An Edifying Word
Besides those who have been permitted, according to Article 8, to speak an edifying word in the worship services, others may be given such consent in accordance with general ecclesiastical regulations, for their own training and in order that they may become known to the congregations.
It does not appear strange or irregular to us when someone appears on the pulpit who is not an office-bearer and yet conducts a service, presenting a sermon proposal prepared by himself. We call this “speaking an edifying word” or “exhorting” as distinguished from “proclaiming the Gospel” when referring to the delivery of a sermon by a minister. How does such a non-office-bearer receive the right to conduct a service and to deliver a message in the form prepared by himself? He derives this right, of course, from the church that invites him to do so. This church, in turn, derives the right to invite him from the provision found in Art. 21, where the churches have agreed that such an invitation may be extended.
Various “categories” are covered by this article. There are in the first place the brothers who have been examined according to Article 8 and now are permitted to speak an edifying word in the churches of the classis in which they reside. Secondly, there are the candidates who have been declared eligible for call and who now may present themselves to the churches and conduct services, if so requested. Further there may be students of theology who have completed a specified number of years at the Theological College.
As for these students, the history of their permission to speak an edifying word looks like a see-saw: now yes, now no, now yes again. Permission to students to speak was often dependent on the need of the churches. When there were many vacancies and many churches were forced to have an elder read a sermon because no minister was available to conduct the services, the churches were more readily prepared to grant such permission. In each and every case a classical examination precedes the granting of this privilege.
We did already speak about the brothers who present themselves according to Art. 8. We dealt with the examination of candidates in connection with Art. 4.
Students who have completed three years of study at the Theological College also have to be examined by a classis. This examination usually consists of the presentation of a sermon proposal that — if judged acceptable — is followed by an examination in the doctrine of the church, lasting from half an hour to three- quarters of an hour. Permission is usually granted for a one-year period.
In the case of students, there is the provision that their sermon proposals shall be submitted beforehand to the professor of diaconiology and that they shall not deliver them without his approval.
It is rather difficult to define the difference between “proclaiming the Word” as done by a minister of the Word, and “speaking an edifying word” as done by a student or candidate. The following example may make this clear. There is a student whose “sermon proposal” has been approved for delivery. He uses it when conducting a service, and thus he speaks ‘an edifying word” or “exhorts.” Upon completion of his studies and after his ordination he uses the same “sermon-proposal” on a Sunday after a busy week during which there was little time for sermon preparation. Although he delivers exactly the same message, now it is called “proclamation of the Word.”
Originally the word “propositions” was used for sermon proposals presented by non-office-bearers. In early days the purpose of these “propositions” was not the same as in our days. In those days these “propositions” were sessions for the training of men for the ministry. They delivered their proposals either before a group of ministers, or before a consistory, or before the congregation in the presence of the ministers, after which remarks were made and criticism given for their instruction and improvement. Later on the provision was made that no person should deliver any “proposition” before the congregation publicly, from the pulpit, except those who had been legitimately examined.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries no students were permitted to “give any proposition, particularly not in vacant churches, nor in their neighbourhood.” But the need of the churches brought some provinces to giving permission for “speaking an edifying word,” and the Canadian Reformed Churches do so, too. For as long as the brother has not yet completed his studies and passed a preparatory examination, and has not been declared eligible for call, his sermon proposals continue to be submitted to the professor of diaconiology for scrutiny, in order to protect the churches against unripe statements and errors.
What is not mentioned in our Church Order, and yet would be very useful and beneficial, is the possibility and even desirability that the student sit in on catechism classes for a certain period, preferably with different ministers, in order to get “training in the field.” In like manner it would be very beneficial if students attended consistory meetings for a while to become acquainted with the manner in which these meetings are conducted and with various questions and difficulties which may arise in ecclesiastical life. They will have to promise — as was already stated in 1599 — “to keep secret all that transpires there,” but actually one does not have to belabour this point.
Accompanying a minister when he visits the members who are ill or are having special difficulties appears to be less advisable, as such visits become more or less artificial when someone comes along with the minister “to learn how things are to be done.”
The more practical experience one who prepares himself for the ministry can get, the better it is. Once one has been ordained he is expected to chair the consistory meetings, to teach the youth of the church, to comfort the grieving, to console and strengthen the sick, to guide the flock, to lead back the wayward, and he is supposed to know how all these things are to be done in the best possible manner. Any help received beforehand would be most helpful.