Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin.
Collecting the alms . . . distributing them to the poor according to their needs… visiting and comforting the distressed . . . keeping in touch with other civil or social organizations who also care for the poor . . . showing mercy to Christians who, although not poor, still have physical infirmities or needs…teaching the people of God regarding stewardship— all of this is the work that pertains specifically to the office of deacon. For the last three years the articles that have appeared in this rubric have emphasized that the fundamental work of deacons in the church of Jesus Christ is the bodily and spiritual care of the poor and needy.
Collecting money for the general fund and other special collections . . . setting up the collection schedule…meeting with the elders and pastor as a council to oversee the financial affairs of the congregation and the matter of the church’s building and property . . . being involved with the elders and pastor in nominating men for the special offices . . . occasionally being delegated to a broader assembly such as Classis—in such activities we also see our deacons being busy. Is it proper for them to be involved in such activities?
Such is proper. True, these activities are not the fundamental work of their office. Deacons and congregation alike must never forget this. The reason why it is proper for deacons to be involved in such activities is not to be found in the fundamental character of their office as an office of mercy.
The propriety is due to the fact that the deacons hold office. They have been appointed by God through the church to a position of authority. Of necessity, then, they will have to attend to duties and carry out responsibilities that are not specific to any particular office, but that must be done by those whom the church has invested with authority. The key point is that they attend to such duties, not just as deacons, but in conjunction with the other officebearers of the church.
To understand this better, we will devote several articles to an examination of the relationship between the deacons and the consistory. By definition, the consistory is comprised of the pastors and elders in any given congregation: “In all churches there shall be a consistory composed of the ministers of the Word and the elders . . .” (Church Order, Article 37).¹ So we are examining the relationship of the deacons to the other offices.
Note at the outset that this is aworking relationship between the offices. By speaking of a relationship between the deacons and the consistory 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.
That there is such a relationship is clear from our Reformed confessions.
Reformed believers confess in Article 30 of the Belgic Confession:
We believe that this true church must be governed by the spiritual policy which our Lord has taught us in His Word, namely, that there must be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and to administer the sacraments; also elders and deacons, who, together with the pastors, form the council of the church . . . .²
The key point of this quote is the statement that pastors, elders, and deacons together comprise the church’s council.
We consider our Church Order to be a confession—albeit aminor confession, rather than amajor confession. It is minor, not in significance or importance, but because it treats a specific point of the church’s doctrine and life rather than giving a comprehensive statement of our faith.
In several places our Church Order indicates that the office of deacon is related to, and must work closely with, that of pastor and elder.
The Church Order requires deacons to work with the elders in the calling and releasing of pastors. Articles four and five require ministers to be chosen, or called, “by the consistory and the deacons.” The phrase just quoted is repeated in both articles; in article four, with reference to calling one who has not previously served in office (a “candidate”), and in article five with reference to calling one who is already in the ministry in another congregation. Article 10 stipulates that when a minister leaves a congregation to accept a call elsewhere, he may not do so “without the consent of the consistory, together with the deacons.”
Not only in the selecting of pastors, but also in the selecting of elders, the deacons play a role. Article 22 prescribes: “The elders shall be chosen by the judgment of the consistory and the deacons . . . .” And both pastors and elders work with the deacons in choosing deacons: “The deacons shall be chosen, approved, and installed in the same manner as was stated concerning the elders” (Art. 24).
These articles manifest the principle that the election of officebearers in the church is the work of all three offices. Applying this principle further, we argue that the approval of a minister’s dismissal or retirement is also the work of the deacons with the elders and pastors, even though Articles 11-13 do not specifically mention the deacons.
In other places the Church Order requires all three offices to take mutual oversight of each other. Article 16 requires the minister, among other things, “to watch over his brethren, the elders and deacons,” whereas Article 23 requires the elders, among other things, “to take heed that the ministers, together with their fellow-elders and the deacons, faithfully discharge their office.” Regarding their collection and distribution of alms, deacons are to “render an account in consistory” (Art. 25). Article 40, requiring the deacons to meet regularly to transact the business of their office, concludes: “whereunto the ministers shall take good heed, and if necessary they shall be present.” And Article 81 prescribes that “the ministers of the Word, elders, and deacons shall before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper exercise Christian censure among themselves and in a friendly spirit admonish one another with regard to the discharge of their office.”
Article 37 of the Church Order requires the deacons in some instances to participate in the work of the elders: “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.” Not all agree that this article requires deacons actually to participate in the work of the consistory. This point we will develop at length in a future article, God willing. Clearly, however, it does speak of a working relationship between the office of elder and deacon.
We conclude that the existence of such a relationship among the offices, manifest in doing some aspects of the work of the church in common, is not a minor point in our Church Order. Eleven of the 86 articles make explicit reference to such a relationship, and other articles imply it.
Even before the Synod of Dordt in 1618-1619, when the Church Order of Dordt was drawn up and when the Belgic Confession was officially adopted as a Reformed Creed, one finds evidence that Reformed churches understood the need for a working relationship among the three offices. Article six of the “Acts or Proceeding” of the Synod of Emden (October 1571) says: “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.”³
Not all understood the intent of this decision, apparently, so that the Synod of Dordrecht (June 1574) had to explain it:
To clarify the 6thArticle of the Synod of Embden (sic), 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 affaires concerning the poor. However, in places where there are few elders, the deacons may be admitted according to the desire of the consistory. The deacons shall be obligated to appear when they are summoned to the consistory.4
This article is clear on the point that the three offices must meet together to take care of some of the work of the church, while each office must meet separately to do the work specific to it.
The Synod of Dordrecht (June 1578) required that “the consistory, with the addition of the deacons,” choose ministers. This was repeated by the Synods of Middelburg (1581) and ‘s Gravenhage (June 1586). This latter Synod also required the elders to “be chosen by the judgment of the consistory and deacons.”5 The Synods of Middelburg and ‘s Gravenhage also prescribed that the deacons be part of the consistory in certain instances, particularly when the number of elders is small.6
Thus we see that these ideas were well entrenched in the thinking of Reformed churches by the time the Synod of Dordt met in 1618-1619.
Is there a scriptural basis for speaking of a working relationship between the elders and deacons?
Not explicitly, but implicitly, such a basis can be found.
Remember that Scripture says very little about the work of deacons—or of the deacons’ office, for that matter. Scripture’s explicit references to the office of deacon are found inPhilippians 1:1, in which Paul addresses the church in Philippi “with the bishops and deacons,” and I Timothy 3:8-13, which sets forth the qualifications of deacons. That the work of the office is the care of the poor is clear from Acts 6:1-6. Scripture gives no detailed instructions regarding how the deacons should do their work, nor regarding the relationship of the deacons to the elders.
Do not suppose, though, that the scriptural basis for a working relationship between elders and deacons is very weak and tenuous. Rather, the implicit support is compelling.
First is the fact that, whenever the office of deacon is explicitly mentioned, it is so in connection with the elders. Not only doesPhilippians 1:1 mention both offices in the same phrase, but I Timothy 3gives the qualification of both elders and deacons. The reason for this is that both the eldership and the diaconate are offices in the church. That very fact presupposes a working relationship.
Second, considering that the three offices in the church are but three manifestations of the one office of Christ, we see that there must be a close working relationship between them. Jesus Christ’s single office is that of Mediator of God’s covenant. As such, Christ is the church’s chief prophet, only high priest, and eternal king. Christ exercises His single office, with its three aspects, through the officebearers of the church. Each office in the church represents one aspect of Christ’s office: as prophet, Christ works through the office of pastor; as king, through that of elder; and as priest, through that of deacon. Yet Christ’s office is one! Therefore the three offices in the church, which represent the one office of Jesus Christ, must function together to manifest that Jesus Christ is the one Head of His church.
Thirdly, the Scriptures teach that Jesus Christ works in each of His saints, all of whom hold the office of all believers. I Peter 2:9speaks of the church as manifest on earth, made up of many individual saints, as being a “royal priesthood,” who are to function as prophets by showing “forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” The apostle John notes in I John 2:7that we have the anointing of Christ, so that we know the truth—a reference to the office and work of prophet. The same apostle indicates in Revelation 1:6that Christ hath made us, members of the church, “kings and priests unto God and his Father.”
While each child of God is required to manifest this anointing of Christ upon us in all of our life (see the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 12, Q&A 32), the fact is that each child of God also manifests it in the church through the officebearers. The point is that the office of all believers is one office. As the office of all believers functions through the special offices in the church, therefore, this one office must be manifest in a close working relationship among the three special offices.
So from Scripture, by good and necessary consequence, we deduce that which is explicit in our confessions—there is a close relationship between the offices of pastor, elder, and deacon. That close relationship may not cause the distinction between the offices to be erased; but at the same time the relationship must be manifest.
In our next article, the Lord willing, we will explain in more detail the necessity of this relationship of the deacons to the consistory.
¹ In this article I make numerous references to the Church Order. I will not footnote each. The interested reader can find this document in the green booklet, The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, 2002 edition, pp. 1-32.
² Philip Schaff, ed, The Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3, “The Evangelical Protestant Creeds” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990), p. 421.
³ Richard R. DeRidder, 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), p. 43.
4 DeRidder, pp. 59-60.
5 DeRidder, pp. 81, 109, 141, 144.
6 DeRidder, pp. 121, 147.