A Life-Supporting Atmosphere
Variety is the word that describes the elders' labor in the church. Preaching and teaching the Word of God to groups large and small is at the heart of their labor. Elders counsel families and individuals so that they might apply the Word to their lives. Elders oversee the flock to prevent corruption of doctrine or morals. Christ has placed in their hands the keys of the kingdom for admitting people into the church or excluding them. Elders lead the church in worship. They oversee all the church's ministries, whether they promote growth in grace, evangelism, or showing mercy.
Christ's church is governed with a variety of faces. Formality and solemnity are called for at times. In other settings a casual or intimate demeanor may be more suitable.
A good relationship between the congregation and the elders requires more than doing the right tasks with the right attitude. A special atmosphere is needed – one in which all the people of the congregation are truly heard, honestly responded to, and treated as part of the priesthood. The session itself, by God's grace, is responsible for creating this atmosphere.
James counsels, "Everyone should be quick to listen" (James 1:19).
Elders are often the ones listened to. "How can I prove to the Jehovah's Witness at my door that Jesus is fully God?" "Should I attend my niece's wedding in the Roman Catholic Church?" "What can I do to guard my heart? At work Fin surrounded by sexually suggestive conversations?" These questions and many others are taken to elders. And they provide answers.
Other kinds of questions arise. "How can the gifts of women be used more fully in our congregation?" "Shouldn't we be doing more to include children in the worship?" "What can we do to welcome visitors to our church?" Once again, elders provide the answers. But should they? Or should others in the congregation first be given an opportunity to contribute their ideas?
A hospitable forum is needed, where people will feel free to express and discuss ideas openly. In such a forum elders may listen, and the people may be heard. Individuals are generally intimidated by the thought of appearing before the elders to present an idea. The formality of the situation seems to suggest that one must come with a fully developed concept and be ready to defend it. A more relaxed, informal forum, on the other hand, fosters good communication.
Elders, be quick to listen. You have ample opportunity to speak and a position of authority from which to speak. Provide a forum for your people that you might hear their ideas. Listen carefully to them in conversations to be sure you understand the issues on their minds, the concerns on their hearts, and their hopes for the church.
People of God, speak graciously, humbly, and truthfully. An open forum is not a place for making accusations or attributing bad motives to others.
"Everyone should be … slow to speak."James 1:19
A second element in the atmosphere of good communication between session and congregation is honest responses. It may seem scandalous to suggest that the shepherds would do anything other than respond honestly to their sheep. But how easily it happens. In seeking to provide a hospitable forum for discussion, the idea may be conveyed that everything in the church is up for grabs. To help dispel this notion, elders should give considered responses, not hasty ones.
People need to understand that no session would ever deliberately throw everything up for grabs. Elders have affirmed the Scriptures as the only infallible rule for faith and practice. They have sincerely adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms as the system of doctrine taught in the Scriptures.
Clear, forthright responses to questions and ideas are needed. People come into churches with different expectations and ideas about the church. Some have had no intimate acquaintance with a church of any kind. Their expectations may have been shaped by their observations of the confusing religious landscape. Others may have been active participants in a church that was Bible-believing, but which had a sorely deficient understanding of the biblical doctrine of the church. Those who grew up in Reformed churches generally have more scriptural understanding, but even they may be enticed by the "successful" (but not always biblical) practices of other churches.
Clear, forthright responses will reflect the church's philosophy of ministry and goals. The style of your ministry and the priorities of your congregation will shape the responses made to suggestions and concerns. A clear distinction should be maintained between what cannot be changed (biblical doctrine) and what could be changed (after appropriate consideration).
Without clear, direct responses, people are prone to draw erroneous conclusions: “The session is not willing to be creative and innovative." "The session doesn't care what we think." "They listen to us, but then do what they want, so why bother?"
Without clear, direct responses, people may conclude that the church needs to do all the changing. But perhaps those people need to change – to grow in their understanding of the Bible's teaching on the church. Or, they may need to reassess the importance that should be attached to certain expectations. For example, a big youth program may be less important than holding to and teaching the whole counsel of God. The church's philosophy of ministry and goals may need to be communicated more clearly. Honest responses open the way for better understanding and spiritual growth.
Part of the Priesthood
Analogies are great. The words of the Psalmist, "The LORD is my shepherd" (Psalms 23:1) speak volumes to our hearts. The instructions of the apostle Peter, "Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care" (l Peter 5:2), convey powerful lessons to elders about their responsibility.
However, analogies are dangerous if they are pushed too far. One must not forget that the points of correspondence are between things that are otherwise dissimilar. If elders push the shepherd-elder analogy too far, they may begin to treat God's sheep as though they were the four-footed variety. But Paul exhorted the elders at Ephesus, "Be shepherds of the church of God" (Acts 20:28). The flock consists of the members of God's church-people redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, people with renewed wills that are able to will freely and do good, people having a right to the liberty purchased by Christ, people whose consciences are subject to God alone.
An atmosphere in which the sheep are expected to unquestioningly follow the shepherds does not foster good communication nor a good relationship between the session and the rest of the congregation. An atmosphere that demands implicit faith or an absolute and blind obedience destroys liberty of conscience and reason.
Both elders and their people would do well to study chapter 20 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. It presents a fine balance between individual liberty and submission to lawful authority.
Church life will flourish in an atmosphere in which the people of God are truly heard, honestly responded to, and treated as part of the priesthood. They will grow in their knowledge of the Lord's will. Their love for the Lord and for one another will abound.