Eligibility for Office
How one educates his children sometimes has a bearing on perceptions of eligibility for church office. In one place, the question may be the qualification for office of a father who home schools in the presence of a Reformed day school, or who sends his children to a more broadly defined Christian school. Elsewhere, the issue may be the qualification of a brother who does not home school, but sends his children to a public or even a Christian school. The challenge may also be whether a brother qualifies who chooses a public over a Christian school. Even though moderate voices may be heard on these issues, the issues may divide and politicize communities, and distract from the honour due our Lord.
Meanwhile, it is not only about education that such issues arise. Historical examples could be cited, among others, about dress-codes, grooming customs, possession of certain items of home entertainment, preference for a particular Bible translation, a specific understanding of the fourth commandment, or the meaning of baptism. In this article, I discuss some principles that should be considered when there is controversy about the selection of office bearers.
Called to Church Office
The office is given to serve the household of God, and nomination to the office is therefore not a political, but a spiritual matter. Likewise, it ought to help build the unity of faith, rather than confirm popularity, majority, or factional representation. Nomination also rightly seeks direction from and submission to the Word of God. In the same vein, we seek people with heart and zeal for the Lord and his church, who submit themselves to the Head of the church for the benefit of others. They have an attitude given by the Spirit of God, as evidenced by its fruits.
This spiritual character is recognized in our process of selection and ordination. Eligible brothers are selected and called with the involvement of the congregation and with prayer. This involvement recognizes that Christ lives and works in the congregation with his Spirit, and that members of the congregation are thereby equipped both to choose and to serve. A call to the office is then to use in regular service the gifts received from Christ for building up the Body of Christ, with a special mandate and authority to prepare or equip God’s people for works of service. In line with 1 Corinthians 16:16-18 and 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, the congregation also respects the lawfully selected and ordained people who are over them in the Lord.
The spiritual nature of the office is further recognized when, to be ordained, a prospective office bearer must affirmatively answer the question, “Do you feel in your heart that God Himself, through his congregation, has called you to this office?” His work would be hampered and misdirected if he is not convinced that it is God’s own call for him to serve the chief Shepherd’s church. This conviction is not directed by emotion, but involves one’s mental capacities and judgement, and spiritual discernment. As God’s own call, it could not be based on an emotion or experience, even though the question uses the term “feel.” It certainly is a humbling question to answer for one who knows his misery. Only if he also embraces his deliverance and has received God’s gift of gratitude can he take on this noble task fully, humbly, and in faith.
Who does qualify for church office, as even the holiest of men have but a small beginning of the obedience God asks of us? As Scripture itself gives characteristics that office bearers should and should not have, church councils will often read one of these passages before beginning the process of nomination. However, Scripture gives no comprehensive checklist to determine whether a person would be eligible. It does not directly address the specific questions raised in the introduction above. Furthermore, other passages also have a bearing on eligibility (for instance, Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12-14; Galatians 5; Ephesians 4; James 3), and who is fully self-controlled, hospitable, able to teach, gentle, etc.? Only Christ perfectly meets all these requirements, and only in Him can office bearers be confident that their labour-done-in-weakness is not in vain. Rather, Scripture teaches us to look for certain kinds of men. Giving general standards that hold true for all times and places, and that supersede local and ever-changing specific questions, the Lord wants us to give the matter of eligibility for office in our situation some careful thought and consideration.
The Reformed churches recognized this early on. For instance, the Genevan Church Order (1541) stipulated, “For elders, it will be desirable to elect... good-living and honourable men, without reproach and beyond all suspicion, above all who fear God and possess the gift of spiritual prudence.” Likewise, the Convent of Wesel (1568) noted about requirements for ordination,
One shall make every effort to find people who have the qualities Paul requires: They must be above reproach, pure in doctrine, and excellent in godliness and spiritual wisdom, whereby it will be especially useful if they have some insight in civil matters as well. Above all, they ought to be far removed from all ambition and desire for fame, yes even from suspicion of such.
God allows for different solutions to our questions as long as we remain within the given parameters.
Still, from time to time thorny questions arise regarding eligibility. The National Synod of Dordrecht (1578) was asked, “Should one bar an elder or deacon from office who, though capable to serve the Church, has a stubborn and recalcitrant wife?”1 Synod Homewood-Carman (1958) considered whether a brother should be ordained as elder who had not joined the local Canadian Reformed school society, while in fact helping to establish an interdenominational Christian school. 2 Furthermore, councils may face difficulties with producing a full slate of eligible office bearers. In that regard, with reference to 1 Thessalonians 5:19, Haggai 1:4, Jude 20, and 1 Peter 2:5, Dr. C. Trimp (1982, pp. 9-10) wonders whether people are now too focused on themselves and their own house, while neglecting to prepare themselves and each other for office and building the house of the Lord. People whose focus is not on the things of the Lord should not be nominated. What, however, if people make certain choices that depart from standard practice?
In different times, places, and circumstances, Christians have made a (stronger or weaker) case for various choices mentioned above, and each has also been a matter of controversy and rejection. This alone should caution us to issue rash condemnations or quick justifications. What is justifiable in the eyes of some is not always so for others; what is locally or personally legitimate, is not by implication also universally valid. Moreover, as always, councils who are faced with such thorny issues do well to carefully consider the reasons for a particular choice before jumping to conclusions.
Sometimes the positions people take or choices they make may be questioned because they are a departure from commonly accepted ones. Such time-honoured positions or choices may begin to lead a life of their own, and come to be treated as absolutes, or principles. For instance, when immigrants first began to institute churches in the 1950s, they frequently faced local controversy about their varying ecclesiastical practices in the old country. Harmony was restored when they realized that scriptural principles allow for different practices, and they agreed with common consent on how to do things in the new country. Later resistance to a proposed (or implied) departure from such a practice may indicate how it, in turn, has come to lead a life of its own. The practice becomes, in effect, a social norm that describes how things ought to be done.
However, a social norm, even within the church, is not the same as a scriptural principle, and to elevate it to that level would amount to binding consciences beyond Scripture.
Even the Church Order, which is an agreement among the churches on how we will live together orderly and in unity, acknowledges that it is not a universal law, but may, and at times ought to be, changed (Art 76). It also wisely stipulates, however, that no one consistory, classis, or regional synod may make such changes by itself. Indeed, it is characteristic of the church and the communion of saints, as a body, that members have due consideration for each other if they are to live in true love and harmony. There is room for varying applications of scriptural principles, but living in true love and harmony would require that changes (or even new interpretations of agreements) should not be made unilaterally, without consideration for and discussion of their impact on others. Thus, we should keep the agreement until we agree to change it, even if we hardly have the patience to do so. That would also apply to established social norms.
The benefit of such consideration and discussion is not only that harmony is maintained, but also that God is honoured. After all, only through carefully and prayerfully searching the Scriptures will we find the parameters God sets for loving Him and our neighbour. Too easily do we set our own standards; too easily do we claim Christian freedom to justify our position without consideration for others; too easily do we forget that we are part of the body and are called to use our gifts for the benefit and well being of others. On the other hand, we should not lay burdens on each other that Scripture does not lay by requiring what it does not demand. Either way, we effectively rob God of his honour by acting as though we are wiser than God. Unless the applicable principles get discussed, explained, understood, and agreed upon, we might find ourselves barring brothers from office whom God would not bar.
When a council must prepare a slate for upcoming elections of new office bearers, it is faced with a humbling and daunting task. It is humbling because the brothers are confronted with their own shortcomings and failures. It also is a daunting task, especially when there are issues brewing that could divide the congregation and drive its members into factions. At such times it can become very difficult to maintain a humble heart and attitude, and to find brothers who also have the fruit of the Spirit and a desire to use their gifts for the benefit and well being of their fellow members. May their deliberations be driven by the wisdom and Spirit of God.
Whether it pertains to often imperfect agreements, to choices that are perhaps no longer commonly accepted, or to our understanding of how things ought to be done, we should always consider the principles the Lord sets before us. Whether the questions relate to education or to other issues, we should also be considerate of people’s reasons to make a choice other than the prevailing one, and be prepared to set our personal preferences aside. There should be no reason to bar an otherwise suitable brother from nomination for office if his particular choice does not violate scriptural principles, does not harm or negate the communion of saints, and does not generate conflict with a common understanding or agreement. Hence, the brother should also, in good conscience, be able to sign the subscription form, and if it turns out that an agreement no longer serves its purpose, we should be prepared to take the agreed upon route to change it. If a brother has made a controversial choice, we should be prepared to discuss that with him, and see whether it should indeed be a permanent impediment to his serving in office and leading the congregation in love and unity with spiritual discernment. We seek a spiritual unity that shows itself in word and indeed, and God is honoured if his people live together in such true love and unity.