The Elders and the Care of the Congregation

Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Having discussed in previous articles the gifts and qualifications which the elders must possess, we turn our attention to the congregation entrusted by God to the care of the elders. Two questions need answers: With whom is the elder dealing? and, How must the elder care for them?

The congregation is not a mere "bunch" of people. Never does Scripture present the congregation as a mere crowd of individuals. Rather, the congregation is a part of "the flock of God" (I Pet. 5:2). And, it must never be forgotten, that flock of God has been purchased by God with the blood of His only begotten Son. Precisely for this reason the congregation is very precious in the sight of God. The congregation then is composed of believers and their children. Its members are those with whom God has established His covenant of friendship and fellowship in Christ. 

This has serious implications for the elders. Because the congregation consists of the precious flock of God the elders must be very careful as to how they handle the members under their care. The elders must remember too that the congregation is one manifestation of the entire flock of God chosen in Christ from all eternity and redeemed by Christ's blood. This does not mean that every member of the congregation is an elect. We know better. But in the organic sense the congregation represents the Body of Christ in a given place, time, and set of circumstances.

The elder, this implies, must proceed on the assumption that he is dealing with and caring for the saints in Christ. He does not approach the members of the congregation wondering whether they are elect or reprobate hypocrites. But, at the same time, the elder must be aware of the fact that there is always a twofold seed in the church as she appears in the world. Someone once said, "not all are sheep which have white wool and baa." Because this is so, the elder must know as well that his work in the congregation will always have a twofold effect. The elect believer will be edified and strengthened in his faith while the reprobate will be exposed in his unbelief.

While the elders certainly care for individual members of the congregation, they never care for mere individuals. The individual for whom the elder cares must be regarded as part of the spiritual communion (organism) of the Body of Christ. Scripture is never individualistic. Pelagianism and its offspring, Arminianism, are individualistic in their view of sin and grace. The Reformed faith, based as it is upon Holy Scripture, is covenantal. Neither the reprobate nor the elect man is simply an individual, but is either part of the depraved world outside of Christ, or part of the Body of Christ. God graces individual men, but He saves a church "chosen to everlasting life in Christ and agreeing in true faith" (Heidelberg Catechism, L.D. 21). The church, therefore, is a fellowship or communion in which all the members share in the anointing of Christ. 

This means the elder cares not just for so many individuals, but for members of the one Body of Jesus Christ. The members of that Body of Christ all have the same Spirit, the same calling, the same hope, faith, love, Lord, baptism, the same God and Father (Eph. 4:4-5). The members of the congregation all belong to the "unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3). As members of Christ's Body they are totally interdependent. The members of the congregation cannot exist and function in their God-given place in the church apart from the other members of the Body (I Cor. 12:12-31).

Still more, the congregation is made up of families. Scripture plainly teaches that God saves His elect in Christ, i.e., establishes His covenant with believers and their children (Gen. 17:7; Acts 2:39). The elder is called to care for the families of the family of God.

In this connection, we cannot help but lament the fact that family life is on the wane not only in the world, but also in the church. Our own Protestant Reformed Churches are affected as well. Parents (yes, fathers and mothers) leave for work in the morning, and children leave for school at different times. Teenagers are busy working part-time jobs or involved in athletics or other legitimate activities after school. There are church activities in the evenings. In many instances it is rare that all the members of the family are able to share a meal together. In some instances parents have very little or no time at all for their children. The result is that there is little time for the entire family to be together for fellowship and family devotions. 

All this takes its toll. There is an increase in marital problems and even divorce in the churches. The elders of God's church and the pastors must do all in their power to reverse these trends. This ought to be done in the annual family visitation, from the pulpit, and by means of personal calls on the family. A good point at which to begin is for the elders and pastors to set a good example in their own families.

Within the family of God as manifest in a particular congregation, therefore, the elder must care for individual members. The elder must remember that the individual is a sinner saved by grace through faith, God's gift (Eph. 2:8). Even though he knows there are hypocrites in the church, the elder assumes that he cares for a saved sinner. That sinner saved in Christ has but a small beginning of the life of Christ. His life is, therefore, characterized by the constant battle and tension between the new man in Christ which he must put on and the old man of sin which he must put off (Eph. 4:17-32; Rom. 7:7-25). In his spiritual rule and pastoral care of the members of the flock of God the elder will remember this fact. 

The elder will also bear in mind that within the congregation there are many different individuals, each with his/her unique personality, character, and circumstances. Each of these members must be approached and cared for in different ways. There are the obvious differences: children, youth, married couples, unmarried individuals, aged and younger members, widows, widowers, women, and men. Each of these requires care that meets his/her needs. The elder, for example, obviously cannot deal with a child as he would with an adult member of the church. He cannot care for an unmarried person as he would a married person.

How, in general, do the elders care for God's people? The answer is by means of the Word of God. The chief means of grace is the preaching of the Word. By this means the saints hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ, call upon His name in faith, and are saved (Rom. 10:13-15). By the "foolishness of preaching" it pleases God to save them that believe (I Cor. 1:21). 

The Word of God which is publicly preached must be privately applied by the elders to the various needs of the individual members of the flock of God.

To these matters in specifics we turn our attention in succeeding articles.