The Duties of Elders
Almost 60 years ago, J.L. Schaver lamented the deplorable condition of the eldership in Reformed and Presbyterian churches, which “were sleeping at the switch.”1 It is always a delicate matter when one wants to sound an alarm without sounding as an alarmist. I do want to sound an alarm, not that there is any specific errors we are guilty of, but to always keep us alert and sober, which is a Biblical virtue.
As Reformed and Presbyterian churches, we need to ask ourselves the question, “What are we doing to ensure that our churches will stay orthodox in doctrine and vibrant in witness for the next generation?” There are countless ideas and topics that can fit under this question, but I want to focus on one, namely, training up a new generation of elders to rule, to teach, to shepherd, and to counsel.
As a young church planter I can say from experience, that one of the most important foundations of our churches must be a strong eldership. We need men with conviction and passion to lead God’s people. This is of the essence of being Reformed and Presbyterian. Too many of our churches rise and fall with the pastor; this is one danger. But another is that too many of our churches rise and fall with the congregation. To remedy this and bring stability into a local church, a solid group of elders is needed to safeguard the congregation from the minister, and to safeguard the minister from the congregation. In my own experience I witnessed a solid Consistory (Session) not only keep a church afloat when its pastor retired, but actually see the church grow as they searched for a year and a half for a new pastor.
What follows is a part of my elder-training manual that I am developing in my congregation. It is an exposition of article 14 of the Church Order of the URCNA, which I pray will benefit my colleagues in the URCNA, but also in the OPC as these principles apply. This article may also serve to further our common bond of fraternity as historic Reformed and Presbyterians.
Article 14 of our church order
The duties belonging to the office of elder consist of continuing in prayer and ruling the church of Christ according to the principles taught in Scripture, in order that purity of doctrine and holiness of life may be practiced. They shall see to it that their fellow elders, the minister(s) and the deacons faithfully discharge their offices. They are to maintain the purity of the Word and Sacraments, assist in catechizing the youth, promote God-centered schooling, visit the members of the congregation according to their needs, engage in family visiting, exercise discipline in the congregation, actively promote the work of evangelism and missions, and insure that everything is done decently and in good order (paragraph division mine).
The elders’ purpose
The goal and reason the eldership exists is “in order that purity of doctrine and holiness of life may be practiced.” The elders are to rule over the beliefs and lives of their flock, since Christians are members of a public community. I like how The Book of Church Order of the OPC states this, when it says, “They are to watch diligently over the people committed to their charge to prevent corruption of doctrine or morals” (X.3).
Ruling takes diligence. In a church like mine, which began as a small church plant but is now growing month by month, the amount of guidance, visiting, counseling, and sin is exponential. But the elders must be diligent to keep on top of who is in need, who needs correction, who is not at worship, what problems exist amongst the members, etc. It may seem overwhelming, but it is only overwhelming when you are not being a diligent elder.
The elders’ general duties
The elders fulfill their purpose of keeping the church pure in doctrine and life by doing certain duties. Article 14 begins with the general duties of the elders and then moves on to their specific duties.
In unity with the ministers (art. 2) and deacons (art. 15), prayer is listed as the first duty. We can say this is the primary duty of the elder. As he prays, his duties will be effective and powerful; but if he doesn’t pray his duties will be futile and impotent. I especially appreciate how The Book of Church Order of the OPC says this: “They should pray with and for the people” (chapter X.3). How strong would our churches be if the elders did not simply pray for those under their care, which is very important to say the least, but as shepherds lived among their flock, knew their intimate needs, and offered those needs to the Chief Shepherd?
In distinction from the ministers and deacons, the elders are to rule. They hold the analogous office of the Old Testament king.2 They are anointed for ruling, governing, and guiding. But their rule is not according to the principles of the business world, but “according to the principles taught in Scripture.” So how do the elders rule? This leads us to a consideration of their specific duties below.
The elders’ specific duties
Oversee all office-bearers
The elders are to “see to it that their fellow-elders, the minister(s) and the deacons faithfully discharge their offices.” The elders hold the office of elder, have the task of overseer, and are to have the character of a shepherd. To be an overseer is to be a watchman, always on the lookout (Acts 20:28). And watching out for the other officers of the church is to be done willingly, eagerly, and as an example (Greek: tupos, “type”; 1 Peter 5:2). This is a huge task. But God fills the office with capable men for the task. This is why the wisdom of the following statement is so good:
“Those who fill this office should be sound in the faith and of exemplary Christian life, men of wisdom and discretion, worthy of the esteem of the congregation as spiritual fathers.” BCO, X.2
The elders are to oversee the minister of the Word. The Book of Church Order especially emphasizes this, saying, “They should have particular concern for the doctrine and conduct of the minister of the Word and help him in his labors.” Some questions the elders need to ask themselves are these: Is the pastor faithfully preaching the Word? How can I free him from administrative tasks so he can pray, study, and visit? Is the flock growing in knowledge and piety?
The elders are also to oversee the ministry of the deacons. A few questions would be: Are the deacons aware of benevolent needs in the congregation? Are they serving the pastor, also, by assisting him in daily administrative tasks? Are they visiting those in need regularly, praying and encouraging them with Scripture?
These are the kinds of questions that the elders must ask and evaluate to ensure the congregation is being true to Christ’s great commission. This is the essence of what Paul told the elders in Ephesus, when he said,
“…take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you over-seers, to shepherd the church of God.” Acts 20:28
Maintain the purity of the Word and sacraments
In order for an elder to know if the Word and sacraments are being administered purely, he must himself know the Word and be “apt to teach” the Word (1 Timothy 3:2). One practical way this can be worked out in a particular congregation is to have a time of “sermon review” at Consistory/ Session meetings. And in doing so, here are a few pointers to the elders: Be humble. Be specific about a point the minister made that you don’t understand or agree with. Don’t make generalized statements as this shows an uncaring attitude – uncaring in taking the effort to listen well and uncaring in burdening the pastor with doubt and criticism. Have direct quotes from the sermon you would like to discuss. The minister must also be humble enough to receive constructive criticism, and actually train the elders to be able to offer this review.
Since the elders hold the office of king, analogously, they are also to “maintain the purity of the Word and sacraments” by defending the church (Acts 20:28-31). They are to defend the church from enemies outside the church, as Paul says, “Savage wolves will come in among you” (Acts 20:29); and from enemies inside the church: “From among yourselves men will rise up” (Acts 20:30). As under-shepherds of the Chief Shepherd, they too are to use the rod of defense (Psalm 23) and the sword of offense, the Word of the Living God (Ephesians 6:17). Elders, know the Word! Know your Confessions!
Assist in catechizing the youth
This is primarily the task of the minister, as the one trained to teach. But one joy in a healthy ministry is to have the elders join this task. They are to “nourish and guard the children of the covenant” (BCO, X.3). Here is where I must sound the alarm. In my experience, most elders are not “apt to teach,” but in fact; shun the idea of teaching at all. How can we remedy this? First, nominate and elect only those men who know the Word well enough to teach it. Second, we as pastors need to have the elders/potential elders sit in on our catechism classes. They need to observe us and we need to observe them in teaching situations. This is so important as elders need to be a part of the life of our covenant youth.
Promote God-centered schooling
Elders are to be involved in the lives of their flocks, for example, in the education of their children. While education is primarily the sphere of parents, the church is also involved as it seeks to see its members applying the word of God in all areas of life. In our diverse congregation we encourage parents to be involved in their children’s education by applying the Reformed Faith, whether their children attend a Christian school, are home schooled, attend a public charter school, or the public school.
Visit those in need
One of the blessings of being an elder is the experience of visiting the people under your care, whether they are sick, hospitalized, or mourning. We have a glorious history as Reformed Churches in visiting our people, whether in Geneva with Calvin, or Scotland with Knox. It is amazing to me that in so many evangelical churches that I was a part of in the past that the pastors and elders did not visit their members. But let us be faithful shepherds, knowing who is in need, not being afraid of those in need, and comforting them. Remember, you too will one day need a visit just as someone today may.
The practice of regular (yearly) visitation of the families in our congregations is also a blessing. To intimately fellowship with young and old, single and married, new convert or faithful widow where an elder will see the labors of the minister, elders, and deacons in practical ways. Here are a few practical points for family visiting:
- First, be prepared. In our church I prepare a basic outlined lesson for the elders to use with every family in that particular year.
- Second, have questions for every age group. I love to ask little children to open with praying the Lord’s Prayer. I also ask them to recite the Creed and a few of the commandments. For older children I have them recite a catechism question or two, such as questions 1, 21, and 60. I always ask children what baptism means. Ask the adult(s) about their relationship, about their daily piety, and encourage them to become a part of the life of the church.
- Third, bring a journal with you. After the visit write down the prayer requests, how you think they are doing, and your overall impressions.
Discipline is a ministry of reconciliation (cf. Matthews 18:12-14; Luke 15; 2 Corinthians 5) and restoration (cf. John 21:15-17; Acts 9; Philippians 15-17). I think we can more effectively exercise this, the third mark of the Church, if we do the following:
- First, we need to be praying as Consistories/Sessions more for those under discipline to be restored.
- Second, we need to be prepared with the mindset that discipline is long, painful, and difficult work.
- Third, we need to learn tact and boldness in the interpersonal relationships that are involved with discipline.
- Fourth, and very basic, sin should never come as a surprise to us, no matter whose sin it is or what sin it is.
Actively promote the work of evangelism and missions
I think The Book of Church Order gives us a very practical key in what this means when it says that one of the ministries of the elders is to “instruct the ignorant” (X.3). What better way to “actively promote the work of evangelism and missions” than to be involved in those tasks oneself? As well, it the elders’ job to invite missionaries to preach and present their work in our churches. It is the elders’ job to be active in planting new churches, by proposing to start them, and by overseeing them in their infancy.
Insure that everything is done decently and in good order
Finally, what this all boils down to is this: the elders are charged with governing the churches doctrine and life so that all things are done in reverence to God. The eldership is a service to God, and we serve Him best by letting His name arise in our midst and letting ours fade into the background. When things are done decently and in good order, we are not on the stage performing in the eyes of men, but God is center-stage, performing through His Word and Sacraments and receiving all the praise and adoration.
May you as elders decrease that the Lord’s work and will may increase.