The necessity of training elders

Newly installed elders are just opening their eyes to the task the Lord gives them, and it is not an easy one. You who have never served before are likely more than a little awestruck by the responsibility. To rule Christ’s church?! It is beyond your abilities. Even you who sat in the elders’ bench before are awed, because experience taught you actually how weighty the work is—far beyond any natural abilities you have.

Am I qualified for this work? That is the question that follows you to the elders’ pew to supervise the preaching, that goes with you on the house call to ad­dress a wayward young person, and that rings in your ears when the consistory president asks for a vote to declare a member outside of the kingdom of heaven. Am I qualified for this work? This work of determin­ing whether the preacher is orthodox or whether a pro­test against an officebearer is legitimate. This work of wielding the keys of the kingdom of heaven. This work of representing Jesus Christ with regard to the eternal destiny of men and women.

At first glance, the church seems to give very little for­mal training for this great work of ruling in the church on behalf of Christ. Accompanying the letter asking you to accept a nomination likely came a reminder that, if you are elected, you will be required to sign the “For­mula of Subscription.” But aside from reading the “For­mula” to remind yourself (or learn for the first time) what it says, probably little more is required of you to prepare for the task.

But the importance of properly qualified elders can­not be emphasized enough.

Be assured that this editorial is not intended to em­barrass any elder as to his lack of qualification, or to shame any man sufficiently that he decline a nomina­tion. That may be the (God-intended) result for a few, but that is not the intent of the editorial. Rather, it is to encourage the brethren first that, very likely, you have more qualifications than you imagine; and, second, that the Lord who calls you does provide ways to become better qualified.

Again, the importance of properly qualified elders cannot be emphasized enough.

To suppose that the churches need highly qualified ministers but not highly qualified elders (or deacons) is unbiblical. It is also thinking that, in the end, will be fatal for the church. But that thinking—that the bar is low for elders’ qualifications—may be fostered by the fact that there is no formal, specialized training for this important office of government in the church.

Among the Reformers it was well-known that the government of the church by qualified elders was as important as the instruction of the church by qualified pastors. Which explains why Luther, in 1520, in the same fire in which he publicly burned the papal bull threatening his excommunication, also burned the entire church order of the Roman Catholic Church—something not commonly known. He was convinced that lasting reform of the church could not be accomplished by simply rejecting false doctrines that were poisoning the church, but also by simultaneous rejection of improper church government. In fact, it was the unbiblical church government that made reform of the Romish false doctrine impossible. Also today, without proper government of the church by qualified elders, the church cannot be or remain true. The church needs qualified elders.

What gives a conscientious elder pause is realiz­ing the gravity of the work. Elders are gatekeepers of Christ’s church. They wield the powerful keys of the kingdom—allowing entrance to the penitent believer and putting out the impenitent. They safeguard the crown jewels of the faith. They oversee the life of the flock, even the teaching of the minister. Not infrequent­ly they deal with a rogue member. So the elders must have some hair on their teeth, indeed. But especially they must know how to use the power invested in them by Jesus Christ.

Thus the question: How can elders receive the proper training for their work?

More to the point, the question is: Is specialized training necessary? No one would deny that training is necessary. Thus, the title of this editorial—The Ne­cessity of Training Elders. But the question is whether formal training should be mandated for the elder, just as a formal training is necessary for the would-be minister.

The newly installed elders, especially those who have not served before, maybe ask a different question: Is training available? You do not ask whether it is required, but whether there is some way you can get it.

These questions are not new. Shortly after the Ref­ormation, special training was given to elders and prospective elders. In the Netherlands, elder-training exist­ed already in the late seventeenth century, extended for 150 years through the 1834 Secession, and then contin­ued in this branch of the Reformed churches until the era of Herman Bavinck—the early to mid-1900s.

But there were questions, at times, as to its necessi­ty, even its propriety. H. Bouwman, respected church polity expert, opposed formal training for elders. First, he argued, the church must avoid another kind of hierarchy in which the officebearers are above the congre­gation rather than from the congregation. Second, if elders are chosen from a group of specially trained men, some of these specially trained men will not be chosen and likely feel slighted. Third, it is likely that the men most qualified—those humble and wise—would not put themselves forward by enrolling in a class that probably shows they are ambitious. Fourth, the gifts required for this office are not gotten by academic instruction designed especially for elders but by the regular means of grace. Fifth, Bouwman reasoned, a highly trained eldership might tempt Reformed churches to adopt life­long terms, which is not Reformed church polity but Presbyterian.

Bouwman’s reasons (seven in all) must be considered carefully, but not as reasons to avoid training of elders. Instead, they are worthy cautions when considering how to prepare the men of the church for the office of rule.

What training elders need depends on what qualifications they must have, and what qualifications they must have depends on what work they must do.

Their work is to oversee the flock and their fellow officebearers, to supervise doctrine, to care for all the individual sheep, to comfort and teach members at family visitation, to instruct the wayward, to discipline stubborn sinners and receive again the penitent into the fold and, generally, to see to it that everything is done “decently and in order.”

The qualifications required for this work are listed most clearly in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Primarily, they are spiritual, not intellectual: the elder must be blameless, of good reputation both within and without the church; he is to be watchful, sober, sanctified, hospi­table, not new to the church or the faith, not given to drink, not greedy or covetous; and, if married, faithful to his wife and a wise ruler in his home.

One spiritual qualification receives special attention by the Spirit’s use of three different words to describe it, all in the negative. An elder must not be a “striker,” a “brawler,” or “soon angry.” Good synonyms for these are: bruiser, quarrelsome, prone to anger. The “servant of the Lord must not strive” (II Tim. 2:24). Faithful elders and ministers do not have a temper, which mani­fests that they are “self-willed” (Titus 1:7). “Arrogant” is the sense. Arrogant men are unfit for the office. They imagine that God’s work is accomplished by being a bully.

Now, it is apparent that these spiritual qualifications are not acquired in a class or by reading a book. They come from the extended, sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in a man; often from a solid, Christian upbringing in a stable home; and only through fervent and constant prayer and the regular use of the means of grace.

But one qualification falls into a somewhat different category.

This is the indispensable qualification of knowledge. Knowledge of the truth, of how the church is to be gov­erned, of the process of Christian discipline, of how to oversee the instruction from the pulpit and catechism room, even how to teach truth in various settings. And knowledge can be learned in a formal setting, can be ac­quired from books and classes, can be gained by a good class that focuses on the work of the elder.

One might miss it on first reading, but I Timothy and Titus include knowledge as one of the cardinal qualifi­cations for an elder.

Immediately after Paul teaches Titus of the spiritual qualifications, he adds, as though it were the capstone of them all, “Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he might be able by sound doctrine (instruction) both to exhort and convince the gainsayers.” Gainsayers “teach things which they ought not,” and elders must “stop their mouths.” This takes knowl­edge of Scripture. Thorough knowledge.

Also, when Paul teach­es Timothy that elders and ministers must not strive, the reason he gives is that opponents are corrected not by brawling, but by patient, gentle, meek instruction. By instruction, God may grant repentance by working in the sinner to acknowledge the truth (II Tim. 2:25, 26). So elders are required to know the truth and even have an aptitude to teach it (I Tim. 3:2; II Tim. 2:24).

These few passages of the New Testament confirm what the entire Scripture teaches: elders need knowledge of both truth and justice, of doctrine and church government. These are required to judge sermons and catechism lessons, to discern truth from error. By knowledge of Scripture and the confessions they examine whether the faith of new members is indeed the knowledge of “all that God has revealed to us in His Word” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 7) and is “a confession of the Reformed religion” (Church Order, Art. 61). Scripture knowledge is indispensable to su­pervise the examination of future ministers at synod or classis, and then cast a vote that accords with Scripture and the creeds. It is not impossible that elders even sit as judges in a “heresy trial” of a minister, for which knowledge is required. But rare as a heresy trial at syn­od may be, elders daily are required to know how to “steer the ship” of the local congregation over which God appointed them overseers. They are governors, judges, kings under Christ, called to “take care of the church of God” (I Tim. 3:5).

What does this all mean for the newly installed elder? This: your training for the office of elder took place when, for years and years, you sat under the ministry of the Word from the pulpit and in the catechism room. By these regular means of grace, you learned the faith of the Scripture. Growing up in a good church with solid catechetical instruction, young men do receive systematic training for being elders. Young men learn the truth of the Reformed faith, which includes the doctrine of church government. And this is why I began by saying “at first glance,” and “the church seems to give no formal training” for this work.

This point enables me to repeat my call to every church to include in the “post-Essentials” catechism instruction a careful explanation of the Church Order. If we agree that every young person who confesses his faith must un­derstand “church govern­ment and church discipline” in order to promise to “sub­mit” to it, certainly the elders who exercise this government and apply the discipline must know it inside and out. The best way to attain this is in the regular means of grace—solid catechism instruction and good, doctrinal preaching, when you are young.

The churches thank you men whom God called to rule us. May He give you wisdom. May He encourage you that, knowing the Scripture, the confessions, and the Church Order as you do, you have some of the most basic qualifications for your work. May He who called you, also qualify you with all the other graces necessary for your blessed work. And may your qualifications increase as you “diligently search the word of God and continually mediate on the mysteries of faith.” The form for your ordination pressed that duty upon you a few weeks ago.