The Relation of the Deacons to the Consistory (2)

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.

Another consideration in this matter of the proper relation of the deacons to the consistory is the seeming difference between Article 30 of the Netherland Confession and the Church Order. The Confession definitely includes the deacons in the consistory, while the Church Order seems to exclude them. This raises the question: if there really is conflict between the Confession and the Church Order, which of the two should have priority? To this question Dr. K. Dyk answers: the Confession. In like manner does Prof. Martin Monsma. Speaking for the committee for Church Order revision, Prof. Monsma writes: "It is worthy to note that Guido deBr├Ęs, the primary author of our Belgic Confession, in many instances modeled our Confession after the French Reformed Confession, which French Reformed Confession was drafted with the help of Calvin himself. He sent three of his colleagues with a draft to the assembly of French Reformed Churches which was to write the French Confession. This French Confession has the following: 'We believe that the true Church of Christ is to be ruled according to the mode of government which our Lord Jesus Christ has instituted, namely that there are pastor, elders, and deacons.'" To substantiate the above, Monsma refers to Dr. K. Dyk (De Eenheid der Ambten; English tr.: The Unity of the Offices).

With respect to the question concerning the conflict between the Confession and the Church Order, Monsma states that it is the position of the Revision Committee that "our Creeds should have priority over our Church Order. The Creeds state fundamental principles; the Church Order is a body of rules based on the Word of God and the Creeds, but it is in many instances a set of practical provisions according to which the churches have agreed to rule themselves." The Church Order Revision Committee, therefore, followed the Confession in the proposed revision. Article 28 of the Revised Church Order, which is to replace Article 37 of the present Church Order, reads as follows: "In all Churches there shall be a consistory composed of the ministers of the Word, the elders and the deacons.... In the interest of efficiency separate meetings may be held by elders and by the deacons. However, in churches in which the number of officebearers is five or less, no such separate meetings shall be held."

It is also significant to note, in this connection, that although the Confession antedates the Church Order by some 56 years and the fathers of Dordt certainly were acquainted with Article 30 of the Confession, yet no attempt was made then, or since, to alter the article. This certainly would have been done if they considered it contrary to Scripture.

As far as the Church Order is concerned, it seems to take a rather conflicting position with respect to the question concerning the relation of the deacons to the consistory. On the one hand it seems to exclude the deacons from the consistory, but on the other hand it includes them again. By the frequent use of the expression, "the Consistory and the deacons," the Church Order seems to exclude the deacons from the consistory. But on the other hand, by permitting that the deacons be added when the consistory is small, and even demanding this when the number of elders is three or less, the Church Order evidently includes the deacons in the consistory again. What is more, the Church Order nowhere states what constitutes a large consistory. That is simply left to the judgment of each local consistory. If we consider that, in comparison with some of the churches in the Netherlands, we really have no large consistories here, not even in the Christian Reformed Churches, then it is evident that the Church Order leaves it pretty well up to the local consistory whether or not they want to include the deacons in the consistory.

Besides, according to the Rev. P.Y. DeJong (The Ministry of Mercy), this provision of adding the deacons to the consistory was universally carried out, since most of the congregations began with a small number of officebearers. It was only as the congregations grew that the need for separate meetings of the deacons was felt. Yet even in those congregations where such separate meetings of the deacons were inaugurated, no move was made for separate meetings of the elders, and consistorial work was still done in the presence and with cooperation of the deacons. It is only comparatively recent that several consistories of larger congregations excluded the deacons from theconsistory, at least in as far as the Church Order permits this.

It has been argued that when the deacons were added to the consistory, they only served in an advisory capacity. But this is hardly in harmony with the facts. For, in the first place, that certainly would be in conflict with the purpose of the Church Order. The purpose of the Church Order in adding the deacons to the consistory undoubtedly is to avoid putting the power of government in the hands of a few, and so check the tendency toward hierarchy which is always present in the church. But if the deacons are added merely in an advisory capacity, the power remains in the hands of a few, and the purpose of the Church Order is defeated.

But in the second place, even if it were true that the deacons are added only in an advisory capacity, it would make no essential difference. For even though it be in an advisory capacity, they nevertheless are then busy in the work that pertains to the elders. The deacons then express judgment in matters pertaining to government and discipline, and although the final decision may then be left with the elders, the deacons nevertheless cooperate and use their influence in reaching that decision. That certainly does not belong to the office of deacon as such.

In the third place, it often happens in small consistories that a deacon is delegated to classis when the elder is unable to attend. But when a deacon is delegated to classis he certainly does not function in an advisory capacity, but is on a level of absolute equality with the ministers and the elders, and is so recognized by classis. In other words, when deacons are delegated to classis they serve in the capacity of assistant-elder. Now this would be impossible, unless they serve in the consistory in that same capacity.

In the fourth place, that the deacons, when added to the consistory, merely serve in an advisory capacity is certainly not the opinion of some of the leading authorities on church government. Voetius, one of the foremost authorities, is of the opinion that there is a scriptural basis for placing the deacons in the consistory, in Philippians 1:1. The Rev. Gispen claims that when the deacons are added to the consistory they usually serve in an advisory capacity. Yet the very fact that he states that this is "usually" the case implies that this was by no means always the case. Prof. W. Heyns, proceeding from the fact that the offices are one in Christ, maintained that the deacons should always be included in the consistory and that all the affairs of the congregation should be taken care of in the full consistory. In substantiation of this, he appealed to Article 30 of the Confession and the first Synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, the Synod of Emden (1571). The Rev. Knap (De Kerk) expresses it in a somewhat similar way. According to Knap, from the fact that the offices are one in Christ it follows that, although we acknowledge the distinction between the offices, their deeper oneness must be maintained and brought to manifestation, and it is exactly in the consistory that they unite. According to the Rev. Jansen, when the deacons are placed in the consistory they then serve as assistant elders and decide over matters of government and discipline. The elders, in turn, decide on matters pertaining to the deacons.

VanDellen and Monsma, in their Church Order Commentary, express themselves as follows: When the deacons are part of the consistory they should be considered to be full-fledged consistory members. They have a voice and vote in all matters which pertain to the government of the church, even as the elders under these circumstances have a voice and vote in all matters regarding the church's work of mercy. To deny the deacons a right to vote in cases of discipline, for instance, would be contrary to the Church Order and the duties which have been imposed on them by local arrangement.

Undoubtedly others could be mentioned. So, for example, Dr. K. Dyk (De Eenheid der Ambten) absolutely rejects the line of demarcation between the offices and considers it contrary to Scripture. Dr. Dyk even suggests that the fathers differentiated between the consistory and the deacons as often and as readily as they did because of the fact that many diaconates were virtually looked upon as civil agencies for the care of the poor. (Remember the close connection between the civil government and the Reformed "state" church at the time.) But however this may be, that the deacons, when added to the consistory, merely function in an advisory capacity certainly is not the opinion of leading authorities on church government.

To the above we would still add the opinion of Rev. Ophoff. According to Rev. Ophoff, "if the deacons are added to the consistory they thereby are made elders in addition to their being deacons. This is the only possible view. Otherwise the article (Art. 37) involves us in a difficulty, namely, how a deacon can function as an elder." With respect to the notion that in matters of discipline the function of the deacons should be limited to an advisory capacity, the Rev. Ophoff writes that "this view is untenable. For if the deacons are added to the consistory, they have decisive vote in all matters and likewise the elders. It really means that the elders, in addition to being elders, are also deacons and the deacons, in addition to being deacons, are also elders."

The Rev. G. VandenBerg (Standard Bearer, May 15, 1959) would limit the function of the deacons in the consistory, in those matters that belong strictly to the office of the elders, to an advisory capacity. But, as already stated above, essentially that would make no difference. For even though they function only in an advisory capacity, they are, nevertheless, busy in the work that pertains to the office of the elders and not to the office of the deacons, even though it be in a limited sense. If it is proper for the deacons to function in the work that pertains to the elders, in a limited capacity, what possible objection can there be to their functioning in a full capacity?

However, it is evidently not the intention of the Church Order that the deacons, when added to the consistory, should only function in an advisory capacity. For, in the first place, if that were the intention, the Church Order undoubtedly would have stated as much. Yet it does not even suggest such a limitation. Without any qualification whatsoever, the Church Order speaks of adding the deacons to the consistory. But this is also evident from the distinction which the Church Order makes between large and small consistories. With respect to large consistories the Church Order required that separate meetings shall be held of the elders and of the deacons, but with respect to small consistories no such separate meetings need, or may, be held. Of course, where no separate meetings are held, there all the affairs of the congregation are discharged at the one meeting of elders and deacons, and the deacons function as assistant-elders, and the elders as assistant-deacons.

But there is more. Although the Church Order provides for separate meetings of the elders and of the deacons, it at the same time restricts the holding of such separate meetings, and requires that much of the labor in the midst of the congregation shall be conducted in the combined meetings of all the offices, even in the largest churches. The Church Order requires that in matters of appointment to office, the release of ministers when they desire to accept a call, the exercise of supervision over each other as officebearers, and church visitation, the three offices must cooperate and work as one body even in the largest churches. Beside the above-mentioned matters, Jansen mentions several other matters as properly the business of the combined meetings. Bouwman, although not nearly as elaborate, is in substantial agreement with Jansen in this. Now all these matters belong to the government of the church, yet in all these things the deacons are fully on a par with the ministers and the elders.

Briefly, therefore, the position of the Church Order is as follows. On the one hand, by using the word "consistory" exclusively for the meeting of the ministers and the elders, the Church Order seems to exclude the deacons from the consistory. But on the other hand by the provision it makes concerning small consistories and by its demand that whenever important matters regarding the offices and the like are to be acted upon the three offices must cooperate and work as one body, the Church Order evidently includes the deacons in the consistory. If, therefore, we do not want to place the Church Order in hopeless conflict with itself, we will have to assume that it does not mean to exclude the deacons from the consistory and, with the Confessions, recognizes the one consistory, composed of ministers, elders, and deacons, but simply provides for a limited measure of division of labor in keeping with the peculiar duties of the offices. The introduction of this division-of-labor-plan is a matter which is left for each church to decide entirely for itself. 

...to be continued.