Coming With A Calling The Calling of the Office-bearer in the Church
Coming With A Calling The Calling of the Office-bearer in the Church
This is all about office and calling. Office-bearers fulfil their task in the congregation as brothers called by God himself.
As university student, I once visited my pastor, the late Rev. G. Hagens Sr. in Eudokia Hospital in Rotterdam. It was in the days of the infamous Kralingen issue, in which Rev. Hagens, as church visitor, was fully involved and which caused him much suffering. During our conversation he made a remark which I have never forgotten, since it made a profound impact on me whilst headed for Kampen Theological Seminary. He said, “You know boy, I have always reminded myself that I was called, and that is how I persevered.”
And indeed when you hold the office, you have a divine calling. You are sent from God, which is your anchor and at the same time the deep motivation not to abscond your duty when the going gets tough. It is this calling about which I would like to say a few things, for also our sense of calling seems to be eroding today.
Who Are Being Called?⤒🔗
Not every brother in the congregation can be an office-bearer. The prayer in the Form for Ordination of Elders and Deacons in our reformed church book thanks God that he grants men “endowed with the Holy Spirit” and asks God to “grant them more and more the gifts they need…”. This shows that the ordained brothers already possess certain qualities, concerning which the congregation prays that they may increase yet further. And indeed the reformed principle is that one serves in the office by virtue of the gifts bestowed by the Spirit. The congregation is a charismatic community, which the Spirit provides with gifts (compare 1 Cor. 12:4 and Eph. 4:7). This includes those gifts needed to lead and pastor the congregation. Thus Timothy is encouraged not to neglect the charisma (i.e., the gracious gift) he has received (1 Tim. 4:14). Paul also speaks of the grace of apostleship (Rom. 1:5). In 1 Timothy 3 the apostle points out who is able to serve as elder or deacon and which capabilities they are to exhibit. Here we see more concretely which gifts are in focus in the prayer in the aforementioned form.
Exactly to what extent one serves in the office on account of special capability, we discover in Acts 6, where the apostles call upon the congregation to choose seven “men of good reputation full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” from within their ranks.
How Is One Called?←⤒🔗
Art 31 of the Belgic Confession states that no one may improperly intrude into the office, but that he is to wait until the time he is called by God. It remains true for each and every office-bearer that “no man takes this honour to himself, but he who is called by God…” (Heb. 5:4).
In the Old Dispensation the LORD called his servants very directly. Priests, prophets and kings stepped up only after they were rendered worthy of their task by God himself. We read how prophets at times very explicitly heard God’s calling voice. Following the outpouring of the Spirit, the congregation received a task on the pathway to the office. Through the Spirit the congregation was given a voice (Gal. 4:3) and spiritual discernment (1 Cor. 2:15). For this reason she is fully involved in the call to office. You can see that so beautifully in Acts 6. The apostles activate the congregation: She is to choose seven wise brothers and she sets these chosen ones before the apostles, who in turn ordain them in their office.
The fact that we choose office-bearers, harks back to the acts of the apostles whose manner of life, (compare 2 Tim. 3:10) also in this respect, is foundational and exemplary for the church of all ages. It is the congregation whose judgment is sought. It is she who gets to say who in her judgment has been graced with gifts for the office. The Church Council has already made her judgment in presenting candidates for the office. She guards the criteria and directs the entire process. But in the end the congregation determines who is called and indicates by way of the election procedure who, according to her judgment, is most suited. The election is a sacred affair: The congregation according to Martin Bucer, the reformer from Strasburg, brings to light the choice of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit had already determined his choice by endowing brothers with gifts. It is for the congregation to recognise the Spirit’s lead and follow suit.
By God Himself←⤒🔗
Where the Church Council and the congregation have acted according to the Scriptures, the chosen brother may be assured that he is being called to the office by God himself. I well remember the impression it made on me when I as a young candidate received my first letter of call. I felt called from a very young age to become a minister of the Word. That is why I undertook preparatory studies followed by the study at Kampen Theological Seminary. But when that letter of call arrived I suddenly realised: This is for real, now God is calling you. In the letter from that congregation a call comes your way from God. Whatever you thought and believed, now receives confirmation from above.
It is not without reason that I draw attention to these things. We are in danger of forgetting these things. Commercialisation threatens also the way to the office. We need to continue to see the sacred event of compiling a slate and election at the level to which the New Testament raises it. It must be a spiritual affair in which we need to be conscious of what we, as Church Council and congregation, are busy with. This is not about some “jobs” which need to be done within the congregation; this is about choosing shepherds and carers from the congregation, men of wisdom and filled with the Spirit. Our reformed fathers took this so seriously that the congregation would even fast and pray ahead of the election, for they knew themselves called to a most sacred cause.
When we realise this anew, we will not easily request to be relieved. To be sure, nomination and election remains the work of man. A chosen brother may sometimes clearly see in his own life that the Lord does not call him. The responsibility remains with him to find an answer to this. But any flippancy in this regard is anathema. The church council and the congregation have prayed and spoken. They may be remiss, but this must be demonstrated with arguments, concerning which the church council will have the final say. After all, the church council is in charge of the whole process.
Burden or Privilege←⤒🔗
Perhaps the reader will say: “Nice story, but what do we do with the problem faced by many congregations, where hardly any brothers can be found to fill the office?” If only this was a matter of busy commitments during the week, but sadly it often is also a spiritual matter. Where does one find brothers who are filled with the Spirit and have the qualities to lead and pastor the congregation? Many younger brothers are busy with their career and family, but know nothing of current church matters, let alone of Church Order and synod decisions. The general phenomenon of being poorly read is making its presence felt with us too, as is the incidence of shallowness. Whereas in the past youth Bible study societies were a training ground for the office, where reformed traditions were studied, this now is history. On top of that, the office is often spoken about in less than positive terms. It is considered an imposition on your personal life, your family will suffer and all that, while the week is busy enough as it is. Many brothers balk at the extra work.
I believe it is time to bring to mind the words of Paul “If a man desires the position of overseer, he desires a good work” (1 Tim. 3:1). Literally the apostle refers to the work of an overseer as beautiful, desirable work (kalouergou). Work in and on the “house of God” is something to long for, something to strive for. What could be more wonderful than to care for God’s house and to be allowed to build it as elder or deacon? This is something we need to learn to see again. At the same time it is important to realise that it is a high privilege when you are called to this task. Paul speaks of the “grace of apostleship”. It is nothing less than a special favour from the LORD when he wants to use you as his servant. It always touched me how the classic form for ordination of elders and deacons spoke of God’s special grace, that he would use the service of man to gather his church. God does not apportion this task to angels, but he employs people such as us! He comes so close that he puts his Word in our mouth. It is this grace which we must discern again if we want to see the wonder in the labour of the office within God’s congregation.
Fire Lights Fire←⤒🔗
I have borrowed the heading above this portion from the ever-worthwhile book, written by professor C. Trimp entitled “Caring for the congregation”. In it he deals with the difficulty of finding suitable brothers. As remedy for this difficulty he believes that the incumbent office-bearers’ faithful fulfilment of their task is able to overcome this shortage (p9). Fire lights fire! After all, it is the Spirit who brings to life, who recreates the congregation through this kind of faithfulness. In this context Trimp even speaks of the “regenerating power of the office”. I certainly do not contradict him. Dutiful labour may count on God’s blessing, a blessing, which has manifested itself over and over in the history of the church. Calvin, through his work was allowed to change the face of Geneva. However I would broaden this “fire lights fire” a little beyond what Trimp does. Scarcity causes us to look not only at the office-bearers, but also at ourselves as congregation! Does the love of Christ drive us, as it did Paul (2 Cor. 5:14)? Do we first and foremost give ourselves to the Lord (2 Cor. 8:5)? Is Christ our life (Phil. 1:21)? Are we filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18) and abounding in good works (1 Tim. 6:18)? Do we look for God’s kingdom (Matt. 6:33) and the things, which are above (Col. 3:1)? Do we sow in the field of the Spirit (Gal. 6:8)?
All these things converge in Paul’s call “Be fervent in the Spirit and serve the Lord” (Rom. 12:11). It is the Holy Spirit who lights the fire in office-bearers as well as the congregation and we are to allow him to kindle that fire in us. It is striking that the apostle mentions this specifically in the context of building the congregation and our own responsibility in that. The difficulty in finding suitable brothers confronts us as congregation. It calls us to self-examination and humility. Do we not fall short? It must also drive us to fervent prayer for the fire of the Spirit and for the gifts from Him who ascended so as to give gifts to men (Eph. 4:8)!
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