"Notes" to the Belgic Confession - Rev. C. Bouwman

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"We believe that this true Church must be governed according to the Spiritual order which our Lord has taught us in His Word." By the phrase "this true Church'' deBres reaches back to the Church as confessed in the Articles 27-29, namely, the gathering of the people of God (Article 27) which all are obliged to join to receive salvation (Article 28) and of which Christ is the acknowledged Head (Article 29). That Church, we confess in Article 30, is to be governed in a particular way. Just as Article 27's confession of what the Church is is a matter of faith (for the Bible alone teaches us what the Church is), so Article 30's confession concerning the government of the Church is a matter of faith. For the Church is God's, and hence the Lord alone can determine how she is to be governed. So this article commences with the words, "We believe that this true Church must be governed according to the Spiritual order which our Lord has taught us in His Word."


    The Church is not a group of like-minded people, and hence the Church is not ruled according to the personal wishes of its members. It is not a democracy where the people rule. The Church is not a social organisation either where the highest social rank rules. It is not an aristocracy where the aristocrats rule Rather, the Church is a Christocracy where the Christ rules. The appendix '-cracy' comes from the Greek word for 'rule'. Hence a Christocracy is a system of government where Christ rules.

    The Church belongs to Christ and hence must be governed by Christ. This is the fundamental thought which underlies Article 30. In studying Article 30 one must take into account that Christ is the Head of the Church. Consequently, the Church is not ruled according to human standards, wishes or whims, but according to the Word of Christ. In His Word God has taught us how things ought to be done in Church. Hence our article's use of the words "Spiritual order." Church government is not a human system but a spiritual system. This means too that the Church is not governed by human force and compulsion, but rather by persuasion on the basis of the Word of God.


    Christ after His triumph on the cross (where He purchased the Church for Himself with His own blood) has ascended into Heaven. His physical absence, though, does not mean that Christ has deserted His Church. Rather, from Ephesians 4 we learn that Christ, when He ascended into Heaven, gave gifts to His Church. "But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore he says: "When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men" (Ephesians 4:7,8). As to what these gifts were, we read in the same chapter, "And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers" (4:11). Christ's purpose in giving these particular gifts, office bearers, to His Church was "for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ" (4:12). In His good pleasure the Lord is pleased to rule over and care for His bride by means of officebearers. These men, though sinful and needing forgiveness in the blood of Christ as much as any other, are "God's fellow workers" (1 Corinthians 3:9; 2 Corinthians 6:1).

    Ephesians 4 mentions the following offices:

    1.     Apostles: this was a temporary office in the New Testament Church, filled by Paul and the twelve apostles, who were not replaced after they died. Characteristic of the office of apostle was that these apostles were eye witnesses of the resurrected Christ (cf Acts 1:22).
    2.     Prophets: this too was a short-term office which existed in the time when the New Testament Scripture was not yet completed. For example, in Acts 21:10 we read of "... a certain prophet named Agabus .…" See also I Corinthians 12:28. This office has disappeared with the completion of the Scripture.
    3.     Evangelists: another temporary office. Examples of evangelists in the New Testament are Philip (Acts 21:8) and Timothy (1 Timothy 4:5). The exact nature of this office seems harder to define, but must be understood in the context of the missionary expansion of the early church.
    4.     Pastors and Teachers: this is the only office which continues, since its institution in Paul's days, throughout the course of the New Testament Church. In Acts 20 we read of Paul calling together the elders of the Church at Ephesus. "From Miletus he (Paul) sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church" (Acts 20:17). In verse 28 Paul gives them the following charge, "Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood." The words used in Ephesians 4 for 'pastor' appears in Acts 20 in the instruction to the elders. See also I Peter 5:1f.


    Today too, the Lord is pleased to rule His Church through pastors and teachers. They are gifts to the Church from the ascended Christ. It is for the very reason that they are Christ's gifts to the Church that office bearers are not permitted to rule the Church in a self chosen manner. By definition, office bearers are servants of Christ, the Head of the Church. As Christ laid down His life in order to serve the Church, purchasing her with His own blood, so too, in serving Christ, must the office bearers give of themselves in order to serve the Church. The Church is not there for the sake of the office bearers, but the office bearers are there for the sake of the Church. 1 Peter 5:1-4: "The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away."

    This principle of office bearers serving the Church determines not only the manner in which office bearers must perform their task within the congregation; this principle determines too how the congregation in turn must receive these brothers. The office bearers are to be honoured in view of Whom it is that they represent, namely, the Christ. In the office bearers the Christ Himself comes to His people. "Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you ..." (Hebrews 13:7). It is on account of the Word, Christ's Word, which the office bearers speak, that they are to be respected. Therefore Hebrews 13:17 exhorts on the same basis, "Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls as those who must give account...." It is Christ who gives the office bearers the charge to tend the flock that is in their charge. To disregard the officebearers is to disregard the Christ who sends them.

    Hence the home visit by the elders is not so much a visit by just two people, but rather it is Christ who comes in the person of the elder. If Christ sends the elder, it means that I must accept him because of Who his Sender is: Christ. That means too that if the elders visit me, I must be open with them. After all, Christ knows my thoughts, what goes on in my life, my family, my home. It is through the office bearers that Christ seeks to encourage me in my particular circumstances. Hence I must be open in my communication to my elders so that they may know in which way they might best encourage, or if necessary, admonish me. So the question of whether or not I like a particular elder, or get on with my elders, is not to be the criteria by which I decide how I shall receive them. My openness to them is not to be determined by who the elders are, but rather, by Who it is that sent them to me.

    Since it is Christ who sends the elders, they are not to carry out their office or make their visits in order to satisfy personal egos or as a means to finding out as much gossip as they can concerning the members of the Church. Office bearers must carry out their task in the Church in full awareness of the fact that they are ambassadors of Christ.

    That office bearers are gifts of Christ means too that office bearers are not my representatives. Unlike a democracy in which the people elect for themselves a representative to Parliament, trusting that that person will speak on behalf of their interests, office bearers are not representatives of the people. Rather, office bearers are representatives of Christ and must therefore speak Christ's Word at all times. Office bearers are not called to speak what I want to hear. I, a sinner, am too sinful even to know what is good for me to hear. Since it is Christ's Word they must bring to me, and I am to receive their word as His message.


    The term 'office bearers' immediately makes one think of the threefold distinction between ministers, elders and deacons. "There should be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and to administer the sacraments; there should also be elders and deacons who, together with the pastors, form the council of the Church" (Article 30) (See Figure 1). To understand the particular tasks of the various offices, however, a different division than that of Figure 1 is helpful. One could also make a twofold distinction between those who rule or shepherd the congregation on the one hand (elders), and those who care for, serve the congregation on the other (deacons). This could be represented diagrammatically as follows (Figure 2):

    1)ELDERS = Ministers + Elders

    This distinction between two kinds of elders is based on 1 Timothy 5:17 where one reads, "Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in the word and doctrine." All elders rule and teach, but for some their primary task is to teach, while the primary task for others is to rule.

    MINISTERS: The "Form for the Ordination of Ministers of the Word" (Book of Praise, p. 620, 621), specifies four tasks for ministers, in which the accent lies on the preaching. These four tasks are:

    1.     Proclamation of the Word: "... he must declare the whole counsel of God to his congregation, proclaiming the Word according to the command of the apostle Paul ... in public and from house to house. He shall expose all errors and heresies as unfruitful works of darkness, ... shall teach the Word of God to the youth, ... visit the members of the congregation and ... comfort the sick and the sorrowing." The main purpose of all these duties is to bring the Word.
    2.     Administration of the Sacraments.
    3.     Lead in Prayer in public worship.
    4.     Exercising of Christian discipline.

    These four elements of the minister's work are listed also in Article 16 of the Australian Church Order.

    ELDERS: The "Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacon", (Book of Praise, p. 630), specifies three tasks for elders, in which the accent lies on ruling and governing the Church (see also Aricle 20 of the Australian Church Order). These three tasks are:

    1.     To have supervision. The purpose of their supervision is "that every member may conduct himself properly in doctrine and life, according to the gospel." In the New Testament, elders are also referred to as Bishops, ie one who is an overseer, one who supervises. This role of supervision includes the activities of comforting, instructing and admonishing the members of the congregation, much of which is done by visiting the members.
    2.     To govern the Church.
    3.     To assist the ministers.

    For both ministers and elders, the emphasis in their work lies on the vertical dimension: the relationship between God and His people (see Figure 3). The emphasis in the minister's work is that he brings God's Word to the members of the Church, and the emphasis in the elders' work is that they see to it that the members serve God in obedience to that Word. The elders are to oversee the vertical relationship between God and the believer ('supervising the "doctrine and conduct" of the ministers') and between the believer and God.

    2) DEACONS:

    In both the Old and New Testaments God instructs His people to show mercy to each other, and in so doing, to reflect the love of the Father and of the Son. Today too it is the task of all members of the congregation to look after the other. The communion of saints is there so that all the saints see to the well being of each other. "Also today the Lord calls on us to show hospitality, generosity, and mercy, so that the weak and needy may share abundantly in the joy of God's people. No one in the congregation of Christ may live uncomforted under the pressure of sickness, loneliness, and poverty"

    (Book of Praise, p. 631).

    "For the sake of this (above-mentioned) service of love (by members of the congregation amongst each other), Christ has given deacons to His church." Deacons are "to see to the good progress of this service of charity in the church" (Book of Praise, p. 631; see also Article 21 of the Australian Church Order). The task of the deacons, therefore, focuses on the relations between the members of the congregation, between the believer and his fellow believer. It is the responsibility of the individual Church members to be busy serving each other in love and it is the duty of the deacons to see to it that this is indeed done. The deacons are to ensure that the communion of saints is functioning well within the congregation. So, while the focus of the Elders' work lies on the vertical plane, the focus of the Deacons' work lies on the horizontal plane (see Figure 3).

    In order to fulfil their task, it is expedient for the deacons to visit all in the congregation, in order to ascertain which members have particular needs as well as to find out what gifts members have to offer for the benefit of another. "They shall acquaint themselves with existing needs and difficulties." At the same time, they are to "exhort the members of Christ's body to show mercy" (Book of Praise, p. 631). Each of us is to ask ourselves what it is that I am doing for the communion of saints, what is it that I could give to another, what it is I could do to improve the communion of saints in the Church of which I'm a member.

    NOTE: it is to be understood that the scheme of Figure 3 is not to be understood in absolute terms. A problem between believers (on the horizontal plane) surely has a spiritual dimension (involving the elders). And a warped relation between a congregation member and God (vertical dimension) will affect that member's attitude and conduct toward his fellow member (horizontal dimension). Nevertheless, this scheme does make clear where the accents of the tasks of the respective offices lies. See further Acts 6:1-7.

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