Barrett L. Gritters is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.
The relation between believers in the church and the elders is often incorrectly viewed as similar to that between citizens of the United States and their State or Congressional Representatives. Ours (USA) is a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” in which (according to our constitution) the power rests in the people who are governed. That is, the power rests in the people themselves. Because this kind of representative government is part of our country’s heritage, some get the notion that the church runs that way too. In the church of Christ, though, believers are not the basis of authority.
Reformed churches differ from most Presbyterian churches in their views of church government. One of these differences is exhibited in the relation between believers and elders in the church. This difference in viewpoint touches on the positive purpose of this article.
A distinctive character of Presbyterianism is the teaching that “ecclesiastical power is given to the people, and is by them conferred on the Elders, so that the latter exercise this power in the name of the people, and consequently are subject to the people.” That is, believers hold in themselves ecclesiastical right to rule by virtue of their general priesthood, or office of believer. Believers then confer this right (or power) on the particular men whom they elect to serve as elders in the church. (See Heyns’ Handbook for Elders and Deacons  p. 16. Heyns quotes Charles Hodge from his Church Polity and the PCUSA “Form of Church Government” to support this. If this presentation is not correct, though, I would welcome some of our Presbyterian brethren to give us their insight.) This view seems to do justice to the reformational principle of the priesthood of all believers; that is, that we are all “prophets, priests, and kings.” Both Presbyterians and Reformed people of God believe in this important principle. How it is applied is the question.
The Reformed system of church government teaches that the right to rule the church does not come from the believers themselves. They too hold a kingly office; but this kingly office means that they “with a free and good conscience . . . fight against sin and Satan . . . and afterwards reign with him eternally, over all creatures” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 12). Although believers take part in the election of elders, the right to rule the church is a specialauthority and power given by Christ, different from what all believers have in common.
Thus, the relation between believers and the office of elder is not that believers give the officebearers their authority to rule. The question remains, then: “What is the proper relation between you and your elders?” In answer to that, the following points give us some direction:
1. Respect and remember. First of all, we should realize that there is a brother/sister relation between us and our elders. They too are sheep of the flock of God, and need to experience our love and prayers in their difficult labors. But we may never fail to see that elders, in their office, carry the authority of Christ. They are bishops (“overseers”: Titus 1:7, I Timothy 3:1, etc.), and as bishops have been given a place of rule in the church. We must view them as overseers over the flock of God, which He purchased with His own blood, and willingly place ourselves under their rule. When believers view their “fellow elder-saints” as those clothed with the authority of Christ and sent by Christ for their good, nothing but good can result. Thus, when another church member is an elder, I not only love and respect him as a brother in the Lord, but am called to reverence him because of his office and have the duty to submit to his authority as one appointed by Christ Himself.
2. Choosing our officebearers. Male, confessing believers have opportunity as well as responsibility to help in the election of officebearers in the church. Here again is where their office of believer is manifested. When the consistory presents a slate of nominations for approbation, church members must do much more than consider who is the most personable of the lot, or take part in a sort of popularity contest. They must not base their vote on who friends or relatives are voting for. Theirs is the duty to exercise sanctified wisdom and spend time with the Scripture (concerning the necessary qualifications) and time in prayer (about whom the Lord would have in the office of elder).
Too often members come to meetings asking to have their minds refreshed concerning who is on nomination. Or if that is not the case, then there may be come quick consideration of the list of nominees and hasty writing of the names, only to find that he has forgotten who he voted for when the elections are finished. The point that must be made is that too often we are guilty of not putting enough prayerful consideration into the voting for officebearers. As believers we have the right and duty (but no less the ability) to vote with spiritual regard. God uses this means to place in the office the man whom He chooses.
3. Prophetic exercise. In connection with the government of the church, the confessing believer (who is a member in good standing in the church) also has an obligation to approve the names which the consistory has placed on nomination. For at least two weeks prior to election, the names of the nominees are announced in the bulletin for the express purpose that confessing believers exercise their prophetic office. That the announcement of the nominees becomes a mere formality in the church is a real danger. A believer who knows something that he thinks might disqualify a nominee from serving in the office must bring that information to the consistory. He must. Before God his duty is to speak to the consistory. His objection must be serious, but nothing may be hid that would bring grief to the church of Christ.
Ultimately the consistory must make the decision to remove or retain the name, but the brother must not let that stop him from bringing what he sees as a serious objection to any name. The consistory may have much reason to thank the brother for helping them make a crucial decision. If the consistory cannot convince the objector that his reasons are not valid, the objecting brother may appeal the consistory’s decision to classis.
4. Protest and Appeal. The right of protest and appeal is a right of every confessing believer, male or female. Because of his office of believer, one who is grieved by a decision of the elders may, as in the case above with nominations for officebearer, bring to the consistory a written objection of a decision that has been made. If a carefully formulated protest shows the consistory that the decision is contrary to the Scripture, the confessions, or the. Church Order, they must graciously and thankfully rescind the decision they made and give thanks to God for the office of believers. Again, if the consistory is not convinced that they have erred, and therefore do not change, the protestor has the right to appeal that case to classis and synod.
Much more could be said about this procedure. What needs to be said here is that this exercise of protest and appeal must be a spiritual exercise of the office. The right of protest is a concrete expression of the office we all hold. Used properly it can be a blessing to the church.
5. Preparing for office. Reformed churches have emphasized preparation for the office of minister—and rightfully so. But this has not been done on a widespread basis for elders and deacons. (Part of the reason is that we do not know whom the Lord will call.) An emphasis is placed on ministers’ preparation because of the lifetime call, the bulk of the work, and the nature of preaching. But neglecting preparation for office of elder is not proper. Also this office (as well as the office of deacon) is difficult and critically important for the life of the congregation.
Our churches are becoming larger. Needed are more and well-qualified elders in the church. Because there is not unlimited money to build new churches, and an additional pastor in each church is not always desirable, we need more and well-qualified elders to help with the work, especially in larger congregations.
A partial solution may be found in I Timothy 3:1. “This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.” Implied here is that a man desires to serve in the church as an officebearer and servant of Christ. With a view to that, he can prepare himself for work in that office. It is not necessary that a man wait until he is elected to the office before he begins to prepare for the work. If a man desires the office, he ought before the face of God to begin preparing himself. Even if the Lord never calls him to the office, the study will be a great spiritual benefit for him. (As an aside, consideration might even be given to much earlier elections so that the officebearers can have time to prepare properly for the work before installation.)
How does one prepare? If a man truly desires to be a servant in the church, he must busy himself with the Word of God, taking into account especially the spiritual principles needed for that office. He can prepare for and take an active part in Bible society; he can volunteer to teach Sunday School. An aptitude to teach is an important qualification of elders. An opportune place to begin is in the home God has given you. Be a godly example of leadership in your family, instructing your children, for “if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?” (I Tim. 3:5).
The office of elder is given as a gift to us by the Lord of the church so that we can experience His rule over us. May we, in whatever relation to the office we find ourselves, thank our Father for His care over us through the elders. He gave them to us “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 . . .” (Ephesians 4:12, 13).