Previous article in this series: October 1, 2021, p. 14.
Overseeing the congregation’s members
The work of the elders has three main components to it: oversight, instruction, and shepherding. Focusing on the first of those components, previous articles have set forth that the elders must oversee the congregation’s worship in general and the preaching and administration of the sacraments in particular, must oversee the work of the officebearers, and must oversee the conduct of the officebearers.
When the elders take seriously that aspect of their work of oversight, they will be ready also to take seriously the oversight of the members of the congregation.
The nature of this oversight
The elders’ oversight extends to every member of the congregation, and involves careful attention to each member. Here the work of oversight and of shepherding is combined. The good shepherd attends to every sheep of the flock, examining each sheep for parasites, ensuring each is free of disease, is contentedly enjoying healthy and sufficient food and water, is comfortable, and is free of all fear of danger.
So the elders’ oversight of the congregation’s members requires the elders to be alert in several ways. First, they will observe whether the lives of the individual members conform outwardly to God’s law in every respect. In our relationship to fellow members, to family members (parents, children, siblings), to civil authorities, to fellow Christians, to ungodly unbelievers in society around us, do we manifest the love that God requires of us in His law?
Second, the elders will observe whether the members of the congregation speak and act according to their confession of the Christian religion. Not only in the church’s worship, but also in our speech to each other and to others who are outside the church, do we profess and defend the Christian and Reformed faith? We confess the Christian and Reformed faith according to the teachings of Scripture. But does our thinking accord with that basis? What heresies and lies swirl around us and how do they affect us? Do we think those things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report? Do we rest contentedly in the work of Christ alone, and does our knowledge of Him as our Good Shepherd give us peace and rest?
We must not suppose, however, that the oversight of the elders regards only the members’ outward conduct. True, the elders cannot see the hearts, motives, and inner thoughts of the church’s members. However, the elders still must promote the inner, spiritual well-being of the members; they must attend, as best they can, to the members’ relationship to God in their souls. After all, Hebrews 13:17 says that the elders “watch for your souls.” This is a striking word: it indicates that the elders must do more than observe our outward spiritual life; they must also guard our inner spiritual life. Though unable to see our hearts, the elders can and must observe our spiritual weaknesses, and warn us against particular dangers that we face in light of these weaknesses.
Consequently, the elders will ask whether we are receiving and being nourished by the preaching of the gospel. This is a different matter than ensuring that the pastor’s sermons are edifying. The elders must make that judgment too. However, it is one thing to ensure that the sermons are edifying; it is another to inquire whether the members are receiving the preaching well. A sheep that will not eat wholesome, nourishing grass is a concern to the shepherd; that sheep is likely sick. Likewise, if any member is not receiving the sound preaching of the gospel well, the elders will have a concern for that member; likely the member has some spiritual weakness.
As the elders watch for our souls, they will also observe our involvement in the life of the congregation and our relationship to other members. They will note our zeal, or apparent lack thereof, for divine worship. They will inquire into our family and personal devotional life. They will investigate whether in our vocations we are aiming to God’s glory, or whether the circumstances of our vocational life are a hindrance to our spiritual life. They will ask what we are being taught at college, or what influences we find at our jobs, and how we are responding to it. They will warn us against those specific sins that we seem prone to commit, and the spiritual dangers around us.
All these, and more, will be their concern. And when they detect spiritual problems in our lives, they will do what they can to address them. Particularly, they will point us to Christ, our all-sufficient Savior, and to God’s Word. They will point us to His righteousness, as being sufficient to cover our guilt, and to His sanctifying life and power, as being sufficient to empower us to godliness. That is part of their role as shepherds.
A word to the elders, then: Take the oversight of the flock! Be visible, be present, in the lives of the members! Know your sheep!
The reasons for this oversight
That the elders have such oversight and may ask such probing questions might take us aback. We might think, “My life is my business. Why should the elders stick their nose into my life so intrusively? And, as men, they are as sinful as I am; who are they to speak to me about my sins and weaknesses?”
The questions are real. Some people leave churches that have elders who take oversight seriously, and claim that their reason for leaving is that the elders tried to be too involved in their life. Other times, some remain in the church but complain that the elders are involved in their life. So I will defend that the elders may take this oversight of the members, and not only in general but also in specific ways.
First, as the Bible teaches, God gave them authority to do so. The Holy Spirit has made them overseers (Acts 20:28), so that they must give answer to God (Heb. 13:17). Such oversight is the work of their office.
Acts 20:28 reads: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers….” It requires the elders to take heed (diligently attend to, including being aware of any dangers that would threaten the flock) and to oversee (watch over, superintend, and guard). This calling extends to “all the flock.” The addition of the word “all” indicates that the elders are not merely to watch over the whole congregation generally, but to observe the individual members, each and every one, specifically.
Hebrews 13:17 teaches God’s people that the congregation’s leaders “watch for your souls, as they that must give account.” This also indicates that the watchfulness of the elders extends to individual members and to every member.
Second, this is the work of a shepherd. What shepherd contents himself to watch over the flock generally, but ignores individual sheep? How can a shepherd who ignores individual sheep, so that they suffer from parasites or other dangers, claim to be watching over the whole flock?
Third, this is the work of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, whom the elders represent and through whom He works. Do we not want Jesus Christ to notice our every need, our weaknesses, assaults, struggles, and infirmities? Do we not desire Him to assure us that He cares, is present with us, guards us, warns us, comforts us, builds us up? The child of God does desire this! And the word of Christ is that He is always with us and will not leave us nor forsake us (Matt. 28:20; Heb. 13:5). One way in which He fulfills that promise is through the work of godly, faithful elders in His church.
Fourth, we need this oversight. We are sheep; we have gone astray, are prone to go astray, and will go astray again (Ps. 119:176; Is. 53:6). This is true of every child of God, including the elders. I add this, to respond to the charge that because they are sinners, they ought leave me alone. The charge is wrong. The truth of the matter is that every elder as an individual, and every committee of elders that meets with members of the congregation, are themselves subject to the body of elders, and in need of the same oversight that every other member needs. That they are sinners is no reason to despise their oversight; rather, it is a reason to expect that their oversight will be mixed with love and compassion, for they understand our need.
A word to the congregation, then: Willingly receive your elders, and submit to their oversight! If you think they have truly wronged you, or are not compassionate and loving in their dealings with you, bring this to their attention in the loving and gracious way in which you desire to be treated. But do not refuse their oversight. To refuse the oversight of elders is one way in which apostasy, a rejection of the Christian faith and the church of Christ, manifests itself (Heb. 13:7, 17).
The manner of this oversight
The means by which the elders oversee the congregation are varied. The preaching of the gospel, family visitation, personal visits by an individual elder in a pastoral setting, personal visits by a committee of elders in a more official setting, are all part of it.
Regardless of the means they use, faithful elders will exercise this oversight in a Christ-like manner. They will manifest love, gentleness, and compassion. The manner in which faithful elders oversee the flock will reveal that they are indeed qualified for their office (Tit.1; I Tim. 3). The elders must guard against being harsh, impatient, and lacking compassion for the sheep. Even when admonishing or rebuking, the elders must manifest patience and love.
The instruction to elders in I Peter 5:2-3 emphasizes the necessity of a right manner of taking oversight: “Taking oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.” “Not by constraint, but willingly”—that is, the elders must not do their work just because they have to, but they must have a heart for it and undertake it with zeal toward God. “Of a ready mind”—that is, with eagerness and readiness. May God give us elders whose oversight of us is not motivated by any hope for personal gain, but in genuine love for our souls!
Strikingly, the verse also says “neither as being lords.” While the elders are in positions of authority, and are overseers, they are not “above” the people but “below” the people. The word “being lords” refers to those who are placed over, and who have a significant measure of control over the people underneath them. Often such can become tyrants. But “ensamples,” or examples, are those who understand the people and are one with the people.
When the congregation sees our elders overseeing our lives in this way—humbly, exemplary, Christ-like— we will submit to them eagerly. Not to submit to their good instruction and correction, even if we see their sins and weaknesses, is a sin on our part. God give all of us to guard against it. But as readily as they do their work in love, so readily will God’s people receive their work in love, when we see our elders overseeing us in the right manner.