Localism and the Elder, Round 2

Recently I wrote a column emphasizing the importance of the local church in the kingdom of God. I stressed local initiatives, bemoaned creeping bureaucracies, and lamented a denominationalism that seems to appear wherever I look. I argued that denominationalism is a phenomenon that seems to think that only denominationally-organized mission work, educational ministry, and even licensure to occupy the pulpit is worth much. The work done by the local church seems valued only to the extent that it supports the “central government’s” efforts.

Contrary to such denominationalism, I argued, is the stress of Scripture on the local church with local elders leading the ministry.

Two things happened in the wake of that article’s publication. The first is a rather significant response, most of it negative. To that response I will turn in a minute. The second, which I must deal with first, is an inaccurate represenation of the view of  Dr. Henry De Moor. In the article, I described what I believe to be an attitude that often dominates local Classis (Presbytery) meetings: “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 the work of denominational and regional bureaucrats holds much greater significance to the advancement of the Kingdom. I believed that then; I believe it now.”

The article went on to say: “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 ….” Prior to publication, I had edited the article, and removed the reference to Dr. De Moor because I recognized that it was inaccurate. Unfortunately, the editorial correction did not make it to the general editors and typesetter on time. (Email is a great tool. but it is not infallible!) Dr. De Moor graciously pointed out the inaccuracy, for which I take full responsibility. While he and I may vigorously disagree on what constitutes “congregationalism” and on the value and role of a denomination’s book of Church Order. it was wrong to suggest he holds views he does not hold, inadvertent though the suggestion may have been. I willingly and heartily apologize to the brother for this misrepresentation of his views.



Now back to the issue at hand. Quite a number of readers many of whom are conservative friends of mine, were quite upset at my suggestion that local elders could and should fill the local pulpit on needed occasions because they were “best able to…read, exegete, and apply Scripture to the needs of the local body.” One such friend lamented that, if my suggestions were taken to heart, “the seminaries would have to shut down, classical and denominational licensure would become irrelevant, and we’d lose control.”

The reaction of my friend arises out of a couple of assumptions. The first is that only broader assemblies (General Assembly/Synod, Classis/Presbytery) are competent to assess gifts and qualifications for a preaching ministry. Obviously, I disagree. In fact, the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church (for example) contains within it the following statement: “Persons licensed to exhort (it does not specify by whom IRS) and anyone appointed by the consistory (board of elders – IRS) to read a sermon may conduct worship services.” The principle of the supervision of worship by the local eldership, including control over access to the pulpit. is stressed here. Local elders are competent to make such assessments, granting access to their local pulpit to men who possess Scriptural requirements. Why then do we grant broader licensure by Classes/presbyteries or by Synod! General Assemblies? Such broader licensing grants reciprocity throughout all the churches of a region or of an entire denomination, not just one local body. But the broader licensure is not different in kind from the local licensure. It is different only in scope.

A second assumption reflected in my friend’s comments is that seminary training is the only route to the pulpit. Now, I must make myself perfectly clear. I love and prize seminary training. I believe it is important to a well trained, educated ministry. I have served on seminary boards, have served as president of one of them, and have received several appointments to teach on the seminary level. (I almost accepted.) I believe a thorough and classical seminary training to be the best preparation for a man who is called to serve in the gospel ministry. But I do not believe that seminary training is the only route into the ministry. Apparently, I am not alone. Article 7 of the Christian Reformed Church’s Book of Church Order contains provisions for entrance into the ministry of those who have not attended seminary. A dear friend of mine entered the ministry under that provision some years ago, and is serving today with distinction. Yet, to hear some talk, such provisions ought not to exist, and those who entered the ministry under them ought to have an asterisk placed behind their names!

The final assumption reflected in my friend’s comments is, I believe, the hardest to put one’s finger on and yet is the most dangerous of all. The assumption is that local elders really do not possess competence and thus should not be granted permission to do much of the work of the local church. My friend was shocked at my suggestion that local elders could lead congregational prayers, that local elders could call the congregation to worship, that local elders could exhort. Note, he was shocked at my suggestion that they could. Not that they should His problem was with the possibility of their ability, not with the permissibility of their service. Why? “They’re only laymen; they’re not pastors!”

And that brings me back to a point I’ve been harping on in this column for many years, a point challenging the popular assumption generated by Roman Catholic dualism centuries ago, that there are “sacred offices” (clergymen or pastors) and that there are also “secular offices” in the church (elders). Nice and neat, of course. Only one trouble with the distinction. It isn’t in the Bible!

Scripturally, the word “pastor” or “shepherd” isn’t a title given to the clergy distinct from the eldership. In fact, as Acts 20 makes clear, it is precisely to the elders of the local church of Ephesus (v. 17) that the Apostle Paul assigns the task of “shepherding” (or “pastoring” – the word is the same in Greek) the flock (v. 28). Likewise, in the same verse, we learn that it is to these same elders of the local church that he applies the description of “overseer” (“episkopos” or bishop). The identical wording appears again in I Peter 5:1A. Listen to Peter’s words: “To the elders among you, I appeal…be shepherds (pastors) of God’s flock…serving as overseers (bishops).”

Linguistically, there’s a difference between a “distinction” and a “dichotomy.” (According to Webster, the former “recognizes or notes differences.” The latter “classifies by division into two mutually exclusive and exhaustive groups.”) On the one hand, the attempt to divide the servants of God into sacred and secular, clergy and laity, is an attempt to establish a mutually exclusive (non-Biblical) dichotomy. On the other hand, to speak of the kinds of work elders do is to make a fully Biblical distinction. Scripturally speaking there aren’t pastors and elders, there are pastoral elders, some of whom have been set apart for preaching and teaching (I Tim. 5:17). Want to call them pastors? Fine. But not at the expense of recognizing that all the elders of the church have pastoral duties. Want to call them preachers and teachers? Fine. But not at the expense of recognizing that every elder—every single one is to be “able to teach” (I Tim 3:2).

Why all this linguistic analysis? Because, from where I sit, denominationalism has corrupted localism. And it has done so by diminishing the view of the role, the authority, and the Biblical primacy given to the local eldership. Sadly, such a diminishment has been so effectively accomplished that even local church elders minimize their calling, authority and responsibility. The denominationalist labels my appeal as “congregationalism.” The majority of local elders label it “impossible.” But I persist. Unless local elders recognize both their high calling and God’s generous gifts to enable the fulfilling of that calling, and unless local elders act boldly, faithfully, and responsibly in the many dimensions of their office, the local church will be impoverished, denominationalism will grow unhindered, and the Lord’s gracious gifts to the church will sit unopened. And that would be a shame.

Dr. Sittema is pastor of Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Dallas, TX. He serves as contributing editor of The Outlook.