Spiritual Check-Up for the URCNA: The Elders

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. (Acts 20:28, King James Version)

How healthy is the URCNA? We have been considering two barometers of spiritual health so far—love for the lost and traditionalism.

In this article I will consider the eldership and the elders in our churches. Although reformation does not always start with the leaders of the church, it necessarily must involve the leadership of the church, and that means the elders especially. This is not to neglect the diaconate, but theirs is a separate issue in role and function. David Dickson says, “The eldership is absolutely necessary for a healthy and useful church” (The Elder and His Work [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004], 26). John Sittema echoes the concern in our modern context: “the raging spiritual infection within the fevered body of Christ that has left so many churches weak, flaccid, and ineffective, can be traced directly to the loss of the Biblical understanding and practice of the office of elder” (With a Shepherd’s Heart [Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship, 1996], 3). Recall that John Sittema is a son of our churches and speaks of what he knows personally.

What are the areas in need of reformation?


Let us first recall and emphasize that the office of elder is pastoral, or a shepherding office. Part of the declension in the church has been that elders have (as a generalization) abdicated this specific responsibility and become administrators, not shepherds. They chair committees, attend meetings, and make decisions about the life of the congregation, but the flock suffers a loss of pastoral care. Often, that responsibility is left to the minister, and only the minister (after all, “That’s his job, right?”). Granted that he is full time and the elders are not, nevertheless the office is inherently pastoral. Sittema again notes, “What we see in today’s churches are administrators. The pastor functions like a CEO who ‘markets the vision’; the deacons are the CFO (Chief Financial Officer); and the elders become the Board of Directors. To them falls the administrative responsibility of setting direction for the life of the corporation. They commission or develop a ‘marketing plan’ for church growth, and hold the CEO accountable . . . They oversee and direct . . . programs for building or operation budgets. They delegate any and all pastoral duties to the professionals trained to handle such contingencies” (With a Shepherd’s Heart, 7).

Tim Witmer, in The Shepherd Leader, mentions the four shepherding functions of knowing, feeding, leading and protecting. In the opinion of this writer we suffer ill spiritual health due to a lack or absence of these functions in our midst. I hasten to add that there are many exceptionally fine, outstanding, and godly men in our circles who exemplify these traits. My comments are intended to make these traits normative rather than exceptional.


Our church polity instructs us that the minister, elder, and deacon are on a par but serve different functions within the congregation. However, our practice often fails to reflect this. This is seen in the men themselves, the ministers, and the congregants.

Elders rarely perceive themselves to be on par with the minister. They have a low view of themselves both intellectually and spiritually (at times justifiably so). This should not be. If our theology teaches equality in the offices, then it must be reflected in reality and in practice.

Ministers also neglect this parity with such talk as “my elders.” The elders are under-shepherds of the Lord Jesus Christ and not the minister. Far too often the default position is one of abdicating to or deferring to the minister, which is a serious problem (more on this below). This should be neither encouraged nor allowed but reformed.

Congregations view the elders beneath the minister and rarely would acknowledge that elders should and can give spiritual guidance. Too often I have heard from folks, even after numerous elder visits, “ . . . but pastor never came.”

Additionally we should cease the practice of having to fill a certain number of seats each year. Due to rotation of elders with term eldership, it has become a routine ritual to fill vacated seats. I submit that the Bible teaches that qualifications are the prerequisite for service and not vacant seats. If men are not qualified it is better to have fewer elders than to have unqualified men in the consistory room. Unqualified men serving in office lowers the office in the eyes of our people and often results in poor-quality work on the part of those men while they serve.

One more ecclesiastical concern. I suggest elders share the lead in corporate worship by leading, singing, and praying. As ordained servants they are suitable for such tasks. I believe it would go a long way to restoring the esteem of the office in the eyes of the people for them to see their elders share these efforts, and as ordained men, there is no reason for them not to do so. It would also remove the idea of it being the minister’s church (as in “Oh, that’s Murphy’s church”). An additional benefit of this would be to promote among the people the modeling of such tasks. Congregations will sing and pray better if their leaders are visibly leading them to do it.


Elders are to be examples for the flock, and this should be seen in the mission of the church. It used to be the case that when credential questions were sent to the churches prior to classis, one of the inquiries was whether or not the elders were “engaged in the task of evangelism.” That question is now conspicuously absent from credentials in the URCNA (we have added it in Classis Eastern US). The flock needs to see elders taking the lead in love for the lost and efforts to reach them with the gospel.

Furthermore, elders have the primary responsibility to see that the congregation stays on mission regarding the mission of the church. Recognizing that we are all sinners, our inherent tendency is to slack off. Sometimes this is referred to as mission creep, that is, the mission of the church, especially local evangelism, trends toward fading in the life of the congregation. Elders are called to steer the ship and to stay on course. I believe we would have a more vibrant and healthy outward focus if that emphasis was constantly held before us in corporate prayer, house visiting, discipleship (familial and ecclesiastical), as well as in the consistory room. Years ago the mission of the church was integrated into the local church in our church order; the 1917 church order of the Christian Reformed Church had five articles on missions and evangelism (Howard Spaan, Christian Reformed Church Government [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1968], 27–28, 173–204).

I suggest we would quickly lose the default operating distinction among us of maintenance churches versus mission churches if elders were leading the flock in its mission and especially in local evangelism. Every church is a mission church!


Here I do not mean that elders are to be educators. But here I am suggesting that elders need to be educated prior to being nominated, ordained, and serving in office. Consistent with reforming the eldership is elder training and testing. Elders are entrusted with the never-dying souls of men, women, and children. Such a high and holy calling cannot and should not be underestimated, but rather it calls for equipping men to serve capably and effectively.

This begins with only considering men who evidence the biblical qualifications. One often-neglected qualification is hospitality, literally a love for strangers. How many homes of elders have you been in? I suspect that a man who does not open his home will not be able to open his heart to shepherd God’s people in a Christ-like manner.

How Did We Get Here?

While there are many factors contributing to this decline in the eldership, no doubt one of the biggest factors has been term “eldership.” As one seasoned, godly elder comments, “We elders have allowed ourselves to be marginalized by term limits. Just as a shepherd cannot care for the sheep by interrupted terms of service, so also the elders cannot care for the congregation by three years on and three years off. Term limits effectively kill the idea that ‘I know my sheep and my sheep know me.’ This practice, more than any other, has hurt the church. It creates a mindset in the elders, ministers, and congregations that the office of elder is less than what the New Testament teaches and requires. Christ would have his elders be fully committed all the time to the whole congregation. The office of elder is a lifetime ordination on par and equal to the office of minister.”

I share that sentiment. This writer believes term “eldership” inherently leads to ministers dominating the affairs of the church both locally and in broader assemblies. Consider that if the minister is the only one who has continuity in office, then he alone knows the history of business and he alone knows and is enabled and encouraged to exercise his voice. I have seen this many times at classis where often only ministers speak to address matters.

Often this leads to an anti-clerical disposition. Elders prohibit the minister from being president of consistory or from serving on the executive committee (so that “he can’t run the show”). While understandable, given the above situation, this is regrettable and is an indictment of the elders themselves. How so? First, that situation can develop only where and when the elders have abdicated their responsibilities. The minister is under the authority of the elders, not over them like a pope, and it is their job to check the minister if he is out of line. Second, a minister is to preside, which means he ostensibly does not have a voice in deliberations and decisions. If an elder assumes the president’s position, then he loses his voice and the minister gains it. Thus what is feared often becomes status quo. The prescription for change is for elders to assume and exercise their responsibilities, not abdicate them.

What to Do and Where to Go?

Spiritual problems call for spiritual solutions. I suggest the following. As for the pastoral call of the office of elder, I would encourage consistories to get and study The Shepherd Leader by Tim Witmer, along with John Sittema’s With a Shepherd’s Heart, and Called to Serve, edited by Mike Brown (the last two available through the publisher of this magazine). I have used these books profitably for years, and they have borne good fruit in the church. Another resource is Ordained Servant magazine published online by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church ( os.html?target=archive), which includes suggested training courses.

I would also encourage elders’ training prior to any nomination and election. In my experience this is not only necessary but welcomed by men who are usually overwhelmed by the demands of office and most often think themselves unfit for such duty. Encourage the men! Even Paul thought himself unfit, saying, “Who is sufficient for these things?” But that same apostle reminded us all, “our sufficiency is of Christ.” The Great Shepherd calls and equips his under-shepherds to care for His flock.

Training should include theological study of the doctrinal standards, but we must not neglect the biblical emphasis on the character of the man who serves. Almost all of the qualifications have to do with a man’s character, not his theology.

Resources for considering term eldership are Cornelis Van Dam, The Elder (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009), where he discusses the pros and cons of terms in the history of the church. Also look at John Murray’s Collected Writings (Banner of Truth, 1982) in which he opposes term elders on the testimony of Scripture.

In order for the elders to keep the church on mission, I would recommend periodic reviews with a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats). The former are internal, the latter are external.

Please prayerfully consider these prescriptions for change and reformation in the leadership of our churches. I believe the spiritual health of our congregations depend on it.

Let us be descendants of the Reformation seeking to reform the church which Jesus loved and purchased with his own blood. Soli Deo Gloria.

Rev. Paul T. Murphy is the missionary pastor of Messiah’s Reformed Fellowship (URCNA) in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC. He has been an elder and pastor for more than thirty years.