Training of elders is necessary. The well-being of the PRCA and other true churches depends on a qualified, well trained eldership. The training is not, for the most part, formal and specialized training. It comes chiefly through the extended and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, who often uses a good Christian upbringing in a stable home, and who always works in answer to fervent prayer and by the regular means of grace. That was the subject of the first editorial on this topic in the January 15 issue.
The February 1 editorial showed that faithful elders will want to grow in their abilities in especially three areas. Primary in importance is the knowledge of Scripture and the confessions, because their first responsibility is to take heed that purity of doctrine is maintained in the church. Second, elders want to grow in their understanding of Church Order, because they must govern the church in a wise and orderly manner—as a father manages his own home. Third, elders will seek to grow in their ability to give counsel, because at their ordination they were charged with assisting the minister and church members “with good counsel and advice.”
Our consistories would be wise to discuss this matter openly and encourage one another to grow in these graces and gifts.
Some elders may have sensed that an important aspect of elders’ qualifications has not been mentioned—that is, intimate knowledge of the people. While knowledge of Scripture, church government, and counseling are essential, they will not make a man a good elder if he does not also know the flock. The good shepherd knows his sheep.
A good elder will be like a good doctor. Before he treats his patient, a doctor will get an “H&P”—a history and physical. He will assess my present condition via a thorough physical examination and learn my history by asking me to fill out an extensive questionnaire. The history will be valuable for his treatment of me. Is there heart disease in my family, or glaucoma? Did any of my relatives have cancer? More important than my family’s history is my own—my childhood diseases, past surgeries or injuries. Is there a history of substance abuse or depression? Even my social history may be helpful—am I married, single, or divorced. And every doctor must know my present condition—allergies, medications, tobacco use, etc.—before he is ready to treat me most beneficially. Not knowing these things may expose him to making serious errors of judgment in my treatment.
This is an apt illustration because Scripture compares our spiritual ailments with physical afflictions and shows that the gospel’s application is like a medicinal balm. God heals our spiritual diseases. His physicians of our souls are the church’s elders and pastors.
So elders ought to know how to get the spiritual “H&P” information. Of course, it is not as formal as a doctor’s workup, or as straightforward, but there are more similarities than differences.
The broadest knowledge an elder needs in order to serve a church well is denominational history (in the analogy of medicine, comparable to one’s extended family history). Indeed, knowing church history of all ages will do an elder good for his oversight of doctrine. But let’s limit ourselves to denominational history. Because the unity of the churches is precious to us all, the decisions of synod, classis, and even each congregation serve as precedent for all the churches. Besides, the Church Order itself (Art. 46) mandates that ecclesiastical decisions always be made in light of previous decisions.
Several examples come to mind that make clear how helpful is the knowledge of our history. Knowledge of PRCA history will enable a man to judge how to deal with subjects as diverse as: a request for baptism of a child in the process of being adopted; whether a minister ought to preach from the Belgic Confession instead of the Heidelberg Catechism; the nomination to office of a man who does not use the good Christian schools; and whether and how guests from other denominations may come to the Lord’s table. The churches have faced such questions and dozens more. Knowledge of denominational decisions will help an elder contribute to the deliberation on such issues in consistory when they face them.
Acquiring this knowledge is not difficult, but it does take effort. Elders and those who aspire to that office will want to read the church magazines—this one (the SB), the Beacon Lights, the seminary’s Theological Journal, and the teachers’ magazine Perspectives in Covenant Education. But especially they should read the Acts of Synod each year to be aware of all the important synodical decisions. The entire book, at a few hundred pages, may be intimidating; but the minutes themselves are usually not much more than 50 pages. Helpful are the previews of synod’s agenda and reviews of her decisions in the Standard Bearer (in the May and July issues). Elders can even use the valuable “Index to the Acts: 1940-2018” that our brother Doezema created and updates each year, a copy of which can be found in every minister’s study (copies are limited). Also, the stated clerk of each classis is able to do research for the consistory that wonders whether there may be classical precedent for a particular question they face. Consistories know how valuable that elder is who has much of this knowledge stored in his memory. All elders will want to have as much of this as possible.
Once again, this underlines the point that often the best elders (and ministers) are those who not only have serious interest in, but also long experience in the churches. And those who read. “Lay hands suddenly on no man.”
Just as important is knowledge of one’s own congregation (comparable, in the medical analogy, to one’s immediate family history). We always tell the seminary students that when they first come to a congregation, they need to do a lot of listening to learn about the congregation. Each church has its own personality and history. Redlands is different from Randolph. Wingham is not Lacombe. And the ones who know the congregation best are the elders who have spent many years in it.
A minister who does not know the congregation’s history may hit potholes he wished he had known existed. It is the elder’s business to know these potholes.
And elders may be encouraged to inform their ministers—especially the new ones—about all of them.
How to gain this knowledge is, first, by living among the people of God in every dimension of church life. Family visitation is another of the indispensable means to learn about the people of God and their needs. When family visitation is conducted properly—that is, when the elders remember, as they say, that God gave us one mouth and two ears for a reason—elders will learn what will enable them to be better shepherds.
Studying your consistory’s “local regulations” is another way to become familiar with “family history.” In most churches there is a whole sheaf of papers containing these local regulations, based on the more significant old consistorial decisions, probably footnoted with dates for reference. These may include things such as where the elders are to sit during the service (and how often that decision has been changed or reconfirmed), how the Lord’s Supper is administered (different in many churches), how often the consistory meets, how often baptism is administered, whether smoking is allowed on the church property, whether elders have one year or two years “off” before being renominated, and a dozen other matters that (although they may not all be considered essential) are “the way it’s done here.”
The elders need to know the personalities and natures of all the individual sheep too, as well as they possibly can, in order to tailor and personalize their care. Returning to the medical analogy, I myself do not need much anesthesia to sedate me sufficiently for a surgical procedure. Others may need more, and doctors should know that. So, in the church. Each one is different, and the wise elder will take into account these differences when he takes the oversight. The elders will speak differently to the man who has a long and rocky history with them than to the young woman who has never been visited by a committee. The member whose abusive father damaged her will be cared for differently than one who has done such damage. A rebuke of a rebellious young man who grew up in a dysfunctional home will not be identical to the one whose upbringing was solid and godly. Before an elder plans to make a ‘new baby visit,’ it would be very important to be aware whether the mother in the past endured the painful loss of a child. Each one of us has a history. Each one a present condition. Elders will want to know both.
I remember well coming into my second pastorate, an older congregation, where the elders were intimately familiar with all the families. This was different from my first charge, a newly-organized church where everyone had to get to know each other. In the older church, the elders all knew the families’ strengths and were aware of many of their weaknesses—valuable knowledge for dealing with us sinful sheep. On one particular occasion, had I given more weight to an elder’s suggestion about how to handle a situation, I would have avoided an unnecessary offence—a painful lesson I now do not hesitate to tell the students at seminary. The elder knew history. Knowledgeable elders can help the new minister. “Beware!” in one case. “Be gentle!” in another.
I understand the men who may hesitate when they receive a letter of nomination to the office of elder. If God’s Spirit compels them to accept the nomination and they are elected, they find the task before them daunting. My description of the four areas in which an elder should grow probably does not instill in them more confidence in themselves.
But the new elder’s position is a lot like the young minister’s—he begins with little more than the most basic abilities. But through conscientious study, applying himself to the task, he grows. He realizes that some may be tempted to “despise his youth,” so he hearkens to Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to persevere, be a good example, not neglect the gift he has, devote himself to the work, and give himself wholly to it so that his progress (KJV has “profit”) might be apparent to everyone (I Tim. 4:12-16). The elders—whether newly installed or long experienced—all can grow in their abilities. Persevere. Devote yourselves to it. You will grow.
And let your confidence not be in yourselves, but more and more in Jesus Christ who called you to the glorious work of serving His church. Then also your progress will appear to the saints. More importantly, the Lord will use you for the wellbeing of His precious, blood-bought children.