The Office of Elder
The specific duties of the office of elder are together with the ministers of the Word, to have supervision over Christ’s Church, that every member may conduct himself properly in doctrine and life according to the gospel; and faithfully to visit the members of the congregation in their homes to comfort, instruct, and admonish them with the Word of God, reproving those who behave improperly. They shall exercise Christian discipline according to the command of Christ against those who show themselves unbelieving and ungodly and refuse to repent, and shall watch that the sacraments are not profaned. Being stewards of the house of God, they are further to take care that in the congregation all things are done decently and in good order, and to tend the flock of Christ which is in their charge. Finally, it is the duty of elders to assist the ministers of the Word with good counsel and advice and to supervise their doctrine and conduct.
Whoever compares the wording of this article with that of the Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons will find a large measure of similarity. In fact, the present wording of Art. 22 CO. has been taken from this Form. With our discussion of this article we shall have to bear in mind that it is within the framework of church polity that we describe the elder's task here. This will modify our treatment of this provision.
The church of the Reformation restored the eldership in the church of Christ. In the course of time this office had all but disappeared. Pope and bishops had usurped all power and assumed the whole government of the church. They considered themselves to be the successors of the apostles and were as such, by divine right, to govern the church. There was no need or place for elders, while the deacons were degraded into helpers of the bishop.
At the Reformation it was specifically Calvin who restored the eldership and therein, too, he went back to before the beginning of the deformation: he went back to what the Scripture teaches us about the offices in the church. We cannot say with certainty when elders were first ordained in the New Testament church. We do know that the New Testament church continued in the line of the church of the Old Testament when it chose and ordained elders. Perhaps we may call the appointing of “The Seven” described in Acts 6 the “Institution of the church at Jerusalem.” This much is certain that in Acts 11: 30 we are all of a sudden faced with the presence of elders, when we are told that the relief for the “brethren who lived in Judea” was sent “to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.”
In Art. 31 of our Belgic Confession we state that elders “ought to be chosen to their offices by lawful election of the church, with prayer and in good order, as stipulated by the Word of God.” Because we dealt with the election as such when discussing Art. 3 CO., we may omit here what was said at that time, and restrict ourselves to a few additional remarks regarding this point.
The elders ought to be chosen by the church — and the “church” is not a specific, select group of men who have all power concentrated in their persons, but the congregation. This does not mean that they are the “executives” of the congregation, and are obliged to do what the congregation decides.
Also in New Testament times the elders were chosen, as appears from Acts 6: 5; they were appointed, Acts 14: 23; Titus 1: 5. And yet the apostle urges the overseers to remember that it is the Holy Spirit Himself who had made them guardians of the flock of Christ. It is from the Lord that the elders have received their authority and it is He to whom they have to give account. The Lord gives us the requirements for the overseers specifically in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1. From these passages it appears that God sets high standards. It is a grave responsibility indeed, when one is called to be an overseer and guardian of the flock of the Great Shepherd. The necessity of having a good reputation extends even to those who are without. On the other hand, no one should get the notion that an elder's authority and position rest on his own, personal qualifications. His authority and position rest solely on his having been called by the Lord Himself.
But since this call comes through the church, those who extend the call are to act according to the rules given by the Lord. For this reason some consistories have the custom of reading the relevant parts from 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1 before composing a list of candidates for the office. Thereby the brothers remind themselves anew of their great responsibility when presenting names to the congregation.
The Scripture gives the title “overseer” to the brothers whom we call “elders.” In the Greek language they are called “episkopoi” and from this comes our word “bishop.” They are bishops over the flock of Christ. It is their task to have supervision, the oversight over Christ's church. This shows their high position. It is also symbolic for this high position when the pews for the office-bearers are on an elevated platform, so that they can keep an eye on the assembled congregation and also can keep track of who is attending church faithfully and who is negligent.
At the same time the brothers have to bear in mind that authority is never given for the sake of the one who receives it, but only for the sake and benefit of those over whom it is exercised. As this applies everywhere, so it applies in the church of Christ: the overseers have received their authority to keep the flock of Christ close to the Great Shepherd and in the path of obedience.
This article formulates this as follows: “that every member may conduct himself properly in doctrine and life according to the Gospel.” The Bride must be prepared and preserved so that she may greet the Bridegroom with joy and unstained garments. It is clear that high standards have to be set for one who is to serve in this office.
Not always is a sufficient number of suitable candidates available. For this reason ecclesiastical assemblies in the past had to answer questions such as “Whether an elder or deacon who is capable of serving the church but has an evil and rebellious wife therefore shall be barred from serving the church”; or “Whether someone may be elected to the office of Elder or Deacon, or remain elected, whose wife is not a member of the church”; or “Whether such are to be ordained to be ministers, elders, etc. whose wives do not go to the Lord’s Supper or who have disobedient children.”
In smaller congregations with many families interrelated to one another it may also be difficult to avoid having two (biological) brothers or brothers-in-law serve at the same time. In principle there is no objection to having two (biological) brothers serve at the same time, although it would not be wise to have them bring family visits together. The danger of a consistory being “dominated” by closely-related men should also be avoided as much as possible, although we recall that there were at least two pairs of brothers among the Lord’s twelve disciples.
What has to be the main aim is the interest and the edification of the congregation. To one of the above-mentioned questions it was answered that, when no one else was available, “the most capable one shall be taken to the end that the churches remain not without service.” The congregation would definitely not be served if a less capable member had to be taken “because we don’t want two brothers in the consistory.” Besides, there are often such differences between two sons of the same parents that they may not agree with each other in several points except in their being one in their love and faithfulness towards their Lord.
Courses for Elders?
With a view to the high standards set by the Lord and the many features of their office, the point has been raised whether there should not be a special training for elders. Before one can become a minister, he has to go through a lengthy period of preparation. In fact, many years of study are required. On the other hand, elders are nominated, chosen and ordained, and without any further preparation have to fulfil the duties of their office. Why not a “course for elders?”
Here we are to make distinctions. A course for “future elders” appears not to be advisable. Such would endanger the whole Reformed concept of eldership. In this manner a special class of people would be formed from which elders could be taken. Besides, who would apply for enrollment in such courses? Most likely not the most capable and modest brothers. On the contrary, one could expect that the most capable and modest brothers would not think of enrolling in such courses, for who are they that they should presume themselves to be worthy of this office? In the third place the danger is not entirely absent that such courses would result in an eldership-for-life, on the analogy of the ministry. Although such an eldership-for-life is certainly not in conflict with what Scripture teaches us, the churches have moved away from it, as is evident from Art. 24 C.O. The idea should not be promoted in a roundabout way.
Having courses for elders after they have been chosen and appointed and/or ordained, or even before they are ordained is an entirely different matter. Such courses can only be wholeheartedly recommended, as can office-bearers’ conferences. Periodicals dedicated specifically to the instruction of office-bearers — such as Diaconia — are also of great value.
One more point is to be considered before we proceed to discussing the specific duties of the elders. Is one allowed to decline when one has been chosen and appointed as an elder?
When the church calls to the office, the Lord calls through His church. The Lord certainly never makes a mistake, but His church is not infallible and can make mistakes. It is quite possible that a consistory did not take all the facts sufficiently into consideration when nominating a certain brother and that the congregation when electing him was not sufficiently aware of all the circumstances in the life and the family of the brother.
If one is convinced that he has sufficiently valid reasons for requesting the consistory to release him from the call to office, he has the right to submit a request to that effect to the consistory. A consistory would be amiss if it simply said, “You have been called by the church, and therefore by the Lord, so you have no right to ask to be relieved of this task.” This would amount to declaring itself and the congregation infallible. Besides, such a reply would show a misunderstanding of the relevant question in the Form for the Ordination.
If a request for release is received, the consistory has to weigh the arguments adduced in support of the request and, if they are found sufficient, to grant it. This does not do away with the fact that the ultimate decision is the consistory’s and is binding upon the appointee.
Proceeding now to the description of the specific duties of the office of elder, we mention the attention paid to it already by the first gathering of brothers from the Reformed Churches. We refer to the Convent of Wesel of 1568. This Convent was very specific and deals extensively with the duties of the elders. This is understandable, as we recall how neglected and obliterated the office of elder had become and how neglected and undernourished the members were. Everything had to be built up from the ground on, and this explains the elaborate description of the task of the elders given by this gathering.
What to think of the following part of the description of their task as given by Wesel: they shall keep diligent watch “each one over his own parish or section and visit those entrusted to them from house to house at least once per week and further as often as shall be the custom of every church in visiting, especially, however, towards the time of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper; that they shall closely enquire after the purity of their conduct and morals, their faithful teaching of the members of their family, the prayers
which they offer up before their families in the morning and in the evening, and all that kind of matters?”
The elders themselves, the brothers stated, “are to conduct themselves in such a manner that they bear in mind that they will have to give account of the souls entrusted to them not only before the church but also before God.” They are further admonished not to “let themselves be seduced either by favour or by money, but that they shall take into consideration only the Church and the Name of God.”
We could divide the specific duties of the office of elder into three main categories. There is in the first place the government of the church, which includes the discipline; further there is the supervision over other office-bearers, fellow-elders, deacons, ministers. In the third place there is the visiting. These three categories are no more than three facets of the one task.
The government of the church includes everything and not just what some would call “spiritual matters.” The finances of the church are also a very spiritual matter, although the elders would do well when calling upon brothers who are capable in this field to take care of the more technical matters. Ultimately, however, the elders remain responsible. It would be wrong if they surrendered their authority in this respect to a committee and relinquished their right to make the final decisions. On the other hand, they should not do all over again the work that a committee is doing under their supervision and by their authorization. No part of the task of the elders is more “spiritual” than the other.
The government that has been entrusted to them is of a serving nature; it has as its goal and should be exercised to this end that Christ have dominion over the church and that God's Word be acknowledged and honoured as the only rule for all of life. Holy Scripture tells the elders not to lord it over the Church of God, the flock of Christ. We repeat what was said above: authority is always given for the benefit of those over whom it is exercised, never for the benefit of those who receive it.
In order that no one may exalt himself above the others, it is stated that the elders “together with the ministers of the Word have supervision over the Church of Christ.” It is to the body of elders that the government has been entrusted. Thus hierarchy is prevented. This is not to say that an elder needs the authorization by the consistory for each and every action. An elder is a man with a mandate, he is a pastor and as such has not only obligations but also rights. But whatever authority an elder has, he has in combination with his fellow-elders and the minister(s).
When they endeavour that the Kingship of Christ may be honoured in His church, they will pay close attention to the doctrine and conduct of the members. They will also make sure that the Bride of Christ remains pure and therefore will remove those who defile her and refuse to repent. All things must be done decently and in good order, and the elders should see to it that this, indeed, will take place.
We also mention as belonging to the specific duties of the office of elder that they have supervision over their fellow-office-bearers. First, they are to make sure that no one serves without having been lawfully called. They further have to exercise Christian Censure. We shall deal with this when discussing Art. 73.
What they in particular should pay attention to is the purity of doctrine and the sanctity of conduct of the ministers of the Word. The Lord warns the elders emphatically against wolves that might try to enter the sheepfold of the Great Shepherd. Ministers are not people who are beyond reproach or who are not susceptible to error. Many a time it happened that under the cloak of pious terms and Scripturally-sounding expressions errors and heresies were introduced by way of the pulpit and the Catechism classes. This should be prevented at any cost. Wolves should be barred and, if they succeeded in sneaking in, should be unmasked and expelled.
Therefore the elders should not only listen attentively and discerningly when the Word is being proclaimed, but they also ought to visit and attend catechism classes unannounced. This is no proof of distrust or suspicion, but belongs to their duty to exercise supervision over the ministers of the Word. For the minister it is an encouraging experience to see elders appear at his classes: it assures him the more that he does not bear the responsibility alone, and that the brothers are vitally interested also in this branch of the work in the vineyard. Besides, visiting the catechism-classes is also good for the elders’ own knowledge of the students, their diligence and attention, and will be beneficial when they visit the families.
No office-bearer is above criticism, and no one is so faithful and faultless that he does not need the supervision of the brothers or the encouragement provided by their visits.
An important part of the task of the elders is the visiting of the families and single persons in the ward assigned to them. In the proclamation of the Gospel the Word of God comes to the whole congregation; in the family visits God’s Word comes to the members and families individually.
The overseers have to look after the well-being of the congregation and they do this by means of personal visits. It is not necessary for them always to go in pairs when visiting. An elder may certainly visit the families in his ward alone and he will do so when he considers this advisable.
What is the purpose of the family visit? The purpose is to see whether everyone's life is in accordance with the Word of our God, and also to comfort and encourage where this appears necessary. When elders visit a family or single member they show thereby that the Lord cares, that the church cares, and that we are all together one body. If they are aware of or discover disobedience with a particular member, they can admonish on a personal basis, something which should not be done from the pulpit.
Though a minister definitely has the duty to warn the congregation against dangers and to point out generally prevailing sins, but he is never allowed to become personal when proclaiming God’s Word from the pulpit. Matters are different in a family visit.
How often should such visits be brought? Above we mentioned that in 1568 it was considered necessary that the families were visited every week. We have only the provision that the elders shall “faithfully” visit the members of the congregation in their homes. Practically, visits are brought once a year, at least when there is nothing special with a family or a single member that should receive extra attention. Sometimes “special visits” are arranged before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Perhaps, if visits were conducted in a less formal manner, they might become more frequent, but this is a matter for the discipline dealing with the execution of the offices in the church, not for church polity.
Another way in which the frequency of visits might be increased is to make the wards smaller and to add to the number of elders. Considering the size of the wards in our days — they not infrequently number twenty or more families — we conclude that it would be impossible to achieve what Wesel 1568 desired to see: visit the families in your ward every week, more often if necessary. It would also be beneficial to the families of the elders by giving the brothers the opportunity to spend more evenings at home.
In 1581 the question was discussed whether an elder may receive remuneration. It was declared inadvisable to do so. People come so easily to avarice and abuse, it was said. Besides, it might lead to desiring an office for this reason more than to looking at the true purpose of the office. Elders and deacons do not give up their occupation and so it would be a big question how much should be paid to each one. Should elders or deacons suffer financial loss because of the time required for the fulfilment of their office, it would only be fair “that they be assisted from ecclesiastical properties ... as a free gift to honour them.”
It is only reasonable that a brother should be reimbursed for any cost incurred. If an elder — or deacon — has to take time off for work as an office-bearer and loses income, he should receive compensation. The same applies to using his vehicle for visits. Most times the budgets and financial statements contain a relatively small amount set aside for mileage for office-bearers. It appears quite regularly that claims for mileage are not submitted. This does not appear proper. There may be brothers who can ill afford the sometimes considerable extra expenses involved in visiting distant members, but who do not feel free to submit a statement to the treasurer “for no one else does it.” When everyone submits his statement for reimbursement, no one has to feel bad about doing it, too. And those who do not feel good about accepting it can always donate it to the church. No greater financial burden may be laid upon the one than upon the other regardless whether he can afford it or not.