The fourth article of our church order defines the lawful calling of candidates to the office of the ministry of the word. In this respect it is to be distinguished from the next article which speaks of the calling of ministers who are already in the office. Later articles in our church order speak of the calling and ordination of elders and deacons.
The order to be pursued by the church in calling one to the ministry as prescribed by our church order is not above criticism. We cite the article here in its entirety:
“The lawful calling of those who have not been previously in office, consists:
First, in the ELECTION by the consistory and the deacons, after preceding prayers, with due observance of the regulations established by the consistory for this purpose, and of the ecclesiastical ordinance, that only those can for the first time be called to the ministry of the Word who have been declared eligible by the churches, according to the rule in this matter; and furthermore with the advice of classis or of the counselor appointed for this purpose by the classis;
Secondly, in the EXAMINATION both of doctrine and life which shall be conducted by the classis, to which the call must be submitted for approval, and which shall take place in the presence of three delegates of synod from the nearest classes;
Thirdly, in the APPROBATION by the members of the calling church, when, the name of the minister having been announced for two successive Sundays, no lawful objection arises; which approbation, however, is not required in case the election takes place with the co-operation of the congregation by choosing out of a nomination previously made.
Finally, in the public ORDINATION in the presence of the congregation, which shall take place with appropriate stipulations and interrogations, admonitions and prayers and imposition of hands by the officiating minister (and by other ministers who are present) agreeably to the form for that purpose.”—Art. 4.
According to this method the candidate is chosen by the elders and deacons and then presented to the congregation for approbation. The article also allows the possibility of the congregation co-operating in this election but does not require this. Our criticism then is that the method prescribed belittles the function of the church in calling her shepherd and this is contrary to the thirtieth article of our
Confession which states: “We believe, that the ministers of God’s Word…ought to be chosen to their respective offices by a lawful election by the church.”
In our Protestant Reformed Churches the election of a minister of the Word shall be conducted in the following manner:
“I. The consistory shall make a nomination consisting usually of a trio of eligible ministers or candidates.
Although this is definitely an improvement, it, too, is not above criticism. It is conceivable that a certain congregation may desire to call a certain candidate but that the consistory for various reasons refuses to place that name on the nomination. Such a situation may result in unrest in the church or in the congregation receiving a shepherd who is not of their choice. To avoid this we believe that some provision similar to that found in Art. 22 should be incorporated here according to which “an opportunity is given to the members of the congregation to direct the attention of the consistory to suitable candidates.” With this addition the trio would come closer to being the choice of the congregation. Concerning this suggested method the Rev. Ophoff writes: “This method I consider the best for the following reason: It allows the consistory to properly control the election and at the same time to place on the nomination the names of such persons as the flock prefers. With this method the consistory can function (in respect to the calling to the office) as Scripture would have it, and the congregation’s choice is, as near as this is possible, honored. Finally, this method reduces the danger of a clash between consistory and congregation to a minimum.”
However, it must also be said that the method prescribed here in our church order is not altogether erroneous. Certainly it is not the intention of this article to deprive the church of her divinely appointed rights nor does it mean to minimize the important function of the church in calling a minister of the gospel. On the contrary, when we look at this article in its historical setting, we conclude that the very opposite was intended by its framers. In former days the calling of a minister was an extremely difficult task for the church. There were no candidates who had received a thorough training and then had been declared eligible for call to the churches. But the churches had to choose from various aspirants in general, some of which were worthy and others not. The danger was very real, therefore, that the congregation would be swayed by some eloquent and unworthy stranger. To safeguard against this the article prescribes that the election shall be by the consistory and the deacons who would be more able to investigate the background and qualifications of the aspirant than the entire congregation and thus the latter would be more assured of receiving a shepherd worthy of the office. Thus Dr. H. Bouwman in his Gereformeerd Kerkrecht judges: “Although Article 4 of the Church Order does not mean to limit the congregation in any of its rights, the formulation of this article does not give full expression to the prerogatives of the congregation.” (Vol. 1, p. 385)
In view’ of this the present practice of our churches is certainly proper although it does not adhere strictly to the letter of this article. Our candidates are well prepared and upon the successful completion of the preemptor examination they are declared eligible for a call and recommended to the churches. The consistory has no right to impose its own selection from these candidates upon the congregation but the latter should be given the liberty to choose from as broad a selection of eligible and worthy men as possible. That this is in harmony with the teaching of Scripture cannot be gainsaid. Inwe read of Titus “who was also chosen of the churches to travel with us with this grace which is administered by us to the glory of the same Lord.” In the apostles instruct the church “to look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom whom we may appoint over this business.” This is a significant passage because it clearly defines the function of both the consistory and the congregation in the matter of calling officebearers. The latter is to choose. The congregation elects. The apostles set forth the qualifications of the men to be chosen and also make final approbation of those selected. Today it is the task of the ruling body of the church to control and govern the election of all office bearers. This duty must not be withdrawn from their jurisdiction for it is their calling to have oversight over the congregation which includes taking the necessary action to prevent unworthy men from intruding upon the holy offices. Likewise it is the right and privilege of the church to choose men for the offices and this may never be taken away from her. She has attained the age of spiritual maturity and may not, therefore, be regarded as a spiritual minor. She has the anointing of Christ and in the office of believers must perform her God given duties. Where this is understood and there is mutual regard for each other, the consistory can function together in their own domain without following any one hard and fast method and the results will be gratifying to both and glorifying to the King of the church.
Calling a minister is a serious matter and must be done “after preceding prayers.” This is generally interpreted to mean that no election or calling of a minister shall take place unless the gathering be opened with prayer. And because all congregational meetings are conducted thus the practical thrust of these words is to a great extent lost. Originally, however, the intention was that the congregation should come together for a special prayer service prior to the time when the actual work of calling a minister was to take place. This custom has now fallen into disuse but we would raise the question as to whether it ought to be resurrected? Certainly the matter of choosing a shepherd for the flock is sufficiently important to the congregation to warrant this, isn’t it? Often congregational meetings are held solely for this purpose and the matter itself is transacted in a short time and the meeting adjourns. Would it not be a richer experience if the congregation would be called together in worship to pray and to hear the word of God after which the voting members of the flock would assemble to choose a shepherd as it seemed good to them and the Holy Spirit?
Our present practice does not exclude preceding prayers. The congregation prays. The families of the church pray. The individual members of the flock ascend to the throne of grace. And in the case of those who have not previously served in the ministry much prayerful labor is performed by the churches even before they are declared candidates. However, when the church is confronted with the specific task the guidance of Christ and His Spirit is of paramount importance. This guidance is sought in prayer. This prayer ought then not to be reduced to a formality but must have a predominate place in the mind and heart of the church when she gathers to call a minister of the Word.
G. Vanden Berg