A Guide for Service — For Everyone

12 February 2024 by Wes Bredenhof

In Holy Service: Essays on Office – Personal and Ecclesial, Cornelis Van Dam.  Hamilton: Lucerna CRTS Publications, 2023.  Softcover, 239 pages.

At the heart of this new book by retired OT professor Dr. C. Van Dam is the well-known truth that all believers are office bearers.   While some are special office bearers (pastors, elders, deacons), all are general office bearers (prophet, priest, and king).  In the church, no one is excluded from the opportunity, privilege, and responsibility to serve God and one another.  This book is a solid guide answering the big question of how we may and must all serve. 

In Holy Service divides up into three parts.  Part A consists of four chapters on the general office of every believer.  Part B has seven chapters on the special offices of the church.  Van Dam focusses particularly on the offices of pastor and elder – although it should be noted that he has written an entire book devoted to the topic of deacons as well (The Deacon: Biblical Foundations for Today’s Ministry of Mercy).  Part C may very well be the section most people read first:  “Women in Special Service.”  The three chapters of this section respond to the egalitarian challenge, but also offer a positive vision of how women should be actively serving in Christ’s church.

This last part makes a valuable contribution to the debate around women in office.  I especially appreciated chapter 13, “Prophetesses in God’s Service.”  In this chapter, Van Dam discusses Deborah, Huldah, and other prophetesses in Scripture to investigate whether they might provide a biblical basis for women serving in the special offices of the church today.  And what about Junia (Rom. 16:7) and Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2)?  Van Dam discusses them in chapter 14.  While he doesn’t respond to all the arguments from the egalitarian side, he does hit on the main ones.    

Several churches in Australia (FRCA) and Canada (CanRC) now invite all communicant members of the congregation to participate fully in the election of office bearers.  What ought we to think of such a development?  Van Dam brings a biblically-informed perspective seasoned with grace in chapter 10, “Congregational Involvement in Electing to Office.”

It’s a sad fact that complementarian teaching has sometimes been hijacked for abusive agendas.  Abusive husbands have been known to weaponize the Bible’s teaching about the authority of husbands and the submission of wives.  Van Dam demonstrates how such an approach is an affront to God and the Scriptures he inspired.  While wives are to submit to their husbands, and husbands do bear authority, there’s also a real sense in which husbands are to submit to their wives:  “If a husband is to show the love of Christ, he will submit himself as a servant to his wife’s needs” (p.54).  A short while later he writes: 

A husband who likes to assert his authority in a sinful way over his wife is as far removed from the love which Christ exhibited as east is from the west.  A husband who does not display servant love in submission to the needs of his wife makes the task of his spouse extremely difficult.  (p.55)

In the hands of abusive men, complementarianism makes the case for women in office seem more credible.  But if men were to follow what Van Dam writes, they would find that, because their wives feel respected, they find it easy to submit to them.

I’d like to interact somewhat more with chapter 9 regarding special training for elders.  In this chapter I was surprised to learn that historically there has been opposition in Reformed circles to the idea of providing pre-ordination training.  Van Dam mentions Dr. H. Bouwman.  He had several reasons for opposing the idea.  Van Dam concludes that “one can hardly object to an education program for ruling elders-to-be which seeks to prepare them for the office in a biblical manner” (p.131).  However, he wants to see all communicant males of the congregation invited to attend such a program to avoid elitism, one of the pitfalls mentioned by Bouwman.  I read this with interest, since I’ve been offering a leadership training program for young men (25-35) in our congregation for a few years.  One of the problems with inviting all the communicant males of the congregation to attend is that initial interest might be strong, but over time it would invariably fall off.  Another issue is that the large size of the group (especially at the beginning) would prohibit any kind of meaningful individual spiritual mentoring – important because character and integrity matter far more than knowledge.  Consequently, each year our consistory nominates 5-6 men in the 25-35 age bracket for our Service and Leadership Training (SALT) program.  Being nominated assures a stronger level of commitment to the program.  This has worked well in our context, with a fair number of men going on to serve as elders, deacons, and school board leaders.  To address Bouwman’s concern of an “elite” cadre of men in the congregation, I’d point out that our SALT training is not a pre-requisite for being nominated as an office bearer.  In fact, many men have been nominated (and elected) who haven’t participated, and some who have participated haven’t been nominated or elected.

Whether you’re a special office bearer or “only” a general office bearer, whether you’re male or female, this book has something to enrich your service for the Lord.  Van Dam honours the authority of Scripture, writes clearly, and the issues he addresses are living and relevant.  Good stuff and warmly recommended for one and all.

Originally published in Clarion 73.2 (February 2, 2024)