Persons who have not pursued the regular course of study shall not be admitted to the ministry unless there is assurance of their exceptional gifts of godliness, humility, modesty, good intellect, and discretion, as well as the gift of public speech.
When such persons present themselves for the ministry, classis, after the approval of regional synod, shall examine them in a preparatory examination and allow them to speak an edifying word in the Churches of the classis; and further deal with them as it shall deem edifying, with observance of the general ecclesiastical regulations adopted for this purpose.
When dealing with the question who may be declared eligible for call within the churches, we also mentioned those who “have been examined according to the rule described in Article 8.” This is the article we shall discuss now.
Again we see how the churches have agreed to be very careful when admitting persons into the ministry. Frequently the number of those seeking this admission according to Art. 8 increases when there are many vacancies in the churches or when, after a Reformation, the need for ministers is drastically increased all of a sudden.
Herein we may see the hand of the Lord who, in times of need, gives it into the hearts of men to seek the ministry to alleviate the need. On the other hand, there is always the possibility that some see a chance to come in by the back door without following the prescribed course of study.
In this article the churches acknowledge that it may please the Lord to adorn men with such special gifts and so to give these gifts apart from the normal course of study, that we would be guilty of gross neglect and ingratitude towards the Lord if we did not recognize what He bestows upon His people in these men. At the same time it is made clear that the churches must be very careful and should see to it that it becomes evident beyond doubt that in such a case we, indeed, do see such special gifts. All sorts of safeguards are to be observed.
In the days of the Reformation many of those who sought the ministry were men who had not followed a regular course of study. It was often extremely difficult to obtain the necessary instruction. Some went to Geneva or to Heidelberg, but these were about the only possibilities. Most of the European universities were in Roman Catholic hands, others were Lutheran. Besides, who had the financial means to go so far away for many years? Also after the Synod of Dordrecht 1618-1619, when many ministers who were Arminian disappeared or were deposed, there came a time during which many sought the ministry without having followed the prescribed course of study.
On purpose we put it this way: “the prescribed course of study.” In some circles it is deemed more desirable not to have followed a course of study than to have enjoyed this privilege. They consider persons who have followed the regular course to be on a lower level than the ones who — in their opinion — were “taught by the Spirit.”
We believe that the Holy Spirit uses the means that are available so that one may acquire the abilities and skills needed for a minister of the Word; we also believe that it is our duty to use these means. In general, we all are average people, and average people have to work the more diligently to fulfil the duties of their “office and calling,” as we express it in Lord’s Day 49 of our Catechism.
There is another point that we are to bear in mind here. No one should have the impression that those who present themselves according to Art. 8 have not studied at all and have arrived at this point without having done their best to acquire the abilities they possess. Nor should anyone be under the impression that, once these persons have been admitted, they no longer have to study, as if the Holy Spirit gives knowledge, insight, and ability by special revelation instead of in the way of hard work. Many of the ministers who entered the ministry without an academic education in the days of the Reformation and in later times applied themselves to serious study and are by dint of their diligent studies still known in the church for their valuable contribution towards its edification and preservation.
Art. 8 does not speak of persons who are admitted “without having studied,” but of men who have not followed the regular course of study.
The Way to Follow
How are they to seek entry into the ministry? First of all, they must have the desire to serve as a minister of the Gospel.
They should also ask themselves whether they should not try to follow the regular course of study and so reach their goal. The possibility mentioned in Art. 8 is certainly not an escape route enabling people to get around the required years of study.
One of the prerequisites would be that the desire is there, but that there would also be great hesitation to think of himself that he has special gifts that would make him eligible for admission according to this article. Is not one of the gifts that should be found with the brother the gift of being humble?
Then, one who is starting on this path should also examine himself to see whether he is trying to “squeeze in by the backdoor,” following what is considered a faster and easier way. If one is trying to do just that, and succeeds, the difficulties that arise will be innumerable and the whole undertaking will be a dismal failure.
Further, it is most likely that one is urged to seek admission according to Art. 8 by friends or brothers and sisters who are convinced of the presence of the gifts required. When one harbours the desire to serve as a minister, and when one has the necessary gifts, the desire will have been revealed in private discussions, and the gifts will have become evident to all who know
the brother, see his way of life, and observe his ability to grasp the meaning of the Scriptures by whose light he knows how to tell truth from lie and Scriptural doctrine from error. Thus the most likely course is that friends and brothers and sisters suggest to the brother that he apply for admission. He will follow their advice only after much hesitation and prayer for guidance.
The first step to be taken is that he approaches the consistory with the request for an attestation. This attestation, this testimony must be much more than a shallow, “as far as is known, brother A. is of sound doctrine and irreproachable conduct.” What is a broader assembly to do with that? Plainly nothing. Who are those able to give a sound testimony about the brother’s “godliness, humility, modesty”? Are they not those in whose midst he lives and works? Are they not those who have the oversight over him? A broader assembly certainly will receive an impression when a brother is examined. A picture will emerge in the course of the examination. It will become evident whether the brother fears the Lord from the heart, whether he is humble and whether he is modest; but is this impression and the conclusion based on it sufficient for such an important decision as is to be made on the brother’s request? It is a conclusion which will affect not only the brother's life but also the life of the churches! The deciding assembly will need a more solid basis than that.
If a brother has such exceptional gifts, they will have been noticed in the congregation and the congregation will have made use of them by calling him to the office of elder or deacon. There will be ample awareness among the brothers and sisters of the presence of the above-mentioned gifts. The church to which the brother belongs is the body which is to serve the broader assembly with the first assessment of the gifts with him.
The attestation, therefore, will be quite a lengthy document, giving ample information about the brother’s conversation among the brothers and sisters, about the judgment that the congregation has concerning him, about his participation in all sorts of activities, about his godliness, humility, and modesty. Briefly, it must be stated beyond doubt that, according to the judgment of the consistory and the congregation both, the required gifts are present.
No “neutral” description of the brother will do. No mere description of “facts” from which the broader assembly will have to draw its own conclusions will be acceptable. What is needed is a well-founded testimony from the church to which the brother belongs. A consistory is not allowed to shift the responsibility to the broader assemblies, although we realize that it may be a difficult decision to say “No” to a brother’s request when he is a member of the congregation or perhaps even an office-bearer. In so far it is “easier” for a broader assembly to do so, as its members will not be so close to the brother as his fellow-members of that particular congregation.
If, however, a brother is to be disappointed, it is better that it is done right away instead of first giving him hope that he will reach his goal.
The Next Step
What is the next step? There is no provision in our Church Order or in our general-synodical decisions which prescribes that the brother shall go
first to a classis to obtain a similar attestation, so that, armed with two favourable testimonials, he may present himself to a regional synod. Perhaps brothers who are quite regularly delegated to classes know the brother to some extent, which would facilitate matters slightly, but it is most doubtful whether a classis could add anything substantial that regional synod should know over and above the witness from the consistory.
Regional synod is the assembly where the examination takes place that will determine whether the special gifts are present to such an extent that the brother can be admitted to the classical examinations. Thus the brother asks the convening church for the next regional synod to pass on his request for examination. This regional synod is, of course, the one of the region in which he lives, not another one far, far away.
The gifts are in the first place godliness and humility. Although — as remarked above — a broader assembly is unable to judge these gifts in such a measure as is necessary and in this point is to go by the testimony of the consistory, yet a certain impression will be received and attention must certainly be paid to it. It could be that serious doubt arises about the correctness of the consistory's experience with the brother and the conclusion it has drawn from it.
Further there is the gift of modesty, of a conduct which shows a lifestyle that is in accordance with the self-control and decency which the Lord demands of us. It must also become evident that the brother has a good intellect, so that he is able to grasp things, especially the message of the Word of God. Discretion means that he is able to see through things and statements, separating what is the truth of God from what are the lies and deceptions of the evil one.
It has to be repeated that these gifts do not come by themselves but are the fruit of a special blessing given by the Lord upon faithful study, mainly though not solely or exclusively, of the Holy Scriptures. The only difference is that in this case the Lord gave these gifts apart from the regular course of study.
Public speech as a gift is mentioned last. In olden days the word “eloquence” was used. This does not mean that one is able to overwhelm his hearers by a cataract of words, or that everyone has to stand in awe and exclaim, “What a speaker!” A flood of words is certainly not proof of modesty, good intellect, discretion, or even “eloquence.” What is meant is that one can speak well, is able to formulate his thoughts well, has the capability of presenting things clearly, intelligibly, and concisely so that the hearers can grasp what he says and intends to convey. Someone who has to say repeatedly, “No, that is not what I meant to say, let me rephrase it” certainly does not have the gift mentioned here as necessary for admission.
Difficult as the examination may be for the brother who presents himself for it, it will be even more difficult for the assembly that is to conduct it. No rules can be given for it and no schedule can be designed for it. Each regional synod is free in its way of dealing with the brother’s request. Once someone remarked at a regional synod where such an examination took place, “How will people who are not exceptional ever be able to judge someone
who is?” However logical this may sound, there is a misunderstanding here. The question is not whether a brother is exceptional and leaves all the others far behind in this respect, but whether in this case the Holy Spirit has given these gifts that others may acquire and thus, indeed, receive as a gift, only in the long way of regular studies.
If regional synod comes to the conclusion that the gifts are not present in such measure that it can decide favourably upon the request, there is nothing the brother or a classis can do about it. He will not be forbidden to try again, although it is not something to gamble with in the hope that another regional synod will come to a different conclusion. It did happen that a brother moved to another place and then approached a regional synod of that province. It is difficult to see how a consistory there could give a well-founded testimony except after several years of having the brother in their midst.
Upon a favourable decision by regional synod the brother may approach the next classis with the request to be examined as a first step towards the ministry. This time the purpose of the examination is not to see whether the necessary gifts are present, but whether the brother has the necessary knowledge. We speak of only one examination: the preparatory examination. In the past there were two examinations: the one which gave the right to exhort, the other the (normal) preparatory examination.
In earlier times the exhorting was restricted to private gatherings, not extended to the congregation on Sundays. It was the intention that the candidates should have a period of training: their “propositions” were heard and discussed in private and submitted to the scrutiny of ministers. In this period the candidate also had the opportunity to study and so to prepare himself for the preparatory examination upon which he was declared eligible for call.
Our mentioning only one examination, the preparatory examination, does not imply that the candidate is immediately to be declared eligible for call when the outcome is favourable. In the first place, the permission to exhort is restricted to the classical area. In the second place, there is the provision that classis shall “further deal with him as it shall deem edifying.”
It is only logical that the examining classis appoints a few brothers to judge the sermon proposals and to receive reports from the churches so that they, in turn, can report to the next classis on the overall picture. Depending on the length of time the examining classis has set for a definitive decision, the final report will come after six or more months and may be expected to contain recommendations whether the brother can be declared eligible for call or has to do some more studying. In case he was told to do some more studying after his initial examination, a further examination will be necessary to see whether this additional study had the desired result. This new examination may or may not result in his being declared eligible for call.
The examination that the candidate has to undergo differs from the “regular” preparatory examination only in one point: no use or knowledge of Hebrew or Greek will be expected; as for the rest, the level is to be the same as in the case of candidates who have the documents mentioned in Art. 4. Once he has been declared eligible for call, the brother is in the same position as any other candidate.