We do not exaggerate when we say that the major task of the elder in the church is that of counseling. This does not mean that he is called upon at set times to sit down in conference, to deliberate and advise with regard to various problems that arise in the life of the members of the church and even in the church at large. Although this function is certainly not to be excluded, it may not be construed as the limitation of his task.
In a sense the life of the elder is in itself a giving of advice, good or bad. There is an adage, “Actions speak louder than words,” which has considerable application here. The elders of the church ought to realize that their conduct is expected to be exemplary for all Christians. Not infrequently we hear of members of the church, arguing in defense of questionable practices, say, “What’s so wrong with that? The elders do it!” Any further attempt to convince such members of wrongdoing is futile, for if the elders do it, it must have the sanction of the church. In this respect the elders have a strong influence but also carry a very great responsibility. Always let it be remembered that one’s conduct holds more potential advisory power than one’s opinion, and especially when the latter is not in accord with the former, its strength is greatly weakened.
Counselling is soul-care. No one would question the fact that the souls of the people of God are often disturbed, tried, troubled and even confused in this world of sin, and often therefore in need of the good advice of the elder. By counselling from the Word of God the elder can be a means to establish confidence, courage and hope in the troubled soul. Directing the soul to Him Who is “the Truth, the Way and the Life” is a glorious and important task. We do not minimize all of this when we point to the danger that always lurks of undermining and destroying the effectiveness of this work by the impartation of poor advice through unbecoming conduct on the part of an elder. The good elder not only holds fast the profession of faith; he lives it, and in so doing he gives an irrefutable testimony to all who know him.
Rev. R. Heynen, pastor of the Pine Rest Christian Psychopathic Hospital, wrote a little pamphlet entitled, “Guidelines For Elders.” In this pamphlet he stresses the importance of the elder’s work as a counselor. In our present article we will share some of his guidelines with our readers.
Defining the elder’s task, the author quotes Dr. B. Wurth as follows: “In the care of souls we are concerned with an encounter, an encounter between us as elders with a person who needs our help, in the hope that this interpersonal encounter will be conducive to the great encounter of God with this person, and of this person with God.” He then adds, “It is not enough to tell a person with a great problem, ‘Just pray about it’. You must also try as a person to enter into the problem of this person and try to help him find a solution. But as an elder, you also represent the church. You are not just serving as a social worker or a non-Christian counselor. You become involved in the lives of the members of the church because of the position to which you have been chosen. So you use the best possible human means to assist the person, but your goal and aim always must be the spiritual benefit and spiritual growth of the members of the flock of Christ.”
In this role the elder needs to exercise a great deal of patience and sympathy but he also needs “empathy,” which means that you put yourself in the place of others. Yet so that he is not carried away, but only that he may really understand the problem and be an invincible aid in working toward a solution.
Discussing the methods of counseling, the above author mentions three approaches, admitting that every situation must determine which method is to be chosen and in many cases a combination of methods may be advisable. The author is critical of the three methods he mentions. By the “Warning and Advising Method” he points out “the only result that you can hope to achieve is to change the superficial behavior of people. You do not solve any problems. At best this method gives the elder the feeling that he has done his duty, and little more.”
Because it fails to take into account the most important element in counseling, the “Intellectual Reasoning and Arguing Method” is also to be discouraged. Nothing is gained this way. Many will argue just for the sake of arguing but when all is said and done the situation is unchanged.
The third method the author rejects is the “Authoritarian Approach” in which the elder assumes the “father role” or “plays God” and assumes the position that he alone is capable of deciding the course of behavior for the members of the church. This method usually succeeds only in building up strong resentment. The one who is in need of counsel is not brought to see and to feel the need of his changing his course of action and adopting a different pattern for his life, and if such is actually the case, he cannot really be helped in his problem until he is brought to see that. Although the elder certainly is vested with the authority of his office, he must not use this as coercion in rendering advice. This will weaken rather than strengthen his counsel.
From here the author of the above named pamphlet proceeds to outline a method of counseling which “is not intended to be a prescription as to ‘how to do it’, but lays down certain concepts which we hope you will find helpful in your work.” The following points are enumerated in his outline:
(1) Learn the Art of Listening. Let the burdened one unburden himself and let him do this with the minimum of interference. Let him talk freely. Listen carefully and often you will discover the hidden cause of the problem.
(2) Be Alert to the Emotional Overtones. Here to be remembered is that what is said is not alone important but also how it is said. The author tells a story of a certain young man who came to see an elder and said, “I can’t understand this matter of God’s Providence.” So the elder immediately started explaining this doctrine to him. When this was finished the young man got up to leave and said “My girl friend guit me last night.” The elder had missed the whole point of the interview because he did not wait to find out what really was troubling the young man.
(3) Counseling also Includes Instruction. The author suggests three kinds of instruction: on an emotional level, on an intellectual level, or on a practical level. He cautions that none of this should be given in an authoritarian way but suggest the more effective method of giving the person counseled a choice of various alternatives or to put your instruction in an interrogative form. “Don’t you think that it would be well to try it this way?” And in this connection must be kept in mind, as we have stressed before, that the counsel must be based on and in accord with the Word of God. It is best, whenever possible, to let the Word of God speak for itself.
(4) Prayer often Can Be a Strengthening Force in Counseling. We quote from the pamphlet here: “Not every visit or session need be closed with prayer. It is well to ask the person if he desires prayer. If the person requests it, it should be used. If the person should refuse, it would be sacrilegious to use it. Be sure that your prayer is genuine and that it is not just a means of getting in the last word to the person at a time when he cannot very well object. The prayer should fit the particular problem with which you have been dealing, and should not be long. Remember that the great purpose of your visit is to encourage the person’s relationships with God.”
(5) The Goal of Counseling. “The purpose of counseling is not just to make the person feel more comfortable or to give him peace of heart. There are times when it is needful to stir up the person’s feelings. Some should become a bit anxious and develop feelings of guilt. The real goal must be to lead the person to greater emotional and spiritual maturity.”
From all the above it is evident that the work of the elder that we are now discussing is not an easy work. Yet the difficulty of the task must not cause us to shy away from it, but rather, realizing our sufficiency also in these things is in God, we must use the most effective means, do our best, and leave the results in His gracious hands.
“Unto you is given the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.”
“What you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven”.
This forms the basis for that which is written in the Form of Ordination of Elders, describing the third and last part of their office. We quote:
“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, Acts 20, 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.”
Although no specific mention is made here of the keys of the kingdom or their use, the implication is clearly that the elders are to use this disciplinary power in the church to maintain purity of doctrine and life. The purpose of the key power in the church is four-fold. First, it aims to keep in the church that which belongs there. Secondly, it purposes to put out of the church that which is within but belongs without. Thirdly, this power is designed to keep out of the church that which is without and belongs there. Finally, the key power draws into the church true believers who are still without. Thus must the elders use this power diligently and faithfully in taking heed to the flock of Christ and watching over God’s heritage. They must safeguard the church against the intrusion of wolves who, often in sheep’s clothing, creep in to devour the lambs. This supervision, though over the entire congregation, must begin with the ministers of the Word and must be directed not only at the doctrine which they preach in the pulpit but also the manner of life they live. The elders of the church have the right to demand that the ministers of the Word conduct themselves as good examples unto the flock. And if this is not the case, the elders must take action to depose them from their office for the sake of the welfare of the church. If this is not done, the church will suffer greatly and in due time reap the sad consequences of this neglect.
Requisite to the faithful performance of this duty is a sound and thorough knowledge of the Word of God on the part of the elders. Continually they are to meditate on the mysteries of faith. Diligently they are to search the Word. It is indeed a sad omen to find men, who are elders in the church, neglecting such opportunities for searching the Word as are afforded in our Men’s Societies. Can we say that a man who has no interest in the activities of the Men’s Society in the church lacks one of the essential qualifications of an elder? Indeed, the task of the elder is an exalted one. The responsibility is very great. The performance of this duty is often extremely difficult but the encouragement may be found in the promise: “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine.” (I Tim. 5:17)