The Office of Elder - An Overview

Mr. Gritters is a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.

By the time this article appears in print, letters will have again been sent by our various consistories to certain confessing male members somewhat as follows: "The Consistory informs you that your name has been placed on nomination for the office of Elder. Please let us know if you have valid reasons why you would beunable to serve...."

Unable to serve? Sometimes the nomination comes as a surprise, especially to those who receive it for the first time. But as you ponder your answer, you may already have turned the question around: "Lord, who—really—is able to serve?" And rightly so, for who of us is worthy of so great a task? And I, even as I struggle to write these words, know full well some would say of me, "Why him?"—and I, without defense. 

With this, the Lord willing, we begin a short series of discussions of "eldership" in the church of Christ. Some of the things we hope to examine at this time are the back- ground of the office of elder, its scriptural basis, the virtual disappearance of the office during what we sometimes refer to as the "Dark Ages" (or, more appropriately, through the development of the Romish church hierarchy), the Reformed view of Eldership, as well as the qualifications for the elder, both the necessary qualifications, and the desirable. 

Since we believe the elder is appointed by, and serves as the representative of Christ in His ruling (kingly) office, we must first have a clear understanding of how the elder's position relates to this same office as it comes to expression in. the entire body of believers in their roles as prophet, priest, and king under Christ. In these offices common to all believers, the saints take a vibrant and active part in all the affairs of the church. Within this setting, Christ, through the congregation, calls certain believers to the special offices of prophet (ministers), priest (deacons), and king (elders). Through these special offices, and in a unique relationship to the fellow-members of the congregation, Christ rules His church. And it is on this latter office, namely of elder, that we focus our attention. That this special office is separate and distinct from the general kingly office shared by all believers is clear from the scriptural admonition, "Obey them that have rule over you, and submit to them" (Heb. 13:17). 

Now it is of utmost importance to see that this office of ruling, or authority, is not one earned or merited. It is not even bestowed on the officebearer by the congregation. Christ Himself, the only ruler and King of His church, through His servant representatives, not only instituted the office but also fills it by the activity of the Holy Spirit. 

That the church of God through all ages was historically ruled by elders is abundantly clear from the Scriptures. The Old Testament makes reference time and again to, the "elders of Israel." Although the origin of this office in Israel is not recorded, the emphasis is obviously on the "elder," as opposed to the "younger." This is clearly inferred in the account of King Rehoboam's foolish decision to forsake the counsel of the old men and to consult with the young men who were grown up with him. The rationale for this, we believe, is that with age comes knowledge and experience; but, more importantly, knowledge and experience tried by the fires of God's Word and Spirit brings forth wisdom and understanding. Solomon, in a spirit of true humility, properly chose wisdom (cf. I Kings 3:9). What more important qualification could there be "to judge this thy so great a people"? 

It is in the New Testament, however, that the office of elder, or bishop, more clearly evolves as the organ through which Christ directly rules His church. (We will not quote all of the many scriptural references to the establishment and use of the elders' office, and its requirements). We know from Acts 14:23 that Paul and Barnabas ordained elders in every church as their missionary work progressed. From various other verses recording divinely-inspired instruction to the early church, we may briefly summarize the primary duties of the elder, namely, to feed (oversee) the Lord's flock as His representatives (John 21:16I Pet. 5:2); to rule over and care for the church of God (I Tim. 3:4, 5I Tim. 5:17); to preserve sound doctrine (preaching) and guard against error (Tit. 1:9-11); and to teach (I Tim. 3:2). Other texts are Acts 15:22Acts 20:17ff., Titus 1:5-9; and I Peter 51-3. We will quote others when we examine the qualifications for bishops. 

Before looking at the present day Reformed concept of church government, we note that it is of historical significance that the office of elder virtually disappeared during the third and fourth centuries as the early church became more and more hierarchical, with the governing of the church vested in the pope and his appointed bishops. With this came a devastating deterioration in the quality of the preaching and teaching in the Romish Church until the time of the Reformation. It was under John Calvin's leadership in the Reformed church of Geneva that the New Testament office of elder was once again restored to its Christ ordained administrative role. From this providential care of God for His church comes the guidance that has evolved into our standards for church government as expressed particularly in our Church Order and the Form of Ordination for officebearers. We believe the above history is basic to a proper discussion of the office of elder in our church of today. 

When we speak of the office of elder, we should note that the Bible uses the words "elder" and "bishop" interchangeably. Consequently, the same word is used for the office of "prophet" and "king." We know, however, that these two offices are separate and distinct, but also equal. This is apparent from I Timothy 5:17 where we read, "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine (preaching)." This adds another dimension—ministers (preachers) are included with the elders who rule well. So, there is some overlapping of the offices, namely, the pastor is also a ruling elder. Now, is the ruling elder also a teaching (preaching) elder? The answer, of course, is Yes and No. 

But we reserve further discussion of this for a later article. 

The Editorial Staff of the Standard Bearer suggested that this rubric be essentially practical—not theoretical. I fear the foregoing leans toward the theoretical, but our hope is that this may set the stage for a more practical look at the elders' office. At another time, we hope to look at the qualifications of the ruling elder, his duties, his relationship to the offices of the minister and the diaconate, his responsibilities to the flock of Christ, and the congregation's responsibilities to their elders. We will see that the work of the elder requires devotion, determination, and hard, hard work. As weak vessels, standing in Christ's stead, ruling His people, how could it be otherwise!

Until then, I would encourage you—ask you—especially those of our readers who have been newly nominated, or elected as elders, to read some of the following: Prof. H. Hanko's "Notes on the Church Order"; Prof. W. Heyn's Handbook for Elders and Deacons; and The Elders Handbook by Berghoef-DeKoster. These books, and others are in your church's or your pastor's library. Read them. Study them. Do it now. You will find them extremely helpful, interesting, and informative. I did!