In our two previous articles we reviewed the history of the office of elder, as well as the necessary qualifications for those filling—or aspiring to fill—this very important office in the church of Christ. At this time I wish to take a very practical look at the work of the elder in the ruling and oversight of the church. I wish to state at the outset that when one attempts to be “practical,” his thoughts will of necessity reflect his own ideas and methodologies. Since every elder’s approach to his work will be somewhat different from that of other elders, one officebearer cannot (and may not) tell another how to do his work—nor is that our intent here.
Since the pastor (teaching elder) is also one of theruling elders (and probably the busiest one), I would like to place emphasis this time on how the elders can be more effective as assistants to our pastors. Our Form of Ordination of Elders, citing Paul’s instruction in Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12, concludes by saying, “Thus we see that these sorts of ministers (ruling elders, E.G.) are added to the others who preach the gospel, to aid and assist them, as in the Old Testament the common Levites were to the priests in the service of the tabernacle, in those things which they could not perform alone….”
Probably the most common form of what we might call “pastoral assistance” is in the area of teaching, because that is something that happens with little or no choice on the part of the elders. When the pastor is away for classical appointments, sickness, vacation, or any other reason, the burden of teaching and “preaching” (i.e., reading sermons on the Lord’s Day) falls on the elders. Although one of the qualifications for the elder is that he be “apt to teach” (I Tim. 3:2), who of us would deny the feelings of insecurity and inferiority and the usual “butterflies” that overwhelm us when we are confronted with these tasks, especially for the first time! While a few may enter the office of elder with some background and experience in teaching, most do not. Nevertheless, every elder will be called upon regularly to conduct services and teach catechism.
Are you properly prepared to do this? If not, how can you become more capable and comfortable in these tasks? If you are a “new” elder, a good place to begin is with a visit to your church’s catechism classes. (You are not supposed to let that wait until the church visitors come anyhow, you know!) Note your pastor’s style and methods. How does he make the lesson interesting? How does he keep the children’s attention? How does he maintain good order in the classroom?
The next step is to study your lesson well so that you will go into the classroom with a good knowledge of what you are going to teach. But, you say, “I have a terrible job even trying to figure out what to talk about for 45 minutes! I am not an accomplished storyteller like my pastor. The children will probably be put to sleep by my monologue. So why should I try?” As an alternative, can you think of something to talk about for15 minutes? Then convert your whole “speech” into a series of questions and let the children do the work. You will be surprised. They will come up with answers and ideas for discussion that you did not even think of.
As a further aid, I find the written work to be very helpful as a “study guide” for teaching catechism, especially in the upper classes. I see nothing wrong with going over the written work in the class. Some of the questions are quite difficult, often requiring help from the parents; and comparing answers in class can stimulate interesting discussions. Whatever you do, do not try to “wing it.” The instruction of our covenant children deserves better than that. The Lord demands better than that. If you would be an effective teacher—and enjoy doing it—you must do your homework. That means diligent study and fervent prayer! Earnest prayer prepares the soil of the mind to assimilate what you have studied, and it brings forth fruit in the classroom.
As a related subject, what do you think about elders teaching some catechism classes full time? Some of our larger congregations already do this. A distinct advantage here, of course, is that the pastor can spend more time on preparation for his primary calling—preaching the Word on the Lord’s Day. And it certainly gives the elder a chance to develop a rapport with the young people at an early age. I believe our elders would do well to get to know the young people on a first-name basis. We should not come across as a first-time acquaintance if we are to be effective, loving counselors. I emphasize loving, because the elders’ work must be rooted in a love of God, a love of His Word, and a sincere love of the saints over whom he has been made an overseer.
Another aspect of the elders’ work that comes into play during a prolonged vacancy or absence of a pastor is reading sermons on the Lord’s Day. This can be no small task, especially in our churches in outlying areas which have little access to neighboring ministers, seminary professors, candidates, or retired ministers. Diligent preparation by the one who reads will make for easier listening—just as we enjoy hearing a minister who gives evidence of much study and brings God’s Word on the Lord’s day in a vibrant, enthusiastic manner. Read the sermon numerous times, so you know its contents almost by memory, not stumbling over words or phrases. If you are not well prepared, you will be talking to your necktie as you race through the sermon in record time! Not very edifying, to say the least! Read portions of the sermon aloud, and ask your spouse for suggestions for improvement. Better yet, make a recording to see how you sound. (You say you can’t stand the sound of your own voice? Good point! Maybe your audience can’t either!) The Word of God demands your best. With earnest preparation and a proper attitude, this task also can be enjoyable to you and profitable to your listeners.
Before we leave the subject of reading sermons and teaching catechism, let me pose one more thought for your consideration. We said in an earlier article that, inasmuch as God bestows differing gifts on the officebearers, the church is ruled by a “plurality” of elders, so that one elder’s strengths may complementthose of another. I know of elders who have no problem in getting on the pulpit to read a sermon, but who cringe at the thought of teaching a catechism class! Others are just the opposite. My question is whether it is necessary to do everything “by the number”? (Joe, I taught catechism last week, it’s your turn this week.) Need we be ashamed that God gives differing gifts and abilities? Possibly some elders could do a majority of family and sick visitations, while others do the bulk of catechism instruction. (I readily admit that the “ideal” would be that each elder become proficient in every aspect of his work).
Before we close this series of articles on the office of elder, let us return to what I touched on earlier. What are the most positive things we can do as elders to relieve or share some of the Spiritual and mental stress that our pastors surely experience in shepherding a flock in an increasingly apostatizing world? While we may willingly participate in the physical aspects of the work we discussed above, I believe we have a tendency to think that the spiritual condition of the congregation is what we hired theminister to worry about! Not so! I probably err, however, in asking what we can do to assist the pastor in his work. His work? Other than preaching on the Lord’s Day, the pastor’s work is the work of all the elders. And such work is best accomplished when there is a close working relationship between the pastor and the individual elders. Some “potential” spiritual problems among ,the membership can most appropriately be discussed on a “one-on-one” basis to determine if the perceived problem could best be approached at the pastoral level before being addressed by the full consistory. The pastor should be able to use the elder as a “sounding board.” This can hardly occur if the only time you see one another is in the formal consistory setting. This past week, a local city observed “take-a-cop-to-lunch” week. How about taking your pastor out for a cup of coffee now and then? He needs to know that you too are aware of specific problems that are of concern to him. Conversely, things may have come to your attention that the pastor may not be aware of. It is fitting also that the elders, as overseers of the preaching make suggestions for sermon content, to address faults of the congregation or of certain members that you andhe may agree are best treated initially, and in a broader manner, from the pulpit. Certainly the faithful, all-encompassing preaching of the Word from Sabbath to Sabbath is the life-blood of the saints and the greatest deterrent to spiritual decay. The preaching of the gospel and Christian discipline are the keys by which the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and closed to unbelievers (Heidelberg Catechism, L.D. 31). In a recent sermon on Lord’s Day 31, Pastor A. denHartog emphasized, “The church is the house of God. That church must be kept holy! The main purpose of discipline is to maintain the holiness of the church of Jesus Christ.” Accordingly, in the council room, elders should take the initiative in addressing issues requiring pastoral attention, or, in more serious cases, involvement by the consistory.
Much of the work that takes place in the council or consistory meetings also takes preparation! Elders must study and help resolve doctrinal issues, matters of church order, items coming to Classis or Synod, and disciplinary actions—to name a few. Through a close working relationship with the pastor, the elders may also defend the minister from unjustified attacks or criticism from within the church or from without.
In conclusion, may we repeat once more: the work of the elder requires devotion, determination, continual study, earnest prayer, and an ardent love for God’s Word. May all this be manifested in a love for the saints, which in turn is rooted in Him whose love came to expression in giving His only begotten Son!
And may the congregation in turn take heed to the Lord’s command to give “double honor” to those who rule well, for that is their calling to those through whom Christ rules His church.
We pray that the efforts of the faithful, loving elder may experience the approval and blessing of the Ring of the church. Maybe this is expressed in the words of a familiar hymn:
Thus, led by His Spirit
To fountains of love,
Thou soon shall be fitted
For service above!
What a blessed reward!