In our last letter we discussed the election of elders to their office and the importance of spiritually qualified elders for the Church of Jesus Christ. In this letter we will discuss the particular work of the elders in the Church.
Before we discuss this matter as such, it might be well to quote here the pertinent article in the Church Order and the pertinent passage in the Form for Ordination so that we have clearly before our minds what our “minor confessions” have to say about this. Article 23 of the Church Order reads:
The office of the elders, in addition to what was said in article 16 to be their duty in common with the minister of the Word, is to take heed that the ministers, together with their fellow-elders and the deacons, faithfully discharge their office, and both before and after the Lord’s Supper, as time and circumstances may demand, for the edification of the churches, to visit the families of the congregation, in order particularly to comfort and instruct the members, and also to exhort others in respect to the Christian religion.
The pertinent part of the Form for Ordination reads :
Therefore, in the first place, the office of elders is, together with the ministers of the Word, to take the oversight of the Church, which is committed to them, and diligently to look, whether every one properly deports himself in his confession and conversation; to admonish those who behave themselves disorderly, and to prevent, as much as possible, the sacraments from being profaned: also to act (according to the Christian discipline) against the impenitent, and to receive the penitent again into the bosom of the Church, as doth not only appear from the above mentioned saying of Christ, but also from many other places of Holy Writ, as I Cor. chap. 5, and II Cor. chap. 2, that these things are not alone intrusted to one or two persons, but to many who are ordained thereto.
Secondly. Since the apostle enjoineth, that all things shall be done decently and in order, amongst Christians, and that no other persons ought to serve in the Church of Christ, but those who are lawfully called, according to the Christian ordinance, therefore it is also the duty of the elders to pay regard to it, and in all occurrences, which relate to the welfare and good order of the Church, to be assistant with their good counsel and advice, to the ministers of the Word, yea, also to serve all Christians with advice and consolation.
Thirdly. It is also the duty particularly to have regard unto the doctrine and conversation of the ministers of the Word, to the end that all things may be directed to the edification of the Church; and that no strange doctrine be taught, according to that which we read,
where the apostle exhorteth to watch diligently against the wolves, which might come into the sheepfold of Christ; for the performance of which, the elders are in duty bound diligently to search the Word of God, and continually be meditating on the mysteries of faith.
From all this it is evident that the main task of the elders is that of supervision, or government, or rule. This is in keeping with the nature of their office, for they reflect in their office the kingship of Christ. Christ rules over His Church by His Word and His Spirit. And this rule is particularly exercised through the office of elders.
It ought to be stressed once again that this rule is always by means of the Word of God. We have talked about this before, but it bears stressing. In the final analysis, it is the Word of Christ which rules in the Church. For all who are under the rule and government of the elders are under the rule and government of the Word of Christ. His rule is the rule of all faith and life through His Word. The elders must, therefore, come always with that Word. They have no other power or authority than the Word of the Scriptures. It is also for this reason that the Form emphatically states that elders are in duty bound diligently to search the Word of God, and continually be meditating on the mysteries of faith.
That rule is first of all over the ministers. They must take heed “that the ministers faithfully discharge their office,” and must “have regard unto the doctrine and conversation of the ministers of the Word.” There are two sides to this matter. On the one hand, ministers sometimes tend to forget that they are under the supervision of the elders. They act like little popes in their congregations and simply rule single-handedly and authoritatively without any regard of this injunction of the Church Order and the Form. The elders have almost nothing to say in the Consistory meetings or in the affairs of the congregation. All is done by the ministers. This is a very great evil and will result in the spiritual deterioration of the congregation. On the other hand, elders must not be afraid to exercise their rule also over the ministers. They must insist that the ministers submit to their rule. Upon them is this responsibility.
This rule which the elders must exercise over the ministers of the Word is particularly in connection with the preaching. The Form speaks of the “conversation” of the ministers, but this is not to be interpreted as meaning that the life of the ministers can be separated from their office. There is, of course, a certain sense of the word in which the elders supervise the life of the minister in the same way in which they supervise the life of all the members of the congregation, but a minister’s life is always closely connected to his office. He always walks in the congregation as the shepherd of the sheep. Every part of his life stands related to his calling. He cannot, even for a moment, say: “Now I am living apart from my office and I must be considered as an ordinary member of the flock.” He is always the minister, the shepherd, the pastor.
The Church Order speaks of this supervision in terms of taking “heed that the ministers faithfully discharge their office”; and the Form speaks of the calling of elders to have regard to the ministers so that “all things may be directed to the edification of the Church; and. that no strange doctrine be taught.” This implies a number of things, only a few of which we can mention here. In the first place, the elders must see to it that the Word is purely preached in the worship services on the Lord’s Day. This is why, after the service, the elders shake hands with the minister. By this handshake they indicate that they put their approval on the work which the minister performed. And seeing to it that the minister preaches faithfully, they must be sure: 1) that the truth of Scripture alone is preached. There must be no heresy or false doctrine. 2) That the whole counsel of God is preached. There are many times when a minister does not necessarily preach heresy, but he fails also to preach the whole counsel of God. He leaves out the sharp doctrines of Scripture. He avoids the truths which, in his opinion, might offend. He steers clear of doctrines which emphasize the truth of sovereign grace. The elders must see to it that this is not done, and must admonish their minister when he fails in this respect. 3) That the warnings and admonitions of Scripture are brought to the attention of the people so that not only are believers comforted, but also that “it is declared and testified to all unbelievers, and such as do not sincerely repent, that they stand exposed to the wrath of God, and eternal condemnation, so long as they are unconverted.” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. and A. 84).
To accomplish this, it is well that from time to time the minister and the elders consult together concerning the preaching so that the minister and the elders together may discuss whether these obligations of the minister’s calling are being carried out. This will give the minister opportunity to discuss his ministry with those who have supervision over him, and it will give the elders opportunity to discuss with the minister the needs of the congregation which they perhaps know far better than a minister—especially if the minister has not been long in a given congregation.
But belonging to the office and calling of the ministers is the work of Catechetical instruction, of family visitation, of pastoral calls. Over all this Work. too the elders must exercise supervision. Usually, to supervise the Catechetical instruction, elders periodically visit the Catechism classes; and this is as it should be. But the minister ought to consult with his elders periodically concerning the material he intends to use in Catechism so that they may approve of that material and have opportunity to offer suggestions. Nor must the elders feel that the work of Catechetical instruction iS better left in the hands of the pastor who is supposed to be an “expert” in this field. They must labor closely with the minister so that this work is done as carefully and faithfully as possible. Family visitation belongs to the work of elders as well as the minister, and, for that reason, either two elders or an elder and the minister make these calls. It is my conviction, however, that the elders, when they accompany the minister, ought to take a more active role in these labors. It is, however, in the area of pastoral labor that little, if any, supervision is exercised. Usually the pastor is pretty much on his own in this work. In a certain sense, this is almost bound to be the case. The elders cannot accompany the minister on all the calls he makes. Emergencies arise when the pastor is called suddenly to come to the help of one of the sheep. Pastoral counseling is often required on a regular basis at times when an elder cannot accompany the minister. Nevertheless, here too supervision must be exercised. It seems to me that the best way to accomplish this is for the pastor to submit, at each Consistory meeting, a report of his pastoral activities. There are several advantages to this. In the first place, in this way the elders can indeed exercise supervision of his work. In the second place, if there are specific problems in the congregation with which the minister is dealing, the Consistory will be kept abreast of them. In the third place, the minister can consult with the elders on problems and gain their advice as to how to proceed. In the fourth place, the elders can act as a certain “check” upon the minister. It is so easy for a minister to become too personally involved in a problem so that he loses his objectivity and allows his sentiment to overrule his judgment. The elders can be a helpful corrective to this.
In all these ways, the elders perform their work of supervision over the minister. We must continue to discuss this work of supervision, but this will have to wait for a later letter.
Fraternally in Christ,