Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin.
We have examined the principles of Scripture and our Church Order regarding the election and installation of deacons. Before leaving the subject, however, we should treat a few related issues. One issue regards how long deacons should serve in office. The second regards how long the deacon must be out of office before being nominated and installed into that office again. And the third regards the resignation or removal of the deacon from office. To the first two of these issues we now direct our attention.
The basic question concerning how long deacons should serve in office is the question whether a deacon should serve for life, or for a limited tenure. The practice that most, if not all, Reformed churches follow is that of term elderships and deaconships. This practice is prescribed by the Church Order drawn up by the Synod of Dordt, 1618-1619. We read in Article 27: “The elders and deacons shall serve two or more years according to local regulations, and a proportionate number shall retire every year. The retiring officers shall be succeeded by others, unless the circumstances and the profit of any church, in the execution of Articles 22 and 24, render a reelection advisable.”
Notice clearly three things.
First, the article does not prescribe how long a deacon’s term must be. It does give the minimum of two years, but allows for a longer term. The specific length of term is left up to the individual church’s discretion, as is clear from the phrase “according to local regulations.”
Second, the article clearly does not allow a man once elected to serve in that office for life. It requires “a proportionate number” to retire annually. Should a church desire an elder or deacon whose term is ending to continue in his office, a new election, a new period of approbation, and a new installation are all required, in accordance with Articles 22 and 24 of the Church Order. A church might do this, for instance, if she has no other men qualified to serve in that office, or if she judges one of her retiring officebearers to be so eminently able and qualified to serve in office, that she desires him to continue in it.
To this requirement that a proportionate number of officebearers retire annually, the Protestant Reformed Churches have added this allowance: “In case of difficulties in the congregation, the office-bearers then serving shall continue to function until their chosen successors can be installed” (Classis of June 1934; and Synod of 1944, Articles 66, 67). This allowance does not violate the principle of the article, for in such an instance not one, but all of the retiring officebearers continue in office, and then only until the circumstances are such that all can be replaced.
Third, in saying this is the practice of most, if not all, Reformed churches, we use the term “Reformed churches” in the narrow sense, distinguishing them from most, if not all, Presbyterian churches. By “Reformed churches” here is meant those that subscribe to the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dordt, and who are governed by the Church Order adopted at Dordt. While Presbyterian churches are also historically and confessionally Reformed in doctrine, their form of church government differs in some ways from that of Reformed churches. One difference is this, that they do not practice term elderships and deaconships, but consider the one elected, approved, and installed, to serve for life, unless for good cause he should resign or be removed from office.
What are the arguments for and against terms of office?
Against the practice of having terms of office, and in favor of having officebearers serve for life, weighty arguments are put forward.
Some of the arguments are of a practical nature.¹ One such argument is that it is not good for the church to have her best, most qualified men be unable to serve for periods of time. Another is that her officebearers are deprived of good experience, which would help them perform their work, by being relieved of their duties after several years. A third is that the continuity of the work of the consistory or council is interrupted by retirement of officebearers and installation of new ones.
More weighty are the arguments based on scriptural data. It is pointed out, for instance, that Scripture nowhere speaks of such limited tenure; but, on the other hand, it does seem to teach the principle of lifetime service. In the Old Testament, the kings of Israel/Judah, in the line of David, served in office for life or until sickness or old age prevented them from carrying out their work; the priests served many years in the temple; and the prophets also were not limited in their tenure. In the New Testament, we find no limit on the length of service for deacons or elders. And our own practice, as well as that of the church throughout history, has been that our ministers serve in their office for life. Consistency would require us, then, to allow elders and deacons to do the same.
Against the practice of life elderships and deaconships, and in favor of terms of office, are also put forth practical arguments. One is that by having her officebearers serve for a term, a church guards against hierarchy. Furthermore, the amount of time and energy that the officebearer must give to the work, and the sacrifices that his family must make while he is in office, necessitate a break from the work. Besides, replacement of officebearers is good for the church because the new officebearers bring with them new energy and new ideas. And, if any of the office-bearers do not perform their work well, having them serve for a term is the easiest way to remove them from office.
More weighty, again, are the principle reasons. One is that Scripture, being silent on the issue, leaves it to the liberty of the churches to do as they please. The fact that God does not expressly require that officebearers serve for life means that He could be glorified either way. Another argument is that, generally speaking, the Holy Spirit has given the gifts of ruling and shewing mercy to many people in the church. By having terms of office, more people are given the opportunity to use their gifts in the service of the church and God.
Because the arguments that appeal to Scripture and scriptural principles are more weighty than the practical arguments, our evaluation will concentrate on the scriptural arguments.
First, by way of evaluation, it is certainly true that if God desires the church to do something, He must make that clear in Scripture, either by express command, or by giving principles that necessarily lead to a certain practice. That Scripture makes no express command pertaining to the length of term of officebearers is clear to all. Nor, in my judgment (and that of Reformed churches), does Scripture set forth principles that require the church’s officebearers to serve inoffice for life unless health, age, or other compelling reasons require him to put down his work and office. The church of Jesus Christ is therefore at liberty in this regard to do what she thinks is most conducive and edifying to her members. That church is not wrong that requires her elders and deacons to serve for life; nor is that church wrong that has her officebearers serve for terms.
Secondly, an examination of the scriptural data, especially as found in the Old Testament, will help us better to understand that it is not wrong for the church to have limited terms of office. It is true that the kings from David’s line served for life. But this was particularly because the Christ would come from David’s line, and would reign over His people forever. That David’s sons were to rule successively and for life pointed Israel to this everlasting rule of Christ, as II Samuel 7:12ff. makes clear. Christ does now reign over His church; and He does so through elders. However, no elder is personally a type of Christ, and therefore the church is not required to keep any individual elder in office for life. As regards the prophets in the Old Testament, they did not necessarily prophesy for life, but only for the length of time that God was pleased to use them. Some apparently prophesied only for a very short time. And of the priests and Levites, God specifically required that they not begin their work in the temple before age 30, and must finish it by age 50 (Num. 4:3, 23, 30; Num. 8:25). Certainly twenty years of service is a lengthy time, and might seem to favor life service more than terms. But we know also that in the time of David there were 24 courses of priests—each course serving in shifts (I Chron. 24:1-19 et. al.), indicating that, while priests held the office continuously, they did not do the work of the office continuously, because there were more priests than were necessary for the work. All of this indicates to us that it is not wrong for our officebearers to serve for limited terms.
Thirdly, the point is well made: “The office does not cleave to the person, but to the church. It is the church who puts a man into office. The church, therefore, may determine how long a man shall have the office.”² The offices in the church are perpetual. The office of deacon, as well as that of elder and pastor, must always exist in the New Testament church. And if the office exists, the church must see to it that men fill the office. But those men may be replaced by other men at any given time, when such is conducive to the well-being of the congregation. The continuity of the office does not depend on any one man holding that office.
How long ought a term be? We have already noticed that the Church Order says “two or more years,” but leaves it to each church to decide just how long her officebearers will serve.
Interestingly, in Geneva during the time of John Calvin, all officebearers served one-year terms. They could be immediately reappointed if they had served well. Some Reformed churches have their officebearers serve terms of four, five, or even six years.³ Many require a three-year term of service.
Certainly two years ought to be the minimum length of term; and most often two years is not enough. A two-year term means that half of the council is replaced annually; that could greatly affect the ability of a council to do its work. Yet, if the terms are for four or five years, the danger would be that the officebearers become weary of the work before their term is finished, and that the sacrifice required of the families is too great.
How long must the deacon be out of office, before being nominated and perhaps elected to that office, or the office of elder, again?
The Church Order’s requirement in Article 27 is this: “The retiring officers shall be succeeded by others, unless the circumstances and profit of any church, in the execution of Articles 22 and 24, render a reelection advisable.”
The general rule, therefore, is that the retiring officebearer cannot be immediately nominated for office again. He must be out of office for at least one year. This is profitable for the congregation and officebearer alike. That the office-bearers not be immediately reelected is in keeping with the practical reasons for having terms of office. Whether officebearers are eligible for reelection after being out of office for one year, or whether a longer time period is feasible, each congregation is at liberty to decide for herself.
The rule, however, is not hard and fast; for in small congregations it is possible that there are no other men able to serve, and that the retiring officebearer must be nominated or even appointed immediately. The Church Order takes such into account when it allows for reelections if the circumstances or profit of the church make such advisable.
In either case—that of a retiring officebearer being immediately reelected, or that of one being reelected after having been out of office for a year or more—not only must the man be elected to office again, but he must also be installed again. This is because he was elected to a term of specific length, which term cannot be arbitrarily extended. This is also in keeping with the significance of installation, of which we have spoken in a previous article.
¹Unless specifically noted, the arguments for both sides of the debate are gathered from VanDellen and Monsma, The Church Order Commentary, 1941 edition, pages 125-126; Rev. G. VandenBerg’s article “Compulsory Retirement of Officebearers” in the Standard Bearer, volume 33, pages 69-70; and P.Y. DeJong’s book, The Ministry of Mercy for Today, pages 126-127.
²Rev. R. Cammenga, “Term of Office,” Standard Bearer, vol. 68, page 22.
³VanDellen and Monsma, page 124.