For Elders and Deacons (1)

Beginning in this issue, Rev. Harry G. Arnold is contributing a series of articles under the heading, For Elders and Deacons. Because more than 3500 consistory members have recently been added to the list of those now receiving THE OUTLOOK, this series is timely and should prove to be interesting and profitable for them as well as for all others who ought to be informed about the important office held in the church. Rev. Arnold is pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of Lansing, Illinois. A discussion of his articles at elders’ and deaconsmeetings should be helpful to those who have been called to serve.

Authority is an important factor in human life. In a real sense it may be called the fibre which holds the fabric of human society together.

According to the Random House College Dictionary, “Authority is a power or right, usually because of rank or office, to issue commands and to punish for violations: to have authority over subordinates.”

Even children sense—at a very early age—the difference between those who may meddle in their affairs by ordering them around and those who really have the right to command them. Thus, it is not uncommon to hear one child say to another: “Says who?,” meaning “Who are you to ten me what to do?” In other words, only those who have authority over him have the right to tell him what to do. The same child is apt to respond more meekly and obediently when given a command by his parents. He knows the difference between the presumed authority of the meddler and the real authority of a parent.

Our Lord’s authority in teaching – Scripture tells us that the multitudes were astonished at the teaching of our Lord Jesus because “he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt. 7:29). He taught as one who had the right to command others and not merely as their teachers who had to appeal to the learned rabbis for support of their views.

Our Lord’s authority, however, was not to go unchallenged. We read that “the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?” (Matt. 21:23). Of course, Jesus disarmed His interrogators by His own question regarding the baptism of John. Nevertheless, the matter of authority is seen to have been of great importance to those who were the religious leaders of Jesusday.

Authority in political arena – Now in any given society there must be an orderly way in which authority is given and exercised. In the political arena we have elections and the one with the greater number of votes is declared elected to office.

However, even the political conventions which nominate the candidates for office must be properly constituted in order to exercise authority properly Most of us still remember the ruckus that took place at the Democratic National Convention in 1972 when a slate of delegates headed by Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago was unseated by court order in favor of one which was headed by William Singer. In order to vote at such an assembly there must be a certified credential showing that one is a properly elected delegate, according to the rules governing such elections.

The consistory’s authority – That which is true in society as a whole is also true in the church in particular. There must be a proper source of authority and a proper way in which it is given and exercised. Elders and deacons, together with the pastors, form the consistory of the church. These office-bearers serve the congregation and exercise rule and authority over it. People may therefore ask—and indeed often do—“By what authority does the consistory do this or that? Who gives the consistory the right to make such decisions which affect the whole congregation?”

The only acceptable answer to such questions is that the Lord Jesus Himself gives authority to His officers to rule in His name. Every elder and deacon must feel called of God to his office not only, but also must exercise his office according to the will of God revealed in Scripture. Then he does his work with the authority with which Christ clothes him. Then also he must serve the congregation after the pattern set by “the Son of man (who) came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28).

Scripture warrants church organization – Let it be said at this pOint that Christians of Reformed persuasion do believe in ecclesiastical organization. Reformed believers confess that Christ governs His church through church offices.

Now there are certain types of believers who deny the validity of church organization. The Quakers, who are well-known for their tolerance and charity, are also representative of such Christians who repudiate church offices and government. In fact, Quakers don’t even call themselves a “church” but rather a “Society of Friends.” Such groups of Christians maintain that every believer is simply bound to the other by reason of his indwelling Lord. Thus, they meet together, pray together, and work together in endeavors of Christian mercy, without calling themselves a church and without recognizing any offices of an ecclesiastical nature.

Far different is the Reformed attitude toward church government and office. The Reformed believer finds in Scripture warrant for the organization of the church. The apostle Paul made it a practice to appoint elders in every church (Acts 14:23). Moreover, the Christian church has traditionally recognized Acts 6 as the historical basis for the office of deacon. The same apostle has set forth the qualifications for those who would hold office in the church (I Tim. 3:1–13). Besides, several passages deal with rule and authority in the church which would be meaningless if there were no church organization (cf. I Thess. 5:12; Heb. 13:7, 17, and 24).

Moreover, the pattern of appeal to a broader body of elders seems to be established by the Jerusalem council recorded in Acts 15. It is on the basis of the above and other passages of Scripture that Reformed Christians confess:

We believe that this true Church must be governed by that spiritual polity which our Lord has taught us in His Word, namely, that there must be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and to administer the sacraments; also elders and deacons, who, together with the pastors, form the council of the Church; . . (Belgic Confession, Article XXX)

Fundamental principles – The two most fundamental principles of a Reformed church government are the Headship of Christ over the church and the sole authority of the Word of God.

That Christ is the Head of the church is clear from such passages as Ephesians 5:23, 24 and Colossians 1:18. As Head of the church, Christ determines the course and direction of His church in the world.

Christ makes His will for the church known through the Word of God. The church is led into an understanding of Christ’s Word through the Holy Spirit (John 16:13). Thus, Christ rules in the church: objectively by His Word and subjectively by His Spirit.

Office-bearers who do the will of Christ revealed in Scripture are really means in the hand of the Master. They exercise authority in the church in such a way that Christ really rules through them. Therefore it is clear that the church which would honor the Headship of Christ, must bind itself to the sole authority of His Word. Notice how these two fundamental principles also come to expression in the introduction to the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church:

Article 1

a. The Christian Reformed Church, confessing its complete subjection to the Word of God . . . acknowledging Christ as the only head of his church, and desiring to honor the apostolic injunction that in the churches all things are to be done decently and in order (I Cor. 14:40), regulates its ecclesiastical organization and activities in the following articles.

By what authority, then, docs a consistory govern a church? It can only be by the authority of Christ, the Head of the church, as taught in the Word of God. “To the law and to the testimony!” (Isa. 8:20).