Students of Theology
The Churches shall endeavour that there be students of theology, extending financial aid to those who are in need of it.
Having an institution to train men with a view to the ministry would not be very effective if there were no men to be trained. If there were no men to be trained, this would ultimately result in the churches’ being without ministers of the Word. This, as one of the brothers in the age of the Reformation wrote, would be “the worst plague which God may send to people.” Or, as an early ecclesiastical assembly expressed it, then it would have to be feared “that in times to come the congregations will come to great darkness and ruin for lack of able ministers.”
Practically from the very outset the Reformed Churches saw the need for students who would aspire to the ministry. They were aware of the need to urge parents to give their children for this work and also of the necessity to urge young men to dedicate themselves to the work of the ministry. Let us remember that those early decades after the Reformation were dangerous years. Especially ministers of the Gospel were in grave danger of being apprehended and put to death. The desire to be a messenger of the Gospel must have been very strong if one chose the way of preparing oneself for it. We can well understand it that encouragement from the side of the churches was needed.
It was for their own benefit that the churches would undertake to attract students of theology. They were not only aware of the grave dangers mentioned above, but they also acknowledged the inevitable financial sacrifices to be made.
In the early days when the persecutions still raged, students had to go abroad, for instance to Heidelberg or Geneva. This brought extra costs with it, and many parents did not have the means to enable their son to go there. Also once freedom had been restored and it became possible for students to attend university in their own country, the cost remained often prohibitive. For this reason it was also realized that the churches should not only urge young men to work towards the ministry, but also enable them to do so if they lacked the necessary means themselves.
This was seen as the task of each church. When a church supported one or more students — so an early assembly decided — these men, upon completion of their studies, were to serve that church that had supported them. If this church did not need them, they were free to go and serve another church, but in this case the other church was to make restitution of the costs involved. This did not apply if a brother served another church temporarily. From this we can see the close bond between the supporting church and the supported student.
Should just anyone who came and said, “I want to prepare myself for the ministry, but cannot pay (all) the costs, would you please help me?” receive support? No, more than once it was stated that only those were to be helped “who give reason to have good hope.” The churches should make certain that the money would not be wasted on a person, as far as human judgment goes, of course.
The first thing we have to bear in mind, therefore, is the need of the churches. Although the churches should always be aware of the need to prepare for the future, the degree to which young men are to be urged to give themselves for the ministry will be determined by the need in the foreseeable future.
Further, it certainly is not so that the churches are obligated to support everyone who asks for help. Only those “who give reason to have good hope” should receive help. This implies that solid information should be gathered about the prospective student. Since no one should be encouraged to “live off others,” it should be investigated what share of the costs involved the person himself would be able to bear, possibly with the help of his own family or other relatives. The possibility of earning a substantial share of the cost during the long summer holidays should also be taken into consideration.
Another point which should be kept in mind is the close bond which originally existed between the supporting church and the supported student. It is to be deplored that gradually the financial help to students has become a classical or even regional-synodical matter. This has resulted in the loosening of this bond. We certainly would not advocate the early arrangement that, upon completion of their studies, the brothers had to serve the church that extended aid to them, or that — in case they went to serve another church — this church would have to reimburse the home church for the cost incurred. Yet the bond with the home church is to be preserved. It is this church which knows its members and knows whom to encourage. It is this church that is able to judge whether there is “reason to have good hope,” while it is in a better position to determine the need for and the measure of financial support. It should be an honour for a congregation to enable one or more of its members to prepare themselves for the ministry; just as it should be an honour for the student to bear as large as possible a share of the cost himself.
If one church is unable to offer the total help which is needed, it can always ask one or more of the neighbouring churches to come to its aid. This is much better, much more in line with the original arrangements, and more in accordance with Reformed church polity, which takes its starting-point in the autonomy of the local church and precludes centralization. Making support of theological students a classical matter appears to be in conflict with Art. 30, which contains the provision that broader assemblies shall not take on matters that could be finished in the minor assemblies. It is equally impossible to “prove’ that the support of a theological student is a matter which belongs to the classis-churches “in common.”
The financial support students for the ministry receive is not a loan which has to be repaid. We might say that the brother “repays” the church(es) by serving as a minister of the Gospel. Should a student, for one reason or
another, come to the conclusion that it is better not to try to become a minister and to discontinue his theological studies, it appears to be only just that he does make restitution of the amounts paid to him or in his behalf.
The question has been raised whether the churches are obligated to aid students who pursue their theological studies not at the churches’ own institution but elsewhere. This point was even dealt with at a general synod. The gist of this synod’s decision is that such support was justly refused. There certainly is freedom to study anywhere, but if one prefers another institution above the churches’ own, he has to bear the consequences of his choice, also in financial respect.