Having treated the nature and history of the office of elder, the qualifications for the office, and the call to and ordination into the office, we come now to the meat of the matter—the work of the office of elder.
The work of the office of elder is manifold. They are mistaken who consider the work of the office to be only that of oversight and rule, which work is performed primarily by sitting in the elders’ bench during the worship services and by attending consistory meetings. The work is broader than that.
It is broader as regards what the work involves. I judge that the work of the office of elder has three main aspects to it: ruling or overseeing, being a pastor or shepherd, and teaching. And each of these aspects is complex. To take only the first aspect of their work as an instance, the elders as a body have oversight over the congregation as a whole, over each individual member particularly, over the minister in his life and labors, over the individual elders in their labors, and over the deacons in their labors.
In addition, the work of the elder is broader as regards the time involved in performing it. Every moment of his life, the elder is an elder. This means that, while in his waking hours he is busy with his secular employment and often with the responsibilities of being a husband and father, he is also an elder at all times. This is not to suggest that his work as elder is more important than and takes precedence over his calling as husband and father. However, just as he is a husband and father at all times, so he is an elder at all times. The diligent elder has a continual care for the members of the congregation in their needs. Attending consistory and committee meetings are not the whole of his work; they serve and facilitate his real work.
I intend to develop the subject of the work of the elders by using the threefold division that I have proposed—the elder as overseer, as pastor/shepherd, and as teacher. Before doing so, I will demonstrate from the Reformed confessions (in this article) and from Scripture (in the next article) that this threefold division is imbedded in the teachings of Scripture and in our Reformed confessions.
The Church Order1
Several articles of the Church Order speak explicitly to the work of the elder. In Article 16, which speaks of the duties of the minister, we read that he is, “with the elders, to exercise church discipline and to see to it that everything is done decently and in good order.” Articles 74 and following elaborate on the work of the consistory in the matter of discipline. The following articles address elders’ work specifically:
Article 23: The office of the elders, in addition to what was said in Article 16 to be their duty in common with the minister of the Word, is to take heed that the ministers, together with their fellow elders and the deacons, faithfully discharge their office, and both before and after the Lord’s Supper, as time and circumstances may demand, for the edification of the churches, to visit the families of the congregation, in order particularly to comfort and instruct the members, and also to exhort others in respect to the Christian religion.
Article 55: To ward off false doctrines and errors that multiply exceedingly through heretical writings, the ministers and elders shall use the means of teaching, of refutation or warning, and of admonition, as well in the ministry of the Word as in Christian teaching and family visiting.
Article 64: The administration of the Lord’s Supper shall take place only there where there is supervision of elders, according to the ecclesiastical order, and in a public gathering of the congregation.
Other articles speak implicitly to the work of the elders, but these are explicit, and they serve our purpose. They demonstrate that the work of the elders includes supervision: supervision of the souls of the congregation so that, when necessary, formal discipline is carried out (Art. 16); supervision of the offices (Art. 23); and supervision of worship (Art. 64). Other articles imply that the elders are supervising the congregation, so that all is done well; in fact, all the principles and regulations of the Church Order assume, for their implementation, that the elders are supervising the congregation’s officebearers, members, and worship.
The articles also mention the pastoral aspect of the office of elder. To “see that everything is done decently and in good order” (Art. 16), to do the work of family visitation (Art. 23, 55), specifically to “comfort” (Art. 23), and properly to oversee the souls of the congregation presupposes that the elders are pastorally visiting, encouraging, and admonishing the members.
That the elders must teach follows from their calling to rule and pastor the flock. Teaching is the means by which the elders carry out their work. The Church Order explicitly mentions this calling in Articles 23 and 55.
Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons
The Form, having summarized the history and nature of the office of elder, sets forth three aspects to the work of the office.
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 every one 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 does not only appear from the above mentioned saying of Christ, but also from many other places of Holy Writ, as 1 Corinthians 5, and 2 Corinthians 2, that these things are not alone entrusted to one or two persons, but to many who are ordained thereto.
Secondly. Since the apostle enjoins, 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 advise and consolation.
Thirdly. It is also the duty particularly to have regard unto the doctrine and conversation of the ministers of the Word, to the end that all things may be directed to the edification of the church; and that no strange doctrine be taught, according to that which we read, Acts 20, where the apostle exhorts to watch diligently against the wolves, which might come into the sheepfold of Christ; for the performance of which, the elders are in duty bound diligently to search the Word of God, and continually be meditating on the mysteries of faith.
The work of oversight is prominent here: oversight of the church, of the lives of the members, and of the office of minister. At the same time, as quoted above, the elders are “to admonish those who behave themselves disorderly” and “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.” This includes being a shepherd and a teacher.
The Belgic Confession
Article 30 of the Belgic Confession is entitled “The Government of and Offices in the Church.” It reads:
We believe that this true Church must be governed by the spiritual policy which our Lord has taught us in his Word—namely, that there must be Ministers or Pastors to preach the Word of God, and to administer the Sacraments; also elders and deacons, who, together with the pastors, form the council of the church; that by these means the true religion may be preserved, and the true doctrine everywhere propagated, likewise transgressors punished and restrained by spiritual means; also that the poor and distressed may be relieved and comforted, according to their necessities. By these means everything will be carried on in the church with good order and decency, when faithful men are chosen, according to the rule prescribed by St. Paul to Timothy.3
The article certainly does not give a broad list of the duties of the office of elder; it does not even explicitly distinguish the duties of the office of elder from that of deacon. But implied in the elders being part of a “council of the church,” and in the punishing and restraining of transgressors, is the idea of oversight; and the preserving of true religion, which falls in part to the elders, involves instruction.
These and other references to the office of elder in our Church Order, liturgical forms, and confessions are significant for several reasons.
First, they underscore that Reformed churches have a definitely formed view of what the work of the office of elder entails. The fundamental work of the office is not for elders to discover after they get into office. Before entering office, they know what that work is.
Second, they indicate that the work of the office is not simple, but complex—by which I mean, as I stated at the beginning of the article, not merely a matter of sitting in the elders’ row and of making decisions at consistory meetings, but a varied work that never ends. These references set the parameters for the work of the office. They distinguish the work of the office of elder from that of pastor and deacon. Within the parameters set, the elders have plenty of work to do.
Third, this definitely formed view of the work of the office of elder is based on the teachings of Scripture. Our confessions summarize what we know from Scripture to be God’s will regarding the work of elders. Next time, then, we will see that the Scriptures also support the idea that the work of the elders is manifold, but can be categorized into three aspects: oversight, pastoral, and teaching.
1 All quotations in this section are taken from “Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches” as found in The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005), 378–404. Although the PRC has made some modifications to the Church Order, this is essentially the same Church Order as adopted by the Synod of Dordt, 1618–1619.
2 “Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons,” The Confessions and the Church Order, 291.
3 “Belgic Confession” in Philip Schaff, ed., The Creeds of Christendom With a History and Critical Notes, 6th ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1931; repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1990), 3:421–22.