Article 17

Equality among the Ministers of the Word


Among the ministers of the Word equality shall be maintained with respect to the duties of their office and in other matters as far as possible, according to the judgment of the consistory and, if necessary, of classis.

Generally speaking, this article has little meaning in our present-day ecclesiastical life and situation. Yet it would be wrong to delete it, for modern influences could bring about a trend which would be dangerous. In the first place we maintain here that there are no ranks among the ministers of the Word. This is different in an hierarchical system.

Rather early in the history of the church, ranks and gradations were introduced when a minister (bishop) in a city was considered to be more important and higher in rank than one in a village. Bishops in capital cities came then to be considered even higher in rank because their city was more important than the other cities of a particular province. Gradually the battle for supremacy in the Western church was won by the bishop of Rome.

But an hierarchical system is found not only in the Romish Church. We find it also among the Lutherans and the Anglicans, or Episcopalians.

In Art. 31 of our Belgic Confession we make profession of our faith that Christ’s word is absolute: “One is your Master, and you all are brothers.” No one is higher than the other. “Ministers of the Word, in whatever place they are, have equal power and authority, for they are all servants of Jesus Christ, the only universal Bishop and the only Head of the Church.” This principle, expressed in our Belgic Confession, is worked out in Art. 17 C.O., too.

Any form of rank is rejected. When, for instance, the church visitors, mentioned in Art. 46, come to pay their yearly visit to the consistory, they do not come in the capacity of supervisors or superintendents. They are just brothers among the brothers. We do not recognize any supervisors or superintendents, although at one time or another the latter were indeed found in Reformed Churches.

The above refers to the ministers within the federation as such. Now we turn to having more than one minister within one church. Fortunately we do not see this too often among us. The Canadian Reformed Churches have the good custom of establishing new churches whenever they consider a church too large to be taken care of by one minister, and, if a second minister is called, this is usually the first step towards division into two autonomous churches.

It is especially when two ministers are serving in one church that special care is to be taken that there is equality among them. In the ecclesiastical


world around us it is not strange at all to find a huge church that has one main “pastor” and several “assistant-pastors,” each of whom has a specific area of work: the one works especially among the youth, a second one among the elderly, a third one takes care of social programs, and so on. This is completely unjustifiable for more than one reason, and we should never follow this example.

In the first place we reject the distinction between the “main minister” and the “assistant-ministers.” In days when there were many candidates for the ministry who did not receive a call some of these brothers were appointed as “assistant-ministers” to lighten the workload of the minister of that church and to take over certain tasks. This was done when either the church was too large for one minister and there were no funds for the calling of a second minister, or when the minister was ill and could do only part of the work.

These brothers, however, were not ministers; they were men who had been declared eligible for call but had not received one and in the meantime were willing and able to do some work. Various churches that could not afford calling a second minister made use of their services for catechetical instruction and visiting of the sick and the elderly, as well as for conducting an occasional service. The “title” given to brothers so employed was “assistant-minister,” but they were not ministers at all, for they had not been ordained. They worked under contract and could be appointed for another term or their employment could be discontinued. They were also free to accept a call extended to them at any time.

Among the ordained ministers, however, there are no “assistant-ministers.” Although the one may have more gifts for preaching and the other may be extremely capable of teaching catechumens, it would be wrong to assign to the one specifically the preaching and to the other (almost) exclusively the care for catechetical instruction. They all have the same “rank,” and equality shall be maintained also with respect to the duties of their office. Though each of them may have to take care of a specific part of the congregation, they are all required to do all the work belonging to their task.

The only reason why one of them would be allowed to be relieved of part of the work is his inability to do that specific work by reason of illness or old age or because he has to fulfil special tasks which take up so much of his time that he has to be relieved of some of the regular duties.

The consistory has the supervision over the ministers and is responsible for seeing to it that equality is maintained. In case of uncertainty, the advice of classis can be asked. This above-mentioned equality is to be maintained also in the matter of proper support of the ministerial families, although — as mentioned in the explanation of Art. 10 — family circumstances will be different and may be a reason for some variation in the stipends given.

Oene, W.W.J. van (1990)

Kerkorde CanRC (1985) 17