“No one shall be permitted, neglecting the ministry of his church or being without a fixed charge, to preach indiscriminately without the consent and authority of Synod or Classis. Likewise, “no one shall be permitted to preach or administer the sacraments in another church without the consent of the consistory of that church.”—Art. 15.
The important matter brought into consideration here is that of the right to preach the word and administer the sacraments. This right, according to the Reformed position, does not inhere in any individual. It makes no difference how talented, how gifted, how popular or important an individual may be. These things do not permit him to preach the word. The right to do so is given unto the church by Christ and only when the church properly commissions men to perform the work of the ministry are they vested with authority to do so.
Of this authority Article 15 speaks. Although the article itself was originally formulated with a view to certain wrong practices by wandering preachers, and, therefore, was designed to combat an evil that was more prevalent in the sixteenth century than it is now, yet, the principles of truth set forth here are of most fundamental importance and also very applicable to present day circumstances.
The article itself may be divided into two parts. In the first part the principle is maintained that no one may go, about preaching here and there on his own. No one has the right to do so. Christ does not commission individuals apart from His church to preach. He commissions and authorizes the church, and the church sends men forth. (Acts 13:2, Romans 10) There is here a reference to church extension or missionary work which properly belongs to the churches and, consequently, can be performed only upon their authority. The fact that there is general ignorance of this principle of truth today is evident from many alleged missionary practices. We should remember that those who proclaim a false gospel quite expectantly do not care to have their methods ruled by Scriptural principles but rather always follow the practices of expediency.
The second part of the article, however, is concerned with the matter of preaching the word within the established church and in connection therewith the sound rule or principle is expressed that this shall be controlled and regulated exclusively by the consistory. The local consistory exercises sole jurisdiction over its own pulpit and over the administration of the sacraments in its communion. The gist of the whole matter comes down to this. Without the authorization of the church, calling men to perform the work of the ministry, official proclamation of the word and administration of the holy sacraments is impossible.
This principle follows from the Reformed conception of the church institute which, needless to add, is also the Scriptural conception. The Reformers have always militated, against the Romish conception of the church. Also, they have stood adverse to the loose, modernistic views that are so prevalent today and which are making mighty inroads into allegedly Reformed circles. The church, the Reformers insist, is the gathering of believers and their children by the Son of God into a living communion which reflects the body of Christ. It is not just a gathering of individuals or a mass of people, the more the merrier. In this spiritual communion the holy offices are instituted and through these Christ Himself dispenses the gifts of His Spirit and grace unto His people. It is through the offices that Christ speaks unto His Church the efficacious word of life. Through them He imparts Himself and all His fullness in the holy sacraments. And so the word and sacraments, the means of grace, are, not and cannot be administered except through the offices and these are not fixed to any person or persons but are inseparably attached to the institute of the church.
When one, therefore, is not bound to the church, he has no right to perform the labor that belongs unto the church. Of these two kinds are mentioned in the first part of article fifteen. There are those who “neglect the ministry of the church.” It was not uncommon in former years that a man, growing tired of the ministry in a certain church, would simply forsake the congregation to which he was joined as minister and seek another field on his own. This neglect was very sinful although many tried to justify it by comparing their actions to those of the apostles and evangelists in early times. The Synod of Dordt in 1575, however, refuted their claim by pointing to the fact that the office of the apostles had long ceased. Beside, were not the apostles sent out directly by the church? (Acts 13:1-3) Those that neglected their ministry lost, by that neglect, their office and therein lost the right to preach. To do so indiscriminately and without authority was to conduct themselves contrary to the ordinances of Christ. Such conduct our church order does not countenance.
There were also those “without a fixed charge” who went about at random and preached where they willed. Although this, too, was wrong it should be noted that there is a difference between these and the ones who neglected their office. Those without fixed charges were not necessarily guilty of neglect. They may have lost their charge through no fault of theirs whatsoever. Perhaps persecution disintegrated the flock leaving them without a charge. Perhaps economic conditions forced the membership into other localities. Yet, being without a church, they were also without an office and without an office they had no authority to minister the word.
The article further expresses that those who were personally but not officially qualified to preach could engage in missionary labor or church extension work only with “the consent and authority of synod or classis.” An interesting question may be raised in this connection. In view of the last part of Article 15 which ascribes the authority to minister the word to the consistory, why is the synod and classis mentioned in the first part? There are, it seems to me, several reasons for this in light of which we can see that there is no conflict in this article as might otherwise appear to be the case. First of all, let us bear in mind that when one is admitted to the ministry of the word, this concerns not only one church but all the churches in the denomination. For this reason it is the Synod that declares candidates to the ministry. (See Articles 8 and 9, D.K.O.) In the second place we should note that Article 15 refers to the performance of church extension or missionary work. This work, too, is generally speaking, the concern of more than one church. It involves all the churches and is, therefore, “regulated by the Synod.” (Article 51, D.K.O.) This, of course, does not exclude the right of an individual church to send a missionary out if it chooses to do so and has the means to carry out such a plan. Nor does, it annul the fact that the Synod regulates the work of missions through a particular congregation and consistory. It only establishes this principle that no one may engage in mission work without the authorization of the church or churches in general. Although it was incorrect, it has happened in the past that Classes and Synods have called men directly and sent them to do mission work. It is better that Synod instruct one of the churches to call as the right to call is not in the Synod but in the congregation. Hence, preachers that have no fixed charge may be authorized by the church or churches in general to engage in church extension labor.
The last part of Article 15 speaks of the right to preach the word or administer the sacraments in the various individual churches. The right to do so does not lie in the minister. He may not go and preach where and when he pleases. The consistory of each church has the sole jurisdiction over its own pulpit.
Some hold that this does not refer to preaching or administering the sacraments in certain church buildings but rather has reference to the practice of Reformed Churches in the Netherlands according to which certain geographical boundary lines were established for each church. One’s membership was then not a matter of choice but was determined by where one lived. Those living within certain marked boundaries belonged to the church of that district. The article then means that no one might enter into that district to preach or conduct services without the consent of the consistory of the church residing in that district. Van Dellen and Keegstra write: “Eindelijk spreekt het artikel uit, dat geen Dienaar in eene andere Kerk mag optreden, zonder bewilliging van den Kerkeraad van die Kerk. Niet slechts niet in het kerkgebouw van die Kerk, maar ook niet in haar kring, want zulk optreden leidt tot verwarring, en een indringen in eens anders dienst.”
With this matter we are not so much concerned as we have not adopted the policy of geographical boundaries and it is not likely that we will. We do, however, maintain the principle that the consistory of each church has jurisdiction over her own pulpit. This is a vital part of her autonomy.
Another question which occasionally arises is whether a minister may preach the word in a church of another denomination. I do not believe that our churches have ever expressed themselves on this but Dr. H. Bouwman writes on page 84 of his Kerkrecht: “Hieruit volgt ook, dat een dienaar ook niet in een ambtelijken dienst mag optreden in een andere kerk b.v. eene Hervormde of Luthersche kerk, zonder overleg met of goedkeuring van den kerkeraad der Gereformeerde kerk. Men zou hiertegen kunnen aanvoeren, dat hiertegen geen overwegend bezwaar is, indien het woord, dat hij brengt, maar goed is. Doch indien de betrokken leeraar behoefte gevoelt om in eene andere kerk te spreken, dan zal het hem ook niet teveel moeten zijn hiervoor toestemming te vragen aan den Gereformeerden kerkeraad, en zijn optreden van dezen kerkeraad, die op dit terrein opzicht en tucht oefent, te laten afhangen. Stoort hij zich aan dezen kerkeraad niet, dan handelt hij willekeurig en onordelijk, en maakt hij zich schuldig aan scheurmakerij.”
The principles set forth in this article deal with the preaching of the word and, sadly enough, are becoming more and more obsolete. The trend is toward individualism and liberty in the evil sense of the word. Rules stipulating good order are undesired. Especially is this evident with regard to the ministry. Pulpits are opened to all. Elders exercise no authority and rule. Guarding against such abuses of the sacred ministry we must adhere strictly to the principles of Dordrecht that good order and decency may be maintained in the church of Jesus Christ our Lord.