Rev. Hanko is missionary-pastor of the Protestant Reformed Churches, in Norristown, Pennsylvania.
Whether God has made two or three (or even four) offices in the church is an important question. Nevertheless, too great a concentration on this question may sometimes have diverted our attention from a question of greater importance for our times: Has God given to elders (or ruling elders, as they are called among the Presbyterians) authority to teach? Does teaching belong to their office? Are we to distinguish sharply between the offices of teaching and ruling, pastor and elder?
That the elders must teach if the congregation is without a pastor, and even that the elders really cannot do their work without teaching, few would deny. God has ordained that the life and nourishment of His people will be by the Word, and that spoken. A faithful elder cannot avoid teaching. Nevertheless we tend today to limit, beyond Scriptural justification, the authority of the elder to teach.
That the elder has authority to teach is not difficult to prove from Scripture. Consider these three arguments.
First, one of the qualifications for elder is the ability to teach. This teaching is, as I will show later, authoritative teaching of the Word.
Secondly, in Titus 1:9, the Holy Spirit tells us that the elder must be one who holds fast “the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine [or teaching] both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.”
Thirdly, the Holy Spirit tells elders to do the work which we normally associate with the office of pastor (or teaching elder). In Acts 20:28 He says that the elders must “feed [shepherd, pastor] the church of God,” and in I Peter 5:2 that they must “feed the flock of God.” In both cases the word is the same which Jesus used in John 21:16 when He said to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” It is the verbal form of the word found in Ephesians 4:11: “And He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers.” It covers everything that belongs to the care of the flock, even teaching.
That the preaching of the gospel and other teaching falls chiefly to the pastor does not mean that the elder must be excluded from this work. It seems to be that there is no Scriptural basis for limiting the elder’s work and authority to family visitation, discipline, and an occasional catechism class or reading sermon. The teaching mentioned in Titus 1:9 and I Timothy 3:2 is the exposition and authoritative application of the Word of God to the people of God. The word teaching (or doctrine), and the words derived from the same root: teach and teacher (frequently translated master), do not suggest any such limitation. They almost always designate teaching of the Word of God, and that according to the authority of an office. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit often uses these words in connection with the office of preacher. See, for some examples, I Timothy 2:7, 5:17, II Timothy 2:2, Titus 2:7, John 13:14, Ephesians 4:11, Matthew 28:20, and all the occurrences of these words in Acts. There is no reason for us to draw a sharp line of distinction between the teaching authority of the pastor and the teaching authority of the elder. It is proper that those trained specifically to preach do it. But, in the absence or for the good of the pastor, the elders may and ought to preach and teach with the authority of Christ.
All this implies that there is much involved in the qualifications “apt to teach.”
First, there is knowledge. The elder must be a man who knows the Scriptures and the confessions of the church. He must be a man thoroughly acquainted with Reformed doctrine, and having some knowledge of the history of the church. In addition he ought to be familiar with the current issues and affairs of the church and world.
Secondly, the elder ought to be a man given to study. It is essential to good teaching that the teacher be constantly learning. The elder ought to be a man who reads and studies the Scriptures and many other books. He must not rely on others for all his knowledge of the Scriptures. He needs personal acquaintance with them in order to be able to use them effectively. But neither must he rely only on himself for the interpretation of the Scriptures. God has given us a rich heritage for the interpretation of the Scriptures. God has given us a rich heritage of interpretation in the church. It is foolish in the extreme to ignore it. Besides, the elder needs to know how other people think, and what they have said.
Thirdly, the elder must be one who can understand the Scriptures and apply them to the people of God. He may seek help in this area from the pastor or others (there is nothing wrong with that), but he ought not to be completely at a loss if he cannot derive his material from another source.
Finally, he must have some capacity for public speaking and teaching. Excellent oratory and remarkable ability to teach are not necessary, but he must be able to present a subject coherently and in a way understandable and edifying to his audience, whether that audience be one man, a Bible study group, children, or the whole flock.
In order that the elder may be equipped for his work, training classes are necessary. The pastor or a knowledgeable and experienced elder could teach, or some other arrangements could be made, but the elders ought to see to it that training is available for those who want or need it. The classes do not necessarily have to be about the nature of the office, but may be about Reformed doctrine, current issues, public speaking, etc.
Such classes ought to be designed to meet the needs of the trainees. Some elders, though well equipped and experienced in most areas, will recognize weaknesses or ignorance in themselves, and will ask for help. Other elders, who have less experience and education, will need more extensive training. There may be some members of the congregation who “desire the office of bishop.” These, too, ought to be instructed with a view to discovering their gifts and qualifications. Furthermore, the elders, in taking heed to themselves (Acts 20:28), will probably suggest to this or that elder that he receive further instruction in one or another aspect of his work. They may also ask a member of the congregation, who appears to them to have the qualifications of an elder, to seek instruction with a view to holding office.
Such things can only be for the good of the church. A strong, active, capable consistory (or session) will, by the grace of God, build a strong church. Weak and ill-equipped elders will tend to weaken the flock. Its spiritual health depends, to a large degree, on the faithfulness of its officers.
It happens far too often today that the pastor becomes the dominant figure in the congregation, and that the well-being of the congregation depends on his ability to do nearly all the work. Far too often the work of the elders is restricted in such a way that they are not visibly and actively the ones caring for the church, feeding the sheep, bringing back the wandering, binding up the broken, assisting the weak, carrying the young, and providing in every way for the needs of the flock. They become assistants to the pastor, and the church is really taught and governed by one man. This is bad, and, for the good of the church, ought to be corrected.
That sort of situation may be, in part anyway, the fault of the pastor. Some pastors want to be little popes, or do not trust their elders to do the work. This distrust is often misplaced, but, even if it is not, the solution to the problem is not that the pastor take over all the work. It is more urgent than ever, then, that the elders be trained. In other cases the failure of the elders to do their work may be their own fault. Some elders feel inferior to their pastor because they do not have the education or gifts that he does. They will not assert themselves to do the work to which the Good Shepherd calls them. This is a mistake. The elders must rule their pastor, not he them. Besides, God never gives to one man all the gifts necessary for the well-being of His church. He distributes these gifts throughout the congregation so that each has a place and work in the body. Every qualified elder may be sure that he has gifts which are necessary to the well-being of the church. There are also some elders who do not work to equip themselves for the work. They must be admonished and corrected. Elders ought not to see themselves as the assistants of the pastor, but as his co-laborers in Gods vineyard. Through their diligent care, Christ makes His branches bring forth abundant fruit.