The Office of Ministers of the Word
The specific duties of the office of minister of the Word are thoroughly and sincerely to proclaim to the congregation the Word of the Lord, administer the sacraments and publicly call upon the Name of God in behalf of the whole congregation; also to instruct the children of the Church in the doctrine of salvation, visit the members of the congregation in their homes, and comfort the sick with the Word of God; and further, together with the elders, to keep the Church of God in good order, exercise discipline, and govern the Church in such a manner as the Lord has ordained.
We speak of Ministers of the Word. That is the most beautiful title which can be given to the pastors and teachers of whom Scripture speaks in Eph. 4: 11. It is only a matter-of-course, we should say, that the description of the specific duties of their task begins with the proclamation of the Word. What we find here is only a description, not an exhaustive definition. A minister of the Word has been called to a specific task, a task that is different from the one of the other office-bearers. It is the specific character of that task which we describe here.
It must be stressed anew, this does not imply that the office of a minister of the Word is higher than that of an elder or a deacon. That it is (partly) different is only because of what a minister is called to do. Anyone who reads the Form for the Ordination (or Installation) of Ministers of the Word will discover that in our Church Order we more or less follow the description of the special duties of a minister's task as it is given in this Form.
When, in our Confession, we mention the marks of the true church, we state that actually there is only one mark: “In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head.” In like manner we could summarize all the specific duties of a minister in one brief sentence: “In short, he keeps watch over the flock of Christ with the staff of the Word.”
It may be helpful to dwell a little longer on what we have agreed upon in this article. Nowadays the stress is oftentimes put on different things. Sometimes one gets the impression that a Minister of the Word has all sorts of tasks except the proclamation of the Gospel. He is expected to conduct all sorts of courses and actions which have little or nothing to do with his primary duty. Frequently a minister is more of a social co-ordinator than a servant of the Word. Many who call themselves ministers or pastors seem to be more active in political movements and social actions than in bringing the
Gospel of salvation. And what they proclaim from their pulpits is most of the time political talk or moralistic drivel. They deal with topics and world problems, but neglect what is the only task of a minister: keeping watch over the flock with the staff of the Word.
When speaking of the “specific” duties of a minister we do not claim that this is all that can be said. In the Form mentioned above we speak more extensively about the ministerial task. On the other hand, no one should get the impression that a minister is bound hand and foot and that there is no room left for any initiative on his part.
The First Task
As the first task of the specific duties we mention: “thoroughly and sincerely to proclaim to the congregation the Word of the Lord.” Let us pay attention to the various elements of this sentence. In the first place, a minister is to proclaim the Word of God “thoroughly.” This refers not just to the preparation of the sermons to which he should dedicate a considerable time each week. It also refers to the comprehensive character of the proclamation. No part of the Scriptures should be neglected and no aspect of the Lord’s revelation may be left out. The “whole counsel of God” is to be proclaimed to the church.
A minister is free in the choice of a text for the sermon. The only thing he has to take into account is what the consistory may have decided regarding the “days of commemoration” of which we speak in Art. 53. We are not speaking of the “Catechism sermons.” Here a minister is bound to a certain schedule. For the morning services, however, we have no specific pattern, no weekly “lessons” that have to be observed so that every one knows beforehand which text will be explained.
Some ministers more of less follow an “ecclesiastical year,” but there are not very many who do so. It is a well-known fact that John Calvin explained whole books of Scripture in successive sermons or “lectures.” Such a method is to be preferred above a jumping back and forth from Genesis to Matthew, to Hosea, to the Revelation, to the Psalms. Taking successive texts from the same book compels the preacher to be very careful and precise in his exegesis; it prevents the congregation from saying, “We heard this all before for a couple of weeks already even though the text is different;” it forces the minister to abide by the text and not to wander all over in his sermon; and it gives the congregation a good picture of and insight into a whole book instead of learning about a text here, a passage there.
What is not absolutely necessary is that each and every book is taken in turn. A first requirement is that the minister himself have a good understanding of the message of the text. It would be irresponsible to come with a sermon on a text of which the preacher himself is not certain what it really means. Only when the preacher himself understands the meaning of a passage will he be able to make it clear to the congregation. When a sermon sounds very complicated and “learned,” the question is justified whether the speaker himself understands what he is talking about.
Ecclesiastical assemblies in the past sometimes felt urged to remind the preachers of the necessity of avoiding learned terms and complicated discourses and at times they even felt the need to state that a sermon should not be longer than an hour (!) so as not to tax the hearers’ endurance too severely. We should not give in to the modern trend that a service must be over in an hour, which leaves no more than twenty minutes at the most for the sermon. It should be remembered that the first thing we come together for is “to learn God’s Word,” as we confess in Lord’s Day 38. On the other hand, preachers should keep in mind that the capacity to retain what is being said is limited. They should also think of the children, who belong in the worship services as well. That they proclaim the Word of God “thoroughly” should result in a clear, simple, and concise sermon that can be followed by almost all.
The second part says that they are to do so “sincerely.” This means that no parts or aspects of the doctrine of Scripture shall be left out on purpose because, secretly, the preacher harbours doubts about it or does not like it. A minister certainly should not review the whole doctrine of the Scriptures in every nor in any sermon. If the Lord spares him and grants him a lengthy ministry, he will have ample time to pay sufficient attention to all its parts and elements. It would, however, not be proof of sincerity if, for instance, he never mentioned God’s gracious election because he has doubts about it and does not like to speak about it.
One goes wrong not only when propagating lies and errors, but also when keeping silent about certain aspects of the truth. As was the case with the apostle Paul, so a minister of the Word must be able to say, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God,” Acts 20: 26. Only then it can be said that he proclaimed the Word of God sincerely. In doing so, he will have to exercise caution as well.
If there are prevailing sins in the congregation, he will have to point out that these are forbidden by the Lord and he has to show what the obedience is which the Lord our God requires of us. Yet he should watch out and prevent that anyone in the congregation can say, “This sermon was clearly intended for brother A. or sister B.” A colleague of mine once advised me, if there were marriage problems in the congregation, to choose 1 Corinthians, taking a text from successive chapters, starting at chapter 1. “Then you will get to chapter 7, too,” he said, “and no one can say that you were aiming at certain people.” Some simple wisdom, that is worth remembering.
Sometimes a sermon is not received with a thankful heart, but there is criticism. What should be done if one is of the opinion that there were wrong elements in a sermon? A sermon is a public matter, and one would have the right to approach the consistory about it directly. It could be that a heresy of such scope was propagated that a member has to ask the consistory to take action immediately to have the damage repaired and to prevent a repetition. Usually, however, the situation will not be all that serious. But what would the proper course of action be in such a case?
There is a possibility of having heard wrong, or of having misunderstood what was being said. It could also be that the preacher made a mistake and,
unwittingly, said something he did not intend to say at all, and so forth. Let us, for our mutual edification, listen to what was decided in Antwerp in 1576: “If someone has misunderstood any sentence of the minister in the preaching of God's Word or cannot grasp it sufficiently, he shall be bound to let himself be informed better by an elder or deacon; and if he cannot be satisfied by their answer, he has to approach the minister himself for more light. Every one who, without letting himself be informed, talks about it with someone else, shall according to the ecclesiastical discipline be punished as a slanderer in a manner as the consistory shall decide.”
In this connection we have to pay attention to what is to be done when no minister is available and a sermon has to be read by someone. It is clear that only such sermons may be read as have been prepared by our own ministers or by ministers in our sister churches. No one who is not allowed to appear in the pulpit in person may appear there by way of the printed word.
Who would be allowed to conduct such a service? Usually it is an elder who does so. The consistory is also permitted to appoint someone else to this task. Anyone who does so, conducts a service having been appointed by the consistory. With such appointment a consistory will take into account someone's ability to speak clearly, and to read in such a manner that the message is conveyed to the edification of the congregation. Not all elders necessarily have to take turns. Frequently brothers ask to be excused because their voice is not strong enough or because they are too nervous to read, or for some other reason. If would not be wise if a consistory insisted on all brothers taking their turn regardless of their ability.
A question that has received quite some attention is whether an elder would be permitted to use “you” in the benediction or has to substitute “us” for it. This is not the place to elaborate on the arguments pro and con. May it suffice to say that the arguments in favour of “you” appear stronger and more convincing. When a brother reads a prepared sermon, the Word of the Lord comes therein authoritatively to the congregation. Would such be less the case when he quotes the benediction directly and literally from God’s Word?
Another question is whether a reader is allowed to change anything in a prepared sermon. It all depends. When there are anachronisms or illiteracies in a sermon, or when streets and places are mentioned that make no sense to the hearers because they are not familiar with them, it will only be wise to have these things changed. But no new elements may be added, however, or parts left out because the reader disagrees with them. If he cannot read a particular sermon with a good conscience, he should choose another one.
As for the prayer, one could ask whether the reader is permitted to prepare a prayer of his own or has to use the collects which we find in our Book of Praise. In answer to this question, it appears proper that, if a non-office-bearer is asked to conduct a service, he uses the collects, whereas an office-bearer would have the freedom to use his own wording.
Article 21 deals with those who have received permission “to speak an edifying word” or who may “exhort in the worship services.” We shall therefore not speak about them here. In olden days there were sometimes brothers who had received the right to “exhort.” They were not office-bearers, but their ability to speak God's Word so that others were edified by it was such that they were permitted to conduct services and to prepare their own messages. In Dutch they were called “oefenaars.” It was especially in times when the number of ministers was small that the churches made use of such brothers. Several of them served with honour and to the edification of God’s people. Yet this whole phenomenon was more or less an emergency measure because there were not enough ministers and the number of suitable printed sermons was limited as well.
Administer the Sacraments
Since the ministry of the Word has been entrusted to the minister, he is also the one who is to administer the sacraments. This is another of his specific duties. At times the question is raised whether not an elder would have the right to administer the sacraments. In the past this question usually came to the fore when a church did not have a minister in its midst for a very long time with the result that baptism was not administered to children that had been born and that no celebration of the Lord’s Supper took place. With some exceptions, the answer was negative and this not because the office of a minister is supposed to be of higher order than that of an elder but — as we say in the Form — “because Christ has joined this administration to the preaching of the Gospel.”
Being the person who has received the specific task to preach the Word of God, he is also the one who is to administer the signs and seals that the Lord has added to His Word “to seal His promises to us and to be pledges of His good will and grace towards us.”
The minister of the Word is also the one who, as the mouth of the congregation, calls upon the Lord in the public worship service. He does so on behalf and in behalf of the whole congregation.
We would not have dedicated a special section to this task, were it not that it appears not always to be clear that the prayer is a speaking on behalf and in behalf of the flock. Sometimes a public prayer was nothing but an announcement beforehand of what the sermon would be, or a repetition of the sermon just heard. This should be avoided. Another thing that should be avoided as well is that the congregation is informed via the prayer of certain things that have happened or are going to happen in its midst. The congregation should not learn via the prayer that brother and sister A. received a baby girl from the Lord, or that sister B. has to undergo surgery this week, or that brother C. was involved in a serious accident this past week but, thanks to the Lord, received nothing but a few scratches.
It is good when brothers and sisters are remembered by name in the
public prayers, but when this is done, the congregation should be told before the prayer who all will be remembered by name and for what reason. In this manner the congregation will not be startled or kept guessing, and the prayer becomes more specific.
Since offering up a prayer on behalf and in behalf of the congregation is a serious matter, no minister should improvise in this part of his service either. Before he begins the public prayer, he should have prepared it, at least mentally, so that he does not just ramble on, but knows beforehand what should be mentioned in this particular prayer.
However strange it may sound to some, there is nothing against preparing and writing down a prayer beforehand. This may sound like heresy to those who advocate the “spontaneous prayer,” but it appears to be more in the line of our forefathers with their collects, and of the apostle Paul who wanted to pray “with his whole mind.” Improvising before the Most High God is not a thing to be advocated. Finally, it would be totally wrong if prayer were abused to admonish certain members. If this is done, we are certain that the Lord stops His ears to such impious talk. In our prayer we are speaking to the Lord, and then as the mouth of the whole congregation. It is a responsible task.
Teach the Youth
Instructing the children of the church in the doctrine of salvation is also one of the specific duties of the minister of the Word. In the Form for the Ordination (Installation) we say that “he shall teach the Word of God to the youth of the church and to others whom God calls, for the holy Scriptures are able to instruct them for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.”
The task of the minister of the Word is not to teach the youth of the church all sorts of theories or a particular theology, but the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures. The church has summarized this doctrine in her confessional formulas. Thus the confessions of the church are to be taught in such a manner that the boys and girls of the church learn that these have been taken from God’s Word. They are not to learn how to prove the truth of the Scriptures with the help of the confessions of the church, but to prove the correctness of the confessions from God's own Word.
At the same time it is the duty of the ministers to “expose all errors and heresies as unfruitful works of darkness.” There is ample opportunity to draw upon the history of Christ’s church so that the young people become aware of their position in the church of the Lord which He has preserved and defended throughout the centuries by the power of the Holy Spirit.
A minister of the Word should take also this work seriously and not easily give part of it into the hands of others. It is his specific duty to teach the youth of the church. The parents promised at the baptismal font to have their children instructed in the doctrine of salvation. It is not the duty of elders or of special catechists.
Depending on the size of the congregation, and taking into account that the various classes should not be too large, it would be safe to say that on the average two evenings per week are taken up by this part of the work. By
means of this instruction the youth of the church are instructed and armed for the battle and forewarned regarding the various false teachings with which they may come into contact. The sword is still the Word of God and faith is still the shield.
Visit and Comfort
It would be a sad situation if a member visited the minister or met him somewhere and the minister did not know who this person was. It would show that the pastor and teacher was seriously remiss in his obligation to visit the members, to become acquainted with them and their life, their struggles and their joys. We are not referring now to the impossible situation where one minister saw one thousand or more members entrusted into his care. Only visiting those who were ill or had special difficulties would already more than occupy his time available for visits. In a normal-size congregation, however, a minister should be able to acquaint himself with the families and their condition.
No one can expect him to sense it when someone is ill or when there are special difficulties. It is the duty of the members to inform the minister if they like him to pay a visit, as much as it is his specific duty to visit them. Already in 1568 it was stated that “all who are bed-ridden because of illness shall inform the minister of their illness through the elders and the deacons.”
No one should expect a minister to read from the Scriptures or to pray with the member every time. It is relevant here to quote from a decision taken in 1574: “It is also the task of the ministers, if this is necessary, to call upon the Name of the Lord at the bedside of those who are ill.” Note: “if this is necessary.” Much will depend on the circumstances and the course of the conversation. A minister is no “prayer-dispensatory.”
When there are many members who are ill and when there is an abundance of other work, it may be necessary to ask the elders to assist in visiting the sick, as long as it is kept in mind that these visits belong to the specific duties of the minister. In olden days it happened often that special “comforters of the sick” were appointed, mainly for the work in institutions or aboard ships. Such practice was not encouraged as it tended to obscure the fact that it was the task of the minister to pay these visits wherever they were needed.
With the Elders
In the form for the Ordination (Installation) we speak more amply about the duties of the minister together with the elders to keep the church of God in good order. This is done by supervising both the doctrine and the life of the membership. There is nothing in the life of the membership that is exempt from such supervision.
This does not mean that the ministers, together with the elders, shall pry into all sorts of private matters of the membership. It does mean that they shall watch over the flock and see to it that the whole doctrine and the daily conduct of the members testify to keeping the covenant of the Lord and to obeying His will for our lives.
It should be noted that what we mention in the last part of this article is a task to be fulfilled together with the elders. A minister of the Word may have a special place in the midst of the congregation, but this does not make him the sole person responsible for keeping the church of God in good order or to govern it. He is only one among so many.