Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
In the previous article we examined in some detail the gifts necessary for the office of elder as these are presented in I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. If we consider these gifts as a whole we may conclude that the elder in Christ’s church must possess certain qualifications or gifts of the Holy Spirit of Christ. These are: spirituality or genuine piety, humility, sympathetic understanding, courage or boldness, knowledge of the truth of Holy Scripture. To this must be added the fact that Scripture teaches that the elder must be an example to the people of God.
That the elder must possess the gift of spirituality or genuine piety means that he must be a child of God. It is true that there may be hypocrites among the elders. We are warned in Scripture that just as there were false prophets in the Old Testament era so there will be false teachers in the church today.1 God even used a Balaam to bless His Old Testament church. Two things may be said of these false teachers. They never last. Sooner or later, but inevitably, they are exposed. When that happens they either leave the church or are put out of office and the church by means of discipline. These hypocrites are not the rule, but the exception. The man who would serve the church as an elder, either ruling or teaching, must be a spiritual man. He must be pious and godly, a man saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, God’s gift. The elder must be a man in whose heart burns the love of God in Christ so that he loves God and God’s people, God’s church and cause. Without the love of God in his heart, the elder may speak with the tongue of men and of angels, but he will become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. He may have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, but if the elder lacks God’s love, he is nothing.2
Closely related to spirituality is the gift of humility. There is no room for pride in the elder. Pride, the Bible says, goes before destruction.3 Self-seeking pride, selfishness, the seeking of the praise of men — these are abominable sins among God’s people, especially among the elders. The elder must be a humble man. Just as were the apostles, so must the elders be servants (the word in the Greek is “slaves”) of the Lord Jesus Christ and His church. The elder must give his life in the service of God’s church. This means the elder must be a man of prayer. If he is not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, the elder must know that all that he is and all that he has, and that includes the office which he occupies, is the gift of God’s grace. The elder must know that he cannot watch for the souls of God’s people, admonish one wayward saint, visit one afflicted child of God, or counsel one troubled saint apart from God’s grace. If anyone in the church needs to pray without ceasing, it is the elder. He needs God’s grace and Holy Spirit to enable him to “shepherd the flock of God … taking the 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 examples to the flock.”4
Sympathetic understanding must also characterize the elder. Jesus, the Son of God, our great High Priest who is passed into the heavens for us, is able to be touched with the feelings of our infirmities, and He was tempted in all points like as we, yet without sin.5 If Jesus is able to be touched with the feelings of our infirmities, then surely the elder who is the servant of Christ must have sympathetic understanding of God’s people. He must know God’s people: their needs, their struggles, joys, afflictions, sorrows, weaknesses, and sins. The elder must “feel with” the people of God so as to be able to bring the Word of God which meets their need.
To serve in the office of elder requires courage or boldness. The apostle Paul asked the saints in Ephesus to pray for him that he might have boldness to open his mouth to make known the mystery of the gospel.6 The elder must emulate the apostle in this respect, for he too needs boldness to do the work. To hold fast the truth in an age of apostasy, to insist on obedience to the law of God in a lawless age, to insist on good, expository preaching which presents the truth antithetically in an age in which people despise preaching, to discipline the wayward even to the point of applying the “last remedy,” excommunication, in an age of permissiveness — all this takes boldness. The elder, together with the minister and deacon, stands in the front line of the battle of faith. This takes great courage!
The elder needs to know the doctrines of the Word of God as these are summed and presented systematically in the Reformed confessions. He must be thoroughly steeped in the Reformed faith. Constantly the elder must grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. If he does not he will surely fall from his own steadfastness and be led away with the error of the wicked.7 If he is to contend earnestly for the faith, the elder must know the faith.8 If he is to shepherd the flock of God by means of teaching the people of God, he must know the doctrine of God’s Word. He must know the history of the church generally, but he must especially know the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches. The elder must know the struggles and battles of the church which make her what she is today. The elder must be able to discern the truth and distinguish it from the lie. An elder who is ignorant of all this will never be able to govern and lead the people of God in the way of the truth.
Finally, the elder must be an example to the people of God. His actions must never contradict his teaching. Always the elder must be able to say to the congregation, “Do as I do, speak as I speak, live as I live.” The holy apostle admonishes us to be followers (“imitators” is the literal translation) of him and his co-workers. Many walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction. We must imitate the apostles and their co-laborers because their conversation (citizenship) is in heaven, from whence also they look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.9 The apostle Paul exhorts his spiritual son Timothy, the young preacher, to “be an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.”10 To cite no more, the apostle Peter exhorts the elders of the church to shepherd the flock of God, “… not as lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock.”11
The man of God whom the Lord calls to this sacred office trembles when he ponders all this. “Who,” he asks with Paul, “is sufficient for these things?”12 The answer is, only the man whom God in His mercy has blessed with the calling and the gifts to serve Him by serving His precious and beloved church in Jesus Christ.
1II Peter 2 : 1-3; Jude 3-4, 17-19.
2I Corinthians 13:1-2.
4I Peter 5:1-3.
7II Peter 3:17-18.
10I Timothy 4:12.
11I Peter 5:1-3.
12II Corinthians 2:16.