There is pending before Classis East of our denomination an overture from the Council of Hope Church which proposes a radical change with respect to the dispensing of student aid to those who are preparing for the ministry in our churches. This overture is intended, of course, for Synod of 1975; and I assume that since it is addressed to Synod, it will also appear on the Agenda of Synod—either with or without the adherence of Classis East. Since this overture is for various reasons rather important, a few editorial remarks about it are not deemed out of place.
The overture itself is rather lengthy; so I will try briefly to summarize it.
1. The document opens with a statement of motivation, to the effect that the Deacons of Hope have long been concerned with the problem of the proper exercise of their office, and that the Council of Hope believes that in some instances work which properly belongs to the deacons is being performed by synodically appointed committees. “It is to this latter that we address ourselves in this present overture.”
2. Next follows the overture proper: “We, the Council of Hope Protestant Reformed Church, overture Synod to discharge the present Student Aid Committee, discontinue the present practice of supporting students from Synodical funds and inform the Churches that this work belongs properly to the labors of the local diaconate.”
At this point in the document, instead of presenting specific grounds for this three-fold overture, the Council of Hope Church presents a rather lengthy argumentation which constitutes the bulk of their document of three closely typewritten pages.
3. The first part of Hope’s argumentation presents a “brief history.” Reference is made especially to an article by the Rev. G. M. Ophoff about Article 19 of our Church Order in Volume 11, page 46, of the Standard Bearer, in which the history of Student Aid is traced. After summarizing this history, the Council of Hope draws this conclusion: “Therefore, the method we now use to fulfill art. 19 of the Church Order in this respect is to be traced directly back to a time in which a very close relationship existed between the Church and State. Since that time the records available show that the question of supporting students in ways other than through the Student Aid Committee has never been brought before an ecclesiastical body. It is our purpose to ask for such consideration.”
I have three brief remarks in connection with this summary: a) Anyone who wishes to study this subject would do well to read the entire article by the Rev. Ophoff: for he deals with the principle of Student Aid as well as with the history. b) Lest there be any misunderstanding, due to the misplacement of a reference in Hope’s overture, it should be understood that the following statement is not a quotation from Ophoff: “Thus, in the usual trauma of the establishment of an independent denomination, the responsibility of the support of seminary students apparently was simply handed over to the broader ecclesiastical assemblies, without any questions asked.” This statement is not presented in quotation marks, but it is followed by “(ibid.)” and might be misunderstood, therefore. It is a statement by the Hope Council, not by Ophoff. c) It should be pointed out that Hope’s overture is more specific than is stated at the conclusion of this history. They are not merely asking for consideration of “ways other than through the Student Aid Committee.” But they are asking specifically for a synodical decision “that this work belongs properly to the labors of the local diaconate.”
4. In the second main section of argumentation, the Council of Hope presents and answers “some arguments usually given in favor of the present method.” The source of these arguments is not indicated, so that it is very difficult to evaluate their worth. Nor, in my opinion, are the arguments the most important ones; nor are they exhaustive. For the same reason, as I hope to point out, the reply of the Hope Council is somewhat beside the point.
5. The third main section of argumentation is devoted to the “principal arguments in favor of the idea that the responsibility for the support of our seminary and pre-seminary students lies with the individual diaconates.” Point A is the claim that the deacons have “the unique calling of dispensing the mercies of Christ. This includes monetary aid given to students.” Point B argues that the duty of this support lies with the local congregation.
The overture concludes as follows: “It is our opinion, then, that the argumentation provided above supports the conclusion that the institution of the Student Aid Committee has caused the office of deacon to suffer. And, to that extent the Church of Christ has also suffered. The purpose of this overture is to restore to the office of deacon its proper function in this area. With that motive, we humbly submit this overture.”
In the title of this editorial I termed this a “significant” overture. It is this, I believe, for more than one reason.
In the first place, I believe it is commendable that there is concern expressed about the office of deacon and that there is study made and attention paid to the work of the deacons. This can only be for the good of our churches; properly accomplished, such study will also lead to good results. At the same time—and I make this remark in general in connection with the general concern about the lack of work for our deacons—it should be kept in mind that the degree of activity of the deacons varies somewhat with the times, and we should not be overly concerned if there are times when the deacons are less active. Nor, by all means, should we allow our zeal to find work for our deacons lead us in a wrong direction.
In the second place, I believe this overture to be significant because it proposes a radical change. Understand, I do not use the term radical in a pejorative sense. And I certainly do not think of my brethren in the Hope Council as being a group of “radicals”; we know one another better than that. But this overture proposes a basic, or root, change; in this sense I use the term radical (from radix = root). And the radical change does not consist in the change from a denominational to a local level; this does not involve any principle. The radical change consists in the proposal specifically to assign student aid to the province of the deacons, that is, to the care of the poor and to the work of benevolence, or mercy.
In the third place, therefore, our churches should proceed very cautiously in making changes with respect to student support. There are practical reasons for this; but there is also a principle at stake with respect to the nature of student aid. The delegates to Synod and Synod itself should take care to do their homework if they are called upon to pass judgment on Hope’s overture. I intensely dislike study committees, for the simple reason that they result in postponement of decisions and in resultant unsettled conditions. But if the coming synod should feel they are not ripe for a decision, it would be better to appoint a study committee than to make a premature decision.
It is because of the significance of this overture that I wish to make a few observations.
As To The History
First of all, I do not read and evaluate the history of student aid in the same way as the Hope Council does. And this history is indeed rather instructive. Any communion of churches does well to go contrary to history and to precedent very reluctantly. Why? Because usually you will find a principle lurking behind past practices in the Reformed churches. Nor do I believe that we rather blindly followed with respect to student aid procedures, but various studies have been made of these matters in our seminary Church Polity courses, as well as in commentaries in our Standard Bearer. The Rev. Ophoff, for example, touches on the principle of this article in the very commentary to which the Hope Council refers, Standard Bearer, Vol. XI, p. 46. And also. in his mimeographed Church Polity notes he touches on this subject; and in our class discussion on this subject we also touched on the issue.
But there is more.
It is not accurate to say, as the overture claims, that our practice of student support at the denominational level is rooted in the peculiar situation in the National Church of the Netherlands, according to which students were supported out of public, funds derived from confiscation of Roman Catholic properties. It is true that the practice of the Dutch churches was corrupted at an early state in this way; and it is true that the old name, “E.B.P. Fund” (long ago discarded) was traditionally kept for many years as a result of that corruption in the National Church.
The record of history will show that the Dutch churches were concerned about the support of students and about a common fund for this purpose before there was any government money available. According to the commentary of Job, Jansen in Article 19 of the Church Order, pp. 84, 85, (I translate), “Marnix of St. Aldegonde in a circular letter, March 21, 1570 called the attention of the refugee-churches in England to the fact that ‘a general fund’ should be established for students needing help. When the land would be cleansed from enemies, there would, be a crying need for students. This writing of Marnix was undoubtedly the occasion that the synod of Emden, 1571, already decided that the churches, as soon as they should be gathered out of the dispersion and would have a degree of rest and prosperity, should support ‘a number of students,’ but on condition that these students should bind themselves to those congregations after completing their studies. . . .” The fact of the matter is that student aid did not begin to become a matter of public funds until the Synod of Dordrecht in 1578 and that student support did not become completely a matter of these public funds until 1586.
Now what is the principle even in this early history? It is this: that it is the duty of the churches (whether the churches in common or the churches individually) to make provision for the ministry of the Word, even to the extent of providing students for the ministry and, if need be, seeing to the financial support of such students. Incidentally, this was put into practice when students had to go to such places as Geneva, Heidelberg, Basel and Zurich to study for the ministry.
To this principle the Reformed churches adhered, even when there was a degree of compromise in the period of government support. For it must be remembered that even though the funds came “ex bonis publicis” it was the churches who provided the students and who recommended the students fey support—in obedience to the principle that the churches must make provision for the ministry of the Word. And while it is correct to recognize the evil of this practice of government support, we should bear in mind, too, that such support also extended to payment of ministers’ salaries and to support of retired ministers during this same period of the National Church. Yet neither the support of active ministers nor the support of ministers emeriti is today considered the work of the deacons, that is, of mercy. Why, then, from this same historical point of view argue that the support of students for the ministry belongs in the province of the work of mercy and the office of deacon?
Nor can I agree with the statement in this “brief history” concerning the support of students after 1834 and 1892 when the churches became independent of the state. Ophoff maintains, rightly, that the responsibility for support of students rests on the Church, not on the State. And he points out that after the churches became independent of the State they automatically found themselves under the necessity of caring for their own needy students. Now it is true that in some cases this was done by means of a fund at the level of the particular synod. It is also true, according to Joh. Jansen, that in some instances this was done at the local level; and he even cites an individual example. Then he goes on to say that this support can also be provided together—whether at classical, provincial, or general level. But there is no evidence to support this statement: “Thus, in the usual trauma of the establishment of an independent denomination, the responsibility of the support of seminary students apparently was simply handed over to the broader ecclesiastical assemblies, without any questions asked.” What evidence is there that this was done thoughtlessly and under the influence of some trauma? None whatsoever. I could put a more plausible construction on this history, as follows: “In obedience to their calling to provide for the ministry of the Word and therefore to make provision for students for the ministry, and recognizing the fact that of necessity they would have to provide their own financial support of students, the churches decided to share this financial burden and to establish a common fund for this purpose. For reasons of efficiency, they decided that this fund should be established at the level of the particular synods, rather than at the classical level or the level of the general synod.”
Finally, let me point out that at no point in history did the Reformed churches consider the support of students to be in the province of the deacons. On this score, the history speaks loudly.
But history alone does not speak conclusively. Nevertheless, if our churches are to go contrary to the testimony of history in this matter, there must be adduced good and cogent reasons.
To this question of the principle of this overture I shall address myself next time, the Lord willing.