For Elders and Deacons: Elders – Shepherds of the Church (1)

In this issue Rev. Harry G. Arnold presents the seventh in his series of articles under the heading, For Elders and Deacons. Because about 4,000 consistory members have been added to the list of those receiving THE OUTLOOK, this series is timely and should prove to be interesting and profitable for them as well as for all others who ought to be informed about these important offices in the church.

Rev. Arnold is pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of Lansing, Illinois. A discussion of his articles at elders’ and deacons’ meetings should be helpful for all those who have been called to serve in these offices.

There is a growing tendency among us to regard only the minister of the Word as the undershepherd of Jesus Christ. One can easily understand how such an attitude develops, since the minister plays such a prominent role in church life. However, the whole of Presbyterian church polity centers about the concept that Christ, who is the Head of the church, is pleased to rule His church through elders. Our Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons expresses the principle this way:

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.

In all Reformed churches, the elders are charged with the responsibility to ‘“have the supervision of the church together with the ministers of the Word” (Ibid.).

Since the care of the church is committed to the elders, which includes the ministers of the Word, it follows that the elders are also undershepherds of Jesus Christ. Christ is “the Shepherd and Bishop” of the church (I Peter 2:25). He is also designated as “the great shepherd of the sheep” (Heb. 13:20). The elders are to function in the church so that Christ’s rule is exercised through them. Thus, they are charged in I Peter 5:2 – “Be shepherds of God‘s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be” (NIV).

One Presbyterian author beautifully describes the work of the elders when he writes:

Many men who sit on sessions seem to think that sitting is all that elders have to do. They forget that elders, as Christ’s undershepherds, must also stand to minister to the saints; they must walk (and sometimes run) to seek Christ’s wandering sheep; they must kneel daily to lift up the flock before the throne of grace in prayer! (L. R. Eyres. The Elders of the Church, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., p. 14).

Inasmuch as Christ has entrusted the supervision of His church to the elders, they must “feed the church of the Lord” (Acts 20:28). This involves complete pastoral care over the whole church both with regard to spiritual oversight and spiritual nurture. Let us see how this works out in the areas of public worship and instruction of covenant youth.

The Assembly of God’s People – We, as a Reformed church, confess that the true church can be distinguished from the false church by the following marks:

If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains 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 XXIX).

In harmony with our confession, the Church Order requires the following:

The congregation shall assemble for worship at least twice on the Lord‘s day to hear God‘s Word, to receive the sacraments, to engage in praise and prayer, and to present gifts of gratitude (Article 51).

This whole matter of the assembling of God‘s people for worship is placed under the supervision of the consistory (Article 52). However, the “pastoral care over the congregation” is committed to “the elders, with the minister{s)” (Article 24). Therefore, the elders must guard the sanctity of the worship service which includes the faithful discharge of all official duties, particularly that of the minister of the Word, “that the church may be edified and may manifest itself as the pillar and ground of the truth” (Form for Elders and Deacons).

It is granted, of course, that the ministers conduct the worship services. But they do so by the authority and supervision of the consistory. No elder, therefore, may absolve himself of the responsibility of judging the soundness of doctrine preached from the pulpit of the church in which he is an overseer. Each elder must seek to know the Scriptures so as to be able to judge the soundness of doctrine taught from (he pulpit. And the elders as a body must be responsible to maintain sound doctrine from the pulpit. In this way the elders, through the ministry of the Word, feed and nature the church of God.

The elders are also charged to shepherd the flock of God through the administration of the sacraments. Since we believe in the unity of the Word and sacraments the actual administration of the sacraments is committed to the minister of the Word. How· ever, the responsibility for their proper administration rests no less with the body of elders than with the minister himself. Thus, the consistory is made responsible for the administration of the sacraments (Article 55). Likewise the consistory is responsible to “see to it that baptism is requested and administered as soon as feasible” (Article 56). And, with regard to the Lord‘s Supper, “the consistory shall provide for such edification” (Article 50, b). The Church Order consistently places the responsibility for the shepherding of the flock upon the consistory. The care of Christ’s church is never committed to one person, but to a body of elders who rule in Christ’s name.

Under Reformed church government, the admission of members to the church and to the lise of the sacraments is entrusted to the consistory. No single officer performs the task. It is done by the body of elders to whom Christ entrusts the care of His church. This is consistent with the apostolic practice of appointing elders in every church (Acts 14:23); and of the apostolic injunction to the Ephesian elders: Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28 – NIV).

The Instruction of Covenant Youth – One thing which sets a Reformed church off from many churches is its insistence that the church is composed of believers and their children. Many, perhaps most, churches count membership only in terms of confessing, communicant members. Technically speaking, children of Baptist parents are not members of their church. They may have their names listed on a “cradle roll,” but they are not listed as church members. In a truly Reformed church, children are members of the local church by virtue of Holy Baptism administered to them in their infancy. As such, they are entitled to the spiritual ministrations of the church. The responsibility for this spiritual care is placed upon the elders of the church.

The shepherding of the covenant ycuth of the church must be approached, first of all, through the parental home. Therefore, the consistory’s responsibility toward the spiritual care of the covenant child already begins at his birth. For that reason the consistory is to encourage the parents to present their children for baptism “as soon as feasible.” Parents have to be made aware of their spiritual responsibility to nurture the child God has given them in the fear of His Name. Besides, parents must be knowledgable of God’s Word if they are to be competent in nurturing their children. Therefore, “the consistory shall promote societies within the congregation for the study of God‘s Word” (Article 72). Lest the youth of the church be neglected, the Church Order requires that in addition to such societies for the study of God‘s Word, the consistory “shall serve especially tlle youth organizations with counsel and assistance” (Ibid). The pastoral care of covenant youth is intertwined with the covenantal home, both of which must have the constant oversight of the elders.

The Church Order singles out the catechetical instruction of the covenant youth for special attention. This is because catechism is the official instruction of the youth of the church. It is under the direct supervision of the consistory and ordinarily given by the minister of the Word. Where he is unable to do all the catechism teaching, the elders stand next in line to assist. Only when neither of these is able to catechize the youth of the church should others be asked. Let it be emphasized again, however, that only when there is full cooperation of the covenantal home can we expect beneficial results of catechism instruction. The home and the church work together for the spiritual nurture of the covenant child.

A special word may be said about our Christian schools. The consistory is also charged to encourage members to have Christian schools. Encouraging parents to send their children to Christian schools is part of shepherding the flock. For ideally speaking the Christian schools instruct the children “according to the demands of the covenant” (Article 71). When that is done, then the home, the church, and the school are united in one united effort to nurture the covenant child in God’s way. Shepherding the Rock is more than just encouraging people to send their children to the Christian school. Shepherding the flock involves giving God‘s people the proper perspective for establishing and maintaining Christian schools. Shepherding the flock involves leading, guiding, teaching, and nurturing God’s people in such away that they live in covenant fellowship with the living God.

When the elders, as shepherds of the Rock, remind the parents of their own baptismal promise to “instruct these children, as soon as they are able to understand, in the aforesaid doctrine, and cause them to be instructed therein, to the utmost of your power,” then there will be a happy alliance of church and home for the spiritual nature and benefit of our covenant youth.

May our elders so shepherd the church of God that the sheep of the flock may come to know Him, even Jesus, who said: “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

Correction: In January issue’s article (p. 19) by Rev. Arnold the sentence that reads: Calvin tells us in this Institutes of the Christian Religion that, in addition to congregational discipline, which applies particularly to the clergy (IV, XII, 22) should be: Calvin tells us in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that, in addition to congregational discipline, there was “the second part of discipline, which applies particularly to tile clergy” (IV, xu, 22).