The Nature of the Office of Elder (2): The Rule of Christ

Previous article in this series: Novembe 15, 2010, p. 83.

That the office of elder is the office of rule in Christ’s church we demonstrated from Scripture and the Reformed confessions in our last article. The church needs this office, for she is made up of human beings, who need rule, and are sinners, who by nature oppose order and right.

The question that now begs to be answered is this: exactly who rules in the church? Do the elders rule in the church on their own? Does a body of mere men rule the church? Or does another? The answer is that the rule of the office of elder is the rule of Jesus Christ, the King of the church.

Christ is present with His church in her offices.

Making possible the rule of Christ through the office of elder is the fact that Christ is present with His church in her offices.

Christ promised to be present with the church throughout the new dispensation: “And lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20b). He is not present with us bodily, for He is in heaven in His human nature; rather, He is present in His Godhead and in His Spirit, whom He poured out on the day of Pentecost.

As one visible evidence of His presence, Christ gave His church officebearers. The “you” of Matthew 28:20 refers to the church, as represented by the apostles. Romans 12:6-8I Corinthians 12:28, and Ephesians 4:11ff. also teach that officebearers are Christ’s gifts to the church. That Christ is still present with His church through her offices yet today is clear from two considerations: first, Christ has not removed these offices from the church; second, in faithful churches He continues to fill these offices with godly believers.

How do officebearers particularly manifest the presence of Christ? Not in their persons, but in their work. It is true that officebearers, in their persons, are called to be examples of faith and godliness. Yet God requires every Christian to be such; and in their person, officebearers are no different from the rest of the church— sinful humans, made saints by grace. But the workthat officebearers do—teaching, ruling, administering Christ’s mercies—is the work of the exalted Christ in and for His church. Through the faithful pastor, Christ teaches; through faithful elders, Christ rules; and through faithful deacons, Christ administers His mercies.

That Christ works through officebearers is the teaching of Scripture.

When He said to Peter, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 16:19), and promised that the proper use of those keys on earth would be honored in the day of judgment, He did not mean that Peter now had the necessary gifts to work in the church apart from Jesus Christ; rather, Christ meant that He would work through Peter and the other apostles.

Referring to the church’s officebearers, and with particular application to the office of elder, Paul tells the Thessalonian saints “to know them which labor among you, and are over you in the Lord” (I Thess. 5:12). “Over you in the Lord” indicates that these function in the authority of Jesus Christ.

So it was also in the Old Testament. When Moses appointed judges over Israel, he reminded them that “the judgment is God’s” (Deut. 1:17). Later, following Moses’ example, Jehoshaphat said the same thing: “Take heed what ye do: for ye judge not for man, but for the Lord, who is with you in judgment” (II Chron. 19:6). That Jehovah was present with these judges in judgment did not mean merely that He equipped them to do their work, although that was implied; but even more, it meant that the work was Jehovah’s, and He was performing it through them.

Let us be clear what we mean when we say that Christ works in His church through officebearers.

The “church” in which He works is the spiritual body of Christ as manifested in true churches—instituted churches in various localities, which strive to be faithful to Him. Christ does not work today in every organization that calls itself a church; nor does He work through every person who claims to be a preacher, elder, or deacon. But where His true church is manifested (see Belgic Confession, Art. 29), and where that institute has a body of godly, believing, and qualified men filling its offices (see Tit. 1:5-9 and I Tim. 3), Christ is present and works.

Through the work of such men, Christ manifests Himself as the only Mediator and Savior of His church. By their work He strengthens us in our faith; He assures us that we are regenerated, justified, and sanctified; He causes us to grow in our hope for glory; and He guides us in all our spiritual pilgrimage. When in the preaching the minister, on the basis of Scripture, brings our own sins to light, or when in the work of discipline the elders judge us according to the Scriptures to be walking in sin, Christ judges us through them. When in the preaching of the gospel the minister declares that every sin of every penitent child of God is forgiven for Christ’s sake, or in the work of discipline the elders receive us as penitent, Christ does so through them. And when the minister sets forth the law as a rule of gratitude, or the elders or deacons point us to our calling to obey the law, Christdirects our way through them.

Christ rules the church through her elders, as they do the work of their office.

Because Christ is present with His church in the offices, and through them works in His church, He rules the church through the office of elder. Christ manifests His rule in the church in every work that the elders perform in harmony with their office.

The authority of the office of elder is limited to matters that concern the spiritual welfare of the people, or that bear directly on the welfare of the church as a whole. Historically, Reformed churches have expressed their understanding of this in their church order. Article 30 of the Church Order of Dordrecht (the ancestor of ourown Protestant Reformed Church Order) reads in part: “In these assemblies only ecclesiastical matters shall be dealt with and that in an ecclesiastical manner.”¹ As to what constitutes “ecclesiastical matters,” VanDellen and Monsma write:

…the domain over which the instituted Church of Christ has authority is not general, but limited. It is limited to that which concerns the preaching of the Gospel, the administration of the Sacraments, the calling and ordination to office, the exercise of discipline, the promotion of a consecrated scriptural Church communion, and kindred matters.²

By such a reminder, the church is warned against intruding into any and every matter under the sun, including political matters, private matters between two members, and other temporal affairs.

Faithful elders will desire to do only that which accords with the calling of their office. They will desire this so that they can assert their authority with confidence that Christ is indeed working through them, and so that the people clearly realize their need to obey and be subject to the elders.

Having emphasized that elders must not overstep the bounds of their office, we note that the authority of the elders in the church is broad.

It includes legislating. Here, of course, the elders must remember that the basic rules necessary for life in the church have already been made, not by men, but by God. These rules are found in the Scriptures.

Some would say that, because the law of God is found in the Scriptures, the elders really may make no rules at all. The rules that govern the church have all been made.

With this we do not completely agree. It is true that the elders may make no rules that bind the consciences of God’s people. Nor may they make rules that in effect micromanage the details of the lives of God’s people. We cringe to hear of consistories that prohibit their members to use tobacco or alcohol, to own a television, or to have “open internet” (DSL) in their own homes and private lives. Certainly elders must warn against the abuse and sinful use of all such; but they may not prohibit such.

Still, the elders may make decisions that govern the lives of God’s people. When they do so, these must be based on the law of love. In other words, they must be applications of biblical principles. And these must seek the welfare and order of the congregation as a whole.

Reformed churches have already made such decisions. Some are found in our Church Order. Others are found in the “local regulations” or “standing rules” of each consistory.

Having defended the right of the elders tolegislate (make decisions pertaining to the congregation as a whole, decisions that are based on Scripture), we point out that the main aspect of the work of the elders will be not legislating, but administering or enforcing the law of God. This is the work of judging, biblical support for which we have already noted (Deut. 1:17II Chron. 19:6).

We live in an age of tolerance, in which people despise the notion of judging others. Yet Christ called the elders to do precisely this. They are not to judge the hearts of confessing believers; but they are to judge the outward speech, actions, and all conduct of the lives of the members of the congregation, determining whether or not these are in conformity with God’s law.

The elders see to this work in many ways. Christian discipline certainly is one way, but it is not the only way. When reviewing the membership roll to evaluate whether any member is neglecting the means of grace; on family visitation; when treating the request of anyone for baptism for their child, confession of faith, or the privilege of partaking of the Lord’s Supper; and also in other ways, the elders pass judgment on the conduct of the members.

Then, the work of the elders in ruling is also to feed, nourish, protect, and defend the people of God—in other words, everything involved in being a shepherd. We readily think of thepastor as a shepherd, but we must remember that the elders are shepherds too. In Scripture, kings in the Old Testament are called shepherds—Isaiah 56:11, Ezekiel 34Zechariah 10:3. And Acts 20:28 and I Peter 5:2-4 use this terminology explicitly with reference to the office of elder.

So the nature of the elders’ rule is to feed the people, protect them, encourage and comfort them. This explains the calling of the elders to visit, and watch over, the congregation.

Our point in mentioning these broad aspects of the elders’ work is to say that, when the elders do this, Christ rules the church through them! For Christ is the Shepherd of His flock, the King of His church.

The calling to honor this office.

Following from the reality that Christ rules in the church through the elders is the calling that God lays on the congregation to honor the office of elder, and those who hold that office.

This calling is found in various places in Scripture. We read in I Thessalonians 5:12-13: “And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake.” And I Timothy 5:17: “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine.” Concretely, by remembering these men, following their faith, and obeying and submitting to them (Heb. 13:7, 17), the members of the church show that they honor the office of elder.

Reasons not to honor this office, or the men who fill it, might cross our minds. The office is one of rule; sinful men, prone to pride and self-seeking, do not like to be ruled. And as regards the men who hold the office, they are sinners, like us.

But the reason that God gives for requiring us to honor elders in His church has to do, not with the men as such, but with their work, and with the fact that Christ Himself works through them: “esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (I Thess. 5:13).

Do you honor your elders?

Have you prayed for them lately?

Are you grateful to God for His rule of you through them?

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 (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1982), p. 166.

2 Idzerd VanDellen and Martin Monsma, The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1941), p. 135.