We Confess: An Exposition & Application of the Belgic Confession Article 31: Of the Calling of Ministers in the Church

“He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.” This is the outlook of our Confession. This phrase, penned by Cyprian and taken up by John Calvin, is expressed and applied in the words of faith in Belgic Confession, Articles 27-36. The doctrine of the church was where the stone cartwheel hit the road for the average Medieval European. These ideas of the Reformers inevitably led to a break with Rome. Would peasants, merchants, and aristocrats follow? If so, what would the churches they left for look like? The “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” church was a real organism as well as organization and it needed government, form, and structure.

As we saw in our study of Belgic Confession, Article 30, the Word of God does not give us every detail as to the government of the church. Yet it does give us the “general rules of the Word,” to use the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith, I.6. Those basic rules began with the three offices in the church: pastors, elders, and deacons. So how does one enter into one of these offices?

Calling to Office

Following the clear teaching of Scripture, our Confession outlines how someone is called to one of the three offices of minister, elder, or deacon, saying,

We believe that ministers of God’s Word, the elders, and the deacons ought to be chosen to their respective offices by a lawful election by the Church, with calling upon the name of the Lord, and in that order which the Word of God teaches.

The first feature is that this is to be done “by a lawful election by the Church.” This is in contrast to Roman hierarchy, in which church officers are appointed by bishops, archbishops, and the ecclesiastical elite. This also guards against Anabaptist enthusiasm, which we see so rampant in our day and age, in which someone feels “led” to become a pastor and start his/her own church.

The participation of the congregation in choosing its officers is taught in both the Old and New Testaments. In Exodus 18, we read how Moses, in judging cases between the members of the church, was wearing himself out. His father-inlaw, Jethro, gave him some of the best advice he could have ever received, basically saying, “Divide up this work among other able, trustworthy men who feared God while leaving the extremely difficult cases for yourself.” As Moses described this at the end of his life, he said he told Israel to “Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads. And you answered me, “The thing that you have spoken is good for us to do.” So I took the heads of your tribes, wise and experienced men, and set them as heads over you…” (Deuteronomy 1:13-15).

This principle is also seen in the Old Testament hereditary institution of the Levitical priesthood, in which those to be consecrated as priests were brought before the assembly of Israel before this happened so that they could share in this ministry (Leviticus 8:4-6; Numbers 20:26-27).

In continuity with these Old Testament examples is the New Testament account of Acts 6. When the apostles, like Moses, had begun to wear themselves out by serving the people both by preaching and doing the work of benevolence. They called the entire congregation together and said,

Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty…And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:3, 5, 6)

Other accounts of the church being involved in electing/selecting its leaders are found in the calling of Matthias to replace Judas as an apostle in the presence of the 120 (Acts 1:12ff) as well as the elders in Lystra, Derbe, Iconium, and Antioch being “elected by a show of hands” (Acts 14:23).

Added to these Scriptural evidences are the testimonies of the ancient church to this practice. Here, as at many other points in our Confession, we see the consciousness of the Reformation in seeking to follow the early catholic churches as opposed to the deformed Roman Catholic Church. For example, in the very early church document The Didache (ca. A.D. 60-120), we read, “Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money, and truthful and proved” (15:1).

Later, the powerful and eloquent Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, wrote about the people of God, who have the power either of choosing worthy priests, or of rejecting unworthy ones…Which very thing, too, we observe to come from divine authority, that the priest should be chosen in the presence of the people under the eyes of all, and should be approved worthy and suitable by public judgment and testimony…And the bishop should be chosen in the presence of the people, who have most fully known the life of each one, and have looked into the doings of each one as respects his habitual conduct (Epistle 67).

These, and other testimonies from the fathers of the ancient church, make it clear that the biblical and historical practice is that of congregational nomination, prayer, and election of their pastors, elders, and deacons.

Second, the calling of men to the three offices is to be accompanied “with calling upon the name of the Lord” as the biblical examples above have shown. According to one commentator, this was applied in the “Strangers Congregation” in London, pastored by Johannes à Lasco, by the church having a stated day of fasting and prayer before the congregation gathered to elect its officers.

Third, election by the church is to occur “in that order which the Word of God teaches.” After the congregation has elected its officers in the spirit of prayer, these elected officials are to be brought before the church and be prayed over and have hands lain upon them. This is clear from the text we mentioned above concerning the first deacons, Acts 6:6, as well as the accounts of Barnabus and Saul (Acts 13:3) and Timothy (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6).

What all of this means for those in the congregation is found in the summary of this part of Article 31, which says,

Therefore every one must take heed not to intrude himself by improper means, but is bound to wait till it shall please God to call him, and be certain and assured that it is of the Lord.

The benefit of an orderly and biblical calling process is that the church is protected from those who would intrude themselves into office by improper means. It also proves to all involved, especially the candidate, that his call is “of the Lord.” This is the case for, while the internal call is a powerful work, it is always accompanied by the external call of God through his people. This is why our “Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons,” asks in the first vow, “First: Do you, both elders and deacons, feel in your hearts that you are lawfully called of God’s church, and consequently of God Himself, to these your respective offices?” (emphasis mine)

Pastors & the Pastor

As the Confession continues, it next says a few words about the office of the minister which are intended to distance our church polity from that of Rome:

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. It is often said in our day that the difference between a “Presbyterian” form of church government and that of Episcopal and Congregational churches is that Presbyterian churches are ruled by elders, not bishops or the people, respectively. While this may be true in some respects, this was not really the issue between the Reformers and their polity and that of Rome and later Anglicanism. As we can see from the writings of men such as Theodore Beza, the reason for this part of Article 31 is that, while there were different orders (Latin, ordo) of ministry in the church, such as pastors, elders, or deacons (cf. Ephesians 4:11), there were not different degrees (Latin, gradus) within each order/office.

What this means is that all of the order of minister are equal, all of the order of elder are equal, and all of the order of deacon are equal. The Confession specifically deals with the office of minister, saying, they have “equally the same power and authority…as they are all ministers of Christ.” This means that all ministers are of the same degree (gradus). And so within the ordained ministry there are not priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and a pope, moving from lower to higher degrees of ministry and authority.

This does not mean, though, that within an order of ministry one cannot have a position of dignity above his fellow office-bearers due to a particular function assigned to him. For example, one of the ministers of a consistory or even an elder may serve as president, one of them may serve as moderator of a presbytery/ classis, and even one of the deacons may serve as the “benevolence deacon” who specifically is dignified in serving the needy.

Because all ministers of Christ are equal in authority, whether they are in Rome, Geneva, Grand Rapids, or Oceanside, the Confession asserts that Christ alone is “the only universal Bishop and the only Head of the Church.” This is precisely what Scripture says when Christ is called the chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4; Greek, archipoimenos), the great shepherd (Hebrews 13:20; Greek, ton poimena…ton megan), and the Overseer of our souls (1 Peter 2:25; Greek, episkopon tMn phuchMn humMn). Our Lord is also called the head of the church (Ephesians 5:23 cf. 4:15; Colossians 1:18), head over all things (Ephesians 1:22), and head of all rule and authority (Colossians 2:10).

Therefore the true catholic and apostolic Church does not need a vicar (from the Latin, vicarious, “in the place of another”), that is, a visible representative of Christ on earth, for He, being the head, has given His authority to men “wheresoever they are” to preach His Word, administer His sacraments, and pastor His people all over the world.

What is so interesting is that while Rome persists in claiming that Peter was the first Pope, the bishop above all others, he was “opposed” by Paul to his face for the hypocrisy of eating with Gentiles only when leaders from Jerusalem were not present (Galatians 2:11-14). This was in practice a denial of justification by faith! And far from being the Pope, Peter spoke to the leaders of the churches in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia as a “fellow elder” (1 Peter 5:1; Greek, sumpresbuteros), that is, one in the same office, of the same degree, and authority as them.

Because of these testimonies of Scripture, the Westminster Confession of Faith, written in 1647, codified the Reformed belief toward the Papacy, saying,

There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God (Chapter 25:6, “Of the Church”).

Respect for Officers

The final words in this article of the Belgic Confession speak about the dignity and honor that the offices of minister and elder have, and the resultant respect those who are pastored and ruled by them are to give:

Moreover, in order that this holy ordinance of God may not be violated or slighted, we say that every one ought to esteem the ministers of God’s Word and the elders of the Church very highly for their work’s sake, and be at peace with them without murmuring, strife, or contention, as much as possible.

The people of God must recognize that the offices of minister and elder are filled by men who do not enter into them lightly. To preach God’s eternal and infallible Word, to shepherd Christ’s flock, to administer discipline with the wayward and so protect the whole church from the leaven of sin are the holy “work” these offices entail. And so there is an inherent honor in being a minister and elder.

For this reason the church is to “esteem…very highly” their pastors and elders. We see this so evidently taught in Scripture. At the end of his first epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul says, “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).

The epistle to the Hebrews has some of the most pointed commands to the people in this matter, saying,

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you (Hebrews 13:17).

Paul also briefly speaks in this way when he tells the church at Philippi that he is going to send Epaphroditus to them. In response, they are to “receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men” (Philippians 2:29).

Study/Application Questions for Article 31
1. Who calls men to the offices of the church? Describe the internal and external calls.
2. How does the church go about recognizing a man’s internal calling? (1 Timothy 3:1-13)
3. Why is it important to say that all pastors have the same authority?
4. What do we say about the Pope or anyone else who claims to be the pastor of the Church?

Finally, in 1 Timothy 5:17 we read some of the most familiar words to this end, where Paul tells Timothy, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”

A final note to consider is why these apostolic imperatives are found in the New Testament. They are there precisely because submitting and honoring those over us in the Lord is difficult to do. Not only do our sinful nature, the world around us, as well as the Devil tell us not to submit and honor them, but this is also a very practical challenge if the one in the office of minister or elder is a friend, peer, family member, of even younger than others. To this last difficulty Paul exhorts Timothy, a young pastor, saying, “Let no one despise you for your youth” (1 Timothy 4:12) precisely because in this very same chapter Paul calls Timothy a “good servant of Christ Jesus,” that is, a minister of Christ (1 Timothy 4:6). After all, his heart was inwardly called, he was externally called and validated by the church, he was prayed over and consecrated with the laying on of hands, and he entered the sacred office of Word and Sacrament. It is the same today. May we be grateful to God for our ministers, especially, as they are God’s gifts to our souls.

Rev. Daniel R. Hyde is the pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California.

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