Previous article in this series: February 1, 2021, p. 205.
In our last article we noted that the elders must oversee the election and installation of officebearers, and the work of officebearers. Doing that, they oversee the various offices in the church. Now we see that their oversight is even more specific: it extends to the doctrine and life of every officebearer personally.
Overseeing their doctrine and life
The elders are to oversee both the doctrine and the life of the church’s officebearers—that is, they oversee each officebearer personally. The Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons requires this of them: “Therefore, in the first place, the office of elders is…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.” It also requires this specifically regarding the minister: “Thirdly. It is also the duty particularly to have regard unto the doctrine and conversation of the ministers of the Word.” And the Church Order (Articles 53 and 54) requires all officebearers to sign the Formula of Subscription, ensuring that their own doctrines and faith corresponds to that set forth in our Reformed creeds. But also Scripture requires it: the elders are to oversee the flock (Acts 20:28), and yet they themselves are part of that flock. They must oversee their own doctrine and life.
For two reasons the elders oversee more than the work of the officebearers. First, the doctrine that a man professes and the life that he lives must adorn the work he does in God’s covenant and church. That God would give inspired instruction regarding the qualifications of officebearers (I Tim. 3; Titus 1) is itself warrant to say that the elders must oversee the doctrine and life of every officebearer. How a pastor lives, conducts his family, and treats other people, all affect the people’s ability to receive, hear, and respect him as the servant of Christ. How an elder or deacon lives affects the people’s respect for that man when he comes to visit them.
Second, Jesus Christ is the King of the church. He is this not only regarding the church as an institute, gathered for worship, but also regarding the church as an organism. Every member of the church is part of the living body of Christ that He governs. Therefore, the elders rightly oversee the doctrine and life of the members of the church, including her officebearers.
The point is that God does not permit a compartmentalization of one’s life, so that one’s “private life” is in conflict with his “public life.” Nor does God require the elders to oversee only the public life, or only the ecclesiastical life, of an officebearer. Everything regarding that officebearer’s doctrine and life is subject to the oversight of the elders. Having defended the proposition that the elders do have this oversight of the officebearers personally, let us note exactly what it is that the elders oversee.
“Doctrine” refers both to what the officebearers believe and to what they teach. The officebearers must believe that which is taught in Scripture and the Reformed creeds. If they believe something contrary to Scripture and the confessions, even if they are not actively teaching it, the elders must address the matter, for everyone who confessed their faith publicly stated that they believe the doctrines taught in Scripture and in the Reformed confessions to be the true and complete doctrine of salvation.
It follows that what the officebearers teach is under the elders’ oversight. Certainly this means that the elders as a body oversee the preaching and the catechism instruction, even when the elders do the catechizing. But the work of the pastor involves teaching in his pastoral visits, and the work of the elders and deacons involves teaching as they bring the Word of God to God’s people in committee visits. In other words, every aspect of the work of the pastor, elders, and deacons, at every single moment and in every single circumstance, is under the oversight of the elders.
“Life” refers to every aspect of their conduct—in public and in private, not only when doing church work but also in the officebearers’ daily vocations and in their own homes. How an officebearer treats his wife and disciplines his children, how he runs his business and performs his work, and even what he does in his spare time, is under the oversight of the elders.
How do the elders carry out this oversight?
Certainly they ought not micromanage the doctrine and life of the officebearers. No committee of elders would ordinarily be assigned to visit the workplace of another elder, or to investigate how he runs his home. But if they hear that an officebearer’s conduct or teaching does not accord with Scripture, or is not glorifying to God, or does not promote the gospel, or does not manifest love to his neighbor, the elders may address that matter with the officebearer. If the officebearer steals from or lies to his boss, and the consistory is aware of it, they must rebuke him and call him to repent. If he states falsehood on the witness stand in the courtroom or in some public venue, the consistory is to address it. For then the man has transgressed God’s law, and the enforcing of this law in every area of life is an ecclesiastical matter. To put it differently, then the man has in some regard departed from right doctrine or conduct, and brings reproach on the name of God and the church. For this reason, nothing about his doctrine or life, no matter in what circumstance, is beyond the oversight of the elders.
Usually the consistory is more readily aware of an officebearer’s personal relationship to the congregation, and of the work the officebearer does in the congregation. The elders manifest their oversight, partly, by approving the work of the various committees of officebearers. They also oversee their work when mutual censure (censura morem) is conducted before the Lord’s Supper.
This oversight means that the elders, as a body, may administer an admonition, or even more strongly, a rebuke, to a fellow elder, or to the minister or deacon. They might require that he confess his sin, and/or that he make amends in some way. They might require that he cease a practice in which he had regularly engaged. And they may require him to demonstrate that he has taken their admonitions and rebukes to heart. Even if the congregation never becomes aware of this matter, if it stays in the close confines of the consistory room, the elders may do this.
That the elders have this oversight has a very specific application: no officebearer may claim that some aspect of his life is not under the oversight or jurisdiction of the elders, or is not an ecclesiastical matter. I refer to Church Order Article 30: “In these assemblies ecclesiastical matters only shall be transacted.” The point of this article is that the consistories and assemblies may not, and ought not, deal with political, social, or economic issues. They need not enter into a personal dispute between an officebearer and his employer, or an officebearer and a representative of the government of his state, province, or nation.
However, everything about how the man lives and what he says is subject to the oversight of the consistory, and is an ecclesiastical matter. If this is true of the elders and deacons by virtue of their being officebearers, it is all the more true of the minister, whose life must be devoted to the congregation that he serves. Whether a minister may serve on some board of another organization, or start a new magazine, or join some civic club, and to which schools he will send his children and for what reasons, is an ecclesiastical matter, not only because he is an officebearer, but because he has been called to serve a local congregation, whose consistory oversees not only his work, but also his doctrine and life.
Discipline of officebearers
It stands to reason, then, that the elders may also administer ecclesiastical discipline to an officebearer in accord with Articles 71-77 of the Church Order, and may suspend and depose an officebearer in accord with Articles 79-80.
It is not my intent to spell out the procedure to follow in such instances; the elders can find that in the Church Order.
Rather, my purpose here is to show that this aspect of the work belongs to the elders alone. The deacons join with the elders in the election and installation of officebearers. At censura morem, the deacons also play a role in ensuring that every officebearer faithfully discharges the duty of his office. And, because every member of the church has the calling to admonish and warn brothers and sisters whose doctrine and walk does not accord with Scripture, in a general way the deacons are also involved in that work. But as regards ecclesiastical discipline of officebearers, and as regards suspension and deposition, the elders act apart from the deacons. The exception to this is when the deacons are added to the consistory in keeping with Article 37 of the Church Order.
That the elders alone do the work of discipline, including suspension and deposition, is clear from the Church Order. Articles 74-77, regarding Christian discipline, speak of the calling of the “consistory.” The Church Order consistently uses the word “consistory” to refer to the elders. When it speaks of the elders and deacons, it specifies that: “the consistory and the deacons.” Here the word “consistory” only is used. The same is true of Article 79, regarding suspension and deposition. Regardless of which office one holds, and whether one will be immediately deposed or only suspended, such is to happen “by preceding sentence of the consistory thereof,” that is, by the decree of the elders of the congregation.
This underscores that the office of elder is a unique office, with a unique calling. In a particular way, the office of elder manifests the kingship of Jesus Christ in and over His church. As the Old Testament king, not the priest or prophet, was called to administer judgments to those who sinned against God, so the New Testament elders are to do this work. The minister will be involved in it as an elder, but the deacons need not and ought not be involved in it. Their office is not that of oversight and rule.
Elders, the church of Jesus Christ needs you to do your work in regard to overseeing the doctrine and life of the church’s officebearers. Neglect or failure to do this will harm the church!
Elders, Jesus Christ requires you to do this work. He put you in office. Neglect or failure is disobedience to Jesus Christ!
So do not be intimidated by your pastor. Do not be swayed by your fellow elder and friend. Do not be influenced by an outspoken deacon. Oversee the doctrine and life of every officebearer. Carry out your calling!
The church that you oversee fervently prays that you do so. Christ, whom you serve, has equipped you to do so. So take this part of your calling seriously! Consciously, soberly, lovingly, humbly, righteously, and in every other way that shows Christ is working in and through you, do this—oversee the doctrine and life of your fellow officebearers.