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Gleanings in the Church Order (1): The Offices

Gleanings in the Church Order (1): The Offices



For many the Church Order is a dull, unexciting document. At first glance, it seems to be a book of interest to none but elders, deacons, and pastors. But the church order is necessary because God requires that his church be orderly. Paul writes, “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). That really is the motto text behind the church order: we do not want anarchy, chaos, or disorder in the congregation; we want order and peace. To another congregation Paul writes that he “[rejoices] and [beholds] [their] order” (Col. 2:5). To another he writes to warn against “every brother that walketh disorderly” (2 Thess. 3:6, 11).

Order in the church is important, therefore.

The Reformed churches very early on in their history recognized the need for good order. Even when they were persecuted in the Netherlands, for example, they insisted on developing a church order. The Church Order of Dordt (as it is called, because it was revised and developed at the Great Synod of Dordt, 1618-1619, which also gave us the Canons of Dordt) has been used by God to preserve good order in Reformed Churches for centuries. For that we are thankful to our Father, the God of peace.

Article 1 of the Church Order is introductory: “For the maintenance of good order in the church of Christ it is necessary that there should be...” How would you finish that sentence? If you could write a church order, what might you include? Article 1 mentions four things: “offices, assemblies, supervision of doctrine, sacraments, and ceremonies, and Christian discipline.” Those four things can be summarized thus: Offices (Articles 1-28); Assemblies (Articles 29-52); Worship (Articles 53-70); and Discipline (Articles 71-86, although the final section also includes some general articles at the end).

The Offices

The first section concerns the offices.

In Titus 1:5 Paul instructs Titus to “set in order the things that are wanting (or lacking), and ordain elders in every city.” Elders are officebearers: they have an office, which is simply a word which means a position of authority. Elders have a position of authority giving them the right to do certain, carefully prescribed work in the church. Paul speaks of elders in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 as those who “are over [the other members] in the Lord” and he calls the members of the church to “esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (v. 13). Peter writes to elders, exhorting them to “feed” and to “[take] the oversight of the flock” (1 Peter 5:2) and at the same time he warns them not to be “lords over God’s heritage” (v. 3). Elders are called to love, care for, lead, and protect the church like shepherds under the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.

It is striking that when the Word of God speaks of authority in the church, it also warns against the misuse of that authority. No officebearer is a law unto himself—self-willed, see Titus 1:7—and no officebearer acts independently of the consistory of which he is a member. Above all every officebearer must answer to Jesus Christ, the Chief Shepherd.

Elder is not the only office in the church. There are, in fact, three: ministers of the Word, elders, and deacons (see CO Art. 2).

Articles 1-20 concern especially the office of the minister of the Word. These articles concern how a man becomes a pastor: he must have “been lawfully called thereunto” (Art. 3). A man cannot make himself a pastor: God must call him through the church. Several articles explain how a man enters and leaves the ministry: Article 4 describes the process by which a man becomes a minister for the first time; Articles 5 and 10 explain the process by which a man moves from one pastorate to another; Article 11 explains the process by which a man might be released from his current pastorate without a call from another congregation; Article 12 explains how a man might be released from the ministry altogether (Article 12 differs from Articles 79-80, for in the latter case a man is removed or deposed from the ministry because of his sins, while Article 12 is somewhat akin to an honorable discharge from the ministry); and finally Article 13 explains the retirement, or emeritation, of a man from the active ministry.

Articles 16-21 concern the duties of the minister of the Word, where Article 16 is the most detailed: “The office of the minister is to continue in prayer and in the ministry of the Word, to dispense the sacraments, to watch over his brethren, the elders and deacons, as well as the congregation, and finally, with the elders, to exercise church discipline and to see to it that everything is done decently and in good order.” The other articles concern the equality of ministers (Art. 17), the duties of professors of theology (Art. 18), the support and training of students for the ministry (Art. 19-20), and (in connection with that) the maintenance of “good Christian schools” (Art. 21).

Articles 22-28 concern the election, terms, and duties of elders and deacons (Art. 22, 24, 27). Article 23 says about elders: “The office of the elders, in addition to what was said in Article 16 to be their duty in common with the minister of the Word, is to take heed that the ministers, together with their fellow-elders and the deacons, faithfully discharge their office, and both before and after the Lord’s Supper, as time and circumstances may demand, for the edification of the churches, to visit the families of the congregation, in order particularly to comfort and instruct the members, and also to exhort others in respect to the Christian religion.” Article 25 says about deacons: “The office peculiar to the deacons is diligently to collect alms and other contributions of charity and, after mutual counsel, faithfully and diligently to distribute the same to the poor as their needs may require it; to visit and comfort the distressed and to exercise care that the alms are not misused; of which they shall render an account in consistory, and also (if anyone desires to be present) to the congregation, at such a time as the consistory may see fit.

The Church Order does not speak about the qualifications of elders and deacons (and pastors), but the Word of God does. One thing is emphasized above all other things: character over gifts. If a man has a good Christian character, he can grow by God’s grace in his gifts, but woe to that man who seeks and obtains office in the church when he lacks the necessary Christian character; and woe to that congregation with unspiritual men in office!

Both 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 list the necessary spiritual qualifications for an officebearer, as well as those faults which would disqualify him. Qualifications include domestic faithfulness, blamelessness, vigilance, sobriety, godliness, charity, hospitality, patience, righteousness, temperance, wisdom, humility, and a knowledge and love of the truth; while disqualifying vices include pride, arrogance, haughtiness, contentiousness, argumentativeness, a quick temper, a lack of self-control, a self-willed attitude, covetousness, avarice, drunkenness, and selfishness. Some of those sins are so disqualifying that if an officebearer manifests them in his life, he becomes worthy of suspension and deposition from office (see Art. 79-80). Consistories must be very careful, therefore, when they nominate men to office, that “faithful men are chosen according to the rule prescribed by St. Paul in his epistle to Timothy” (Belgic Confession, Art. 30).

Where pastor, elders, and deacons labor faithfully—not perfectly, but faithfullyand where the members highly esteem the officebearers in love for their work’s sake—not merely because they demand and expect it, but because they show themselves to be honorable menin that congregation there is peace. May the Lord Jesus Christ, the only Head of the Church, so grant it.

Interested in exploring these Articles for yourself? Check out The Church Order Commentary, written in 1941 and republished in 2021:

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