Over the years, I’ve written literally dozens of columns for elders and deacons. In them, I’ve stressed a common theme: these offices aren’t designed by Christ to fulfill merely administrative tasks within the church (go to meetings, structure budgets, oversee building and grounds), but are established with pastoral purposes in mind. They are given to the church to defend the flock from evil, to nurture the flock in the Word, to guide and coordinate the stewardship of the flock, and all of this with a view to equipping the membership to give itself in its own service to Christ. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: elders (especially) are pastors, and ought to be involved in pastoral care.
Recently, however, someone who reads this column visited our church in Dallas on a particufar Sunday. He sought me out after church to ask me how we “did things differently” here. I guess he was looking to see whether I practiced what I preached in this monthly column. I had to admit to him that we struggle just as mightily here to implement this vision as anyone does anywhere in the Reformed and Presbyterian church world. I suspect this is so for a couple of reasons. First, we’re all busy, and the demands of pastoral care are heavy. (We have no retired elders here; all are engaged in demanding careers.) Second, tradition is weighty. In most churches, the view that “the pastor” should pastor the flock, the elders should “rule” (read: “administer”), and the deacons should take care of the money is a dominant viewpoint. Though we may agree that Acts 20 and I Peter 5 describe a differ. We’ve always done it the other way.
So, how do we improve our pastoral care? How do we actually get elders and deacons beyond mere agreement with a concept, all the way to hearty involvement in the pastoral care of individuals and families? In a word, accountability.
“A rose by any other name…”
I recently read an article in a theological journal that was discussing the validity of the third of Calvin’s “three marks of the true church.” The first (pure preaching of the Word), and the second (right administration of the sacraments) are indisputable for Reformed Christians. But the third (faithful application of church discipline) is not as popular these days, and many are beginning to question whether it really belongs in the list.
I believe it is absolutely essential. That means, I believe that without it, the church will lose her spiritual vitality, and ultimately shrivel up and die. Let me explain (but first, let’s change the name and call it “accountability”). By “accountability” I mean holding people accountable to agreed-upon standards of behavior and doctrine. In the business world, that is assumed. You either have accountability, or your business fails. In the educational arena, academic achievement is measured in terms of accountability. You do your homework, you fulfill the requirements of your degree, or you fail. It’s as simple as that.
So too in the church. When a believer hears the Word of God (purely preached!) or reads the Word of God, he or she is called to a response of life and heart. That is a nonnegotiable component of a covenant relationship with God. (Jesus demanded doers, not only hearers!) When a believer commits herself to membership in the local body, she promises to honor the care of the eldership as they shepherd her according to the voice of the Good Shepherd. Why then should we balk at the notion of “church discipline,” properly understood? It’s not merely punative, but is intentionally pastoral. It doesn’t aim merely to scold, but to hold God’s people accountable to the Word of Christ, to the body of doctrinal truth that the church embraces, and to the lifestyle of holiness that the Scriptures demand of the converted.
I once said, in an elders conference, that “all church members are at all times under the discipline of the Word.” Discipline isn’t just applied when pastoral care fails. Pastoral care is discipline! Or, for the purposes of this column, pastoral care demands accountability. Elders dare not merely make suggestions without following up. Imagine confronting an adulterer with “advice” to leave his lover, but without ever following up to discover whether obedience to the Word of the Lord brought about the conversion of life? Imagine “suggesting” that a member who neglects worship repeatedly might consider attending services periodically, but doing nothing if she doesn’t? Such behavior would be pastoral neglect.
That’s what I think Calvin meant when he called “discipline” a mark of a True Church. That’s certainly what I mean when I call accountability evidence that a church has vitality. Unless the church land that means the preacher, the pastoral elders, the deacons and everyone else) takes the Word seriously, and insists that it be honored and obeyed, the church is not and will not be alive in Christ!
Now, back to my point. All this applies to elders and deacons, too. I can write column after column arguing for and articulating what the Bible says about pastoral care by the elders of the church. I can write and preach until I’m blue in the face about the fact that the preacher cannot and should not pastor the flock by himself. I can holler and scream and dance about all I want, but unless there is accountability to the Word in this church in Dallas, and in the congregations you serve wherever you read these words, we’ll be disobedient to our Lord, and thus will jeopardize the vitality of His Church.
Elders and deacons can agree with me that Acts 20 demands that elders become intimately involved with the flock, defending against the wolves of false doctrine and unholy living. They can agree that I Peter 5 demands a pastoral heart and style of relating with the flock. They can endorse my insistence that Acts 6 demands deacons who do more than collect money, but who actively seek to cultivate, assess, receive, and manage all kinds of resources, including both spiritual gifts and finances. But if your elders and deacons don’t look each in the eye regularly and ask: are you doing these things?, you won’t make the necessary changes to improve your pastoral care. You must hold yourself accountable. You must hold your brethren accountable. You must insist on obedience to the Scripture within your own body of office-bearers. You must encourage the hesitant, and rebuke if obedience isn’t forthcoming, even going so far as to bring witnesses to bear on stubborn and noncompliant brothers.
Why? Because the spiritual vitality of the church of Jesus is at stake!
And that, after all, is the goal, isn’t it? Our goal as Reformed churches is not merely to prove that we’re maintaining traditions, staying conservative, avoiding liberalism. The goal is to be alive in Christ, displaying the vitality of a church throbbing with His Word and Spirit, pulsating with personal and dynamic relationships with Christ, His Word and each other, flexing servant-hearts and performing effective ministry. That’s what the reformation is all about. Nothing more, nothing less.
So, dear brother, hold yourself accountable to the Word of Christ. And start holding your fellow servants accountable to their Master’s expectations. His Church’s health is at stake!
Dr. Sittema is pastor of Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Dallas, TX.