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What is a consistory?

The consistory governs the life and ministry of a congregation. It is made up of those who hold three offices in the church: minister, elder, and deacon. The three offices within the consistory complement each other and are mutually supportive and mutually accountable.

A common misconception is that a congregation is built like a pyramid, with the minister at the top, the consistory next, and the congregation as a broad but somehow less-than-equal base. However, the structure of an RCA congregation is better represented as a circle that encompasses the whole congregation and the consistory, including the pastor(s). The whole circle stands together under the wisdom and guidance of the Word of God. The same Word measures each and all of us.

Looking for resources to help with elder or deacon responsibilities?
Check out our consistory resources.

How the consistory governs

Jesus Christ is the only head of the church, and Christ alone holds ultimate authority. Thus, all authority exercised in the church is derived from Christ. When those in office come together to oversee and enable the life of the congregation, it is Christ’s governance they seek to effect, not oversight born of their own wisdom.

To insist that all consistories must work in the same way violates the Reformed understanding that the ministry of the church results from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit communicates a single truth, Christ, in plural forms. The Spirit adapts the ministry of the church to receive and communicate the gifts of Christ in different contexts.

The purpose of the consistory

The consistory is to represent Christ. No one office adequately represents Christ, only the three offices together.

Through the operations of the consistory, the congregation is prepared to represent Christ and Christ’s kingdom. Each of the offices has its set of responsibilities and tasks within the congregation, and thus each office brings a particular perspective to the work of consistory.

Characteristics of a faithful consistory

The faithful consistory is one that gives itself to the spiritual work whereby Christ transforms his people so that they may become agents of mission in the world. A faithful consistory in a missional church should also be faithful to the Reformed understanding of the gospel. As such, a faithful consistory will demonstrate certain characteristics.

1. The call of Christ

Ordination and installation into an office of the church—elder, deacon, or minister—should be rooted in the call of Jesus Christ. This is a call from the church confirmed by an inner call. The recognition of gifts and abilities are of great importance, but this is not the basis of the conferring of an office; rather, gifts and abilities serve as a confirmation of the Lord’s call. The selection of those for nomination to one of the offices is a matter of spiritual discernment and prayer.

2. The authority of Christ

The authority of the office derives from Christ and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. The RCA’s Book of Church Order states, “Christ, according to the New Testament, has appointed officers to govern the church under himself. Their authority to govern derives from him even though they are elected by the people” (BCO Preamble). Those holding office must be men and women of deep spirituality, and the consistory must be a community of scriptural reflection, worship, and prayer so that those in leadership discern the mind of Christ. With this high view of each office, officeholders must be mindful not to abuse their authority and must be humbly faithful to the Lord of the church.

3. The servanthood of Christ

Those who are called to an office of the church are called to serve through that office. The consistory is to serve the congregation in word and deed, preparing the congregation for service to the world. This picture of servanthood is rooted in the biblical teaching that only those who serve are fit to rule/govern.

4. The mission of Christ

The offices of the church are essentially missional; they are instruments by which Christ transforms the people of God and equips them for ministry in the kingdom. Each office, individually and as the whole consistory, should represent Christ in the community of faith so that each member is sent out as an agent in the kingdom to proclaim the gospel, seek reconciliation, and engage servant ministry.