Serious and Grievous Sins on the Part of Office-bearers
As serious and grievous sins which are grounds for suspension or deposition of office-bearers the following are to be mentioned particularly: false doctrine or heresy, public schisms, blasphemy, simony, faithless desertion of office or intrusion upon that of another, perjury, adultery, fornication, theft, acts of violence, habitual drunkenness, brawling, unjustly enriching oneself, and further, all such sins and serious misdemeanours that rate as ground for excommunication with respect to other members of the Church.
No one should take the list of sins given in this article as restrictive or comprehensive, that is, that only these sins are ground for suspension and deposition of office-bearers. The list is not restrictive but illustrative: from what is mentioned here we can see what kind of sins render it impossible for an office-bearer to continue in office unhindered.
In older editions of our Church Order one could find the expression “all sins and gross offenses which render the perpetrator infamous before the world.” This expression has been dropped, because in the first place what the world thinks and regards as decent and proper is not a standard for the church; and in the second place the standards of this world change. In our days, for instance, people are no longer ashamed to admit to their homosexual practices, and various religious bodies openly and unashamedly admit those who are guilty of it to their pulpits. We still are to heed the admonition of Scripture that an office-bearer must also have a good reputation with those who are without, but this should not be construed as accepting the world’s standards of shamefulness and wickedness.
The sins mentioned here do not need any further elaboration. Yet it may be helpful to say something about them anyway. For this reason we shall briefly touch upon some of them.
Article 26 was introduced to protect the churches against deviating doctrines and false teachings. This article does, however, not provide an ironclad guarantee. A minister or other office-bearer could still advance false doctrine and heresy, yet assert, either in all subjective honesty or as a pretext, that what he teaches may be different from what others teach but that it is still in full accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the Confessions of the church. Bringing false doctrine does not yet mean that one feigns and pretends, but it does mean that one proclaims a doctrine which conflicts with the Truth. Almost all heretics were honestly convinced that they alone had the right understanding of the Scriptures and that all the others were wrong.
The church does not go by what people are convinced of but by whether they are in actual agreement with the Word of God or not. When false doctrine is discovered, and when an office-bearer cannot be convinced of the truth, he may no longer continue in office. This does not mean that when an office-bearer has a deviating opinion he must be suspended right away, for who can count or is even aware of the innumerable misunderstandings of all the truths that the Lord has revealed to us? Who can count all the wrong expressions or statements in all sermons, or who is even aware of these errors? Any “heretic-hunter” could find something in almost every sermon on which to obtain a conviction. No one is perfect, and this applies to office-bearers as well. No one has a perfect understanding of all the Scriptures. The question is whether one returns to the truth of God's Word when it is pointed out to him that he is wrong here and actually promotes an error. If he does not, he might still remain a member of the church in good standing, depending on whether he does not promote his views and is willing to be instructed, but an office-bearer he cannot remain.
“Public schisms” are mentioned as a second sin which renders one subject to suspension. Perhaps it is remembered that the old Form for the Lord’s Supper put it as follows: “all who seek to raise discord, sects, and mutiny in churches and civil governments.” The apostle Paul strongly condemns the forming of factions within the church, 1 Cor. 3, and any office-bearer who becomes guilty of promoting partisanship and the forming of groups within the church breaks up the unity of the body of Christ. This is detrimental to the church, and means that he cannot remain an office-bearer.
There is no need to say anything about blasphemy, as it is obvious that one guilty of this sin cannot serve the Lord in any office.
By “simony” we understand any effort to obtain an office by buying it or bribing one’s way into it. It is clear to all who know the Scriptures that this word has been derived from the name Simon, the man who offered the apostle Peter money for the gift of bestowing the Holy Spirit upon others, Acts 8: 19. Although it seems that there is not much danger that in our age anyone would try to insinuate oneself into office by means of bribes or extra favours, such as often was the case, especially before the Reformation, it is advisable to keep this provision in our Church Order.
At the other end of the scale we find the “faithless desertion of office.” What this means is not what we mentioned in connection with the previous article, namely, that one just abandons his post, simply “resigns,” and all of a sudden is found sitting in the regular pew instead of in the section where the office-bearers are seated. A person who is guilty of such an offense can not be suspended any more.
The desertion of which Art. 72 speaks refers to an improperly leaving one's congregation to serve another church elsewhere. This, too, most likely will not happen among us, as no other church would be willing to receive such a minister as their own. When times are turbulent and communications next to impossible, and such times may come, it is more likely to happen. The provision is made, however, that leaving one’s congregation in an irregular and improper manner without having received the proper release makes one subject to suspension.
This provision applies to ministers; the next one applies to elders and deacons as well. It is the “intrusion upon that of another.” This means that one goes and performs the work to which one has not been called. Again we must say that such a sin will not be found among us too often, but that it is wise to keep this provision, as it stresses again that one should do only the things to which one has been called.
About perjury, adultery, fornication, theft, and acts of violence we do not have to say much, as these terms speak for themselves. A few remarks have to be made about “habitual drunkenness.” Sometimes it is thought that when an office-bearer is caught being drunk once, this is sufficient reason for suspension. One of our general synods even removed the word “habitual” from this article, but fortunately the latest general synod returned it to the text where it had been for centuries.
No one should ever be drunk, and certainly not an office-bearer. Yet it can happen and, if it happens, the question may come up whether he can continue in office. By making the provision that “habitual” drunkenness is a reason for suspension and deposition, the churches have implicitly expressed that more than a one-time falling into the sin of drunkenness would have to occur to have valid grounds for suspension. He must be so addicted to alcohol that we no longer can speak of an incidental falling into sin. The word “habit” is clear.
Brawling is mentioned too. This does not mean that when he loses his temper once, he is already subject to suspension, but we refer here to what the apostle commands, namely, that an office-bearer must not be arrogant or quick-tempered, (Titus 1: 3) not quarrelsome, (1 Tim. 3: 3). In the same places the apostle says that an office-bearer must not be a “lover of money,” or “greedy for gain.” From this we can see that the provisions of Art. 72 have been taken from God’s own Word.
At the end this article summarizes as follows: “all such sins and serious misdemeanours that rate as ground for excommunication with respect to other members of the church.”
All who attentively read the remarks made in connection with the Articles 66, 67, and 68 will understand that Art. 72 does not intend to stipulate that each occurrence of any sins mentioned merits rebuke of an office-bearer, or that suspension and deposition are the immediate result and the only proper action. In some instances it will be necessary indeed to proceed to the suspension or even forthwith to the deposition. We think here of perjury, simony, or blasphemy. In other instances suspension will come after a time of admonitions, as for instance in the case of brawling or being “greedy for gain.” What is to be remembered hereby is that more is demanded of an office-bearer than of the other members of the congregation and that these sins bear much heavier upon his case than when they are found with the other members.