Parity of Officebearers
Among the ministers of the Word equality shall be maintained with respect to the duties of their office, and also in other matters as far as possible, according to the judgment of the consistory, and if necessary, of the classis; which equality shall also be maintained in the case of the elders and deacons.Church Order, Article 17
This article concerns what is commonly referred to as parity of officebearers. Among officebearers there is to be parity or equality. The word for “equality” in the Dutch version of the article is gelijkheid, that is, “similarity, likeness, equality.”
The article is concerned not with equality of the OFFICES in the church. There is equality among the several offices. While the offices are of three kinds, it is not the case that one of the offices is higher or lower than the others. All the offices possess the same authority, the authority of Jesus Christ, albeit authority in a different sphere.
Nor is the article directly concerned with equality among officebearers of the various congregations within the same denomination. This certainly is true and is a valid implication of the teaching of Article 17. This is something that the Church Order states explicitly in Article 84:
No church shall in any way lord it over other churches, no minister over other ministers, no elder or deacon over other elders or deacons.
But this is not directly the subject of Article 17, as is plain from the reference of the article to “the judgment of the consistory.”
Instead the article refers to parity of officebearers within the same congregation. When there is more than one minister in a given congregation there is to be equality between them. This is also to be true in regard to the elders and the deacons.
Statements of Early Synods and of the Confessions
There are several early decisions of the Reformed churches that are forerunners of Article 17. Among them we may sight the following.
The Synod of Embden, 1571: “No church shall lord it over another church, no minister of the Word, no elder or deacon shall lord it over another, but each one shall guard himself against all suspicion and enticement to lord it over others.”
The Synod of Dordtrecht, 1578: “No church shall in any way lord it over or have the upper hand over other churches, no minister over other ministers, no elder or deacon over other elders or deacons, but rather each one shall be on one's guard against all cause and suspicion of this, although from duty of love one church not only may but also should admonish another, one minister another, etc.”
The Synod of Middelburg, 1581, adopted what is essentially our Article 17. The decision of Middelburg was reiterated by the Synod of 'sGravenhage in 1586.
Several Confessional Statements also Express Agreement with the Principle of Article 17.
The Second Helvetic Confession of 1562 states: “To all ministers in one church is given one and the same authority and office.”
The French or Gallican Confession of Faith of 1559, in Article 30 states: "We believe that all true pastors, wherever they may be, have the same authority and equal power under one head, one only sovereign and universal bishop, Jesus Christ; and that consequently no Church shall claim any authority or dominion over any other."
Our own Belgic Confession of Faith, in Article 31, states: "As for the ministers of God's Word, they have equally the same power and authority wheresoever they are, as they are all ministers of Christ, the only universal Bishop and the only Head of the Church."
Two Outstanding Principles Upon which Article 17 is Based Come Out Here.
First, all the officebearers share equally in the office of Christ. One does not possess 100% of the office, while another has only 85%, and still another only a meager 60%. Every minister possesses ALL of the prophetic office of Christ. Every elder possesses ALL of the kingly office of Christ. And every deacon possesses ALL of the priestly office of Christ. If all the officebearers share equally the office of Christ, one cannot be above another, one minister over another minister, one elder over other elders, one deacon preeminent over his fellow deacons. Is Christ above Christ?
In the second place, it follows from this that if all the officebearers share the whole office, they are all also called to perform all of the duties of the office. All of the deacons are expected to share equally in all of the labors of the deacons. All of the elders are expected to share equally in all of the labors of the eldership. And if there is more than one minister in a given congregation, those ministers together are expected to share equally in the various labors that belong to the ministerial office.
Parity of Authority and Duties
The equality referred to in Article 17 has to do with two matters especially: authority and duties.
There is parity of officebearers with respect to their authority. There is to be no lording over another officebearer by a fellow officebearer. In this article the Reformed churches expressly reject the Romish hierarchy and the superintendency of the Lutheran, Episcopal, and Methodist churches. In these systems of church government each rank or office is higher than the preceding and, consequently, vested with higher authority. There is no parity of officebearers.
In the Reformed system matters are radically different. All officebearers are of equal authority. No minister is head over the other ministers. No elder or deacon is head over his fellow elders or deacons.
This does not imply that one minister may not preside as president of the consistory, although even this is to be by rotation (cf. Church Order, Article 37). Nor does this prevent one deacon from serving as the president of the deacons, although this can only be by the majority vote of the other deacons. But serving as president does not imply greater authority. There is still parity among the officebearers. Practically speaking, the vote of one carries as much weight as the vote of another, and none has the power of veto over his fellow officebearers.
Parity of officebearers also applies to the duties of their offices. If their authority is the same, it follows that there ought also to be a sharing of the work that belongs to the office. Generally, the workload ought to be divided equally among the officebearers: preaching, catechism teaching, sick-visiting, family visitation, discipline, and various other committee work.
Article 17 is opposed to the compartmentalizing of the office of the ministry that goes on in Reformed churches today, so that, besides ministers who preach, there are also ministers of education, ministers of visitation, youth ministers, and ministers of music. Parity of officebearers implies that as much as possible all ministers in a given congregation share equally in the duties of the office. The consequence of not doing this is inevitably hierarchy in the church, a plague abhorred by every truly Reformed congregation. The evidence of this begins to show itself when titles like “senior” pastor and “assistant” pastor are used. The best preventative of hierarchy in the church is the insistence that each officebearer, elders and deacons as well as ministers, perform all the duties belonging to the office. This will also prevent the notion from gaining headway that certain labors are more important than other labors, and that therefore the persons performing those labors are also to be considered more important.
Extent of this Equality
Even though equality among the officebearers includes, especially their authority and duties, it extends beyond this. Article 17 says, “…and also in other matters…” Here the article is warning against partiality and preferment. The application here would be especially to matters of honor, salary, housing, vacations, fringe benefits, etc. Does this imply that all the ministers must receive equal salaries? Not at all. The needs of each family and special circumstances must be taken into consideration. But one minister must not be given an extravagant salary, while another is paid skimpily. One minister must not be afforded a mansion of a parsonage, while another is forced to live in crowded and unfit quarters. If there is parity among the officebearers, then they must also be treated equally.
There will always be certain exceptions. Article 17 foresees this: “…as far as possible…” The article is not ironclad, but wisely allows for some flexibility. Age should always be taken into consideration. Health is often a factor. One's abilities enter into the picture. One may show a certain lack in one area, while another shows a definite strength. A consistory is wise to utilize each man's strengths.
Who decides the exceptions? The consistory: “…according to the judgment of the consistory…” Appeal to classis is always left open: “…and if necessary, of the classis…”