Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin.
After the deacons have been nominated and elected to office, it is necessary and fitting that they be installed into office in a ceremony during the worship service.
Our Church Order, on the basis of Scripture, requires such a ceremony. Article 22 says of elders and deacons: “that they may … be installed with public prayers and stipulations … agreeably to the form for this purpose.”
According to Acts 6, the first deacons were installed in a church ceremony. The congregation, having chosen seven men to be deacons, placed these seven before the apostles; “and when they (i.e., the apostles, DJK) had prayed, they laid their hands on them” (v. 6). Although this is the only explicit scriptural reference to such a ceremony at the installation of deacons, other passages indicate that missionaries, pastors, and elders were installed in similar manner (Acts 13:3, I Tim. 4:14, II Tim. 1:6,Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5).
For a deacon to begin the work of his office prior to this ceremony, or even apart from such a ceremony, contradicts scriptural principles that must govern us in our church life.
Where and when should this ceremony take place?
It should take place in a public worship service of the congregation. Article 22 specifies that the installation must include “public prayers,” indicating that the ceremony should be one in which the congregation is present. The example of the installation of the first deacons also indicates that the church must be present. A private installation ceremony at a meeting of the council only is improper. The congregation must witness the vows and the signing of the Formula of Subscription and hear the charge given to it regarding the men who hold office.
While it is not commonly the practice to hold a special midweek service for the purpose of installing elders and deacons, such would not be out of order. Commonly, however, such officebearers are installed at a regular worship service on the Lord’s Day.
This installation should take place relatively soon, but not immediately, after the election.
It should not take place immediately after the election because there must be a period of approbation in which the congregation, by its silence, approves of these men holding office. In the event that the council submitted to the congregation a nomination of men from which the congregation voted, the congregation already had one opportunity to give its approbation. But this second period of approbation is important, for the congregation must now approve those specific men who are appointed to office. The Form of Installation assumes such a period of approbation has taken place: “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.”
Though this ceremony should not take place immediately after the election, it should take place soon after. These men have been chosen to office, and after a reasonable period of time for the congregation to give its tacit approval, they should be installed so that they can begin their work. Customarily this installation takes place either on New Year’s Day or, more preferably, on the first Sunday in January, allowing for an approbation period of two to four weeks.
More important than the question regarding where and when is this question: what is the significance of the installation ceremony?
Certainly the significance is not that which Rome claims it to be, namely, that installation is really a sacrament (“holy orders”) by which the deacon or officebearer is given grace to carry out his duties. The fundamental problem with this view is that Christ did not institute installation or ordination to be a sacrament in His church. Furthermore, God’s grace is never actually conferred by the church through any activity or ceremony which she may perform.
Nevertheless, the ceremony does have significance, first of all, for the officebearer being installed. In The Church Order Commentary, VanDellen and Monsma sum up that significance in these words: “So that the appointees may publicly accept their appointment to office, and publicly assume their responsibilities, openly promising before God and His Church loyalty and devotion, and openly testifying that they accept the appointment as coming from God Himself” (p. 106).
The questions put to the appointees by the minister, according to the Form’s direction, would indicate that indeed this is part of the significance of the installation. The appointee testifies openly that he understands himself to be called to office, and will do his work faithfully, as required by Scripture, which he understands to be God’s Word.
However, VanDellen and Monsma’s explanation of the significance of installation is insufficient. It ignores the fact that the ceremony of installation is a means by which God, through the church, actually confers authority upon the officebearer. The officebearer has authority to do his work, not merely because he has been called to it by a majority of the congregation, but also because the church, in the service of Christ, has officially given him that authority.
Furthermore, inasmuch as the officebearer is actually given this authority, the installation ceremony serves to give the officebearer assurance that God will equip him to serve. This assurance is rooted, ultimately, in the fact that God called him to office. Whom God calls, He equips. Similarly, to that man whom God gives authority to work, God also gives the promise that He will continually equip for the work.
Where is the evidence that the ceremony has this significance, that it is the actual conferring of authority upon the officebearer, and that it assures him that God will continually equip him for his work?
First, this is indicated by the words that the minister says as soon as the men have answered “Yes” to the questions put to them: “The Almighty God and Father replenish you all with His grace, that ye may faithfully and fruitfully discharge your respective offices. Amen.” This is a form of blessing—not merely a prayer that God do it, but a statement that God will do it. It is spoken by the minister, as the prophetic mouthpiece of God.
Second, the fact that prayer is made by the church through the minister, that God would equip the officebearers for their work, indicates such. We read in the prayer of the Form of Installation, “We beseech thee, replenish them more and more with such gifts as are necessary for them in their ministration—with the gifts of wisdom, courage, discretion, and benevolence…. Give grace both to the elders and deacons, that they may persevere in their faithful labor, and never become weary by reason of any trouble, pain, or persecution of the world.” Such prayer God will surely hear, for the sake of Christ His Son.
Thirdly, the laying on of hands in the New Testament, and the anointing with oil in the Old, signified both that God had called one to official work in God’s church, and that God would certainly give him the gifts of the Spirit necessary for the work. These gifts were not necessarily given at the very moment of the anointing; in fact, they were often apparent in a person before he was anointed. Furthermore, we must remember that the giving of such gifts is a continual work of the Spirit of God. Nevertheless, that the anointing signified that such gifts would truly be given is evident from the fact that, when David was anointed, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward” (I Sam. 16:13). And Paul tells Timothy not to neglect “the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery” (I Tim. 4:14). Just as the laying on of hands was the public testimony that one was given authority to hold office in the church, and just as the laying on of hands was a word of assurance that God would equip the one He had called, so is this the significance of installation into office today.
Should we still lay hands on those being installed?
One could argue that we should do so. First, we appear to be inconsistent in this matter, because we do lay hands on those being ordained into the office of the ministry. Second, the practice was used in biblical times, and was a beautiful picture of God’s work of equipping officebearers for their work.
At the same time, one could argue that the church is not obliged to include the laying on of hands in the installation ceremony. For, in the first place, although we read of instances of such in Scripture, Scripture never commands the church to do this. Second, our Form of Installation directs us to the reality to which the laying on of hands pointed. Because we know and are reminded of this reality, it is not crucial that we have the sign. Third, the reason why we lay hands on ministers at their ordination but not on elders and deacons at their installation is that the former are called to their office for life, the latter only for a time.
Our answer to the above question, therefore, is this: to lay hands on those being installed is not a matter of right or wrong. In this matter the church of Jesus Christ on earth has liberty to do as she pleases.
An installation ceremony is significant, not only for the officebearer, but also for the congregation as a whole. According to VanDellen and Monsma theChurch order provides for proper installation “in order that the congregation may receive its new officebearers in the right attitude of heart and mind. Furthermore, in order that the congregation may appropriately implore God’s blessing upon the newly elected office-bearers” (p. 106).
That this is the significance of the installation is also made clear from the Form, which requires the minister to give this exhortation to the congregation: “On the other hand, beloved Christians, receive these men as the servants of God; count the elders that rule well worthy of double honor; give yourselves willingly to their inspection and government. Provide the deacons with good means to assist the indigent.” Later, the minister is to pray for the congregation: “Grant also especially Thy divine grace to this people over whom they are placed….”
Public installation is God’s way of showing the congregation whom He has placed in office. The congregation then knows that it is their duty to submit to and honor these men for God’s sake. Having approved the installation of these men into office, and having witnessed the installation ceremony, the members of the congregation are without excuse before God if they resist their officebearers.
It is the custom in Reformed churches that the man being installed into office, if he has never before held office in that particular congregation, sign the Formula of Subscription. Article 54 of the Church Order requires this: “Likewise the elders and deacons shall subscribe to the aforesaid formulas of unity.” (Article 53 requires the ministers and professors to subscribe to the Reformed creeds, and requires those who will not do so to be suspended from office, and ultimately deposed if they obstinately persisted in refusing.) To “subscribe” means literally “to write under,” to sign one’s name underneath, indicating that one agrees with what is taught. So we have our officebearers sign the Formula of Subscription, as a way of indicating that they agree with the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dordrecht.
By signing the Formula of Subscription, the officebearer indicates that he believes that the teachings of the Reformed confessions are in full agreement with the Word of God; that he will diligently teach and faithfully defend the truths summarized in these confessions; that he rejects the errors condemned in them; and that he stands ready to explain his beliefs to the consistory, classis, or synod, if so asked.
The officebearer must sign this form in good conscience and in sincerity of heart. By signing it, one commits himself to keeping the congregation and churches free of all impurity, and to maintain and defend the truth. This formula is to be signed publicly so that all can see that the officebearer has done so, and witness his testimony.
Having answered yes to the questions, having signed the Formula, having received the exhortation to diligence, and having been committed to God in his need for grace, the officebearer is ready to begin his work.