Article 12. “Inasmuch as a minister of the word, once lawfully called as described above, is bound to the service of the church for life, he is not allowed to enter upon a secular vocation except for such weighty reasons as shall receive the approval of the classis.”
The principle upon which the above cited rule is based is that a minister of the word, once lawfully called unto the office, is bound to the service of the church for life. This principle, to which Reformed Churches have always adhered, undoubtedly has the sanction of holy writ even though it is not specifically stated in Scripture that the minister’s tenure of office is for life. This in itself is not strange as there are many truths which are based upon sound Scriptural inference rather than upon direct revelation. Think, for instance, of the truth of infant baptism. Nowhere is a direct command given and, yet, it can easily be proven that this practice is thoroughly Scriptural.
There are several passages in the word of God from which the principle of life-service may be deduced. In the Old Testament the priests and Levites were called into the service of the sanctuary for life. In Deuteronomy 18we are informed that “they shall have no inheritance among their brethren; the Lord is their inheritance . . . . For the Lord thy God hath chosen him out of all thy tribes to stand to minister in the name of the Lord, him and his sons forever.” In the New Testament we read that it pleased God “to separate Paul from his mother’s womb and called him by His grace to reveal His Son in him, that he might preach Him among the heathen.” (Gal. 1:15) This was a life calling. Concerning it the apostle himself writes in I Corinthians 9:16 that “necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel.” The Lord says in Luke 9:62 that “no man having put his hand to the plough and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God.” From these and other passages we may certainly establish this sound rule.
There are also other considerations which bring out the reasonableness of this principle. In “The Church Order Commentary” three of them are cited. We quote them in full:
1. “In full harmony with this principle of life-long service it may be noted that the internal call to the ministry in the heart of the future ministers is always interpreted to be a call for life.”
2. “Let it also be remembered that the dignity of the office of the ministry of the word is advanced by appointment for life.”
3. “And it is also true that young men can hardly be expected to go through a course of training extended over many years unless they can look forward to the ministry as a life-long work.”
Although, therefore, we maintain this important principle, we also differ from the conception the Roman Catholics have of this matter. The Romish church teaches that the nature of the ecclesiastical office is such that he who once receives the office can never lose it. The officebearer and the office are inseparably united for life. Consequently, when an officebearer in the Romish church makes himself unworthy of his office, that office is not taken from him, but he is merely prohibited from exercising it. This is not our view. The office and the person are not inseparable. The person of the officebearer may be dismissed from office. (Art. 11) or deposed from office (Art. 79) or “for such weighty reasons as shall receive the approval of the classis” he may enter upon some secular vocation and thereby lose all right to the office. (Art. 12)
This latter is then another form of dismissal. Perhaps the difference between this and Art. 11 may be expressed by saying that under Art. 11 the dismissal action is initiated by the consistory whereas in Art. 12 it is the minister who requests dismissal. TO leave the ministry under the provisions of these articles is not necessarily the same as “faithlessly deserting the office” or as “being deposed” from the office although it stands to reason that both the deserter and the one deposed will also resort to some other vocation. The difference is that desertion and deposition imply guilt whereas the dismissal spoken of here is honorable. The twelfth article speaks of cases where, in exception to the rule that the minister’s tenure of office is for life, one is honorably given the right by the church, with the approval of the churches in general, to lay down the office of the ministry and pursue some other kind of work. Of course, this is done only when weighty reasons can be advanced.
Laying down the work of the ministry in this manner must also be distinguished form receiving an emeritation which we will discuss in the next article. Emeritus ministers, who for valid reasons, are relieved of their labors in the ministry continued to receive support from the church and also retain the honor and the title of the minister of the word. Those who enter other vocations receive neither support nor the title.
This article neither condones nor forbids the practice of some ministers who engage in part-time secular labors. Some of our ministers in the past have been employed as part-time mail carriers, school teachers, painters, etc. Frequently the twelfth article of the Church Order is cited as proof for the contention that such practices are always wrong. This cannot be done for if that is the meaning of this article it militates directly against the Scripture and, besides, the article does not speak of this situation but refers to those who desire to exchanges the ministry for some other work. We may add, however, that the practice of part-time secular employment by the ministers of the word is usually to be frowned upon. There must be very valid reasons to tolerate it. The work of the ministry is of such a nature that it requires one’s full attention and devotion. Only in cases of dire necessity will one, conscious of his high calling, seek to supplement that work with other labors. It might be said, perhaps, that the apostle Paul, as we wrote in a former article, was engaged for a time in the trade of tent making. This is true and, we cited before the reasons he did this. Yet, it ought not be forgotten that in II Cor. 12:13 the apostle, referring to this, writes: “For what is it wherein ye were inferior to other churches, except it be that I myself was not burdensome to you? Forgive me this wrong.” The churches ought to see to it that such practices are not necessary.
Because of the very nature of the office of the ministry and the life-long calling that goes with it, reasons which form a justifiable ground for dismissing one honorably must be very cogent. They must be weighty not only in the mind of the minister who requests dismissal but they must be proven valid to the consistory and then classis. In 1920 the Reformed Churches of Holland added a provision to this article which makes it necessary also to gain the approval of the Synodical Delegates before one is dismissed to engage in other work. This rule is quite proper and would be in place here as much as it is in Art. 11. Our same reasons for its presence in that article would hold favoring its incorporation here. Certainly ministers ordained to the office only with the approbation of Synodical Delegates ought not to be dismissed without their approval.
What, then, are some of the valid reasons justifying dismissal? Certainly it is not sufficient ground to dismiss a minister because he may be discouraged with the hardships and afflictions of the labor of the gospel or because he has trouble with his consistory. Neither can we agree with those who claim that an appointment to governmental work is valid reason to lay down the ministry. The office of statesman is not higher than the office of the clergy and neither is the work of Caesar more important than that of Christ. Those who seek an exodus from the ministry to engage in politics either have never been truly called to the ministry or they are seeking the praise and honor of men. Therefore, also such reasons which reveal a motive to seek higher wages and more of this world’s good are always invalid.
Yet, there are situations which may arise in the providence of God that make it necessary for a minister to leave his work and find other employment. In 1578, for instance, there was a case in which a minister was dismissed because he was without a flock. There was nothing else for him to do but to find other work to support himself and his family. And, whereas, the fault did not lay with him, his dismissal was honorable. We know of another instance where a minster, after several years of ministry, was confronted with an unmanageable situation in his own home. And, whereas Scripture requires that the bishop is “one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity (for if a man know not how to rule his own house how shall he take care of the church of God?)” (I Tim. 3:4, 5) it was deemed advisable that he be dismissed and pursue some other course of labor. Whereas he committed no gross sin worthy of deposition, his dismissal too was honorable. Another instance might be that of a man who, after some time in the ministry, finds that he lacks the necessary qualifications for that work and upon his own request seeks for the welfare of the church to be dismissed. The consistory could, in such an instance, resort to Article 11 and have him dismissed but perhaps before such action is taken the minister himself acts under Article 12. In such a case an honorable dismissal is quite proper and in the best interest of all concerned because it also makes it impossible that some other congregation is later confronted with serious difficulties as a result of having called the one wholly unqualified. Dismissal under Article 12 severs the bond to the ministry with finality.