By God’s grace, the Protestant Reformed Churches are determined to train our ministers well—our prophets and teachers. With equal determination we must train our elders well, for the watchmen on Zion’s walls must have the wherewithal to watch properly, her gatekeepers must be skilled in the use of the gate’s keys, and her overseers must have wisdom to make proper judgments about the faith and life of the members and about the instruction from the church’s prophet.
I wrote last time that our churches do train our elders. It is not the same kind of specialized training that the churches give to her ministers over the course of four rigorous years of seminary instruction. Rather, the fundamental training for elders comes in especially two ways. From a certain point of view, it is no less rigorous or extensive.
First, the Holy Spirit, by the means of grace, prepares a man’s heart, often from his youth, with the spiritual gifts of wisdom, boldness, humility, patience, godliness, moderation, balance, sobriety, and others. Second, the Holy Spirit prepares, by the same means of grace, a man’s mind, also often from his youth, to give him the intellectual grasp of biblical truth: knowledge of God, of His will, of His works—the doctrines of God, man, Christ, salvation, the church, and the end times.
Christ’s Spirit prepares not only heart, but also mind. For even the knowledge required for an elder is spiritual knowledge. It is not the knowledge about God, which anyone can acquire by studying, but the true spiritual knowledge which is precious to a man, by which he embraces Christ and all His benefits as his own.
But the Spirit prepares the elder’s heart and mind by means—the means of grace. We might think that a man’s heart is trained by the Spirit without means, but the man’s mind by the Spirit with means. But both a man’s heart and a man’s mind are prepared by the means of grace—the Word of God, especially as it is preached and taught in the church, but also as it is given in the home and school by parents and Christian teachers. For this reason, it is very unusual—not impossible, but unusual—that the Spirit prepare a man for the office of elder who has not been under the means of grace for an extended period of time. Normally men are prepared for this work only after they have been members of the church for many years. “Not a novice.”
So if the church has judged that you have the necessary qualifications for office, perhaps largely by the fact that you have had an upbringing by faithful parents and received solid catechetical instruction by a qualified pastor, you may have good confidence that the Lord has given you a great deal of what is necessary to be an elder whom God will use for good.
True, to the extent that you did not heed the good instruction of your parents or did not listen to and profit from catechism, to that extent you repent in humility and beg of God both to forgive our failures and sanctify you for the office in other ways. And He will, for He who called will qualify for the work. He loves His church. Commit, then, brother elders, to use more fervently the means of grace to prepare yourselves further. God does use weakest means to fulfill His will! For, although God does use weakest means to fulfill His will, we also want to grow.
It really is not different for us teaching elders—ministers of the gospel—who also begin with only the barest qualifications for being useful pastors. But through the course of the minister’s ‘term,’ he grows by diligent work, careful study, and earnest prayer…or he languishes in the pulpit. For elders as for ministers, if a man does not work to develop and grow, it is not likely that the Lord will be pleased to use him well.
Growth for elders can come in three main areas: 1) knowledge of Scripture and the creeds; 2) understanding of church government; and 3) ability to counsel the people of God in their troubles.
Scripture and confessions
First, we remind ourselves what is primary. The “Form for Ordination” calls elders to “take heed that purity of doctrine…be maintained in the church of God,” that is, to “have regard to the doctrine of the minister.” For this, elders must know the truth. So the Form calls you “diligently to search the Word of God,” and “continually [to] be meditating on the mysteries of faith.” Also, the Formula of Subscription you signed has you make weighty promises: 1) you believe all the doctrines taught in the PRCA fully agree with the Word of God; 2) you promise to teach and defend these doctrines faithfully; 3) you do and will reject all errors that militate against these doctrines, in particular those addressed at the Synod of Dordt.
This calling stands at the very heart of the elder’s labors. Because you take this instruction and your public vows seriously, you will be determined to read and study Scripture and the confessions, systematically and regularly. Let every elder be diligent in his private reading of Scripture, perhaps also reading through the confessions as part of his personal devotions. Full and accurate knowledge of the Scripture and the Reformed creeds are as basic to the elder in his work as hammer and saw are to a carpenter.
It is a good practice of some consistories to read articles of the Church Order at each meeting. It might be as important, or more, to read and receive instruction from the creeds. Before each consistory meeting, shall we commit to reading an article of the Belgic Confession and the corresponding explanation of it in Prof. D. Engelsma’s new commentary published by the RFPA? Or the Canons of Dordt and Homer C. Hoeksema’s (older) explanation of it (Voice of Our Fathers, both available at rfpa.org)? Not to do so because of busyness may call for a discussion of priorities. Men and brethren, let us never become churches whose elders are not fully conversant in the Word of God and the Reformed creeds. Let our training and preparation start here.
Second in our recommendations for preparation is the Church Order. Actually, church government is not a subject distinct from Reformed doctrine but is an aspect of it. It is a part of ecclesiology, the biblical and confessional doctrine of the church. The Church Order is considered among us as one of our “minor creeds” because it is the Reformed creed or confession regarding church government. It is designated minor, not because it is less important than the other creeds, but because it deals with a smaller slice of biblical truth. Our minor creeds include the Forms for Baptism, Confession of Faith, and the Lord’s Supper; the Form of Confirmation of Marriage; the Forms of Excommunication and Readmittance; and the Forms of Ordination of ministers, elders, deacons, missionaries, and professors. Each of these Forms is the church’s official teaching about a particular subject in Scripture. Among these minor creeds, the Church Order is actually quite major. Its 86 articles include instruction regarding the offices in the church (minister, elder, deacon); regarding the assemblies (consistory, classis, synod); regarding worship (Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, catechism preaching, singing, weddings, funerals, etc.); and regarding church discipline (of the common member and of the officebearer).
This Church Order is the “government and discipline” to which everyone who confesses faith promises to submit. Thus, to rule these members well (I Timothy 5:17), elders will want to know the Church Order inside and out.
Good advice for the elder here, then, is to read the Church Order itself until it becomes like an old friend. Then he can read the good commentary on it by VanDellen and Monsma. All our churches can have a ready supply of this commentary, available from our brother G. VanDerSchaaf (both in new paperback and used hardcover at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Also counseling is your calling as elders, as our minor creeds teach. Article 23 of the Church Order gives this mandate to elders: “comfort, instruct, exhort” the members. The Form for Ordination of Elders calls elders “to be assistant with good counsel and advice (and consolation)” both to the ministers and members of the church. II Timothy 2 says that the elder’s calling is to assist the people of God who have been ensnared in a terrible sin. In meekness, you instruct those who have fallen prey to the devil, or who have been harmed by the evils of others.
Occasionally, I hear the strange notion that it is not the calling of elders to ‘do counseling.’ Some suggest this to be true for ministers also. I cannot think of any advice more bizarre, or hurtful. Unless, of course, by ‘counseling’ is meant telling people what to do who already know what to do but do not want to do it; or sitting down with people as a worldly psychologist sits, trying to psychoanalyze a person’s problems or dig for suppressed memories. But this is not what elders (and pastors) are called to do. They are, though, to counsel—to give “good counsel and advice” to the sheep.
Giving good counsel to God’s people takes wisdom. And since there is no wisdom without knowledge, also here we see the supreme importance of knowing Scripture and the creeds.
A few examples can make that clear. If, for example, an older man has become addicted to strong drink, or a younger man to pornography, the counsel they need will be given from a firm foundation of Reformed doctrine. The competent elder-counselor understands man’s vicious nature and the addictive power of every sin. He will not be naive as to the hideous strength of sin, nor the subtlety of Satan, nor our innate blindness to our own sin. He will know the free grace of forgiveness for every penitent sinner and the power of the Holy Spirit to sanctify, but also that growth in sanctification is gradual, usually not dramatic, and that the transformation of penitent believers comes mostly by the renewal of their minds. Thus, the elder-counselor will always be opening the Scripture and teaching the fallen but repentant believer how to think biblically. This principle applies to all counseling.
Or if, for example, an elder gives counsel to a depressed Christian who doubts the goodness of God and even wonders whether God loves him, he will have at his disposal all the deep and blessed truths of Scripture and the creeds about God’s unconditional love, and sovereign grace, about justification, sanctification, and God’s eternal purposes (even in afflictions). Or, when elders are asked to help with marriage problems, they will not start with explaining the biblical truth about finances, sex, personal communication, or the like, but with God’s unconditional covenant of love with His people in Jesus Christ as the bedrock truth that must be known and embraced before any lasting unity and true peace can exist in an earthly marriage.
If you elders are familiar with Scripture and our creeds (in this last example, the minor creed of the Marriage Form), you are well-equipped to help the saints in their needs.
I am thankful that some of elders are receiving training in counseling. Romans 15:14 teaches that the people of God are “able to admonish” or “competent to counsel” one another. To seek training from wise men and women who have experience in this is commendable. But keep in view that Romans 15 also shows that one who truly is competent to counsel is “full of goodness, filled with all knowledge” (Rom. 15:14; emphasis added). So it is not an exaggeration to propose that anyone who seeks to be trained as a competent counselor should be required first to pass a rigorous “entrance examination” in the knowledge of the Scripture and the Reformed creeds. I would not trust my friend or family member to anyone who was not.
You elders who have this knowledge, worked by the Spirit in your hearts and minds, through your study of Scripture and daily pleading with God for wisdom, are truly able “to be assistant with good counsel and advice” to the sheep under your care.
We thank God for making you willing to serve us. May He strengthen you for your work among His people.