Thursday, February 23, 2012

Learning from the brethren

As published in the latest Clarion.

George van Popta

Learning from the brethren

Usually this column zooms out to take a look at the church catholic, hence the rubric, “Ecumena.” Today, however, we will focus in to compare how at least some United Reformed classes examine their students with how Canadian Reformed classes usually conduct this important work.

In the Canadian Reformed Churches, a man who has completed his theological studies will present himself to be examined by the classis in which he lives. Church Order Article 4.b.1. says, “Only those shall be declared eligible for call within the churches who have passed a preparatory examination by the classis in which they live.…” This preparatory examination consists of a sermon proposal and of being tested in the exegesis of both the Old Testament and of the New Testament, and in the knowledge of the doctrine of the church.

Although there is some variation from classis to classis, the common practice is for the man, the “proponent,” to present orally his sermon proposal to the members of classis. He will have distributed it to the churches several weeks beforehand, so the delegates will have had an opportunity to read through it and form an initial opinion prior to hearing it. After the proponent presents his proposal, classis will go into a closed session, which means that the meeting is restricted to the members of that classis and other office bearers present. Usually two ministers, called something fancy like deputies ad examina, will have made a careful study of the sermon and propose either that it be judged sufficient or insufficient. They will make their proposal either before or after the other delegates have had an opportunity to comment on the suitability and quality of the sermon. What should be considered is whether the brother has an aptitude for preaching, whether the sermon proposal was scripturally and confessionally sound, and whether the brother is able to bring the message of the text to the congregation.  

While the proponent cools his heels elsewhere in the building, the classis determines whether the sermon is sufficient. If it is, the proponent is given the happy news and is then examined in Old Testament and New Testament exegesis, and doctrine. Should he sustain all four components of the examination, classis will declare him eligible for call in the churches.

However, should the sermon be deemed insufficient, the brother is told this and all of the examination proceedings come to a halt. Some encouraging and pastoral words are spoken to him in private, prayer is offered, and the man, in varying degrees of devastation, leaves the building and heads home to try again at the next classis.

From contact with our United Reformed brethren, we have learned that, if the sermon is deemed insufficient, a somewhat different course is followed by many of their classes, one that, I think, is better. If the proponent fails on the sermon, he is often yet examined on the other subjects. This makes much sense. He will come to classis very sharp on the topics of exegesis and doctrine. He will be disappointed that his sermon was considered to be lacking, but will be encouraged by doing well in the other parts of the examination. In almost every case, while the proponent may show some weakness in the sermon because of his inexperience, he will shine in showing his academic skills. After all, he has just completed many years of intensive academic work. With those parts of the examination behind him, he can go home encouraged to consider the comments he received on the sermon proposal, and to write another sermon without having to restudy the assignments on exegesis and doctrine. Those will happily be behind him.

I think we can learn something here from our United Reformed brethren. Why send a man home with all that exegetical and doctrinal knowledge bubbling in his brain and ready to burst forth? Let him demonstrate what he knows!

There is a second thing we can learn from our United Reformed brethren. In these sister churches of ours, a man is examined by his “home” classis. For instance, if the man goes to seminary from Edmonton, then it would be the classis Edmonton belongs to that would examine him. In our situation, one classis examines about 95 % of the men since it is the classis they are living in at the time of the completion of their studies where they are examined. Since most of the students live in or near Hamilton, the classis there examines almost all the men. It is questionable whether that is the best way to do it. It seems to me that it would be healthier for all involved, even for the whole federation of churches, if the responsibility for the preparatory examinations were distributed evenly among all the classes. A change in procedure here would make necessary a change to our Article 4.b.1 of the Church Order which specifies that the students be examined by the classis in which they live.

We can learn something here from our sister churches and United Reformed brethren.