Previous article in this series: March 1, 2013, p. 153.
God used the great Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century to restore the office of elder to its rightful place in the church of Christ—particularly in Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Having treated this restoration in our last article, we now conclude our treatment of the history of the office of elder by noting some highlights of this history after the time of the Reformation, and making a concluding analysis of this history.
It belongs to the history of the office to note that the Reformed and Presbyterian confessions speak often and rightly of this office.
Because we quoted from the Form for Ordination of Elders and Deacons in our last article, we will not quote from it now. However, we must bear in mind that this form is a minor confession of Reformed churches—“minor,” not because its authority is less than other creeds or confessions, but because it speaks to just one area of Reformed teaching and practice, that being the office or elder and deacon in the church. The writing of this form and continued use of this form were one way in which Reformed churches set forth their understanding of the office of elder.
That the churches should have the office of elder in them, and that the work of the office involved spiritual oversight and the exercise of Christian discipline, was codified in the church orders of the reformation era. Chapter 4 of the “Articles of Wesel, 1568” was entitled “Concerning the Elders.” While too lengthy to quote in full here (three pages in DeRidder’s translation),1 this early document relating to the office of elder is worth summarizing. Among other things, this chapter:
l stipulates that the elders (along with the minister) form the consistory, and are required to meet regularly as a consistory; and that if they must meet as elders in the ministers’ absence, they are “obligated faithfully to reveal to the ministers the reason why the consistory meeting was held as well as what was dealt with there.”
l requires that each elder must “diligently keep watch over his own parish or district, and visit the members under their care from house to house at least once a week,” with a view to instructing them and carrying out spiritual oversight, as well as requiring them to visit the sick. It also sets forth the benefits of dividing the church into geographical districts, better to carry out this oversight.
l provides for the election and installation of elders, emphasizing the need that these be men qualified in accord with the inspired word of the apostle Paul (Titus 1; I Tim. 3).
The church orders of the Provincial Synod of Dordrecht (1574), the General Synod of Middelburg (1581), and the National Synod of ’sGravenhage (1586) are early versions of what was later set forth in the Church Order of Dordrecht (1618-1619).2 The latter document requires the office to be found in the church (Art. 2), and regulates the duties of the office (Arts. 16, 22, as well as sections three and four), election to the office (Arts. 22, 27), and other matters regarding how the elders do their work (section two).
The office of elder is prominent not only in Reformed Church Orders, but also in the creedal statements of Reformed and Presbyterian churches.
Although our Heidelberg Catechism does not use the term “elder,” its teaching that the exclusion from the Lord’s Supper of those who declare themselves unbelieving and ungodly “is the duty of the Christian church” (Answer 82), and that this is carried out by “those who are thereunto appointed by the church” (Answer 85), presupposes the existence of the office of elder, and suggests the necessity of the office, in the church of Christ.
The Belgic Confession is explicit. All Reformed believers confess in Article 30: “We believe that this true church must be governed by that spiritual policy which our Lord hath taught us in His Word, namely that there must be ministers or pastors . . . ; also elders and deacons . . . .” Article 31 speaks of how such are to be chosen to office, and Article 32 of the necessity of Christian discipline.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 30, makes clear that the church must have its officers, “distinct from the civil magistrate,” to carry out the work of censure. The Presbyterian Form of Church Government speaks of “other church-governors” in addition to pastors, teachers, and deacons, and makes clear that these “other church-governors” are those that “reformed churches commonly call Elders.”
That the place of the office of elder in Reformed and Presbyterian churches is given creedal expression is significant in at least three ways.
First, it indicates that the restoration of the office of elder at the time of the Reformation was no passing fad, no half-hearted attempt to bring back what the early New Testament church enjoyed, but was true and full restoration.
Second, it indicates that Reformed and Presbyterian churches as a whole enjoyed the benefits of this restoration—the place of the office of elder in such churches was universally and authoritatively recognized in such churches. Not just the churches in the Netherlands or in Scotland; not just some congregations here and there; but all Reformed churches agreed on the need for and place of the office of elder. Reformed believers and churches consider the existence of this office an essential matter.
Third, ever since the 1500s and 1600s, Reformed and Presbyterian churches have had clear guidance regarding the place of the office in the church. Regardless of whether or not Reformed and Presbyterian churches today adhere to their confessional statements regarding the place of the elder in the church, the fact is that they have a clear witness and testimony regarding what that place must be.
The Office Preserved
In Reformed churches today, the office still exists.
That the office exists in the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, and in our sister churches (the Covenant Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore and the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Northern Ireland), both members and friends of these churches are well aware.
But the office exists not in these churches only; in all American churches that are Reformed in name and in heritage, the office exists—including the Canadian and American Reformed Churches (CANRC), Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC), the Free Reformed Churches of North America (FRC), the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregations (HNRC), the Netherlands Reformed Congregations (NRC), the Reformed Church in America (RCA), and the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS), as well as a number of Presbyterian church bodies in North America, and in Reformed and Presbyterian churches throughout the world.
To say that it exists in these churches is not the same as saying that these churches regulate the office according to the Scriptures in every particular respect. Some of these denominations, contrary to God’s revealed will, permit women to serve in the offices. In some, church discipline is not exercised as readily as it ought be, or in strict accordance with the Word of God—which is, in fact, a danger for every Reformed congregation. Within any Reformed congregation, including those in the Protestant Reformed Churches, care must be taken that the elders do not become lax in their work or personal life. In these and other respects, the office of elder in every Reformed congregation, not to mention denomination, must strive to be always reforming.
But to say that the office exists in these churches is to say that these churches view the office of elder as consisting of a plurality of persons, chosen from out of the congregation; that they view the essential work of the office as being the spiritual oversight of the church; and that they do ascribe to the elders the authority to discipline the members of the church.
That the office of elder continues in Reformed and Presbyterian churches since the time of the Great Reformation is not ultimately of man’s doing, nor is it to man’s praise. The office of elder continues, not because Reformed people want to follow “tradition,” nor because of an allegiance to Calvin, and certainly not because influential men want to retain their influence. Rather, the office of elder continues in Reformed and Presbyterian churches because God has opened the eyes of their members to see that this office is necessary in the church of Christ. Through the elders’ faithful labors, Christ Himself rules His church. The members therefore benefit greatly from having these rulers and being subject to them.
That the office is preserved in these churches, therefore, is due to God’s grace, and is a reason for thanksgiving.
Lessons We Learn from This History
Concluding our survey of the history of the office of elder, both in the Old and New Testaments, and throughout the history of the Christian church, we learn several lessons.
One is the necessity of the church having the office of elder in her midst. The church must not let the state govern her (the Erastian form of church government); she must not let one man govern her (which would be hierarchy); and she must not let a majority of her members dictate how she lives (which is what congregationalism does). She must have this office in her midst, because through it Christ Himself works to rule His church.
Second, we learn that Satan seeks to destroy the church, among other ways, by causing the church to minimize the necessity of the office of elder, or causing the church to permit her elders to do what does not really belong to their office. Against this we must guard.
Third, we are reminded that God always defends and preserves His church. Especially at the time of the Protestant Reformation, He used men to restore this office to its rightful place; but since then, by preserving the office in true churches, He preserves His church!
All this has several implications for us.
If Christ rules His church through elders, and if the office of elder has been preserved especially in Reformed and Presbyterian churches, the child of God ought to seek to join such a church.
And the church and individual children of God ought be fervent in prayer: “Lord, continue to show Thy love to us in causing us to appreciate the elders Thou hast given, and in giving us elders until Christ Himself returns.”
1 Richard R. DeRidder, Translation of Ecclesiastical Manual including the decisions of the Netherlands Synods and other significant matters relating to the government of the churches, by P. Biesterveld and H. H. Kuyper (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1982), 30-32.
2 The interested reader can find these church orders in Richard R. DeRidder’s book, 59ff.