For Elders and Deacons (6): Supervision of Ministers

In this sixth article in a series, For Elders and Deacons, Rev. Harry C. Arnold writes: “The welfare of God’s Zion depends on faithful ministers who labor under the watchful care of faithful consistories. God has charged you, elders and deacons, with the supervision of His ministers. Don‘t fail God!” Rev. Arnold is pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of Lansing, Illinois.

Supervision of Ministers

In the last article it was pointed out that the Reformed system of church government stresses the equality of the offices. Therefore, the officers mutually watch over each other to improve their performance in office. That is the purpose of “mutual censure” as required by our Church Order. Thus, through the effective operation of the church offices, the health of the whole congregation is enhanced.

It is well for us to emphasize that this equality of the offices includes that of minister of the Word. So often people act as though the minister is above all others. And it is true, unfortunately, that sometimes certain ministers have acted quite independently of their consistories. Such independent action on the part of ministers is destructive of the basic premise of the Church Order that all ecclesiastical authority is “original” with the consistory (Cf. Article 27a). Ministers, too, exercise their office by virtue of the authority of the consistory. Therefore, they too are under the supervision, or watchful care, of the consistory. Let us look into this matter more closely.

A Mutual Responsibility of Elders and Deacons Every office in the church – that of elder, deacon, or minister—is under the supervision of some assembly of the church. Since the authority of consistories is “original” and “that of major assemblies . . . delegated,” all supervision basically begins with the consistory.

Major assemblies have set certain regulations to be observed with regard to qualifications of officebearers and the matters of discipline, yet all action with regard to them is ordinarily initiated on the consistory level. This is true also with regard to the ministers of the Word.

The matter of a consistory’s supervision of a minister begins, in a real sense, with the nominating and calling process. The Church Order places the responsibility of nominating men to office in the hands of the consistory (Article 4a). Thus, the consistory is responsible to judge the qualification of any particular minister to serve its congregation.

This same article of the Church Order also makes the consistory responsible for the supervision of the congregational voting, as well as for the subsequent ordination and/or installation of anyone to office. Of course, in the case of ministers, certain synodical regulations must be observed. But essentially, the process of calling a minister is in the hands of the consistory.

The consistory’s supervision of a minister is made viable and effective in different ways. First of all, when the minister is installed into office, he is brought into a relationship to that church and its ruling body, the consistory. At his installation, the minister must answer affirmatively to the question:

Do you promise to discharge the duties of your office faithfully, to conduct yourself worthily of this calling, and to submit yourself to the government and discipline of the church?

At this point already, the minister places himself under the watchful care of his fellow office-bearers. Second, it is expected that shortly after his installation, the minister will sign the Form of Subscription according to consistorial regulation, as required by Article 5 of the Church Order. By this action also the minister places himself under the supervision of his consistory, retaining for himself always the right of appeal to a broader assembly in case of disagreement with a consistory’s decision regarding him. Nevertheless, this action makes the consistory responsible to watch over the minister of the Word.

There are several more articles of the Church Order which add substance to the consistory’s role in the supervision of the minister. Examples are not hard to find.

Thus, a minister may not be installed in a new congregation without having been given “good ecclesiastical testimonials of doctrine and life . . . by his former consistory and classis” (Article 10b). As a matter of fact, technically speaking, a minister may not accept a call to serve another congregation “without the consent of the consistory” (Article 14a).

Furthermore, even when a local church works in conjunction with some board or agency to call a minister for home or foreign mission service, or for an extraordinary ministerial task, the supervisory authority of the consistory is not negated. For the Church Order requires in all such cases that the supervision of a minister’s “doctrine and life rests with the calling church” (Articles 12 and 13).

Finally, even in cases where a minister should desire “temporary release from service to the congregation” which he is serving, in addition to needing the consistory’s approval for his release, he still would remain subject to its “supervision over him” (Art. 16).

All of these examples only serve to illustrate the vital place elders and deacons occupy in watching over the minister through the consistory. The minister’s whole “life and doctrine,” as well as his performance of “official duties” (Article 36), fall under the consistory’s purview. Should any consistory need help in exercising this responsibility toward its minister, it should feel free to call on the church visitors of classis for advice (Article 42c).

A Special Obligation of the Elders – Our Church Order allows for a division of labor within the consistory. It also stipulates: “When such a distinction is made, the supervision and discipline of the congregation shall be vested in the restricted consistory” (Article 35c). It is clear, then, that in those churches where there is a division of labor, the elders have a special obligation to watch over the minister of the Word. This definitely falls within the scope of “the supervision and discipline of the congregation,” as mentioned in the Church Order.

Even apart from the stipulation of the Church Order, however, the elders should regard themselves as under special obligation to supervise the minister of the Word. From many passages in the Book of Acts one can find that the office of elder is broad and comprehensive. It included, for example, supervision over the work of mercy (Acts 11:30). Further, the organization of new churches seemed to require only the appointment of elders (Acts 14:23). Also, matters of concern to the whole church were referred to an assembly of “apostles and elders” gathered at Jerusalem (Acts 15).

And, in addition to all this, elders were charged to shepherd the church, which charge reveals their broad supervisory function as well as their specific teaching function (Acts 20:28). From I Timothy 5:17 it is dear that the office of elder included both the ruling and teaching function. From these and other passages as well, it is evident that the Church Order is on good scriptural ground when it vests the “supervision and discipline” of the congregation in the hands of the elders.

Likewise, each elder is subject to the judgment of the body of elders. Thus, the minister of the Word also becomes subject to the watchful care especially of his fellow elders. Therefore, the church reminds the elders at the time of their induction into office that they should have “particular regard to the doctrine and conduct of the minister of the Word, that the church may be edified and may manifest itself as the pillar and ground of the truth” (Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons).

The supervision of ministers by the elders extends beyond the matter of doctrine and conduct; it includes the minister‘s official duties. Even those matters which we associate with the ministry of the Word are under the overall supervision of the consistory. particularly of the elders. Thus, while the Church Order states that “the ministers of the Word shall conduct the worship services” (Article 53a), it just as emphatically stipulates that “the consistory shall regulate the worship services” (Article 52a).

Moreover, it is the consistory which is charged to “see to it that the synodically-approved Bible versions, liturgical forms, and songs are used, and that the principles and elements of the order of worship approved by synod are observed” (Article 52b).

Again, it is the consistory which must see to it that all synodical regulations, pertaining to the content of music in the worship service, are observed (Article 52c). Even the sacraments, though administered only by the minister of the Word, are said to be administered “upon the authority of the consistory” (Article 55).

And catechetical instruction, which is usually given by the minister of the Word, is, nonetheless, “supervised by the consistory” (Article 64a). The same is true of the pastoral care which is exercised over the congregation. The minister participates in this with the elders, but the elders as a whole take the oversight of the church of God (Article 65). The elders must assume responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the whole congregation of Christ. This includes a special obligation to watch over the minister of the Word.

I! is always sad, of course, when this oversight on the part of the elders must lead to disciplinary action. But should that ever be the case, then also the elders must take the initiative. While the Church Order makes provisions for the minister’s protection and fair treatment (Article 90), it also assures proper supervision and discipline of a minister even where an exceptional situation prevails (Article 92). In all cases, the supervision of a minister by the consistory is to be taken seriously. The health of Christ’s body depends on the effectiveness of the ministry of the Word. Therefore, every consistory, and especially the elders, must give special attention to the supervision of the minister of the Word.

This supervision of the minister reflects the equality of the offices in the Reformed system of church government. It also indicates how the offices exercise mutual supervision of each other through the constituted assemblies of the church. For, while the minister—in his capacity as overseer—watches over the elders and deacons, they also watch over and supervise him. Thus, all things can be done “decently and in good order” (I Cor. 14:4), in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

One thing more must be said. If the consistory is charged with the responsibility of the supervision of the minister, then elders and deacons must become more knowledgeable of the Word of God, the doctrinal standards of the church, and the Church Order.

A few practical questions are in order for you, my brother elders and deacons. How competent are you in handling the Scriptures? When is the last time you read through the Belgic Confession, or the Canons of Dart? Have you read any commentaries or books dealing with the content of these confessional standards? How much do you know about the Church Order? Have you ever read it? Have you studied it with the help of a Church Order commentary?

The welfare of God’s Zion depends on faithful ministers who labor under the watchful care of faithful consistories. God has charged you, elders and deacons, with the supervision of His ministers. Don’t fail God!

Prepare yourself for your task! “Give diligence to present yourself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed” (II Tim. 2:15).