This short series of articles will examine the role and work of the elders in our churches. It is not intended to be a complete guide but it will address specific areas of concern to the churches today in the light of Scripture, the confessions, and the ecclesiastically assigned tasks of the eldership. Among the concerns addressed will be as follows: the exercise of discipline, pastoring the pastor, family visiting, the process of calling a minister, supervision of worship, catechizing and educational ministries, supervision of students and candidates for the ministry, and congregational leadership.
These articles will be directed toward, but are not exclusive to, the tasks before of the elders in the United Reformed Churches. The duties of elder in the URCNA place an extraordinary responsibility for the proper function and health of congregations, and the vitality of the federation as a whole, on the shoulders of lay leadership. These responsibilities are much broader than just the needs of the local congregation that an elder is called to serve. They include supervision of candidates for the ministry and the license to exhort, the searching for and calling of ministers, supporting and supervising missionaries, an active role in the broader assemblies, and ad hoc and standing committees. One of causes cited for the ills that occasioned the establishment of the URCNA was the steady reduction in the role of the laity and in the inability of the individual congregation to have an influence on the classis or denominational level. The URCNA Church Order has brought the things mentioned above back into the sphere of elder work and hence into the control of the congregation. How well this has worked out in the last fifteen years has been debated, and some of the results of this debate can be clearly seen in the provisions of the Proposed Joint Church Order.
I have served as an elder in the URCNA, and I have also had opportunities to worship regularly in other federations and denominations in the past, among them the Orthodox Protestant Reformed Church, the Christian Reformed Church, The Christian and Missionary Alliance, independent Baptist, the Reformed Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church in America. While these articles have a URCNA focus, I hope that the principles and practices I espouse here will be of benefit to elders wherever they have been called to serve Him.
The extraordinary responsibilities of elders mentioned above are reflected in the Church Order of the URCNA, but they wholly reside in and receive their authority from Scripture. The first reference in Acts to elders in the post-Pentecost church is seen in Acts 11:30. This reference is essentially ecclesiastical in nature, dealing with the transmittance of a gift to the church in Jerusalem from the church in Antioch. Paul and Barnabas also appointed elders in the churches they had established in Asia Minor (Acts 14:23) as they headed back to Antioch.1 When they did this, “they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” Here were new churches with new elders and now vacant! In Acts 16:5 we find these churches strengthened and healthy through the work of faithful men of the laity. Our churches also will only remain faithful and strong by the diligent work of elders. On a personal note, I believe that the solution to all of the issues we will cover in this series is the full and most zealous engagement with them by the elders.2
In this introduction we can look briefly at one concern that affects many churches. That concern is simply the lack of men with the ability who are willing to serve and who are qualified biblically to serve in the office. Many of our churches are richly blessed with good numbers of men equipped for the work, but too many churches, both large and small, are struggling to find men to lead. An examination of the trends that have brought this about is worthy of our attention. These trends include feelings of inadequacy for the work of elder, preoccupation with secular work, leisure and family activities, and disqualification of men from consideration for unbiblical reasons.
All who serve or have served in office feel unequal to the task in themselves. We all take courage to do the work only as we receive strength from our Lord. Formal as well as informal opportunities for training those who aspire to the office should include this essential mindset.3 One only need refer to the life of David, a man after God’s own heart, as he struggled with his own sin and unworthiness. A man who uses this as a reason not to serve is ill prepared for anything life has to offer. On the other hand, someone who comes to the office feeling fully prepared and qualified over other men to do the work raises other issues of suitability. If a man is willing to be used by God in this task, as well as in all tasks in this life, and if others see in him the requirements found in God’s word, he should think twice about refusing the office.
Others feel too over-burdened with other responsibilities to serve. With older men it can take shape in the feeling that “I’ve already done my share; it is the turn of others.” With younger men it can be the need to spend time with his wife, young children, and building a career or new business. Church office, with its responsibilities, is comparable to a family responsibility and should be regarded as such. Withholding your gifts for service to the church will just as surely harm the spiritual future of your children and grandchildren as your neglect of devotions and church attendance. When your children and grandchildren see you go to church for a meeting after a long day of work, they will miss you and perhaps shed a tear, but they will know that you go to serve others and the Lord in this work, and they will learn the vital lesson that membership in the church is a calling to service issued to all who believe.
Even though it is difficult for some churches to find men to serve in the offices, some men are never given the opportunity or never get the votes in the council room or congregational meeting, even if they are nominated or are put forward by a member of the congregation, as described in the Church Order. There certainly are biblical reasons, some which are quite subjective, that serve to exclude some men, but some do have the gifts and desire and yet never serve.
These and other factors have given rise to questionable practices like casting lots or a process that seems akin to “taking turns,” using means almost to compel men to serve, compromises in the biblical standards for office, or a nominating system in the council that is more political than biblical. The sins of youth are held against some; a non-Reformed background, issues of personality, or differing opinions are used to eliminate candidates for non-biblical reasons.
I would strongly urge church leadership to take a hard look at their current methods and also to make a more concerted effort to qualify those that have been found lacking in the past. If there are men who have been passed over many times and that are discouraged by this, openly and frankly discuss it in consistory and go to them with practical counsel. I will use the words frankly and openly often because reluctance to engage in issues of this type and to express your opinion fully on weighty matters undermines the strength of the office and the ability of the elders to effect positive change in the spiritual lives under our care. If there are men who are considered tainted and to be beyond rehabilitation, we are limiting our Savior’s atonement, the power of God to forgive, and the Spirit’s ability to teach and to sanctify by imposing our own limits.
Constantly reviewing and comparing the biblical requirements for office in 1 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Peter with the gifts the men in your congregation possess today and looking for ways to pastorally correct areas that need attention as well as to offer training to those who aspire to office must remain an active part of the church leadership responsibility of the elders4.
I hope this article and others that follow will be helpful, and I invite and welcome any comments, questions, or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008) 4:342–343.
2. Benjamin L. Merkle, Why Elders?: A Biblical and Practical Guide for Church Members (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2009) 28–31.
3. Merkle, Why Elders?, 62–65.
4. Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership (Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth Publishers, 1995), 67–83.
Mr. Martin Nuiver is a member of Faith URC, Beecher, IL, where he serves as an elder and the clerk.