Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin.

Under what circumstances might a deacon resign from office, or be removed from office, before his term is finished?

The difference between resignation from office and removal from office should be clear to us all. In the instance of resignation, the deacon himself takes the initiative to be released from the honor and work of the office, and seeks the approval of the council. In the instance of removal from office, on the other hand, the consistory takes this initiative, having judged the deacon to be unworthy of the office.

No deacon may lightly consider resigning from office. At his installation, the deacon testified that he believed God had called him to this work. Also at that time the minister, on behalf of God and the church, charged the deacons to be diligent and faithful in their offices. To resign is to put down that work to which one was called. Therefore, to resign without proper reasons is really a refusal to do the work, and is disobedience to God’s command, which is implied in His call to office. A deacon who considers resigning must have weighty reasons for doing so.

What reasons might be so weighty that in using them the deacon would not be refusing to do the work to which God called him?

In an earlier article we gave three reasons why a person might decline nomination to the office of deacon. One was that he be able to demonstrate that in some way his election would violate biblical principles. Another was that he was already too busy in other kingdom work, and the work to which he was committed would be jeopardized by the work of the diaconate. A third was that the prospective nominee was contemplating leaving that congregation.

The first two reasons for declining nomination are not proper reasons for resigning from office once elected and installed. If before his installation he could not or would not demonstrate that his election was contrary to biblical principles, he must not attempt to do so after his election. Furthermore, if before his election he did not successfully argue to the council that his election would put other legitimate kingdom work and callings in jeopardy, then he must not use this argument as a reason to resign. In other words, the deacon who finds that he is too busy to do justice to all his work must do his best to fulfill all the obligations which God has placed on him. He will need to pray all the more; he will need wisdom and patience all the more; he will need an understanding and caring wife all the more; but he may not resign for that reason.

Now one might argue: but does not one’s family come first? It is, after all, not possible to resign being a father and husband. If the officebearer is so busy that he neglects his family, he should resign his office, for God considers the right regulation of one’s family so important that He made it a qualification for the office (I Tim. 3:12).

The answer to this argument is simple: the work of the office of deacon is also a calling from God! You may not neglect that calling either, for that would be disobedience to God.

For what reasons, then, might a man resign his office? Fundamentally, the answer is when, after his election, God in His providence made it clear that the man was no longer able physically to do the work.

This would mean that if a person becomes unable for health reasons to continue serving in office, he may seek approval to resign from office. If for some reason a man in office must immediately move, and therefore must immediately transfer his membership to another congregation, he may seek approval to resign from office. If the church in which an officebearer serves forms a new daughter congregation, and the officebearer has compelling reasons to join that congregation soon, he may seek approval to resign from office.

In using these reasons, however, no officebearer may have as his motive a desire to escape the duties of the office. That is, resignation must be a necessity because God, in His providence, made clear that the officebearer cannot continue doing his work. But if the officebearer is unhappy in his work, and is looking for a way out, and thinks to use these reasons, then before God he must still answer for refusing to do the work to which God called him.

When seeking to resign, what procedure should one follow?

The deacon who has weighty reasons to resign from office may not simply stop doing the work of his office at some point, and then inform the council that he has resigned. Rather, he must inform the council in person or in writing of his intent to resign and his reasons for desiring to resign, and then wait for the council to give its approval. This procedure is proper because the church has called him to office, and the church must release him from office. The church releases the officebearer from office through the council’s approving of his resignation, and through the silent approval on the part of the whole congregation.

The council should not approve a resignation request lightly. It ought to consider the request carefully, judge the reasons given, and be ready to disapprove the request if it judges the reasons to be insufficient. In such instances the officebearer has the right of appeal to the classis and synod. He should remember that it is still his duty before God to continue doing the work of his office until the broader assembly hears and supports his appeal, and until the council is properly notified and releases him from office. Furthermore, if the broader assemblies do not support his appeal but side with his council, the officebearer must realize that God in His providence, using the agency of the church, has not released him from office, and the officebearer must submit to that decision.

Is this procedure spelled out clearly in the Church Order? Although no article of the Church Order specifically addresses the issue of an elder or deacon resigning, at least three articles contain principles on which this procedure is based. Among the sins that make an officebearer worthy of suspension or deposition is, according to Article 80, “faithless desertion of office.” That one who faithlessly deserts his office should still be deposed indicates that his desertion, or his thinking that he has resigned without seeking proper approval, is not adequate. He holds the office until the church releases him from it. Then Article 11 deals with the release of a minister from office in a particular congregation, and Article 12 with his release from office completely. Both articles forbid such a release apart from the approval of classis and the synodical delegates (technically, Article 12 omits this latter point, but it is implied and necessary). Now if release from office in the case of a minister requires the church’s approval, then the same approval must be required in the case of a deacon or elder—for the offices are on a par with each other. The only difference is that in the case of the minister, the classis and synod must express its approval of resignation, for the minister serves the denomination as a whole. In the case of an elder or a deacon, not the classis, but only the congregation that he serves, must approve of the resignation.

While our Church Order does not specifically address the matter of resignation from office, it does specifically address the matter of removal (suspension or deposition) from office in Articles 79 and 80.

The ground for removing an officebearer from office is fundamentally that the officebearer has shown by his conduct or speech that he is no longer qualified for office. Article 79 requires a minister, elder, or deacon to be suspended or deposed from office when he has “committed any public, gross sin which is a disgrace to the church or worthy of punishment by the authorities.” Article 80 lists those sins that make one worthy of suspension or deposition: “false doctrine or heresy, public schism, public blasphemy, simony, faithless desertion of office or intrusion upon that of another, perjury, adultery, fornication, theft, acts of violence, habitual drunkenness, brawling, filthy lucre; in short, all sins and gross offenses as render the perpetrators infamous before the world, and which in any private member of the church would be considered worthy of excommunication.”

A few remarks about this list are in order.

First, notice that it includes not only sins that are public and gross transgressions of God’s law, but also sins of violating one’s vows of office (it mentions “false doctrine or heresy” and “public schism”). At his installation, the officebearer signed the Formula of Subscription, by which he promised to teach and defend the truth of God’s Word as embodied in the Reformed creeds; to bring any ideas contrary to these documents to the consistory, classis, and synod for their judgment; and to be ready to give answer to any church body that requires a more complete explanation of one’s views or teachings. The penalty for violating this vow, to which penalty the officebearer agrees when signing the Formula, is that of suspension from office. The ground for such suspension would be either that of believing false doctrine, which surely disqualifies a man for holding office in the church of Christ, or that of teaching false doctrine, which is public schism.

Second, it refers to “faithless desertion of office.” We have already applied these words in the instance of a man who refuses to do the work of his office, before his resignation is approved. Now consider the instance of a man whose request for resignation was not approved, but he refuses to do the work of his office. His argument is, “I have resigned.” But, because that resignation was not accepted, he still holds office, and is guilty of deserting office. Such a man must be suspended, and perhaps deposed. In the secular business world it is conceivable that a man claim he has resigned his position, while his employer claims he was fired. But that officebearer in the church who claims to have resigned, but has not received approval to resign, cannot claim that he no longer holds office.

Thirdly, the article does not mean to say that one is suspended or deposed from office only when one is impenitent regarding these sins. Some might argue this, because the article makes reference to excommunication. Excommunication, we know, is a last remedy applied to the impenitent. However, removal from office does not imply impenitence; rather, it indicates that one’s sinful actions have made one unfit to continue in office. God requires those who hold office to be blameless. For one who has committed public, gross sin to continue in office would not promote unity and edification in the church, and would give occasion for the enemies of the church to blaspheme.

To this point we have been using the term “removal from office,” while the Church Order speaks of suspension and deposition. Strictly speaking, removal from office is deposition. Suspension is a temporary measure, whereby one continues to hold office and receive any honor and benefits of that office (such as salary, in the case of a minister), but is not permitted to do the work of the office. It is temporary in that it must lead either to deposition, or to a lifting of the suspension, permitting the person to do the work of the office again. Deposition, however, is removal from office. One who is deposed may not claim any longer to hold the office, nor continue to do the work of the office, nor receive any of the benefits or honor of the office. Deposition does not necessarily preclude a person from serving in office again in the future, but for the time one is removed from office.

The procedure for suspension and deposition is set forth in Church Order Article 79. Very briefly, the procedure with regard to elders and deacons is as follows: the consistory (body of elders) decides either to suspend or to depose the officebearer, and asks the approval of the consistory of the nearest church. This approval of the nearest consistory may not be given as a mere formality; it is necessary as a check and balance against any unjust suspension or deposition. Therefore, the consistory of the nearest church may give its approval only after hearing the facts of the case. Whether one would be suspended or deposed is left to the judgment of the consistory, which arrives at its decision by considering the nature of the sin, the effect that the sin has had or could have on the congregation and community, and other issues pertaining to the individual case.

While most issues relating to the officebearers are decided by the council (elders and deacons), matters of suspension and deposition are decided by the consistory (elders) alone. Article 79 is clear on this, for it speaks of “the consistory thereof (i.e., of the congregation in which the officebearer is a member, DJK) and of the nearest church.” Suspension or deposition from office is a matter of church discipline, and therefore is the prerogative of the consistory alone.

Because suspension and deposition are matters of discipline, no man may resign office to avoid deposition. It may happen that a man knows that he has committed sin worthy of deposition, and considers resigning to avoid deposition. He might even argue that his resignation is preferable to his being deposed, not only to save himself and the church the anguish of deposition, but also as a way of acknowledging his sin and its consequences.

However, resignation may not replace or preempt deposition. The council should never accept the resignation of one about to be deposed; and the officebearer facing deposition should never consider resigning.

The reason for this is that deposition is a form of church censure. By deposition the church expresses its judgment regarding both the seriousness of the sin committed and the unfitness of the officebearer who sinned to continue serving in office. The church must express this judgment for the sake of her members, who ought to consider this judgment a warning against sin to which we all are prone, and ought to seek God’s sanctifying grace more often and with more earnestness. The church must express this judgment also for the sake of the world, who will see that the church—at least, the true church of Jesus Christ, in distinction from the false—does not in any way condone or cover up the sins of her officebearers.

May God so impress upon us the weight of the responsibility of His call to office, and the seriousness of sin, that all officebearers—deacons, elders, and pastors—give themselves with diligence to the work, seeking His grace and help to do the work well, and avoiding sin, that His name be glorified.