We were last discussing matters that pertain to the granting of ministerial leaves of absence. In the preceding issue of the Standard Bearer we pointed out some of the reasons for which leaves are granted; we mentioned the correct procedure to be followed in obtaining a leave; and we stated that it was quite essential that the consistory and minister concerned have a definite understanding concerning certain things at the time the leave of absence is granted.
This time our attention is to be directed to the meaning of the last part of Article 14 which states: “He (the minister requesting a leave) shall nevertheless at all times be and remain subject to the call of the congregation.”
The exact meaning of this part of the article is rather perplexing. It lends itself to a variety of possibly interpretations. There are some, for example, who point to the very old Dutch Church Orders which speak of “congregations” (geementen) and on the basis of this plural aver that he article merely expresses that a minister on leave of absence is at any time eligible to receive a call from any of the churches. This is a very simple but evidently incorrect interpretation. Both Dr. Bouwman and Dr. Rutgers point out upon good authority that the word “geementen” in the older Dutch is not a plural at all but is the form for the singular, possessive case. “Het word gemeenten is hier in het enkelvoud bedoeld, wijl het was de tweede naamval van de zwakke verbuiging.” This being so, the very basis of this interpretation is removed. Furthermore, it would be rather superfluous to say that ministers on leave of absence are eligible for a call. This is naturally the case and generally would be assumed to be so. It needs no special mention.
Others explain this to mean that a minister on leave of absence can be recalled at any time by the particular church that has granted him the leave. According to this view the tie between the minister and the congregation is not severed during this time. The minister is still under the jurisdiction of the consistory and is bound by his vows and promises to fulfill his office. Although for the time being the consistory excuses him from active labor in the congregation, she may at any time she deems it necessary call him back. He remains subject to call at all times.
There is something that may be said both in favor of and against this interpretation. Favorable is the view that the granting of a leave does not sever absolutely the tie between minister and congregation. The former remains subject to and under the jurisdiction of the latter. Even though salary and parsonage rights are forfeited for a time, the tie remains intact by virtue of which the status of minister of the word is also retained. The minister on leave is not given freelance.
It appears, on the other hand, that this interpretation is designed to fit current practices and ignores the historic circumstances out of which the present articles arose. Because of this there is a conflict here with the first part of the article. That part speaks of “compelling circumstances which make is necessary to discontinue the labors of the office of a time.” Where these exist it is hardly conceivable that a consistory could or would call the minister back into active service. If a man obtains a temporary release from his church to pursue some other labor or to engage in advances studies, the consistory might find it necessary to recall him to labor in the congregation before the time of his leave is expired. Hardly could this be the case, however, if one was on leave because of some serious illness or was separated from his flock through severe persecution. The article was originally written with a view to these latter cases where certain providential visitations made it compulsory to lay down the work of the ministry for a time.
It seems, therefore, that the composers of the church order had something else in mind. To understand the part of the article in question, we must not lose sight of the historic picture. We stated before that persecutions, which dispersed the flock or separated the minister, were the primary causes for which leaves were granted. These conditions validated, without any question, the temporary cessation of the ministerial labors but they did not break the bond that joined pastor and church. They did not put the former out of office. He remained minister of the word so that when the persecutions subsided he could again resume his labor in the church from which he had been temporarily separated. Remaining subject at all times to the call of the church, the minister would thus be protected in his office in these abnormal times.
On the other hand these circumstances did not give the minister freelance. He might not use these occasions to release himself for a certain church and her authority. He might not begin to preach elsewhere and assume a new charge without first being properly released from the church to which he was bound by the lawful call. He remained subject at all times to that call. If then, for valid reasons, he could not perform the duties incumbent in that call, he could be temporarily released from all duty but the consistory, nevertheless, continued to have sole jurisdiction over him. This meant that at the termination of his leave (when it became possible to again function in office) or at any time during his leave (if it became possible to labor elsewhere) he desired to reenter the active ministry, he would do so by either being reinstated in the church that had given him temporary leave or he would obtain from that church a proper dismissal in accordance with Article 10. At no time would he be free from ecclesiastical authority and act independently. Would that be so, he would be without office and calling. Now, however, he is at all times subject to the call of the church.
It should be considered that in our days leaves are often given for a stipulated time with the understanding that the : minister will not return to labor again in that same church. The church then proceeds to call another minister to fill the vacancy. However, the same rule or principle applies with respect to the minister on such a leave. He retains his status as minister by virtue of the call of that church to which he remains subject. When the time of his leave is expired, that church makes a proper announcement concerning his eligibility and he in turn then waits for a call from another congregation. If this were not the case, he would be out of office during the time he was on leave and would then have to resubmit to examination before being declared eligible for a call in the churches.
The freelance practices by the ministry, the Reformed Churches have always opposed. They maintained decency and good order in all things pertaining to the church of Christ. Especially insistent upon this were they when it came to the ministry of the word. Recall that in the years following the Reformation of the sixteenth century these practices of abusing the office of the ministry were quite general. Without the authority of the church, from which the office can never be separated, men roamed here and there posing as official ambassadors of the gospel with the purpose of gaining converts from the Romish church or of gathering those that were dispersed through persecutions. Although their purpose was undoubtedly a worthy one, the methods and practices which they employed were without justification. Only sinister motives would impel men to ignore the institute of the church in the performance of these labors. Unconcerned about the church, many of these independent “loopers” (roamers) sought only the advancement of personal and selfish ambitions. These practices the Reformed Churches could not countenance and, therefore, ruled in the fifteenth article of the church order as follows:
“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.”
This article we purpose, D.V., to discuss fully the next time. Just now we wish to make a very interesting and important observation. Article 15 is based upon a fundamental Reformed principle which is interwoven through all the articles, from 3 to 14 inclusive, of our church order. That principle is that the office of the ministry of the word is vested in the institute of the church or in the local congregation. Each church is an autonomous institute to which Christ gives authority to preach His word and to administer the sacraments. To none other does He give this. This principle is militantly opposed to the hierarchical view of Rome which vests this authority in individual persons. These persons vary in rank with the supreme power vested in the person of the pope. Against this the Reformed position maintains that no one, regardless of rank or person, is permitted to preach or administer the sacraments without the consent of the consistory of the church where this is to be done and no one is permitted to do so outside of the sphere of the instituted church without the authority of the churches.
Underlying this principle is the Scriptural teaching relative to the calling of the preacher which comes from Christ through His church. (Romans 10:14, 15) Without that call no one, though he be professor of theology, elder or deacon, shall be permitted to enter upon the ministry of the word. (Art. 3) That call, coming from a particular church, stations one in a particular place except in the case of mission or church extension work and then one is sent out from a particular congregation. (Art. 7) Those without a fixed charge, that is, without a call, may not perform these labors. (Art. 9). Likewise do the other articles stress the importance of this principle in regard to those actively engaged in the ministry. But further implications of this will have to be considered next time.