Desiring a Good Work (IV)

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.

Preparation

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

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Desiring a Good Work (III)

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

Desiring a Good Work (II)

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:

  1. Do the Elders regularly attend the services for divine worship as well as the consistory meetings?
  1. 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?
  1. Do they see to it that Christian discipline is exercised, and that everything is done honourably and in good order?
  1. Do the Elders visit the sick and others in agreement with the calling of their office?
  1. Do they try to prevent and remove all offense in the congregation, and try to comfort and instruct the members?
  1. 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

Desiring a Good Work

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. This instruction is in keeping with Paul’s purpose for writing to Timothy, Paul’s former “seminary student” and currently the Pastor of the church in Ephesus. According to 1 Timothy 3:15, the Holy Spirit’s theme in this inspired letter is: “Proper behaviour in the Church of God”. Essential to this proper behaviour is the work of the office-bearers.

It is understandable that the Spirit gives this instruction, for the special offices are the means Christ uses to maintain and bless His church. This being the case, it is vitally important that these offices function properly. Eventually all three offices are discussed: Elders in chapter 3 with some additional instruction in chapter 5; Deacons in chapters 3, and in chapter 5, the women who assist the Deacons; and Ministers of the Word in chapter 4.

In chapter three verse one, Paul turns to the office of Elder, called here a “Bishop.” The office of Elder has lost much of its vigour and value in the church since the time of the Reformation. Even in many Reformed churches the office is not always appreciated. The duties of the office are neglected and the office itself continues to fade away, even ceasing to function in some churches.

The causes for this lamentable decline are many. Regrettably, much of the cause is encroachment on the office by Ministers who have broadened the scope of their duties, and taken some of the authority from the Elders. In many instances, perhaps, Elders have allowed this to happen by failing to perform the duties of the office, and they   are   accountable   before   God for their failure. But all too often, Ministers have grabbed for more and more, and robbed the Elders’ seat of its function and authority.

But there are other causes for the decline. Some of it is simply the spirit of the age—independentism and the anti-authority attitude. The thinking is: “I can do as I please. No Elder in church will tell me what I must do or may not do. Mind your own business.” I recall, many years ago, the reaction of someone from a church not Reformed to my description of family visitation. The man was simply astonished that Elders and Ministers could come into our home, ask questions, and admonish us if they believed we were doing wrong!

Over the years, some of the decline is the result of men being elected into office who lack the qualifications, that is, men who are spiritually unfit to be Elders. Such men cannot, or will not perform the duties that the office requires. And finally, it also happens that Elders do not know what the duties of the Elder are. Much of what Scripture requires has been lost. Obviously if the men in the office do not know what their duties are, they will not be able to perform them.

This is terribly serious for the church. From a practical point of view, some of these trends affect us. To the extent that they do, the congregation suffers spiritually. The strength of the congregation can truly be measured by the strength of the Elders. For this reason, it is good that we consider and take to heart the instruction of 1 Timothy 3:1 on the office of Elder.

The goal of these articles is to draw out an important point of the Apostle— desiring the office of an Elder is a good desire. Obviously, it is important to understand what kind of desire this is, and why a believing man should desire to be an Elder. With our natural sinfulness, it is easy to desire the office wrongfully, and to have evil motives and expectations. But God’s Word tells us that Elder’s work is a good work and something to be desired. That being the case, if men have that desire, they will prepare themselves for the office so that they are spiritually equipped in the event that God calls them to serve in the office.

The plan is to examine the office of Elder first of all. We need to understand the place and purpose of the office. Then we will consider why the Spirit calls it a good work. That in turn will make plain what makes the office a desirable thing. In the process we will discuss what preparations a man should seek who has the proper, biblical desire for the office of Elder, and really, any office in the church of God.

A Special Office

Notice that we speak of a special office in the church. We do that to distinguish these offices from the office of all believers. The great Reformation of the 1500s re-established this office of believer in the church. The Reformers emphasised the teaching of Scripture that every Christian has the Spirit of Christ and is a prophet, priest and king. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches this in Lord’s Day 12, Q. & A. 32: But why art thou called a Christian? Thus while every Christian holds this office of believer, some in the congregation also hold the particular office of Elder, Minister, or Deacon.

That raises the question: What is an office in the church? First, it is a position to which one is appointed. No one takes an office to himself. This is true even of offices in the governments of the nations. In America and Singapore, a man does not take an office by force; he runs for an office, seeking it and asking the voters to put him into office. But he must be voted in, or in some offices, be appointed by the President or some government official.

Likewise, with the offices in the church, men are appointed to them. But the unique thing here is, their appointment comes from God, through Christ. God must appoint because the church office is a position in which the office-bearer represents God Himself. God has a work that He determines to do through the office-bearer. The office-bearer stands as a representative of God with the authority to speak and act in His Name.

Church office cannot be understood separate from Christ, for He is the chief office-bearer of God. Christ is ordained by God from eternity to be the representative of God. While God is spirit, and thus cannot be seen, His chosen representative is visible and, in the office of Mediator of the Covenant, He represents God. Again, the   Heidelberg   Catechism   (Lord’s Day 12, Q. & A. 31) explains that the Mediator is called Christ, which means Anointed, because He has been ordained of God and anointed by the Spirit to be our chief prophet or teacher, our only high priest, and our eternal king. Christ’s one office (Mediator) has those three aspects.

Christ was eternally chosen by God to fill this three-fold office of Mediator, officially appointed to this position, and qualified by the Spirit. The same is true of the men in the church who are selected to these offices. Recall that in these articles we focus especially on the office of Elder because 1 Timothy 3:1 speaks particularly of this office. That Elders are appointed by God is evident from history. First, in the Old Testament, Elders were found in Israel from the beginning of her history as a nation. These Elders were older men, who, because of their age and position, became leaders in their respective families and tribes. Already at the time of Israel’s bondage in Egypt, God instructed Moses to “gather the Elders of Israel together” to tell them the Word God had spoken to him. And those Elders were to accompany Moses to the presence of Pharaoh (Exodus 3:16, 18).

In the wilderness, some of these men received an official appointment to the office of Elder. This came at the advice of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who witnessed Moses judging daily from morning to night, as the people came to him with matters requiring adjudication. At that time Moses selected the necessary men to assist in this work (Exodus 18). God called Moses and seventy of the Elders of Israel to draw near to Him at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19). And still later, God told Moses to choose seventy men to whom God gave the Spirit, that they might share Moses’ burden of governing the people (Numbers 11).

Notice that the very term “Elder” points to one who is qualified by a certain amount of experience in the life of the church. Think of the kind of men that Moses would have sought to assist him as Elders—men of experience, men respected for their spirituality and wisdom. There is continuity between the Old and New Testament. That need for experience and wisdom is one reason why the Apostle later instructs Timothy not to place in the office a novice—someone who is a recent convert to the faith or has recently joined a Reformed church.

The office of ruling was distinct from the other two offices. In the Old Testament the position of king was clearly distinct from the position of prophet and of priest. King David ruled in the Name of God and for His glory. He was commanded to maintain God’s law and truth. As king, he also fought the Lord’s battles, defended the land and the people, which was God’s heritage. The New Testament office of Elder would one day replace the position of king.

Christ was pictured in these Old Testament types and therefore He is the fulfilment. The Old Testament prophecy pointed to Christ as ruler. Matthew (2:6) quotes the prophet Micah (5:2) that the Messiah will be “Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.” Gabriel announced to Mary about her son that “the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:32, 33). After Jesus fought the powers of Satan to the death, and won, God exalted Jesus to be the head over all things to the church (Ephesians 1:21, 22). Jesus Christ is king of His Church!

However, Christ—God’s visible representative—is now physically in heaven. Christ determined to have visible representatives of Him, men who will perform the work of Christ as prophet, priest and king. He wills that there be Elders in the church who will perform the work of king. The Elder will be a clearer manifestation of Christ’s kingly office than the Old Testament types.

The office of Elder developed naturally in the New Testament church. It was evident that the Apostles had authority to rule in the church. Yet their office was temporary. The history of the church recorded in Acts indicates that the office of Elder was found very early. When the church in Antioch heard of a great famine coming upon Jerusalem, “the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea: Which also they did, and sent it to the Elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:29, 30). In harmony with this is the fact that in their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas did not return to Antioch until “they had ordained them Elders in every church” (Acts 14:23).

The point is that the history of the church clearly shows that God ordained the office of Elder. This history is important because it is the means by which God reveals His will for the church. We must remember that Christ did not give His church a finished church order. Nor does the Bible contain a verse that states: “In the church of Jesus Christ are to be three offices, namely, Elder, Deacon, and Minister.” Rather, just as with doctrines, so with church government, the church must search the Scriptures and draw out the will of Christ and the principles of church government.

One could demonstrate that the offices of Deacon and Minister replaced the OT priest and king, respectively, but we limit our discussion to the office of Elder. Still, since all three are part of the once office of Jesus Christ, all three offices involve a “good work.”

This introduction to the office is needed to see why it is a good work, which we plan to consider in the next article, the Lord willing. It should be clear from what we have said thus far, that the “good” character of the work is due to the fact that the office is from God. It is His work.

Written by: Prof. Russell Dykstra | Issue 38

What is Reformed? Reformed in Church Government (IV)

Introduction

I have nearly finished the series of articles I wrote on the meaning of “Reformed” for Salt Shakers, and will make this the last one in that series. We have discussed that to be Reformed involves our theology, our worship and the government of the church. We have discussed all of these including church government; the only one that remains to be discussed is the office of deacons in the church. I propose to address that problem in this last and concluding article along with the question of the responsibilities of those who hold the office of all believers.

The Importance of the Office of Believer

In the life of the church institute, for which Scripture lays down certain rules to be observed, and are also rules underlying our Church Order, the office of believers is the most important. It is the most important, first of all, because the believer, who holds this office, holds a three-fold office: prophet, priest and king. He receives that office as a true believer who is united to Christ by faith and receives also the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Lord’s Day 12 of the Heidelberg Catechism tells us, that, because we have the anointing of the Holy Spirit, we are called “Christians.”

The office of believers is the most important office in the church, because finally, the entire rule in the church can be traced back to the office of believers. If you question that statement, then think of how a new congregation is organised. It is organized by a group of believers who come together to decide to organize a church. They have the right to do this as believers. They decide to do this because there is no other church in the area that has the marks of the true church. After deciding to organize such a church, they probably ask for a list of the names of confessing men as the heads of households (in which case they enrol the wives and children along with the men) and single men who have confessed their faith.

These men then proceed to vote for elders and deacons from nominations made from the floor by the men themselves. The men chosen are then ordained. If a minister or missionary is present, he will probably guide the meeting as chairman and proceed to ordain the newly chosen office bearers. The constituted body of elders will then, in due time, propose a trio of ministers to the congregation and the confessing male members will proceed to call a minister.

However, as I have written earlier, the relation between the office bearers and the congregation is unique. The relation is one of a delicate balance that will work only where there is godly trust on the part of all the members. The whole relationship seems to an unbeliever to be hopelessly confusing; but it is not, for both the office of believers and those who hold special office in the church serve Christ, who is the Head of the church.

And so the office of believers holds the final authority in the church and participates actively in the government of the church. But at the same time, he subjects himself to the rule of the elders—as he is admonished to do by Scripture. He rules and is ruled— both.

The Believer’s Obligation to the Church

You can understand what a great responsibility each believer has toward the church. The church is always your first concern in life. Nothing must ever interfere with your responsibility towards Christ’s church. It is Christ who is the Head of the church; and Christ the Head of the church has given you the most important office in the church.

The church is the manifestation of the kingdom of heaven here on earth and therefore, Jesus’ words apply to us in our relation to the church: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”

The word “first” in Jesus’ words does not mean “on the top of the list” of the things we are permitted to seek: so that we could continue the list with 2. Our studies; 3. Our home; 4. Our car; 5. Our vacations; 6. Our clothes; etc. Jesus means “first” as the principle of everything we do, so that everything is a part of our seeking the kingdom, that is, the church. The church is number one in our lives and the welfare of the church is our greatest joy.

That means that we seek the unity of the church (Ephesians 4:1-3) and the peace of the church (Psalm 122). (By the way, it might interest you to know that I preached on the last verses of this Psalm in my first sermon in the first congregation I served.)

The believer does the work in the church that is asked of him/her no matter what it is. A believer is anxious to contribute to the welfare of the church in any way he can.

The Believer’s Obligation to the Minister

There are two texts in the Bible that define our calling when we come into God’s house to hear the preached word. One is Ecclesiastes 5:1-2: “Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house if God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil. Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter anything before God: for God is in heaven and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.”

The other is James 1:19-25. I won’t quote the passage here, because it is too long. But you may read it yourselves; and you can find a commentary on these verses in my commentary on James, which only a short time ago was published by the RFPA.

The Believer’s Obligation Toward His Elders

There are texts in the Bible that exactly define our calling towards our elders. I referred to them earlier and will not discuss them here. They are especially Hebrews 12:7, 17 and I Thessalonians 5:12-13.(Look them up.)

In addition to these texts it is important when your elders admonish you or even speak to you, to learn from them. When the elders come to inquire into your spiritual well-being you must receive them gladly, speak freely to them and seek their counsel in any problems you may have. This happens especially on family visitation.

It reminds me of an experience I had while on family visitation. I always asked the young people whether they watched movies especially in theatres. One young man admitted that he and his girlfriend often attended movies. Upon hearing this, the father interrupted and berated his son angrily. I said nothing. At the end of his tirade, the son said, “Yes, father, but you watch the same things on our TV set.” The father was a bit nonplussed and did not know what to say. I still remained silent. After a stretch of silence, the father said, “Yes, but we watch at home. When you go to theatres you are with wicked people.” “No,” the son said, “We go to drive- in theatres where we stay in our car.” That gave me the opportunity to enter the discussion with the whole family about the evils of drama whether in theatres or on TV or on DVDs.

My point is that God put your elders into office so that you may seek counsel from them at any time. Some people rather talk with the minister, and there is nothing wrong with that; but the minister, while he too is an elder is to be busy in studying God’s Word and making sermons. The elders are the ones God appointed to care for the sheep (Acts 20:28-35).

God even tells parents that if they have a wayward child who will not listen to them, they are to bring the child to the elders (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). This is God’s way of dealing with stubborn children, and in my experience, I have found that it is often the way God uses to change a young man or woman that they may be obedient to their parents.

I have on occasion put a troubled and burdened mother under the care of an older and wise mother in the congregation so that an older and sympathetic mother can help a young mother through difficult times. Often a young mother will be hesitant to tell her minister personal problems, while she is free to tell an older mother in the church.

But if such a mother helps a new and young mother or if the minister himself engages in pastoral work, the older mother ought to report to the minister or an elder, and the minister ought to inform the elders at every Session meeting of all his pastoral calls and what is the problem, if any, with which he is dealing. The elders rule in the church.

The Believer’s Obligation Towards the Deacons

It is my judgment that there are two extremes in the church of Christ in which people in the church err in their relationship to deacons. One error is to go to the deacons for financial help when they are in poverty because they have not been good stewards of their earthly possessions, and by foolish spending have buried themselves in debt. Sometimes gambling does this to a family, sometimes drunkenness, but sometimes just foolish purchasing of things people covet and buy whether they can afford it or not. In such cases those who need help from the deacons need also instruction from the elders, and the deacons must so inform the elders. Sometimes when poor stewardship is the reason for poverty, the deacons themselves can instruct the poor in Scripture’s teachings. I

have even, in my ministry,told the deacons to enlist the aid of their wives to help a mother who squanders money how to be a good steward – especially in grocery shopping.

Sometimes people are reluctant to go to the deacons even though they need help. I have found, in my ministry, there are two reasons for this. One is that people refuse to go to the deacons because they think the deacons should come to them. Their reasoning is that Christ comes to his people; we do not come to Christ. We must not, we are told, be Arminian.

I came once on family visitation to a family that, in the dead of winter, were wearing all their winter clothing. The water in the toilet bowl was frozen for they had no heat, and they had nothing to eat except dandelion greens, which they dug for under the snow. When I asked them why they did not go to the deacons, their answer was, “The deacons are supposed to come to us.” It was no time for arguments, so I called the chairman of the diaconate and told him to get deacons down to their house immediately, which also they did. But they had to be told that, while it is true that Christ first comes to us, he nevertheless says, “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden.”

Sometimes people do not want the deacons to come because they are proud and do not want to admit that they are in need of help. This is indeed pride, for going to the deacons is the same as going to Christ. Christ has, in his inscrutable wisdom, and through such means as loss of job or grave illness, put them in circumstances in which they need the help of Christ. And Christ helps them through the office of deacons.

Poor people in the church are a blessing, for it is more blessed to give than to receive. Christ reminds his disciples, when Mary anointed his feet with expensive perfumes, that he himself would see to it that the church always has poor. These people are necessary for the spiritual well-being of the congregation. It is a privilege to come to the deacons for help.

I was talking once with a man from another denomination who told me a story out of his own experience. He was a member of a Reformed Church, but certainly not a faithful church. He told me that he had gone to his deacons when he was in desperate need, and the deacons told him to go to governmental agencies to get help. The deacons did not want to follow Solomon’s instruction in the book of Proverbs: “The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.” Yet still today some rather go to the government than to the church.

The Believer’s Obligation Towards His Fellow Saints

The believers in the church of Christ must do exactly the same towards their fellow saints as the office bearers do. Because believers are prophets, they must bring God’s Word in all their contacts with their fellow saints. In Bible study groups, in their mutual discussions when visiting with or talking to their fellow saints, they

must put all their conversation within the context of God’s word. If they comfort each other in times of sorrow, strengthen each other when one bears a heavy burden, and encourage each other when their pilgrimage is difficult, they must always come with God’s word.

Because God’s people are kings, they are concerned about the spiritual welfare of their fellow saints and they must admonish them, but with the word of God. Two texts especially come to mind. One is found in Galatians 6:1-2:“Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” The other text is in James 5:16: “Confess your faults one to another and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”

And because all God’s people are priests, they are to help one another with all kinds of help when their brother or sister is in need. They may help with meals, help with running errands for the helpless, help with money necessary, help with doing work for one who needs work done and cannot do it; help in babysitting when a mother is overwhelmed with her responsibilities, etc. And it is the duty and obligation of the person needing help to receive it graciously and in the spirit of love. In these and other situations, God’s people come with God’s word also – as the deacons do when they help the poor.

The office of believers is and can be a very busy office. When Dorcas died, all the women in the town were broken with grief because “she was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did” (Acts 9:36-43).

When those who hold special offices in the church, and when all the members seek the good of the church and not their own good, the congregation is richly blessed. It shines in the world as a light on a hill, and God uses such a church to bring many to faith in Christ.

Written by: Prof. Herman Hanko | Issue 37

Desiring the Office in a Reformed Church

It is the joy of every godly parent to bring up God-fearing covenant children, and greater joy it is to hear that their sons desire the office in a reformed church. It is therefore my delight to advise a young man desiring the of ce because he desires a good work. One of the first questions in this young man’s mind is whether it is God’s will or whether God is calling him to the office. Is that desire an indication that God wants him to be in such offices? I hope he will find here some principles which will guide him to answer those questions.

The Call

In the first place, I am convinced that he is to prepare himself for the office without first asking or knowing if God wants him in it. God does not call a man to office by some mystical internal call known only to him. There is only one way that God calls a man to office – through the church. But how does the church know who to call? The Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 21 Q&A 55 summarises God’s calling to every believer within the church when it says, “…that everyone must know it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of other members”. It speaks of ‘employing his gifts’. There are no gift-less Christians (Rom 12:5) but there are three types of gift users. Those who use them for the salvation of others, those who use them for themselves and those do not use their gifts. It is when the young man performs his duty that the church will recognize God’s calling for him and extend the call to him.

The use of gifts must not be equated with being active in church activities. While it is a good thing, it is not necessarily a good measure of a man’s quali cation for office. It is a common mistake to nominate men who are “active in church”. Active members often stand out in the crowd but the church must look out for members with the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and who use such gifts for the salvation of other members. An example of such gifts is being apt to teach. For both pastors and elders, the ability to diligently study the Word of God is necessary. The form for the ordination of elders says this about the need to be apt to teach: “… for the performance of which [watching diligently against the wolves] the elders are duty bound diligently to search the word of God, and continually be meditating on the mysteries of faith”. The young man ought to be able to do such before he is in office as entering the office will not make him suddenly knowledgeable in the word of God. The church needs men who are able and willing to defend the faith, not great organisers or people with abilities to lead it forward in the next lap.

Until the young man is already diligently using his gifts for the good of members in the church, which is his basic Christian calling, he is outside the radar of the church’s search for office bearers.

Qualifications

The qualifications have been expounded by many at great length and I must insist that these qualities are not opinions or words of wisdom but scripture prescribed requirements. Except for that of ruling one’s house well, being apt to teach and not being a novice, all the qualities listed are to be expected in every regenerated child of God. More so, it must be true of office bearers so that they can be an example to the flock. These requirements must not be compromised for the sake of filling vacancies.

This is not to say that only a perfect man will do because then no one would qualify in this life. The Lord uses the weak things of this world to do His work so that all glory goes to him alone. It is a true saying that “… when I am weak, then am I strong.” (2 Cor 12:20). The quali cations of the offices are qualities given by God as He sanctifies us so that in our service to God we can only say ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me’ (Phil 4:13). Therefore, the church must look out for men “full of the Holy Ghost”, that is, men who are evidence that God sancti es and chastens because the Lord only sanctifies whom He loves. The evidence of God’s love in the man is his love for the brothers, the members of the church. (1 John 4:21)

The Church

It must be remembered that this whole matter is first and foremost about the Church and not about the person. The local church, as part of the Universal church, is a very special entity in this world. She consists of those called out of this world to be members the body of Jesus Christ. Unlike membership in an earthly organisation where members voluntarily join for some benefits, Christ saves us into the church. None of the true members of the church would have joined voluntarily and no heavenly benefits would have enticed sinners dead in sins except God had chosen them before the foundation of the world and given them faith to believe. So the young man must remember that the church consists of sinners saved by grace who in this life continue to struggle with the power of sin and the weaknesses of their flesh. As a member in this imperfect body of Christ, he seeks her good with every gift that God gives him. More than just desiring the office, he cannot allow himself to neglect the apple of God’s eye bought with the blood of Christ. He is duty bound to prepare himself to be ready to answer when called to serve in the special offices.

Furthermore, desiring the office is equivalent to desiring the work of Jesus Christ in the church. Every child of God, without exception, must be a servant of Jesus Christ but some, the Lord calls to be chief among us. To these, the Lord says, ‘whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant’ (Mat 20:27). Faithful servants do not lord over God’s heritage but use their gifts to serve them. A faithful and diligent servant “well purchase to themselves a good degree” but mediocre servants put the church at risk of having its candlestick removed. (Rev 2:5).

Considering the Call

How should you consider a call that the church extends to you to serve in one of the offices of Christ?  This call means that the church recognises that you have been faithful in the office of believer and now calls you to a specific office. It is not a promotion but a call to already faithful servants to take up a specific and honourable task.

Such calls from Christ, through His church, must be considered with all due diligence. Throw false modesty out of the window when the Master calls. As I said in the beginning, you should have prepared yourself for it before and, with few exceptions, be ready to give the answer “Lord, send me”. We have to humbly accept that there are times when the Lord does put us in difficult circumstances in life which will not be advisable for us to be in the office and it pains us to have to say “no”. If, after much prayer, you have to reject the call, a substantial reason must be given. To be godly is every man’s calling but not every godly man is ready for the office.

In a Reformed Church

The young men desiring such office must be an example of submission to the rule of the elders. In the Reformation, God returned to the church such offices and the truth of the plurality and equality of elders so that there is no hierarchy where one elder or pastor rule above others. There is only the rule of Christ in the church and it is through the rule of the elected elders.

Any church that calls itself reformed but is dominated by an elder or pastor denies the rule of Christ and is far from being reformed. I doubt an office in such a church is desirable or worth consideration because they essentially deny Christ. In fact, my advise to the young man would be to come out of an apostate church because by continuing in her, he bears the corporate responsibility of her errors and is guilty before God for propagating her errors.

Finally, office bearers are mere men, unable of themselves to do the work; but like us, they can do all things through Christ Jesus. We pray that God may replenish them with gifts of wisdom, courage, discretion and benevolence so that they may take heed in doctrine and life, keep out the wolves, reprove the disorderly and comfort the poor with the Word of God. We also pray for ourselves, that God will give us grace to submit to their rule, that His holy name may be magnified and the kingdom of Christ may be enlarged.

Written by: Deacon Chan Chee Seng | Issue 4