Ministering In Institutions Of Mercy

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

Historical Background

Originally Article 6 read quite differently from its present form in our Church Order.

Persons engaged in the ministry of the Word in the manor of any ruler or baron shall be properly and lawfully called as the others, subscribe to the Confession and the Church Order, and appoint the ablest of the group they serve to the offices of elder and of deacon.

Reference is made in the original Article 6 to a “manor.” A manor was a district over which a feudal lord or baron held authority, the territory that was subject to his jurisdiction. In the first period of the Reformation, feudal lords would select and appoint persons to minister to the spiritual needs of themselves and their families, as well as to their servants and tenants. William I, also known as William of Orange or William the Silent, seems to have been the first Protestant ruler to engage the services of his own court preacher. Many other nobles and barons soon followed his example.

The Synod of Dordtrecht, 1578, ruled:

Those who minister the Word at court of rulers or in the palaces of other lords shall be fairly and legally called as the others, subscribe to the Church Order and Confession, and appoint the ablest of the court personnel to the office of elder and deacon.

Although originally only the service of court preachers was mentioned in the article, soon the article began to be applied much more broadly. The Synod of Middelburg, 1581, applied the article to service in hospitals and orphanages. A Particular Synod of 1599 broadened the article to include service in a penitentiary.

The present article addresses itself to the service of ministers in what are strictly speaking non-ecclesiastical institutions. What is the status of such ministers? What rules govern their appointment? To whom are they subject?

The Scope of Article 6

The scope of our present Article 6 is significantly broader than the original article. Although the original article addressed itself to an extraordinary field of labor (the palace of some noble), it did not concern itself with what is strictly speaking a non-ecclesiastical field of labor (an institution of mercy). The original article even called for the organization of the individuals who made up the royal retinue into a congregation. The court preacher was to appoint qualified persons as elders and deacons.

The present article, however, concerns the call and labor of a minister outside of an organized congregation in work that is strictly speaking non-ecclesiastical.

In recent years several positions have been subsumed under the provisions of Article 6. Examples would be: hospital pastor; chaplains in the armed forces, orphanages, homes for unwed mothers, mental institutions, and prisons; instructors in Bible or Church History in the Christian schools; college presidents and professors.

Some of the specialized positions approved by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church include: Presidents of Calvin, Dordt, and Trinity Colleges; editors of church periodicals and educational committee workers; officers of denominational boards and committees; radio and television ministries; chaplains; Bible translators; and Bible teachers in high schools and colleges.

Serious reservations need to be raised, it seems to me, about the present application of Article 6. Not only has there been a rather drastic departure from the original intent of the article, but in many instances the article is wrongly applied. In many cases Article 6 is used as the ground for ministers of the gospel to be engaged in activities that really have very little or nothing to do with preaching the gospel. Ministers are involved in work that could just as well, and more properly, be done by those who are not ministers. No justification for this can or ought to be found in Article 6.

Stipulations of Article 6

The election and calling of ministers to fill positions properly covered by Article 6 must proceed from a local consistory. Ideally, an organization would present such a request to the local consistory, indicating the reasons they seek the full-time services of an ordained minister. The consistory would then have to judge whether such a request fits under the stipulations of Article 6.

If convinced by the request, the consistory would then proceed to nomination, election, and calling of a man to fill the position. Article 6 can be criticized for not stating explicitly how a minister is to be called to serve in such an institution. This fact led the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church in 1918 to rule that, “Spiritual Advisors for institutions shall be called by a neighboring church in consultation with the respective board.” However, the procedure for calling is implied when the article states that they are to be “. . . admitted in accordance with the preceding articles . . . .” This implies that the calling of ministers to serve in institutions of mercy is to take place according to Articles 3-5.

The consequences of the acceptance of such a call would be that the minister’s ministerial credentials would be held in the congregation issuing the call. At the same time, the man’s labor would be subject to the supervision of that consistory.

Two important corollaries follow from the stipulations of Article 6. First, it is implied that if a minister accepts an appointment to do work in some Christian institution WITHOUT receiving a call according to Articles 3-5 of the Church Order, by that very fact he forfeits his office. If he does not seek release from his office according to Article 12 in order to pursue a secular vocation, he makes himself guilty, of desertion of office, which calls for suspension and deposition, Articles 79 and 80. Secondly, it is implied that no one can lay claim to the office of the ministry just because he has been engaged in work in some Christian institution. The only way into the ministry is the way of the lawful call, Articles 3-5.

Fundamental Principles Underlying Article 6

In the first place, the church recognizes only one kind of minister of the gospel. There are not two kinds of ministers, one of which is lawfully called by the church, and another which is appointed by some organization or institutional board. There is fundamentally one ministerial office and one way into that office.

Secondly, the authority of the office of the minister resides, not in himself, but resides in the church which has called him. No person can hold office apart from appointment by the church, the local, instituted congregation. The local congregation issues the call, and the minister retains the status of his office only in connection with the local congregation. Just as one cannot be an elder or deacon without being an elder or deacon of a particular congregation, so one cannot be a minister without being called and sent by a local congregation.

Thirdly, even a minister who labors in an area of special calling must be lawfully called according to the stipulations of Articles 3-5 of the Church Order. There are to be no exceptions.

Finally, also a minister who labors in an area of special calling is under the authority and supervision of a local congregation. This would mean that his work is subject to the review of the calling consistory. This would also mean that he would be a member of the consistory of the calling church. He could take his turn by rotation in presiding over the consistory meetings, Article 37. He could also be delegated to the broader assemblies, Article 33.