Rev P Holtvluwer[i] refers to Article 11 of the ‘Canadian’ Church Order. The ‘Australian’ Church order does not have this article. However, as we have seen, the ‘problem’ he highlights applies to the FRCA as well as to the CanRC.
Preventing Article 11
Sadly, it’s becoming an expression among us: minister so-and-so has been Article 11’d. That’s a reference to Article 11 of the Church Order which allows for a consistory to release the congregation’s minister because they believe he is no longer able to function fruitfully in the congregation. On occasion this may take place with the mutual, amicable agreement of minister and consistory, but generally this is a long, trying and very painful experience for all involved that few would ever wish to repeat.
To be clear, it’s not that the minister has been unfaithful to his calling or fallen into sin, but something in the relationship between the pastor and consistory and congregation has broken down and strife is developing. The fault can be spread around but slowly it dawns on more and more people: things can’t go on like this. Something has to change. Efforts are often made to reduce the tensions, to improve the functioning of the pastor’s ministry, but all too often it’s too little, too late. Sooner or later the feeling arises that the relationship must be terminated. Enter Article 11.
On the Increase?
There was a time in Canadian Reformed history when this was a fairly rare occurrence but that seems to be changing. In the 30 years from 1980 to 2010 I can recall only four cases. But in the last eight years there have been five more in relatively close succession. An anomaly? I hope so. But if I look at our brothers and sisters in the United Reformed Churches (who have much the same Church Order as we do), I notice that they too have experienced more than a few “Article 11” situations in their 20 plus years of existence. And our sister churches in Australia also know of this phenomenon.
Where is this all coming from? There is sin and pride in every heart so we don’t have to look too far. But aren’t those sinful inclinations stoked by the culture in which we live? In the West, we are immersed in an age of consumerism, individualism and entitlement and it seems to be affecting us in this area as well. As consumers, we are used to shopping around to find what we like. We have little patience for a “product” we don’t like. We also think we deserve better.
This can develop on the side of the congregation (I don’t like his preaching; he’s not a very good pastor or effective leader, and the consistory doesn’t do anything about it) but equally on the side of the minister (the people are shallow and unwilling to really work with my preaching; they are too picky, and the consistory coddles the membership). Love, meekness, and the willingness to patiently forbear with one another—none of which are natural or easy for us—are easily left in the dust as positions are carved out, demands are put forward, and people dig in their heels.
There are no winners in this. The end result is a lot of hurt, alienation, discouragement and even bitterness for many. It marks the minister and his family but also the congregation for years to come. While the released minister remains eligible for call for a few years, a call does not always come, and he may cease being a minister—bringing more sorrow and loss. Even more, the break-down in relationship does no little damage to the cause of the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. Instead of displaying harmony, unity and a society of peace, we show the misery of sinful discord. How can Christ’s name be honoured in that?
And people are getting nervous. Congregations wonder: how can we avoid this and all the misery it brings? Ministers quietly question: could this happen to me? Or: do I want to take a call to a church that released a minister in the past? Risky business! Prospective students have also noticed this trend. It’s already daunting for young men to consider serving the Lord as a minister but as they see Article 11 being invoked to release ministers, it makes them think twice. Can anyone blame them? With a serious shortage of pastors already a problem for us in the federation, we would do well as churches, consistories and ministers to think through ways to prevent these painful separations by nipping them in the bud and working to create an atmosphere of open, healthy dialogue about issues as they arise.
The need for humility should go without saying but sometimes it gets trampled on by unmet expectations, egos, and a desire for something other than what the Lord has provided. This can cut both ways: the congregation can become dissatisfied with the minister, and the pastor can become frustrated with how the congregation is responding to his ministry—and the consistory can get caught in the middle. Then church life begins to resemble a boxing ring with the minister (and his supporters) in one corner, the congregation in the other, and the consistory trying to play referee. People on all sides are upset.
But we need to ask ourselves: are we upset about the things the Lord Jesus is upset about? Would Christ share our agitation and frustration about the pastor’s ministry? In other words, are our concerns legitimate in the Lord’s eyes? If so, then they need to be taken up with the minister and elders and gently, carefully worked on.[ii] But if not, we need to humble ourselves and accept that the Lord is at work through this man and sincerely let ourselves be ministered to.
We might be disappointed that our minister doesn’t preach like Alistair Begg or Tim Keller, but if he is clearly preaching the pure Word of God, is the Lord happy with our discontentment? We might be irritated by our pastor’s personality or his manner in the way he makes visits, but if he sincerely opens the Word and prays with us, is our irritation justified? His method of teaching Catechism could be quite different from anything we’ve known. But so long as the pastor faithfully teaches the correct doctrine as confessed by the church, does it please God that we are bothered by the manner of his instruction?
The minister we have didn’t become our pastor by accident or chance. The call to him was thought about carefully and prayed over much and in all that process our heavenly Father was leading. We have to recognize God’s providential hand and specifically the wisdom of the ascended Lord Jesus in giving to us this servant at this time (Eph 4:11–14). Our default starting point as congregants needs to be that we see the pastor as Christ’s under-shepherd given by him to minister to our needs, not satisfy our preferences—or do things the way we think they should be done.
The Blame Game
And from the minister’s side, do I think that it has to be my way or the highway? Do I imagine there is no room for improvement in my preaching or teaching or pastoral work? Do I bristle at any and all criticism? Do I feel threatened by suggestions for change? Humility teaches us that there is always room for improvement and that we should expect to grow and change. “Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning” (Prov. 9:9). In fact, we should welcome a development of our talents and sometimes that takes being prodded by a well-meaning critic. The wounds of a friend are faithful (Prov. 27:6). Rather than rebuff those who have comments on the way we do things, we should listen carefully and evaluate the legitimacy of the concern or idea. Ask an elder or two to help you with that, to be a sounding board and provide some arm’s-length feedback.
Otherwise we end up deflecting criticism, learning little, and playing the blame game. My pride and ego are skilled at turning things around and making everything the congregation’s fault. I can easily think: the people are superficial in their faith and too unspiritual to work with my preaching. They want to be spoon-fed. But if the people come to church honestly looking to be fed by God’s Word but regularly leave uncertain about what was said or unedified by my explanation, is the Lord happy that I place all the blame on the hearers? If there are a fair number of students (supported by their parents) who complain they get little out of Catechism class, is it fitting that my only response is that they need to buckle down and get serious about paying attention?
Christ-like humility dictates that before taking the speck out of my brother’s eye I first take the plank out of my own. The presence of persistent criticism by sincere church members must lead to me to take a good, long, hard look in the mirror. Again, it’s wise to invite a couple of capable elders into this self-examination process, brothers who love you but who can also can tell it to you straight. It would be good for elders to make a standing offer for this, something the minister can avail himself whenever he feels the need. And then together assess the way you are going about the ministry and how beneficial changes might be made.
Our Saviour demands of each of us what he himself first showed us by example: a humble heart that is willing to go low for the sake of the other, that’s willing even to suffer and endure hardship so that the other is blessed. Jesus did this for each of us and now insists that we do the same for one another:
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant (Phil 2:1-7).
Christ didn’t let his personal preferences guide him or let the personality quirks of others bother him, for He was intent on doing his Father’s will. And though Jesus is the only perfect pastor and preacher who ever lived, and though he had good reason to be frustrated with the way his church responded at times (e.g., Matt 16:9–12), yet he never sat back and said to his disciples, “suck it up.” His response was to give more help and more grace so that they would truly benefit from his ministry (e.g., Luke 23:25–27). He selflessly gave and gave some more to bless the other and that’s how we need to be as minister and congregation.
Pray For Each Other
A big part of that necessary humility will show up in our willingness to pray for the other. As Paul makes clear in many of his letters, the minister needs the church’s prayers and the church needs the minister’s prayers (see Eph. 1:15–19 and 6:18–19). This works in at least a few different ways. When we pray for one another—and doubly so when we are having difficulties with the other party—then we are asking our heavenly Father to help bring about godly change, that is, change with which God would be happy. Sincere prayer has a way of weeding out our personal preferences, for we know that we can’t plead with God to make the minister or the congregation the way we want them to be but only the way the Lord wants them to be, as he has explained in Scripture.
Prayer Changes Us
And while we are humbly on our knees before the Lord thinking about the shortcomings we find in others, it will hit us that we must first turn the microscope upon ourselves and confess our own sins and shortcomings. After all, we know that God does not answer the prayers of self-righteous hypocrites. And once your own sins and weaknesses are fully in view, the sins of others start to look a lot smaller. When grace has washed your sins away in Jesus’ blood, you’ll be eager to show that same grace toward others.
There’s something else that happens when you pray for those who seem to be opposing you or frustrating you in church life: you’ll find it harder and harder to be upset with them. If I truly labour in prayer day after day to seek the good of my pastor or my flock; if I ask the Lord God to aid them and bless them, and to restore good harmony with myself and within in the church, how can I get up from my prayer and continue to feel embittered and resentful? Praying for the other party will bring God’s blessing upon them and it will not fail to change your own attitude as well.
The above are conversation starters on the topic of preventing more painful, undesirable Article 11s. Much more, I’m sure, could be said. But can we start to talk about it well before there’s any trouble brewing on the horizon? Let’s work on that atmosphere of humility, openness, and godly self-examination and may God graciously grant us peace and harmony in every congregation.
Peter H Holtvluwer
[i] Rev P Holtvluwer is minister of Spring Creek Canadian Reformed Church. This article is published on Defence of the Truth with his permission. It was also published in Clarion June 29, 2018.
[ii] I have elsewhere written about dealing appropriately with legitimate concerns about the pastor’s preaching (Misusing Matthew 18 – Clarion, 65, April 8, 2016). The same would apply for his teaching or pastoral care. A minister is not above falling into unedifying ruts and bad habits in his work and when that is evident it ought to be addressed but then with deep care and respect.