One of the leading figures at the great Synod of Dordt (1618-19) was Francis Comarus. Many of his contributions to the defense of the Reformed faith have long since been ignored, largely because histOrians have not wearied of insisting that he was “an angry and querulous old man.” As such he has frequently become a stereotype for all who love the faith as it was creedally formulated and confessed by that assembly.
In 1914 the University of Groningen celebrated its four-hundredth anniversary. One of the professors seized that opportunity to restore this Reformed churchman to the honorable recognition which he deserves. Prof. Is. Van Dyk, himself hardly in matters of doctrine a disciple of Gomarus, observed acutely and accurately on that occasion that there was much cause for Gomarus to be angry. De Reformatie of November 26, 1966, quotes the explanation given by the professor.
“When anyone asks, in the abstract, how he can make another angry, so angry that—as the proverb has it—his blood turns to buttermilk then three possible procedures can be mentioned without, of course, commending them.
“First of all, let the person who defends a seriously-held conviction know that the cause which he represents really isn’t very important. In addition, never answer his arguments with counter-arguments but rather with a honeyed admonition to be tolerant.
“And if by this time he isn’t angry enough, then astound him with the assurance that basically you are agreed with him. The first and the third will present the unhappy man with the ‘clever’ combination that you arc agreed with him in matters which actually aren’t important at all!
“About all this Gomarus could speak from experience.” Indeed he could. During the long conflict with Arminius, who became a fellow-professor at Leiden for a season, Gomarus suffered from precisely these tactics. The doctrinal differences, so the argument ran consistently in those days, was a mere bagatelle. In fact. Arminius and even many who believed as he did were ready at any time to sign the Form of Subscription. Always they posed as the champions of peace and brotherliness. Not until the churches woke lip and began to see the differences and sided openly with Gomarus could peace return to the churches. But by then Gomarus, aware of and stung for years by these tactics, had his bad name. And he has kept it until now, while Arminius—whose cleverness in riding with wind and tide within the churches was later openly acknowledged with chagrin by his supporters—is still hailed as such a fine Christian gentleman.
In Christ’s church such tactics as outlined by Prof. Van Dyk ought to be regarded as contraband. They breathe the spirit from below; not from above where is our Lord who is the way and the truth and the life.
In The Banner of January 20. 1967, my esteemed friend and colleague, the Rev. Henry Verduin, discusses the subject of the delegation of deacons to the broader assemblies of the Christian Reformed Church.
This matter, so our readers will remember, was presented to synod by some of the classes which were convinced that the diaconal office was being neglected and denigrated in the churches despite our theoretical affirmation that Christ has instituted also this ministry as permanent for the church of all ages. Until now only ministers of the Word and elders are delegated to the broader assemblies. Meanwhile, because of the growing concern of the church with the ministry of mercy on a national and international scale, these assemblies have been compelled to devote increasing attention to and take numerous decisions on matters directly related to the task which Christ has assigned to the deacons. Not too many years ago the synod has even set lip an agency, the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, which deals exclusively with these matters. Although synod envisioned having this Committee work in close cooperation with local diaconates and with regional diaconal conferences, nonetheless it placed said Committee entirely under its own direction and jurisdiction. Thus synod, at which churches are represented by ministers of the Word and elders, engages in diaconal work without so much as officially reckoning with the deacons. Against this background the churches are to assess the report of the Study Committee, to which the Rev. Verduin refers. Said Committee recommended that
“I. Synod declare that, in the light of Scripture and the Reformed confessions, it judges that there are no lawful objections to the delegation of deacons to the major assemblies of the church.
II. Synod decide to refer the following recommendations to the churches for their consideration prior to any final decision…
A. (on the arrangements for such delegating of deacons)
B. (on the revisions to be incorporated into the Church Order, should deacons be delegated to classis and synod)
C. (on the reactivation of the diaconate on the level of the local congregation)”1
Synod of 1966 decided to do no more than to refer the report in its entirety to the churches for careful study and comment.2
The Banner has rendered a fine service to the churches by presenting in recent months some articles dealing with this matter. Rightly it is being realized that, if the recommendations of the Study Committee arc adopted, far more is involved than some sweeping changes in the Church Order. The composition of our broader assemblies will be changed radically. Something that has been allowed only under exceptional circumstances in the Reformed churches—official delegation of a deacon to a classical assembly—will become the rule. Yet for this change the Study Committee is convinced that there is Scriptural warrant.
Now the Rev. Verduin reacts strongly against this position. His article begins with the categorical statement, “For more than a century we have been contented and happy with the three distinct offices in the church.” He urges that we do not follow the Dutch churches which have involved themselves in a “mare’s nest” by opening up this issue several years ago without coming to a clear resolution. He pleads that we keep our “church governmental lines straight.” He insists that there is a “triple threat” in the proposed plan. If adopted, it will do damage to the elders’ office, do damage to the deacons’ office, and do damage to the major assemblies in the Reformed quality of their work!
How shall we answer the Rev. Verduin? He appeals to what we have today. He has tradition entirely on his side. He quotes a few of the well-known Biblical passages dealing with office. And, believe it or not, the Study Committee is wholeheartedly convinced of the importance of these texts (and many others) for a Biblically-warranted church polity. Where, then, lies the source of the sharp difference between him and the report? This is to be found in the underlying presuppositions or foundations upon which the Committee’s report rests. And, regrettably, with these the Rev. Verduin does not deal at all. Thus we will get no further by “hurling” one text after another at each other. All of us desire a pattern of church work which rests squarely Upon the Word of God and thus can carry with it the approval of the Lord Christ who is the sole sovereign of his church. Instead of answering his charges as stated in his article, we shall attempt an answer in the light of the three basic questions which need to be faced. Only thus can the issue whether delegation of deacons to major assemblies is Reformed or not be satisfactorily resolved. These are: 1) what does the New Testament indicate as to the rise and development of the three permanent offices or ministries in the church; 2) what is the Reformed position on the relation of the deacons to the government of the church; and 3) what is, properly speaking, the task of the major or broader assemblies of the church (classis and synod)? Space prohibits going into great detail and offering Biblical and confessional evidence here. We trust, however, that the few references made to this will be sufficient to indicate that the Study Committee is convinced of the rightness of its recommendations. Such details as to how many deacons shall be delegated to classis and synod, being purely administrative and regulatory matters, can be omitted from our consideration now.
What the New Testament has to say about the proper organization of Christ’s church is illuminating.
Undoubtedly we are all convinced that it does not give precise, detailed regulations but rather the basic guide-lines or patterns.3 Only the Biblicist who believes we can solve every question by simply quoting a text will disagree.
As we now reflect on what took place in the first decades after Pentecost, we soon notice a clear line of development. It is the development from one basic and foundational office to the three which we know and recognize as valid for today. These three are rooted in Christ Jesus, himself the great office-holder of God for the salvation of his people. The link which binds the church of all ages and all lands to the Christ, organizationally as well as doctrinally speaking, is the unique office of the apostles. In their life and labors they laid on Christ’s behalf the foundation for the church.4 Thus under their authoritative direction the three ministries or offices5 recognized as necessary and permanent within a well-organized church have come to manifestation.
These three did not appear on the scene simultaneously. Patterns for church life did not drop down full-blown from heaven any more than did doctrinal formulations.
Dr. Klaas Dyk: a recognized authority in the field of Church Polity and Government, maintains that the office of eldership appeared as the first abiding office. Out of this, as a kind of specialization, arose under apostolic guidance the other two offices: that of the ministry of mercy (deacons)7 and that of the ministry of teaching. Only comparatively late in the New Testament writings (the Pastoral epistles) do we find the three offices fairly well indicated.8 Unless this is remembered and reckoned with, we shall in our discussion range one text against another in biblicistic fashion, doing injustice to the manner in which Christ’s Spirit through the apostles revealed the permanent patterns for our ecclesiastical life.
Closely related to this, then, is the difference between the Rev. Verduin and the Committee. Failing to reckon with their development out of a common source in Christ, the apostles and the initial form of the eldership in the first churches, he urges a sharp distinction among them. At all costs he would keep them in their functions as far apart from each other as possible, especially the deacons from the elders and the ministers of the Word!
This he believes is the Reformed pattern. To maintain that position he appeals to what we have had traditionally and especially to the old edition of the Church Order.9It is precisely here, again, that we dissent from the Rev. Verduin. By arguing quite exclusively from the Church Order, he urges a sharp distinction (almost a divorce?) among the offices. We believe that in harmony with the New Testament and thus also with the Belgic Confession stress must be laid on the unity and cooperation among these offices or ministries for the welfare of the church. Such is plainly envisioned by the creed wherein we confess,
“We believe that this true Church must be governed by spiritual polity which our Lord has taught us in His Word; namely, that there must be ministers of 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;…”10
Does the Church Order contradict the Confession on the score of whether deacons properly belong to the council (consistory) or governing body of the local congregation? This question has agitated Reformed churches in the Netherlands and to a lesser degree in the United States for more than half a century. Some have gone so far as to insist that there is a real cleavage in teaching between the two and therefore urged the revision of either one or the other.11 But if this is so (which we are not willing to admit as of now), then certainly the Confession deserves to receive the primary emphasis. On this score the Reformed churches, fully as aware of the problem as we are, have never shown any inclination to change what the Confession says here. Deacons rightly—and not merely as “an arrangement of convenience promoting cooperation,” as Verduin argue12—belong to the governing body of the church. Even the Church Order (old edition) admits as much.13 The Reformed fathers, while recognizing the propriety and profit of three distinct offices (and the Committee, contrary to the assertions of the article in The Banner, would zealously maintain this), nonetheless always sought to safeguard and promote their basic unity. This is not merely a unity in occasional functioning together; also in their source and basic responsibility which is to be met together must this unity be upheld that “by these means everything will be carried on in the Church with good order and decency.”14
But what, the reader may ask, has all this to do with delegating deacons to major assemblies? Much in every way.
All these offices or ministries combine to give leadership and good example to the members of the church who are called by Christ to do the work which he assigns to them in this world. Such work embraces not only preaching the gospel to all men everywhere and keeping the household of the Lord in good order; it includes also a great and growing ministry of mercy in Christ’s name. And this task has been assigned by Christ through apostolic guidance to the deacons!
Through the years the Reformed churches, more than any other Christian group, have insisted on such diaconal ministry as an integral part of the church’s life and work in the world. This from the days of Calvin has been one of its unique contributions. Yet with the development of our Church Order (during the period from 1568 through 1618–19) insufficient attention was paid to carrying out this reformational conviction conSistently. Various factors—persecution, war, state interference, etc.—help to explain this. But the net result has been that, while the churches especially during the past fifty years or more have expanded the church’s ministry of mercy immensely, they have done so without giving the deacons their proper place. To be sure, they exercise their ministry on the local level. Also here they engage in several church governmental tusks together with their fellow office-bearers. But on the broader levels their voice remains strangely, and we believe wrongly, silent.
The question to be faced is whether classis and especially synod are actually the exclusive concern of elders and of ministers of the Word, in so far as they are supposed to be elders too. Here matters which could not be settled in the minor assemblies and matters of concern to all the churches are dealt with. On this basis, because the local diaconate in most instances cannot extend the ministry of mercy much beyond its own confines, help of various sorts is extended in the name of all the churches. Thus ministers and elders—who on the basis of the Rev. Verduin’s arguments have a sharply defined and distinctive task -take diaconal decisions! They decide in the name of all the churches to take offerings for victims of famine, flood and war. They have promoted the establishment and perpetuation of Christian institutions of mercy. They have involved themselves in aspects of Christian benevolence on our far-flung mission fields at home and abroad. They have even called into being and made subservient to their decisions the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee with its expanding work.
This, we are convinced, is improper and irregular. In fact, on the basis of the Rev. Verduin’s argumentation, if consistently applied, it is wrong. It is confusing the offices which according to him must at all costs be kept separate! We would not for a moment deny that ministers of the Word and elders must also be concerned with and even in a measure involved ill the ministry of mercy. But this is on the basis of the unity of and cooperation among the three offices. If the Reformed churches really believe what they confess, that the diaconal ministry has been instituted by Christ and is unique in its assigned responsibilities and is necessary to carrying on the full task of the church in the world, then much more attention must be given to the underlying argumentation of the Study Committee’s recommendations than The Banner article evidences.
Is it any wonder that today in the Reformed churches deacons are usually regarded as of minor importance?
Here we see the deepening shadows of a hierarchical notion of the three ministries in the church, one utterly foreign to the Reformed understanding of church and office. It places the ministers of the Word on the highest rung; somewhat below them the elders; finally on the bottom rung and almost out of sight and mind the deacons. In the minds of many people deacons exist chiefly to keep the church financially solvent; only subsidiarily to help a few people in the congregation who have unusual expenses. Thus this office has in practice too often served merely as a stepping-stone to the “higher” office of the eldership. It is against this perverted notion that we would raise a vigorous protest.
If the churches in and through the broader assemblies desire to carryon mercy in Christ’s name on a scale too great and involved to be undertaken by a local diaconate (and we believe this is right and imperative), then obedience to the New Testament teachings concerning the officiary requires that deacons should share in this.
Theirs is a high and holy calling. This they have received from no one less than the merciful Savior himself. This they should exercise, indeed, first of all on the local level and that to the best of their abilities and in full cooperation with the two other ministries in the church. But provision should and can be made for their sharing in, even giving leadership with respect to, their glorious calling when all the churches through their delegates meet together in official session to do the Lord’s work which needs much doing in these days.
This is the issue at stake. And to this issue all the churches should direct their attention now
1. Agenda, 1966, p. 23–25.
2. Acts of Synod, 1966, p. 22, 23.
3. L. Berkhof: Reformed Dogmatics (1941), p. 581. cf. also Sillevis Smitt: De organisatie van de christelijke kerk in den apostolischen hid (1910), p. 20; esp. p. 197, J98; Jon. Jansen: Handleiding Gereformeerd Kerkrecht, p. 6, 7; A. D. R. Polman: Onze Nederlmulsche Geloofsbelijdenis, vol. IV, p. 30–35.
4. Ephesians 2:20; II Peter 1:19–21; I Jonn 1:1–4; etc.
5. We use the terms offices and ministries interchangeably, and that for a definite reason. Much of the difficulty with the Study Committee’s recommendations, we believe, roots in n one-sided conception of “office.” It emphasizes strongly the idea of ruling, regulating, exercising authority, which is indeed part of the Biblical teaching. Yet this emphasis too much ignores another and equally important Biblical facet of “office,” namely, that it is “ministry” (diakonia) or humble service performed in love to reflect Christ’s care for his people. If this were stressed as it should be, then ministers of the Word and ciders need not fear that the exercise of their responsibilities would be in any way impaired by allowing deacons to function in their “office” on a broader level than that of consistory and local congregation. In all ecclesiastical work authority and service go hand in hand! Thus we prefer the term “ministries” to “offices” as a designation for the first section of the Church Order. This would be in full harmony also with the Dutch editions of the Church Order which have consistently since 1581 (Synod of Middelburg) spoken of “de diensten” at this point rather than of “de ambten.” Cf. Biesterveld en Kuyper: Kerkeliik Handboekje, p. 142, p. 191, p.225.
6. K. Dyk: De eenheid der ambten (1949); De dienst der kerk (1952), esp. p. 225–261.
7. Whether the office of the “Seven” (Acts 6:1–6) was different than, a forerunner of, or identical in large measure with the present office or ministry of deacons in the churches has been heatedly debated. Dyk takes the position that this was a unique and temporary office, instituted solely to meet a special need which had arisen in the Jerusalem congregation. He further argues, contrary to the position of Greydanus and many others, that the “deacons” of I Timothy 3 are not identical with what the churches recognize today. Yet throughout he insists that all the necessary foundations for the diaconal office are clearly indicated in the New Testament. It seems to us that in the interest of defending the unity of the offices he has at certain points “overstated” the case.
8. I Timothy 3:1–7 (elders of “bishops”); I Timothy 3:8–13 (deacons); I Timothy 5:17 (“those who labor in the word and teaching” or ministers of the Word).
9. The Church Order (old edition) regards the conSistory as consisting only of ministers of the Word and elders (cf. art. 37). The revised Church Order in harmony with the Belgic Confession. declares: “In every church there shall be a consistory composed of the office-bearers. The consistory is responsible for the general government of the church.” Today, therefore, deacons are plainly assigned governmental functions by the Church Order without neglecting or confusing special areas of responsibility for each of the three offices (art. 35a).
10. Belgic Confession, art. xxx. This is entirely in harmony with the position taken by the Gallicon (French) Confession (1559) which was reviewed and approved by Calvin (art. 29).
11. Dr. P. Deddens of the Reformed Churches (art. 31) has in his De positie van de diakenen ten aanzien van den kerkeraad (1947) urged a revision of the Confession in harmony with the Church Order. Dr. Dyk has urged the reverse, revision of the Church Order to agree with the Confession. For a thorough and well-balanced presentation of this supposed contradiction, cf. A. O. R. Polman, op. cit., vol. IV, p. 22–29.
12. This seems to be the position taken also by Monsma and Van Dellen: Church Order Commentary (1941) p. 165 f., which has undoubtedly influenced many in the churches to react adversely, at least initially, to the Study Committee’s recommendations. However, their statements are much milder and more cautious than those of the Rev. Verduin, even to the point of insisting, “From the foregoing it will be clear that when the Deacons are part of the Consistory they should be considered to be full-fledged Consistory members…” p. 166.
13. The Church Order (old edition) assigned some of the most important governmental tasks in ecclesiastical life on the local level to the deacons in cooperation with ministers of the Word and elders (cf. art. 4, 5, 10, 22, 81). This doesn’t look much like a “concession!”
14. Belgic Confession, art. xxx.