The editorial staff of the Salt Shakers asked me to address the subject of the deposition of an elder. They asked me to address specifically the following: the circumstances under which an elder may be deposed, the attitude of the congregation toward a deposed elder, and the restoration of an elder who has been wrongfully deposed.
The deposition of an elder is the official action of the church to remove an elected and ordained man from the office of elder because of some sin. The church may also depose ministers and deacons. The deposition of officebearers is treated in articles 79 and 80 of the Reformed Church Order of Dordt. These articles are part of the larger section of the Church Order on church discipline. The deposition of an elder is part of the power of the church to exercise spiritual discipline among its members. Deposition is an application of the power of discipline to the officebearer. Deposition applies only to his office. Once removed from office, he is also still subject to the regular discipline of the church that applies to all the members. An officebearer of the church is not exempt from the discipline that applies to all the members generally. However, before that discipline can be applied, the church must deal with his office.
Article 79 mentions both deposition and suspension from office. Suspension is a temporary measure that relieves an officebearer of the active duties of his office because of some sin. This suspension can be followed with either restoration to his function in office or with deposition, that is, removal from office. By “be suspended or expelled”, the article implies that suspension of an elder does not automatically lead to deposition. The nature of the sin that required suspension might not require deposition. The question of whether to suspend only or to suspend and depose from office can only be determined in each individual case. By his sin an officebearer forfeits his influence and moral authority. Thus the question of his future effectiveness in the office must be taken into consideration in the decision whether merely to suspend or to suspend and depose.
The suspension or deposition of an elder may only take place with the advice of a neighbouring consistory. This is somewhat different from the minister, who may be suspended by judgment of the consistory and that of a neighbouring consistory, but who cannot be deposed without the advice of classis. The reason is that the classis had a say in his ordination into office and logically also has a say in his deposition from office. While discipline of the officebearer is the work of the consistory alone, Reformed consistories freely bind themselves by this provision as a safeguard against abuse of the office.
The sin for which an elder may be deposed from office is defined in article 79 as “any public, gross sin which is a disgrace to the church or worthy of punishment by the authorities”. Article 80 lists some of these sins. The article also makes plain that the listed sins are only examples of the principle sins worthy of suspension or deposition. Others not listed may be grounds for deposition. The following principle sins are given: “false doctrine or heresy, public schism, public blasphemy, simony, faithless desertion of office or intrusion upon that of another, perjury, adultery, fornication, theft, acts of violence, habitual drunkenness, brawling, filthy lucre [dirty or unjustly gotten money]”. Similar to article 79, article 80 also summarises the sins that are worthy of deposition as “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”.
All the care that the Reformed faith demonstrates in the articles of the Church Order on the discipline of church members is multiplied in the case of the discipline of officebearers. The discipline of officebearers is governed by the biblical dictum of 1Timothy 5:19: “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses”. The English commentators on the Church Order, Van Dellen and Monsma, rightly point out that “this passage does teach by implication that discipline regarding office-bearers has a rightful place in the Church”, but they are weak on the warning of the passage about the discipline of an officebearer. Better is the Dutch commentator, Harm Bouwman, in his Reformed Church Polity:
Paul here warns Timothy not to accept accusations against the leaders of the congregation other than those based on lawful testimony. The law of Moses required that the judge pronounce judgment only in the presence of two or three witnesses (Deut. 17:6; 19:15). Also in the church one should not lightly take up an accusation brought against an elder. The word “receive” [in 1 Tim. 5:19] means to take up in order to deal with the accusation. No one is more at risk of slander than the leaders of the congregation. The prince of darkness tries to frustrate their work, to render their word impotent, to destroy their influence, either by tempting them to evil or by destroying their good name. There is an appalling amount of slander of the officebearers of Christ with the purpose to oppose the Lord’s cause. For that reason the elders of the congregation must not receive an accusation against an elder any other way than by two witnesses. The marginal notes of our translation explain [the passage] very correctly: “not only condemn him without sufficient witnesses, which should not be done to anyone, according to the law of Moses (Deut.19: 15), but do not even accept an accusation to judge it.” The apostle does not simply say here that witnesses must be present,…but Paul means that the witnesses must confirm the charge. Therefore, the consistory is cautioned about taking up rumours and unfounded accusations.
Only in the case of an accusation that is confirmed by two or more witnesses does the consistory take up the charge in order to investigate its merits and whether the officebearer is worthy of suspension or deposition. In the case of public, gross sin, the consistory must take it up and discipline the officebearer. If the charges are substantiated, the man must be either suspended or suspended and deposed.
The attitude of the congregation toward a deposed elder must be the same as toward any sinner in the church who is disciplined. If the man is sincerely sorry for his sin, the congregation must restore him in “the spirit of meekness” that the apostle commands in Galatians 6:1. He is to be received graciously into the fellowship of the church as a restored sinner. If he is not sorry for his sin, discipline must proceed as it would with any other member of the church, if necessary including his excommunication.
The question of the restoration to office of an elder who has been unlawfully or unjustly deposed is not addressed, to my knowledge, by either Dutch or English commentators. In answering this question, I am assuming that the wrongful deposition is not of the kind suffered by the founders of the Protestant Reformed Churches, in which cases classes deposed officebearers. In that case the ministers and consistories involved simply ignored the illegal deposition and continued to function in their offices, since a classis cannot depose officebearers. The question I am answering is a case of deposition that is legal in its procedure, but in which the charges end up being false.
While this kind of case is not addressed by the commentators on the Church Order, the matter is addressed indirectly by all of them. It is addressed indirectly when they comment on the matter of the restoration to office of an officebearer who is rightly deposed for his sin. Can he hold office again? The answer is a yes, provided that he has sufficiently demonstrated his repentance and commitment to a new and godly life. All the commentators caution that such a decision should not be taken lightly, and all of them bring up certain wise precautions. However, as to the general question of whether a deposed officebearer can serve again, they all answer that it is technically possible. Bouwman points out that in the early editions of the Church Order before the Synod of Dordt this subject was specifically addressed:
The question of the rehabilitation or restoration of the deposed officebearer to office is very important. Our Church Order says nothing about this, although Reformed church assemblies have made pronouncements about it. The Synod of Emden [one of the earliest Reformed synods] said, “But whether the ministers of the word, the elders, and deacons who have been deposed, after having satisfied the church by their penance, should once again be admitted to office if they were again chosen: as far as the elders and deacons are concerned, it is up to the judgment of the consistory; but as far as the ministers are concerned, the classis shall judge.
Bouwman relates that this article was included in the Church Order later by the Reformed synods of 1578 and 1581, but was dropped from the Church Order in 1586 “not because they disagreed with its provisions…but perhaps because it was forgotten or they judged that this was understood. Later history reveals that more than once a deposed preacher was restored to office”.
This certainly is applicable to an elder who is unjustly deposed from office. The simple answer is that he must be restored to his office, if possible. The case is complicated by the fact that, unlike ministers, elders hold their office only for a term of a specified number of years. In the case of a minister who is wrongfully deposed, his name would be cleared of all wrongdoing, his faithfulness commended to the churches, and he would take up his work in his office again. If for some reason the church where he had been labouring already has another minister, he would be declared eligible for call in the churches. For the elder, if his term had expired by the time the mistake is discovered, then, while he is not restored to his office, the false charges against him must be confessed, his name cleared of any suspicion, and he must be recommended to the church for his faithfulness in the office. I suppose that there could even be a consistory decision to include his name in the next round of nominations.
Such confusion would be a cause for great grief in the churches and perhaps to avoid such a terrible situation and such an abuse of the holy office, the Church Order lays out a careful procedure for the discipline of an officebearer, and consistories freely bind themselves to mutual oversight in this matter from another consistory.
 Church Order 79, in The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005), 402.
 Church Order 79, in ibid.
 Church Order 80, in ibid., 402–3.
 Church Order 80, in ibid., 403.
 Idzerd Van Dellen and Martin Monsma, The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1941), 324.
 Harm Bouwman, Gereformeerd Kerkrecht [Reformed Church Order], vol. 2, Het Recht der Kerken in de Practijk [The Law of the Churches in Practice] (Kampen: J. H. Kok N.V., 1934), 661–62. The translation is mine in this and subsequent quotations from this volume.
 Ibid, 668.
 Ibid, 669.
Written by: Rev. Nathan Langerak | Issue 50