The Place and Meaning of Prayer in the Ministry of the Office Bearers
The Place of Prayer
In the book of Acts
When we read the book of Acts we notice very clearly how the early Christian church is a praying community. In Luke’s second book we often meet the word “praying” or “prayer”.
Right after the account of Jesus’ ascension Luke informs us that a number of people, who followed Jesus during his life, are gathered together. “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14).
When these assembled people decide to fill the vacancy in the circle of the apostles, which was caused by the departure of Judas, Matthias is selected by lot as they call on the name of the Lord in prayer (Acts 1:24).
After the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the first day of Pentecost the congregation continues to “devote themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
When Peter and John have spoken God’s good Word to the leaders and elders of the Jews and subsequently are set free by them, they go to their fellow-apostles to pray and to give thanks. God makes them realize how pleased he is with their prayer: “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit...” (Acts 4:31).
The fact that prayer is a characteristic of being a Christian appears in a beautiful way from Acts 10:2. There it is said of Cornelius that he is a devout, God-fearing man. This becomes visible in his practice where he fears and honours God with his entire household; in the fact that he is concerned for the poor and that he prays continually to God. The Lord also pays attention to those marks of true piety: “...your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:4).
When Peter is praying the Lord shows him — as fruit of his prayer — that the time of shadows is past (Acts 11:5ff).
When Peter is in prison, people are praying for him in the house of Mary; there is mention of a kind of prayer circle (Acts 12:5).
Barnabas and Saul are sent out to proclaim the gospel: “...after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:3).
When the apostles appoint office bearers in the newly instituted churches, they are committed with prayer and fasting to the Lord. Prayer forms the power source of the ministry of their office (Acts 14:23).
When Paul and Silas end up in the prison at Philippi they begin to pray and to praise God in hymns (Acts 16:25). This does not remain unnoticed. The consequences of their praying and singing are tremendous: the jailer comes to repentance and the two prisoners are freed from their perilous predicament.
Paul prays for the sick father of Publius. This man had given free lodging to Paul and others after the shipwreck at Malta. God hears Paul’s prayer: Publius’s father is healed (Acts 28:8).
From these examples it becomes apparent how great the place of prayer has been in the life of God’s children in the first century. There can be no faith without prayer. Prayer signifies the respiration of faith. This holds true for personal prayer, for the prayer of the office bearer and for communal prayer. All kinds of decisions were made through calling upon God’s name. Earlier I pointed to the selection of Matthias. We see the same thing in the assignment of the seven “deacons” (Acts 6:6).
The ancient church experienced with all its decisions their dependence on the Lord. It knew that the congregation could live only in the power of prayer. It manifested its dependence on the Lord by its continuous prayer.
From what we have mentioned above it shows already that prayer occupies an important place in the lives of believers. The special office bearers also belonged to that circle of believers. It is testified of them especially that they continually go to God in prayer. They do so under many different circumstances. Not only in difficult situations, for when the congregation, inclusive of its office bearers, persists in prayer (Acts 2:42), then it holds true in general and under all circumstances. It is not stated that this is only true in certain definite situations.
Of course it concerns especially the difficult situations that urge the office bearers to pray. I am thinking of Paul and Silas as they are imprisoned. They do not end up being embittered or rebellious, but instead they pray and praise God (Acts 16:25).
In the early Christian church prayer belonged to the essential ministry of the office bearers. This becomes clear from the first part of Acts 6. We are told there how the apostles saw themselves obliged to defer specific tasks of theirs to others. It concerns here especially the task of the ministry at the tables. The care for the poor overwhelms the apostles. That will likely have been on account of the growth of the church. As a result the ministry of the tables becomes too much for the apostles. They propose to appoint seven capable brothers to look after this task. This will give the apostles more space to focus on their primary task, described as “prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). From those words it shows that prayer was an essential part of the ministry of the apostles, as was the ministry of the Word. In this text it is even mentioned as the first thing.
Prayer takes up a central place in the ministry of the office bearers. This is shown distinctly also from Acts 8:15. In Acts 8 we read about how the good news of Christ and of him crucified finds acceptance in Samaria. When the believers in Jerusalem learn about the powers of the gospel in Samaria, Peter and John are sent out to go there. They need to pray for the believers. By way of prayer they will receive the Holy Spirit.
When the apostles perform miracles, prayer almost always precedes these. In any case we read about this in the healing of Tabitha and the father of Publius.
The apostle James stresses in his letter that prayer takes up an essential place in the ministry of the office bearers. In chapter 5 he takes as example the prayer of the office bearer Elijah. In the days of the ungodly King Ahab, Elijah has prayed for drought as punishment for the unfaithfulness of Israel. The Lord hears Elijah’s prayer. The punishment of God over the sin of the Baal worship is realized in years of drought. Later on, at Carmel, Elijah prays and the rains return again.
Even though James mentions that Elijah was “a man with a nature like ours” it is clear that in the case of Elijah it concerned the prayer of an office bearer. Elijah was a prophet and in that function he prayed to God. Also in James 5 it deals in the first place about those who hold an office. In verse 14 James is speaking about the prayer of the elders who are called by members of the congregation who are sick.
The prayer of office bearers has an important place in their official task. In their work they are dependent on the Lord. This dependence becomes evident in their prayer. Their prayer as office bearers also has an effect on those for whom and with whom prayers are sent up.
In James 5:16 it is said that prayer is powerful. That is true of the prayer of the righteous, especially also of righteous office bearers. This does not mean that we are dealing here with people who are extra pious, with people who do much in the service of the Lord and who for that reason can exercise much influence with God. No. Upright office bearers know themselves to be small before God and they are aware that they are sinners. They accept the righteousness of Christ as theirs. In their prayers they aim to get to the level of Christ. And Christ does not pray in the first place for health and wealth for God’s children. He does not pray primarily for a good life for the ones he bought. He prays for the honour of God’s name and therefore he prays to the Father to keep his children in the faith.
Righteous office bearers will reflect something of this in their prayers.
Then their prayers will have great power. James uses a word in the original Greek from which our term “energy” has been derived. The prayer of a righteous man has energy; it is effective. Through such a prayer heaven and earth are moved. The heavens will be like bronze so that it does not rain; the sluice gates of heaven will be opened such that there is a great rain (1 Kings 18:45).
A prayer like this moves God, such that Abimelech does not die (Gen. 20:7) and the son of the Shunamite is raised from the dead (2 Kings 4:33ff).
In prayer, office bearers have received from the Lord a tremendous weapon. They may make grateful use of that weapon so that they themselves are protected against satanic temptations and may keep the members of the church faithful to God’s Word.
Obviously the prayer of believers has to meet certain characteristics or hallmarks. In any case, a good prayer is characterized by faith, humility and thankfulness (Versteeg, 1978).
In Hebrews 11:6 we read, “...for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” This “drawing near” will not refer exclusively the act of prayer, but prayer is one of the means to draw near to God. When we pray, we must do so “in faith”. The content of that faith is that God exists. Clearly that does not just consist of a neutral acknowledgement that God is there, but it implies that God is there to comfort and to encourage; to fulfill his promises; to grant the wages of grace to those who earnestly seek him.
Also in James 1:6 it is said that prayers must be in faith: “let him ask in faith, with no doubting”. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11). Or as the Catechism states, it is a “sure knowledge” and a “firm confidence” (LD 7, QA 20). It is beyond all doubt. James makes the point that when one prays in faith, he should not doubt. Faith and doubt are mutually exclusive.
When we pray we should be aware that we as sinful people are standing over against the holy God. We are sinners. That expression implies more than an acknowledgement of the fact that we sin. Sinners draw near to God. The attitude of the tax collector should serve as an example to us: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). The tax collector is conscious of the reality that he is a sinner and that knowledge determines the content of his prayer.
It is impossible to pray to God without gratitude, for when people pray they pray to the God who has revealed himself in his Word. That God made himself known is already reason for thankfulness. Also the fact that we may pray makes a thankful attitude necessary.
Paul verbalizes this in Philippians 4:6 as follows, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Prayer and thankfulness are inseparably connected to each other. The undertone of prayer and supplication is thanksgiving.
When office bearers are praying they are filled with grateful amazement that they are allowed to pray. This same amazement should be present with those for whom and with whom an office bearer is praying.
The Meaning of Prayer
For Members of the Congregation
The prayer of office bearers has great significance. In the first place with regard to the members of the congregation, with and for whom prayers are offered.
Sometimes the members of the church undervalue the meaning of such prayers. People will say, “We can pray ourselves; we don’t need an office bearer to do that.” We detect in these words an under-evaluation of the prayer of the office bearer. Of course every believer may and must pray to God by himself. That is the great riches of New Testament Christians. In the new dispensation they are privileged that they may pray from any place and under any circumstance. No one needs to pray with his face turned toward a particular place.
And yet through the personal prayer the prayer of an office bearer may not be repressed. Both should have their place.
A denial of the meaning of a prayer by an office bearer is very closely connected to a devaluing view of the office itself.
An erosion of the scriptural understanding of the office is occurring in our time in various ways. I will mention two of these.
- In circles of the charismatic movement and all sorts of Pentecostal groups the office is regarded as a means to ensure rigidity. It is assumed that through structured official ministry the development of the individual believer is stilted. In fact through the special offices the Holy Spirit is being counteracted in his work. After all, the Holy Spirit distributes special gifts to whom he wills. In doing so he is not dependent on qualified people. People do not determine to whom charismatic gifts are distributed. But when churches maintain the traditional structure with the offices then those churches determine themselves to whom the Holy Spirit hands out charismata: to the special office bearers. Such is the allegation of what we could call spiritualism.
- In modern sociology people likewise display less appreciation for the established structures of the offices. In former days such structures had a right of existence, but that is no longer the case today. We are now living in an age of pluralistic models of society. Our modern age fortunately delivers many educated specialists who should be deployed in the church. You do not get very far these days with office bearers who can appeal only to the fact that they have divine authority. Today the church in our modern society needs people who because of their education are capable to ensure that the church can continue its service to humanity. If the church wants to maintain its place in this society, it will need to adapt itself to this society with modern human and social sciences. This adaptation does not exclude any amazement in regard to the office. However, this adaptation demands dismissal of the institution of office bearers who “bear their authority on behalf of God”.
We confess that God himself has given the offices to his church. In the way of the ministry of these office bearers the life of the congregation and its members will flourish fully. We stand amazement about the fact—speaking with Calvin—that God knows how to sanctify people’s mouths and tongues for himself, such that in their speaking the voice of God can resound. God takes faulty, weak people into his service and uses them to proclaim the blessings of his work of salvation. Therefore we can say that the ministry of the office bearers is the leading position of the work of salvation in this world.
This means that office bearers are special servants of God. God ordains them. God gives them to his church. Office bearers are qualified forces. Not qualified by a solid scientific education, but qualified by God. He calls them to their office. He enables them to his service.
In the Form for the Ordination of elders and deacons of our Reformed Churches we read the following passage, “Christ, seated at the right hand of God the Father as Head of the church, rules and cares for his church on earth. To that end he will use the service of men. Therefore Christ grants office bearers to his church.
“The apostle Paul points to this when he says, ‘And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ’ (Eph. 4:11, 12). In this Christ shows himself to be the good Shepherd. In his continuous care for his flock he appoints shepherds who care for the sheep in his name.”
In the same Form the first question asked of the office bearer to be installed is this: “Do you feel in your hearts that God himself, through his congregation, has called you to these offices?”
Office bearers speak on behalf of Christ. When they go visiting, Christ himself is coming to visit. When they pray together with the members of the congregation, Christ is praying. That is the central function of prayer by an office bearer: Christ himself is at that moment praying to his Father. In this way such a prayer is differentiated from the prayer of those who hold the office of all believers. When one keeps this distinction in mind, it will make you careful not to undervalue the prayer through an office bearer because of the possibility of personal prayer. The latter continues to be an important thing but it may not come in the place of prayer by the office bearer.
When someone has a proper view of the office, he will be thankful for this ministry; he will stand amazed about God’s care for his children. This care is noticeable in various ways, also in this that God grants praying office bearers who represent the praying Christ in the lives of praying people. God will hear (the office bearers’) prayer. When an office bearer is interceding, Christ intercedes. God is praying to God. Will God not hear himself?
For Office Bearers
In the second place the prayer of office bearers has significance also for the office bearer himself.
When he prays for and with a member of the church, he too feels strengthened in his faith. This prayer may have the character of an intercession, such that the one who is being prayed for can gain strength from it, but the one who is praying receives strength as well. Office bearers have an advantage in their vocation. They are called upon to pray, and praying helps.
Often office bearers will see that God hears prayers. Naturally they know of God’s promises that he will hear. But when they regularly see God’s answers to prayer in the lives of people for whom they have been praying, this strengthens their faith. Often office bearers themselves are encouraged, when they see what power of faith becomes visible with a young father who is about to die; with a young mother who has become an invalid. This strength of faith is fruit of the personal and the official prayer. The evidence that office bearers can see in those for whom they have been praying, will motivate them to personal prayer and will stimulate them to ensure that the prayer in their ministry will play a greater role.
Office bearers often pray with church members who find themselves in difficult situations. They are people too. They cannot simply put the problems — of people who are entrusted to their care — to the side. Sometimes those problems accompany them to their homes, to their beds. Sometimes office bearers can be so weighed down with the difficulties of others that they lose sleep over it. The one will be more affected by it than the next. It often relates to someone’s character.
However, for each office bearer it holds true that as a praying office bearer he does not have to be the one carrying the load. In this the meaning of the official prayer becomes visible for the office bearer himself. An office bearer who prays with the members does, on account of it, not need to take the problems of that brother or sister home. After all, in the intercession he has placed the difficulty before the heavenly Father. For office bearers, too, 1 Peter 5:7 holds true: “Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” Certainly, these words relate first of all to the worries that the people themselves experience. But with these words we may also think of the anxieties that people have about the concerns of others. The office bearers may certainly think of these anxieties because 1 Peter 5 is for the main part also about the ministry of the office.
1 Peter 5:7 does not deal exclusively with office bearers. But in the preceding verses there is mention of the elders. The members of the congregation are encouraged to subject themselves to these elders, for they carry authority. That does not mean that they are more important than those over whom they have received authority. Therefore Peter urges in verse 5 that elders and members show humility toward one another. No one may exalt himself above the other.
Next Peter states that they must humble themselves under the mighty hand of God (v. 6). This is said to both office bearers and members of the congregation. There is a distinction between them. Office bearers have ruling authority. Members have the duty to subject themselves to this. However, both groups need to subject themselves to God.
The manner in which this submission becomes visible is found in verse 7. It may leave the impression (depending on what version of translation is used) that verse 7 is a separate command but this is not really the case. Literally it says in verses 6-7 “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God...by casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” The humility under God’s hand becomes reality by the fact that we ourselves do not have to carry our anxieties on our shoulders.
Office bearers, as well as those over whom they were appointed, may cast all their anxieties on the Lord. In doing so they indicate that it is not they who have to solve all problems of church members. They confess with this that God himself will care, that he will grant relief. They acknowledge that it is God’s hand that provides these anxieties, and at his time and in his ways will also take these away.
The word used in 1 Peter 5:7, “anxieties”, indicates everything that can give rise to worry, and next it shows the trouble it can cause. That can be all kinds of things. For those addressed in this letter it may be the suffering because of what they confess; the persecution because of their faith. But there can also be anxiety about your business, which is no longer profitable; about your child who turns his back on the Lord; about your health that stops you from being active in your labour.
“Anxiety” can also be the difficulty of the other person, something that keeps you awake day and night. “Anxiety” can become the portion of the office bearer when in his district he is confronted with deeply unhappy brothers or sisters.
Now Peter is saying that we may cast such anxieties on God. Concretely this means that an office bearer may pray. He may pray with the brother or sister who has worries, and where you can see that this weighs heavily on them as a result of the trouble. Through prayer he puts the anxiety of the concerned person before God’s face: God cares. Through this prayer he also puts his own anxiety—caused by the need of the other — before God’s throne: God cares.
That is the tremendous significance of the office bearer’s intercession, also for the office bearer himself. Office bearers can have many concerns. There can be much tension because of what they hear from brother A; by what they see in the life of sister B. But when they pray with brother A. and with sister B., they cast all their anxieties on the Lord. Because of this the office bearers may know that the Lord stays with the family that they will soon have to leave behind. The Lord stays there with his inexhaustible care. His care for the brother and the sister may also liberate the office bearer from further anxiety.
No, this does not turn office bearers into unfeeling robots. Of course they have not forgotten the problems of church members when the door is closed behind them. But the knowledge of faith that God remains at the particular address, with his loving care, will definitely cause a necessary relaxation.
That is very encouraging for office bearers. It will stimulate them to pray with the members of the congregation. Such intercession is liberating: for the member concerned, as well as for the office bearer himself.