I have nearly finished the series of articles I wrote on the meaning of “Reformed” for Salt Shakers, and will make this the last one in that series. We have discussed that to be Reformed involves our theology, our worship and the government of the church. We have discussed all of these including church government; the only one that remains to be discussed is the office of deacons in the church. I propose to address that problem in this last and concluding article along with the question of the responsibilities of those who hold the office of all believers.
The Importance of the Office of Believer
In the life of the church institute, for which Scripture lays down certain rules to be observed, and are also rules underlying our Church Order, the office of believers is the most important. It is the most important, first of all, because the believer, who holds this office, holds a three-fold office: prophet, priest and king. He receives that office as a true believer who is united to Christ by faith and receives also the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Lord’s Day 12 of the Heidelberg Catechism tells us, that, because we have the anointing of the Holy Spirit, we are called “Christians.”
The office of believers is the most important office in the church, because finally, the entire rule in the church can be traced back to the office of believers. If you question that statement, then think of how a new congregation is organised. It is organized by a group of believers who come together to decide to organize a church. They have the right to do this as believers. They decide to do this because there is no other church in the area that has the marks of the true church. After deciding to organize such a church, they probably ask for a list of the names of confessing men as the heads of households (in which case they enrol the wives and children along with the men) and single men who have confessed their faith.
These men then proceed to vote for elders and deacons from nominations made from the floor by the men themselves. The men chosen are then ordained. If a minister or missionary is present, he will probably guide the meeting as chairman and proceed to ordain the newly chosen office bearers. The constituted body of elders will then, in due time, propose a trio of ministers to the congregation and the confessing male members will proceed to call a minister.
However, as I have written earlier, the relation between the office bearers and the congregation is unique. The relation is one of a delicate balance that will work only where there is godly trust on the part of all the members. The whole relationship seems to an unbeliever to be hopelessly confusing; but it is not, for both the office of believers and those who hold special office in the church serve Christ, who is the Head of the church.
And so the office of believers holds the final authority in the church and participates actively in the government of the church. But at the same time, he subjects himself to the rule of the elders—as he is admonished to do by Scripture. He rules and is ruled— both.
The Believer’s Obligation to the Church
You can understand what a great responsibility each believer has toward the church. The church is always your first concern in life. Nothing must ever interfere with your responsibility towards Christ’s church. It is Christ who is the Head of the church; and Christ the Head of the church has given you the most important office in the church.
The church is the manifestation of the kingdom of heaven here on earth and therefore, Jesus’ words apply to us in our relation to the church: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
The word “first” in Jesus’ words does not mean “on the top of the list” of the things we are permitted to seek: so that we could continue the list with 2. Our studies; 3. Our home; 4. Our car; 5. Our vacations; 6. Our clothes; etc. Jesus means “first” as the principle of everything we do, so that everything is a part of our seeking the kingdom, that is, the church. The church is number one in our lives and the welfare of the church is our greatest joy.
That means that we seek the unity of the church (Ephesians 4:1-3) and the peace of the church (Psalm 122). (By the way, it might interest you to know that I preached on the last verses of this Psalm in my first sermon in the first congregation I served.)
The believer does the work in the church that is asked of him/her no matter what it is. A believer is anxious to contribute to the welfare of the church in any way he can.
The Believer’s Obligation to the Minister
There are two texts in the Bible that define our calling when we come into God’s house to hear the preached word. One is Ecclesiastes 5:1-2: “Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house if God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil. Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter anything before God: for God is in heaven and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.”
The other is James 1:19-25. I won’t quote the passage here, because it is too long. But you may read it yourselves; and you can find a commentary on these verses in my commentary on James, which only a short time ago was published by the RFPA.
The Believer’s Obligation Toward His Elders
There are texts in the Bible that exactly define our calling towards our elders. I referred to them earlier and will not discuss them here. They are especially Hebrews 12:7, 17 and I Thessalonians 5:12-13.(Look them up.)
In addition to these texts it is important when your elders admonish you or even speak to you, to learn from them. When the elders come to inquire into your spiritual well-being you must receive them gladly, speak freely to them and seek their counsel in any problems you may have. This happens especially on family visitation.
It reminds me of an experience I had while on family visitation. I always asked the young people whether they watched movies especially in theatres. One young man admitted that he and his girlfriend often attended movies. Upon hearing this, the father interrupted and berated his son angrily. I said nothing. At the end of his tirade, the son said, “Yes, father, but you watch the same things on our TV set.” The father was a bit nonplussed and did not know what to say. I still remained silent. After a stretch of silence, the father said, “Yes, but we watch at home. When you go to theatres you are with wicked people.” “No,” the son said, “We go to drive- in theatres where we stay in our car.” That gave me the opportunity to enter the discussion with the whole family about the evils of drama whether in theatres or on TV or on DVDs.
My point is that God put your elders into office so that you may seek counsel from them at any time. Some people rather talk with the minister, and there is nothing wrong with that; but the minister, while he too is an elder is to be busy in studying God’s Word and making sermons. The elders are the ones God appointed to care for the sheep (Acts 20:28-35).
God even tells parents that if they have a wayward child who will not listen to them, they are to bring the child to the elders (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). This is God’s way of dealing with stubborn children, and in my experience, I have found that it is often the way God uses to change a young man or woman that they may be obedient to their parents.
I have on occasion put a troubled and burdened mother under the care of an older and wise mother in the congregation so that an older and sympathetic mother can help a young mother through difficult times. Often a young mother will be hesitant to tell her minister personal problems, while she is free to tell an older mother in the church.
But if such a mother helps a new and young mother or if the minister himself engages in pastoral work, the older mother ought to report to the minister or an elder, and the minister ought to inform the elders at every Session meeting of all his pastoral calls and what is the problem, if any, with which he is dealing. The elders rule in the church.
The Believer’s Obligation Towards the Deacons
It is my judgment that there are two extremes in the church of Christ in which people in the church err in their relationship to deacons. One error is to go to the deacons for financial help when they are in poverty because they have not been good stewards of their earthly possessions, and by foolish spending have buried themselves in debt. Sometimes gambling does this to a family, sometimes drunkenness, but sometimes just foolish purchasing of things people covet and buy whether they can afford it or not. In such cases those who need help from the deacons need also instruction from the elders, and the deacons must so inform the elders. Sometimes when poor stewardship is the reason for poverty, the deacons themselves can instruct the poor in Scripture’s teachings. I
have even, in my ministry,”told the deacons to enlist the aid of their wives to help a mother who squanders money how to be a good steward – especially in grocery shopping.
Sometimes people are reluctant to go to the deacons even though they need help. I have found, in my ministry, there are two reasons for this. One is that people refuse to go to the deacons because they think the deacons should come to them. Their reasoning is that Christ comes to his people; we do not come to Christ. We must not, we are told, be Arminian.
I came once on family visitation to a family that, in the dead of winter, were wearing all their winter clothing. The water in the toilet bowl was frozen for they had no heat, and they had nothing to eat except dandelion greens, which they dug for under the snow. When I asked them why they did not go to the deacons, their answer was, “The deacons are supposed to come to us.” It was no time for arguments, so I called the chairman of the diaconate and told him to get deacons down to their house immediately, which also they did. But they had to be told that, while it is true that Christ first comes to us, he nevertheless says, “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden.”
Sometimes people do not want the deacons to come because they are proud and do not want to admit that they are in need of help. This is indeed pride, for going to the deacons is the same as going to Christ. Christ has, in his inscrutable wisdom, and through such means as loss of job or grave illness, put them in circumstances in which they need the help of Christ. And Christ helps them through the office of deacons.
Poor people in the church are a blessing, for it is more blessed to give than to receive. Christ reminds his disciples, when Mary anointed his feet with expensive perfumes, that he himself would see to it that the church always has poor. These people are necessary for the spiritual well-being of the congregation. It is a privilege to come to the deacons for help.
I was talking once with a man from another denomination who told me a story out of his own experience. He was a member of a Reformed Church, but certainly not a faithful church. He told me that he had gone to his deacons when he was in desperate need, and the deacons told him to go to governmental agencies to get help. The deacons did not want to follow Solomon’s instruction in the book of Proverbs: “The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.” Yet still today some rather go to the government than to the church.
The Believer’s Obligation Towards His Fellow Saints
The believers in the church of Christ must do exactly the same towards their fellow saints as the office bearers do. Because believers are prophets, they must bring God’s Word in all their contacts with their fellow saints. In Bible study groups, in their mutual discussions when visiting with or talking to their fellow saints, they
must put all their conversation within the context of God’s word. If they comfort each other in times of sorrow, strengthen each other when one bears a heavy burden, and encourage each other when their pilgrimage is difficult, they must always come with God’s word.
Because God’s people are kings, they are concerned about the spiritual welfare of their fellow saints and they must admonish them, but with the word of God. Two texts especially come to mind. One is found in Galatians 6:1-2:“Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” The other text is in James 5:16: “Confess your faults one to another and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”
And because all God’s people are priests, they are to help one another with all kinds of help when their brother or sister is in need. They may help with meals, help with running errands for the helpless, help with money necessary, help with doing work for one who needs work done and cannot do it; help in babysitting when a mother is overwhelmed with her responsibilities, etc. And it is the duty and obligation of the person needing help to receive it graciously and in the spirit of love. In these and other situations, God’s people come with God’s word also – as the deacons do when they help the poor.
The office of believers is and can be a very busy office. When Dorcas died, all the women in the town were broken with grief because “she was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did” (Acts 9:36-43).
When those who hold special offices in the church, and when all the members seek the good of the church and not their own good, the congregation is richly blessed. It shines in the world as a light on a hill, and God uses such a church to bring many to faith in Christ.
Written by: Prof. Herman Hanko | Issue 37