Article 9—“Preachers without fixed charge, or others who have left some sect, shall not he admitted to the ministry of the church until they have been declared eligible, after careful examination, by the classis with the approval of synod.”

When we consider that the thrust of the preceding article of the church order is to express that only those who are adequately qualified for the office of the ministry of the Word are to be admitted thereto, we feel immediately its connection with the article quoted above. Reformed churches have always held the office of the ministry in high esteem and accordingly were careful as to whom they could admit as worthy pastors. They advocated that the clergy be trained and educated. They requested every candidate to give evidence of certain spiritual, intellectual and physical qualifications. They insisted upon thorough examinations. And, they allowed for a possible exception (Art. 8) although even then the requirements were made as rigid as possible. History has shown and continues to show that in the endeavor to safeguard her offices the church cannot be too meticulous.

Originally the ninth article of our church order was composed in order to apply the same cautiousness to groups and individuals who came from without and desired to be admitted into the ministry of the Reformed Churches. In its original form this article read quite differently than our present redaction which was so revised in 1914. We quote it here in its entirety:

“Novices, priests, monks and others who have left some sect shall not be admitted to the ministry of the church except with great carefulness and due consideration and after they have been on probation for some time.”

Both the original and the revised articles do not forbid the ministry to these outsiders but only emphasize that due caution must be taken in receiving them. All is not gold that glitters! During the sixteenth century the Protestant Churches were bitterly persecuted by the power of Rome. In that era there were not many who of the priests and monks sought office in the Protestant Churches and those that did the churches could safely receive for they were moved by conviction and acted at the risk of life itself. When the power of the Papacy began to decline, however, and the movement of the Reformation gained impetus and, in some instances, also state recognition, this situation changed. Flourishing churches were established and it was then that an increasing number of priests and monks forsook the church of Rome and joined themselves to the Reformation in the hopes of gaining new pastorates. Many of them did so only to improve their economic position. Others of them were entirely unqualified for the office. To admit them without restriction would have been extremely detrimental to the churches. Acting, therefore, in accord with the Word of God, the infallible rule of life and conduct, they would “lay hands suddenly (meaning ordination) on no man” (I Timothy 5:22) “and let these also first be proved” (I Timothy 3:10). Thus of course prescribed in Article 9 is both proper and necessary.

It is interesting to notice that according to the original formulation of this article those priests, monks, etc. who sought admission into the ministry of the Protestant Churches are called “novices”. This has been elided from the article as we at present have it for this speaks only of “preachers without fixed charges”. This omission is to be regretted especially because the word “novice” as originally used here contains a reference to the apostle’s usage of that term in I Timothy 3:6 and this should be retained here because it gives us the directive of the thrust of the entire article. It is not as though the apostle in this passage is speaking of the same situation as that confronting the Reformed fathers. Yet, a comparison here is very striking. In the passage of I Timothy 3 the apostle sets forth the requirements of the offices in the church. Among other things he states that a bishop (elder) is not to be a novice. Novice means something new and in this connection refers to those who had just recently been converted from paganism and had joined the church. They were new in the faith. These should not be considered material for the offices in the church. Calvin writes concerning this: “There being many men of distinguished ability and learning who at that time were brought to the faith, Paul forbids that such persons shall be admitted to the office of a bishop, as soon as they have made profession of Christianity. And he shows how great would be the danger; for it is evident that they are commonly vain, and full of ostentation and, in consequence of this, haughtiness and ambition will drive them headlong.” They should first undergo a period of seasoning in the faith.

Now the fathers of the Reformation also spoke of nov­ices although by this term they did not have reference to newly acquired converts from heathendom. Rather they had in mind the newly acquired converts from the clergy of Rome. There is, of course, a difference. Many of the latter are sincere and genuine Christians. Mixed with them were those who did not love Christ but were moved by selfish and worldly interests. All of them, however, were tyro as far as the faith propagated by and in the Protestant Churches was concerned or, if there were a few who were founded in that faith, the churches had no way of knowing this. In this respect they could be called “novices” and so had to be barred from the office until after a period of seasoning they proved themselves worthy and established in the faith.

In 1914 this article was revised by eliding the phrase “novices, priests, and monks” and inserting in its stead “preachers without a fixed charge.” This change reminds me of an old saying: “All change is not improvement.” The original of this article was so designed as to safeguard not only the office of the ministry from the novices but also that of elders and deacons. This is evident for it speaks of novices not in connection with the “ministry” but in connection with the “kerkendienst.” And these two are by no means identical. The latter includes more than the former. In close connection with this we may easily see why many churches today have a ruling that one must be a member of the church for a stipulated period of time before he can be considered for either the office of elder or deacon. The revision, however, limits the broader scope and intention of the article to the one office which should not be done. It were better that the article had been left in its original form.

Furthermore, according to the commentary of Monsma and Van Dellen, the phrase “preachers without a fixed charge” refers to ministers, not of the Christian Reformed denomination, but of some other Reformed denomination, who for some reason are no longer serving their congregation and who seek to enter our pulpits and are desirous of obtaining a call from one of our churches.” Such a person in relation to the church into which he seeks admittance is also a “novice” whose case is fully covered by the original wording of the article and, consequently, there is no need of this change. Nothing essential is gained by the new formulation.

It might, however, be objected that part of the original article has become obsolete. We refer to the part that mentions “priests and monks.” Reformed churches today are not confronted with the situation of a few centuries ago when there was an exodus of this class from the Romish Church. This may be true but the Papacy is very much in existence yet today and what is to be gained by the omission of these words? Is there not a decided advantage in retaining them in that they indicate the historical occasion which brought this article forth? This our present rendering does not do but simply provides a way for one time ministers to be admitted into the ministry of a church without following the prescribed course of training. And this was evidently not the intention of the original article nor is it the practice of the Protestant Reformed Churches as our past precedent clearly shows.

Article 9, as it now appears in our church order, makes mention of a Classical Examination and a Synodical Approbation. The article of 1618-19 which we quoted earlier does not mention these but speaks only of “great carefulness and due consideration and a period of probation.” However, previous Synods in 1574 and again in 1578 did mention this provision. Why it was omitted later is not known. Perhaps it is not necessary in the light of other articles in the church order that this be specifically mentioned in this article as it certainly is implied that one seeking admittance to the ministry under Article 9 will also be examined and approved. The “great carefulness and due consideration” would require this. That this would be done by the Classis and Synod is not open to question in light of Article 4. However, there is no harm in stating this anew as is done in the revised article. It should then also be borne in mind that this examination does not refer to an investigation of certain credentials which the applicant may possess but is to be an examination of doctrine and life which is as thorough as that which any candidate receives under the provisions of the 4th article of our church order.

Too great care cannot be exercised in keeping the offices of the church pure and all undue attempts to enter upon those offices in another than the normal way ought to be greatly discouraged.

“Let all things be done decently and in good order!”

—G. Vanden Berg