1 Timothy 3:1 – This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.
Having previously examined the nature of the office of elder and what Paul describes as the “good work” of his office, in the last issue we began to consider the blessings that an elder receives. In this final instalment, we will look further at the blessings that God gives a faithful elder. We will conclude with a consideration of ways in which men can prepare, indeed, ought to prepare themselves for the office.
We have noted that God’s blessing on elders arises out of the faithful labours that they perform in their office. Faithful elders are constantly busy in God’s Word – studying, searching, and teaching that Word. The blessing that results is growing in their knowledge and understanding of the Bible. In addition, since they are continually applying that Word to situations in the church, the elders grow in wisdom in applying the Word to their own lives and families.
A second notable personal blessing is a growth in sanctification. This blessing also arises first out of the elder’s work with the Bible. In His beautiful high priestly prayer recorded in John 17, Jesus made this request for His disciples: “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth” (vs. 17). The elder who is busy studying the Bible for his work also recognises the need for the Word for his own personal benefit. God will bless that study. The Word more and more governs his thinking and his life. The Spirit gives the desire to walk in holiness. Add that to the elder’s experience of how sin ravages the lives of God’s people, and the deception of sin, and the result is that the elder more and more hates that sin and knows he must stay as far as he can from sin himself. He knows his own wicked nature, and he knows that Satan would like nothing better than to cause an officebearer to fall into gross sin. By God’s grace, all these things lead an elder to fight sin in himself and to strive for holiness. Faithful work in the office will produce growth in sanctification.
Third, the faithful officebearer grows in his love for the church, for the people of God. This is not an automatic blessing. On the one hand, God’s people are sinners. They are not always so loveable. They can be harsh, critical, attacking, slandering people. And they demonstrate that not only to other members, but not infrequently, toward the elders. Certainly what Solomon observed in his life is true of the officebearer – with knowledge comes sorrow (Ecc. 1:18). An officebearer weeps over the sins of fellow believers. And he feels the sting and bears the scars of attacks from fellow members of the congregation. Not once, but twice, Proverbs grieves: “The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly” (Pro. 18:8, 26:22). These are wounds that do not heal easily. Many an officebearer has finished his term of office heartsick because of the sins of God’s people, astounded at the vicious natures that manifest themselves in the church.
And yet, the officebearer loves God’s people. And the more he helps them, the more he loves them. He sees their struggles and can empathize with them. He sees them taking hold of the word of instruction and admonition. He sees them striving to be obedient – fighting sin and living in sanctification. And seeing the work of God in them, he loves them. The bond of love forms, develops, and lasts. All believers are called to love one another, to care for the weak, and to seek the good of the church. The officebearer has many opportunities to carry out these admonitions. And his love for the church grows and is manifested.
These are some of the outstanding blessings that Christ bestows on faithful officebearers.
The main point of the articles has been that the office of elder is a good work, a work that men ought to desire. If a man properly desires to serve his Lord and Saviour in any of the three church offices, it is obvious that he ought to prepare himself as much as he can. The man who believes he is called to the office of minister of the Word and sacraments pursues many years of preparation. One who desires to serve Christ as an elder (or deacon) should likewise seek to be prepared for the office.
That leads to the question, how can a man prepare for the work?
Let us not miss the obvious preparation that is needed, as the passage in 1 Timothy 3 directs us. The inspired apostle Paul wrote of desiring of the office of bishop (elder), and then immediately followed that with the qualifications for the elder. The point is clear. A man who desires this office must cultivate these spiritual qualifications. Without them, he may not be nominated for the office. These qualifications ought to be obvious in his life and conduct. Paul wrote:
A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil (vs. 2-7).
A necessary place to begin then, is with a prayerful study of these qualifications.
Second, one prepares for service in the church of Christ by growing in the knowledge of the Word of Christ. The Bible is the heart of each office. The Word of Christ is the power of the office. This is the source of the instruction, the admonitions, the good counsel, and the wisdom needed in the work. The man who will serve ought to be daily reading and meditating on the Word of God.
Closely related, a man who desires to serve should be familiar with the Reformed confessions. All officebearers sign the Formula of Subscription when they are first ordained/installed. In so doing, they express that they “heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine contained in the Confession and Catechism of the Reformed Churches together with the [Canons], do fully agree with the Word of God”. Then they will promise “diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine….” It should be obvious that to make such promises meaningfully they must know these Reformed confessions. Anyone who will serve effectively as an officebearer in a Reformed congregation must know and love the Reformed faith, and that is the content of the confessions. Preparation includes then gaining a thorough knowledge of the confessions.
In addition, the officebearers must know the Reformed Church Order. The Church Order gives the rules for the proper Reformed government of the church as drawn from Scripture itself. It sets forth the time-tested church polity which has as its basic principle that Christ Jesus is the King of His church. King Jesus demands that all things be done decently and in order. Good, effective Reformed officebearers will not only know what the Church Order says, but understand the principles behind the articles, and be able to apply them to the government of the church. A man can prepare himself to serve by reading good commentaries on the Church Order. The importance of such preparation cannot be overstated.
Further preparation can be gained by reading. An officebearer should know the truth. He should know the errors that the church battled in the past. Knowledge of the history of the church generally, and of his own church in particular, are important. We learn from the struggles and the mistakes of the church in the past. Good books are available on the office of elder and its duties.
And then one more thing. A man who desires the office of elder desires to serve the church of Jesus Christ. Such a man should be seeking ways to serve the church before he is nominated for any office. He is involved in the life of the church. He serves the other members in small, unnoticed ways simply because he loves God’s people.
These preparations, it should be evident, are efforts from which all believers can profit. They will give rich spiritual benefits to any Christian. And the man who desires the office rests then in the will of Christ. He will prepare himself, in the event that Christ calls him to the office of elder. If Christ does not, then the man still is spiritually stronger, and he uses the many other opportunities to serve outside the office.
The office of elder is a tremendous blessing which Christ gives to His church. And the elders who labours faithfully can be assured of Christ’s promised blessing: “And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away” (1 Pet. 5:4). Pray for your elders. And pray that God will continue to give His church faithful officebearers, well prepared, filled with the good and proper desire to be used by Christ for the good of His church.
Written by: Prof. Russell Dykstra | Issue 41