The address given at the graduation exercises of the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches on June 19, 1995 at Hull, Iowa.

Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.

Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.

But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment: yea I judge not mine own self.

For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord.

Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God. I Corinthians 4:1-5

The theme from Holy Scripture that I bring on the occasion of your graduation from the Seminary of the Protestant Reformed Churches may not at first captivate you young men who are graduating. The theme is the judging of ministers, mainly by others. Since by your successful examination before synod you have taken a huge step toward the ministry, the theme definitely applies to you. And you may well feel at this time that you have had quite enough of being judged.

You have been judged the last few days in the examination by synod.

You have been judged constantly the past four years by your professors in your seminary training.

You have felt that you were being judged the past couple of years by the people when you brought the Word publicly in the congregations.

“Judging ministers?” you may groan, no doubt inaudibly; “must we hear about being evaluated and either found wanting or found approved, on our graduation night?”

“Give us a break!”

“Give us a break from the judgment of ministers!”

Fact is, there is no break for us ministers from being judged. Not only is there the constant threat of improper judgment of us and our work (what the apostle refers to in verse 3 as “man’s judgment”), but also there is a legitimate judgment (what the apostle in verse 4 calls the Lord’s judging).

There is no escape in the ministry from judgment.

The only question is whether we ministers will rightly respond to these judgments.

The improper, illegitimate, and destructive judgment, we must discount: “with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged . . . of man’s judgment” (v. 3).

The proper, necessary, and encouraging judgment, we ought always to keep in mind. Never may the minister allow the reality of this judgment to slip from his consciousness. Should one allow this to happen for any length of time, he runs the risk that this will prove fatal, I do not say to himself personally, but to his ministry.

Although my viewpoint on this occasion, like that of the apostle himself in the opening verses of I Corinthians 4, is that of the minister—that he is judged and how hemust bear the judgment—the congregation is by no means ignored. It is the saints who are tempted to judge ministers wrongly; they were the ones guilty of this in Corinth. And it is to believers and their children that the apostle’s admonition comes at the end: “Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come.”

What I have to say, therefore, is of importance to all. 

The Judged

Those who are not to be judged by men but who are judged by the Lord are ministers of the Word, those believing males who are called by God through the church to the special office of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments. Those who are to be accounted as stewards of the mysteries are the ordained ministers. The steward who must be found faithful is the preacher. The one for whom it is a small thing that he should be judged by his fellow believers is Paul in his position as apostle and preacher, as it is the apostle and preacher who is judged by the Lord. The members of the church are to judge nothing before the time concerning their pastor and concerning all the other ministers in the denomination.

That the Holy Spirit refers in this matter of judging to ministers is plain. First, those referred to are described as “ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (v. 1). Second, this is evident from both the preceding and the following context. In the preceding chapters, the apostle has faulted the Corinthian church for preferring one preacher over another—Paul, Cephas, Apollos, and Christ—and forming factions around their ecclesiastical champions. In the verse that immediately follows the instruction about judging, Paul states, “And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and Apollos”—preachers both.

What a high estimation, then, the church must have of her ministers, because of their office!

Ministers are to be accounted as “servants of Christ” (such is the word translated “ministers” in verse 1) and “stewards of the mysteries of God.” Theirs is a special service belonging to a special office. Not all Christians hold this office and perform this service. The minister is privileged to dispense the mysteries of God, which are all the truths of Holy Scripture revealing the otherwise hidden gospel of God’s gracious salvation of elect sinners in His Son, Jesus Christ. The mysteries are treasures. By the faithful preaching of these mysteries—good stewardship for a minister!—the chosen church is saved and the gracious God is known and glorified.

This is a judgment of ministers that may, indeed must, be made by us all. There is a judging of ministers that is wrong but there is also a judging that is right: Let everyone in the church so account of ministers as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. This is the authoritative judgment of ministers by Christ Himself in inspired Scripture. The Reformed faith makes this judgment its own in the form of installation of ministers:

What a glorious work the ministerial office is, since so great things are effected by it . . . which is also the reason why the Lord will have such an office always to remain.

It is fitting that we be reminded of this biblical evaluation of ministers on the occasion of the graduation of two candidates for the ministry from the Protestant Reformed Seminary. The churches have expended vast amounts of labor and money on behalf of their training, because these churches account of ministers us servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.

You young men yourselves must be impressed with your awesome position and task when by a call Christ places you in office: servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. One would never dare to enter this office without a call. The exercise of this office requires qualifications, high qualifications, qualifications both natural and spiritual. No unqualified man would be entrusted with the secrets of the civil state as an ambassador. Much less may an incompetent be entrusted with the secrets of God as a herald.

The Bible and the Reformed faith have a high view of the ministry. This high view, however, implies neither that the minister is an exalted lord in the church, nor that he may do pretty much as he pleases. As to his position, he is only a servant, nothing more. Christ is the honored, authoritative Lord. “Dominie” was a particularly unfortunate title for the minister in the Dutch Reformed tradition.

As to the minister’s work in the church, it is merely stewardship: handling God’s priceless mysteries. 

The Faithfulness of the Judged

The all-important thing about the minister’s labors, therefore, is faithfulness. “It is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.” Faithfulness in a minister is determined by the mysteries of God of which the minister is a steward. It is primarily sound preaching and teaching of the revealed Word of God in all its doctrines.

One aspect of this particular faithfulness is that ministers not be what the old Puritan Edward Dering complained of as “so faint professors that they do little good in the church.” He lumped “faint professors” with “enemies of God’s gospel.” “Faint professors” are ministers who refuse to proclaim vital truths sharply and boldly and, with this, refuse to condemn false doctrines, wicked ways of life, and, I may add, pernicious movements with similar sharpness and vehemence.

Article 55 of our Reformed Church Order forbids every minister to be a “faint professor”:

To ward off false doctrines and errors that multiply exceedingly through heretical writings, the ministers and elders shall use the means of teaching, of refutation, or warning, and of admonition, as well in the ministry of the Word as in Christian teaching and family-visiting.

On this article, the Reformed theologian Joh. Jansen has written in explanation:

With each text, the truth must be purely preached, error must be refuted, heresies must be warned against, and there must be admonition to faithfulness.

“With each text”!

No Protestant Reformed preacher, indeed, no Reformed preacher, may be a “faint professor.”

If you graduates show yourselves “faint professors,” you will be unfaithful to all your seminary instruction, unfaithful to the churches (who have not expended the labor and money that have gone into your training in order to receive “faint professors”), and unfaithful to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Faithfulness in the ministry consists, secondly, of diligence in preaching and teaching: hard work and long hours. A lazy minister is an unfaithful steward.

Third, as a steward, the minister ignores, and even sacrifices, his own interests, whether ease and pleasure, money and possessions, or name and standing, for the sake of the interests of the great God whose mysteries are his heavy responsibility and the interests of the honorable Lord Jesus Christ whose devoted servant he is. This too is faithfulness.

Also, as the apostle indicates when he speaks of a coming judgment of the counsels of ministers’ hearts, the faithful minister is the man who carries out his stewardship in love for God in Christ in his heart. A mere professional clergyman, no matter how capable, is derelict.

This faithfulness will be judged. Any minister or candidate who reads the opening verses of I Corinthians 4to say that ministers are “off-the-hook” of judgment is mistaken. (Such exegesis would raise doubt whether the man is competent to handle the mysteries of God at all.) “It is required in stewards that a man” (note well the individualizing singular: “a man,” that is, “each minister individually”)—”that a man be found faithful.” The word that jumps out at the minister with the force of a summons to judgment is the word “found”: “that a man be found faithful.” Faithfulness in a minister will be established by thorough investigation and will be shown by solemn verdict. Every minister of Christ will be found faithful by a judge in court.

There is, and will be, judgment of every minister regarding his ministry. One’s ministry must be justified, just as one’s person is justified.

The question is: by whom?

And then, because the viewpoint is the minister’s: to whose judging is the minister to subject his ministry?

(to be concluded)