1 Tim. 3:1 – “This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.”
In the previous two instalments we have examined the office of elder and the “good work” of his office. Now we consider the blessings that an elder receives, and therefore the incentive for men properly to prepare themselves for the office because they desire this good work.
What makes the office of elder desirable? Let us strip away any false ideas about this, lest anyone desire the office for wrong reasons. A man might desire the office because he is drawn to the power and authority of the office. That the office of elder is powerful is without question. The elder has the oversight of the congregation. And, to the elders of the church, God has given the power to open and close heaven. Is there a greater, more significant power than that in all the earth?
But we must notice, first, that the elder’s power is a spiritual, not an earthly power. It is very different from any other conception of power that we might have from life in this world. It is not the power to make people do what one commands. It is not the power to make decisions that are for one’s own benefit or enjoyment. It is rather a spiritual power that is concerned with the salvation of people. And notice secondly, that this power is not personal. The office of elder does not give a man some position of power that he may now speak and everyone must listen and obey. If a man is looking for power, if he wants to have a “say” in how the church should be run, then his motives are totally wrong, and he is not fit for office. Peter warns the elders against this – “Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (I Pet. 5:3). What are the elders? They are servants, that is, ministers of God called to serve God’s flock.
This is such an important point, that it needs to be driven home. That the desire for personal power is a problem and danger in the church is evident from the disciples of Jesus arguing about being the greatest in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus instructed them, and every officebearer in His church.
But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister [that is, one who serves, RJD]; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant [literally, slave, RJD].
And if that does not humble a man, then he must hear the next word from Jesus. After that instruction to the disciples, Jesus, THE office bearer of God, added: “Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:25-28). There is the example to be followed – not to be served, but to serve, a man comes into office. Paul and the other apostles referred to themselves that way – the slaves of Jesus (Act. 4:29, Rom. 1:1, etc., where servant is literally slave). Paul even called himself and his fellow laborers in the gospel slaves of the congregation – “ourselves your servants [slaves] for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5).
That last paragraph brings out a second wrong reason, that is, what may never be the motivation for seeking the office, namely, that a man seek the office for his own honour. Some might imagine that they will gain respect and earn prestige in the office. They might feel as though they are lacking respect if they are not nominated, or not elected to the office. This is a false notion as well. While the congregation is called to honour the officebearers, it is not the man who is honoured. Honour them for their work’s sake, we must. Honour them in their office because they represent Christ. But if a man rules well and labours in the word and therefore is counted worthy of double honour (1 Tim. 5:17), to whom is the honour? It is to the God who made him, and equipped him, and sustains him by His sovereign grace. Any officebearer who does not seek and desire that ALL glory go to God is not worthy of the office. Desire for honour among men is not a proper motive. It is rather the pride of Satan and is destructive to the man and to the church.
Because it is a wrong motive, anyone who seeks the office for that reason will fail. He will try to gain respect and maintain his position among men. And how does one do that? By pleasing men. Making decisions and speaking words that will please them. But, writes Paul, “if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant [slave] of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). And dreadful is Jesus’ warning: “Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets” (Lk. 6:26). The man will fail, because God will not share His glory with another. God will remove the man from office.
A third sinful motive for desiring the office is financial gain. Peter warns elders against this explicitly – “not for filthy lucre” (1 Pet. 5:2). In reality, being an elder more likely will result in a decline in his financial situation. The office bearer often pays for various expenses out of his own pocket, such as a coffee or lunch with a member or a visitor. Sometimes he is forced to leave work early in order to do elder’s work. No, an elder will not be become better off financially in the office.
So, why is the office of elder to be desired, if the office provides no earthly advantages or benefits?
The desirability of the office is that it is the work of serving Christ by serving His body the church. The man who properly desires the office does so out of a love for Jesus Christ. The office requires a man who is deeply aware that he is a sinner, and that Jesus saved him with His precious blood. The depth of his sin and deservedness of eternal punishment, on the one hand, and the experiential knowledge of the astounding glory of salvation, on the other hand, these move a man to love and thankfulness. “How can I serve my Lord and Saviour?” he asks. The answer is, in whatever way and to whatever work the Lord calls him. He will serve the Lord as husband, father, church member, worker, and, if the Lord calls him, as an officebearer in the church. It is that simple. If God calls a man, that believer responds with thankful obedience. And even then, it is not that the man is lifted up above the rest of the church members. Rather it is that the Lord has set him in a place where he has more opportunities to serve the body. He now has five or ten talents given him (opportunities to serve, see Matt. 5, the parable of the talents). He will serve God by serving His people.
Clearly this demands that an elder love the saints, that he love the body purchased by Christ. As John expresses it, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:11). And again, “every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him.” (1 Jn. 5:1). The elder loves the members, not in theory, but in truth. He loves the individual members. They are unique – different personalities, struggles, and yes, sins. But he loves them all. And thus he truly desires to serve them. Christ is pleased to serve the needs of His church using men called to the offices in the church. The officebearer then seeks to do the work Christ wants to be done. He will gladly wash the feet of the saints. He will serve them in humility and love. This is a good work.
And there are tremendous blessings in this work – spiritual blessings. The blessing, first and foremost, is growth in the Word of God. This arises out of the work an elder does. The elder who faithfully carries out his duties is constantly in the Bible. He brings the Word of God to the widows, to the sick, to those walking in sin, and to those not living in wisdom. To be able to bring the right word, he searches the Scriptures and seeks to know and understand it better. He searches the Scriptures also to give good advice to those who come to him. He seeks the proper biblical way when dealing with an issue in the church that must be faced and resolved. The elder also grows in the truth of the Bible when he teaches catechism or leads a class or Bible study.
The elder is in the Word in his work of assisting the pastor. He pays special attention to the preaching of the Word. The elder must also evaluate the word preached. Is it 1) confessional (in harmony with the Reformed creeds), 2) exegetical (truly drawn from this text), and 3) antithetical (setting forth the truth over against the lie)? It is not enough that the elder be fed by that word preached; he is evaluating it – is it feeding the sheep? Is it being applied to them in their lives, their sorrows, and their dangers? And, as the elders give help and guidance to the minister in regard to the preaching, the elders are themselves growing in the Word. Spiritual growth is the blessing a faithful elder receives.
Such an elder also grows in wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to take knowledge, add understanding of life, and then be able to apply it in the best way to various situations of life. Sanctified wisdom enables a man to direct his life in paths where he glorifies God the best way that he can. An elder needs wisdom to apply Scripture’s instruction to himself, to the congregation, to the minister, and to the fellow office bearers. Elders seek wisdom, pray for it unceasingly, and thus grow in wisdom by God’s gracious provision. We all can think of certain men and women, usually older members who are wise. They have lived many years and experienced much. They have learned what is foolish, and what is wise. They are able to give good, wise advice. This is God’s blessing on a faithful office bearer – he grows in spiritual wisdom.
More can be said about the spiritual blessings of serving in the office of elder, but this must wait for next time. We will also consider the question – if a man has the good and proper desire for the office of elder, how should he prepare himself?
Written by: Prof. Russell Dykstra | Issue 40