The Discipline of Officebearers (2)

Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Article 79 speaks of the procedure to be followed by a consistory when one of its members commits public, gross sin and needs to be suspended and/or deposed from office.1 In addition to the application of discipline outlined in Articles 71-78 which applies to all members of the church, the Church Order declares that ministers, elders, and deacons who commit "any public, gross sin which is a disgrace to the church or worthy of punishment by the authorities ..." must be suspended and deposed from their office. This is necessary for several reasons:

1. These men hold special offices in the church in which they are called to exercise the authority of Christ in the way of ruling God's people, ministering Christ's mercies to the poor, and preaching the gospel. Public, gross sin makes them unfit to work on behalf of Christ. They must be removed from office.

2. Because of the sacredness of the special offices and the importance of these offices in the church, unfaithful officebearers cannot and may not continue in these offices.

3. Public, gross sin makes it impossible for officebearers to represent Christ among God's people, to serve as an example to the flock of God, and to warn the saints of the ways of false doctrine and sin.

Article 79 distinguishes between the censure of elders and deacons on the one hand and the censure of the ministers on the other. In the case of an elder or deacon committing public, gross sin the suspension shall be immediate. In the case of the ministers the process is a bit different and longer. It ought to be noted in this connection that "immediately" does not mean that the offending elder or deacon must be suspended before a careful investigation is carried out. The consistory must be certain that the man in question is indeed guilty of public, gross sin. But when the consistory is certain, the sinning officebearer must be immediately suspended.

This suspension is not necessary in the case of the elders and deacons. The Article stipulates that "the elders and deacons shall immediately ... be suspended or expelled from their office, but the ministers shall only be suspended. Whether these shall be entirely deposed from office shall be subject to the judgment of the classis, with the advice of the delegates of the (particular) synod mentioned in Article 11" (emphasis mine, RDD). No doubt the reason why a minister must first be suspended and may not be deposed without the judgment of the classis and the advice of the synodical delegates is that the ministers, while serving in particular congregations, belong to the entire denomination. More on this a bit later. In the case of a sinning elder or deacon, the consistory itself must decide whether to suspend first and then proceed to depose, or simply to depose the offending officebearer immediately. The nature of the sin may be such that the consistory is convinced that the man ought, for the sake of the name of Christ and the reputation of the church, be deposed immediately. In this event there would be no suspension, just deposition.

In either case, that is, whether the consistory decides first to suspend or decides to depose immediately, this must have the approval of the consistory of the nearest church. No consistory may act alone! Suspension and deposition are matters so serious that another consistory must be involved and concur. The fathers were concerned that in matters so serious no mistakes be made, no injustices be done. 

The procedure which the consistory must follow is:

1. The consistory makes a decision to suspend or depose its offending elder or deacon dependent upon the approval of the nearest church.

2. The consistory of the nearest church is notified and meets with the consistory in charge of the suspension. The entire case is carefully discussed so that the consistory of the nearest church is thoroughly acquainted with the case and is able to make an informed and correct decision.

3. The consistory of the nearest church then meets separately and comes to its decision.

4. If this decision is to concur with the suspension or deposition, a proper announcement is composed by the consistory and given to the congregation on the next Lord's Day.

5. If, however, the consistory of the nearest church does not concur with the decision to suspend or depose, and if the disagreement cannot be resolved, the matter must be brought to the classis.

Ministers, according to the article and as noted above, may not be immediately deposed. When a minister commits public, gross sin he must be suspended. This is done by his consistory and with the concurrence of the consistory of the nearest church. In addition, because the ministers serve the entire denomination, all the consistories must be notified of the suspension. When the other consistories are so notified, they are not asked to approve of the suspension, they are simply informed of it. They must recognize the suspension. 

Before a consistory may finally depose a minister, the matter must be brought to the classis. At that meeting of the classis, the synodical deputies from the neighboring classis must be present. The consistory must present its decision to depose the minister and clearly state its grounds for that decision to the classis. The classis must give careful consideration to the matter. The classis must take a decision to advise the consistory to proceed with the deposition. The synodical deputies must also agree with the decisions of the consistory and the classis. Only then may the consistory proceed to the deposition. If there is disagreement between the consistory and classis, or if the synodical deputies cannot concur with either the consistory or the classis, the matter must be resolved by the synod.

There are good reasons, in addition to the one cited above, why the classis and the synodical deputies must concur in the deposition of the ministers. The ministerial office is a sacred office indeed. The minister is called to serve in that office for life. Besides, the churches in common through their synod examined him and declared him a candidate for the ministry of the Word and sacraments. The churches in common concur when he accepts a call. The churches in common must have a voice, therefore, in his deposition from office as well.

It stands to reason that if the officebearer does not repent after suspension and deposition, he must be disciplined according to the steps outlined in Articles 76 and 77.

The extremely difficult question is often asked whether a man who is deposed from office and who repents of his sin can be ordained once more into the same or another office. The Church Order itself does not deal with the question. This may mean that the fathers considered it to be obvious that once a man is deposed he is forever barred from serving in office. Or it could mean that the fathers considered it to be obvious that a deposed man could be reinstated in office if he repented and showed amendment of life.

However that may be, if one compares the list of the "principal, gross sins" which according to Article 80 "are worthy of being punished with suspension or deposition from office," with the fact that ministers, elders, and deacons must be "blameless" and "have a good report of them which are without," the answer would seem to be obvious.2 Still more, Article 80 also speaks of "all sins and gross offenses as render the perpetrators infamous before the world, and which in any private member of the church would be considered worthy of excommunication." These considerations, it would seem, point in the direction of answering the question in the negative. Once a man is deposed, he ought never be ordained to office again. 

1See the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, hereafter, the Church Order.

2See I Timothy 3:1-13.