We are still busy with the eleventh article of the church order. Besides speaking of the obligation of the consistory to properly support the minister of the congregation so that “he may be free from all worldly cares and avocations while dispensing spiritual blessings,” this article also speaks of dismissing ministers from the service of the church. Concerning this matter the article states: “And shall not dismiss them from service without the knowledge and approbation of the classis and of the delegates of the (particular) synod.”
There are four distinct ways in which the tie between a pastor and the congregation he serves can be severed. The first of these is by the acceptance of a call to another field of labor. This is treated in the tenth article of the church order. The next is by emeritation which is to be considered in connection with the thirteenth article of the church order. Thirdly, under Articles 79 and 80 of the same order of the churches, a minister can be suspended and deposed from his office. The fourth way by which this bond can be broken is by dismissal from office which we are to treat in this present connection. Thus, positively expressed, the eleventh article may be said to teach: “The consistory shall dismiss the minister from the service of the church only with the knowledge and approbation of the classis and of the delegates of the (particular) synod.”
The correlative part of this rule which is found in the preceding article ought to be remembered in order to understand the thrust of this matter. There it was stated that a minister may not leave his congregation without the consent of the consistory. As we wrote before, this ruling grew out of a situation where ministers, growing tired of their labors in a particular place, would sometimes abandon the congregation, without the consent of the consistory or without notifying the classis. This was not good decorum. To prevent this indecency the rule was formulated.
There is, however, also another side to this. It is equally wrong and indecent for the consistory or the congregation to abandon its minister. Sometimes this too was done. The congregation would simply refuse to be shepherded and go elsewhere. Consequently his support was not provided either and the minister so treated was left in a lurch. This is unbecoming to Christian conduct and even as a minister is obliged to remain with a congregation until the bond of union is severed in the proper ecclesiastical way, so the congregation is bound to maintain and support the minister also. And that support includes not only providing material necessities but also supporting him in his labors and ministry until he has, if that becomes necessary, been dismissed in the proper way.
We must now clearly distinguish between “dismissing a minister” and “suspending or deposing one.” These are by no means identical. The dismissed minister may and frequently does remain in good standing in the churches and is eligible to receive a call from another congregation. This is not so with one who is suspended from office under Art. 79. Such a one is guilty of a gross sin. He is to be disciplined and, unless there are evidences of repentance, will ultimately be excommunicated . . . (unless he severs himself from the church making this impossible). When this difference is understood it will be clearly seen that certain recent happenings in several of our churches have not been violations of the rule of Article 11. Ministers were not dismissed (nor suspended and deposed) but rather several of them forsook the Protestant Reformed Church which they once served. This will become evident to anyone who will review the matter in the light of the entire history. We wish to cite here only a few pertinent facts in connection with this history as we know that there are still some who are rather confused and these may still be helped to see things right. The fact is that when Rev. De Wolf was suspended by his consistory (Art. 79) upon the advice of the classis, he refused to submit to that suspension as he had promised upon his ordination. This insubordinate action caused schism. By it he separated himself from the First Protestant Reformed Church. And this action of his cannot be justified, as has been attempted, by claiming that the decisions were illegally made or enforced under intimidation, etc. which is, of course, not at all true. But had Rev. De Wolf submitted and properly made his appeal these matters could have been decided later in their proper place. This, however, he did not do but by his act of separation he made future appeal impossible. Not recognizing the authority of the church, he separated himself from her and precluded further treatment of his case. Now when later other ministers and groups recognize this schismatic faction and ally themselves with it, it ought to be clear that they too, by such action, separate themselves from the Protestant Reformed Churches. They, too, have gone out from us. In several places the Protestant Reformed Church refused to be destroyed by the action and conduct of these separatists. Instead, it continues, reduced in numerical strength, but strong in the faith. In such instances, it is not necessary that the church either dismisses or suspends the minister for they, the latter, by their separatistic action, make such a course impossible.
To make the point still more clear let us use an illustration. I am an American citizen. Suppose that I defy the laws of this nation and, consequently, am found guilty by the courts which decide that I am to be deported to Russia and also am to be deprived of my citizenship in this land. At the same time let us suppose that there are fifty others who refuse to recognize this decision of the court and decide to go to Russia with me. Isn’t it crystal clear that those who thus hold their government in contempt and recognize me to the extent of supporting and going along with me in my deportation will likewise be deprived of their American citizenship? They cut themselves off from this country by such action. The parallel between this hypothetical case and the history of our churches in the past year ought to be obvious to all. To come back once more to the matter of dismissing a minister we must add that this must be done only when there is sound and valid reason. Just because a congregation may grow tired of a certain minister is no justifiable reason for dismissal. Nor may this article be used as an easy exodus for certain troubles or difficulties which may arise in a congregation and in which the minister unhappily becomes involved. We ought rather to consider the provision which this article makes for dismissing ministers as one that fits and must be applied to certain unusual, extraordinary and abnormal cases. It belongs to the exception. Such cases can easily be visualized. For instance, we might think of a situation where a minister’s character and mode of working simply does not fit a particular congregation whereas in another place he might be able to labor with much fruit. Or, we might think of a situation where a consistory does not cooperate with the minister so that all his labors become virtually impossible. Then again, think of the possible situation where a minister, for reasons of health, finds it impossible to labor in a certain place but if removed to another climate might be able to perform ministerial labor most efficiently. In such instances and in the interests of the church it might be better that one is dismissed and made free to be called elsewhere.
Such dismissal cannot be made without the “knowledge and approbation of the classis and of the delegates of the (particular) synod.” Originally this article contained a clause which read: “Classis decides whether or not the minister shall be removed.” This was later elided because it was felt that it ascribed a power to the classis which it did not rightly possess. Nevertheless, the approbation of such dismissals must be procured from the classis. It is readily understood why this is necessary. When a situation arises where action of this nature is deemed necessary, the feelings of those directly involved are often such that it becomes practically impossible for them to judge objectively and fairly. There are often prejudices which become the occasion of misjudgment and abuse. In the interests of justice and fair play, therefore, it is best to procure the advice of a neutral party. Perhaps there is no need for dismissal at all and the classis then can serve as an intermediary to find a suitable solution to the difficulties. Furthermore, if it is a case that requires dismissal, the classis also certainly has an interest in the matter for even as no minister is permitted to enter upon the office without having been examined and approved by the classis, even so he should not be dismissed from the office without their approbation. Indirectly the matter concerns all the churches as he is a potential minister for any one of them.
What then is the status of the minister that has been dismissed from service. He is not deposed for then he would be barred from the possibility of serving another church. Neither is he made emeritus for then he would receive his support from the churches for the remainder of his days. Neither case applies. Both are quite different from the case of dismissal. The dismissed is made eligible to receive a call in any of the churches and for a certain reasonable period of time he is to be supported by the church that dismisses him. If, after that time, he does not receive a call he is bound to return to some other pursuit of life and retains henceforth no official ministerial status in the churches at all. The cases where this has occurred are comparatively few and we cite again that the provisions of this part of the article cover circumstances that are quite out of the ordinary and, may well be classified as abnormal. And this the congregation may well bear in mind that she may never think that Art. 11 is designed as an easy way to oust her minister!