Elders in Christ’s church have biblical and confessional warrant to oversee the congregation’s worship. Such oversight involves ensuring that the worship services are properly conducted and correcting anything that is improper. The church needs her elders to oversee her worship. These points were made in the previous article in this series (February 15, 2020).
Because this oversight extends to the congregation’s worship, it extends particularly to the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. Our Church Order in Articles 15, 23, and 56-70 indicates that the oversight of the elders includes these aspects of the congregation’s worship.
Overseeing the preaching: In what respects?
Overseeing the preaching requires the elders to evaluate the preaching in several respects. First, the elders must determine that the preaching is orthodox, in accord with Scripture and the Reformed confessions. If false doctrine is preached, the elders must address that in a biblical and church orderly way.
Second, the elders must see to it that what is preached is the pure gospel, and that the pure gospel is preached faithfully. The consistory must judge that the minister preaches this pure gospel faithfully, not just most of the time, but always, from week to week. The whole counsel of God must be proclaimed and no essential point of the gospel overlooked.
Third, the elders must ensure that the preaching meets the needs of the congregation. Faithful preaching of the pure gospel will always meet the basic and general needs of the congregation, the need to be comforted regarding our sins and built up in faith and godliness. However, the preaching must specifically address the needs of a particular congregation at a particular time. It must also be antithetical, for the people need to be warned against error and to be shown that the lie presents itself in many forms.
Fourth, the elders must ensure that the gospel is preached in a manner that is conducive to edification. Is it lively? Does it give evidence that the minister himself has sat under the Word of God in the text and been moved by that Word? Do its tone and spirit, and even its words, convey the pastor’s love for the congregation and desire to glorify God?
In these four areas the elders must evaluate all the preaching, both on the Lord’s Day and at the special worship services, and both the preaching of scriptural texts as well as of the Heidelberg Catechism. The elders must ensure that the Catechism is faithfully and correctly preached, and that these sermons are fresh and lively. The consistory should not turn a blind eye if most of the congregation views the Catechism sermons as something to be endured but finds the sermons that expound passages of Scripture to be more fresh and edifying.
Overseeing the preaching: How?
Consciously and deliberately, the elders must evaluate the preaching in these respects. The elder must not ask the question for the first time as he drives to a consistory meeting: “Let me think—has there been anything wrong with the preaching lately? I think it has all gone well.” Rather, he must ask these questions as the sermon is preached and have his answer to them by the time the sermon is finished.
Furthermore, the elders must actively express their evaluation of the preaching. They are to bear record that the preaching is sound and wholesome. Telling the elders of Ephesus that he had declared to them the whole counsel of God, the apostle Paul said, “I take you to record this day,” that is, he required them to bear witness to the fact and assent to it (Acts 20:26-27). Such is the calling of the church’s elders today.
The elders convey this to the congregation not only by the custom of shaking the minister’s hand after the service but also by defending the minister’s preaching against undue criticism, and by speaking highly of the preaching to others.
They must also convey this judgment to the pastor himself. If the minister preaches false doctrine, the elders must point that out to him. They must then also determine whether the statement of false doctrine was an inadvertent, careless statement that did not really express the minister’s conviction, or whether that statement expressed his own conviction. If they judge that he was careless, they must admonish him, require him to do whatever is necessary to retract his error, and see that he has learned from his mistake. If they determine that his false doctrine does indeed express the conviction of his own mind and heart, they must suspend him from office and put him under discipline, proceeding according to Church Order, Articles 75-77 and 79-80.
When the minister’s preaching is faithful and edifying, the elders must convey this to him as a body. That a portion of every consistory meeting (or, more practically, when all is going well, every third or fourth consistory meeting) be devoted to sermon evaluation is a good practice. On such occasions the consistory can encourage the pastor not to be weary in well-doing. At the same time, this gives opportunity to suggest that he preach a sermon or series that addresses a particular topic or warns against a specific threat. They may encourage him to get to know the congregation and its needs better, and to reflect that in his preaching. They may encourage him, if necessary, to spend more time in sermon preparation.
Carrying out this oversight of the preaching requires the elders to know the congregation well, so that they know its needs and can direct the preacher regarding aspects of his preaching. This also requires them to know and love their pastor well. He must trust them and trust their leadership of him. At the same time, he must know by experience that they love the gospel, love the congregation, and love him.
Overseeing the preaching: Why?
Why must the elders do all this? Why may they not assume that the pastor will do his work well and turn their attention to other matters? The answer, in short, is this: their pastor is only a mere human, and nothing more than a mere human.
As a human, he has weaknesses that could be manifest in his preaching. As a human, he has his particular interests (not wrong in itself), and might succumb to the temptation to focus only on those portions of Scripture that are of more interest to him. As a human, he has temptations. Perhaps his own besetting sin, or perhaps his frustration toward a particular member of his congregation, affects his preaching. As a human, he has limitations. Perhaps he pastors a large congregation, or perhaps he deals with a chronic illness or trial of his own. The elders must bear him up, help him, guide him, advise him, and assist him, so that he does not wear away (Ex. 18:18).
Overseeing the administration of the sacraments
To ensure that the members of the congregation partake rightly of the sacraments and faithfully use them is also part of the calling of the elders. However, their calling toward the congregation is not the emphasis of this article; this articles emphasizes the calling of the elders to provide for the right administration of the sacraments.
That this is their calling the Church Order indicates. Baptism must be administered “in the public assembly when the Word of God is preached” (Art. 56), and the Lord’s Supper is to be administered “only where there is supervision of elders” (Art. 64). These articles not only say where and when the sacraments must be administered but also indicate that the elders are to take the oversight of their administration.
Providing for the right administration of the sacraments means that the elders must ensure that the signs (or elements) of the sacraments are present—water for baptism, and bread and wine for the Lord’s Supper. The elders must set the date for the administration of baptism and of the Lord’s Supper, and inform the congregation of these upcoming events. The elders must ensure that new parents bring their children for baptism, and that the members of the congregation actually do partake of the Lord’s Supper.
None should think that this is the duty of the minister alone. Article 57 of the Church Order might leave the impression that it is: “The ministers shall do their utmost to the end that the father present his child for baptism.” In reality, this article emphasizes the calling of the ministers to instruct the congregation that a godly father himself, and godly parents themselves, must present their children for baptism rather than having a sponsor or god-parent do so. The article does not suggest that the minister is responsible for the oversight of the administration of the sacrament.
The ministers administer the sacrament but the elders oversee its administration. They are to ensure that these sacraments are administered in a public worship service, at which the gospel is proclaimed in the sermon (Church Order, Arts. 56, 62). They must see to it that the minister sprinkles nothing but water, and actually does sprinkle that water, on the one being baptized, and that he actually breaks the bread and pours the wine in the presence of the congregation. This is implied in the requirement of Article 62 of the Church Order “that the outward ceremonies as prescribed in God’s Word be not changed.”
The elders must also ensure that the minister uses the liturgical forms that the Reformed Churches have adopted for the sacraments (Church Order, Arts. 58 and 62), and preaches a preparatory sermon before and an applicatory sermon after the administration of the Lord’s Supper (the questions for church visitation require this). They must ensure that the sermons preached on the occasions of baptism and the Lord’s Supper set forth the gospel, and show how the sacrament signifies and seals that gospel. The purpose of the previous statement is not to suggest that the sermon must explain the doctrine of baptism or the Lord’s Supper, but that the sermon must declare the reality that is signified and sealed in the sacraments.
Ultimately, the elders must ask these questions: Are the sacraments being profaned in this congregation? Are any individuals profaning them by their partaking, but also, is the minister profaning them by his administration of them? To put it positively, is God pleased and glorified? Does the congregation treat God’s holy sacraments with due reverence and awe?
Reformed believers desire their elders to take this calling seriously. By taking this calling seriously, elders help guard the church against laziness, negligence, apathy, and any other threat to faithfulness.
The elders of those churches that are part of a denomination also receive encouragement from the other churches to carry out their work faithfully. At church visitation, the consistories are asked whether the Word is administered twice a Sunday, the Heidelberg Catechism regularly explained, and the Lord’s Supper celebrated at least four times a year. These are not merely queries whether the minister is doing his work well. Rather, they investigate whether the consistory is overseeing his work properly. If the answer to any or all of these questions should be negative, the next two questions must be these: Why is the minister not doing so? And what is the consistory doing about it?
Elders, we thank you for your diligent oversight of the preaching and sacraments. We pray you continue to take that oversight seriously, and that through your labors we might continue to manifest the marks of the true church.