Suspension and Deposition of Office-bearers
When ministers, elders or deacons have committed a public or otherwise grievous sin, or refuse to heed the admonitions by the consistory with the deacons, they shall be suspended from office by the judgment of their own consistory with the deacons and of the consistory with the deacons of the neighbouring Church. When they harden themselves in their sin or when the sin committed is of such a nature that they cannot continue in office, the elders and deacons shall be deposed by the judgment of the above-mentioned consistories with the deacons. Classis, with the concurring advice of the deputies of regional synod, shall judge whether the ministers are to be deposed.
An office-bearer has a special position in the midst of the congregation. They are to be examples to the flock. They are also more exposed to criticism and, perhaps, accusations than the other members. Not without reason does the apostle command: “Never admit any charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” 1 Tim. 5: 19. The apostle does not mean “do not accept a charge,” but “do not take it into consideration or deal with it.”
That office-bearers have a special position in the midst of the congregation is also evident from the provision of Art. 71. They are human beings and by nature just as prone to fall into sin as all the other members. In their case, however, it has wider consequences than with non-office-bearers, as it also affects or at least may affect their continuing in office.
It is not necessarily so that their continuing in office is affected when they fall into a sin. As long as the admonitions are confined to the personal level, they continue in their office. If they heed the admonitions and repent, there is no reason why they could not remain office-bearers. Things are different when the matter had to be reported to the consistory or when a public sin is involved, although even then it is not always so that it is rendered impossible for them to remain as office-bearers. Much will depend on the circumstances, the situation in the congregation, and so on.
As for what is to be understood by a “public sin” we refer to what has been forwarded in connection with Art. 68. The following article will give a description of what is to be understood by “serious and grievous sins.” We will deal with them in our discussion of this article.
When an office-bearer has been reported to the consistory, or when he has committed a serious or grievous sin, the consistory will have to start the same investigation which is mandatory in the case of the other members of
the congregation. If it appears that there is a hardening in sin, suspension from office as well as barring him from the Lord’s table will have to follow. For the former the cooperation of the neighbouring consistory is required, for the latter it is not.
Almost from the outset it was felt that the position of an office-bearer must be safeguarded against abuse. It could easily happen that a consistory would covertly try to get rid of a minister or elder or deacon and now saw an opportunity to suspend or even depose the brother without sufficient grounds. This is more likely to happen in the case of a minister than of an elder or deacon, since elders and deacons see their term of office expire after a few years, but a minister is bound to the church for life. The churches have put up certain safeguards that protect the position of office-bearers.
Two Consistories with the Deacons
What is needed is the judgment of both their own consistory with the deacons and the consistory with the deacons of the neighbouring church. No consistory has the right to suspend or depose an office-bearer on its own, not because it would not be in the province of a consistory with the deacons to do this, but because the churches have agreed that they shall not do it without consulting the neighbouring church.
We speak here of the “consistory with the deacons,” for this is the body which also appointed the brother to his office and which is involved in other events as well, as we can see from the Articles 3, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14. They are authorized to decide about suspension and deposition, together with the brothers whom they are to call in for help. These brothers are the elders and the deacons of the neighbouring church.
A consistory does not have the right to examine various possibilities to find a consistory with deacons of whose agreement it can be assured beforehand. It is the neighbouring church which is to be consulted. We do not have to split hairs about the question what the neighbouring church is. In most cases there is no doubt about it and if a consistory did ever previously consult a neighbouring consistory or had dealings with them about matters of common interest, it is only logical that the same consistory will be approached. With the choice of neighbouring church a consistory is restricted to the churches within the same classis.
Consulting the neighbouring consistory with the deacons and asking their judgment, does not mean that now a combined meeting is held and that a decision may be reached by a majority of votes. Each consistory with the deacons has to come to an independent judgment and their judgments must agree. Only in that event can the suspension become a fact. When the neighbouring consistory with the deacons comes to the conclusion that a suspension is not justified, no such suspension can take place. The course to follow then is to ask classical advice.
This course of action shall be followed with all office-bearers. The procedure to be followed for the ministers of the Word differs from the one used for the other office-bearers. Elders and deacons can be deposed by the judgment of the two consistories with the deacons; ministers can only be suspended.
Deposition does not necessarily have to be preceded by suspension. Suspension presupposes that, if there is repentance, a lifting may be expected and the subsequent resumption of the task. If the sin committed is such that the consistories with the deacons are convinced that the brother may not continue in office under any condition, their investigation may result in immediate deposition. In the case of a minister they can go no farther than suspending him.
Why the Difference?
Why is there such a difference in this respect? The reason is not because the office of a minister is supposedly superior to that of the other office-bearers. There are, however, some other important considerations which have to be kept in mind.
One of the considerations that comes up right away is the feature that an elder or deacon fulfils his office only “part-time,” so to speak. He does not depend on it for his living, does not dedicate his whole life and all his time to this task. A minister of the Word, on the other hand, had to follow a course of study of many years, and depends for the support of himself and his family on the stipend he receives from the congregation. Deposition from office would result in immediate loss of the right to sufficient support, although in case he has to be deposed he and his family may still receive some support for some time so as to make the transition less traumatic. While still being a minister, he had the right to support by the church, as Art. 10 states. Upon deposition he has no more right to help and support than any church member who cannot provide for himself and his family. Here the deacons have a task, no longer the congregation through the treasurer. During the time of suspension the stipend continues, although the car allowance may be suspended as well.
A further consideration is that he also has a place within the federation. When he was admitted into the ministry this was done by a classis with the concurring advice of the deputies of regional synod. Being admitted into the ministry in one particular church he also received the right to serve in other churches, if asked to do so. It is consistent that he only can be deprived of his office and position in the midst of the churches by the very same organs that granted his position. For this reason the provision was made that the judgment of classis together with the concurring advice of the deputies of regional synod is needed for a minister’s deposition.
Note: we do not say that classis shall depose him. No broader assembly ever has the right to infringe upon the privileges and rights of a consistory. It was not at a classis or by it that the brother was ordained but in a local church and by it. Classis only admitted the brother to this ordination in that local church and, by virtue of this, into the ministry in all the churches. Likewise, as for the question whether the brother may be deposed, of should be, a classis is authorized to give only a judgment. The consistory with the deacons of the church (of which he is a minister) undertake the actual deposition. Any different action undertaken by broader assemblies in the past was
a clear violation of the provisions of Art. 71. No church can be deprived of its minister or of any of its office-bearers against its will, nor can this be done by anyone but its own consistory with the deacons.
The judgment of classis and the concurring advice of deputies of regional synod regarding the deposition will help prevent an undesirable development. It is conceivable that a consistory acts in concert to get rid of their minister, and succeeds in convincing the neighbouring consistory with the deacons of the validity of possibly trumped-up charges and grounds adduced for such action. Involvement of a broader assembly makes the position of a minister more secure. This involvement does not render it more problematic to depose a minister; it only constitutes an additional safeguard that it is done on the proper grounds.
What ought to be the result when the sin is confessed and when there is genuine repentance? Can an office-bearer continue in office and can the suspension be lifted? Or does deposition have to follow in each and every case?
If deposition must follow in each case, we cannot see why a suspension must precede it first. The consistory with the deacons must be convinced of the necessity of the suspension if it proceeds to that step. The brothers must also entertain the possibility that the brother is again allowed to function as an office-bearer. Suspension makes sense only when the possibility exists that it is lifted and the brother continues in office.
Let us think here of the provision of Art. 26, subscription to the Subscription Form. If an office-bearer refuses to sign it, he shall immediately be suspended because of that refusal. Only when he obstinately persists in his refusal shall he be deposed. In other words, if he changes his mind and does sign, the suspension will be lifted.
This is not to say that lifting of the suspension is desirable in each and every case. It would be possible and desirable only if it is ascertained that the brother can work fruitfully, and that the cause of the Lord is served by his continuing as an office-bearer. The following questions should, therefore, be examined:
What was the character of the sin? Was it so serious that a fruitful service must be considered impossible, not only in the present congregation but also in any other congregation? This applies then to the ministers of the Word. We take it that the sin has been confessed, that there is true and genuine repentance, and that there is no falling back into the same sin. Would it in this case be entirely impossible that the suspension is lifted after three or more months and that the brother resumes his work?
An answer to the latter question can be given only locally and in a very concrete situation. However, to say a priori that it is an impossibility would be saying too much. Confession of sin and true repentance do not necessarily mean that the suspension is lifted and that the brother can continue in office. Suspension, on the other hand, does not necessarily mean either
that deposition must follow, as stated above. In the case of suspension it appears that restoration to office is the goal and expectation; otherwise deposition forthwith would have been the proper course of action.
Another possibility should be mentioned as well. It could be that the consistory with the deacons comes to the conclusion that the suspension of their minister is to be lifted, but that the brothers are equally convinced that he would no longer be able to work fruitfully in the same congregation. Although matters have been solved, yet the whole past history or the sin committed is such that it would take a long, long time before trust has been restored and a fruitful cooperation will again be possible. What is to be done in such a situation?
Here we envision a different course of action. Since the consistory with the deacons are convinced that there is not sufficient reason either to extend the suspension or to proceed to the deposition, the only course open is to lift the suspension and to return all the privileges of his office to their minister. At the same time, however, or preferably before that moment, the consistory with the deacons should put the matter before the sister churches at a classis and ask classis and the deputies of regional synod whether they could agree to the release of the minister according to Art. 11, once he has been restored to office. He may then not be able to work fruitfully in this particular congregation, this does not mean that he would not be able to do it in another congregation.
Care should be taken that release according to Art. 11 is not chosen as a way out of disciplinary action. It may never be substituted for censure and suspension because of sin. We are referring to such cases only where the suspension is to be lifted, but where serious doubt exists about the possibility of further fruitful cooperation, where, in fact this is considered impossible for a long time to come; in that case the brother could be released and declared eligible for call. The provision of Art. 11 would then apply.
Concerning elders or deacons we must say that the procedure is less complicated. Their calling was fora specific time only, and if the suspension is lifted, there is usually little time left to serve. Later on it can be judged whether they should be made a candidate for office again. A consistory might wait several years before doing this, so that the memory of the sin and of the suspension has faded to a large extent and the possibility of a fruitful term of office has increased proportionally.
In the case of non-office-bearers we mentioned the possibility that a brother is forbidden to partake of the Lord’s Supper for that one occasion because the consistory did not yet have the opportunity to come to a definite conclusion and decision in the case. This, we said, is not discipline in the strict sense of the word but a safety measure.
The same can be said in case an office-bearer, let us say a minister of the Word, commits a serious sin just before the Sunday, or if someone comes with witnesses just before the Sunday. The consistory does not have
the opportunity to investigate or to come to a well-founded conclusion. Then, as a safety measure, it may forbid the minister to conduct the services on the next day or the day after. This is not what is sometimes called a “provisional suspension,” for we have no such thing in our Church Order, but it is a safety measure on the part of the consistory which is necessary for the sake of the honour of God’s Name and the well-being of the congregation. It is not a disciplinary act.
It is the obligation of the consistory with the deacons to come to a conclusion as fast as possible and, in case they find their minister guilty, to contact the neighbouring church immediately, so that a combined meeting can be called before the next Lord’s Day. If such a meeting cannot be arranged at such short notice, the minister will again have to be told to abstain from the work of a minister for safety’s sake. A precautionary measure it is, a provisional suspension it is not. The latter is an unknown phenomenon in our church life or Church Order.
As an elder or a deacon can be made a candidate for office again, so a deposed minister might again be declared eligible for call after a period of time, when things have calmed down and he has proved his repentance by an exemplary conduct. It will not happen very often that this is done, but it should not be deemed impossible or impermissible. We can see no valid reason why it should be prevented or forbidden. In God's Word we also read of office-bearers who fell into serious and grievous sins but who were maintained by the Lord in the office He had given them.
Which course of action is to be followed in case a retired minister is guilty of a sin because of which he has to be suspended? No difficulty exists here if he has stayed in the congregation he served, but things are somewhat complicated if he has moved to another place or even another region of the country. Which consistory with the deacons is to act now? He is still the minister of the church he served last, but he is a member of another church, and the former church may not even be aware of the facts, even though they are the ones that have to take action.
The proper course appears to be that the consistory of the church of which he is a member contacts and informs the consistory of the church whose minister he is, so that the consistory with the deacons of the latter church can initiate the action necessary. Perhaps they will have to send a few brothers to the place where the minister lives to investigate. Perhaps they will ask the minister to come over to discuss the matter, and will tell him to refrain from any ministerial work until the matter has been investigated and a conclusion has been reached.
Should a suspension have to follow, this very same consistory with the deacons will have to approach the neighbouring church to do what has to be done. What has been suggested, namely, that the church of which he is a member be party in the process does not seem right. This consistory has only the supervision over him as a member, and it does not appear feasible
that this consistory with the deacons plus a consistory with the deacons in another part of the country meet together and reach a conclusion. Besides, they may belong to different ecclesiastical districts, and this would complicate things. Further everything will be conducted properly when the provision of Art. 71 is followed faithfully. That their minister, upon retirement, moves away to another part of the country is no reason why a consistory with the deacons should not follow the course the churches have agreed upon. He is and remains their minister.
If it has been necessary to suspend a minister of the Gospel, the congregation will have to be informed of this. This should be done by means of an announcement from the pulpit, and the information should be kept to a minimum. There may be strangers in church, even non-members, and the less is made known the better it is. Nothing should be mentioned in the weekly or bi-weekly bulletin, for these papers are read by many others as well, and no purpose is served by making the whole matter public in the widest sense of the word. Reporters are very skilful in obtaining all sorts of pieces of information, and the press would glory if they could give some sensational bit of news to their readers.
The sister churches will also have to be informed, for when one is not permitted to do the work of a minister in the church whose minister one is, he may not do the work of a minister in the sister churches either.
How are they to be informed? And should the other congregations be told as well? The consistories of the sister churches are to be informed by means of a letter sent in a sealed envelope and marked “Confidential.” They do not have to be told the reason why the suspension had to take place, only that this minister has been suspended. That is all they have to know, and that is all they are allowed to know. They also should keep the information to themselves.
The consistory of a sister church would be completely incorrect if it published the information received in the bulletin or if it made an announcement to this effect from the pulpit. In all likelihood the matter will become known throughout the churches, but if it becomes known it should definitely not come from any consistory. It is the obligation of all consistories to keep the matter confidential and not to reveal it to anyone.
How is a consistory with the deacons to go about it if an office-bearer just quits? Can the brothers do anything else in that case but acknowledge the fact and acquiesce in it? No, they cannot do anything else. The brothers will, of course, admonish the unfaithful office-bearer and try to make him see his sin and the seriousness of forsaking his ordination vows. But there is no room for suspension or deposition. The brother has divested himself of the right to be an office-bearer. All the consistory with the deacons can do is state that fact. One cannot persuade a person against his will. Even regardless
the question whether they ought to, the brothers would be unable to compel the unfaithful brother to fulfil the duties of the office to which he had been called. However, they should not even attempt to make him do it, for by his act he has shown to be totally unfit to fulfil these duties.
A brother who thus breaks his ordination vows should never again be made a candidate for office. When one falls into sin and sincerely repents, one may be made a candidate again at some point in the future, but when one despises the office to such an extent that one simply “calls it quits,” this removes all ground for trust for the future.
Admonition is appropriate here which, it is hoped, will result in the brother becoming convinced that he sinned, in confessing his sin, and in receiving forgiveness. Restoration to office, however, is out of the question.
Until now we have in this connection hardly mentioned suspension from the holy supper. Does this always have to follow or even precede the suspension as an office-bearer? Not necessarily so. It all depends on the reason for the suspension and the circumstances. When, for instance, an office-bearer refuses to sign the Subscription Form and is suspended because of this refusal, it does not automatically follow that he is suspended from the holy supper.
In general, however, discipline will have to be applied in case a suspension or deposition becomes necessary. The reasons for suspension or deposition from office coincide with those mentioned in Art. 68. Thus it is almost unavoidable that someone who is to be suspended from office is also barred from the table of the covenant. The latter requires no concurring judgment of the neighbouring consistory with the deacons; it is a matter for the brother’s own consistory alone.
Lifting of the suspension is possible only when at the same time the way to the Lord’s table is opened again. Even so, deposition does not necessarily mean that the suspension from the Lord’s Supper must be continued. Above we spoke of the possible need to proceed to the deposition even though there is true repentance.
Once again it must be stated that no hard and fast rule can be applied, nor can we tell someone to look up Volume XII, page 3163, A, 2, sub III, d, 5 to determine what we should do in this case.