The Gift of Confessional Elders

Usually in a conference there is a period of time set aside for questions and answers (Q&A). It’s a good practice because it gives an indication of what people heard and indicates where things might need to be clarified. It also gives an indication of what is on the hearts and minds of Christ’s people.

We couldn’t get to all the questions at the recent Central Valley Conference on Reformed theology over the next few days so will address the remaining questions here.

In relation to the Reformation of the church: could you address the importance of the elders of the church [regarding] their responsibility to know and to adhere to the confessions and creeds. Also the members and their willingness to listn to them as well as [to] their pastors [emphasis original].

This is a great question because it touches on the gift that elders are to the church, the vital need in the Presbyterian and Reformed churches for gifted elders, and the perennial struggle to find gifted men to fill the offices.

I call elders a gift to the church by analogy with Ephesians 4:11–13:

And he gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some pastors (ποημενας) and teachers, to the perfecting of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a mature man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

According to Paul, one of the benefits of Christ’s ascension, along with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the church is the bestowal of offices in the church for its well being. This is probably not how many Christians think of the gifts of the Spirit. We probably think of the more spectacular but temporary apostolic-era gifts described in 1Corinthians. Paul, however, had in mind not just the apostolic period, which lasted about 60 years, but the succeeding millennia, during which the church would sojourn, serving her ascended king in this world, waiting for his glorious, visible return to consummate all things.

The noun for “pastor” in Ephesians 4:11 is and teachers is “shepherd” (&piοημην). A shepherd is one who supervises the flock, he sees to their well being and safety.

1 Peter 5 exhorts elders to “shepherd” (ποημανατε) the congregegation:

So I exhort the elders (πρεσβυτερους) among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1Peter 5:1–5)

Though like the Belgic Confession (see below) we usually turn to 1Timothy 3:1–7 for instruction regarding the office of elder (επσκοπος) 1Peter 5 contains equally important insights about the nature of the office and about the congregation’s response to the proper exercise of the office.

Peter writes instructions to the congregations in Asia Minor (modern, central Turkey) for the administration of the church. He writes as a theologian of the cross, i.e., not from an exalted monepiscopal throne with a diplomatic corps, Swiss guards, and pretensions to be the vicar of Christ on the earth but as a fellow elder, suffering with the elders already established in those churches.

He writes as a “fellow elder” and a fellow shepherd, under the authority of the “Chief Shepherd” Jesus. This is a remarkable designation that deserves more attention than we can give it here. By describing God the Son incarnate as the “chief shepherd” Peter connects him to David the shepherd retrospectively, to a lowly office not associated with power and prestige, and to Peter himself, and to those elders and ministers who were then (as now) busy looking after a congregation. The shepherds serve a king but they serve a king who humbled himself, who stripped himself, who was in the midst of the flock himself and who now, by the Spirit, is gathering a flock from across the world and across time and shepherding them through the “fellow elders.”

As an apostle Peter had held all three offices: prophet (the teaching office), priest (the mercy office), and king (the ruling office) or pastor, deacon, and elder. The apostles gradually divested themselves of these three offices by instituting a succession, not in the way Rome likes to tell the story (as if there the apostles endowed men with magical, sacerdotal power which they then magically passed on to others throughout the following generations) but rather in a succession of offices. The apostles were invested with Christ’s three offices (prophet, priest, and king) and those offices, in turn, were instituted in the New Covenant church, for the ongoing ministry of the means of grace.

Scripture teaches that there is a divinely instituted order in the church that is neither magical nor mechanical. It is not magical, i.e., Rome is quite wrong. Ministers, elders, and deacons do not have magical power to make things happen. They simply obey and announce God’s Word and God’s Spirit has power to make things come about through the ministry of Word and sacraments, discipline, and mercy.

Neither, however, is the ministry mechanical. It is not as if we may ordain and/or install into office just anyone and assume that all will be well. What Peter assumes in 1Peter 5 Paul made explicit in 1Timothy 3, that elders must have a certain spiritual maturity, and wisdom. This is why Peter contrasts “domineering” with “suffering.” Anyone who has ever served as an elder will tell you that there is much more suffering than glory in being an elder. The first time an elder walks into the consistory room it can be exciting. He has been elected and installed/ordained or set apart for a holy office in the church. He is given a great responsibility and trust. He has seen the elders walk out of the consistory room and into the congregation before the service. After all the elders meet with the pastors and they pray, and the lead by making important decisions in church. Perhaps, at times, it looks glorious.

There is another side, however, to the presbytery. What new elders do not ordinarily know is that, after the installation, in the first consistory (elders and pastors) or session (elders and pastors) meeting he will learn things about the congregation has (probably) never heard. I’ve seen new elders turn a little white or a perhaps a little green or perhaps a little of both. It can be a bit of a shock. Then might follow difficult conversations with people whom they haven’t seen at church for a while. Now they begin to understand the absence more clearly. There are difficult internal conversations. Perhaps the pastor’s preaching is problematic, perhaps the sermons have begun to sound the same and fifteen minutes of doctrine and fifteen minutes of ethics is driving the sheep from the fold.

To be sure, the apostle was quite aware that the churches of Asia Minor were enduring real, if unofficial, persecution and humiliation for Christ. This is why he speaks as he does to the elders. They are to serve as examples to the flock in confessing the faith despite the pressure to renounce Christ. They are to lead the congregation by resisting the constant pressure to conform to the prevailing culture. They must lead the congregation, despite the personal cost, by confessing Christ consistently.

This is why Peter wrote of grace for the humble and divine opposition to the proud. Elders are called not to embrace a theology of glory, a theology of exalted men emerging from the session—please do not misunderstand, there’s nothing wrong with elders coming out of the consistory/session room into the service! It’s a good thing but it’s just that appearances can be misleading—but rather a theology of the cross, of suffering with God’s people and for God’s people for the sake of Christ who suffered for us.

In its own setting of persecution and danger the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands adopted the Belgic Confession (1561) and in it they confessed, in article 30:

We believe that this true church ought to be governed according to the spiritual order that our Lord has taught us in his Word. There should be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and administer the sacraments. There should also be elders and deacons, along with the pastors, to make up the council of the church.

By this means true religion is preserved; true doctrine is able to take its course; and evil men are corrected spiritually and held in check, so that also the poor and all the afflicted may be helped and comforted according to their need. By this means everything will be done well and in good order in the church, when such persons are elected who are faithful and are chosen according to the rule that Paul gave to Timothy.

It is to real, fallible, sinful men that God calls the visible, institutional church to submit. That’s also an aspect of the theology of the cross. After a while a congregation gets to know her elders. They get to know some of their weaknesses and that can make it difficult for the congregation to submit to their leadership. “Wait, you are telling me that we have to do what?” Actually, if the elders are following Christ’s Word it is not they, in their persons, telling anyone to do anything. Rather, they are speaking in their office, under Christ, and obeying his Word. They are just servants and not lords at all.

Next time: elders are called to preserve the faith and they cannot preserve what they do not know.

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  1. Paul labors in the pastorals for his newly ordained ministers to hold fast to “the faith”, “the doctrine” and “rightly cut it”. There is a faith once delivered, and a system of doctrine in the scriptures. I believe the Three Forms of Unity and Westminster Standards most accurately reflect in a condensed manner the system of doctrine found in the bible.

    I am so blessed to be a part of a confessional Presbyterian church. We take great comfort for the high value our elders have regarding the Westminster Standards, and their commitment to biblical oversight of the church. Submission is a joy because we are confessional and know where we all stand. We know what the covenant community is to believe and confess, and thus how we relate to each other. The biblical confessions create a unity for us all to confess and submit to together. Looking back on the amorphous structures and good old boy clubs of non confessional church experiences I have had is so foreign now and gladly in the rear view mirror.

    • I love the word “amorphous” as your description of the structure of non-confessional churches. I’ve seen that, and I’ve seen a faithful pastor chewed up and spit out by a church with a board of elders comprised of men who all seemed to either have their own individual agendas or who didn’t know what if anything to stick up for. Here was a younger man with some biblical idea of ecclesiology, admittedly still growing in his understanding, but head and shoulders above the rest of our leadership. Some elders bullied and undercut him, while others passively watched it all, until he resigned.

      I am not confessionally Reformed – yet – but I’m pretty well along the way as I continue to self-feed and learn Reformed doctrines and read the Confessions. Had I been a single man I’d have made the switch a year ago and begun learning in an environment where I would have some mentorship.

      I was impressed this summer while visiting a Reformed church, reading about a pastoral candidate at a sister church, who was deemed to need to work on a couple of areas upon which he was evaluated. Recently I saw that after three months, he was formally called to be a lead pastor. It encouraged me by comparison to my own church who has recently called two replacement pastors, evaluated their doctrine privately and offering nothing in writing to review on our own, and gave us two weeks between their call and our affirmation vote. As for the Reformed pastor, what encouraged me was their investment in him as a pastoral candidate even when they had identified shortcomings in his grasp of specific subject areas, and their follow-through in helping him meet their high standards.

      • Thank you Dan. I appreciate this. The Reformed churches don’t always get it right but I’m convinced that Reformed/presbyterial polity is biblical and helpful to the church. Of course it’s essential for the ministers and elders to fulfill their responsibilities both at the local and regional levels. Over the years I’ve often been surprised at how useful classis/presbytery (and even synod/GA) is for mutual correction and edification. It doesn’t always seem like it will be but then good, surprising things happen in consistory/classis/synod when we read Scripture, deliberate, and pray together.

  2. I’m witnessing first hand, through some family members involved with a church plant from a large and well known church in Seattle, the real spiritual danger that accompanies the absence of the biblical/reformed regulative principle of worship and church polity. The lack of faithful elders, held accountable by our confessions and explicitly charged with seeing to the spiritual and doctrinal care of the congregation. The temptation to conquest by those who conflate the offices within the church with the priesthood of the believers seems to simply be too much of a temptation without confessional rails. It makes me incredibly grateful for the pastor and elders that the Lord has blessed my family and church with and the beautiful and biblically faithful confessions of my Reformed forebears.

    • Adam, the specific terminology you used here (“The temptation to conquest by those who conflate the offices within the church with the priesthood of the believers”) is interesting. Is it used in any books/articles you could refer me to? Sounds similar to Horton’s concern about confusing the Great Commission with the Great Commandment,

  3. Thanks for this helpful reminder, Dr. Clark, am passing this along to my fellow elders in our session. Look forward to more on this subject. Thank you for your labor for the Gospel.

  4. @Warren, I’m using in the sense many Evangelicals take the notion of the priesthood of the believer and couple it with an American sense of civil egalitarian/autonomous rights. It seems that often, when, as a result of a pragmatic or culturally contextual concept of ecclesiology, the separation that should exist between, in my case, the consistory and the laity is conquered by the demand of artificial equality that seems to be a natural character of our particular form of liberty/democracy. I see as a sort of secularization of the sacred.

    But it can also be applied, I think, to those who subvert the command to love our neighbor as a way to leverage common, vocational/cultural activities as a way to evangelize, relegating both vocation and culture to a status of propaganda. Of course, we are called to share the Gospel, but is seems to me when we treat the common realm of creation as merely a means to an end we deny the goodness of God’s creation.

  5. “I call elders a gift to the church by analogy with Ephesians 4:11–13”

    They are, of course; but on the occasions when I have to call attention to the fact, I always have to express some trepidation at describing church officers as God’s gift to the church. Might give them the wrong idea…

    A visiting preacher, something of a character, once described the pre-service elders’ prayer meeting as “the distilled holiness”.

    More seriously: in a non-confessional setting, I always struggle with dealing with the question you’re about to raise, so I’ll be interested to see what you say. Assessing whether someone is doctrinally sophisticated (holds to the deep truths, as I think Paul put it) even in a confessional setting isn’t easy, and I’d like to see what you say.

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