Rev. Gritters is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hudsonville, Michigan.
The elders’ office is to observe and supervise the doctrine and conduct of the minister.
Last time (SB, Nov. 15, 2002) I pointed out that the minister’s life must be an object of scrutiny, and that, for the sake of the doctrine. The Form for Installation of Elders, the Church Order, and the Questions for Church Visitation all enjoin the elders to “have regard to the doctrine and conversation of the minister of the word.” Reformed and Presbyterian churches have always recognized the importance of elder-supervision of the preacher. For the sake of the gospel he bears, elders have regard to the bearer of it.
This oversight has two perspectives. The elders observe the minister’s conduct—his personal life, family life, and public conduct—so that he becomes an offense to the congregation in nothing. With temptations hotter than ever, the evil “Sifter” working harder than ever, and the consequences of falling as severe as ever, elders must, like never before, have appropriate regard to their minister’s conduct. By godly life, the pastor’s conduct will “adorn” the doctrine (Titus 2:10). By ungodly life, the minister will make the doctrine repulsive.
Second, the elders observe the minister’s doctrine—his public preaching, teaching, and writing—so that he offends in nothing and edifies always. The devil has more than one way to devastate a congregation through the pastor. If he cannot get the pastor to slip up in conduct, he will work on his doctrine.
As he oversees the minister in his position as prophet and teacher, the elder serves the church of Christ, and therefore Christ Himself. Nothing must be taught that contradicts the truth which is in Christ. All teaching takes place for edification. False doctrine does not edify. Truth justifies the people of God, setting the people free. Truth sanctifies their spirits, souls, bodies. Truth sends them on the path to eternal life.
When the elder takes his seat in the elders’ bench on a Lord’s Day, therefore, more is required of him than of the other members. His calling is to see to it that the Word of Christ is being heard by the congregation. If the people must be instructed to receive the preaching “not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God” (I Thess. 2:13), the elders must be sure that the preaching is indeed the Word of God. If the elders pray that the preaching in their congregation may be described as that “which effectually worketh also in you that believe” (I Thess. 2:13), they must be sure that the sermons are faithful expositions of the Word of God.
Anything less than that is unacceptable.
Briefly, because lengthy exposition of the elements of a good sermon is for another place, we should mention the following:
Elders must be sure that the Word preached (or brought in catechism, or written for publication) is a faithful exposition of the particular Scripture passage preached, in light of the whole of God’s Word and the body of Reformed confessions. Are the sermons biblical (exegetical)? In that connection, most healthy for the congregation and pastor is a systematic exposition of a book or a section of the Bible. This way of preaching is the best way for the pastor to remain biblical rather than topical, to maintain a scriptural approach and method rather than his own approach and method. Sermons on individual texts or topics are certainly legitimate (why, the Heidelberg Catechism is a topical approach to preaching), but my judgment is that prudence leads us to preach through sections of Scripture as much as possible.
Then, because we are Reformed churches, the sermons must be confessional. Specific references to the confessions in sermons will help the minister and the congregation grow in the knowledge of the Reformed faith. But nothing may contradict these confessions. A way to accomplish this was related to me once by one of our older pastors, who said that when he was finished writing his sermons, he consciously ran through in his mind both the confessions and the major points of the sermon to assure himself that what he was preaching did not contradict our heritage of the Reformed faith. Reformed ministers have taken a vow to do so.
Since Christ and His apostles are our example, whose sermons exposed error as they instructed the people, sermons are required to be antithetical. Explanation of the truth is accompanied by unmasking of lies. God’s people are assaulted by a multitude of errors, many of which are subtle and deadly. The most deadly error, now and always, regards how the child of God is justified. Today, even in Reformed churches, there is a move to teach the people of God that their standing before God and approval by Him is based on more than the work and worth of Jesus Christ, that is, is based partly on their own works. The Heidelberg Catechism gives us a good lead when it teaches justification both in its positive truth and its negative warnings (see Lord’s Days 23, 24). But there are errors at every level of faith and life.
Finally, a good sermon is pastoral, addressing the congregation in Christ’s love for them. It is possible for sermons to be faithful expositions of Scripture, but lacking in an important dimension of a personal, heartfelt address. For this to be present, Paul’s instruction to Timothy must apply: “The husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits” (II Tim. 2:6). Coming to the pulpit without having first eaten of that bread of life will be disastrous. For this to be present, Paul’s own heartfelt love for the church, as he expressed it in II Corinthians 11, must be in the heart of the pastor: “For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.”
If the elders judge it necessary to respond to the sermons, so that there may be improvement or correction, there are two levels of response.
If heresy is preached—doctrine that contradicts the Scripture as explained by the Reformed confessions—the elders must be swift, decisive, and as careful as possible. The Church Order commentators explain this process. Serious as this is, and necessary as it is to act if this occurs, the elders do not often face this problem. However infrequent, though, this is the primary calling of the elder in the oversight of the minister’s doctrine.
Of more frequent concern is that, although there may not be heresy, there is weakness in the preaching. Here, the elders not only have the right, but the calling to speak to the pastor, so that he grows and the people of God are led to praise God in the best possible way.
At this point, greatest wisdom is required. Since the devil works on elders as well as ministers, a caution should be mentioned about over-zealousness. An enthusiastic elder can do more harm than good, in the end injuring the congregation he thought he was trying to aid. If a wise elder, with grace and patience and love, can lead a man to see where improvements can be made, he will be miles ahead of the injudicious zealot.
Second, wise elders recognize that every minister has his own gifts and style. Not everyone will preach like the elder’s favorite minister or professor. Many congregations have learned over the years to love a man whose style they did not originally like. But the Lord uses each one, some whose speech may be “contemptible” and whose “bodily presence (is) weak.” (You don’t need to read II Corinthians 10 to see whose preaching that described). Not only styles, but gifts differ. Some will be judged great, as a Calvin or Luther; others, as most ministers feel, hardly worthy of the office—the most important calling in the world.
Third, the elders also must sit under the instruction of the minister to worship the Lord Jesus and gather their own daily supply of the bread of heaven. To live in the mode of critics would be dangerous. If a man finds himself in this mode, he will not likely extricate himself, as some have found to their great dismay or hurt. I would think that the elder would pray earnestly that he would primarily be able to worship and be edified, and almost subconsciously be aware of ways the pastor could improve.
Here, too, we patiently bear with weaknesses and infirmities, because it pleases God to govern us by their hand.
Taking the big picture of the elders’ work to oversee the minister’s doctrine (teaching), not all help will be hands on and face to face.
Give him time to study (so that the sermons are biblical and exegetical). Call him to be a man of prayer, so that the sermons are heartfelt explanations of a Word that has come to his heart. Require him to teach the confessions to the older catechism students or an adult doctrine class, so that his sermons breathe with a sense of our Reformed roots. Encourage him (or allow, as the case may be) to do pastoral work, so that he understands and sees the needs of the people who must be addressed. A pastor who sits alone and apart from the flock will be preaching to walls — lacking passion and missing the people. (More on all this, God willing, in the next article.)
In wisdom, then, let the elders filter out objections from the congregation. The minister hears enough and bears enough that the elders don’t want him to hear everything. Don’t tell him of all objections or criticisms (confer with the other elders to make this judgment). If you do bring him corrective instruction, make sure it is the elders’ judgment. It’s no help, and in fact cheap, to say, “So and so said this and that about your sermons.” Or, “I heard from two different people that….” Let him know the mind and will, the collective judgment, of the elders.
Then, if a visit or contact is to be made about the preaching, let it be done in love. If you do not love the man, let someone else do the work. No more may you go to the minister without love than you may visit any member of the congregation without love. When love fuels the visit, any defensive spirit the minister may have should (God willing) soon be dropped, so that an open heart can learn and reflect on God’s will for the preaching. To the upbuilding of the church God loves.
(… to be continued)