The Necessity of the Lawful Call to the Ministry

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

“No one, though he be a professor of theology, elder, or deacon, shall be permitted to enter upon the ministry of the Word and the sacraments without having been lawfully called thereunto. And when anyone acts contrary thereto, and after being frequently admonished does not desist, the classis shall judge whether he is to be declared a schismatic or is to be punished in some other way.” Church Order, Article 3.

The Importance of this Article

Article 3 begins the treatment by the Church Order of the office of the ministry of the Word. This discussion will extend from Articles 3-17. Article 3 is introductory and emphasizes the necessity of the lawful call of the minister of the gospel. Article 4 will describe the nature of the lawful call. Subsequent articles will deal with various questions regarding the office of the minister: his work, his removal to another congregation, his support, his emeritation from office, etc.

This article has special application today when the importance of the lawful call is ignored or denied. There are many who set themselves up as independent evangelists, whose ministry stands altogether apart from the instituted church. These men are not called and sent out by the church, and are not under the supervision of the church. This multiplication of independent, self-appointed evangelists has been a plague on the church. On the other hand, in some circles, it is not uncommon that laymen horn time to time carry out the duties that rightfully belong to the office of the ministry, even though they have not been called and ordained to this office. It is urgent, therefore, that the churches be reminded of the Biblical truth expressed in this third article of our Church Order.

Although Article 3 is directed especially against those who intrude themselves into the office of the ministry, by implication the article is also directed against all who enter the office unlawfully, as not called by Christ. Condemned is the sin of simony, the buying and selling of church office. This practice was common in the Roman Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation, a practice abhorrent to the Reformed churches. Condemned is all entering of the office by force, bribery, or deception. Condemned are all those who seek the office for reasons of personal ambition, rather than out of the desire to be a servant and spokesman of Jesus Christ.

A note should be made about the mention of the professor of theology in this article: “No one, though he be a professor of theology . . . shall be permitted to enter upon the ministry of the Word and the sacraments without having been lawfully called thereunto.” This article was written out of the historical context of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands where the professors in the universities were appointed by the State and were for the most part unordained men. This provision of Article 3 has no direct application to us, since our professors are already ordained men.

The History of Article 3

Article 3 addresses a problem that arose shortly after the introduction of the Reformation into the Lowlands. At the time of the Reformation, many clergy left the Roman Catholic Church and became itinerant, self-appointed preachers. These men often intruded upon the labors and congregations of those who had been lawfully called. Besides these itinerant preachers, there were also the Anabaptist preachers who traveled from city to city, without a fixed charge, and for the most part without any formal training.

Besides the problem with the itinerant preachers, there was also often confusion over the distinct labors of the ministry. Although many agreed that the itinerant preachers should not be permitted to assume the labors of the ministry, they were willing to allow especially the elders to administer the Word and the sacraments. That elders were administering the sacrament of baptism is evident from questions concerning this practice that were forwarded to some of the early synods. To the Synod of Dordrecht, 1578, the question was directed whether baptism administered by a private person or an elder should be recognized as a valid baptism.

As far as the specific history of Article 3 is concerned, one of the first Reformed synods to insist on the necessity of the lawful call to the ministry was the Synod of Tours, 1563. The Synod of Wezel, 1568, passed the resolution that, “. . . it is very necessary that no one is admitted to the ministry of the Word of God or to any other ecclesiastical office without a lawful calling, election, approbation, proper examination, and lawful order.” The Synod of Emden, 1571, ruled that no one, though he be a professor of theology, elder, or deacon, shall be permitted to enter the ministry of the Word and sacraments without having been lawfully called. The Synod of Dordrecht, 1574, ruled that the classis should twice call intruders to account, and in the event they refused to desist, should expose them and issue warning against them to the other classes as schismatics. This synod even went so far as to petition the civil magistrates to charge the police to bar from church pulpits all who could not produce valid credentials proving they had been lawfully called. The Synod of Dordrecht, 1578, affirmed the decisions of the Synod of 1574. The wording of our present article is the work of the Synod of Middelburg, 1581.

Scripture’s Teaching Concerning the Necessity of the Lawful Call

Already in the Old Testament the necessity of the lawful call to office is emphasized. Prophets, priests, and kings were directly appointed by God. The authority in which the prophets came to Israel rested on the fact that God lad called and sent them. “Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me,” Isaiah 6:8. “And the Lord took me as I followed the flock, and the Lord said unto me, Go, prophesy unto my people Israel,” Amos 7:15. Those who had not been sent and called by God were condemned as false prophets and usurpers. “I nave not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied,” Jeremiah 23:21.

The New Testament continues to demonstrate the importance of the lawful call to the ministry. The apostles were called and sent out directly by Christ. Time and again the Apostle Paul emphasizes that he is an apostle by the will of God, I Cor. 1:1II Cor. 1:2Eph. 1:1Romans 10:15 is important with respect to the necessity of the lawful call: “And how shall they preach, except they be sent?” Hebrews 5:4 is also relevant: “And no man taketh this honor unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron.” Other passages of Scripture may be consulted: Matthew 9:38;John 10:1, 2Acts 20:28I Corinthians 12:28; and Ephesians 4:11.

The crucial point in connection with the lawful call in the New Testament is that God issues the lawful call through the church herself. This is the teaching of the Books of Acts. According to Acts 1:23, “And they (that is, the members of the church) appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias.” Acts 6 records the calling to office of the first deacons in the New Testament church. What is significant is that these men were chosen and called to office by the election of the church. The opening verses of Acts 13 record the Spirit’s separation of Paul and Barnabas to be the first missionaries. Although separated by the Spirit, Paul and Barnabas were appointed and sent out by the congregation at Antioch. It is significant that at the conclusion of each missionary journey, Paul always reported back to the congregation at Antioch. II Corinthians 8:19 speaks of Titus “who was also chosen of the churches” to labor with Paul. In II Timothy 4:14 Paul reminds Timothy that he had been put into office “with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery (elders).”

The insistence of our Church Order on the necessity of the lawful calling of the minister of the gospel, as well as its insistence in subsequent articles that the lawful call consists of the call by the church, is based squarely on the teaching of the Scriptures.

Violaters to be Dealt With

Article 3 not only insists on the necessity of the lawful call, but also prescribes the manner in which violators are to be dealt with: “And when anyone acts contrary thereto, and after being frequently admonished does not desist, the classis shall judge whether he is to be declared a schismatic or is to be punished in some other way.”

By mentioning specifically the classis, the article does not intend to overlook the responsibility of the local consistory. Discipline always begins at the local level. Certainly consistories must take action against those who attempt to intrude into the office of the ministry.

Article 3, however, is concerned with the climax of the treatment of violators, if they stubbornly refuse to desist. First, they are to be publicly exposed and admonished. Discipline always begins with admonition. If those involved continue, they are to be denounced publicly as schismatics, excommunicated from the church, and all the classes warned against them. In the event that a particular congregation refuses to recognize the action of the classis, they also are to be dealt with.

Those serving in the ministry of the Word must be lawfully called to their office. No one may intrude himself into the office. This is decency and good order in the church of Jesus Christ.