Esteeming the Elders Very Highly for Their Work's Sake

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

In the previous article in this series we called attention to the fact that, because Jesus Christ is pleased to minister His Word, rule His flock, and care for the needy through the lawfully called officebearers, the people of God must receive these men as the representatives of Christ Himself. Before proceeding to discuss the qualifications for the office of elder we call the readers attention to an address given by Dr. Samuel Miller to the members of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. Dr. Miller was appointed in 1813 by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church as the second professor for Princeton Theological Seminary. Dr. Miller held this position for the next thirty-five years. Said Dr. Miller:

Christian Brethren,

Every consideration which has been urged to show the importance and duties belonging to the office of Ruling Elders ought to remind you of the important duties which you owe to them. Remember at all times, that they are your ecclesiastical Rulers; Rulers of your own choice; yet by no means coming to you in virtue of mere human authority; but in the name and by the appointment of the great Head of the Church, and, of course, the "ministers of God to you for good."

In all your views and treatment of them, then, recognize this character. Obey them "in the Lord," that is, for his sake, and as far as they bear rule agreeably to his word. "Esteem them very highly in love for their works sake." And follow them daily with your prayers, that God would bless them, and make them a blessing. Reverence them as your leaders. Bear in mind the importance of their office, the arduousness of their duties, and the difficulties with which they have to contend. Countenance, and sustain them in every act of fidelity; make allowance for their infirmities; and be not unreasonable in your expectations from them.

Many are ready to criminate the Elders of the Church, for not taking notice of particular offenses, as speedily, or in such manner, as they expect. And this disposition to find fault is sometimes indulged by persons who have never been so faithful themselves as to give that information which they possessed, respecting the alleged offenses; or who, when called upon publicly to substantiate that which they have privately disclosed, have drawn back, unwilling to encounter the odium or the pain of appearing as accusers, or even as witnesses. Such persons ought to be the last to criminate Church officers for supposed negligence of discipline. Can your Rulers take notice of that which never comes to their knowledge? Or can you expect them, as prudent men, rashly to set on foot a judicial and public investigation of things, concerning which many are ready to whisper in private, but none willing to speak with frankness before a court of Christ? Besides, let it be recollected, that the session (consistory in our churches, RDD) of almost every Church is sometimes actually engaged in investigating charges, in removing offenses, and in composing differences, which many suppose they are utterly neglecting, merely because they do not judge it to be for edification, in all cases, to proclaim what they have done, or are doing, to the congregation at large.

Your Elders will sometimes be called — God grant that it may seldom occur! — But they will sometimes be called to the painful exercise of discipline. Be not offended with them for the performance of this duty. Rather make the language of the Psalmist your own: "Let the righteous smite me, it shall be a kindness; and let him reprove me, it shall be an excellent oil which shall not break my head." Add not to the bitterness of their official task, by discovering a resentful temper, or by indulging in reproachful language, in return for their fidelity. Surely the nature of the duty is sufficiently self-denying and distressing, without rendering it more so by unfriendly treatment. Receive their private warnings and admonitions with candor and affectionate submission. Treat their public acts, however contrary to your wishes, with respect and reverence. If they be honest and pious men, can they do less than exercise the discipline of Christ's house, against such of you as walk disorderly? Nay, if you be honest and pious yourselves, can you do less than approve of their faithfulness in exercising that discipline? If you were aware of all the difficulties which attend this part of the duty of your Eldership, you would feel for them more tenderly, and judge concerning them more candidly and indulgently than you are often disposed to do. Here you have it in your power, in a very important degree, to lessen their burdens, and to strengthen their hands.

When your Elders visit your families, for the purpose of becoming acquainted with them, and of aiding the Pastor in ascertaining the spiritual state of the flock, remember that it is not officious intrusion. It is nothing more than their duty. Receive them, not as if you suspected them of having come as spies or busy intruders, but with respect and cordiality. Convince them, by your treatment, that you are glad to see them; that you wish to encourage them in promoting the best interests of the Church; and that you honor them for their fidelity. Give them an opportunity of seeing your children, and of ascertaining whether your households are making progress in the Christian life. Nay, encourage your children to put themselves in the way of the Elders, that they may be personally known to them, and may become the objects of their affectionate notice, their occasional exhortation, and their pious prayers. Converse with the Elders freely, as with fathers, who "have no greater joy than to see you walking in the truth." And ever give them cause to retire under the pleasing persuasion, that their office is honored, that their benevolent designs are duly appreciated, and that their labors "are not in vain in the Lord." In short, as every good citizen will make conscience of vindicating the fidelity, and holding up the hand of the faithful Magistrate, who firmly and impartially executes the law of the land: so every good Christian ought to feel himself bound in conscience and honor, as well as in duty to his Lord, to strengthen the hands, and encourage the heart of the spiritual Ruler, who evidently seeks, in the fear of God, to promote the purity and edification of the Church.1

Though this address was given in 1832, it applies with undiminished biblical force to the people of God today. If heeded by God's people, what a difference it would make for the elders in their work and, thus, what a difference it would make for the lives of the people of God.

Immediately following the above address Dr. Miller makes the following interesting and significant remark:

The nature of the office before us (that of elder, RDD) also leads to another remark, with which the present chapter will be closed. It is, that there seems to be a peculiar propriety in the Ruling Elders (and the same principle will apply to the Deacons ...) having a seat assigned them, for sitting together, in a conspicuous part of the Church, near the Pulpit, during the public service, where they can overlook the whole worshipping assembly, and be seen by all. The considerations which recommend this, are numerous. It was invariably so in the Jewish Synagogue. The same practice, as we have seen in a former chapter, was adopted in the early Church, as soon as Christians began to erect houses for public worship. This official and conspicuous accommodation for the Elders is constantly provided in the Dutch Reformed Church, in this country, and it is believed by most of the Reformed Churches on the continent of Europe. It is adapted to keep the congregation habitually reminded who their Elders are, and of their official au

thority; and also to remind the Elders themselves, of their functions and duties. And it furnishes a convenient opportunity for the Pastor to consult them on any question which may occur, either before he ascends the Pulpit, or at the close of the service.2

Unfortunately this practice has been abandoned in most Reformed Churches and even in some of our own Protestant Reformed Churches. For the reasons Dr. Miller cited the Elders ought to sit together.

Another practice which ought to be reinstated in the churches is that of the vice-president of the Consistory shaking the minister's hand before the latter goes to the pulpit.3 This is a reminder to the minister, the elders, and the congregation that the consistory is responsible for the preaching of the Word. For the same reason it is to be regretted that in some of our congregations the Elders go to the back of the sanctuary to shake the minister's hand after the service. The shaking of the minister's hand after the service is an indication of the fact that the Elders approve of what was just preached. The congregation ought to be able to see this.

1 Samuel Miller, The Ruling Elder (Dallas, Texas: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1987), pp. 211-214.

2 Ibid., pp. 214-215.

3 There are, to the best of my knowledge, only two Protestant Reformed congregations where this practice has been retained, First PRC in Edmonton and Immanuel PRC in Lacombe, both in Alberta, Canada.