Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin.
In our last article we noted three biblical principles that govern the election and installation of officebearers. First, the church as a whole, not only her rulers, ought to be involved in the selection process. Second, those who are in office must supervise the calling and installation process. Third, officebearers should be installed in a solemn ceremony in the presence of the church.
In this article we will expand on the first principle, showing what role the congregation plays in the nomination and election of deacons.
What this role is, the Church Order of Dordrecht sets forth in Article 22. Article 22 actually speaks to the nomination and election of elders. However, as article 24 makes clear, it pertains also to the nomination and election 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 role listed is that of suggesting names of suitable men to the council, if the council gives the congregation this opportunity.¹
Notice that councils are not required to give this opportunity to the congregation, but are permitted to do so: “every church shall be at liberty, according to its circumstances” (emphasis mine, DJK). This means that the opportunity to suggest names of suitable men for office is not an inherent right of the congregation, but a privilege which may be given it.
Why is the council permitted, but not required, to give the congregation this opportunity? It is permitted because the church of Jesus Christ is made up of saints who hold the office of all believers. Because the office of all believers functions through the special offices, the congregation must have a say in the process of choosing officebearers. Permitting the members to suggest names of suitable men is one way in which the council gives them this say.
However, it is not required, because circumstances might arise which render this privilege eitherpointless, or unwise. It might be pointless, due to the small size of the church. VanDellen and Monsma write: “It may be less necessary to do so in our smaller Churches inasmuch as the Consistories of these smaller Churches will know the membership of their Churches sufficiently well to nominate without this activity on the part of the Church, but in larger Churches it is doubtless very desirable.”² It is possible that the members of a larger church do not know each other as well as those of a smaller church. Also the officebearers of a larger church might not always know who are the most suitable men to serve in office. Other circumstances which might make a council decide not to give the congregation this opportunity include trouble in the congregation, which would make it unwise to solicit names; or a small number of truly qualified men in the congregation, with the officebearers being aware of who they are.
Should, then, a council not give the congregation the opportunity to suggest names of suitable men, does that council violate the principle requiring the congregation’s involvement in the election of officebearers? Evidently our Reformed fathers did not think so. Had they thought so, they would not have permitted, but required, councils to give the church this opportunity. And the reason why the principle is not violated when this privilege is not given to the congregation is that there are other ways, other required ways, other fundamental ways, in which the congregation plays a role in the nomination and election process. Presently we will see what these fundamental ways are. For now, we must understand that, because there are other ways in which the congregation does and must play a role in electing officebearers, the congregation must not think their role has been ignored when a council does not give the opportunity to suggest the names of suitable men.
When such opportunity is given, the members of the congregation should understand two things.
First, the congregation may submit the names only of “suitable persons.” “Suitable persons” are those who are qualified according to God’s requirements in I Timothy 3. No member should suggest the name of someone just because he wants that person to be in office. Each person who suggests a name should, prior to suggesting the name, examine carefully the qualifications for office, to be sure the person meets them. “Suitable” also implies that the person whose name is suggested would be capable of serving the church well. Even though a man may be spiritually qualified, he is not capable of serving the church well if he is physically unable to do the work of the church due to health, work, or family situation.
Members of the congregation, by all means suggest names when that opportunity is given. But at the same time, be sure the men are suitable! To take care in this regard will manifest your own true love for the church.
Second, when one has suggested the name of a person, one ought not think that this person will certainly be nominated to office. Nor should one think that the reason he was not nominated is that the council did not like him, or did not consider him to be qualified. Prof. William Heyns correctly writes, “The intention is not that the Consistory shall in any way consider itself bound to make its nomination conform to the result (i.e., to the list of those men suggested by the congregation, DJK), for then it would actually be an election by the people, and that by free ballot.”³
The congregation should understand that, just like the elections at the congregational meeting, also the nominations in the council meeting are done by secret ballot. In the meeting at which officebearers are nominated, the council makes a list of suitable men. This list consists of names suggested by council members themselves, as well as by the congregation, if that opportunity has been given. The council then frankly discusses the qualifications of each suggested person, and his ability to serve, while being sure to avoid sin against the ninth commandment. The names of any men who, in the council’s judgment, are unqualified to serve or unable to serve, are removed. The members of the council then vote by secret ballot for nominees, with those nominees who receive the highest number of majority votes being officially nominated for office. This could mean that, out of ten men deemed qualified, four are selected. Why were these four, and not any of the other six, selected? Simply this: such was the outcome of the vote. And then we believe, “The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord” (Prov. 16:33). Just as there is ultimately no other reason why two certain men out of four nominees are finally elected at a congregational meeting, so there is ultimately no other reason why these certain four men appeared as nominees.
I explain this process to show that the men of the council do not merely collaborate to get those men elected whom they like. Sometimes members of the congregation might accuse the council of this, when they see which men have been nominated. It would be wrong of the council to nominate men merely because the men of the council like them; the council must be governed in making nominations by God’s Word in
I Timothy 3. But such collaboration would be very difficult, when the procedure mentioned above is followed. Each man is one vote—and the majority rules.
Members of the council, be sure to nominate decently and in good order!
And members of the congregation, do not consider yourselves free to criticize the selection offered you when the council presents a list of nominees for office. Of course, if you believe it necessary, you may and must bring lawful objections against a nominee. But do not say, if the nominees are qualified, “Why is it that group of men? Why is not so-and-so on the list?” The whole disposing of the lot is of the Lord. Do not grumble at what He has done.
The second aspect of the role of the congregation in electing deacons is that of approving those nominated for office.
It matters not whether the council has chosen to present as many men as are needed for office, or double that number with half to be elected by the congregation. Either way, it is the duty of the congregation to approve the list of nominees. Article 22 of our Church Order does not give the council liberty to elect and install any officebearer without the congre-gation’s approval of their election and installation. The introduction to the Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons shows that such approval is necessary:
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; and whereas no one hath appeared before us who hath alleged anything lawful against them, we shall therefore at present, in the name of the Lord, proceed to their ordination.
In order that the congregation be given this opportunity, councils of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America have decided to announce nominations on two successive Sundays before election at the congregational meeting (cf. the decision pertaining to Article 22 in the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches). Then after the election, they announce the names of those elected on two successive Sundays prior to installation. This latter is the decisive period of approbation.
How does the congregation show its approval? The practice generally followed in Reformed churches is that of tacit approbation—that is, silent or unspoken approval. Peter Y. DeJong writes, “When the proper announcements have been made and no one has appeared at the consistory to allege anything against the elected brethren, the consistory may rightly assume that the congregation is fully satisfied with the choice which has been made. Thus the way is officially open to proceed with the installation.”4
This implies that if there is any objection to the nominations, it must be expressed. These objections must be brought carefully and properly. Carefully, because the objection is against one who, even if not fit for office, is a brother in the Lord. His reputation must be safeguarded. And properly, that God be glorified, His Word honored, and all things be done decently and in order.
What does bringing such an objection properly imply? First, one must bring his objection to the council. One with an objection must not speak to others outside the council about it. To do so would open oneself up to charges of sin against the ninth commandment. Secondly, one must base his objection on the Word of God as found in I Timothy 3—that is, one must work to show the council that the nominee is unqualified in God’s sight. The objector should state specifically which qualification he considers the nominee to lack, and must show why he thinks so. Furthermore, if he alleges that the nominee is unqualified because of impenitence in sin, the objector must assure the council that he is also following the procedure set forth in Matthew 18:15ff. and in the Church Order, to bring the brother to repentance. Thirdly, the objector must be willing to abide by the decision of the council, or be prepared to appeal that decision to the classis, and if necessary, the synod.
Councils do well to heed two cautions: “First of all, the consistory may never neglect or ignore substantiated objections, no matter how trivial they may seem at first glance…. On the other hand, the consistory must not lend a ready ear to all kinds of personal prejudices.”5
The third aspect of the congregation’s role in electing deacons is that of the election itself. This takes place at the time and place determined by the council.
All confessing male members of the congregation who are in good standing have the right and privilege to vote, and ought to exercise that right. If one is not able to be bodily present at the meeting, he should still exercise the rights of his office by giving the clerk of the council an absentee ballot. On this ballot should be written the names of the men whom he desires to be in office. The ballot should be sealed in an envelope so that the names are not seen by any and all, and the envelope should be signed on the outside, as a seal that the man who signed truly cast his vote.
All Reformed believers should remember that at such meetings, those receiving majority votes have been elected by the whole congregation. It may be I voted for a man who did not receive the majority of votes; yet I must leave the meeting knowing that I, along with the congregation, elected that man to office who did receive the majority. The reason, once more, is that the Lord directed the vote.
Congregation of believers, your rights as members of Christ’s church have been spelled out above. But these rights are also privileges, for Christ gives this right only to those for whom He died and who are incorporated into His church by a true and living faith. Take these rights and privileges seriously, and exercise them as servants of the Lord Himself!
Then receive your officebearers, as those whom the Lord has given you, and as those whom you yourself have approved and chosen.
1.The words “council” and “consistory” are often used interchangeably. “Council” technically refers to the joint meeting of all officebearers of the church, the body which oversees the nomination and election process. “Consistory” technically refers to the elders.
2.VanDellen, Idzerd, and Martin Monsma. The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1941), p. 104.
3.Heyns, Prof. William. Handbook for Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1928), p. 124.
4.DeJong, Peter Y. The Ministry of Mercy for Today (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1963), p. 122.
5.DeJong, ibid, pp. 121-122.