A Bit to Read
Perhaps you noticed in last Sunday’s Church News that Classis Pacific West (consisting of the churches of Cloverdale, Houston, Langley, Smithers, Surrey and Willoughby Heights) would meet in Cloverdale on October 10. Rev Lodder detailed a couple of items on the agenda of this classis, the one being “the examination of Houston’s pastor-elect, Candidate Hendrik Alkema.” This examination, Rev Lodder adds, requires the attendance of “two deputies of Regional Synod,” Revs Schouten and Aasman. He also invited the interested to come along, sit in the pews, and observe the proceedings of classis. I recall when I underwent this examination a couple of dozen years ago in Langley, that indeed a number of brothers and sisters from the churches warmed the pews to listen and to observe (and made me nervous :)).
The examination Rev Lodder spoke of is officially known as a Peremptory Examination. Just what, though, is this examination all about?
The short answer to that question is the Church Order – a document printed at the very back of your Book of Praise. Article 5 is about the “Ordination and Installation of Ministers of the Word.” It stipulates that “those who have not served in the ministry before … shall be ordained only after classis has approved the call.” Well, br Alkema has not served in the ministry of the Word before; he finished his training at the Theological College in Hamilton this past May, received a call from the church of Houston to serve as its minister, and now seeks to entry the ministry in that congregation. But Houston can’t install him into the ministry until classis has “approved the call” Houston extended to him. And –the Church Order continues– “classis shall approve the call” only after two conditions are met:
a. “Upon satisfactory testimony concerning the soundness of doctrine and conduct of the candidate, signed by the consistory of the Church to which he belongs;
b. Upon a peremptory examination of the candidate by classis with satisfactory results. This examination shall take place with the cooperation and concurring advice of deputies of the regional synod.”
As this stipulation is part of the Church Order governing life within the federation of Canadian Reformed Churches, Houston is bound to this article. Again the question comes back: why is all this necessary? Why have the churches agreed in their Church Order to subject an untested minister-elect to a “peremptory examination”? Why can’t the church of Houston just go ahead and ordain the man of their choice?
Becoming a minister of the Word is no small thing. As a preacher and a teacher, a minister receives a very strategic place in the congregation. Because he appears on the pulpit week after week (as well as in the Catechism room and the homes of the members), he can through his labors build up the congregation in the fear and service of the Lord, or lead the congregation away from the fear and service of the Lord. He can (under the blessing of the Lord) instill enthusiasm in the congregation for the service of God, or he can put them to sleep. When Paul, then, urges Timothy to train men to be preachers for the next generation, he lists two qualifications any would-be preacher must have. They must be “reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2). The term ‘reliable’ catches the notion of being faithful, trustworthy, persons in whose hands the gospel of Jesus Christ is safe. The second quality catches the notion of being able to teach. That involves ability to read and understand the Scripture, as well as skills to bring Scripture’s teaching across in such a way that it touches people in the midst of life’s real questions. It is because of this text that the churches over the span of nearly 2000 years have specified that all those wishing to enter the ministry must be subjected to an examination of doctrine and life.
Able to Teach
So, at this Classis held in Cloverdale last week, br Alkema had to demonstrate to the twelve brothers at classis that he was able to prepare and deliver a sermon proposal. He had to do that by actually preaching a sermon. If, as a result of his proposal the delegates of classis concluded that he couldn’t preach, they would not approve the call, and Houston would not be able to ordain their minister-elect. If, on the other hand, they concluded that he had the skills to prepare and deliver a sermon, they would broaden the peremptory examination to determine whether he was able to read and explain from the original languages a passage or two from the Old Testament and a passage or two from the New Testament. He would also be asked to demonstrate that he had a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures and of the doctrine revealed in those Scriptures (and summarized in the Confessions), and illustrate that he knew what this doctrine means for the believer’s daily life. He would be asked to demonstrate that he was acquainted with Christ’s church gathering work through the ages, the principles of reformed church government, and knew how to do pastoral work. All in all, quite a thorough examination, taking quite some time!
As it turned out, the delegates at that classis were satisfied with br Alkema’s sermon proposal, and were satisfied also with his knowledge of exegesis, doctrine, confessions, church history, church government, etc. As a result, the church in Houston can now proceed with their plans to ordain br Alkema as their minister.
Oops, I’m going too fast. For there was another item that classis needed to check, and that was br Alkema’s manner of living. After all, you can’t have a preacher of the gospel whose lifestyle does not conform to the gospel. Classis, however, did not ask this minister-elect to give a testimony to himself – though you’d expect that as a minister-elect he’d speak truthful words about himself…. Instead, classis asked br Alkema to produce an attestation from the office bearers who knew him well in the past. On the basis of a favorable testimony from them, classis was persuaded that our brother’s manner of living befitted a minister of the Word. Hence the green light for the ordination was granted.
Involving the Churches
Still, the question remains why such an examination needs to occur at classis. Since br Alkema was to become Houston’s minister, why could Houston not subject their minister-elect to this sort of examination themselves? Is the matter not their business? Why should the churches of classis stick their nose in the matter? And the deputies of Regional Synod, for that matter?!
It is a fact that Houston is responsible to ensure that the man they called to preach the gospel in their midst is competent to carry out that task. So an examination is first of all Houston’s responsibility. But two factors enter the picture to prompt Houston to request that this examination be carried out with the assistance of others.
- It is difficult for the average consistory to examine properly in areas of exegesis, talent to explain Scripture, adequate acquaintance with doctrine, ethics, church history, etc. The brothers of the consistory, competent as they may be in their office of elder or deacon, do not normally have the training their minister-elect has had. Hence the wisdom in seeking help from others. That’s also why it’s the other ministers at classis that lead the examination.
- Because a calling church has a place within a federation of churches, its minister will receive a place also within the federation. A minister in one church may preach in the other churches of the federation. So he through his preaching and teaching will touch the hearts and lives of many people outside his own congregation.
For these reasons, the churches have agreed together in the Church Order to have potential ministers examined by the churches together. Yet getting all fifty odd churches in the federation of Canadian Reformed Churches together for the examination is too cumbersome, and so the examination happens at a more local level, namely, at classis. That’s also fitting, for classis is made up of the neighboring churches – and these are the ones where a minister’s influence is greater than over churches far away. Yet churches further away can be touched by a minister’s work, and so deputies from Regional Synod are invited as well.
We rejoice with the church at Houston that they may soon receive again a minister of the Word. May the Lord God bless the work that br Alkema may soon begin to do in that congregation.
12 October 2006