1 Timothy 3:1 This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.
In 1 Timothy 3, the Apostle Paul begins his instruction on the special offices in the church, that is, the offices of Elder, Deacon, and Minister of the Word. Christ is the officebearer of God, the Mediator with the threefold office of prophet, priest, and king. Christ calls men to fill these offices in the church on earth as His representatives. He qualifies them and gives them the authority to do His work. These offices are vitally important, for the special offices are the means Christ uses to maintain and bless His church.
In 1 Timothy 3:1, the Spirit reminds the church that it is a privilege to be called by Christ to the special offices. Therefore, the man who desires to hold such an office desires a good work. The question that remains is: Why is it “good”? We concluded the previous article with a brief answer: the “good” character of the work is due to the fact that the office is from God. It is His work. To be more specific, it is good because it is the work of Jesus Christ who directs the church to the right activity. Christ cares for His church as a father cares for his children. In our consideration of 1 Timothy 3:1, we now turn our attention to the “good work” of the Elder.
The Lord Jesus rules His church through the office of Elder. The rule of the Elder begins with the life and work of the Minister. Yes, Elders are to rule over the Minister’s life. They must take heed to his “conversation.” The Minister must be a godly example to all, and at all times. The Minister must not be a stumbling block to others. And his life must never contradict his preaching for a lifestyle that is contrary to the preaching robs the preaching of its power. The hearers will begin to despise both the Minister and the Word that he brings. In addition, a Minister’s folly or sin will give occasion for enemies of the Truth to blaspheme. It is up to the Elders to rule over the Minister so that this never happens, but that rather, the Minister adorns the preaching with a godly life.
In addition, the Elder rules over the preaching. Obviously, the Minister must preach the truth drawn from the Bible. The Elders must see to it that there is no false doctrine in his teaching and preaching. In fact, the preaching must explicitly reject the lie and defend the truth over against current errors. In addition, the Elders must be sure that the Minister preaches the whole counsel of God. The warnings of Scripture and the admonitions must be clearly sounded in preaching if it is to be a key of the kingdom of heaven. In short, the Elders are responsible for the preaching. It must set forth Christ crucified and risen again. This preaching will glorify God in Jesus Christ, and will edify the congregation.
This is one of the most difficult aspects of the Elders’ work. Elders need much wisdom in order to help a Minister preach such sermons. If an Elder takes this aspect of his work seriously, he will be very attentive to the preaching, will be very much “in the Word” and giving thoughtful consideration to the preaching weekly. In this spiritual activity, he will grow tremendously in wisdom and knowledge.
Another significant aspect of the Minister’s work that the Elders must oversee is his catechetical instruction of the youth. Elders must carefully observe both the content of the instruction and the manner of giving instruction. Catechism is part of the official teaching of the church. This is a primary means of building up the youth in the truth. Elders oversee this work by visiting the classes. They take note as to whether the youth are in fact growing in their knowledge and love for the Reformed faith.
The Elders’ oversight includes the Minister’s work in family visitation. Elders observe his work because they accompany the Minister and assist in it. The final significant area of the Minister’s work is in pastoral labours. Here, too, Elders have responsibilities. To some extent, Elders must know what their Minister is doing. No doubt there ought to be some privacy between pastor and member. Nonetheless, these labours of the pastor are yet subject to the authority of Elders.
Since they have oversight of the life and work of the Minister, wisdom is essential for Elders. They must know how to take oversight without improperly dominating a Minister, or overextending their authority into every area of a Minister’s life. Those who desire to be faithful Elders will pray continually for wisdom from the Spirit. And a wise Minister will rejoice in the proper oversight of his labours by such men.
The second main work of the Elders is supervision of the Deacons. This also demands wisdom, for Elders must not make Deacons to be sort of “junior Elders.” Deacons have their own labour—the ministry of mercy in the church. The Elders may not simply assign work to the Deacons as though they are the servants of the Elders.
Yet, as rulers in the church, Elders are called to supervise the work of the Deacons in wisdom. It is not their calling to hang over the shoulder of the Diaconate and direct every move they make, for example, who receives money and how much. The Elders supervise first in that they must see to it that Deacons are faithfully carrying out the duties of their office. Are the Deacons doing the work Christ calls them to do? And then, in the second place, the Elders must watch for a possible abuse by a member of the office of Deacon. Deacons are very close to the work and bestow benevolence out of love and mercy towards the poor in the congregation. It is possible then that they do not recognise a misuse of the office. Then the Elders must point that out to them. As with the Minister, the Elders must see to it that lives of the Deacons are above reproach.
The Elder oversees the work of the Minister and the Deacons. They also exercise oversight of each other. Paul so taught the Elders of Ephesus as he left them to embark on his third missionary journey—“Take heed to yourselves” (Acts 20:28). Elders must take heed to the walk of life of the fellow Elders. And they must see to it that each faithfully executes the duties of the office.
The Reformed (Biblical) form of church government insists on the parity (equality) of the three offices. In harmony with that principle, the three offices exercise mutual oversight. The Church Order of Dordt (Art. 81) calls for mutual censure to be done at set times—at least four times a year. This is the oversight of the Elders over officebearers.
The main work of the Elders is the oversight of the congregation. The form for the ordination of Elders sets forth their responsibilities. The Elders have authority to watch both the confession and lives of the members. Specifically, the form teaches that Elders are to diligently look that every member properly deports himself. They are called to admonish the disorderly. Understand that the Elders need not wait for a session meeting to do this. The Elder is in the office twenty-four hours a day. He is personally called to do this as part of work. Of course, his admonitions of members must not be based on his opinions, but only on the teaching of the Bible.
The Elders are also called to exercise Christian discipline, also known as the “last remedy.” Long before excommunication, the Elders visit members who are living in impenitent sin. They admonish sinners officially. They do all in their power to lead sinners back to the truth and to godliness. All their labours must be done out love for the member. And, if necessary, the Elders are called to remove the impenitent members out of the church.
Scripture makes it plain that this work of oversight is the care of the congregation as shepherds of the flock of Christ. Paul’s instruction to the Elders of Ephesus recorded in Acts 20:28 ff. indicates this pastoral (shepherding) nature of the Elders’ work. Paul admonished them to take heed to the flock, that is, pay attention to the congregation. Elders must know the congregation; young and old, single members, as well as families. What are their lives like? With what difficulties are they struggling? How might they need assistance? Elders make it a point to know.
Besides, said Paul, you must feed this flock. Elders have the responsibility for the spiritual nourishment of the congregation. Paul also required them to watch against false doctrine, and any “wolves” who seek to enter the fold pretending to be sheep, and finally, “support the weak.” Take special care of those who are vulnerable, who are spiritually or physically in a position of weakness.
Additional inspired revelation of the pastoral nature of the Elders’ work is found in 1 Timothy 3:5. Paul indicates that the Elders are to preside over their own houses well. This is not simply to rule over the household, but rather to see that all things are done properly. Clearly, that activity of presiding over something will take much time and attention.
The Spirit then compares the Elder presiding over his own house to taking care of the church. We think of an Elder ruling, but Paul does not say rule. Rather he is to take care of the church. This word is used twice in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10). He took the wounded men to an inn, and “took care of him.” Then the good Samaritan continued on his journey, but instructed the inn keeper, “Take care of him….” So likewise must the Elders take care of the church. This involves much more than dealing with the church as if it were a “business”. And far more that merely ruling, it involves the work of shepherds caring for sheep. An Elder must have love and compassion for God’s people. His work is pastoral.
The Reformed church’s understanding of this is reflected in the Church Order and the Form for Ordination of Elder. Elders are to visit the families regularly. The idea is not merely official family visitation. It implies other, informal meetings when an Elder calls a family to say that he would like to come over and visit. The visit is not sought because there is a problem. Rather, says the Elder, “I simply desire to get to know you and your children. I hope to get a better understanding of your life, struggles, and trials. The purpose is that I might better help you, either now or in time of adversity.” To accomplish this, it might be best to divide the congregation into districts and assign an Elder or pair of Elders to a specific group so that they would be responsible for these members and give them special care.
The Form for Elders’ ordination also indicates that Elders must be ready with good counsel and advice. This, first to the Minister. This is very important, for Elders know the congregation much better than the Minister. They should also be ready to give good advice on his work. But the Form exhorts them to give good counsel to any and all in the congregation. This is the calling of Elders! The congregation, therefore must not be afraid to go to them for help and advice. They are prepared to help.
Consider also these questions that church visitors may ask about the work of the Elders:
- Do the Elders regularly attend the services for divine worship as well as the consistory meetings?
- Do they at set times attend the catechism classes to see how they are conducted and attended; and do they assist the Minister in catechizing when there is a need?
- Do they see to it that Christian discipline is exercised, and that everything is done honourably and in good order?
- Do the Elders visit the sick and others in agreement with the calling of their office?
- Do they try to prevent and remove all offense in the congregation, and try to comfort and instruct the members?
- Do they conduct themselves as examples to the congregation in their family and outward walk of life?
Clearly, faithful Elders spend themselves in the care for the church of Jesus Christ.
In the next (and last) instalment, we will consider the blessing that an Elder receives, and therefore the incentive for men properly to prepare themselves for the office, because they desire this good work.
Written by: Prof. Russell Dykstra | Issue 39