We heard the happy news last week: br Cody Swaving has accepted the call to serve as Minister of the Word of God in Smithville. We thank the Lord for that answer!
This past Monday Council met to plan out the path to br Swaving’s ordination in this church. You’ll see the conclusions of the meeting in the Press Release, presumably published in today’s Family Post. In brief: Smithville is asking that Classis subject our minister-elect to a peremptory examination. Big word, that. What’s this examination all about??
The short answer to that question is found in 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 Swaving has not served in the ministry of the Word before – though he did work as intern in our midst for a year since he completed his training at the Theological College in Hamilton last May. But we can’t install him into the ministry until classis has “approved the call” we extended to him last month. And –the Church Order continues- “classis shall approve the call” only after two conditions are met:
- “Upon satisfactory testimony concerning the soundness of doctrine and conduct of the candidate, signed by the consistory of the Church to which he belongs;
- 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, we are bound to this article. Again the question comes back: why is all this necessary? Why have the churches agreed in the Church Order to subject an untested minister-elect to a “peremptory examination”? Why can’t we in Smithville just go ahead and ordain the man of our choice?
Language changes over time, and so the word “peremptory” is no longer part of our daily conversations. So let me introduce the word. The term comes from a couple of Latin words that boil down to total destruction. I should immediately add: the point of the examination is not to destroy our dear brother. It is instead to put a total end (to the degree people can) to any doubt one might have as to whether or not the Lord has gifted br Swaving with the qualities required to do the work to which he is being called.
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 he can 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 a thorough examination of doctrine and life.
Able to Teach
So, when Classis meets in the coming weeks, br Swaving will need to demonstrate to the brothers at classis that he is able to prepare and deliver a sermon proposal. He will need to do that by actually preaching a sermon. If, as a result of his proposal the delegates of classis concluded that he is not able to preach, they may not approve the call, and we in Smithville will not be able to ordain our minister-elect. If, on the other hand, the brothers at classis conclude that br Swaving does possess the skills required to prepare and deliver a sermon, the brothers will 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 will also be asked to demonstrate that he has a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures and of the doctrine revealed in those Scriptures (and summarized in the Confessions), and illustrate that he knows what this doctrine means for the believer’s daily life. He will be asked to demonstrate that he is acquainted with Christ’s church gathering work through the ages, the principles of reformed church government, and how to do pastoral work. All in all, quite a thorough examination, taking quite some time! Only after the meeting is satisfied that br Swaving has the gifts needed for the various aspects of a minister’s work may Classis approve the call we extended – and then we in Smithville can proceed to ordain our minister-elect into the office of Minister of the Word.
Actually, I’m going too fast. For there was another item that classis will need to check, and that is br Swaving’s manner of living. After all, you can’t have a preacher of the gospel whose lifestyle does not conform to the gospel. No, it’s not that Classis will ask our minister-elect to give a testimony to himself – though you’d expect that a minister-elect would speak only truthful words about himself…. Given that the heart of every man is depraved and so inclined to slant a testimony to one’s personal favor, classis will request br Swaving 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 will be happy to conclude that our brother’s manner of living befits a minister of the Word. And that will give the green light for the ordination. This, by the way, also means that the bodies providing an attestation will need to be patently honest in their assessment of a given candidate’s lifestyle.
Involving the Churches
Still, the question remains why such an examination needs to occur at classis. Since br Swaving is to become our minister, why can the office bearers of Smithville not subject our minister-elect to this sort of examination ourselves? Why should the opinion of the churches of classis matter? And the deputies of Regional Synod, for that matter?!
It is a fact that we in Smithville are responsible to ensure that the man we call to preach the gospel in our midst is competent to carry out that task. So a thorough examination of br Swaving’s doctrine and life is indeed first of all our responsibility. But two self-evident factors prompted the churches long ago to agree in the Church Order to have this examination 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 (and in our case already including two ministers, including Rev Dethan), do not normally have the training their minister-elect has had. Hence the wisdom in seeking help from others.
- 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 too, and so deputies from Regional Synod are invited as well.
Br Swaving’s internship in Smithville expires at the end of April. Months ago already he decided that after his internship he’d travel to the Far East (notably Korea and Timor) for a holiday; he hopes to be back on Ontario soil on June 6. Once back he’ll begin his preparations for that peremptory examination at Classis. With that in mind, Council has requested that the next Classis be held early July. If all may go as we wish and pray, ordination could follow in the middle of that month.
We thank the Lord for setting us on this path with our beloved brother Swaving. The Lord has given our brother strength to labor in our midst for the past year and we pray for His continued grace upon his work in time to come – be it in preparations for Classis, be it beyond.