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Previous article in this series: January 15, 2015, p 173.

Sine Timore Aut Favore is the old Latin expression for “without fear or favor.” An older elder always used these words when he prayed before the consistory entered into the sanctuary for worship: “Lord, fortify our pastor to preach without fear or favor.” That is, enable him to preach and apply truth without fearing the reactions of any who may hurt him, and without favoring any who may continue to give him gifts if he remains silent about their transgressions.

The older I become, the more I realize the importance of the elder’s prayer. And the more I understand the painful reality that the lives of members—especially, but not only, influential members—can cause the preaching to go silent on things it ought to address. The minister can fear the displeasure of the people, and fear losing their favor. Thus, we preachers no longer address certain sins or weaknesses, because so many have adopted these practices that to speak out against them would be to risk alienating a sizeable segment of members.

The pulpit’s gradual and almost imperceptible decline into guilty silence on certain sins has occurred throughout history. Silence occurs not because the church restudied the issues and, on good grounds, decided that what formerly was condemned is no longer sin. That usually comes far later, when the church realizes that it ought to bring its official decisions into harmony with common practice, and unashamedly does so. But pulpit silence occurs because the people have steadily ignored the warnings, incrementally adopted the sin, and the minister now feels foolish continuing to address it. “What, he’s still stuck on that? Where has he been?” The minister knows full well that will be the reaction. So he’s silent. For fear.

A biblical explanation

That this shameful influence should always threaten God’s church is not surprising because human nature is corrupt. So Scripture addresses this more than once. One striking example of sinful silence—of believers no less—is found toward the end of Jesus’ ministry. John 12 declares that, in spite of Jesus’ many miracles among the people, very few responded in faith. The explanation, according to Isaiah’s prophecy, was God’s sovereign blinding of them that they could not see, understand, and be converted (John 12:39-41). Nevertheless, according to that same sovereignty of God, some did believe, even among the rulers. Powerfully, God worked faith in His elect. Yet fear and favor were so powerful, that these believing rulers would not confess their faith. They feared their powerful colleagues, the Pharisees, who were able to excommunicate them, “put them out of the synagogue.” Favor was just as much in play, for “they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:42, 43).1

Lest we suppose this dynamic works only among the leaders, John 9 tells us that the parents of a blind man healed by Jesus did not give forthright answer to the Pharisees’ questions, that is, did not make a frank confession of Jesus, for the very same reason. “These words spake his parents, because they feared the Jews” (John 9:19-23).

If a faithful church will avoid this error from the pulpit, she must pray God that three parties work in harmony— the office of elder, the office of minister (addressed in the last editorial), and the office of believer.

The office of elder

The brothers in the elders’ bench form the first—and really the main—line of defense in this struggle. This is the elders’ task according to the Church Order and their own vows taken at ordination. The Church Order mandates them to “take heed that the ministers… faithfully discharge their office….” The Form for Ordination of Elders and Deacons has them promising “to be assistant with their good counsel and advice to the ministers of the Word,” and “to have regard unto the doctrine [the teaching and preaching]…of the ministers of the Word….” Godly elders are determined to fulfill their vows because they know that the flock under their care is both built up in the faith and preserved from errors in faith and life by sound teaching. Elders feel the weight of this charge.

If, on the positive side, the preaching is sound and well-balanced, the elders’ calling is to see to it that the congregation heeds the word preached. The pulpit’s warnings about extended absences from worship for illegitimate reasons, for example, will be backed by visits from the elders to admonish those who continue to be lax, and then by official discipline of the impenitent. When the sermons call it a sin to be entertained by sin on television and movies, the elders will ask the young people at confession of faith whether they understand this and are committed to antithetical, sanctified living. When the pulpit calls our attention to the threat of becoming crazed by sports, as much of our society is becoming, the elders will make a point of adding this to their agendas for family visits, speaking openly to the people of God about how this applies to their particular home and family.

These examples are limited to the practical calls to sanctified living, since these are areas the elders follow up in the congregation. Not mentioned, but just as important are the doctrines ministers may go soft on, knowing how offensive some biblical doctrines are.

The minister is emboldened to make the proper applications of the Word as he sees the elders taking those applications with the seriousness that is required.

What a blessing this will be to the ministry! When the pastor and elders labor in tandem, when the minister knows that the eldership carries the word into the homes and lives of the people so that “everyone properly deports himself in his confession and conversation” (Form of Ordination), the ministry of the Word will be a great boon for the growth of the saints.

But therein lies the (potential) problem. If the pulpit issues appropriate warnings and makes biblical applications, but the elders’ bench does not follow up the Word preached with the necessary admonitions and discipline, very soon the pulpit will go quiet. Or very general. Or begin to issue warnings about the sins of other churches that really are not dangers this congregation faces (making it appear that the pulpit is being sufficiently antithetical, even though it is not properly antithetical).

And the elders will be answerable for this because they did not carry the preached word into the lives of the people under their care. They allowed the people to ignore the Word, and then allowed the Word to go silent in important areas.

Faulty applications

Now, it is possible that the preaching is faulty in its applications. Then the difficulty is different. Then the elders have the task of addressing and correcting the minister. If, for example, the pulpit leaves the impression that no member may attend a church of another denomination, ever; or that no mother of young children may earn any money to supplement family income; or that it would be sinful (at least a sign of great weakness) for any young person to aspire to an occupation of mercy or necessity that involves some Sunday labor; the elders must engage the minister in careful discussions about legalism in the preaching.

There is such a reality as legalism— declaring law for the congregation that the Word of God does not declare. Legalism is a noxious poison. Phariseeism resides in every human nature. Wise elders will keep an ear open for such, lest the congregation be damaged in either of two ways. Unchecked legalistic preaching will either cause the congregation to become disgusted with the preaching (and preacher), or turn the congregation into a pack of legalists.

But—back to the main point— fear of legalism must not deter elders from calling for the necessary— specific and pointed—applications of the Word of God to the lives of the people. Then, following them up. And it’s the fear of people that can cause both elder and preacher to hold back from making those necessary applications of the gospel. Fear of people whose deportment is less than sanctified—to put it delicately.

Discussing the preaching

This is no easy task for the elders, in their relationship both to the people and to the pastor.

Properly to carry out this supervision of the preaching requires that the elders consider not only whether what they hear is truth and orthodoxy, but also whether the whole counsel of God is being proclaimed. That is, whether the pulpit errs by omission. Are the sermons missing important elements? Does the minister shrink from making some applications or neglects preaching certain offensive truths because he fears the people? The elder’s task is weighty! This is why the elders are “in duty bound diligently to search the Word of God, and continually be meditating on the mysteries of faith” (Form for Ordination). Then, when they understand what the “whole counsel of God” is, elders must see to it that it is preached. And for that they need the grace of God, to speak both kindly and openly.

Calvin’s explanation of John 12 applies here: “Earthly honours [and fears!] may be said to be golden fetters, which bind a man, so that he cannot perform his duty with freedom.” The grace of God unbinds elders, emboldens elders, strengthens consistories to be moved by the glory of God rather than of man.

Where are we tempted to wink?

All this underscores the importance of regular discussion of the preaching at consistory meetings. Taking the initiative, the elders and minister will ask each other, “Gentlemen, what is it that our congregation needs to hear at this time of our existence? What are this church’s particular weaknesses? To what dangers are our young people exposed? What temptations do young couples face? Where does the enemy threaten to breach our walls?” And then the harder questions: “How will the pulpit best approach and address these matters?” And, “At what may we be tempted to wink because of our own faults?”

Good, regular, and frank discussions about the preaching are in order in every consistory room. The minister who resists this oversight of his preaching does so to the damage of the congregation and, possibly, to the undoing of his own ministry. The minister who allows, encourages, even asks for such regular discussions, does so to the great blessing of his relationship to the elders, his own personal growth in the ministry and, most importantly, to the strengthening of the flock committed to his care.

But the watchmen on the walls of Zion will see to it that these discussions are continued in the consistory meetings, or set them in motion if they are not a part of the regular business of the consistory.

The office of believer

Nor may the people—even though they lack seminary training— hesitate to speak when necessary, either on account of fear or favor.

Sheep recognize the voice of the Shepherd, too, and play an important part here. As believers listen to sermons, they have the ability to discern whether preaching is biblical, both as to orthodoxy and completeness. They are prophets, whose office must be exercised also in regard to the preaching. And the old tradition of elders giving opportunity to members at family visitation to talk about the preaching is a beneficial tradition.

In the end, of course, the elders will make the judgment whether the preaching is satisfactory. Members of the congregation may differ in their judgments. No preacher should be exposed to the conflicting opinions of the people. But the elders who understand the prophetic office of every believer, and who understand the danger of returning to Rome’s ignorance, will listen carefully to the sheep when they express their assessments about the pasture in which they graze. Then, filtering out what judgments of the people are improper, and using what criticisms are biblical, they themselves will give instruction to the pastor, whose ministry is their responsibility. The people will be blessed. So will the preacher.

A true sight of God

I pray that no one takes this amiss because it comes from one whose weekly preaching ministry no longer comes under the supervision of one consistory. Admittedly, it is easy for such a minister (a seminary professor) to offer these suggestions. Be assured it is not because he was so lily-white in always seeking out the counsel of his elders.

So let me conclude with the sage counsel of Calvin (commenting on John 12) who also usually included himself in his cautions.

Calvin’s caution: “Now let the reader observe how great ignominy is incurred before God, by the cowardice of those who, from the fear of being hated, dissemble their faith before men. Can anything be more foolish, or rather, can anything be more beastly, than to prefer the silly applauses of men to the judgment of God? But he declares that all who shrink from the hatred of men, when the pure faith ought to be confessed, are seized with this kind of madness.”

Calvin’s cure: “Whence, therefore, comes the effeminacy which causes us to give way to treacherous hypocrisy, but because, at the sight of the world, all our senses grow dull? For a true sight of God would instantly chase away all the mists of wealth and honors.”

The sight of God! Seeing God, let us love Him. Loving Him, let us—preachers, elders, and members— revere Him and seek His favor.

1 Although not all take this position, for exegetical reasons it is my judgment that these rulers were true believers. Which means that, at some point soon these believers must have confessed Christ, because true faith in the heart bears the fruit of a confession with the mouth (Rom. 10:9, 10).