Ronald L. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.

“No one shall be called to the ministry of the Word, without his being stationed in a particular place, except he be sent to do church extension work.”

Church Order, Article 7.

Article 7 stands closely connected to the preceding articles. Article 2 specifies the number and nature of the special offices in the church. Article 3 requires that those who preach the gospel must be lawfully called to this office. Articles 4 and 5 stipulate that this calling to the ministry is to proceed from the local church, under the supervision of the consistory. Article 6 adds that this lawful calling shall also apply to those who minister in institutions of mercy or some other special field of labor. Article 7, now, lays down the rule that the call to the ministry is the call to a definite place of labor in a particular congregation.

Background to Article 7

This article was occasioned by the fact that in the early history of the Reformed churches there was a considerable number of itinerant preachers. These men were self-appointed, refused to be affiliated with any particular local congregation, and traveled from place to place according to their own whims.

At the time of the Reformation there were innumerable itinerant priests in the Roman Catholic Church who offered their services for sale to hunters, sailors, merchants, and travelers. These itinerant priests were called “walking Levites.” They were also employed on the Crusades in order to administer the sacraments to the crusaders.

At the beginning of the Reformation this same practice found a place in the Reformed churches. Appeal was made to the example of the apostles and evangelists of the early New Testament who went from one place to another. What was forgotten was that the offices of apostle and evangelist were special and temporary offices in the New Testament church. Even the apostles were sent out by the local church, Acts 13:1-4.

Early Reformed synods ruled against the practice of the itinerant preachers and adopted decisions on which our present Article 7 is based.

The Synod of Dordt, 1574, was one of the first to introduce restrictions. It ruled that preachers without fixed charges should submit themselves to a classis for examination. If they successfully sustained the examination, they could be declared eligible for a call. And if they received a call, they could be properly installed into office in a particular congregation.

In spite of the decision of the Synod of 1574, abuses continued. In light of this, the Synod of Dordt, 1578, reaffirmed the decision of 1574 and warned those who were still engaged in itinerant preaching and those congregations who continued to make use of their services.

The Synod of Middelburg, 1581, was a bit more lenient. The original Article 7 was really formulated by this Synod:

No one shall be called to the Ministry of the Word, except he be stationed in a church which he shall serve.

The Synod of ‘s Gravenhage, 1586, approved two specific exceptions to the rule adopted by Middelburg, 1581. The first exception concerned those who labored among churches dispersed through persecution. In this situation it was often impossible for a group of believers to be officially organized as a congregation and call a minister. The Synod spoke of “gemeenten onder het kruis,” that is, “churches under the cross.” These were especially persecuted believers in lands where Roman Catholicism still held sway. The other exception was applied to those who were engaged in mission work, where it was necessary to move from place to place.

Principles implies in Article 7

This same Synod, however, ruled that if exceptions to the rule were necessary, they ought to be approved by the classis and synod. The first principle implied in Article 7 is that the call to the ministry proceeds from the local congregation. This was explicitly taught in Articles 4 and 5, and clearly underlies the stipulation of Article 7. No man may set himself up in the office of the ministry of the gospel. Hebrews 5:4, “And no man taketh this honor unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron.” Romans 10:15, “And how shall they preach, except they be sent?”

The second principle is that the office of the minister of the gospel resides in the local congregation which has called him. Condemned is the practice of the Roman Catholic Church of ordaining men in general, without uniting them to a local congregation. Condemned is also the ordination of ministers by a classis or synod. This was done for a time by some Reformed churches, and in certain instances is still done today. Early in the history of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands this was the practice in some of the provinces.

In this connection, we ought not misunderstand the language of our present Article 7, when it speaks of ministers “being stationed’ in a particular place. This is not to be understood in a Methodistic or Episcopal sense of the word. The language here is unfortunate. The article is to be understood to teach that no minister shall be called to the ministry of the Word without his “taking up labor” in a particular place. Just as one cannot be an elder or deacon unless he is an elder or deacon in a local church, so one cannot be a minister of the gospel without being a minister in a local congregation.

In close connection with this, the third principle underlying Article 7 is that the call by a local congregation always implies a definite connection to that congregation and its consistory. Ordinarily this means that the minister’s sphere of labor is confined to that congregation. Even when the minister is not laboring directly in that congregation, he is connected with it and is under the supervision and discipline of its consistory. This applies when a minister is laboring in another congregation on a classical appointment. This applies in the case of a minister-on-loan. This also applies to missionaries. Never is a minister free to labor wherever he pleases, under no direct supervision of a specific consistory.

The Exception Provided for in Article 7

The exception made is that of a minister who is called to do church extension work. Originally the article read: “. . . except he be sent to gather churches here and there.”

This exception was applied to two situations. First, it was applied to ministers of refugee churches. These were churches made up of groups of believers who had fled their native land because of persecution. Secondly, it was applied to those who labored for the formation of new churches in regions still under he sway of Rome.

The change in the language of Article 7 to “church extension work” applies the exception specifically to missions. In the nature of the case, the labors of the missionary are not fixed to a particular local congregation. He is laboring for the establishment of congregations. His field of labor is broader than a specific congregation, and he may be required to go from place to place.

Even then, this exception must not be misunderstood and misapplied. It does not allow mission work to be carried on without the lawful call. Article 7 stands in the context of Articles 3-5. Missionaries, too, must be lawfully called and ordained to the ministry of the gospel. This principle is overlooked or deliberately set aside in much mission work today.

Neither does the article permit the calling and ordaining of missionaries by a classis or synod. This is often done today. Although the synod regulates the denominational mission work (Cf. Article 51 of the Church Order, as well as the constitutions of the Domestic Mission Committee and the Foreign Mission Committee), synod does not call and ordain missionaries. This is always done by a local congregation on behalf of the other churches of the denomination.

The article does not either deny the principle that the missionary stands in a direct and very definite relationship to the local congregation which calls him. This is a misunderstanding of the article. The missionary is an officebearer in the congregation that has called him and ordained him. He is subject to the supervision and discipline of that consistory.