Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin.
We have answered the question of who may hold the office of deacon, by examining God’s requirements for deacons inActs 6 and I Timothy 3. The next question which needs answering is, how are such men to be chosen for and put into office?
The practice which Reformed churches often follow in choosing deacons is that the council presents a nomination of several men to the congregation, from which the congregation elects half of those nominated. In this connection, we wonder: why this procedure? Are there other acceptable procedures? How must men be nominated to office? What role, if any, does the nominee play in his nomination? When may he decline nomination to office? What role does the church as a whole play in this nomination?
Regarding their installation into office, we ask, what is the significance of installation? What does it mean that God calls a man to office? How can the deacon know with certainty that God has called him?
Other related questions arise: Why do Reformed churches permit deacons to serve a definite term of office, rather than requiring them to serve for life? What is an optimum length of a term? Under what circumstances may a deacon (or elder, by implication) be immediately reappointed to office, and how should that happen? When may a deacon’s term be lengthened or shortened, and what procedure must be followed? What constitutes proper grounds for resigning office early, or for being suspended or deposed from office?
These questions are important. A church must not follow certain practices without a good reason. She must “let all things be done decently and in order” (I Cor. 14:40).
The fact is that God’s Word does not give specific answers to these questions. Nowhere in Scripture do we find an explicit list of rules and procedures to be followed. We do, however, have one clear example to follow: Acts 6:3-6 records the narrative of the selection and installation of the first deacons in the New Testament church. Although it is rather brief, this passage in Acts is very helpful for us, for it sets forth three principles which must govern us in our answer to the questions posed above.
The first principle is that the church as a whole, not only her rulers, ought to be involved to some degree in the process of selecting her officebearers. This principle is taught in Acts 6:3: “Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.” Clearly, the apostles delegated to the church the task of finding seven men to hold the office of deacon. This principle does justice to the reality of the office of all believers in the New Testament church. In Jesus Christ, every believer is a prophet, priest, and king. This fact does not make the special offices of the church unnecessary; Acts 6 contains demonstration of the need for the special office of deacon. But the fact that every believer is a prophet, priest, and king means that it is proper for the men of the church to play a role in selecting ministers, elders, and deacons to function in the church on behalf of the whole body.
May God grant us grace to appreciate this principle, and may He grant each of us a readiness to take seriously our role in this process. Suggest names of men, when you are given opportunity to do so—and be sure these men are qualified! And by all means, male confessing members, exercise your privilege and calling to vote!
The second principle is that those who are in office must supervise the calling and installation process. Acts 6:3teaches this clearly. While leaving to the church the work of finding out seven men, the apostles made two things clear: first, the apostles themselves would appoint these men to office (“whom we may appoint over this business”); and second, these seven should be a certain kind of men, implying that if the apostles judged any man to be unfit for office, they would not appoint him. Because the church took seriously her role in the selection process and followed the instruction of the apostles, the apostles did not have to refuse to appoint any of the seven men whom the church selected.
At least two other New Testament passages support this second principle by showing that currently serving officebearers ordained new officebearers. Acts 14:23 states that Paul and Barnabas, at the end of Paul’s first missionary journey, revisited the churches which they had established and “ordained them elders in every church.” And Titus 1:5 contains Paul’s instruction to Titus to “ordain elders in every city.” We remember that also in Old Testament Israel, which was the church at that time, the priests and kings were anointed, and therefore appointed, by a currently serving priest or prophet.
This second principle does justice to the fact that the church is not a democracy. Rather, it is the manifestation on earth of the spiritual kingdom of God, in which Christ rules, through the existing officebearers of the church. As rulers under God, the officebearers must superintend the process of appointing new officebearers. Such supervision is always needed to prevent disorder. Furthermore, the existing officebearers must make a judgment, in good conscience and before God, that the men chosen to serve in office are qualified in accordance with God’s Word.
May God grant us grace to honor the work of the council in nominating men! May He keep us from undue criticism of their work! And if we believe that the council has done its work in error, or presented men for nomination who are not qualified, may He grant us grace humbly and in the right way to bring this to their attention.
The third principle is that deacons should be installed in a solemn ceremony in the presence of the church. Acts 6:6records the installation ceremony of the new deacons: “And when they (the apostles, DJK) had prayed, they laid their hands on them.” The same ceremony was used in setting apart Paul and Barnabas for the work of missions (Acts 13:3). Paul reminds Timothy that at his ordination to the office of pastor the hands of the elders and of Paul himself were laid on Timothy (I Tim. 4:14; II Tim. 1:6). Furthermore, in Old Testament Israel, no man could hold the office of priest or king who had not been anointed with oil.
Of the significance of all of this we will speak in a future article, D.V. But for the moment, we see that there is a ceremony that ought to be followed in installing deacons.
The procedure which Reformed churches follow in selecting and installing deacons is set forth in the Church Order of Dordrecht, drawn up in 1618-1619, as well as the Form of Ordination and the Belgic Confession. As we survey pertinent parts of these three documents, we will notice that they honor the principles set forth in Scripture.
All three principles are honored by the Church Order, Article 22. Although this article speaks to the election of elders, Article 24 makes clear that the same procedure is to be followed in the case of deacons: “The deacons shall be chosen, approved, and installed in the same manner as was stated concerning the elders.” Article 22 reads:
The elders shall be chosen by the judgment of the consistory and the deacons according to the regulations for that purpose established by the consistory. In pursuance of these regulations, every church shall be at liberty, according to its circumstances, to give the members an opportunity to direct attention to suitable persons, in order that the consistory may thereupon either present to the congregation for election as many elders as are needed, that they may, after they are approved by it, unless any obstacle arise, be installed with public prayers and stipulations; or present a double number to the congregation and thereupon install the one-half chosen by it, in the aforesaid manner, agreeably to the form for this purpose.
The first principle is honored by permitting members of the congregation the “opportunity to direct attention to suitable persons,” and by giving the congregation the role either of electing half of the men nominated by the consistory, or of approving the men nominated by the consistory. The second principle is honored in that explicit mention is made of “the judgment of the consistory and the deacons” in the choosing of officebearers, and in that the consistory and deacons are responsible for drawing up a list of qualified nominees for either office. The third principle is honored in that the article requires installation “with public prayers and stipulations,” which must be done “agreeably to the form for this purpose.”
“The form for this purpose” is a reference to the Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons, also adopted by the Synod of Dordt 1618-1619. This Form consists of several parts. First, it explains the institution of the offices of elder and deacon and of the duties of those offices. Then it lists three questions which must be put to the new officebearers, regarding whether they feel lawfully called of God, through His church, to their office; whether they believe the Reformed faith on the basis of the Word of God; and whether they will faithfully carry out their work as it was described. After answering these questions, the men are blessed by the minister. The Form continues with an exhortation to the officebearers to be diligent in their work, and to the congregation to receive these men as God’s servants, submitting to their rule and enabling them to carry out their duties. The Form concludes with a prayer.
The ceremony of installation consists of the reading of this Form with its prayer, and of the reading and signing of the Formula of Subscription by the new officebearers. This ceremony must be carried out in a public worship service, in which a sermon appropriate for the occasion is preached.
By using this Form, Reformed churches honor the third principle, namely, that the officebearers be installed in a solemn ceremony in the presence of the church. Inasmuch as the Form is used in a worship service, it is evident that the officebearers have the oversight of the installation of new elders and deacons. Furthermore, the Form explicitly honors the first two principles set forth above when it states at the very beginning: “Beloved Christians, you know that we have several times published unto you the names of our brethren here present who are chosen to the office of elders and deacons in this church, to the end that we might know whether any person had aught to allege why they should not be ordained in their respective offices….” The congregation was given voice in the process—specifically, the voice of objecting to a man’s nomination with scriptural reasons, if such objections existed. And the presently serving officebearers are the “we” who drew up and published the names.
Especially the first principle is honored in Article 31 of the Belgic Confession: “We believe that the ministers of God’s Word, and the elders and deacons, ought to be chosen to their respective offices by a lawful election by the church, with calling upon the name of the Lord, and in that order which the Word of God teacheth. Therefore every one must take heed not to intrude himself by indecent means, but is bound to wait till it shall please God to call him, that he may have testimony of his calling and be certain and assured that it is of the Lord.” The church elects.
In following these scriptural principles, Reformed Churches show that they are not arbitrary in their method of choosing and installing officebearers. We do not say that churches which follow another procedure are necessarily in error; scriptural principles may have different applications, or ways of application. However, we are convinced that, inasmuch as our procedure is based on these scriptural principles, God is glorified in the way in which we choose and install officebearers.
Furthermore, although there might be other ways to apply these principles to the choosing and installing of elders and deacons, individual Reformed congregations which subscribe to the Church Order of Dordt are not free to use another procedure. Our Church Order, insofar as it sets forth scriptural principles, binds us. We submit to its binding character, for the sake of good order in the churches, and to guard against an unbiblical method of choosing and installing elders and deacons. To ensure this unity of practice, consistories of Protestant Reformed Churches are asked every year at church visitation: “Are consistory members chosen in agreement with the rules of the Church Order?” (Question 6, page 110, The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, also known affectionately as the “Green Book.”)
May God be glorified each time we choose and install elders and deacons, for it is His church, and the officebearers must function on His behalf.