, with the ministers of the Word and the elders forming the Consistory. We quote part of the article: “In all Churches there shall be a Consistory composed of the Ministers of the Word and the Elders, who at least in larger congregations, shall, as a rule, meet once a week.”

This has been the distinction made by the churches since 1574 at a synod of Dordt. But also there is the exception of this distinction made when the Consistory is small. Notes: “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 is less than three.” The last part of this statement, that “this shall invariably be the rule,” was added in 1914 as a matter of safety and sanctified wisdom. Because God providentially has kept our congregations limited in terms of membership, and because the preaching of the pure gospel of Christ is not attractive to the mass of people, the exception has almost become the rule in our denomination. For the majority of our congregations, the deacons have been added to the number of the elders to serve in Consistory. In many cases this remains necessary because of size limitation. However, when it is possible, and, I believe, especially when the number of elders is more than four, it would be beneficial for our churches to have separate meetings of the Consistory and deacons. I believe we should strive for this.

The reason for this separation of labors is simple: to the Consistory and to the deacons God through His Son has given distinctive labors in the church of Christ. To the consistory has been given the rule of the church and the calling to take the oversight of the preaching of the Word, the labors of the officebearers, and the life of the congregation. Thus they are to exercise the royal office of the Lord. To the deacons has been given the calling to be busy with the labors of mercy in the church of Christ, and thus to exercise the priestly office of Christ. While all the officebearers together manifest the threefold office of Christ, Christ has made this distinction in the exercise of His office in the church on earth. The church order sets this truth forth in the separate articles on the offices of minister, of elder, and of deacon. Further, we understand that the labors of the Consistory and of the deacons require lengthy and diligent work to perform rightly these duties, which can be accomplished much more efficiently and carefully in separate meetings that concentrate on the work that is peculiar to the respective offices.

With this said we must add that when a Consistory is still small and the deacons are added to the Consistory, the deacons must be included in all the decisions of the Consistory. They give advice and vote on all matters of the Consistory. This includes the matters of spiritual concerns within the congregation, and upon matters of Christian discipline as well. In effect, while they are added to the Consistory, the deacons also in these decisions are acting elders. The converse is also true, the elders together with the deacons make decisions concerning the work of the office of mercy. To do otherwise would be contrary to the church order.

Let us consider now how the labor of a Council is to be divided and carried out when there is sufficient size to warrant separate meetings of the Consistory and deacons. In this connection let us understand that the church order in several articles teaches us that the ministers, elders, and deacons are to meet regularly and monthly, at the very least. The various articles of the church order mention meeting even weekly; and, if the work warrants, this maybe necessary in a very large church. However, practically, the work of the church can usually be handled properly in our churches by holding regular monthly meetings, and making provision for special meetings to consider pressing matters that ought not to wait for the next regular meeting, whether that be by the Consistory, Diaconate, or Council.

Therefore each month the Council, the Consistory, and the Diaconate are to meet in separate meetings to accomplish the work of the church. How then is the work of the church to be divided? In the first place, we must hold that the basic division of work is determined by the peculiar offices in which the officebearers labor. The following is a suggested division of labors.

The deacons will handle all work of benevolence. This includes the scheduling of visits to the widows and orphans, and the aged or infirm, as well as the consideration of the affairs of the congregation that might suggest a need within the congregation for their labor of mercy. There is, further, the necessary consideration of the needy causes that are worthy of the labors of the deacons to collect alms and distribute them for these causes. Included is all other labor that belongs specifically to the work belonging to their office in harmony with Articles 25 and 26 of the church order. Also, for practical reasons, although this does not belong specifically to their labor as deacons, all financial matters including general, building funds, etc., are often given into the care of the deacons. And the financial reports are presented at the Council meetings.

The elders take the oversight of the congregation: exercise discipline, make provision for and report on family visits, make catechism class visits, visits to the aged, and take oversight of the deacons and of the preaching of the Word. They are to make decisions on the representation to the broader assemblies. Further, they take oversight of confessions of faith, baptism requests, transfers of membership. They take oversight of the minister, and all other spiritual matters of the congregation, including that labor that is given to them or implied in the church order, Articles 16, 21, and 23.

The Council is composed of both the elders and deacons. At the Council meetings the deacons will present a written report of their work, and the elders will report to the deacons on their labor as it affects the labors of the diaconate. The Council will handle the work of evangelism, the general fund budget, the buildings and property, nominations for office, the calling of the minister, any discipline necessary of any officebearer, the agenda for congregation meetings, the approbation of the congregation meetings, etc. – in short, all matters not concerning benevolence or the exercise of Christian discipline within the congregation and the spiritual oversight of the same. We must also include here the annual church visits. Also, we have found it helpful to have a committee of one elder and one deacon to welcome new members to our congregation. Finally, censura morum shall be conducted in harmony with Article 81 of the church order at the Council Meeting.

There shall be minute books kept by each body, the clerk of Consistory acting also as the clerk of the Council. The deacons shall choose their own officers, including President, Secretary, and General Adjunct. There shall be an elder or minister present at the deacon meetings. This is in harmony with the oversight that the Consistory is to take over the labors of the deacons.

In conclusion, it should be obvious from all the various labors required of the officebearers that the labors of the officebearers will be much better served from such a division of labors whenever this is possible. Our Lord Jesus Christ gives to the officebearers a very serious responsibility in caring for the souls of His people, and it is necessary that we undertake the same in the most orderly and spiritually edifying way possible. Even the apostles found that they could not do justice to the labor of the spiritual feeding of the flock of Christ and the spiritual oversight of the same, and also properly carry out the mercies of Christ in the church. Graciously our Lord instituted the office of deacon to care for these needs. Surely we also should see that it is the part of sanctified wisdom to accomplish our labors in the several offices by the means afforded us in separate meetings where our time can be devoted to the calling of our offices in the best possible way.