The last time we were discussing the first part of the fourth article of our church order. We wrote about some of the methods that are employed in nominating and calling a minister of the gospel. It was observed that our churches do not follow the letter of the church order in this matter. The latter, because of historical circumstances, advocates that the candidate be chosen by the consistory and deacons and then submitted to the members of the church for approbation. In our churches a nomination of suitable candidates is made by the consistory and deacons which is then submitted to the congregation for approbation after which the members of the church choose one from the approved nomination. This method is not in violation with the spirit and principle of our church order which in this matter certainly maintains the rights of the congregation but we must acknowledge that it is a departure from the method that is prescribed. We must remember, however, that our church order does not impose certain methods upon the churches but rather its aim is to set forth fundamental principles of church government and sanctified conduct. This is very important for as long as these principles are maintained, the method used becomes a matter of secondary importance. Thus we also suggested that our present practice could be still further modified and improved by the addition that the congregation also be given a voice in the matter of making the nominations though the deciding choice be left to the consistory. We now will continue our discussion of the other important steps which the congregation follows in the procedure of obtaining a minister.
The fourth article mentions three more elements: “An examination, the approbation, and the public ordination.” A few things may be briefly stated concerning the approbation first of all because this element is no longer required in the method followed in our churches. Approbation is an act of approving, sanctioning, commending. In the present connection, therefore, it merely means that the members of the calling church put their stamp of approval upon the candidate whom their consistory has chosen to become their minister. At that time the consistory would simply submit their choice to the congregation and inform them that after two weeks, unless lawful objections were raised, a call would be extended to him to become the pastor of the flock. According to our present method this act of approbating takes place before the election of the candidate. The consistory submits the entire nomination to the congregation for approval and then after two weeks, if there are no lawful objections raised, the election is held and the one chosen is immediately sent the call.
The congregation, however, is not the only body that approbates the nomination. This is also done by the Counselor of Classis who, representing the Classis in which the calling church resides, serves her with necessary counsel. This indicates that the matter of calling a minister is not only of significance to the congregation that is actively engaged in this task but it is of great importance to all the churches represented in the Classis and Synod. This follows because when a candidate is chosen and ordained in the office in a particular church he receives the right to preach the word and to administer the sacraments not only in that one church but also in all the churches of the denomination as he may be requested by the consistory. Furthermore, he will also be delegated to major assemblies and have a voice in deciding matters that pertain to the churches in general. Hence, no candidate may be chosen (or placed on nomination) without the approbation of the counselor of the Classis or of Classis itself.
In this connection then we may also note what is the particular function of the counselor. When a congregation is without a minister, the Classis, upon the request of the consistory, appoints another minister to serve them as counselor or advisor. For economic and practical reasons the minister of the church which is geographically nearest the vacant church is usually appointed although this is not a hard and fast rule. It is conceivable that in a locality where there are several churches and the distance between them is negligible, anyone of the ministers could be appointed and that Classis (or the Classical Committee) would consider such things as the size and amount of labor in each pastorate in making its selection of a counselor.
The counselor’s function is purely an advisory one. In case of difficulty or trouble in the congregation, he may be of invaluable aid in directing things in the proper way. He may also be called to meet, if necessary, with the consistory and precide over that body though he never has a decisive vote there. If the consistory is confronted with weighty and difficult problems, she may consult her advisor for assistance. In the matter of calling a pastor, the counselor must see to it that all things are done according to the proper ecclesiastical regulations. He must approve the nomination. When the election takes place, he must supervise the composition of the call-letter to which he then also affixes his signature. If at all possible, he should be present at the congregational meeting where this election takes place. And when a call is accepted the counselor usually leads the congregation in the ordination service though not infrequently he is assisted by others. He may also be called upon to conduct funerals, install officebearers, administer the sacraments, etc., although again these labors may be performed by others. The vacant congregation must not feel obligated to call on their counselor for everything. His chief function is to be of help to the vacant church in as far as they may need and request his advice and assistance.
When then the church has complied with these ecclesiastical stipulations, extended a call to a candidate for the ministry, and received his letter of acceptance, she may not as yet proceed with the final step of ordaining him to the office. He is required to first be examined by the Classis. This is called the peremptory examination. It must be remembered that in our churches before one is made a candidate for the ministry he is required to complete a course of study in our seminary and to successfully answer to a thorough examination before the Synod. In view of this the peremptory examination would seem to be quite unnecessary. Rev. Ophoff in his “Church Right” evaluates this matter as follows:
“In a communion of churches with a seminary of its own and under its sole and strict control, the peremptory examination is superfluous. It is obviously unnecessary. Further, if the synod decides that an aspirant is qualified for the office, a classis cannot decide otherwise without militating against Article 81 (D.K.O.), for according to this article whatever a major assembly agrees upon by a majority of votes shall be considered settled and binding unless it be proved to conflict with the Word of God or with the articles of the Church Order,. Finally, it must be considered strange that an aspirant should be examined with a view to determining his fitness for the office after he has received a call. Examinations for this purpose should proceed and not follow the call.”
The Rev. Ophoff also explains why the church order requires a double examination in the following quotation:
“In the beginning of the Reformation, the Reformed Churches had the custom of examining the aspirants but once and this was after he was called. The result was that too many persons unfit for the office were receiving calls, and because this examination was not conducted with sufficient thoroughness, installed into office. The Reformed fathers thought to remedy this evil by instituting the preparatory examination, which they did while retaining the peremptory examination.”
The practice of examining the candidate twice is observed by our churches today. Although we can agree that in most instances this second examination is rather superfluous, we hasten to add that there is certainly no harm or wrong in the practice as such. As a precautionary measure and a safeguard to the office of the ministry it may prove advantageous that the church continues this practice. The second examination may prove very necessary especially when a long period of time intervenes between one being declared a candidate and his receiving and accepting a call from the churches. Surely no candidate sincerely seeking the office of the ministry of the word will object to submitting to both examinations. Besides, there is the advantage that in the peremptory examination the candidate is subject to analysis by all the churches of the Classis as well as the Synodical deputies whereas in the preparatory examination the seminary professors and the limited delegation of Synod do the questioning. Unless, therefore, very cogent reasons are presented we would not advocate abolishing this practice.
The examination itself consists of many things. The candidate is requested to deliver a sermon by which his ability to handle and preach the Word is judged. He is questioned regarding his knowledge of Reformed doctrine, The holy Scriptures, The Confessions and the Church Order. He is called upon to exhibit his ability to defend the truth over against false doctrines and heresies. Inquiry is also made into such practical qualifications for the ministry as his personal spirituality, his motives for seeking the office, and his insight into pastoral practical labors.
Upon completion of his examination the Classis proceeds to deliberate in closed session. Thereupon voting by secret ballot regarding his admittance into the ministry takes place and if the outcome is satisfactory the candidate is given a certificate from the Classis declaring that it judges him qualified for the ministry of the Word. He is then asked to sign the formula of subscription and the church to which he has been called is advised by Classis to proceed with his ordination.
But what happens if the candidate fails? Does this mean that all his preparation and labor was in vain? Not necessarily so. If the congregation continues to desire him he is given opportunity at the next Classis to be re-examined in the branches he appeared unsatisfactory. When all is successfully accomplished he may be ordained Minister Verbi Deum! This ordination, D.V., we will discuss next time.
G. Vanden Berg