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Rev. Joshua Engelsma, pastor of Crete PRC in Crete, Illinois

So far in this series of editorials I have noted two dangers regarding authority in the church, set forth positively the fundamentals of God-given authority in the church, and laid before those in authority in the church the calling to model Jesus Christ in servant-leadership. I began with the calling of officebearers toward the members intentionally: officebearers must take the lead in caring for the members and ought not give occasion for the members to dishonor them. Having made that point first, now in this concluding article I want to address those who are under authority in the church regarding their calling toward their officebearers.

I believe it necessary from the outset to head off a potential objection. The potential objection is that, since I am an officebearer, I cannot address those who are not officebearers because I cannot fully appreciate the way in which my authority is perceived by those under it. This objection is easily answered. The apostle Paul occupied a position of authority in the church, yet he addressed those under authority as to their callings (cf. I Thess. 5:12-13). The apostle Peter occupied a position of authority in the church, yet he addressed those under authority as to their callings (cf. I Pet. 5:5). The inspired writer of the book of Hebrews occupied a position of authority in the church, yet he addressed those under authority as to their callings (cf. Heb. 13:7, 17). Certainly those in authority ought to be sensitive to the way in which others experience their authority, but this does not preclude them from addressing the callings of the Word of God to those in the pew.

Honor

The fundamental calling of members toward their officebearers is that they honor them. In I Thessalonians 5:13, the apostle Paul calls the members of the church “to esteem them [their elders] very highly in love for their work’s sake.” The fifth commandment of God’s law, which addresses all relationships between those in authority and those under authority, is this: “Honor them!” Lord’s Day 39 of the Heidelberg Catechism, in its explanation of this commandment, begins: “That I show all honor…to…all in authority over me….” The Westminster Larger Catechism begins the same way: “The honor which inferiors owe to their superiors is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behavior…” (Q&A 127).

The honor that we owe to our officebearers begins in the heart. It is an attitude of the heart whereby we hold them in high esteem and value them highly. We have a mindset of respect and reverence for them.

This attitude of the heart will be demonstrated in our words. Honoring officebearers means that we may not bad-mouth them, belittle them, or speak ill of them. And this does not simply mean that we may not say these things to their face, although that is true, but it also means that we may not whisper these things to others after church, or over the phone, or in our home, or on social media.

Our attitude of honor will also show itself in our actions. We do not throw them dirty looks, roll our eyes at them, or act like we could not care less about what they have say. We do not slam the door in their face, refuse to talk to them, ignore their calls and text messages, or sinfully try to undermine their work in the church.

There is a danger that we adopt a sinful, critical spirit toward our officebearers, always complaining about the minister, or carping about the elders, or running down the broader assemblies. Not only is this spiritually unhealthy for one’s own soul, but this also has the potential to breed bitterness in our children and misery in the church. The warning of Galatians 5:15 is appropriate: “But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that you be not consumed one of another.”

It is striking that in I Thessalonians 5:13 we are told to esteem our officebearers “very highly.” In the original, the Holy Spirit uses a unique phrase that could perhaps be conveyed as “beyond superabundantly.” The language conveys the idea of rising at least three steps beyond an ordinary level. You can have an ordinary level of something, and beyond that there is “abundance;” but beyond “abundance” is “super-abundance,” and beyond “super-abundance” is “beyond super-abundance.” That is the kind of honor that we are called to show to our officebearers: esteem them beyond superabundantly. It is certainly wrong to think, “I do not honor the elders at all.” But it is not enough even to think, “I have sufficient respect for the elders.” The Holy Spirit says, “Esteem them even higher than that! Go another level higher! And another level after that! Honor them very highly!”

It is important to understand why we must esteem our officebearers so highly. The Word of God does not exhort us to honor them because of who they are in themselves, because of certain gifts or qualities or personalities that they may have, because they are always so deserving of honor. Instead, I Thessalonians 5 indicates that we are to honor them “for their work’s sake,” and that work involves their being “over you in the Lord.”

There is only one Lord, Ruler, Overseer, Bishop, Elder, and Head of the church: Jesus Christ. He is Lord of the church because He purchased her with His precious blood and made her His precious possession. He is Lord of the church because He now rules over the church from His throne in heaven by His Word and Spirit. The church does not belong to the minister or the elders or even the confessing members of the congregation; the church belongs to the Lord. That being the case, the Lord of the church is pleased to exercise His government of the church through elders. He calls and appoints them to office, He gives them His spiritual power and authority, and He governs through them in the church.

This is the reason why we must esteem our officebearers: they are representatives of the Lord among us. To esteem them is to esteem the Lord. To dishonor them is to dishonor Christ.

For their work’s sake, honor your officebearers very highly!

Submission

The honor that we owe to our officebearers takes the form of submission and its close counterpart obedience. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves….” Lord’s Day 39 says that the believer’s calling is to “submit myself to their good instruction and correction with due obedience.” The Westminster Larger Catechism says we owe them “willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections.”

The idea of submission is that one person willingly places himself under the authority, oversight, and protection of another. It is the attitude of the one who says, “I am under their authority, and I am glad for it and desire it.” Members are called to submit themselves to the loving leadership of their officebearers.

Closely related to submission is the idea of obedience. Submission refers specifically to the attitude of the heart, and obedience refers narrowly to the outward actions. Submission is the source out of which flows true obedience. Obedience refers to doing what those in authority say, following their rules. We are called to show honor to our officebearers by our obedience to them.

We are called to submit to and obey the instruction of our officebearers. We listen to them as they teach us from the Word of God, believing what the Word of God teaches us to believe and living out what the Word of God calls us to practice.

We are also called to submit to and obey the correction of our officebearers. When we do wrong and corrective discipline is applied, we must not respond in hatred and rebellion. We are called to submit to this discipline as the chastening of God for our sins. The submissive attitude responds by saying, “I know that I’ve sinned, I’m sorry, and I’m willing to bear the consequences!”

Our obedience to the instruction and discipline of the officebearers is not blind and universal. If our officebearers would teach us the lie, then we do not believe that instruction. If they would discipline us for living godly, then we do not follow their leading. Acts 5:29 sets forth the well-known principle: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” If our officebearers would seek to lead us astray, we respectfully seek in the proper way to correct and help them.

The Word of God exhorts us members of the church: Submit to and obey the lawful instruction and correction of your officebearers!

Fidelity

The next aspect of the calling of members toward their officebearers is perhaps surprising and not often considered. That aspect is the responsibility to be faithful to our officebearers. Lord’s Day 39 says that the honor we owe to those in authority over us to “show all…fidelity” to them. To show fidelity is to demonstrate faithfulness, to be loyal to them. The Westminster Larger Catechism again uses very similar language when it says that we owe to our superiors “fidelity to, defence, and maintenance of their persons and authority.”

As we have a certain measure of loyalty to our parents, and as we have a certain measure of loyalty to our homeland, so we ought to have a loyalty to our officebearers. This loyalty shows itself in a proper defense of them and their office. Not only do we refuse to speak evil of them, but we also defend their name and office when others take aim at them.

Again, there are limits on the fidelity and loyalty we show to our officebearers. The fidelity required does not mean that we follow them even if they are leading us astray. We show loyalty to them as they lead us in faithfulness to God’s Word.

But the point must be taken to heart: honor for our officebearers requires fidelity to them and defense of their persons and authority.

Patience

A fourth aspect of the calling of members to their officebearers is that they are called by God to bear patiently with their officebearers in their weaknesses. Lord’s Day 39 says, “…and also patiently bear with their weaknesses and infirmities, since it pleases God to govern us by their hand.” The Westminster Larger Catechism says, “…bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love….”

Those in authority have many weaknesses and sins, including officebearers. They are sinful men, no different in that regard from any member in the pew. Officebearers may believe they are making a good decision, when in fact their decision is a mistake. They may forget to call, to visit, to follow up, to ask about a situation in our life. They may respond in annoyance, frustration, and impatience.

Members often have a front row seat to the weaknesses and sins of officebearers. The temptation is for members to think, “Because they are such sinners, I do not have to honor and submit to them anymore.” But God commands us still to show honor to them, and to do so by bearing patiently with their weaknesses and sins. In love we are willing to suffer long with them in their shortcomings. In love we confront them when they sin, and in love we forgive them when they confess those sins. Difficult as it may be at times, we still honor and submit to them.

This is another reminder that we honor our officebearers for the sake of Jesus Christ. We are not called to honor them because they are always so deserving of it, but we show honor to them as unto the Lord.

John Calvin captures the above idea well. In writing about the weaknesses that we might see in the church and her officebearers specifically with respect to the mark of Christian discipline, Calvin counsels patience:

This is also a prime requisite for the moderation of discipline, as Augustine argues against the Donatists: that individual laymen, if they see vices not diligently enough corrected by the council of elders, should not therefore at once depart from the church; and that the pastors themselves, if they cannot cleanse all that needs correction according to their hearts’ desire, should not for that reason resign their ministry or disturb the entire church with unaccustomed rigor…. “He who diligently ponders these things,” Augustine says, “neither neglects severe discipline in the maintenance of unity, nor by intemperate correction breaks the bond of fellowship.” …From this point he [Augustine] concludes with Cyprian: “Let a man mercifully correct what he can; let him patiently bear what he cannot correct, and groan and sorrow over it with love.”1

Prayer

Finally, members ought to honor their officebearers by praying for them. Paul states it succinctly in I Thessalonians 5:25: “Brethren, pray for us” (cf. also II Thess. 3:1). The Westminster Larger Catechism says that one of the duties we owe to those in authority over us is “prayer and thanksgiving for them.”

Officebearers need those prayers. They need those prayers on account of the weightiness of the work. They need those prayers on account of their own weaknesses and sins. They need God to endow them by His Spirit with strength, wisdom, courage, and humility.

Especially when we perceive weaknesses or failures in our officebearers, it is easy to criticize them or complain about them to others. But at those times we ought to open our mouths in prayer to God for them.

This is a great encouragement to officebearers. As it is an encouragement to the members to know that their officebearers pray for them, so it is an encouragement to the officebearers to know that the members pray for them.

Brothers and sisters, we pray for you! Pray for us!


1 See Calvin’s Institutes, 4.12.11. I am grateful to my colleague, Prof. Barry Gritters, for directing my attention to this quotation.