“Therefore, in the first place, the office of elders is, together with the ministers of the Word, to take the oversight of the Church, which is committed to them, and diligently to look, whether everyone properly deports himself in his confession and conversation; to admonish those who behave themselves disorderly, and to prevent, as much as possible, the sacraments from being profaned; also to act (according to the Christian discipline) against the impenitent, and to receive the penitent again into the bosom of the Church, as doth not only appear from the above mentioned saying of Christ, but also from many other places of Holy Writ, as I Cor. chap. 5 and II Cor. chap. 2, that these things are not alone intrusted to one or two persons, but to many who are ordained thereto.” (Form of Ordination) The first facet of the important office of the elder in the church of Christ is that of overseer. The elder is one who is called of God to rule. When this is pointed out, the warning of the apostle Peter must also immediately be observed. To the elders of the church Peter wrote, “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constant, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind, neither as being Lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock.” The elder is a pastor-ruler, a keeper of God’s sheep, and not a despot. He whose motivation is not the care of the sheep and who in all his labor is not moved by love for their souls, is unfit for and unable to perform the functions of an elder in Christ’s Church. The very purpose of the establishment of a council of elders in the church is “that thereby all tyranny and lording may be kept out of the Church of God, which may sooner creep in, when the government is placed in the hands of one alone, or of a very few.” (Form of Ordination)
This relationship of elders to the church as overseers implies the subjection of the members of the church to those who are given this position of authority. They must love them and respect them in that position for Christ’s sake, and furthermore to their authority they must be subject as unto Christ. On the other hand, the elders must at all times realize that their calling and the exercise of the authority of their office is exactly limited to that which Christ has conferred upon them. To transgress this limitation is to introduce tyranny in the church.
“The church is not only not bound to be guided by any other rule or standard, but is not at liberty to have regard to any other; as this would be virtually to withdraw herself from subjection to Christ’s authority, and voluntarily to submit to a foreign yoke. No mere laws or statutes of men â”€ no mere regard for worldly or secular advantages Â¬â”€ should ever regulate the conduct of the church of Christ, or of any section or branch of it. She should be guided solely by the revealed will of Christ, and she should ascertain what that will is by diligent and prayerful study of His word.” (C. Cunninghand, Historical Theology).
“To be a dutiful under shepherd, is, in another view, to be a faithful sheep, following the Chief Shepherd whithersoever He goes. Pastors are not lords over God’s heritage, but mere servants of Christ, the great Head of the Church, bound to regard His will as their law, and His life as their model..It is well that our Lord made this plain by the words addressed to the representative man among the apostles; for Christians of active, energetic, and earnest natures are very apt to have very exaggerated ideas of their responsibilities, and to take on themselves the care of the whole world, and impose on themselves the duty of remedying every evil that is done under the sun. ” (A.B. Bruce, The Training Of The Twelve)
“We admit, therefore, that ecclesiastical pastors are to be heard just like Christ Himself, but they must be pastors, who execute the office entrusted to them. And this office, we maintain, is not presumptuously to introduce whatever their own pleasure has rashly devised, but religiously and in good faith to deliver the oracles which they have received at the mouth of the Lord. For within these boundaries Christ confined the reverence which he required to be paid to the Apostles; nor does Peter (I Peter 4:11) either claim for himself or allow to others anything more than that, as often as they speak among the faithful, they speak as from the mouth of the Lord.” (John Calvin, Reply to Cardinal Sadolet)
The point brought out here is important and must be strongly emphasized. Christ rules His Church through the offices which He has instituted. That rule of Christ however is negated when those who occupy the office transgress its proper limitation. Christ does not enforce upon the church the will of man in “whatever their own pleasure may rashly devise.” Christ does impose and enforce His own will upon His body the Church, and He does this through men who, in subjection to Himself, execute the functions of the office of elder in accord with His will as revealed in His Word. “Let all things be done decently and in good order” is no trite saying, but is a fundamental principle of truth, the departure from which is catastrophic for the church.
This same principle applies when members of the church refuse to submit themselves to the proper authority of the elders. This authority, properly administered, is rightly the authority of Christ Himself, and to defy it is to invoke judgment upon one’s self. Indeed, “it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Heb. 10:31)
Hence, the sole ruling power in the Church of Christ is His Word. The elders are called to diligently watch over the flock to see to it that every one deports himself in confession and conversation according to that Word. Those that behave themselves disorderly must be admonished, and, again this admonition must be according to the Word of Christ. Finally, as much as possible the purity of the holy sacraments must be maintained, and this, too, is accomplished only in the measure that all things in the church are governed by and subjected to the Word of Christ. The sacraments of the church are indeed profaned when members, who walk in disobedience to the Word of Christ, are permitted under the sanction of the church to partake of them, but equally profaned are these same sacraments when the criterion for participation becomes compliance with some “rashly devised” human innovation. Such “mixtures and damnable inventions,” according to our Confession, “we must reject as profanations of the sacraments.” (Belgic Confession, Art. 35)
Fundamentally, therefore, the principle of the Fifth Commandment lies at the root of the elder’s function as overseer in the church of Christ. Christ, the Head of the Church, is the sole authority. Derived from Him, the elders receive authority which may be used only in harmony with His instruction. The elders themselves then, though they are seated in positions of authority, are also subject to authority, and without this submission they have no authority to exercise. Under them the members of the church are subject to their authority as it is very really then the authority of Christ. Only when these relationships are properly maintained is there and can there be an effective spiritual rule in the church which is conducive to the well-being of its members. In that light, let both elders and members remember the exhortation of the Word of God, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17)
“Secondly, since the apostle enjoineth, that all things shall be done decently and in order, amongst Christians, and that no other persons ought to serve in the Church of Christ, but those who are lawfully called, according to the Christian ordinance, therefore it is also the duty of the elders to pay regard to it, and in all occurrences, which relate to the welfare and good order of the Church, to be assistant with their good counsel and advice, to the ministers of the Word, yea, also to serve all Christians with advice and consolation.” (Form of Ordination)
Three things may be observed at the very outset in this connection. The first should be understood ,namely, that the advice and conselation that is expected from the elders must always be based upon the Word of God. The elder is not asked here to simply give his own opinion with regard to various problems, troubles and trials that arise in the experience of the members of the church, but it is required of him to give instruction and directive from the Word of God. He must be able to back up what he says with the Scriptures, and to show that his counsel is that of God Himself. That is the only advice that can be consoling. In the second place, this advice and consolation must be willingly given. He may never refuse to be assistant in this respect. Certain things may conceivably be asked of an elder which lie entirely outside of the scope and function of his office, and with respect to these he has every right to refuse. Not so, however, with respect to being “assistant with their good counsel and advice.” This is an inherent function of the office that may not be denied. To deny it is a violation of their ordination. And finally, we must note that our ordination form does not speak of giving this advice and consolation only to those who are members of the particular church in which the elder serves, but it states, “to the ministers of the Word, yea, also to serve all Christians.” Certainly this does not place the office of the elder in an inferior or subordinate position. Together with the ministers of the Word they must exercise the government of the church. Together with the ministers they must instruct from the Word. And “to the ministers” as well as to all Christians, they must give advice and consolation. This phase of the elder’s work is extremely important, because it directly concerns the labor of “caring for the soul.” It should not be divorced from the elder’s labor as overseer but it must be integrated with it, and then we must remember that the soul of the Christian is not cared for by tyrannizing it or using a rod upon it, but through the administration of patient advice and loving consolation is the soul nurtured. This must be exercised, and only when it is apparent that the sound advice of the Word is rejected and the soul upon which this labor is performed is obstinately rebellious does it become an imperative necessity to use the force of excommunication.
Calvin, in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, wrote: “The first foundation of discipline is to provide for private admonition; that is, if any one does not do his duty spontaneously, or behaves insolently, or lives not quite honestly, or commits something worthy of blame, he must allow himself to be admonished; and every one must study to admonish his brother when the case requires. Here especially is there occasion for the vigilance of pastors and presbyters, whose duty is not only to preach to the people, but to exhort and admonish from house to house, whenever their hearers have not profited sufficiently by general teaching; as Paul shows, when he relates that he taught ‘publicly, and from house to house’, and testifies that he is ‘pure from the blood of all men,’ because he had not shunned to declare ‘all the counsel of God’ (Acts 20:20, 26, 27). Then does doctrine obtain force and authority, not only when the minister publicly expounds to all what they owe to Christ, but has the right and means of exacting this from those whom he may observe to be sluggish or disobedient to his doctrine.”