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“Vacant” Churches? 

The Rev. Harold Petroelje, in the “Reformed Journal” of October, 1955, answers the question: What are “Vacant” Churches? He does not answer the question so much as to condemn the expression. Correctly, I think, he calls attention to the fact that the expression is really a misnomer as it is used by the majority. 

Strictly speaking, so he tells us, a “vacant” church is like a vacant lot or a vacant house. It means that a certain building that had been used for church services has been abandoned. It is no longer in use. And as it stands there it is not only a picture of forlornness, but also may be in the process of deterioration. That is what the term “Vacant” church literally means. But that is not what most people mean when they speak of “vacant” churches. Nor is that what the year book means when it speaks of such churches. They mean that these are churches without a pastor: They mean that the parsonage is empty and that they are waiting for a minister to move into it. And because those who use this expression do not mean what they say, the Reverend insists that they should cease using the term. In reality a church without a minister, all things being what they ought to be, is not vacant. All things continue on schedule as though the church had a regular pastor of its own. The services are conducted each Sunday by a lay-elder or a visiting minister or student; catechism and sunday school are conducted regularly; the societies meet at their regular time and place; the sick are visited and Christian discipline is exercised, etc. In a word, the life of the church is not brought to a stand-still because no pastor for this church is available, but all things continue decently and in order. True, writes Rev. Petroelje, this church may be able to conduct her affairs a little more smoothly and efficiently if she had a minister of her own, but he can also conceive of a situation where a church could better get along without a pastor if he is of a troublesome kind. Such a church breathes a sigh of relief when such a pastor takes his leave. At any rate, a church without a pastor is never “vacant,” and we should no longer say that she is. 

I was thinking when I read his article that Rev. Petroelje certainly touched on an important truth. Certainly the office of the ministry is not to be minimized, nor is it to be so depreciated that the minister becomes some kind of an efficiency man the church hires to make it prosperous, or a door mat upon whom the people can wipe off their feet and when it becomes decrepit can lightly throw it on the ash heap. I fear sometimes that churches look on the office of the ministry and on the minister just that way. This is an evil thing. 

On the other hand, I believe it is definitely wrong to expect so much of a minister that when he moves to another place all the life and activity of the church comes to a standstill. Churches should be so trained that they can and will conduct their church life just as well when they have no minister as when they have one. For this reason I believe it is wrong that the minister must be the president of every society and a member of every committee as some seem to think he should be. I realize, of course, that in smaller congregations a minister may want to be busy, and generally, unless he is lazy, he will aspire to leadership in all the church activities. But a minister who does all the work that can be delegated to others, simply leaves a crippled congregation when he transfers to another. I am told that in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands ministers generally do not even attend society meetings except on invitation to speak. There is something good in this. A minister, in a Men’s Society, for instance, that always waits for the minister to explain the passage under consideration, may be detrimental to the development of that society. He may be the cause also that those members who would like to offer their explanation may remain silent. This is still more true in the ladies’ or young people’s societies. There often the minister preaches a little sermon, the members patiently waiting until he finishes and it is time to adjourn. Instead of training the members to become leaders, the presence of the minister often discourages this. Surely, if there is a doctrinal dispute, or it is a question of exegesis, should necessity require it, the minister could be asked for his advice. The Holy Spirit has made all to be prophets and with this unction of the Holy One let the members, each in his own place, function and bring to manifestation the life of the body of Christ. Indeed, the church that is really church is never vacant. 

Van Weelden Recants

Most of our readers by this time have heard that the former pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Sioux Center, Iowa, has departed to the Christian Reformed Churches. Not only so, but he has evidently taken the greater portion of his church along with him. First the Rev. Van Weelden broke with the P.R. Churches when he became schismatic with his schismatic Classis. But it didn’t take long after his departure from us that he also left his schismatic brethren, with whom he evidently saw no future, to worm his way back into the Christian Reformed Churches from which he must have separated with his parents when still a youngster. 

I said at the beginning of this article: Van Weelden Recants. Strictly speaking, this is incorrect. My dictionary tells me that “recant” means to withdraw formally one’s belief in something previously believed or maintained; to disavow an opinion or belief previously held. But this can hardly be applied to Van Weelden. I am convinced that while he was with our churches he never had Protestant Reformed convictions. If he did, he could never leave them. Ergo, when Van Weelden goes to the Christian Reformed Churches he does not withdraw his belief in something previously believed. However it is not so simple to leave one church and enter another, especially if the other is the least bit careful whom they receive. The Christian Reformed Church also demanded of Van Weelden that he disavow all relationship to the P.R. Churches, and declare that he has erred grievously in his former condemnation of the doctrines of the Christian Reformed Churches. Here I think the Chr. Ref. Churches could afford to be a bit more lenient than they were. They never heard Van Weelden say anything bad about their churches or their doctrine. No one ever did publicly. Fact is he has been hobnobbing with ministers of that church for some time. And while he was still with us I do not recall ever hearing anything publicly said by him that seriously condemned the doctrine of the Christian Reformed Churches. 

Yet it is difficult for some to understand how Van Weelden ever came to our seminary and later promised faithfully to preach Protestant Reformed doctrine, and then so easily could disavow it. The only explanation it seems to me is that he never at heart believed our doctrine. Van Weelden’s sin is therefore that he either lied to us, or he is lying now to the Chr. Ref. Churches. No doubt the former is the case. 

The Banner and De Wachte have given notice to the Chr. Ref. Churches of his acceptance by them. In the most recent issue of The Banner (November 4, 1955) appears a report of Classis Sioux Center relative to his case. The Stated Clerk of that Classis reports as follows: 

“The most important task of the Classis was the consideration of the request of Rev. J. Van Weelden, a former Protestant Reformed minister of Sioux Center, to be examined and admitted to the ministry of our Church under Article 9 of the Church Order. After due consideration of the application, Classis declared that this was legally before Classis, and that therefore it ought to be considered. A question was raised as to the nature and character of the examination to be conducted. The statement of the synodical examiners that it would not necessarily have to be considered final was received by the. Classis as its own. That evening Rev. Van Weelden delivered a message onMatthew 5:44, 45. The Classis was impressed with his handling of this significant text. On the following day he submitted to the examination required according to Article 9 of the Church Order. The examination was thorough and complete. The brother gave a good account of himself, having ready answers for his examiners for the most part. However, a weakness in philosophical background was quite apparent. 

“This part of the business took up most of the time of the Classis. It was felt that whatever decision would be taken, it would be an important one. Something like this doesn’t happen very often in our Church. It was felt that the decision must be free from any ill-advised action because of its importance. It had to be charitable and Christian, giving the brother all the consideration he deserved. But at the same time it had to be cautious and wise. The exact decision taken by Classis on this matter was reported in The Banner of October 7, 1955. In the disposition of this matter Classis is greatly indebted to the wise counseling of the synodical examiners of its sister Classes.” So far the report. 

So Van Weelden “gave a good account of himself.” That is probably more than could be said about him so long as he was a member of our churches. That he had a weakness “in philosophical background,” must mean that Van Weelden did not learn much philosophy when he was with us. Well, what is that anyway? That is something I didn’t learn in the P.R. seminary either, and I’m happy I didn’t, if the philosophy is the Christian Reformed type. My conviction is that it were better if all their ministers were a little weak in philosophical background. Then maybe they would be able to understand Scripture a little better, and the Confessions without philosophical interpretations. 

What will become of Van Weelden now? That is a question which the Synod of the Chr. Ref. Churches will have to answer. It may be when that assembly has to consider this question, it will not answer as favorably for Van Weelden as Classis Sioux Center did.

What about the congregation of Sioux Center Van Weelden abandoned to the Christian Reformed Churches? All except one family in this church left our churches in the recent schism. If they could support the schismatic action of Classis West” and the doctrine that action supported, it is not difficult to understand how Van Weelden had little trouble to convince these people to return to the Christian Reformed Churches. Will the Christian Reformed Churches also make them disavow all the evil things they have said concerning these churches since they left them? Pity on those poor souls, for they will have to take a lot back. Especially two or three whom I have known personally. The easiest way, of course, is to say that they never were Prot. Reformed. 

M. Schipper