The Officers of the Church (Blogging the Belgic Article 31)


We continue our 2017 series examining each of the articles of the Belgic Confession, one of Faith Church’s confessions of faith.

We live in a culture that emphasizes one’s power to choose for oneself as well as one that often has a disrespect for leaders and authority. In some ways, the Belgic Confession discusses both of these issues as it speaks about the officers of the church in Article 31, an article that adds to the discussion of the officers who govern the church found in the previous article.

The article begins by noting that the local church is the one that chooses its offices – the ministers, elders, and deacons – by a process that has prayer and order, as it states: “We believe that ministers of the Word of God, elders, and deacons ought to be chosen to their offices by a legitimate election of the church, with prayer in the name of the Lord, and in good order, as the Word of God teaches.” Therefore, not only does the Reformed system of church government differ in the nature of officers (for example, having elders rather than bishops), it also differs in that a congregation does not have their leaders selected for them but selects them themselves. That is, a national or regional body (or person) does not decide who will be the pastor, but the local church chooses its pastor as well as the elders and deacons. In some ways, the basis for this idea that the local church selects its leaders comes from the passage in which the first deacons are selected (Acts 6), as they come from the people: “‘Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.” At this point it should be noted that the principle is that the congregation is involved in determining these officers, but the nature of that involvement will likely vary depending on the size of the congregation. For example, because of the size of Faith Church, it does not seem possible to have a true election, as it is impossible to know everyone. However, the congregation is involved in that the Consistory asks for nominations that are brought to a nomination team that then vets the people nominated; no one becomes an elder or deacon unless they have been nominated by members of the congregation. There is also a vote of affirmation, confirming that people in the congregation do not have objections to this person being in the office. This system – which is orderly and bathed in prayer, as the confession discusses – emerged as the size of the church grew and seeks to cohere with the principles of Scripture concerning the officers as representatives of the people. The principle, however, is that the local church selects its leaders, not another body.

In addition, this section of the confession reminds us that a calling into the office of minister, elder, and deacon is not something that someone just decides but must be affirmed and confirmed by the church: “So all must be careful not to push themselves forward improperly, but must wait for God’s call, so that they may be assured of their calling and be certain that they are chosen by the Lord.” We often talk in the Reformed tradition of an internal and an external call, as a person needs to have a desire for this role (see 1 Timothy 3:1), but that the church needs to confirm this call; we don’t anoint or appoint ourselves in these positions or just make oneself an elder, pastor, or deacon because one thinks that one should be in the office. One must fit the qualifications of 1 TImothy 3, with the congregation recognizing these qualities.

Another key issue that traditions will differ over is the relationship of ministers – is there a minister who has authority over other ministers? The confession notes: “As for the ministers of the Word, they all have the same power and authority, no matter where they may be, since they are all servants of Jesus Christ, the only universal bishop, and the only head of the church.” This is not saying that you can’t have a staff with a senior pastor and associate pastors, but that at its root, all ministers are equal. It is not that the senior pastor’s vote counts twice and others once; everyone has one vote. There is accountability to each other. One sees this in particular as you go into the regional body of the church (what is a called a classis in the Reformed Church), as all ministers are accountable there and have one vote. Moreover, there is no one person in charge of the classis; there are officers for order but all have equal vote and no one person has authority as in an episcopal system with bishops. Of course, some voices will have greater sway based on their character and giftedness, but there are not degrees of ministers. This is also the case when it comes to elders and deacons (which are not sub offices but different callings). There may be a chair or a person to whom others differ, but this is not due to the office but the earned respect this person has.

The final element this article highlights is the esteem that members should have for their officers: “Moreover, to keep God’s holy order from being violated or despised,we say that everyone ought, as much as possible, to hold the ministers of the Word and elders of the church in special esteem, because of the work they do, and be at peace with them, without grumbling, quarreling, or fighting.” Perhaps because we have a tendency not to give honor to people — and often people in authority — this teaching is found in numerous places in in the New Testament (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, Hebrews 13:17; 1 Timothy 5:7); the story of Moses also shows that people often did not respect their leaders. However, God calls for us to honor these individuals because God has chosen to use them to care for his church. This does not mean that leaders are infallible or can be controlling, but rather that when a leader is in their position, they deserve respect and honor unless they have demonstrated unfaithfulness (in which case they should be removed from office).

The stress on a church selecting its officers does not seem surprising to us, as it aligns with the ethos in which people don’t like someone else imposing their will or view on you, and the fact that there is parity (equality) within the offices also would seem to align with our culture in that it is less hierarchical and authoritative. However, people struggle with respecting leaders (often tied to abuses that have happened), and may even scoff at the idea that we don’t get to choose to be officers but need to have a calling like confirmed by others (you don’t just get to choose your own adventure!). This article thus might be a reminded of how God’s order and design at times seems to fit culture but at other points seems to challenge it.

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