The Office Of Elder.

The office of elder in the church is frequently not esteemed as highly as that of the minister of the Word. A minister spends years of preparation for his calling before he enters the ministry, while the elder is called out of the midst of the congregation without any special preparation. Again, the minister is called for life, while the elder serves intermittently for periods of two or three years at a time. Moreover, the minister devotes all his time and efforts to his work, while the elder continues his regular vocation while he serves. And finally, the minister may be a stranger to most of the members of the church, but the elder has frequently spent years of his life in the congregation, is known personally and intimately to almost all of them, and even daily plies his trade or carries on his business among them. And thus, since a prophet is not without honor except in his own country and among his own kindred, it can easily be understood that the office of an elder is frequently considered of lesser importance than that of the minister.

Yet it must always be borne in mind that these two offices are actually one, and therefore equal. Both ministers and elders are referred to in Scripture as elders or overseers of the flock. The only difference is that the former serve as teaching elders, while the latter are ruling elders. They both represent Jesus Christ, each in their respective capacity. Both are called to the office in the same way, by Jesus Christ through the medium of the church as far as their outward calling is concerned, and through the Holy Spirit in their hearts according to their inward calling. None other than the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of Christ, makes them overseers over the flock, calling and qualifying them to the work. (Acts 20:28). Therefore, although the elder is a member of long standing in the congregation, although he is well known to old and young alike, although his personal weaknesses against which he fights daily are also known to all, and although there is a constant association with him through his vocation, he must be respected, not merely as a person because of his person, but especially as office bearer because of his calling.

The Office.

Two words are commonly employed in the New Testament to designate the office. The more common one is the term ‘elder’ (presbuteros), and the other is ‘bishop’ or ‘overseer’ (episkopos). In some churches distinction is made between elders and bishops. They maintain that a bishop holds a higher position than an elder. A bishop is overseer over the whole church, even over the elders, so that a bishop is always an elder, but the elders are not all bishops. In the early church, so they say, certain elders were set apart to be bishops. Yet it is evident from many passages in the New Testament that both these names designate the same office. In Acts 20:28 the elders of Ephesus are admonished to take heed to themselves and to all the flock “over which the Holy Ghost has made them (all, not one) overseers (bishops).” In Titus 1:5, 7 the terms are used interchangeably. Titus is instructed to ordain elders in every city, and he is at the same time advised that “a bishop must be blameless as the steward of God”. In Philippians 1:1 Paul addresses the “bishops and deacons”, evidently assuming again that elders are bishops. This passage bears the more weight because it speaks of more than one bishop in a local church. And if we compare I Timothy 3:2-7 with Titus 1:5, 7, we find that the same qualifications are required for both elders and bishops. For all these reasons we can safely conclude that the terms ‘elder’ and ‘bishop’ refer to the same office in the New Testament. An elder is a bishop.

The term ‘elder’ is evidently derived from the Old Testament. We know that Moses appointed elders over Israel while they were still in the wilderness. This body of elders developed into the Sanhedrin, the ruling body in Israel. After Pentecost the apostles appointed elders for every church that was established. Thus the New Testament office of elders came into existence. The name means one of advanced years, a senior, evidently because capable men of experience were chosen as the best qualified for this work. Thus the name designates respect for those who serve in this capacity. The name ‘bishop’ describes the work of one who has charge of the flock. He is bishop, overseer, in the name and on the authority of the chief bishop, Jesus Christ. He does not act in his own name nor on the basis of his own credentials or merit, nor on his assumed authority, but only by the mandate of Him, whom Scripture calls the “Shepherd and bishop of your souls”. I Peter 2:25. By virtue of his calling he is nothing more and nothing less than a steward of God’s house. Titus 1:7.

The Duty.

The duty of the elder is therefore to have oversight, to superintend, that is, to rule. Just as the minister of the Word represents Christ in His church as prophet, and as the deacon represents Christ as High Priest, so the calling of the elder is to represent Christ as King of His Church. In that sense there can certainly be no objection to the term ‘ruling elder’, in distinction from the minister as ‘teaching elder’. Elders are called to rule. In I Timothy 5:17 the church is admonished to count those elders who rule well worthy of double honor. In Hebrews 13:17 we are told to “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch over your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief; for that is unprofitable for you.” And in I Peter 5:2, 3 the apostle instructs the elders to take oversight over the flock of God, “not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.” It is exactly for this reason that Christ has entrusted unto his church, and thus to the elders, the keys of the kingdom of heaven to open and close the gates of the kingdom, so that whatsoever they bind on earth is bound in heaven, and whatsoever they loose on earth is loosed in heaven. Our Form for the ordination of elders expresses this by saying, “Therefore, in the first place, the office of elders is, together with the ministers of the Word, to take oversight of the church, which is committed to them, and diligently to look, whether every one properly deports himself in his confession and conversation; to admonish those who behave themselves disorderly, and to prevent, as much as possible, the sacraments from being profaned: also to act (according to Christian discipline) against the impenitent, and to receive the penitent again into the bosom of the Church.”

Thus oversight over the flock includes, first of all, to watch over all the sheep, care for them in their needs, discipline the unruly, and gather those who stray back into the sheepfold. But this oversight also includes that they be fed in the green pastures of the Word. And this responsibility also rests on the elders, also the minister in the ministry of the Word is under their supervision on the pulpit, in the catechism and whenever he instructs or preaches. Actually the church ministers the Word in the Name of Christ, through her elders, and thus through her ministers. In times past it was a common custom in Reformed circles for the presiding elder of the consistory to extend a hand of consent to the visiting minister or student at the foot of the pulpit before the service, as a token that he received the right and authority from the local consistory to minister the Word from that pulpit. This custom has practically disappeared today, but it did give expression to a sound principle. In our churches we still follow the practice of having the consistory shake hands with the minister after the sermon. This is not a mere friendly gesture, nor should it be regarded as such, neither by the minister, nor by the consistory, nor by the congregation. Actually the officebearers thereby express their approval and agreement with the Word that was preached. It is just another token that the Church of Jesus Christ through her office jealously guards the preaching of the Word, and thereby protects the flock from lurking foes and threatening dangers. As Paul admonishes the elders of Ephesus to take heed to the whole flock, “for”, he adds, “I know this, that after my departure shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.” Acts 20:28-31.

Again it becomes evident that the various offices in the church can never be separated. Even as the offices of prophet, priest and king are one in Christ, so they are also one in the church. The minister of the Word also exercises the keys of the kingdom of heaven in the preaching, for it is particularly through the preaching of the Word that the gate of the kingdom is opened to believers and closed to unbelievers. On the other hand, the elder can never serve as overseer of the flock except by means of the Word. He not only watches over the Word, but he also is called to admonish, rebuke, advise, comfort and instruct by means of the Word. He acts always only on the authority of his sender, and therefore must always say, “So saith the Lord!” The only difference between the two offices is, that the prophetic office is on the foreground in the calling of the minister, while the ruling office is on the foreground in the work of the elder.

Thus the elder must also teach. That belongs to his task as overseer, for he must feed the flock of God with the bread and milk of the Word. Acts 20:28, I Peter 5:2. He must exhort, giving himself to exhortation. Romans 12:8. He must admonish. I Thess. 5:12. He must be apt to teach. I Tim. 3:2. He must be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayer. Titus 1:9. He must pray with those who have need of it. And he must comfort the fatherless and the widows. James 1:27; James 5:14.

That makes it a very responsible position in God’s church. Ministers frequently are transferred from one congregation to another by the chief Shepherd, but an elder may probably serve intermittently for a whole lifetime within the same congregation. And his influence is bound to be great, upon the minister, but also upon the other, less experienced consistory members, and also upon the congregation. He who serves well is certainly worthy of double honor. But who is fit for these things? No man, except in the assurance that he is called by Christ, and that therefore he is unto God a sweet savor of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish, II Cor. 2:16.

(to be continued)