The Lawful Calling

Ronald L. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.

“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.”Church Order, Article 4.

Internal-External Call

Article 4 deals with the lawful call to the ministry of the gospel. Strictly speaking, the article concerns itself with the call to the ministry of the Word. Nevertheless, there are important principles set forth that apply to the calling to any office in the church.

The call to office is usually distinguished as the external call and the internal call.

The internal call refers to the inward, personal conviction of a man that he has been called by God to the office of the ministry of the gospel. The internal call would include such things as: a desire to serve Christ in the office; love for the church of Christ and the desire to serve the church; the possession of the necessary gifts for the ministry; the available means to be able to pursue preparation for the ministry.

The external call refers to the objective call of a man by the church to serve that congregation in the office of the ministry of the Word. It is with the external call that Article 4 is concerned. In this article the Church Order declares that no one may enter upon the ministry apart from the lawful call by the church.

There is a very close relationship between the external and the internal call. They belong together and are to be considered as the two aspects of the one call of God. In order to be called of God, a man must be called both internally and externally. A man called to office by God never has only one aspect of the call. One who has been genuinely called by God internally will also eventually receive the external call. A man who is never called externally by the church never had the internal call, although he may have supposed that he did.

Although the internal call and the external call are closely related, it is the external call that is decisive. This is the point of Article 4. This is so, first of all, because this is the seal of God upon the internal call. And this is so, secondly, because only those who have been called externally by the church may be permitted to take up the actual work that belongs to the ministry of the gospel.

In connection with the external call, what must be emphasized is that the external call constitutes the call to office from God. Only God calls and appoints to office in the church. But a fundamental principle of Reformed church polity is that God does this through the call of the church. The call from the church is to be regarded, not only by the one to whom that call comes, but also by the church that extends the call, as the call of God Himself. This truth is emphasized in the very first question that is asked of those being ordained into the ministry: “First, I ask thee, whether thou feelest in thy heart that thou art lawfully called of God’s Church, and therefore of God Himself, to this holy ministry?” (Form Of Ordination Of Ministers Of God’s Word)

Election to Office

Article 4 indicates that four distinct elements make up the lawful call: election, examination, approbation, and ordination.

Various methods of election have been used in the past by Reformed churches:

a) Election by the consistory with approbation by the congregation.

b) Election by the consistory without the approbation of the congregation.

c) Election by the consistory from a nomination made by the congregation.

d) Election by the congregation from a nomination made by the consistory.

e) Election by the consistory with the approbation of the civil magistrate.

f) A free election on the part of the congregation.

Two methods of election are specifically sanctioned by Article 4: election by the consistory with the approbation by the congregation of the one elected, or election by the congregation from a nomination made by the consistory. This last method is mentioned as a possibility in that part of the article which deals with “approbation.”

Article 4 does justice to two important principles that govern the calling of officebearers in a Reformed church. The first principle is that the consistory, as the overseers of the congregation, is to supervise the appointment of officebearers. Van Dellen and Monsma state’: “. . . the Bible attributes a guiding control over elections and power of appointment to the officebearers.” (The Church Order Commentary, p. 24)

The Scriptures certainly support this position. In Acts 6:3, in connection with the appointment of the first deacons, the apostles state “. . . whom we may appoint over this business.” In Acts 14:23 we read about Paul and Barnabas that “. . . they (had) appointed for them elders in every church . . . .” Paul exhorts Titus in Titus 1:5 to “. . . appoint elders in every city as I gave thee charge.” Very clearly the Scriptures teach that part of the government of the church entrusted to the, elders is their oversight of the election of officebearers, particularly the ministers of the gospel.

At the same time, Article 4 safeguards a second important principle of Reformed church polity. That principle is the right of the congregation to have a voice in electing and approving of her own officebearers. In the Reformed system of church government, the congregation participates in the appointment of officebearers. Here, too, the teaching of Scripture is clear. In Acts 1:23 the 120 believers, as a body, participated in appointing a successor to Judas Iscariot. In Acts 6:1-7 the congregation at Jerusalem chose the first seven deacons. In II Corinthians 8:19 Paul speaks of Titus as having been “. . . chosen of the churches to travel with us . . . .”

The Preferred Method of Election

As far as the preferable method of election, the method of election by the congregation from a nomination presented by the consistory is to be preferred. This was the method advanced by Calvin. This is the method commonly followed in our own churches. Of the two methods permitted by Article 4, this method does the most justice to the right of participation by the members of the congregation.

In its prescriptions for the election of a minister, theChurch Order especially opposes “free elections.” This practice is becoming increasingly accepted in Reformed churches today. But this practice is expressly contrary to the Church Order. This practice is to be condemned because it ignores the responsibility of the consistory with regard to the election of officebearers. Wm. Heyns states:

It is especially in open defiance of the Church Order and contrary to the Word of God, when in a Reformed Church office-bearers are elected by ‘free ballot’ of the people. Such may be considered the right way in the Churches of the Independents, or wherever the opinion prevails that the government of the Church belongs to the people, but there is no room for it in a Reformed Church. (Handbook For Elders And Deacons, p. 77)

In this part of the fourth article, mention is made of certain “regulations established by the consistory” for the actual election. The reference of the article is to purely local regulations which each consistory might adopt as it sees fit in order to facilitate a smooth election process and to assure that all things are done decently and in good order. Such regulations might include the following: that a majority consists of over half; that a majority consists of a majority of the total number of votes cast, blank votes and votes for persons not on nomination being subtracted from the total number of ballots; that in case more nominees than are needed for the office receive a majority of votes cast, those with the highest majorities shall be elected; that election of officebearers shall be done by secret ballot; that absentee or proxy votes shall be received on the first ballot only.