For Elders and Deacons (8): Elders – Shepherds of the Church (2)

In this eighth article in a series For Elders and Deacons, Rev. Harry G. Arnold writes: “If ever church members needed shepherds to ‘warn them against errors in doctrine and life,’ it is today!” Rev. Arnold is pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of Lansing, Illinois.

The point was made in our last article that the spiritual care of the church is committed to the elders. Hence the tendency among us to regard only the minister of the Word as the undershepherd of Jesus Christ is wrong. The elders and the ministers together must be regarded as shepherds of the flock, under Christ.

Perhaps the best way to realize that elders are shepherds of the flock is to look at the responsibility assigned to them in the Church Order. Many pastoral duties which we commonly associate only with the minister are actually assigned jointly to the pastor and the elders. Article 65 of the Church Order is very explicit about this matter. It reads:

Pastoral care shall be exercised over all the members of the congregation. The minister of the Word and the elders shall conduct annual home visitation, and faithfully visit the sick, the distressed, the shut-ins, and the erring. They shall encourage the members to live by faith, comfort them in adversity, and warn them against errors in doctrine and life.

Two things impress us on reading the above article. First, that “all members of the congregationare subject to “pastoral care.” That includes minor members of the church as well as professing members. There are no exceptions: all are subject to “pastoral care.” Second, the term pastoral care” is used comprehensively to include all that which serves to the spiritual welfare of the members of the congregation. Hence, both the ordinary matters (“annual home visitation”) and the extraordinary matters (“comfort them in adversity”) are included.

And undoubtedly the duties listed arc meant to be suggestive, rather than exhaustive, of the comprehensive task of pastoral care, since additional matters are specified in the succeeding articles through Article 72. Let us give our attention mainly to Article 65 for the present time. A brief review of some of the tasks assigned to the elders should enlighten us as to the shepherding nature of their work.

Annual Home Visitation – Home visitation, or family visiting as it is commonly called, is the official visit to the homes of members of the congregation by the minister and an elder, or by two elders in the absence of the pastor. This visit is intended to help the consistory feel the spiritual pulse of the congregation and to minister to its needs accordingly. The Church Order requires that this be done on an annual basis. There are often complaints heard that this places too heavy a burden upon the elders. That it is hard work none who has ever done it will deny. Yet the very purpose for which family visiting is designed will be nullified unless it is done with regularity and without too long a time lapse. In this fast moving society of ours it is safe to say that annual visits to the members of the congregation ought to be maintained for the spiritual welfare of all concerned. Dr. Peter Y. De Jong is no doubt correct when he writes:

This (annual visits) ought to be considered a minimum requirement. If longer periods are allowed to lapse between the official visits, there is great danger of ineffectiveness. The confidence of the members in their officers will greatly suffer, and the elders on their side can hardly claim to know the needs of the congregation as a whole, if two or three years expire between visits (Taking Heed to the Flock, p. 52).

Instead of expanding the time lapse between visits, elders should make every attempt to meet the ideal of the Church Order of visiting the homes of their members at least once a year. Moreover, every elder ought to educate himself to the value of this activity and seek to develop methods which will serve the spiritual welfare of the members entrusted to his care. This can he dnne by reading such books as the one quoted above, by Dr. De Jong, and by searching the Scriptures with the aid of a concordance for texts which bear on family and social life.

A helpful little pamphlet by Rev. Ralph Heynen, entitled Guidelines for Elders ill the Care of Souls, is also available from Pine Rest Christian Hospital. The book market today abounds with literature which deals with pastoral care and spiritual counseling. Those who want to be effective elders will select, with discretion, from available materials and read carefully. The better readers our elders are, especially in the Scriptures, the more effectively they will he able to minister to the congregations over which they are placed.

Sharing Life‘s Burdens – The Apostle Paul characterizes the church as a body with many members, all of which must have a concern for the other. Thus, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (I Cor. 12:26 – NIV). Ideally speaking, all members of the church should be sharing each other’s burdens and joys. The Church Order reflects this unity of the body and the care of the body by the elders in Article 65. However, the emphasis seems to fall on sharing life‘s burdens, rather than life’s joys. The reason for this is probably because the burdens of life become a temptation often to lead one into spiritual doubt and despair. Therefore, those who are suffering special burdens in life require the special attention of the spiritual overseers of the flock.

Sick visits are usually appreciated, especially by those who are hospitalized because of some illness. Visits to the home due to sickness are not as frequent as they once were. However, even these visits are appreciated by those who arc really confined because of illness. People often become distressed because of sickness. In such cases spiritual counsel is needed. The elder who still visits the sick may be just the one to meet that person‘s need. Many precious opportunities to minister spiritually come about by way of sick calling. Elders, especially retired elders who have available time, should give added attention to this aspect of their work.

I should like to suggest that grief situations are also such as may cause people to be distressed. When a loved one dies, the world of this life changes for those who remain. Often many questions arise which may disturb the soul of one who is grief stricken. A wise word of counsel from the Scripture by an understanding: elder may be of great help in such a crisis. Elders, dont overlook such opportunities for exercising spiritual care to the distressed of your congregation!

Pastoral attention must also be given to shutins. Their number has multiplied greatly in recent years with the increased longevity of life. Many of the aged are unable to leave their residences. Their days are often long and lonely. Visits by the elders are deeply appreciated. Inasmuch as the elders are often limited in the time available for this work, it would be wise to encourage members of the congregation to assist in this aspect of the work.

Visits to “the erring” cannot so easily be assigned to others. This is a task that requires the spiritual concern of the elder as an overseer. While members of the congregation always have the duty to admonish one another, the elder must exercise this duty as one called by Christ to watch over the flock. In any case, every elder must be concerned with “the erring.” Too often such people are only admonished by way of official committed. It would he profitable for am churches if all elders gave counsel to the erring ones as soon as they were aware of any error in their lives. The effect of admonition is diminished when too much times elapses before it is administered. Pastoral care of the erring is a requisite if elders are to heed the Biblical injunction to “Guard yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28a – NIV).

Encouragement, Comfort, and Warning – One’s faith must relate to all of life. Hence, part of tbe pastoral care which elders must give is that which encourages church members to live out of faith. It is not enough simply to say “I’m saved.” One must grow in faith and learn how to apply the truth of the gospel to all of life. One must learn to live consistently under the lordship of Jesus Christ. In this world of sin, the believer meets with much opposition to this kind of total commitment. Our Form for the Lord’s Supper reminds us that even as believers “we do not give ourselves to serve God with that zeal as we are bound, but have to strive daily with the weakness of our faith and the evil lusts of our flesh.” Besides our own weaknesses, there is always the opposition of the world and the devil to hinder us. Surely the shepherds of the flock have to encourage those entrusted to their care “to live by faith.”

Adversity may come to a believer either through special trials or through providential circumstances. Job’s adversity was definitely caused by special arrangements which were at first unknown to him. Those who came to comfort him turned out to be miserable comforters. It can also happen that through providential circumstances one is reduced to poverty, or suffer the loss of family.

When such things happen to our members, the shepherds of the church must strengthen them from the Word of God. Let the elders remind all who suffer adversity that “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation make also the way of escape, that ye may be able to endure it” (I Cor. 10:13). Let them comfort and strengthen God’s people with the assurance that “to them that love God all things work together for good, even to them that are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). In seeking to sustain those members who suffer, the unity of the body of believers will be made manifest and God will have “the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3,21).

Finally, pastoral care also includes the element of warning “against errors in doctrine and life.” Christians are being assailed on every hand by error in our day. The multiplication of cults in our day is astounding. All of them, while sometimes containing a modicum of truth, are basically erroneous in doctrine. Some of them even compound their error by teaching and practicing immorality in the name of Christianity. The unveiling of the teaching and practices of “The Children of God” is just one example of how far many have strayed from Biblical teaching and morality (cf. Christianity Today, “The Children of God: Disciples of Deception,” Feb. 18, 1977, pp. 18–23).

If ever church members needed shepherds to “warn them against errors in doctrine and life,” it is today! Our own covenant youth are influenced by the thought patterns and lifestyles of our age—more than we often care to admit—and it is the task of the “shepherds of God’s flock” to sound the warning against all that would lead to death. Yet it is not sufficient to bemoan the sad state of affairs in the religious world today. Nor is it sufficient simply to warn against the errors that are abounding in doctrine and life. Rather, the eldership of the church must rise to the occasion and call for complete commitment to the lordship of Christ in the lives of those whom Christ has entrusted to their care. By the proper exercise of pastoral care, the membership of our churches should learn to breathe the prayer of Frances R. Havergal:

Take my life and let it be Consecrated, Lord, to Thee. Take my moments and my days; Let them flow in erulless praise.

Take my love; my Lord, I pour At Thy feet its treasure store. Take myself, one! I will be Ever, only, all for Thee.