The Deposition of an Office-Bearer
Reformed Free Publishing Association
This article was written by Herman Hoeksema in the Vol 29 Issue 08 1/15/1953 of The Standard Bearer.
The way in which an officebearer, whether he be minister, elder, or deacon, may be and must be suspended, and ultimately deposed, from his office, is in itself perfectly plain from the Church Order, as also from the Formula of Subscription.
The articles of the Church Order that are applicable to this matter are Articles 79 and 80. They read as follows:
“When ministers of the divine Word, elders or deacons, have committed any public, gross sin, which is a disgrace to the church, or worthy of punishment by the authorities, the elders and deacons shall immediately by preceding sentence of the consistory thereof and of the nearest church, be suspended or expelled from their office, but the ministers shall only be suspended. Whether these shall be entirely deposed from office, shall be subject to the judgment of the classis, with the advice of the delegates of the synod mentioned in article 11.
“Furthermore, among the gross sins, which are worthy of being punished with suspension or deposition from office, these are the principal ones: 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; in short, 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.”
However, it must not be forgotten that this is not the only way in which a minister, elder, or deacon, may at least be suspended from office. He certainly may also be suspended de facto, without the advice of the consistory of the nearest church, when he violates the oath of office as it is recorded in the Formula of Subscription, which we here quote:
“We, the undersigned, professors of the Protestant Reformed Churches, ministers of the Gospel, elders and deacons of the Protestant Reformed congregation of _________, of Classis _____________ do hereby sincerely and in good conscience before the Lord, declare by this, our subscription, that we heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine contained in the Confession and Catechism of the Reformed Churches, together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine, made by the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-‘19, do fully agree with the Word of God.
“We promise therefore diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same, by our public preaching or writing.
“We declare, moreover, that we not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine and particularly those which were condemned by the above mentioned synod, but that we are disposed to refute and contradict these, and to exert ourselves in keeping the church free from such errors. And if hereafter any difficulties of different sentiments respecting the aforesaid doctrines should arise in our minds, we promise that we will neither publicly nor privately propose, teach, or defend the same, either by preaching or writing, until we have first revealed such sentiments to the consistory, classis and synod, that the same may be there examined, being ready always cheerfully to submit to the judgment of the consistory, classis and synod, under the penalty in case of refusal to be, by that very fact, suspended from our office.
“And further, if at any time the consistory, classis or synod, upon sufficient grounds of suspicion and to preserve the uniformity and purity of doctrine, may deem it proper to require of us a further explanation of our sentiments respecting any particular article of the Confession of Faith, the Catechism, or the explanation of the National Synod, we do hereby promise to be always willing and ready to comply with such requisition, under the penalty above mentioned, reserving for ourselves, however, the right of an appeal, whenever we shall believe ourselves aggrieved by the sentence of the consistory, the classis or the synod, and until a decision is made upon such an appeal, we will acquiesce in the determination and judgment already passed.”
From the articles of the Church Order quoted above, it is evident that an officebearer cannot be suspended or deposed on the basis of any minor offense. The suspension or deposition must take place upon the basis of “any public, gross sin, which is a disgrace to the church, or worthy of punishment by the authorities.” And some of the gross sins that are worthy of suspension or deposition, or both, are enumerated in Article 80. Moreover, it is clear from Art. 79 that a distinction is made between ministers, on the one hand, and elders and deacons, on the other. The latter may be deposed immediately by the consistory and that of the nearest church. The former may only be suspended, while their deposition rests with the judgment of the classis and the advice of the delegates of synod mentioned in Art. 11 of the Church Order, that is, therefore, the deputies that must be present at the examination of a candidate.
About this no more need be said. It is plain in itself.
However, we would like to add a few words about the last clauses of Article 80: “in short, 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.”
It is, therefore, a very pertinent question: when is a common member of the church considered worthy of excommunication?
The question is often asked: when may an officebearer, and especially a minister of the gospel, be deemed worthy of deposition? And the answer, according to Art. 80 of the Church Order, is evidently: only when he committed a sin that is worthy of excommunication in any common member.
Suppose, then, that a minister makes one or two false statements from the pulpit, that are evidently not in harmony with our confessions. Must he then immediately be suspended or deposed?
Of course not.
If his attention is called to it, or if protests are lodged against such statements, the minister, if he really loves the truth, will be glad to apologize and retract such false statements, wherever they have been made, whether from the pulpit or in another public meeting, or even in private conversation. If this is done, no further action need be taken.
But suppose that a minister repeatedly reveals Arminian tendencies, or preaches Arminian doctrines. Suppose, moreover, that his attention is repeatedly called to the errors in his preaching, and that he does not voluntarily retract or apologize. Suppose that the consistory officially condemns such errors and demands a public apology. Then, if the minister does not repent and stubbornly refuses to retract and apologize, is he not worthy of deposition, and at the same time of excommunication?
He certainly is.
When is a common member finally excommunicated? Is it because of the fact itself, that he committed a gross sin, whether it be false doctrine, theft, fornication, adultery, or even murder?
He never is.
The church does not have the sword power, but the key power. And that key power implies that no matter how heinous the offense may be, if the sinner repents, the church forgives in the name of Jesus Christ and declares him to be a free citizen of the kingdom of heaven.
Ultimately, therefore, it is the sin of impenitence which is worthy of excommunication.
The same is true of a minister.
It is not because of one or two or even several erroneous statements which a minister may make from the pulpit that he is either deposed or excommunicated.
But if he refuses to apologize and repent, and therefore leaves the impression that he insists on continuing to preach erroneous doctrine, he no doubt is worthy not only of deposition from office, but for the same reason also of excommunication from the church of Christ.
But as I remarked above, there is still another cause and another way of suspension of a minister, elder, or deacon.
That is the way of the Formula of Subscription, which may be called the oath of office.
Notice how carefully and forcefully this Formula is worded.
In this formula “We promise therefore diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same, by our public preaching and writing.” (Underscoring is mine, H.H.)
We would probably deem this pledge quite sufficient. But our fathers thought differently. To the above they add:
“We declare, moreover, that we not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine and particularly those which were condemned by the above mentioned synod, but that we are disposed to refute and contradict these, and to exert ourselves in keeping the Church free from such errors.”
How dreadfully afraid our fathers were of false doctrine, and especially of the error of Arminianism. The ministers promise that they shall diligently teach and faithfully defend the doctrine expressed in the confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Nether- land Confession, and the Canons of Dordrecht. They promise that they will never contradict these, either directly or indirectly. But even this is not sufficient. We also promise not only that we reject the Arminian errors which are referred to in the clause “particularly those which were condemned by the above mentioned synod,” but also that we are disposed, positively, to refute and contradict these errors, and that we do all that is possible to keep the church pure from such errors.
It is very evident, therefore, that our fathers considered the “heart of the church,” that is, the doctrine of election, extremely important, and that they were dreadfully afraid of the Arminian errors.
And no wonder! For not only had they discovered by experience how easily the church is corrupted and in what subtle ways Arminianism creeps into the church of Christ, but they also understood quite correctly that it is exactly this error by which the church is most readily and easily deceived.
Therefore the Formula continues, to exact from the officebearers the pledge that they will “neither publicly nor privately propose, teach, or defend the same, either by preaching or writing,” until they first have revealed their deviating sentiments by way of gravamen to consistory, classis and synod.
But there is still more.
The officebearers, and especially the ministers, also promise that they will be always ready and willing to submit to an examination, or to the requirement of a further explanation respecting any particular article of the confessions above named. Such a requirement can be made upon the officebearer “upon sufficient grounds of suspicion and to preserve the uniformity and purity of doctrine.” And if the officebearer, minister, elder, or deacon, should ever refuse to submit to such an examination upon the grounds of suspicion, he would by that very act (de facto) be suspended from his office.
Of course, he may appeal to the broader gathering. But in the meantime he will remain suspended.
This, therefore, is another way in which a minister, elder, or deacon may be suspended from his office.
And it is a very important way, because it concerns purely the matter of doctrine.