One of the dangers attending the appointment of a study committee is that the committee may recommend some “novelty” otherwise unknown in the history of the churches. There is always the possibility that such a committee will come with recommendations that either exceed its original mandate or ignore the Biblical wisdom reflected in the long tradition of the churches’ confessions and church order. The churches may then be served with some innovation approved by synod that takes many by surprise.
Some such circumstance as this may be facing the member congregations of the Christian Reformed Church in the not-too-distant future. Snuggled among the agenda items for Synod 1999 of the Christian Reformed Church of North America is a study committee report on “Ordination and ‘Official Acts of Ministry.’” This report recommends, among other things,1 that the synod “approve a new and fifth office, that of ‘minister of education’: and grant to those who hold this office the right to perform several of the ‘official acts of [the] ministry.’” Among the “official acts of ministry” to be granted to the new office of minister of education are: the giving of the salutation and benediction in public worship, the receiving of persons into the membership of the church through profession of faith, and officiating at marriage ceremonies.
Before considering the report of the study committee, a little background to the committee’s appointment and mandate is necessary.
The committee was appointed by the synod of the CRC in 1995.2 This appointment was made in response to three requests on the subject of ordination and “official acts of ministry”: an overture from Classis Alberta North asking synod to adopt a statement on “official acts of the ministry” to guide churches in the development of staff ministries; an overture from Classis Red Mesa asking that Article 55 of the Church Order be changed to permit persons authorized to bring the Word to also administer the sacraments; and a request from the denomination’s Youth Ministry Committee, asking for clarification regarding the implications of the 1973 synodical decisions on office and ordination for “persons engaged in youth ministry and in other specialized ministries.” In reply to these requests, the study committee was appointed with the mandate “to consider the matters of ordination and ‘official acts of ministry’ (Church Order Art. 53b) as these apply to youth pastors and persons in other specialized ministries who attain their positions by pathways other than the M.Div. degree.”
As this occasion for the appointment of the study committee indicates, it was asked to address a genuine issue in the churches, namely, the implications of the increasing number of staff positions, especially in education or youth ministry. These staff positions are often non-ordained positions whose specific functions do not coincide with the descriptions of the ordained offices (minister, elder, deacon, evangelist) spelled out in the church order. As a result, those who hold these positions often suffer from a lack of status in the congregation, though they share some functions with the ordained officers. There is also a great deal of uncertainty as to whether these non-ordained positions may legitimately perform some of the same functions as the ordained officebearers. The presence of these “quasiofficial” positions in the congregations creates not a little confusion and uncertainty regarding their status and place.
In order to fulfill its mandate, the Committee begins its report with a concise summary of the main lines of a Biblical and Reformed view of office and ordination. In this summary, special attention is given to the synodical report (Report 44) on office and ordination that was adopted, together with a number of conclusions, by Synod 1973. The Committee’s treatment of this report emphasizes two themes.
On the one hand, the Committee rightly argues that the tendency to strip the ordained offices of their status and authority (playing off “service” against “authority”) is unbiblical. This earlier synodical report, though it properly opposed an “authoritarian” understanding of the offices, failed to acknowledge the genuine status, together with the rights and privileges accompanying that status, that corne with ordination to office in the church.
On the other hand, the Committee maintains that the reasoning used by an earlier synod of the CRC to create the office of evangelist since the functions of the one three-fold office of Christ need to be exercised in the church, and since this is best accomplished through the appointment of particular members to fulfill these functions, the church may create a new, specialized office by assigning this function to a particular kind of office bearer — may equally well be used to create another office, the office of minister of education.
This is the basic argument, therefore, that the Committee presents for the establishment of a new, fifth office in the church: since there is a demonstrated need for the function of education within the context of the ministry of the church, the church has the freedom to form a new office to fulfill this function and answer this need. Those who function in this capacity are engaged in a specialized ministry whose demands do not require all of the qualifications and academic training needed for the ordained minister of the Word. However, due to the specialized and demanding nature of the work of a minister of education, the Committee argues that candidates for this office be required to possess an MA (Master of Arts) degree in educational ministry from Calvin Theological Seminary or an equivalent degree from an accredited college or seminary. The Committee also recommends that candidates for this office be required to sustain a classical examination prior to their ordination.
Though this is, admittedly, only an abbreviated statement of the Committee’s report and recommendation regarding a fifth office, I would like to offer a few observations regarding it.
The interesting thing about the report is that it focuses almost exclusively upon the findings of an earlier synodical study committee, and the precedent set by synod in establishing a fourth office of evangelist. Though the Committee offers some appropriately critical observations about the one-sidedness of Report 44, it basically concurs with this Report’s view that office is function and, when the church determines the need for a special office that fulfills a particular aspect of the function of Christ’s threefold office in the church, it is free to create a new office. It would seem that the seed sown by Report 44 is now bearing some bad fruit.
Considering the novelty of its recommendation, the Committee’s report remarkably contains no consideration of the Biblical or confessional teaching that relates to the offices of the church. In the history of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, it has always been confessed that the polity of the church is explicitly taught by Christ in His Word (Belgic Confession, Articles 30–32). One of the distinctive features of Reformed Christianity has been this insistence that the government and discipline of the church are not “indifferent” matters. Though there has been some debate among Presbyterians regarding the number of the church offices (the so-called “two-office” and “three-office” views). and though Calvin and the Reformed have suggested that the office of the theological professor is a kind of specialized expression of the ministerial office — Reformed churches have uniformly had three (no more, no less) kinds of officebearers.3 This was believed and confessed to be Christ’s revealed will for His church.
In spite of the uniform confession of the Reformed churches, this study committee report reads as though its members were unaware of its existence. Even worse, it reads as though the Committee believes sufficient wisdom resides within the CRC alone to permit it to proceed with a radical innovation without consulting or considering the wisdom of the broader Reformed tradition.4 No Biblical argument is presented. No consideration of the confessions is provided. It is as though these grounds — Scripture and confession — are of lesser value than the dubious precedent of a relatively recent (and controversial) synodical study committee report and the establishment of the office of evangelist. However, even the precedent of a fourth office, the office of evangelist, does not fully answer to the Committee’s need since, upon one reading of this precedent, the evangelist is a “kind of” elder, not an altogether new kind of officebearer.
When the wisdom of the Reformed confessions is ignored, as in the case of this Committee’s recommendations, unhappy consequences are sure to follow. I will only mention two consequences for the purpose of illustration.
The first consequence is a kind of practical arbitrariness in the recommendations of the Committee. In the main body of its report, for example, the Committee lists four “official acts” and notes that these have historically been restricted to the office of the minister of the Word. However, in its recommendations, the Committee grants only two of these acts to the new office of minister of education, and then adds, without explanation, the authority to officiate at marriage ceremonies.5 Also, the name selected for this new office, “minister of education,” sounds too much like a kind of government office. This name is even a little misleading, since it includes the position of youth worker. The Committee offers no explanation, furthermore, as to how this office-bearer in the church would answer to the Biblical requirements for office (in passages like 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1). Nor does the Committee indicate how the office of minister of education will be “on a par” in dignity and authority with the other offices.
These are only some, but by no means all, of the practical difficulties and other novelties that the implementation of this Committee’s recommendation will bring. One is tempted to say that the ruling principle will be that “necessity is the mother of invention.”
Unfortunately, in this case the Committee’s recommendations are already themselves the product of the application of this principle to the government of the church.
This brings me to a second and more dire consequence of this Committee’s thinking: the prospect of the creation of new offices ad infinitum and ad nauseam. Where will the thinking of this study committee report lead, and what unhealthiness in the churches will it encourage? If I understand the Committee’s argument in this report (and I genuinely hope I have misunderstood it), any function in the church that can be related to some or another aspect of Christ’s threefold office could be the occasion for a new, specialized kind of office in the church. If by this kind of an argument a fifth office can be recommended, why not a sixth? A seventh? An eighth? A ninth?…I can imagine any number of specialized functions that might deserve specialized offices — a minister of counseling, perhaps, or possibly a minister of administration. Admittedly, there might be practical objections to an endless proliferation of offices in the church, but I can see no principled objection from the kind of argument used in this Committee’s report.
Anyone looking for evidence that the CRC is losing its character as a confessionally Reformed communion of churches does not need to look far. Ample evidence is to be found in this study committee report.
1. The Committee makes three additional recommendations: that synod “adopt four guidelines for understanding the nature and practice of the traditional ‘official acts of the ministry’”; that synod recommend “that the licensed exhorters in Classis Red Mesa who function as bivocational pastors of organized churches be ordained as elders and in that capacity perform the official acts of ministry; and that synod approve a new non-ordained position, associate in educational ministry.
2. The committee’s members are: Robert C. De Vries, chair, Herb De Ruyter, Ruth Hofman, David Holwerda, reporter, Stanley Jim, and Jack B. Vos.
3. Lest my article be taken to mean that I have no sympathy for some of the issues facing this Committee, I would view positively an approach that considered a “specialized focus” to the work of the minister in the area of education or the elder in the area of youth. There are genuine precedents in the Reformed tradition for this kind of specialization within the framework of the three offices. The “office” of professor, for example, was not a true fourth office, but a specializing of the office of the minister of the Word. The office” of “youth elder,” moreover, was not another office, but a specializing of the “parish system” in the case of those elders whose care focused upon the young people of the congregation.
4. One is tempted to ask, what practical Significance does the confession of the church’s “catholicity” have in the CRC? The Committee acknowledges in the course of ItS report that the RCA has not chosen to go In the direction of creating another office to fill this need.
5. So far as I know, the act of officiating a wedding ceremony has never require ordination, unless the wedding occurs in the context of the minister’s conduct of public worship. Because marriage is not a sacramant in the Reformed understanding, and because the state is ordinarily willing to grant the churches freedom in designating persons to act in its name in a religious marriage ceremony, this act has never had standing as an “official act of the ministry.” Some non-ordained seminary students, for example, have performed wedding ceremonies in a manner recognized and acceptable to church and state.
Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN, and is a member of the First South Holland CRC, South Holland, IL. He is also a contributing editor of The Outlook.