Mr. Peter Wobbema served as an elder for many years in the Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church and the Plymouth Heights Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His publishing company printed The Torch and Trumpet (later The Outlook) for many years. He also provided a financial safety net for this publication in rough times. His son, Peter Wobbema, Jr., is an honorary member of Reformed Fellowship board, and its production manager.
It is with a deep sense of humility that the writer of this article sets down his views as to the qualifications of an elder. Realizing the sacredness and importance of the office, and being aware of my own shortcomings and failures while serving as elder, I hesitate to give public expression to my thoughts in this matter. Every leader will confess that he has fallen far short of attaining the ideal, and that it is only by the wonderful grace and mercy of God, who blessed and sanctified his labors, that he may have served at all somewhat acceptably.
Let those who are chosen to the office and who feel their unworthiness and inability, take courage from the fact it is the Lord who guided His church in calling them, and that He Himself will qualify them and provide their special needs. However, in selecting men for office the consistories and churches should do so prayerfully and discreetly, for whether a church will remain pure in doctrine and life depends, under God, largely upon the caliber of those who are chosen as its rulers.
According to Acts 14:23 and 20:17, the organization of churches from earliest apostolic times involved the appointing or choosing of elders. By them it pleases Christ to rule His church, as also we read in our Form for Ordination: “The office of elder is based on the Kingship of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and “the work of the elders is that of ruling in the name of the ascended King, and as servants of the great Shepherd caring for His flock. It is therefore also the duty of the elders to maintain the purity of the Word and sacraments, to uphold the good order of the church, carefully guarding the sacredness of the offices and faithfully exercising discipline. They should, moreover, with love and humility promote the faithful discharge of the office by their fellow-officers, having particular regard to the doctrine and conduct of the minister of the Word, that the church may be edified and may manifest itself as the pillar and ground of the truth.” Every new elder should commit to memory this entire paragraph!
Accountable Only to Christ
The elder is in the first place accountable not to the congregation or anyone of its members, but to his Lord and King. Hence he must know what is his duty as elder of the church. No church will easily go astray whose “overseers” are scrupulously faithful to their calling, are sound in doctrine, and who lead exemplary, godly lives. On the contrary, the guilt of such elders is indeed very great who by their neglect and indifference and sinful ignorance allow the flock which is under their care to lose its purity of doctrine and life. The elder’s responsibility is tremendous!
Yet it is a good office to seek, says Paul. “Faithful is the saying, if a man seeketh the office of a bishop (elder), he desireth a good work” (I Timothy 3:1). In the following six verses the apostle gives a description of the kind of man the bishop should be. “He should be without reproach, husband of one wife, temperate, sober minded, orderly, hospitable, apt to teach; no brawler, no fighter; but gentle, not contentious; no lover of money; one that rules his own house well, having his children in subjection; no novice, lest being puffed up he fall into the condemnation of the devil.” No one having these qualifications could ever “seek” the office of an elder by putting on a campaign like that put on by the politicians. He who seeks a holy office should do so prayerfully, humbly confessing his unworthiness, and out of a heart filled with gratitude, offering himself to serve God in His church if that might be His will. One who thus “seeks” the office will confess his inability, and pray for the enabling grace of the Holy Spirit. He will also “trust in the Lord and not make haste.”
Christ Himself guides His church in the selection of ministers, elders, and deacons, as we confess in Article 31 of the Belgic Confession. Here we read as follows:
We believe that the ministers of God’s Word, the elders, and the deacons ought to be chosen to their respective offices by a lawful election by the Church with calling upon the name of the Lord, and in that order which the Word of God teaches. Therefore everyone must take heed not to intrude himself by improper means, but is bound to wait till it shall please God to call him: that he may have testimony of his calling, and be certain and assured that it is of the Lord.
Moreover, in order that this holy ordinance of God may not be violated or slighted, we say that everyone ought to esteem the ministers of God’s Word and the elders of the Church very highly for their work’s sake, and be at peace with them without murmuring, strife, or contention, as much as possible.
The fact that one is installed in office does not make him especially holy. He remains subject to the weaknesses of the flesh and the sinfulness of his human nature, and needs the constant prayers of the congregation. Although it is true that those “who serve well shall be counted worthy of double honor,” there is no place for pride and self-satisfaction, “for when we have done all the things that are commanded us, we are but unprofitable servants, we have done only that which it was our duty to do” (Luke 17:10). Nor does the “ordination” place a certain mystical unction upon a man whereby he is placed in a special class for life. The Scriptures give us no basis for such superstition. It is simply an installation into office in the midst of the congregation. In our churches this term of office is usually for three years. At the end of his term one ceases to be an elder, unless he is reelected. In that case he is installed anew.
Watchmen Upon the Walls
The elders are the watchmen upon the walls of Jerusalem. It is their responsibility to see to it that the enemies—Satan and the world do not despoil it, and that it remains the true manifestation of the body of Christ. The marks of the true Church are as follows: “If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintain the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself” (Belgic Confession, Article 29b).
An elder, therefore, if he is to be able to distinguish between sound and false doctrine, should have a fundamental knowledge of the teachings of the Holy Scriptures. For a (Christian) Reformed elder this means specifically that he shall be acquainted with our Forms of Unity—the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. These standards we believe to be a summary of the eternal principles and doctrines of the Word of God, and our elders should assent to them. This assent should not be lukewarm. Rather they should be on fire for these standards, so that they may be an inspiration to others.
The pure preaching of the Word refers in the first place to the contents of the preaching. The elders should be able to detect error if there is any, and have the courage of their conviction to protest, if necessary. Of course this should be done in the spirit of love, both for the sake of the truth and the brethren, and not in the spirit of faultfinding and contention or pride. Pure preaching also has to do with our manner of public worship. God stipulated very particularly in the Old Testament how He would be served by His people of old, and showed great displeasure and anger when these stipulations were not followed. Think of Uzzah and the ark. God is holy and we are called to worship Him in spirit and in truth, with reverence and fear. No element which is in discord with the true worship of God may be allowed in our services. We are very grateful to Dr. P. Y. De Jong who has written several articles in The Banner about “The Church at Worship” and related subjects. We cannot just “worship” God as we please. There are certain principles to which we must adhere, for when the church is at worship that is something entirely different from every other kind of meeting. Our Reformed fathers had a deep sense of the uniqueness of what they called “dienst des Woords” (ministry of the Word) and “eredienst” (divine worship). There was purpose in their arranging the services in a dignified, simple manner, and we should not lightly brush aside our Reformed traditions in sinful pride and ignorance. We never should do anything by the way we feel about it, but we should always ask whether it is according to the Scriptures.
It might also be well to give a bit of thought to the naming of churches. We now have churches by the name of Grace, Hope, Immanuel, Trinity. Is it right for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ to take on such names? We find no warrant for it in the Scriptures. We do read about the church at Ephesus, Philadelphia, Smyrna, Jerusalem, and Antioch. These are simply a designation of their location, nothing more. Our churches have their boys’ clubs, and they in turn have their sports. Doesn’t it sound like sacrilege when an announcement is made like this: Trinity beat Immanuel in a game of basketball? It happens! Aren’t the names of God too holy for such use? It is for the elders to think upon these things and to study the Word in regard to them. They are responsible!
Regarding the sacraments, it is again the duty of the elders to see that the membership is informed as to their correct meaning and administration. Family visitation should, if possible, be timed with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The sacraments baptism also -should be discussed at times, and the elders should be able to draw out spiritual conversation, help and encourage those who are beset by false fears, and admonish in love those who are in danger of turning the means of grace to their own condemnation.
No one can be an elder who lacks in spirituality. He should be spiritually alive, warm, loving, patient. These characteristics are especially needed in the matter of church discipline which is applied to keep the church pure and to save the erring ones. It is a labor of love, and should never be marred by bitterness and malice on the part of those who are called to exercise it.
In the work of visiting the sick and those in distress, the elder should be able to sympathize. It is not necessary to be eloquent. There are times when a few well-chosen words and a short prayer may give much more comfort than long talks and still longer prayers. A loving heart and sanctified common sense will usually show the way. But the sick and distressed should never be able to say that the visiting elder did not even pray with them. To pray for the sick is a biblical injunction.
By word and example the elders should lead the flock under their care in the way of the Lord. It is often difficult to know when to speak or when to be silent, for to say the wrong thing may do much harm, while to refrain from saying the right thing may result in the dishonoring of the name of God and of His church. The prayer of the Psalmist may well be that of the elder: “Set a watch, oh Jehovah, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.”
He should control his thoughts, in order not to give offense in word or deed!
But who is sufficient for all these things? Indeed, no one is in his own strength. We can only strive after perfection, ever confessing our failings, yet doing in the name and in the strength of our God the things He would have us do, to the best of our ability.
Laboring in Christ’s vineyard gives great joy. And there is the reward of grace for the faithful servant.