Beginning our Work in Hope
The letter arrived. You've been nominated for the office of elder. After careful thought, you let the deadline pass for declining the nomination. At the congregational meeting, the members chose you. I thank God for you. (The others were not elected. In His inscrutable wisdom, the Lord did not appoint the others, but appointed you to the work of elder.) Ordination has taken place. The questions have been asked: "Do you feel in your heart…? Do you believe the books…? Do you reject the heresies…? Do you promise… to discharge your office…? To walk in all godliness…?" Yes.
The Almighty God and Father replenish you all with His grace, that ye may faithfully and fruitfully discharge your respective offices. Amen.
You are an elder in the church of Jesus Christ.
Now the doubts trickle in. You never disbelieved the office was a high calling, the responsibilities heavy. You meant your "yes" to the questions. You did not lie when you promised you would faithfully, according to your ability, discharge your office. You prayed along sincerely with the minister when the form asked for "wisdom, courage, discretion" so that you could "acquit yourself as is becoming" and take "diligent heed unto the doctrine and conversation…"
But doubts linger, are unsettling. What are my abilities? Where is my wisdom, courage, discretion? What shall I say? Will the people receive the word I bring? How will I prepare for the visits to the families? What if I am sent on a discipline call? Can I teach catechism? Lead a service in the absence of the pastor? What do I know of being a watchman over the house and city of God? "Admonish and caution every one against his ruin"? "Reprove disorderly persons"? No wonder that prayer at the end of the ordination ceremony sticks: "and we hope endowed with thy Spirit." We hope. We are not so sure.
If these doubts and fears drive you to constant prayer and carefulness in continual preparation, may our God be praised. None of us is as qualified as he desires to be. Our weaknesses will always be apparent to ourselves most of all, and will be matter to humble us and compel us to pray for the necessary gifts.
But if these doubts paralyze you for your work, hear this word of God: He has called and therefore will qualify you for labor among His beloved sheep. Christ is in you. His care for His flock assures us that He will enable us to minister to them.
Nor may the variety of gifts among the elders feed our doubts. A difference in ability, even great difference, is expected. As in the human body and in the congregation (also among ministers of the Word!), so in the eldership:
the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body… God set the members every one of them in the body, as it has pleased him.
A great comfort to me in the early part of my ministry was the encouragement given by a wise older minister. Speaking to the youthful fears of counseling a member for the first time, he said: "God used your first sermons too, didn't he?" I can hardly imagine how there could have been any profit in those sermons. But God used them. So He'll use your efforts as an elder, in the beginning and at the end of your service. Just don't be jealous of the other members. For our sovereign and all-wise God divides "to every man severally as he will."
We may be confident that God qualifies elders for their work. If the Lord assures the members of the congregation that they are "full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another," certainly the elders may know that Christ will give them some goodness, knowledge, ability (Romans 15:14).
Romans 15:14 is Paul's encouragement to the saints. He is convinced that because they have goodness and knowledge, they are able to "admonish" the other saints. To admonish the saints is to bring to their mind the Word of God as resolution to problems they have. Doubts. Unbelief. Fear. Sloth. Sorrows. Stubbornness. Greed. Discouragement. Or a hundred other problems the people of God face. The common members are able to do such a work for the building up of the saints. Certainly you can, whom God calls for the special work of ministering to the saints.
What makes this passage striking is that Paul uses the same verb to describe his own work as apostle/elder. Colossians 1:28 has Paul preaching Christ, "warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom…" Warning, there, is the same as admonishing in Romans 15. In Acts 20:31, Paul reminds the elders of Ephesus that for three years he "ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears." To warn certainly includes much more than cautions and threats. It means to instruct, advice, remind, counsel. This was the apostle's labor. The apostle says the saints of Rome are able to do such. You also are able.
God qualifies because God calls. The same God who called you to the office will fit you for the work. You know that. You answered "yes" to that specific query. It was the first question put to you. "Whether you do not feel in your hearts that ye are lawfully called of God's church, and consequently of God himself, to these your respective offices?" The call of the congregation is the call of God Himself. God called. God will qualify.
The qualification is Christ in you.
Christ is not in every office-bearer. We leave open the real possibility that a man wrongly accepted a nomination. The council carelessly nominated him. The misguided or apostatizing congregation elected him. He has no love for the Lord. The welfare of God's people does not move him. God did not call him. God will not qualify him. The "we hope" in the Form's ending prayer is realistic.
Certainly, God can use an unregenerate man. He qualified Saul with some gifts for a while to work among the prophets. The "dumb ass" spoke (2 Peter 2:16). The old elders and ministers used to say that God can use "crooked sticks." Most books on office bearers speak of that possibility. But the exception does not make the rule. God doesn't usually use dumb asses. He did once. That He can, however, does not mean He will. I haven't heard of a donkey speaking since then. They usually just bray, kick, and remain obstinate.
God qualifies you who accepted the nomination in faith. God qualifies those in whom He works a pious desire to serve the kingdom. Christ is in you who love God's church, who love God whose sheep these are.
That presence of Christ in you qualifies you in two ways.
First, your own experience of Christ's work in you and your own urgent and conscious need of Him prepare you to minister to the flock. You know what they need. Your needs are the same. Their struggles are yours. Their faults are yours. What they need, you have received.
Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…the God of all comfort; Who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.2 Corinthians 1:3, 4
Elders of God's church, let us examine our own hearts to see our own needs, faults, weaknesses, shortcomings. Let us confess them. Be humbled by them. Find forgiveness for them. Live the Christian life. Then you will know how to serve the flock.
Second, as Christ dwells in you, He speaks through you. Christ's voice is really heard as you speak to the sheep. This is true not only for pastors, but elders and deacons also. We thank God when the sheep receive it so. Especially we thank God that it is so. The word the flock hears from you is "not the word of men, but …it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually works also in (them) that believe" (1 Thessalonians 2:13). The word of Jesus Christ is heard through our mouths!
All we are is earthen vessels – weak containers made of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7). It's good for us to remember that. But "weakest means fulfill his will, mighty enemies to still." For Christ dwells in our hearts by faith.
But always and only through His Word and by the power of His Spirit. The earth-shaking, heart-breaking, will-bending Spirit uses the Word, the Scriptures.
Not your words. Not your experience. God forbid that we would suppose so. In their weakness, the people sometimes may be interested in your experience. It may even help sometimes to relate how God worked in you. But that's not the power of God unto salvation.
The words and experiences of the Lord Jesus Christ. By this we were comforted. We know that, too. By this we comfort the saints.
I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me. Oh, how He strengthens!
Now unto him who is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, unto him be glory in the church throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.