A personal note: Since this is the first time I’ve written this column in about a year, I’d like to say “thanks” to the many friends and readers of Outlook who expressed their loving support and Christian sympathy to my family and me in the loss of our beloved wife and mother to leukemia in January of this year, during which time I was struggling through chemotherapy for treatment of my own leukemia. (I’m currently in remission, and appear to be doing well.) One day, Lord willing and health permitting, I’ll write to tell you more about our story, about my wife’s valiant and Spirit-inspired faith and ministry, and about God’s never failing grace. For now, please accept our humble thanks for your cards, letters and prayers. It was wonderful to sense the support of such a multitude of saints. To Him be the glory! –Pastor John R. Sittema and family
I am often struck by how easily we take simple passages in the Bible and give them a leg cramp by twisting them into new and strange meanings. Examples abound of course. I’m reminded of the story of Benny Hinn, modern televangelist, best-selling author (whose books I won’t recommend!), and healer, who appeared on the Paul Crouch program on the Christian TV Network. (You know, the successor to Jim and Tammy Fay Bakker. Paul Crouch and his wife were a bit older, but had the same coifed hair. heavy make-up, and sat beneath multiple chandeliers on a white brocaded couch on the interview set.) Benny Hinn was informing Paul and Jan that Adam walked on the moon, literally. Meeting Paul’s glazed eyes with the fire and ice of his own, he went on to “prove” his point. Adam walked on the moon. The Bible tells us so. Where? In Genesis 1:28 where it says that God mandated Adam to “rule over” all creation. The Hebrew word, he assured the audience, meant physically over the earth, as in “from the moon.” The thing that amazed me, besides his brazen stupidity and Biblical ignorance, was the fact that both Paul and Jan took notes, writing feverishly in the margins of their Bible.
THE WAY THINGS ARE
Denominations can twist the Bible into a cramp too, (pick a denomination — anyone will do) when bureaucracy so legislates the church’s life that it functionally ignores or minimizes the elders of the local church. Now, of course. most Reformed or Presbyterian churches will deny doing that, proclaiming loudly that they believe that the direct authority of the Lord is given to the local elders, and that only secondary and delegated authority is given to classis/presbytery or Synod/General Assembly.
I have a couple of passages in mind, printed here for your convenience.
Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord in whom they had put their trust. Acts 14:23
The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town as I directed you. An elder must be blameless… Titus 1:5f
Now, how has the Reformed community twisted such passages, you ask? In fact, some would argue that a contrary case could be made that the Reformed tradition is unique in Christendom in honoring elders. After all, in the Catholic and Episcopalian world, bishops and priestly hierarchies replace the eldership, and in the baptistic and fundamentalistic traditions, boards do. It’s only in the Reformed world that one consistently finds elders.
Indeed. But at the same time, having elders is not the same thing as honoring them as elders according to the Lord’s purpose for elders, or having those elders function as elders are supposed to function.
Allow me to explain. Last week, I attended a class is meeting We heard the usual reports from denominational agencies, Christian colleges and missions organizations. And, as usual in the Christian Reformed Church, we heard church visiting reports—reports from minister teams who visit each church council to ascertain faithfulness to Biblical requirements for local church life. (None of this, by the way, required the attendance at the meeting by delegates from all over the Midwest and at great cost. All could have been distributed by fax, email or even regular mail “for information.” After all, such meetings aren’t, as the common misconception holds, “deliberative assemblies.” Instead, they are preminently “commercials” for the denomination! But enough of my griping; I tried, and couldn’t get it changed.) At the close of the day, I couldn’t help thinking that a visitor to a Classis meeting would leave with the overwhelming impression that local church life is incidental to the work of the Lord; the work of local elders is of minimal importance (at best) in the life of the body of believers, and that the work of denominational and regional bureaucrats holds much greater significance to the advancement of the Kingdom.
That impression has been echoed by several others. One is a leading Church Order expert in the CRC, Dr. Henry De Moor, professor at Calvin Seminary, who has been lamenting in recent years what he sees as a disquieting trend in the CRC. He calls it “congregationalism” and boldly labels it non-Reformed. I call it local church awakening, and label it refreshingly Biblical. He laments a disturbing loss of denominational loyalty, trust and involvement; I observe churches becoming excited about prophetic preaching, local ministries, evangelism initiatives and diaconal projects, all within commonly held creedal boundaries. He criticizes the decline of denominational contributions; I welcome the shift to local priorities under local supervision utilizing local talents and gifts.
The other echo is one I heard in a letter from a friend last week. In it, the author lamented the growing number of “independent Reformed churches” (i.e. churches that have broken from denominational federation and have not yet/will not join a new or different denomination). She commented that “independent Reformed” was an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. I observed, by return mail, that Calvin and Luther were certainly not denominational (in today’s terminology). To be sure, they and other reformers and Reformed churches corresponded, encouraged one another, and thus strengthened their common confession. They helped hold each other accountable as well. But they were certainly not shaped/bound by the kind of denominational rhetoric we hear today.
No, dear friends. the passages cited above about the importance and urgency placed on the local eldership by the apostolic church are slowly being twisted out of recognition. In their place, a bureaucratic hierarchy has been erected. It’s slow and insidious. And some of it is by default, because local churches and elders seem more than happy to cede their important place in the work of the church to the professionals. It’s easier that way.
THE WAY IT OUGHT TO BE
What would I like to change? On the one hand, I’m not advocating the decimation of all denominations or their agencies. In fact, denominational ties can help hold local churches be accountable to creeds; they enable stewardly planning and common endeavors in mission causes, educational institutions and publishing resources. On the other hand, I am pleading for the resurrection of local elder supervision, to a return of local initiative, to a rekindling of fresh local ministries. Concomitantly, I condemn the blind loyalty of modern denominationalism that shifts initiative, involvement, oversight and especially financial resources to bureaucracies, and reduces local churches to mere “franchises” of the central government.
Here are a few specific suggestions. I hope they challenge you and inspire you to “turn your elders loose” for ministry in every local church. That’s what the apostles had in mind for the congregations they started and to whom the Spirit directed His Word.
1) While recognizing that cooperative/denominational mission efforts can, through combined efforts and resources, enable a breadth of evangelism efforts that a local church cannot accomplish, I call local elders to challenge the local congregation to active and effective evangelism programs in their neighborhood and region. (And no, I don’t believe a church has an active and effective evangelism effort if it merely has an evangelism committee. The question local elders must ask is whether unchurched unbelievers are being challenged with the gospel, and if fruit of that contact is being seen in conversion growth, not just “rearrangement” growth. If there is no fruit, the plant isn’t healthy! Lose the committee, and devise other means to equip and challenge the membership to witness for Christ.
2) While acknowledging that some denominational publishing houses have produced some good discipleship curricula (Sunday School and catechism materials, for example), I call local elders to look carefully at the educational needs of the congregation they oversee. Full of well-trained and seasoned saints? What are you offering to motivate them to get off their pews into active ministry and service themselves (Eph. 4:11–12)? Located in a unique ministry area? What training has your church offered to satisfy unique local church ministry needs? (For example, if your church is located near a large population of Muslims, what have you taught your people about Islam?) Full of young/immature Christians? What kind of mentorship program have you developed to cultivate them toward Christian maturity? Lots of young couples? How about a mentoring program by older couples? Men who talk about being “heads of the households” but without a clue of what the Bible means by that concept? How about a course to train them? There won’t be much pre-printed material available from publishing houses for special courses and discipleship opportunities like these. You’ll have to develop your own, or adapt printed material for your own use. But you can do it! After all, the Lord commanded the appointment of “elders in every town” just for such a reason!
3) While admitting the need for denominational preaching/exhorting licensure for seminarians, I call local elders to look carefully among their own number to assess teaching/preaching/exhorting gifts, and to cultivate such gifts intentionally with a view to future opportunities. Local elders are best able to ascertain the abilities of local brothers to read, exegete, and apply Scripture to the needs of the local body. The days are gone when pre-published “reading sermons” must be read by rote, required because of the assumption that the ministers (and not the elders) are the only educated and trained ordained office-bearers in the church. Our local congregation in Dallas has been richly blessed by several eIders who occupy the pulpit in my absence (and in the last year, that meant many weeks if not months of work!). These brothers know the congregation, have studied years to know the Word, and deliver wonderfully appropriate sermons to the people of God. But such wouldn’t have been the case had the other elders and I not encouraged them, or had we fretted classical or denominational licensure. (Local churches may, by the way, open their pulpits to gifted and qualified elders: broader licensure is required only to authorize the freedom to exhort in congregations throughout a region.) We’ve encouraged elders to open services with the call to worship, lead the congregational/pastoral prayer, and variously lead in other worship components. Such helps train and equip the local elders for other ministry opportunities. I commend the practice because, after all, elders are to be “appointed in every town.”
Summary: the point should be obvious. The local church is not a franchise of the denomination. Quite the contrary, the Lord prioritized the importance of the local elders. If history teaches us anything, it is that denominations function best when they understand that they exist to encourage and support the local church, not the other way around. It’s time for us to return to stressing the service of the local elders, giving the office of elder not only lip-service but serious ministry responsibility and authority.
Dr. Sittema is pastor of Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Dallas, TX. He serves as contributing editor of The Outlook.
We are deeply grateful to our God for His faithfulness in sustaining Dr. Sittema and his family through the illness and loss of his beloved wife and his own affliction of leukemia. May God be pleased to restore him to complete health. –The Editors