“No minister shall be at liberty to serve in institutions of mercy or otherwise, unless he be previously admitted in accordance with the preceding articles, and he shall, no less than others, be subject to the church order.” Article 6
Although on the surface this article of the church order may not appear to be very important and the subject treated here perhaps does not readily arouse your interest, yet, a closer analysis of its content will show that it expresses a fundamental principle of Reformed Church Polity that is more and more being disregarded in our day to the detriment of the church. What is more, the implications of this article have a far broader practical scope than we may realize and effects each of us ecclesiastically or otherwise.
The negative tenant of this article is an aversion to an error of the Romanists which made its inroads into the churches of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. According to this error the authority of the office of the ministry is vested in the person of the priest or minister. This is a serious error that has its ultimate fruit in sacrilege and idolatry. The fact that an article appears in our church order against it by no means implies that we are entirely freed from it. Remnants of it are still sometimes found in modified forms among Reformed people who in their practical thinking and attitudes fail to distinguish properly between the minister, the ministry, and the church. Even in our own churches we have seen evidences of this error when throughout our present struggle to maintain the truth we find people who either out of sentiment or ignorance seek to sustain the minister instead of the ministry. They defend the man rather than the holy office. These are ignorant of the issues at stake and when they are confronted by other members of the church who are better posted than they and who present to them the truth of the matter, they reply to all argumentation with the foolish retort: “I don’t believe it anyway because dominee says it differently.” The assumption in this sort of argumentation is that the person of the dominee is vested with the authority of the holy office and must, therefore, be endowed with some form of infallibility!
Contradicting this error the sixth article of our church order correctly avers that the authority of the office of the minister reposes in the local church. Out of this principle the rule is deduced that no one has the liberty to function as minister of the Word except those who have been lawfully called and ordained by the church and are subject to the articles of the church order, or in the words of Dr. H. Bouwman:
“Dit artikel gaat uit van de gedachte, dat niemand kerkedienst kan vervullen zonder wettige roeping en zonder verband met de plaatselijke kerk. (Underscore mine, G.V.). De regel van de beroeping volgens Arts. 3-5 geldt ook voor de predikanten in particuliere heerlijkheden, gasthuizen, enz.”
From this it then follows that all true ministry of the Word can proceed only from the instituted church. The minister can function only upon its authority and the church in turn has its authority from none other than Christ Himself who commissioned her “to preach the word, etc.” Maintaining this principle it soon becomes evident that a great deal of that which in our days poses as “true ministry” cannot be regarded as such. Rankest among such would be gospel preaching is the work of modern revivals and evangelism.
The sixth article of our church order, however, does not have this particular phase in mind but rather applies this principle to the work of the minister who serves in institutions of mercy in particular. It also adds “and otherwise” indicating that the hospital pastor is not the only one effected by this rule. To these may also be added in our present times the ministers who assume instructors positions in the Christian schools, college presidents and professors, etc. The question is whether or not these may retain a ministerial status while engaged in such labors to which the article replies that they cannot unless they are properly called by a local church according to the preceding rules of the church order.
The historical occasion of this article sheds some light upon the necessity of such a ruling. The original redaction of the article was somewhat different from our present revised rendering. It reads as follows:
“Persons engaged in the ministry of the Word in the mansion of any ruler or baron shall be properly and lawfully called as the others, subscribe to the Confessions and the Church Order, and appoint the ablest of the group they serve to the offices of elder and deacon.”
The occasion then of the adoption of this rule was the practice of the early Reformation days in which the feudal lords appointed house pastors to minister in their estates and rulers appointed court pastors.
The latter practice was begun by Prince William I and, perhaps, was the direct occasion for the adoption of the above cited rule. These pastors who were appointed by barons and rulers and who were not lawfully called by the church would not have recognition in the Reformed Churches. And this was necessary to safe guard against the error of Rome which vests the authority of the ministry in men and to maintain the truth that this authority rests only in the church.
In 1578 the Synod of Dordrecht expressed itself as cited before. This is rather interesting because the ruling then adopted indicates that the Synod was well aware of the fact that if such a court pastor or family minister was to have an ecclesiastical status, the group to which he ministered would have to be instituted as the church. Elders and deacons must be appointed. Subscription to the Confessions and church order must be made. There must be the ruling as well as the teaching ministry. Where the church is not properly instituted the minister could not possibly function in an official capacity because the right to do so does not inhere in him or in any man, but in the divinely instituted offices of the church. This is rather pointedly demonstrated in Judges 18 when there was no king in Israel and everyone did as seemed good in his own eyes with the result that the priesthood and ministry were shamefully corrupted.
That this ruling of the Synod was not without error is also rather apparent. According to it the minister was to appoint from the constituency of the group he served some of the ablest men to the office of elder and deacon. This is in conflict with the rule of Reformed Church expressed in previous articles of the church order according to which the elders and deacons are to be chosen and called through the church. Nevertheless, already here the sound principle was recognized that ecclesiastical work can proceed only from the instituted church. If this principle were understood and practiced today the revisions in missionary labor by many Reformed Churches would be very great. It appears as though this is but another of many sound and fundamental principles which form a large segment of the nominal Reformed Church has already passed into oblivion.
The present application of this article is to the hospital pastor or one who labors in an institution of mercy. Because the latter is not an organized church, does it follow that such a minister looses his ecclesiastical status and that all his work in such an institution cannot bear an official stamp? This is evidently not the intention of the article. The article points in another direction. It only states that the minister engaged in that sort of work must be called, etc. by the local church. The patients in the hospital do not constitute the church but rather they are members of a local congregation. This church in turn calls a pastor to minister exclusively to their spiritual needs. He is then placed under the care and supervision of that particular consistory and to her he gives account of his labors. Should he prove himself to be unworthy of his labors, the same consistory would be compelled to remove him from his office. Thus in 1918 the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches ruled on this point in Art. 37 of the Acta as follows:
“Spiritual Advisors for Institutions shall be called by a neighboring church in consultation with the respective Boards.”
It is the view of the undersigned that this sort of ruling cannot be applied to those who assume the position of instructor in Christian day schools or colleges. Just because one is engaged in the work of teaching Bible does not imply that he thereby has the right to retain a ministerial status. The instruction in the school is in its very nature non-ecclesiastical as long as the school itself is non-parochial. The teacher in the school is not engaged in preaching the word. When one, therefore, accepts such a worthy position, he is no longer engaged in the work of the ministry but has entered upon a new vocation and should relinquish his right to administer the word and sacraments until he is called anew into the ministry. If this right is to be retained he must either receive an associate pastorate or a status of emeritation in one of the local churches. Then, however, he is not minister by virtue of his position of instructor in the school or college but rather by virtue of the office in the church.
G. Vanden Berg