Over recent years, this column has sounded a call for pastoral care by elders (especially). For that period of time, I have argued that many Reformed churches are losing touch with the divine pattern for the care of Christ’s church precisely because we have allowed ourselves to think of the eldership as an administrative board, instead of pastoral in character. I have repeatedly asked the reader to return to two passages, especially, as the foundation for my plea. Those passages are I Peter 5 and Acts 20:28ff.
It ought to be no surprise, then, when I turn my attention in this article to the duty of the eldership to be diligent in prayer for the flock of God. This subject naturally flows from a consistent theme—the elders are pastors—and arises out of both conviction and experience that many elders today simply are not men of prayer.
Now before you protest aloud that I’m not being fair, ask yourself whether or not you really disagree with my analysis. Do you genuinely believe that the elders you know regularly and diligently lift in prayer to the sovereign throne of grace the souls entrusted to their care? Do you believe that those elders universally pray specifically for the problem children in their district/parish/care group? Do you believe that the wounded marriages are held before the sovereign God, pleading for His healing mercy? Do you believe that the elders pray as much for their pastor/teacher as they talk about him?
Unless you have been blessed with remarkably Biblical elders in your experience and in your church, your experience will parallel those of most Reformed Christians I know. And please understand, I raise this issue not in complaint that we have no good or pious elders, but in hopes that the godly men that God has called to that office among us will become better: more Biblical in their understanding of their work, more humble in their approach to their people, more sensitive in their listening heart, and more bold in their prophetic address to the situations in the lives of the flock.
PRAY FOR SPIRITUAL PROTECTION
We take our cue from the pastoral prayer of our Lord Jesus in John 17 (a very good place to learn how to pray as His representatives!; we will learn much about prayer for the flock. The first lesson appears in verses 11–12:
…they are still in the world…Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name—the name you gave me—so that they may be one as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction…My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.
Notice what Jesus asks? Protection, that His flock will be kept safe after His ascension just as He was able to keep them safe while with them. Certainly He speaks of more than physical safety. In fact, in other Scripture passages, He specifically predicts danger and hardship. Rather, He prays here for spiritual safety: that His flock will be spared from the destructive powers of the Evil One. It is in connection with this concern that His prayer for unity is impressive. Unity is one of the sovereign God’s gifts for spiritual protection! When the church is united in the truth, it will be protected from the Evil One! Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is reflected in the charge of St. Paul to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:29f. He tells them that savage wolves will come in among the flock, so “be on your guard.” We ought to understand that, expect it, and pray accordingly!
So, lesson one: pray for the spiritual defense of those members of Christ’s church living in a difficult world. Do so regularly. Do so with full and studied awareness of the spiritual struggles they face. Study them, study their circumstances, study their weaknesses. Study all these things diligently…so that you can pray well!
PRAY FOR SPIRITUAL JOY
Jesus also prays for spiritual joy for His disciples. In v. 13 of the same prayer, He asks:
…that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. For what is the Savior asking here? Is He asking that His disciples will always have fun? Hardly. Read John 15:20 before you ever tell anyone (or believe yourself) that the Christian life is all roses without thorns. Rather, He is asking the Father to give them the deep and abiding conviction that those who are in Christ are certainly victorious, no matter what the world does to them! That brings joy, pure and unending.
How do you pray for your people? For an easier road when the life they lead is difficult and painful? Lesson two: Pray instead for joy, for that spiritual conviction that life in Christ is worth anything, for that perseverance that keeps them faithful no matter the obstacle, for that hope that enables them to look beyond the temporary to the “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (II Cor. 4:17).
PRAY FOR EFFECTIVE WITNESS
Jesus does not only pray for protection and joy for His disciples and for us, but also for effectiveness in the purpose of the Christian life He calls us to lead. Consider vv. 20–21:
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
Notice that? Jesus prays not only for His immediate disciples, but for us, who believe because of the power of the apostolic Word. And He prays that we will remain in Christ and in His Father (as branches in the Vine) so that the world may believe! And, of course, there is no way to remain in Him without remaining in His Word. Believers whose faith is firmly founded in the Scriptures are believers who will not falter.
So, lesson three: pray that God’s people will remain in the Word so that they may be effective in advancing the reputation of our God. That is the best description I’ve heard yet of the Biblical call to “witness.” So often we view it as a canned, cold, memorized presentation. Better that we view it in a judicial sense: we are on the witness stand every day of our lives. On trial is the honor of God. What witness do you bear by the life that you lead? How about your people?
The point of all this is that the work of an elder is empty and vain unless it is grounded in the same soil as the work of his Lord. Jesus grounded His entire ministry in prayer; we must too. The early apostles appointed deacons so that they could devote themselves more to the ministry of the Word and prayer (Acts 6:4). We must too. And our prayers must be specific, pastoral, and seek the Father’s blessing for the defense of the flock, for the spiritual joy of their Christian service, and for the effectiveness of their witness for Him and for His name in this world.
Do you pray like that? Allow me to challenge you specifically. If you are an elder in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ, set aside time every day for prayer on behalf of the flock. When you begin, be intentional: have the list of your district members before you. Reflect (even take notes if necessary!) on their specific struggles and needs before praying for them. And if you cannot make it through the entire list, pray for one or two every day.
Several things will immediately happen. First, you will be a better elder when you visit among the flock. You will be more sensitive to their needs and struggles; you will listen better when they speak, for you will be listening in order to bring them before the King; and, you will be more specific in your pastoral advice, rebukes, and/or challenges, since your focus will be the specific concerns we raised above: protection from the Evil One, joy in their hearts, and effectiveness of their living witness.
Dr. Sittema, editor of this department, is pastor of Bethel CRC in Dallas, TX.