The last two articles in this rubric demonstrated from Scripture and the Reformed Confessions that the elders’ work has three basic aspects: rule and oversight, being pastor and shepherd, and teaching. Future articles will develop the aspects of the work at length.
The first of these three, the elders’ work of oversight, is itself broad. It includes the oversight of the congregation’s worship and congregational life, of the spiritual lives of the members of the congregation, and of all of the officebearers. The first in this list, the elders oversight of the congregation’s worship, is the topic of this article.
These articles devoted to the elders’ work of oversight have two goals. The first is to encourage faithful elders to diligence in this aspect of their work. The second is to motivate believers to appreciate and to submit to the oversight of our elders. Through faithful elders, laboring diligently in the church of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior Himself oversees and cares for us.
That the elders do and must oversee the congregation’s worship has warrant from Scripture, from the Church
Order, from the liturgical forms, and from history. Although no article of the Church Order specifically states this in so many words, the Church Order clearly implies that such is the duty of the elders.1 First, Article 15 says that “no one shall be permitted to preach or to administer the sacraments in another church without the consent of the consistory of that church,” indicating that the consistory is the body that gives permission to a person to lead the worship services. Second, Article 23 says that the elders are called “to take heed that the ministers…faithfully discharge their office.” The minister’s discharge of his office includes, although it is not limited to, his leading the worship service, preaching, and administration of the sacraments. Third, Articles 56–64 set forth regulations regarding the administration of the sacraments, and Articles 67–70 set forth principles regarding public worship. Although the minister implements these principles, the elders must ensure that they are implemented.
The “Form for Ordination of Elders and Deacons” indicates that the calling of elders is, in part, “to prevent, as much as possible, the sacraments from being profaned,” and “to have regard unto the doctrine…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.”2 Clearly, this relates to the public worship services.
Scripture also does not set forth this aspect of the elders’ work in so many words and in a particular verse.
However, Scripture teaches that the elders must oversee Christ’s church (Acts 20:28, 1 Pet. 5:1–3). These verses undergird the elders’ calling to watch over the spiritual lives of every member of the flock, but they also undergird their calling to oversee the worship of the church. It is in the worship of the church that the entire flock comes together to be fed.
In addition, Scripture gives principles regarding the proper worship of the church. In 1 Corinthians 11–14 the Holy Spirit instructs us regarding proper partaking of the Lord’s Supper and proper conduct in the worship services. The passage ends with the injunction: “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). Also 1 Timothy 2—in fact, much of the epistle—regards how the church must conduct itself in worship, and how the minister is to conduct himself in the church. The address in I Corinthians is to the church as a whole, and in I Timothy is to the pastor of the church. The verses do not state in so many words that the elders are to ensure obedience and to oversee the worship services. However, this idea is implied. The elders are the body of men whom God calls to ensure that all things in the church are done decently and in order.
Such oversight of the worship was historically understood to be the calling of the elders. The work of the elders of the cities in Old Testament Israel was in part to ensure that the people kept the law of God. A significant part of this law regards worship. And one role of the elders in the synagogues was to oversee the worship, to ensure that all was done rightly and in order.3
The church of Christ needs her elders to carry out this oversight. One reason for this is that God’s will and Word govern our worship. If the church’s worship were merely a matter of the church coming together to praise God in some vague and undetermined way, and if God were pleased with such worship, the calling of the elders in this regard would be less necessary. But God specifies how the church of Christ is to worship Him.
Principally He does so in the second commandment. In addition, many Old Testament laws found in Exodus and Leviticus taught Israel how rightly to worship God. In Christ’s death and resurrection these ceremonial laws have been abolished, but the principle of holy worship remains in the New Testament. Christ’s church is to worship God in the beauty of holiness (Ps. 29:2; 96:9), in fear and reference, bowing to Him (Ps. 95:6; 99:5, 9; 132:7), and in spirit and in truth (John 4:24, Phil. 3:3).
That God has revealed how He is to be worshiped is itself good reason for the elders to take the oversight of worship. The law of God must be upheld!
In addition, the elders must oversee worship because our sinful natures, against which we fight daily, are quick to pervert the right worship of God. Illustrations abound. In the Old Testament, Aaron made a golden calf and Jereboam instituted the worship of golden calves. The Pharisaical form of worship ignored the depth of one’s sins and emphasized a self-righteousness. The church in Corinth abused worship. The church’s worship degenerated soon after the death of the apostles and the generation following them, and reached a new low in the Middle Ages. What the Reformation restored to the churches—a right worship, in addition to other aspects of a lost heritage—is constantly in danger of being lost again.
The elders must oversee the church’s worship. Sinners will pattern our worship according to God’s will, and will aim our worship to His glory, only if Christ works in and through us. He uses the elders as means to that end.
Specifically, how do the elders carry out this aspect of their work? Certainly, their oversight of the worship must not just be a custom or habit. That the elders enter and leave the worship service as a body, perhaps sit together as a body, shake the minister’s hand after the service, and have their monthly consistory meetings, all signify that they have the oversight of the worship service. But none of these actions in themselves is oversight. Proper oversight involves asking appropriate questions, making correct evaluations, and taking appropriate steps to ensure that the worship service is pleasing to God. Examples are supplied, but these are not intended to be an exhaustive list.
To answer the above questions, particularly the last question in each category, is to make evaluations. Each elder must face these questions himself, but the final evaluation is that of the consistory, that is, of the elders as a body. The entire consistory determines whether the worship of the congregation is pleasing to God. The entire consistory determines whether the worship service includes all that God requires, and excludes everything He does not require. And the entire consistory evaluates whether the members of the congregation, as best the consistory can observe, are worshiping God with a sincere heart.
To say “as best the consistory can observe” is to recognize that no individual elder, and no consistory as a body, knows the heart and secret motives of any particular individual. The consistory makes the evaluations that it does on the basis of its knowledge of the people of God, and on the basis of outward criteria.
If the elders’ evaluation indicates that the church does not limit herself in worship to the use of those elements that God commanded, or that the demeanor and attitude of the members regarding worship is not proper, or that the minister is not leading the worship in an edifying way, the elders must take appropriate steps to address the problem. The purpose of this article is not to say what those steps are; it is to remind the elders that they must not ignore the problem but must address it.
Elders, take the oversight of the worship of the congregation! For the good of the church and the glory of God! Because this worship centers in the preaching and in the administration of the sacraments, the next article will give particular attention to the elders oversight of the preaching and sacraments.
1 All the following quotes are from “Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches,” in The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005), 378–404.
2 “Form for Ordination of Elders and Deacons,” in The Confessions and the Church Order, 290.
3 See “The History of the Office of Elder (2) During and After the Babylonian Captivity,” in Standard Bearer (May 1, 2012), 354–55.