Bound for Life
Inasmuch as a minister of the Word, once lawfully called, is bound to the service of the Church for life, he is not allowed to enter upon another vocation unless it be for exceptional and substantial reasons, of which the consistory with the deacons shall judge, and which shall receive the approval of classis with the concurring advice of deputies of regional synod.
It is of utmost importance that we read and understand well what is provided in this article. Superficial reading and taking the article out of the framework of the Church Order might give the impression that we do adhere to a certain “ministry-for-life,” no matter what happens. Do we not speak of a lifelong bond to “the service of the church?” We do, indeed. However, what is meant by “the church?” Is that a vague entity, denoting something like a “clergy status?” Is this a world-wide or even country-wide body, or a general concept of “the church” as an invisible phenomenon? (pardon the apparent contradiction in terms.) Such an interpretation and understanding of the term would conflict totally with the whole line and character of our Church Order and of the Reformed concept of church polity.
When a candidate for the ministry is ordained and thus gains entrance into the ministry, he does not become a minister of the churches in general, of “the church” as an indeterminate concept, but of one particular church. By virtue of the bond of the federation he is then allowed — upon request — also to do the work of a minister in the other churches of the federation, but this does not mean that he is a minister of all the churches together of the federation. He is and remains the minister of the one church alone. To that particular church he is bound for as long as he lives. That’s what we state here in Art. 12. In previous articles this point came into view as well. We refer here to what was said, for instance, in connection with Art. 10 and 11.
Art. 9 speaks of moving from one church to another. There it was stressed that, since the bond between a congregation and its minister is a bond for life, he is not allowed to go and take up the ministry in another church unless he has received proper assent. It is to that church that he is bound for as long as he lives, and it is from the ministry in that church that he is not allowed to resign to take up another vocation.
Art. 9 stipulated that he is not allowed to leave the ministry in that church for the ministry in another; here we state that he is not allowed to leave this ministry for another vocation regardless whether he stays in the same place or moves away. The reason for this is not that with his ordination he has received a life-long consecration that cannot be undone. If this were the case, we would not have been allowed to regulate that with the proper consent he may leave it.
The reason for it is that upon acceptance of the call and at his induction into the ministry in this particular church he has declared “with all his heart” that he firmly believed that, through His people, the Lord had called him to serve this church. This call covers his whole life. Until the Lord, again through His people, relieves him of this service, he is and remains subject to the call. This release can come in the form of permission to go and serve another church. It also may come in the form of permission to take up another task in life, as a result of which he ceases to be a minister of the Word. That’s what we are speaking of in Art. 12.
One thing a minister certainly is not permitted to do is just resign. We read about such actions rather frequently in the ecclesiastical world around us. More than once it is mentioned in the press that a certain minister resigned because he could no longer agree with the course his church — what is meant is the national or international body — was pursuing; or because he had enough of it and now wanted to try something else; or whatever other reason may be mentioned. No one should be surprised when the man simply continues to function as a minister, or when he advertises his services as a minister. Religious periodicals contain scores of advertisements in this vein. Once the minister has thus abandoned the flock, he is no longer a minister. The call was not taken back, he simply refused to acknowledge it any longer.
What is a church to do if a minister, breaking his vows, abandons his charge? He can no longer be suspended and subsequently deposed, for he has already ceased being a minister. Discipline is necessary, so that the brother may come to the confession of his sin of breaking his vows and forsaking the flock. When he has been brought to this confession, the discipline is lifted, for it has achieved its purpose: the return of the sinner.
Return to the position of a minister is definitely not the logical or even desirable result. On the contrary, as the step to resign was undoubtedly taken after much consideration and pondering, and because his deed must have shocked and disturbed the congregation to a great extent, it is very doubtful whether it would even be wise eventually to open the way into the ministry for him again. If it is ever done, quite a period of time would be needed to bring this about. Ordination is a necessity, as the call has to be placed before him again, should the church desire to have him back, or should another church want him for its minister. The ministry is not just a chair one can leave for a while at will and which one can return to and sit down in whenever one feels like it.
There can be cases in which entering upon another vocation is permitted and in which one is released from the bond to the church. Then the call is taken back and the ties between congregation and minister as such are severed. Taking back a call can be done only by the same body which extended it, the consistory with the deacons, while, understandably so, classical approval and concurrent advice of regional-synodical deputies is required as
well. Since the last-mentioned point was discussed before, we shall say no more about it at this point.
Consultation with the consistory and submitting to them the request to release him from the call is the first thing a minister must do if he has come to the conclusion that he can no longer serve as a minister of the Word.
What could be valid reasons for a consistory to grant such a request? No list of instances in which permission could be granted was ever drawn up. Once in a while some guidelines were given but no firm list of acceptable reasons. We could give some “guidelines,” but much will depend on the individual case itself. Circumstances will differ so widely from case to case that no firm and generally valid judgment can be given. Let us mention some possibilities.
Longing for more earthly possessions and a desire to have a much larger income would obviously be irrelevant as valid reasons. So would a desire to have an easier task in life and a nine-to-five job, with Saturdays off. Permission to accept a position as full-time teacher of Religion at a College or High School would not be given either. However much such a position might be considered to be in the line of the work of a minister of the Word, it is not a ministerial task such as we speak of in Art. 6.
It could be that a minister's health does not permit him to carry the burden of the ministry any longer, that the tension of having to have two sermons prepared every week becomes too much for him. One does not have to be at an advanced age for this to happen. It is very well possible that a young man begins the work of the ministry with much enthusiasm, but gradually comes to the conclusion that he can no longer meet the challenge.
The Lord certainly gives strength and provides a servant with all he needs; yet it can happen that because of all sorts of things the brother could not foresee and of which he could not anticipate the impact on his whole mental state, he comes to the conclusion that he can no longer carry the burden. Is this the case, then the minister could be declared a “minister-emeritus,” a “retired minister,” whereby he retains the honour, the rights and privileges of a minister. About such a position we speak in Art. 13. But what person who has a set of brains and two hands that can work would sit down and let the church support him for the rest of his life while he is able to find a way to support himself and his family? Would it not be his honour and duty to look for ways and means to take care of himself? Accepting employment to achieve this would make him “enter upon another vocation.” He would need the permission of the consistory with the deacons and of the others mentioned in this article. In this case such permission will undoubtedly be given.
Another possibility is that the brother begins to have doubts about certain aspects of the doctrine. Let us — for the sake of argument — say that he starts to get doubts about the right of infants to baptism. This would make it extremely difficult for him to proclaim the Gospel on this point or to administer
the sacrament when parents come with their infants for baptism. Keeping the promises made at his ordination, he does not propagate his deviating sentiments in any way. He will, however, have to face the “problem” one day or another. What is he to do when a student asks him at catechism classes what the difference is “between our church and the Baptists?” What, when Lord’s Day 27 of the Catechism is to be dealt with on the pulpit and in catechism classes? In a non-office-bearer it may be tolerated that he has a deviating opinion about a point of doctrine—as long as he does not propagate it and is willing to be further instructed about it — but this is a practical impossibility in the case of a minister.
Unable to continue without breaking his ordination vows and not willing to do this either, he may request to be released from the bond with the church and to continue as a member, looking for and accepting a position which will enable him to earn a living.
The above plot was drawn up merely to show what might be a reason for entering upon another vocation, such as would receive the consent of the consistory with the deacons. What should definitely be avoided and would be contrary to the whole concept of call and office is: having ministers who accept all sorts of positions that cause them to leave the ministry.
It could be that a minister feels obligated to accept a position because he is convinced that it provides a unique and extraordinary opportunity to work for and to promote the kingdom of God. Owing to this conviction he will feel compelled to ask the consistory to take the call back so that he may be free to accept it. He will, however, have to abide by the judgment of the consistory with the deacons. When they consent, his release cannot become effective unless and until classical approval has been obtained with the concurring advice of regional-synodical deputies. This approval will be given only when there are exceptional and substantial reasons.
All financial obligations on the part of the church cease as soon as the release becomes effective.