Called to Rule

Prof. Deckeris professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

The elders of the church are called by God to take oversight of the congregation. This, as is apparent from Holy Scripture and the Reformed confessions, is a very serious matter. Oversight involves church discipline, and church discipline is one of the three marks of the true church which easily distinguish her from the false church.

Church discipline may be understood in two senses. In the broader sense it refers to the spiritual care and rule of the congregation by the elders. This would include the visiting of the families of the congregation, caring for the sick, comforting the sorrowing, bringing the word of God to those who experience trials of one sort or another, and taking oversight of the other officebearers as regards both their office in the church and their lives. In the narlower sense, church discipline refers to the various admonitions from the Word of God which the elders must bring to those who walk in certain sins. If these remain impenitent, the "extreme remedy," excommunication from the church and kingdom of heaven, must be applied. In this series we shall consider church discipline in both senses, beginning with the broader. 

The Belgic Confession teaches that "the marks, by which the true Church is known, are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she 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 . .."(Art. 29). The Confession stipulates that there must be ministers to preach the Word and administer the sacraments, and elders and deacons, "...that by these means the true religion may be preserved, and the true doctrine everywhere propagated, likewise transgressors punished and restrained by spiritual means. .." (Art. 30). The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that by the preaching of the gospel and Christian discipline the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and shut to unbelievers. The church order likewise requires the elders, to exercise church discipline and to see to it that everything is done decently and in good order (Arts. 16 and 23, 71-80; cf. also the Questions for Church Visitation). 

The confessions reflect the truth of Scripture which exhorts believers to remember and obey them that have the rule" over them (Heb. 13:7, 17). The Greek word translated in these verses, "them that have the rule over," means "to go before, to be a leader, " and thus "to have authority." Elders have the authority of Christ to rule in the church. They are the spiritual leaders of the people of God. God's people must obey them and submit themselves to them because the elders watch for their, souls (v. 17). Believers must remember the elders and follow their faith because they speak to them the word of God (v. 7). God's people are commanded to know them which labor among them and are over them and admonish them. The people of God must esteem these very highly in love for their work's sake (I Thess. 5:12-13). 

Scripture exhorts the elders to feed (literally, this means "shepherd") the flock of God. Elders are to shepherd the flock by taking oversight of them. The elders must not do this "by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being examples to the flock." Elders who faithfully shepherd the flock are promised a crown of glory at the appearance of the chief shepherd (I Pet. 5:1-4). The apostle Paul admonishes the elders of the church at Ephesus to take heed to themselves and to the flock over which the Holy Spirit had made them overseers. The elders must do this by shepherding the church of God which "he hath purchased with his own blood" (Acts 20:28). 

According to Scripture, therefore, the elders are shepherds of the flock of God. They are called to represent the chief shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ, among God's people. Everything which a shepherd does with the sheep, the elders must do with the people of God. They must protect them, feed and nourish them, lead and guide them, seek and find them when they go astray. In sum 'the elders must provide for all the need of God's people. 

If elders are to be faithful representatives of Jesus, the chief shepherd of God's flock, they must care for the congregation by means of the Word of God. When God's people are, sick, they need the Word. When they mourn, their comfort is found only in the Word. When they go astray, only the Word can reconcile them with God and their fellow saints. When the elders visit them on the annual family visitation, they must not make this a mere social call, but they must come with the Word of God. The children and youth need to be instructed in the Word. All of God's people must continually be growing in the grace of God by means of growing in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ (II Pet. 3:17-18). 

The elders, therefore, need to be men of God who are mighty in the Scriptures. They need to study and meditate upon the Word of God. They ought to have a number of good books in their personal libraries and use them! Good devotional books are needed, as well as good, solid commentaries upon the sacred Scriptures. Books on Reformed doctrine are helpful and needed, as are good commentaries on the Reformed confessions and church order. All these and more will be good helps for the elder as he himself seeks to grow in the knowledge of God's Word so as to be able to bring it to bear upon the needs of God's people. 

The elders as well need to be men of prayer. Daily they must bring the needs of the people of God to the throne of grace. When they visit the people of God in their various trials or when they are called upon to admonish the wayward, they must never forget to pray! If all of God's people are exhorted to "pray without ceasing" (I Thess. 5:17), how much more is not this necessary for their spiritual leaders. Prayer is necessary, we confess, because it is the chief part of thankfulness, and because "God will give his grace and Holy Spirit to those only, who with sincere desires continually ask them of him, and are thankful for them" (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 116). 

In all this work of ruling the congregation, the faithful elders will be motivated by the love of God. Because God first loved them they will love God. And because they love God they will strive faithfully to govern God's precious flock. They will rule the people of God because they love God. Faithful elders will in God's love always seek the eternal good and welfare of the people of God. They will never be harsh tyrants who "lord it over God's heritage." Gently, but firmly, they will lead the people of God by means of His Word. 

In all their work as elders, these men will take great care to be worthy examples to the people of God. They will be exemplary husbands and fathers, honest workers, and good citizens. They will prayerfully take heed to themselves that they grow in sanctification. The elders will be able to say to God's people what the apostle said to the saints in Philippi, "Brethren, be followers together of me..." (Phil. 3:17). 

Faithful elders will be clothed with humility. Again, all of God's children are called to be humble, but this virtue must certainly characterize the elders of the church. Faithful elders will never seek the praise of men. They will always acknowledge that they labor only by the grace of God. They will acknowledge always that in all their shepherding of the people of God it is God who gives the fruit. 

Samuel Miller, the great Presbyterian and Princeton theologian, put it well when he wrote,

But I need not say to those who take their views of the Christian Church, and its real prosperity, from the Bible, and from the best experience, that enlightened, and faithful discipline is, not only important, but absolutely essential to the purity and edification of the body of Christ. It ought to be regarded as one of the most precious means of grace, by which offenders are humbled, softened, and brought to repentance; the Church purged of unworthy members; offenses removed; the honor of Christ promoted; real Christians stimulated and improved in their spiritual course, faithful testimony borne against error and crime; and the professing family of Christ made to appear, holy and beautiful in the view of the world. Without wholesome discipline, for removing offenses, and excluding the corrupt and profane, there may be an assembly, but there cannot be a Church. The truth is, the exercise of a faithful watch and care over the purity of each other in doctrine, worship, and life, is one of the principal purposes for which the Christian Church was established, and on account of which it is highly prized by every enlightened believer. And, I have no doubt, it may be safely affirmed, that a large part of all that is holy in the Church, at the present day, either in faith or practice, may be ascribed, under God, as much to sound ecclesiastical discipline, as to the faithful preaching of the gospel. 

And if the maintenance of discipline be all important to the interests of true religion, it is a matter of no less importance that it be conducted, with mildness, prudence, and wisdom. Rashness, precipitancy, undue severity, malice, partiality, popular fury, and attempting to; enforce rules which Christ never gave, are among the many evils which have too often marked the dispensation of authority in the Church, and not unfrequently defeated the great purpose of discipline. To conduct it aright, is, undoubtedly, one of the most delicate and arduous parts of ecclesiastical administration; requiring all the piety, judgment, patient, gentleness, maturity of counsel, and prayerfulness which can be brought to bear upon the subject (The Ruling Elder, pp. 174-175).