To ward off false doctrine and errors which could enter the congregation and constitute a danger to the purity of its doctrine or conduct, the ministers and elders shall use the means of instruction, of refutation, of warning, and of admonition, in the ministry of the Word as well as in Christian teaching and family visiting.
It would be very interesting to go into the original text of what is now Article 27. The provision as we have it now is a remnant or a distant cousin of what originally was Article 55 and dealt with the printing of books. No one, it said, belonging to the Reformed religion shall have any book, whether original or translated by him, printed without prior ecclesiastical approval. But from the outset it has been our practice in this Guide to refrain as much as possible from giving historical particulars, although the historical background is always kept in mind.
Also the original version of this provision brought to light the concern of the churches for the purity of doctrine and the sanctity of life. It is this concern that is still the main element in our present Article 27. To a large extent we should concern ourselves even more with it in our days than the brothers some four hundred years ago.
The number of books that were printed was relatively small and many people could not afford them. The danger was always there, though, and our forefathers were alert to it. Was not the Reformation of the church prepared and promoted for the larger part by the spreading of Luther’s writings and of those of the other Reformers? Were not, for example, his ninety-five theses known all over Europe in an amazingly short time? The same happened with heretical writings, such as books by the Anabaptists and, later on, by Arminianists and followers of Spinoza and other philosophers.
When our forefathers tried to have the printing and distribution of heretical books forbidden and prevented, they continued a practice found in the church already before the Reformation. Books listed on the “Index” were forbidden to church members and, if found, would be destroyed. When “heretical” writings were found, their possessors could even lose their life.
In addition to the question whether forbidding the printing of books without prior ecclesiastical approval was the proper way of dealing with the matter of watchfulness, there was also the refusal of the civil authorities to cooperate and to comply with the wishes of the churches. The whole provision had little lasting effect.
Should a member of a church have a book published in which deviating and heretical statements and teachings are propagated, the consistory of that church has the duty to admonish him. They must try to convince him of his errors and bring him to renouncing these errors, although the damage
might have been done by getting the book published. But what we concentrate on in our present Article 27 is the congregation and the care that the office-bearers are to bestow upon the flock in this respect.
Not only are the office-bearers themselves to abide by and to uphold the true doctrine, Art. 26, they must also do what is in their power to keep and preserve the congregation with the purity of doctrine and the sanctity of conduct, Art. 27.
Whoever visits a big-city library or browses through a large bookstore which offers either new or used books, will be astounded at the number of books available to the general public. To this number are added yearly countless titles, far too many for one person to read during his lifetime. We then do not even take into account the almost innumerable periodicals, dailies, weeklies, bi-weeklies, or monthlies which are for sale. To this medium have to be added the media of radio, television, video recorders and movies available on cassette. Even to the superficial observer it is obvious that the purity of doctrine and the sanctity of life are threatened in an overwhelming way, in a manner which even in their worst expectations our forefathers could not have envisioned.
What is the obligation of the office-bearers with respect to this serious threat? In the first place they are to be aware of what is going on around us.They definitely are not required to read the heretical or immoral publications which appear on the scene, but they are to be aware of them and to warn against them. One does not have to have committed a certain sin in order to be able to warn against it and to admonish one who has committed it or to tell others why it is a sin. Especially because sin is so openly committed and propagated in our days, we all know what is going on and what is wrong with it. The Lord speaks clearly in His Word, revealing His will.
In the proclamation of the Word the minister of the Gospel reaches the whole congregation. Thus the worship services are the first opportunity where words or warning and instruction are spoken. A sermon should not be a journal, displaying the fact that the minister did read last week’s papers and listened to news broadcasts. It would be pretty cheap if a minister contented himself with just mentioning things going on in the world around us and doing so week after week or at least regularly. This may create the impression that he is “up to date,” but it does not satisfy and the congregation soon gets jaded by it. They don’t even hear it any longer.
When a minister proclaims the Gospel, he will analyze what is in and behind the iniquity and filthiness around us and so provide the congregation with a basic, not an incidental defense. Sound instruction in the truth of God is a better weapon and instrument in the spiritual warfare than a rather graphic description of the sins and dangers surrounding us.
Catechism classes, too, are the place to expound the true doctrine of the Gospel, to expose the fallacies of false doctrines, and to show why we are to refrain from a lifestyle which does not carry the stamp of our Master’s approval. The possibility of answering questions and of taking away objections from the students enhances the opportunities which the teacher has.
The family visits provide the elders with an excellent opportunity to meet the family and family members on their “home ground,” so to speak. Remembering their obligation to warn against and ward off all threats to the purity of doctrine and the sanctity of life, they will also look around to get a picture of the way in which the family organizes its daily life. Are all the chairs arranged so that the television set is in the center? Are there any books which show that the family is trying to enrich itself spiritually? What kind of books do they have? What kind of periodicals can be discovered? Is there a video-recorder/player? These are only a few of the points to which the office-bearers will have to pay attention.
At one time one of the questions asked at family visits was whether the family subscribed to any newspaper and, if so, whether it was a Christian daily or a so-called “neutral” daily. Such a question would not be applicable in our situation, but the office-bearers most certainly should ask what the family members, also the children, are reading; whether the parents are aware of what their children are reading; whether they read anything that might possibly pollute their mind or conduct; what they are watching — if they have a television set and additional equipment —; what kind of cassettes they rent and how much time they are spending on watching the screen. All these things belong to the “means of instruction, of refutation, of warning, and of admonition.”
It goes without saying that fulfilling this part of the obligations requires much study on the part of the office-bearers, not only of the minister, but also of the elders in particular. Usually the consistories provide their minister with a certain allowance that enables him to purchase books and periodicals needed for the execution of his office. In the case of the elders this would not be feasible, as they leave office when their term has expired and they are replaced by others, which would bring with it the necessity of purchasing perhaps the same works again so as to enable the new office-bearers to equip themselves for their task. For this reason it is an excellent thing to set up a reference library for the office-bearers from which they could borrow as the need arises. An index or filing system on this library would facilitate its use and improve its usefulness.