Article 2 of the Church Order reads: “The offices are those of the minister of the Word, of the elder and of the deacon.” In this chapter we will deal with the office of the elder.
When we speak of an office we refer to an official charge received from the Lord with the view of building up the congregation. An office has three components: a calling from the Lord, authority from the Lord and, a specific task for building up the congregation. The Lord Jesus as the Head of the church, has entrusted the care of His congregation in the hands of the overseers. The overseers are therefore servants of the Lord given to the congregation to take care of the congregation. We reject a democratic model, as if the office bearer are elected representatives and the members can tell them what to do. We also reject the dictatorial model, as if the office bearers can do what ever they want. Elders serve the Lord in serving the congregation.
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The LORD Himself takes care of His people as a Shepherd.
Psalm 23:1; Ezekiel 34:11-12.
In the Old Testament the LORD entrusted elders with the care for His people.
Exodus 3:16; Numbers 11:16.
These elders had to govern the people according to God’s law. They spoke on behalf of the LORD.
Deuteronomy 27:1; Deuteronomy 31:9.
The Bible also uses the term watchman in this regard. The watchman’s duty is to obey the one who appoints him and warn the sinner.
In the New Testament we read that the Lord Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd.
John 10:11; John 10:3; John 10:14; John 10:27.
After His resurrection the Lord Jesus gives the care of His flock in the hands of His apostles.
Matthew 18:18; Ephesians 4:11-16.
The apostles in turn appointed elders in each congregation.
Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; 1Peter 5:1-4; Acts 20:28
The congregation has to recognize these elders as servants of the Lord.
Because of the importance of this task the churches had to take care that overseers were above reproach. An elder who is not above reproach would harm the name of the Church of the Lord, yes the honour of the Lord Himself.
1Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9
The task of the elders is described in terms of comforting, encouraging, instructing and admonishing.
1Thessalonians 2:11-12; Acts 15:32; 1Thessalonians 5:14
Elders are charged as good shepherds and faithful watchmen to be diligent in governing the church, in comforting the distressed and in admonishing the wayward. They have to take heed that the congregation abide by pure doctrine and lead a godly life.
The Belgic Confession mentions the elders in the articles dealing with the government of the church.
Article 30 The Government of The Church
We believe that this true Church must be governed according to the Spiritual order which our Lord has taught us in His Word. There should be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and to administer the sacraments; there should also be elders and deacons who, together with the pastors, form the council of the Church.
Article 31 The Officers of The Church
Ministers of the Word, in whatever place they are, have equal power and authority, for they are all servants of Jesus Christ, the only universal Bishop and the only Head of the Church. In order that this holy ordinance of God may not be violated or rejected, we declare that everyone must hold the ministers of the Word and the elders of the Church in special esteem because of their work, and as much as possible be at peace with them without grumbling or arguing.
The task of the elders is referred to in the Catechism in connection with the admission to the Lord’s Supper and the use of the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Q&A 81. Who are to come to the table of the Lord?
Those who are truly displeased with themselves because of their sins and yet trust that these are forgiven them and that their remaining weakness is covered by the suffering and death of Christ, and who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and amend their life.
But hypocrites and those who do not repent eat and drink judgment upon themselves.
Q&A 82. Are those also to be admitted to the Lord’s supper who by their confession and life show that they are unbelieving and ungodly?
No, for then the covenant of God would be profaned and His wrath kindled against the whole congregation.
Therefore, according to the command of Christ and His apostles, the Christian church is duty-bound to exclude such persons by the keys of the kingdom of heaven, until they amend their lives.
Q&A 83. What are the keys of the kingdom of heaven?
Q&A 84. How is the kingdom of heaven open and closed by the preaching of the gospel?
According to the command of Christ, the kingdom of heaven is opened when it is proclaimed and publicly testified to each and every believer that God has really forgiven all their sins for the sake of Christ’s merits, as often as they by true faith accept the promise of the gospel.
The kingdom of heaven is closed when it is proclaimed and testified to all unbelievers and hypocrites that the wrath of God and eternal condemnation rest upon them as long as they do not repent.
According to this testimony of the gospel, God will judge both in this life and in the life to come.
Q.85. How is the kingdom of heaven closed and opened by church discipline?
According to the command of Christ, people who call themselves Christians but show themselves to be un-christian in doctrine or life are first repeatedly admonished in a brotherly manner.
If they do not give up their errors or wickedness, they are reported to the church, that is, to the elders. If they do not heed also their admonitions, they are forbidden the use of the sacraments, and they are excluded by the elders from the Christian congregation, and by God Himself from the kingdom of Christ.
They are again received as members of Christ and of the church when they promise and show real amendment.
The Church Order spells out the task of the elder (Art. 22), but there are many articles in which the elder comes in the picture.
Art. 3 Calling
Art. 22 The Office of Elder
Art. 24 Term of Office
Art. 25 Equality to be Maintained
Art. 26 Subscription to the Confession
Art. 27 False Doctrine
Art. 38 Consistory
Art. 57 Baptism
Art. 58 Schools
Art. 61 Admission to the Lord’s Supper
Art. 63 Marriage
Art. 64 Church Records
Art. 67 Consistory Involvement (in Discipline)
Art. 71 Suspension and Deposition of Office-bearers
Art. 72 Serious and Gross Sins on the Part of Office-bearers
Art. 73 Christian Censure
Art. 74 No Lording It over Others
The first question the elder has to answer at his ordination is: “Do you feel in your heart that God Himself, through His congregation, has called you to this office?” The Church Order says in the opening sentence of Art. 3: “No one shall take any office upon himself without having been lawfully called thereto.” The process of a lawful call is outlined in the Church Order and the local Regulations. The combination of the question at the ordination and the requirement of the Church Order show that there is a formal aspect to the call to office (the election and appointment) as well as a personal aspect (do you feel in your heart). The second is a matter between the brother and the Lord. It is possible that one appointed cannot accept this appointment. He will have to give the reasons why, and council can judge these reasons, but in the end, he has to be able to say that he feels in his heart that God Himself has called Him.
The approach to calling and ordination shows the spiritual nature of the office in the church. We do not “run for office” and organize an election campaign. We do not push ourselves at the expense of others, but wait for the Lord to call us by means of the process the church has adopted. Humility is one of the requirements for office. At the same time this approach to the call to office highlights the obligation and comfort we have as elders. The obligation is to obey this call, unless there are weighty reasons, and fulfil this office to the best of our ability. The comfort lies in the fact that the Lord has called us and we did not push ourselves. With the call He will also give the ability to fulfil it. As office-bearers we do not defend our own honour, but the honour of our Lord. He is pleased to use our labours, though done with many imperfection, for the coming of His Kingdom. As elders we can feel incapable at times, but then our comfort is that He has called us.
The Form for Ordination and Article 22 of the Church Order stipulate that elders are called:
It is the task of the elders to see whether and how the Word of God rules the lives of God’s people. They have to apply God’s Word to the needs and situations in the home they are visiting. This supervision is not limited to certain areas. As our lives before the Lord includes everything, so also the care of the Lord through the supervision of the elders. Elders have to know what is going on in the lives of those entrusted into their care. The most important means in this care is the visit. The elders have to faithfully visit the members in their homes. When they visit they must have open ears.
This visiting includes
It is not limited to these. It will be beneficial if elders visit the families in their charge in a less formal way. It is important that there is an open relationship between the families and the elders.
Elders are charged to exercise Christian discipline. This discipline is to be exercised in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ and His Word. This discipline is over those who either in word or deed show that they are disobedient and refuse to repent. See further 2-1 Discipline.
The elders have to watch that the sacraments are not profaned. This means they have to see to it that those who present a child for baptism do so for the right reason and that they admit to the Lord’s Supper only those who are entitled to participate. This calling involves
The church is the household of God. All things must be done decently and in good order because God is a God of order. Thus the peace of the church is protected. In order to fulfil this task the elders together with the minister form the consistory and together with the deacons form the council.
See further 3-3 Congregation and Office-bearers; 3-5 Council and Consistory
There are differences between the elders and the minister when it comes to calling and term of office, but nevertheless elders are no less than ministers and ministers are not higher than elders. The minister is an elder too. Thus the elders have supervision over the work and personal life of the minister. As part of this task the elders visit the minister in his home twice per year, they visit the catechism classes and evaluate the preaching. See further 1-4 Preaching/Prayer; 2-6 Catechism.
The Form also states that the elders must watch diligently that no wolves enter the sheepfold of the Good Shepherd. The elders are to guard the pulpit. This is why in Art. 15 of the Church Order we read: “No one shall be permitted to preach the Word or to administer the sacraments in another church without the consent of the consistory of that church.” The elders allow a minister to preach. They can also barr a minister from the pulpit when they believe he is unfaithful to God’s Word and the Reformed Confession.
Besides supervision the elders have to assist the minister with good counsel and advice. This advice takes place at the consistory meetings, but can also be done in personal conversation. An open relationship between elders and minister is important for congregation and consistory.
The minister and his family receive an annual home visit just like all the other families in the congregation. When elders make this visit they should approach it the same way as the other visits. They have to see whether and how this family lives from the Word of God. At the same time they do well to keep in mind the special task of the minister and that the lives of the wife and children are affected by his ministry. Some of the questions that may be asked are:
The elders are also involved in the major assemblies. Each church delegates the minister and an elder to each classis. In case the church is vacant or the minister is prevented from going, two elders will be delegated. Also at regional and general synod, half the delegates are elders. To attend regional and general synod requires more time and not all elders are able to go. As a rule council submits the names of the brothers who would be able to serve at a regional or general synod, to the assembly that has to decide on the delegation. With regard to classis, it is the best the elders take turns in going.
The elders must live from the Word and show the power of this Word in their own lives. Elders can only do their work well when they train themselves in godliness and diligently search the scriptures. To train yourself in godliness means to apply the will of God in your own life, to submit your life to the law of God and show fruits of thankfulness. Besides this they also have to search the scriptures. The word search is used here. This is more than read. To search is to study diligently in order to find the treasures of God’s Word. This is to be done in the elder’s personal life, together with his family. The study societies are a great help here as well.