Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin.
In our last article on the subject of the election and installation of deacons, we developed the biblical and confessional principle that the members of the congregation, holding the office of all believers, must be involved in this process.
In this article we explain in more detail the role of the council—the currently serving pastors, elders, and deacons of the congregation. We have noted that a basic principle of Scripture and the Church Order is that the council must supervise the calling and election process. Acts 6:3, Acts 14:23, and Titus 1:5 give the biblical support for this, while Article 22 of the Church Order requires that officebearers “be chosen by the judgment of the consistory and the deacons,” and that the council be the body which installs the new officebearers.
What does such supervision on the part of the council involve? In supervising the calling and election process, what specific actions does the council take?
As we answer this question, the reader should bear in mind that the Church Order allows for some difference in procedure from one consistory to another. Article 22 requires the consistory to choose officebearers “according to the regulations for that purpose established by the consistory.” Such regulations might include the number of men to be nominated; the time of the year at which these men will be nominated and installed; a specific statement regarding the length of the term of officebearers; and a requirement that excludes from consideration for office those men who have not been members of a Protestant Reformed Church or of that specific congregation for a certain length of time.
What follows, therefore, is a general description of how our councils supervise the election and installation process. It is not meant to set forth laws which every council must always follow exactly.
First, a month or so before the nominations will be made, the president might remind the council members to give serious forethought to that important part of the process. In the weeks before the meeting at which nominations are made, the men of the council should study their church directories carefully with a view to finding suitable men, and they should study I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 carefully, to know what sort of men God requires the church to put in office. One could hope that no council member would ever come rushing into the meeting, open his church directory for the first time that month, and start suggesting names of confessing male members without having given thought to the seriousness of the matter of nominations.
Second, at the nomination meeting, the council forms a gross list of men who seem, at first sight, to be qualified and suitable for office. The president of the council asks each council member individually whether he has names to contribute to this list. Also, any names suggested by members of the congregation are put on the list. In some of our churches, as soon as a name is mentioned, it is automatically put on the list; in other churches, it is not put on unless another member of the council “seconds” the name. (This is similar to motions made in meetings; a person can make a motion to some effect, but the motion is not discussed and voted on if another person does not “second the motion.” By requiring this “seconding,” organizations save time discussing what might be pet issues or projects of only one member. Motions which are not supported fail for lack of support).
The men on this gross list “seem, at first sight, to be qualified and suitable for office,” I said above. By that I mean that the whole council has not yet expressed a judgment regarding their qualifications (in light of God’s Word) and ability to serve (in light of their individual circumstances). It might be that reasons would come out later that cause the council to think that a particular man is not qualified or suitable.
At the same time, it must be underscored that already at this point at least one or two members of the council have given serious thought to this man’s qualifications and ability to serve. No obvious reason exists why he ought not or could not serve in office. Again, I stress that council members should know and understand God’s qualifications for officebearers. No man’s name ought to be suggested, if it is obvious that he is not qualified or able to serve, or if it is obvious that for some reason the congregation would not be well served by his being in office.
Third, the council members then have opportunity to discuss the qualifications and suitability of each man on the gross list. Men are removed from the list at this point only when a council member makes a motion to remove a name, when that motion is supported by a second council member, and when that motion passes by a majority voice vote.
As the qualifications of a man are discussed, the council members must be frank with each other, all the while remembering that they enter into a discussion regarding the character of a fellow saint. Certain aspects of his character ought to be discussed. The council members should face the question whether any past sins or history of the individual render him unqualified or unsuitable to serve. They should discuss whether any present sins (I mean uncensurable sins, now) or sinful tendencies make him unqualified or unsuitable for office. Personal gifts that the person might have, which recommend him particularly for office, may be pointed out. His family situation should also be evaluated, for this will often either recommend him for office or demonstrate that he is not fit for office. A man’s love for the congregation and commitment to her well-being could be discussed.
In the process of this discussion, however, council members must guard against certain dangers. The president of the council, particularly, must be sure that he has control of the meeting, and be ready to respond to any member who might say something out of line.
One danger is that of making private sins public. Private sins of which the brother has repented must not be mentioned. If a council member knows of a private sin that a man has committed, from which he has not repented, and which would therefore render him unfit to serve in office, the officebearer should mention that fact without giving any details—but also be ready promptly to go to the brother in accordance with our Lord’s command in Matthew 18:15ff. In fact, he should have done that even before the meeting.
Another danger is that of saying more than need be said about a member of the congregation. We know that every member of Christ’s body has besetting sins and weaknesses. Some of these sins and weaknesses—those apparent to all or most—must be taken into account, while avoiding sin against the ninth commandment. Simply put, the truth about the nominees must be spoken in love. The truth about them includes both their sins and their fruits of thankfulness, their weaknesses and their strengths. Speaking the truth in love implies that the council face the question whether this man, with both his strengths and weaknesses, measures up to the qualifications of God’s Word, and would well serve his congregation in office. The love, in other words, is not only a love for the fellow saint, but for the congregation, and for God, whose the church is.
Still another danger is that of wrong motivations for desiring that a man serve, or not serve. We must avoid politics and self-seeking in nominating and electing officebearers. The question is: will God be glorified by selecting this man for office? We mentioned in our last article that the method of voting by secret ballot guards the council as a whole against such motivations. But every individual council member must be on his guard against them.
Fourth, after every man on the gross list has been discussed and evaluated in light of God’s Word and objective circumstances of life, and the list has perhaps been narrowed down, the council votes by secret ballot. Any man who receives a majority of votes has been officially nominated to office. If more than enough men receive a majority of votes, a motion must be made, supported, and passed, to consider nominated those men who have received the highest number of votes. If none, or not enough men, receive a majority vote, the names of men who have not received any vote, or only a very few votes, are removed by motion, and the men of the council vote again. Male confessing members will recognize that this is exactly how things are done also at the congregational meeting.
Fifth, when the council has a sufficient number of men officially nominated, the clerk is instructed to send the nominees a letter informing them of this fact. Should the nominee desire to be removed from the nomination list, he should inform the clerk as soon as possible, and either appear before the council to give his reasons, or state them carefully in a letter. The personal appearance, if humanly possible, is preferable.
Sixth, after the nominations are published to the congregation, the council judges any objections that might be brought against a nomination. The standard for judgment is once more twofold: whether the man is qualified, according to the Word of God, and whether he is suitable for office, in light of his particular circumstances.
Finally, the council, representing the congregation, and through the pastor particularly, installs the newly elected and approved officebearers into office.
Why is such authority and responsibility given to the council? Bearing in mind that the men elected to office will serve and represent the congregation, ought not the congregation have the decisive voice in this matter?
Giving rise to these questions is the Reformed principle of church government that each local congregation is a complete manifestation, in itself, of the body of Christ. And each member of the congregation, by virtue of the office of all believers, functions as prophet, priest, and king.
To answer those questions, we must bear in mind two other basic principles of Reformed, biblical church government.
The first principle is that of Christ’s headship of His church. Christ, as Head of the church, rules and governs her as her King. Therefore, the church of Jesus Christ is not a democratic organization, governed by the people and for the people; but, even though the members have the anointing of Christ, it is Christ who rules His church.
The second principle is that Christ rules His church through men specially called to office. The Bible states this in Ephesians 4:11-12: “And He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers….” While the verse does not explicitly say that Christ gave the church elders and deacons, it is clear that He gives officebearers. Furthermore, history demonstrates that He does so. In the Old Testament church, the nation of Israel and later of Judah, Christ ruled particularly through the kings; but He also functioned as Head of the church through the prophets and priests—all of whom He called to office. So in the New Testament church He rules and functions as Head through pastors, elders, and deacons.
Remembering these principles, we can give a threefold answer to the question why the decisive voice in the matter of electing and installing officebearers is given to the currently serving officebearers.
The first is that through them Christ functions in the church! The new officebearers are not merely men whom the church chose, but ultimately they are men whom God through Christ chose to office in His church. Therefore, seeing Christ functions through the officebearers, the decisive role in this aspect of church government is given to the council.
Second, the officebearers are also a means through which the office of all believers functions. The office of all believers does have an important voice in the election of officebearers. This voice is heard not only when the congregation approves the men nominated, suggests names of suitable men, and elects them; but this voice is heard also in the work of the council itself, for the office of all believers works through her officebearers in selecting new officebearers. Just as the congregation as a whole is called to do the work of discipline (Matt. 18:17, I Cor. 5:3-5), but carries out its calling through her elders; and just as the congregation as a whole is called to care for the poor, but does so through her deacons; so the congregation as a whole is called to select new officebearers, and does so through her council.
Third, for the council to give leadership and direction here promotes decency and good order in the church. How would it be possible for the congregation as a whole to do all the work of nominating men? All the work that thecouncil does in supervising this process, as described above, would have to be done at a congregational meeting, at which every voting member would have the right to speak. This would be very time-consuming and cumbersome.
With these principles in mind, and after making similar arguments, Peter Y. DeJong says, “As a result free and uncontrolled elections of council members, whether elders or deacons or ministers of the Word, have always been opposed in the Reformed churches as inconsistent with the teachings of the Bible and the spiritual welfare of the congregation. The sole exception is found at the time when a new congregation is organized, since as yet there is then no consistory representing all the members of the group which can give direction.”8
In the case of electing officebearers at the organization of a new congregation, two things are to be granted. First, the congregation has as yet no council to give direction. But second, to nominate and elect officebearers from the floor of a congregational meeting is cumbersome, would require a nominee immediately and publicly to give his reason for declining nomination, and would require a member of the congregation who has an objection against a nominee to do so immediately and publicly.
To solve this dilemma, our PRC Synod of 1994 added a footnote to Article 38 of the Church Order, requiring the council that supervises the organization of the new congregation to make nominations from the male membership of those who signed the letter requesting organization. This method upholds the principle of Scripture that the council must supervise the calling and election process.