(Treating the Form for the Ordination of Elders)
Of the various ordination forms used in our churches, the form for the ordination of elders and deacons is undoubtedly the most familiar to us. This stems from the fact that this form is read in the assembly of public worship at least once a year. Far less frequently is the form for the ordination of ministers read, and, in almost all of our churches, occasion has never arisen for the form for the ordination of missionaries to be read.
In spite of the frequency that the form for ordaining elders and deacons in the church is used, we dare to say that its content is not known well enough to most of us, and, further, that for all of us a more intimate acquaintance with this form is a thing to be desired. This is necessitated by several considerations:
First, there is undeniable evidence that these offices in the church of Christ have lost some of their rightful prestige and, by our present generation, are not esteemed as highly as they were in former times and as they ought to be according to the Word of God. Although several factors may be cited as contributing to this sad reality, the fact is that in part at least it stems from a lack of understanding the spiritual character and function of these offices as outlined in this liturgical form.
Secondly, the understanding of these forms by the congregation has an inevitable effect upon the selection of men by the church to fill these offices. If the members of the church are ignorant of the truth which is set forth in the ordination form, it stands to reason that such a church is going to be governed by ulterior reasons in their selection of men to fill the offices. On the other hand however, if there is a real, intimate and conscious knowledge of the truth concerning the offices of Christ’s church, this knowledge will impel the church to seek men for the office who are best qualified according to the demands of the office, whether that be of elder or deacon.
Thirdly, a knowledge of the offices of Christ’s church is indispensable for the proper maintenance of that important spiritual relationship that must prevail between members and office bearers for the spiritual health and well being of the church itself. No church can prosper in the true sense of the word if this relationship is neglected, and this stems from the fact that Christ Himself has ordained men in His church for “the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ; till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph. 4:12-13) This is attained only in the way of and through the means which Christ has ordained and, therefore, it is most imperative that we give good heed to the things that pertain to that ordination. With this then in mind we purpose to discuss the Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons.
There is only one Form for this double purpose, and the practical reason for this is to be found in the fact that in most cases elders and deacons are ordained in their respective offices in the church at the same time. By combining these two the necessity of reading two separate forms on the occasion is avoided, and, in isolated instances where just one of the aforementioned offices is to be filled, the problem is readily solved by reading only that part of the Form that is applicable to the particular office. This is easily done since the Form is divided into two distinct parts, the first dealing with the office of elders and the second with that of deacons. This division we will also follow in our discussion of this Form, dealing first with the office of Elder and later that of Deacon.
Before we give attention to the description of the office of the Elder as found in the form of ordination, note is to be taken of that which some of our other Confessions have to say on this matter.
Article 16 of our Church Order, speaking of the office of the Ministry of the Word, states: “….with the Elders, to exercise church discipline and to see to it that everything is done decently and in good order.”
A further description of this office is found in Article 23 of the Church Order which reads:
“The office of the Elders, in addition to what was said in Article 16 to be their duty in common with the Minister of the Word, is to take heed that the Ministers, together with their fellow-Elders and the Deacons, faithfully discharge their office, and both before and after the Lord’s Supper, as time and circumstances may demand, for the edification of the churches to visit the families of the Congregation, in order particularly to comfort and instruct the members, and also to exhort others in respect to the Christian Religion.”
Finally, Article 31 of the Belgic Confession, speaking of the offices of the Ministry, of Elders and of Deacons together, contains the following as applied to the office we are discussing: “. . . ought to be chosen to their respective offices by a lawful election by the Church…. must take heed not to intrude themselves by indecent means…. and everyone ought to esteem them very highly for their work’s sake and be at peace with them without murmuring, strife or contention, as much as possible.”
In these various quotations both the function and dignity of this holy office in the Church of Christ is stressed. It is well that this be kept in-mind. The elder who takes his calling seriously must realize that the proper dignity of the office can be preserved only in the way of the faithful execution of the various mandates of Christ that pertain to the function of the office. If the latter are permitted to fall into disuse or in various ways neglected, the former is sure to go. It is not therefore the elder alone that must be zealously concerned about his office, but the entire church must understand thoroughly her confession and the Form of Installation and through insistence upon maintaining all that is contained therein preserve the dignity of the office. This is sorely needed in the church today.
To the various functions of the office of elders which are enumerated in the quotations we have given, we shall refer again in connection with the description of the office in the Form of Ordination. Space does not permit us now to quote all that is said in that Form about this office. Neither is that necessary now since we hope to discuss these various duties later. It may suffice for the present to but briefly present the skeleton of the Ordination Form as it concerns the office of elders. The Form begins by making a distinction between two types of elders as found in the Church of Jesus Christ. Since the term “elder,” according to the Form signifies a person who is placed in an honorable office of government over others, this means that in the Church some are placed in such an office in the capacity of teachers, while others are rulers. There are teaching and ruling elders. Our concern at present is not with the former who are the ministers of the Word but with the latter. Even here, however, we must note that this distinction cannot be absolutely maintained, for even as we saw before, “it is the duty of the ministers of the Word, (with the elders) to keep the Church in good discipline, and to govern it in such a manner as the Lord hath ordained…..”, so likewise musty the elders in their governing the Church exercise themselves in the capacity of teachers. The Form stresses the closeness of the two offices, the interdependence of the one upon the other, and together the ministers and elders form a body or assembly, the council (consistory?) of the church.
In three separate paragraphs the Form of Ordination then describes the actual tasks of the elders of the church. Three terms may be used here, and under these headings we will proceed to discuss this office later. Elders are to be overseers, counselors and disciplinarians. Under the first heading they are to “look whether everyone properly deports himself in confession and conversation.” The elder is one who must and who does look after the souls of the sheep of Christ. They must watch over the flock, for they, as well as the ministers of the Word; are shepherds. This is indeed a most serious phase of their calling that may not be left entirely to the minister but must be faithfully executed by the elders.
As counselors in the church of Jesus Christ the elders must “be assistant with their good counsel and advice, to the ministers of the Word, yea, also to serve all Christians with advice and consolation.” The ruling elders are also ministers of the Word and ministers of mercy. This function too is very essential to “the welfare and good order of the Church” and if this aspect of the holy calling is neglected, it can only be with dire consequences for the whole church. The elders of Christ’s Church are not lords and tyrants who issue irrevocable decrees and make demanding impositions upon the sheep of the flock, driving them into submission with strong coercion, but they must be patient teachers who “in all occurrences which relate to the welfare and good order of the Church” are ready and willing to demonstrate in the light of God’s own Word the soundness of the Consistory’s judgment and the truth on which the counsel given is based. The significance of this aspect of the elder’s calling may never be minimized. The successful enactment of this function of the elders will contribute, as much or more than any other work, to the welfare and good order of the congregation. Obvious it should then also be that elders must be well versed and skilled in the use of Scriptures.
The Form of Ordination concludes the section dealing with the office of the elders with the observation that as disciplinarians the elders must “have regard to the doctrine and conversation of the ministers of the Word.” They must exercise supervision over the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. In doing this they must prevent the infiltration of “strange doctrines” and guard the Lord’s heritage with all diligence against wolves.” To do this necessitates that they “diligently search the Word of God, and continually be meditating on the mysteries of faith.”
This, in brief, we may expect from the elders of the Church. What a glorious and dignified office this is! Further implications of these things we hope, D.V., to discuss in future articles, but let us keep in mind that we may never desire our elders to be, as elders, in any way other than designated in this Form of Ordination. To this task alone they are appointed ,and called in their ordination and we pray to God that He will qualify them by His Spirit and grace unto the performance of this work. This then is good and conducive to the edification of His Church.