Previous article in this series: June 2015, p. 404.
And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake.
Examining the necessity and significance of a public ceremony of installation for elders, in our last article we noted five points of significance for the elder himself: the church confirms her call of him; the elder expresses his confidence of being called of God; the elder expresses his resolve to do his work faithfully; the elder is assured that God will equip him; and the church promises to pray for him.
All these are indeed part of the significance of the installation ceremony. But there is more; there is significance for the congregation.
This “more” the last article assumed to be true, without stating it explicitly. This “more” is the occasion for the Holy Spirit repeatedly to admonish God’s people regarding our calling toward our elders, as He does in(see above), in (“Remember them which have the rule over you”), and in (“Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves”).
In the ceremony of public installation, God speaks. He speaks, not only in the instruction given in the “Form of Ordination (Installation) of Elders and Deacons,” and not only in the appropriate sermon that the minister preaches on this occasion. He speaks also in the act of installation itself.
This speech of God is not a sacramental word; the installation ceremony is not a sign and seal of God’s grace. And this speech of God is certainly not audible—with our earthly ears we do not hear a voice from heaven saying: “These are my beloved elders; obey ye them.” But God speaks symbolically.
To this speech the congregation must listen. What is He saying? What must the congregation hear and know?
In the public installation ceremony, God instructs the congregation that He has authorized these men to do the work of the office of elder in Christ’s church, as Christ’s representative.
By the word “authorized” I mean to convey most strongly the idea that these men are appointed to do the work of God, in the name of God Himself. To say they have been permitted to do the work does not do justice; it is too weak. To say they are called by the church to do the work by the church is certainly true. But that they are authorized means that God has eternally determined that they should do this work, appointed them in time to do this work, and given them the necessary spiritual equipment to do this work, because their work is His work on behalf of His covenant in His church.
Paul stated this authority of the elders of Ephesus this way, describing their relationship to the saints of Ephesus: “over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers” (). Defending Moses’ authority to Aaron and Miriam, God called Moses “my servant” ( )—when all Israel was, in a sense, God’s servant.
The church must know that her elders are the representatives of the exalted Lord to His church on earth, and receive them as she would receive Christ Himself. The installation ceremony confirms that the elders have this authority. The congregation sees that these men are put into office. Even more, the congregation puts these men into office, through her officebearers.
At times, some members of the congregation challenge this authority. As Moses’ authority was challenged by none less than Aaron and Miriam (Num. 12), and by Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Num. 16); as the apostle Paul’s authority was challenged by many; so is the authority of true officebearers in Christ’s church challenged throughout history. Even more, if our Lord’s authority as Mediator was challenged by the high priests and Pharisees, those who stand in the Lord’s place in the church today can expect some to challenge their authority.
Sometimes this challenge to authority is blatant: the members of the congregation refuse to speak with the elders, or to meet with the elders. Other times this challenge to their authority is more subtle: always willing to listen and receive the elders, the people nonetheless do not heed the elders’ good counsel. Again, some challenge the elders’ authority per se, as if the elders have no authority at all. Other times people challenge some aspect of their authority—in this instance, or in that case.
To leave all such without excuse, God makes clear to the congregation that these men have authority from Him to do their work, and that the congregation must receive them as having authority. To this the congregation is exhorted, when the “Form of Ordination (Installation) of Elders and Deacons” is read: “On the other hand, beloved Christians, receive these men as the servants of God; count the elders that rule well worthy of double honor; give yourselves willingly to their inspection and government.”1 And in the prayer, the minister prays: “Grant also especially Thy divine grace to this people over whom they are placed, that they may willingly submit themselves to the good exhortations of the elders, counting them worthy of honor for their work’s sake….”2
Laboring in the Lord Lovingly!
The congregation must also know that the elders use this authority in love for the congregation, with the love of Christ Himself.
This too we might doubt or question at times. Realizing that the elders have authority, we might still think of them as being filled with a sense of their own greatness (proud); as making judgments and decisions merely on the basis of their own preferences (self-seeking); as being entirely unconcerned with the true well-being of the congregation (unloving).
I will not deny that this is a danger for elders. Elders, beware the danger! Be not proud, but humble; make judgments not on the basis of your preferences, but according to what is best for the congregation; on the basis of God’s Word seek their well-being, as Christ does!
But it is the obligation of those whom God has appointed to the office of elder to use their authority in love; and godly men in the office do strive to do so, with the power of Christ in them.
That the elders use their authority in love for the people is implied in the phrase “over you in the Lord,” which speaks of the relationship of the elders to the people. The phrase indicates that the elders are “over” the people, as rulers are above those whom they rule. But that they are “over” the people does not mean that the elders as men are greater than the people; they are over the people “in the Lord,” representing the Lord, and for the sake of the Lord’s work. Recognizing this, the elders will strive to manifest Christ’s love to the people.
All the more clearly this point is expressed by the references to the work of the elders in, where the elders are said to “admonish” the people. Admonitions are given in love; apart from love, admonitions become chiding and railing. speaks of the rulers having “spoken unto you the word of God.” To speak God’s Word to God’s people is surely to give evidence of the genuine love of Christ. And indicates that the elders “watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief.” To watch for one’s spiritual well-being, and then to desire to give account of the soul of another with joy, indicates genuine love.
But how does God convey this in the installation ceremony? The ceremony is God’s Word that He, the gracious, merciful, loving God of the covenant, has placed over His beloved covenant people men who will care for us—men who are authorized to care for us, but who will not care for us as jailors care for the jailed, or as slave masters care for their slaves, but rather as a loving father cares for his beloved children.
Partly for this reason, the elders are asked publicly, before the church, “whether you do not feel in your hearts that ye are lawfully called of God’s church, and consequently of God Himself,” to their office.3 And the congregation prays, through the words of the minister, that “the Almighty God and Father replenish you all with His grace….”4
All of that being true, God’s Word to the congregation in the Scriptures, confirmed by the installation ceremony, is that the elders are worthy of honor: “And esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (). And, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor…” ( ).
If honor is due to our divine King (); if we are to honor also widows ( ) and the members of the body that we think to be less honorable ( ); and if loving husbands are to honor their wives ( ), then certainly those whom God places in authority over us, representing Him, ought be honored.
This honor is not due to their person, but to their office: “for their work’s sake.” For this reason, our honor for one elder must be the same as our honor for another—our honor for the elder who is quick to give supportive encouragement no different from our honor for the elder who is assigned to rebuke and admonish the wayward; and our honor for the elder with the happy face no greater than our honor for the elder who seems always to be frowning.
The “Ordination Form” underscores this as well; the first two quotes above make the point sufficiently, so that we need not repeat them here.
The church listens.
And we receive our elders as servants of God—and honor them!
1 The Confessions and Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America), 293.
2 Confessions, 294. 3 Confessions, 292. 4 Confessions, 293.