Martin Swart was an elder for many years in the First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, MI. This article was originally an essay that Mr. Swart presented to the Men’s Society of First Church.
From all this it is evident that the church has never insisted upon a sharp line of separation among the offices. The reason is obvious. Basically the offices are one, not three. There are not three offices, but a threefold or triple office. Although we recognize three offices as a manner of speaking, we must remember that they are but three aspects of what is basically one. This basic unity of the offices is constantly emphasized in Scripture. The offices are one in Adam. They are one in Christ. They are one in the apostles. The apostles functioned in all three offices. When finally distinction was made and deacons were appointed, it was done for practical reasons and not because the apostles felt that it was not their work. They were too busy to take care of it all. Later, no doubt also for practical reasons, distinction is made between elders who teach and elders who rule. Finally, the offices are also one in the believers. Every believer is prophet, priest, and king and functions in that threefold office. In fact, that constitutes his whole calling.
In order to determine, therefore, what is the relation of the deacons to the consistory, we will have to take our starting point in this basic unity of the offices. This unity has all the emphasis in Scripture. According to Scripture the priestly office is a royal office, with the prophetic calling to show forth God’s praises (I Pet. 2:9). The people of God are a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6). They that have part in the first resurrection shall be priests of God and of Christ and shall reign with Him a thousand years (Rev. 20:6). Christ is a High Priest, not after the order of Aaron who was only priest but after the order of Melchisedec, who was king as well as priest. Perhaps we may conclude, from what we read of him, that he was prophet also.
It is because of this basic unity of the offices that, although Scripture speaks of three types of officebearers, each one representing a certain aspect of the one office of Christ, these three are, nevertheless, so interrelated that all three aspects, in turn, are again present in each one of the types. In other words, in each of the three aspects of the office, the one threefold office of Christ comes to manifestation. No officebearer is, or can be, exclusively busy in the peculiar aspect of the office which he represents. The very nature of the office makes this impossible. Each type of officebearers, in the exercise of his own peculiar office, automatically becomes involved in the things that pertain to the other offices.
This already follows from the fact that all three types exercise their office by one and the same means, namely, by means of the Word of God. But, in the second place, it also follows from the fact that all have essentially the same calling, namely, the spiritual well-being of the congregation. It is undoubtedly for this reason that there is no essential difference between the requirements of the various officebearers, according to I Timothy 3. The very nature of the offices, therefore, is such that although we may distinguish between the three aspects, they are, nevertheless, basically one. Separate them, and you no longer have a threefold or triple office, but three separate offices, each one with essentially the same calling.
Besides, this basic unity of the offices is demanded by the fact that the offices in the church are after all nothing but a concentration of the office of believers. It is through the offices that the believers exercise their threefold office in the church institute. Separate the offices in the church, and you separate them in the believers. But this is even more emphatically true if we bear in mind that ultimately it is Christ who exercises the offices in the church. The officebearers are after all nothing but the organs through which Christ exercises His one threefold office. And where the offices in Christ are one, though threefold, it follows that also the organs through which He exercises His office, though threefold, are nevertheless one. The offices in isolation in separate individuals could not present a perfect type of Christ.
Although, therefore, we speak of three offices, yet they are but three aspects of what is basically one. It is exactly in the consistory that the three unite. The confessions are undoubtedly correct when they present the consistory as consisting of ministers, elders, and deacons. The church is to be ruled by the one office of Christ, and the deacons are an aspect of that office. You cannot take one aspect of that office and separate it from the others. It is exactly because the distinction among the offices has been over-emphasized that the unity has been lost sight of.
Yet, strange as it may seem, although it is maintained that the deacons are to be excluded from the consistory because of the distinction of the offices, and although the Church Order seemingly excludes them for the same reason, the fact remains that this distinction is not, and never has been, consistently maintained. For, in the first place, no such line of distinction is drawn between the office of the minister and the office of the elder. Certainly, if the deacons are to be excluded from the consistory because of an absolute distinction between the offices, then the minister will have to be excluded also for the same reason. Membership in the consistory will then have to be limited to the elders. Certainly, if the distinction among the offices does not require a line of separation in the case of ministers and elders, it can hardly be maintained that this distinction does require it in the case of the deacons.
But in the second place, this line of demarcation is not maintained with respect to the deacons either. For the Church Order not only permits the deacons to be added to the consistory when the consistory is small, but even demands this when the number of elders is three or less. Now certainly, if it is wrong for a deacon to function in the consistory because of the distinction between the offices, then it is wrong regardless of the size of the consistory. If therefore we do not want to bring the Church Order into hopeless contradiction with itself, we will have to maintain that there is no principle objection to including the deacons in the consistory.
The notion that we can escape this contradiction by limiting the function of the deacons in the consistory, in matters strictly belonging to the office of elder, to an advisory capacity simply does not hold. For in the first place, even though it be in an advisory capacity, the deacon then is nevertheless busy in the work that strictly belongs to the elders. Being busy in the work that pertains to the elders, even though it be in that advisory capacity, he certainly does not function in his capacity of deacon. It certainly does not belong to the office of deacon as such to serve the elders with advice. But if he does not function in the capacity of deacon, in what capacity does he function, if not in the capacity of elder?
The Rev. VandenBerg, in the Standard Bearer article referred to above, agrees with the Rev. Ophoff that when the deacons are added to the consistory they are thereby made elders in addition to being deacons and have a decisive vote in all matters, including discipline. Yet he would limit the function of the deacon in the consistory, in matters strictly belonging to the office of elder, to an advisory capacity. Now that is simply a contradiction. VandenBerg agrees that when the deacons are added to the consistory they have a decisive vote in all matters and, at the same time, he would limit them in some matters. But aside from this, if it is true that when the deacons are added to the consistory they are thereby made elders, how can they possibly be denied the right to a decisive vote in all matters, including those matters which strictly belong to the office of elders? If, when the deacons are added to the consistory, they are thereby made elders, they not only have the right, but also the obligation to function in that capacity.
In the third place, if the deacons are to be excluded from the consistory because of the distinction between the offices, how then can the Church Order demand that even in the largest churches such important matters as the calling of ministers, the election of officebearers, the release of ministers when they desire to accept a call, shall be acted upon in the combined meeting of ministers, elders, and deacons. All these matters are a fundamental element in the government of the church. It certainly is fundamental to church government that the offices be maintained and that men be appointed to fill these offices. Yet in all these matters the deacons are on a level of absolute equality with the ministers and the elders. So much is this so that there is no officebearer in office, but that he is there with the judgment and vote of the deacons. It undoubtedly happens in some cases that the vote of the deacons is the deciding factor.
There are also other things in which, though they are matters of government, the deacons, nevertheless, have an equal voice with the elders. Even the regulation of matters pertaining to the work of benevolence in general is a matter of government. The Rev. VandenBerg remarks (Standard Bearer, Oct. 15, 1959) that matters of doctrine, and the government or administration of the church belong to the jurisdiction of the elders. But, apart now from doctrine, it is exactly in these matters that the deacons do take an active part. Even matters of doctrine and discipline are not entirely excluded. In the matter of election of officebearers, the deacons certainly express judgment as to the doctrinal soundness and qualification of the men considered for office, and also as to their life and walk. They confirm that judgment by their vote. Besides, there are the matters of church visitation and mutual censure among the officebearers. In both these matters the deacons have the same say over the elders that the elders have over the deacons. It is evident, therefore, that a sharp distinction among the offices is foreign to the Church Order.
Finally, if the distinction among the offices requires a separation between the office of deacon and the office of elder, why does not that same distinction require a separation between the office of minister and the office of elder? Certainly, both the minister and the elder have their own distinctive office, the minister representing the prophetic aspect of the office of Christ and the elders representing the kingly aspect. In Scripture they are clearly distinguished as teaching elders and ruling elders. Yet, in spite of this distinction, the two are not separated. The minister is not only busy in the ministry of the Word, but in the consistory and at the classis and synod functions in the capacity of elder as well. The elder not only rules, but also ministers the Word and teaches, as well as the minister. If therefore the deacons are to be excluded from the consistory, it certainly will have to be on some other ground than that of the distinction among the offices. In fact, to separate the deacons from the consistory because of the distinction of the offices would really lead to the conclusion that there are but two offices in the church, the one exercised by the minister and elders and the other by the deacons.
But there is more. The deacons represent the priestly aspect of the office of Christ, and, therefore, have for their distinctive office the ministry of the mercy of Christ. But if the deacons are to be excluded from the consistory because of the distinction of their office, how is it to be explained that in the exercise of that office they are restricted to the care of the poor. It is undoubtedly due to this restriction that the office of deacon has generally come to be looked upon as inferior. In fact, if, while the ministry of the minister and the elders extends over the entire congregation, the ministry of the deacons is limited to a few poor in the congregation, one can hardly escape that conclusion. But if the distinctive office of the deacons is the ministry of the mercies of Christ, then the exercise of that office certainly includes far more than giving a little material aid to the poor in the congregation. In fact, that is not even the most important element in the ministry of mercy. Ministering unto the spiritual needs of the people of God is by far the most important side of the office. But looking at it from that spiritual point of view, the ministry of mercy does not merely concern a few poor, but extends over the entire congregation. All God’s people are poor and needy and have need of the mercy of Christ. It certainly belongs to the ministry of mercy, to minister unto these spiritual needs of the people of God, to nourish their hungry souls with the bread of life, to pray and intercede for them, to visit the sick, whether they be spiritually sick or physically, and to comfort the sorrowing. It is for this reason that the synod of Dordt (1574) declared it to be proper for the minister to ask the deacons as well as the elders to visit the sick and comfort them with the Word, since this was in harmony with their office.
From all this it is evident that although we may distinguish among the three aspects of the office, we cannot separate them. The distinctive offices are but three aspects of what is basically one office. You cannot take one aspect of that office and separate it from the others.
What is more, as has been pointed out, this distinction among the offices is not, and never has been, consistently maintained. For although the Church Order, on the one hand, seemingly excludes the deacons from the consistory, it at the same time, with the confessions, recognizes the one consistory, composed of ministers, elders, and deacons. The Church Order does provide that, in the interest of efficiency, separate meetings may be held by the elders and by the deacons. In other words, the Church Order provides for a limited measure of division of labor in keeping with the peculiar duties of the offices. But in the first place, the introduction of this division of labor plan is a matter which is left for each church to decide entirely for itself. In the second place, this division of labor may never be such that two agencies control the life of the congregation. In the third place, this division of labor is both limited and conditional. It is limited by the fact that much of the labor in the congregation is to be done in the combined meetings. And it is conditioned by the size of the congregation. Therefore, although providing for a limited measure of division of labor, an absolute separation of the offices is foreign to the Church Order. It is also in conflict with the very nature of the offices.