The Discipline of Officebearers (1)

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

The elders of God's church are called upon occasionally to discipline a fellow officebearer. Article 79 of The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (hereafter, the Church Order) outlines the procedure to be followed in removing a minister, elder, or deacon from office. Article 80 lists some of the "gross sins which are worthy of being punished with suspension or deposition from office." Thus, strictly speaking, these articles do not speak of the discipline of officebearers, but of the procedure to be followed in removing them from office if they should fall into public, gross sin. If a man were removed from office because he committed a public, gross sin and if that man remained impenitent, the elders would need to proceed to discipline him as outlined in Articles 75 - 78.

While these articles speak specifically of removal from office, they are properly placed in this section of the Church Order, since removal from office certainly belongs to the sphere of discipline. For the same reason, removing a man from office is part of the work of the elders of the church. Not only are elders appointed by Christ through the church to care for and rule the congregation, they are also called to rule over their fellow officebearers. Removing a man from office who has fallen into public, gross sin is the work, therefore, of the consistory. 

Given the events which gave rise to the formation of the Protestant Reformed Churches in 1924-1925 this is a very important truth. No classis or synod may suspend or depose from office. A classis or synod which would do so would be violating the principle of the autonomy of the local church. Suspension and deposition is the work of the consistory because it belongs to the sphere of discipline, the exercise of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. 

The discipline of officebearers is a very serious matter, more serious than the discipline of other members of the church. This is the case because officebearers represent Christ Himself, the Officebearer of God's church. The minister, by virtue of his calling, represents the chief Prophet, the elder represents the King, and the deacon represents the merciful High Priest of the church. The officebearers function in the church in the name of Christ and as clothed with Christ's authority. This is why Holy Scripture calls the church to count the elders who rule well worthy of double honor and warns the church, "Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses" (I Tim. 5:17-19). Consistories must insist that this latter rule be followed. At least two must bring charges against an officebearer. Even at that, the consistory must investigate those charges thoroughly. 

If an officebearer is deposed from office but repents of his sin, he must not be further disciplined. He may very well be unworthy, on account of the sin, to hold office in the church of Christ, but repentance makes further discipline improper. 

Articles 79 and 80 speak of those sins which render a man worthy of suspension and deposition. Article 79 speaks of "public, gross sin which is a disgrace to the church or worthy of punishment by the authorities." Article 80 lists these sins.

These sins of which the Church Order speaks are gross. They are gross not from the viewpoint of God, to whom all sins are gross, but from the viewpoint of the church over which the officebearers rule. They are "public, gross" sins. They are sins which require punishment from the civil authorities. They are sins which may very well result in the perpetrator being imprisoned and even executed. They are sins reported by the news media. Such "public, gross" sins become the occasion for the ungodly to slander the church and speak evil of the holy name of Jesus to whom the church belongs. Further they are sins, according to Article 80, "which in any private member of the church would be considered worthy of excommunication." 

It ought to be noted that private sins committed by an officebearer but repented of need not be reason for suspension or deposition unless the sin be of such a kind that it makes him unworthy to serve in one of the special offices of Christ in the church. Such a sin would be a direct violation of the qualifications for office of which Scripture speaks in several passages. A man may be guilty of child abuse or of criminal sexual conduct, and that sin may not be publicly known in the church. In such cases the man would have to be deposed, and both the deposition and the reason for it would have to be announced to the congregation, along with the fact that the man has confessed his sin and left it. 

Let it be understood that the list of sins found in Article 80 is not intended to be exhaustive. The article lists only those gross sins "among which are worthy of being punished." In other words, the article lists only the chief ones. To use the language of the article itself, it speaks of "the principal ones." These are direct, flagrant, shameful violations of the law of God and of the principles of the Word of God which govern the church of Jesus Christ. 

The list contains the following "gross sins."

1) False doctrine or heresy. Let it not escape our attention that this is the first sin on the list. The fathers regarded false doctrine, heresy, very, very seriously indeed! And for good reason. When the church succumbs to false doctrine she is soon destroyed! One who teaches false doctrine consciously and deliberately perverts the truth of Scripture as that truth is set forth in the confessions of the church. Such a false teacher is unfaithful to the vows he took when he was ordained into sacred office in the church and when he signed the Formula of Subscription.

2) Public schism. This is the sin of dividing or splitting the church or the denomination. It is often the direct result of false doctrine. The minister who teaches false doctrine almost invariably has supporters among the consistory, the congregation, and at the broader assemblies. The result is that the church or denomination splits. Those who foment schism in the church have various motives: defiance of authority, the desire to advance themselves, or self-justification. Whatever the motive, the sin of creating schism in God's church is a sore evil and, therefore, worthy of suspension and deposition.

3) Public blasphemy. This is the sin of wicked scorning of things holy. Mocking God's church, His people, His holy name, or His inspired Word is indeed a terrible, gross sin.

4) Simony. The attempt to gain an office (usually minister, but it could also be that of elder or deacon) or the attempt to sell an office in the church for money is the sin of simony.

5) Faithless desertion of office. This happens when one who has been properly called by Christ through the church willfully forsakes and refuses to perform the duties of that office. To abandon the sheep of Christ and refuse to care for them is as well a terrible sin.

6) Intrusion upon the office of another. This gross sin is the attempt to labor in one of the special offices without a proper call, or it is the attempt to labor in a congregation where the Lord has called another.7) Perjury. Lying under oath either in the civil courts or in the church of Christ is the sin of perjury.

8) Adultery. This, of course, is the terrible sin of being unfaithful to one's marriage vows and wife.

9) Fornication. This is the sin of sexual uncleanness. Any form of this is fornication and may not be tolerated in an officebearer in Christ's church.

10) Theft. This sin against the eighth commandment of God's Law is that of appropriating that which belongs to one's neighbor.

11) Acts of violence. This would be any kind of physical attack upon one's neighbor, including the worst of this, murder.

12) Habitual drunkenness. Repeated drinking of alcoholic beverages in excess constitutes this sin. Officebearers are called of God to be sober, temperate, in control of their faculties. If they are habitually drunk they certainly are not able to care for God's people by ministering to them, ruling them, or bestowing the mercies of Christ.

13) Brawling. This refers to the sin of quarreling and fighting with fellow church members.

14) Filthy lucre. This gross sin is the pursuit of dishonest gain. The sin of covetousness is the root of this sin.

The above are some of the public, gross sins, the principal ones which render a man worthy of being put out of office in the church. In most instances one of these sins makes it impossible for the deposed officebearer ever again to serve in office in Christ's church.