Pointers for Elders and Deacons

Part 1 of an article from Diakonia translated from the Dutch, extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 2, no. 2 (July 1993)

1. Introduction

Office-bearers come and go; that happens to be the custom of our church-life. As a consequence “green” elders and deacons begin their work in many congregations at the beginning of the new season. As a rule these men approach their task with some trepidation. Questions such as: What is expected of us? How shall we go about it? are on their mind.

For that reason alone it would be good if each consistory would organize an instruction day or at least an evening at the beginning of each new season. On that occasion office-bearers could talk with each other about their work and the best method and approach to it. That way the newcomers would have some idea of what to do and how to go about it. For that matter it would also be instructive for the seasoned elders to re-examine their way of doing things through mutual discussion. In that way Art. 73 of the Church Order, which states that office-bearers “shall exhort and kindly admonish one another with regard to the execution of their office” is honored.

In order to give such an instruction session some direction, it would be advisable to prepare an essay or paper of limited length on some pertinent topic which would be studied by the participants beforehand. The following constitutes such a paper. In view of my limited experience as office-bearer and because of the relative value of various methods, no one should expect final answers to all practical questions. It is my intention to give some pointers, hoping that with the help of these everyone can arrive at a good plan of action as an office-bearer.

When an instruction session is held my paper or essay can be used as follows: The chairman gives a short summary of each section, supplemented if needed, by his own insights and experiences. The summary of each section should be followed by a discussion. In all probability certain sections, particularly those dealing with the principles of being an office-bearer, will raise few questions. Other points, such as the opening of house visits, the subjects to be discussed and perhaps the ward division, will elicit much discussion. It might be good if the chairman tables workout proposals regarding these points so that the meeting can come to well-founded conclusions. It would be useful to review the adopted decisions and methods to see if they are workable, if not during the year, then certainly at the end of the season.

2. An Overview of the Proposed Discussion.

In 1.3 I will deal in greater detail with the common position of both elder and deacon in connection with the form for the ordination of elders and deacons.

In II some aspects of the work of elders are related. That essay corresponds in structure and in subdivision 3 and 6 with what is said about the deacons in III. That parallel is not to be seen as a shortcut, but what is said about the one office also applies to the other.

In III some aspects of the deacons’ work are related. This is intended for discussion on a deacons' meeting. It is a revision of the article “What do deacons actually have to do?” (Dienst, 27-2, March/April, 1979).

3. The Common Position of both Elder and Deacon

If office-bearers are to view their work correctly, they must above all be aware of their position vis a vis the congregation. We are inclined to think that elders and deacons are elected by the congregation under the guidance of the consistory. That is, of course, correct. However, a crucial factor has been left out, for as the form states, behind the election by the congregation stands God Himself. So in the final analysis the office bearers are called to their task by Him.

When we say that, we must take into account that God concerns Himself with the congregation via Christ, who is the head of the Church. As such He rules over her, but He does not do so directly. That is why the form for ordination says more, for not only are the office-bearers called by God, but they are also appointed by Christ. According to Eph.4:8,11 we may see them as gifts from Christ to his congregation.

The office-bearers may never see themselves as the bosses of the congregation who are only accountable to their colleagues. They should deport themselves humbly, for they are only executors of the Lord’s will for His congregation. That is why they may never impose their own will on the congregation. The opposite is true; they have to realize that their work is subject to what God considers beneficial for His children.

That means at the same time that office-bearers are never to be viewed as errand boys, appointed and accountable to the members who elected them. They are in fact in the service of God and of Christ. Aware of that, they can work boldly in the congregation and if necessary oppose those who try to dictate to them. Not the likes nor the dislikes of the congregation but the instruction of their Divine Commissioner is determinative.

The conduct of the office-bearers in the congregation is then determined by two things. They are to be humble, for their significance derives only from the fact that they are God’s servants. At the same time they ought to be bold, because their task consists of doing God’s will. In all this the office-bearers strive to make the congregation grow towards Christ. It is therefore important for them to test their actions constantly in light of all scriptural teachings.

II. Something about the Work of the Elder.

The task of the elder in general.

We can follow here the form for the ordination of elders. This form is in fact the instruction to the elders and as such gives a broad survey of what their task is.

1.1 The Elder as Shepherd

The form states that elders (together with the minister) are shepherds, who in the name of the Good Shepherd feed the flock. The form borrowed that comparison from the New Testament, for both the apostle Paul (Acts 20:28-35) and Peter (I Peter 5:1-3) make use of that image. In doing so they are in line with the Old Testament, where not only God Himself but also the leaders appointed by Him are called shepherds (See Ezk. 34:1-23). Now a true shepherd cares for his sheep. He leads them to green pastures, brings back the strays, binds up the wounded and heals the sick (cf. Ezk. 34:14,16). The implication of this for the leaders of God’s people is clear: as shepherds under God they must devote themselves to the faithful entrusted in their care. For elders this means very concretely (according to the form) that they must make sure that the members of the church confess the true biblical doctrine and live accordingly. In order to fulfill that task the elders have to visit church members in their homes. During such visits they should comfort, instruct and/or correct the people with the help of God’s own Word.

That is a difficult task. In ordinary life we associate for the most part with people that are compatible with us. That can be because they are sympathetic, because they have the same interests, or because they occupy a similar social position, etc. As an elder, however, you will have to associate with all kinds of people, regardless of your attitude towards them. Put more strongly, you as a shepherd must care for them. That is why you may not let them go even if their attitude is negative towards you and your Divine Commissioner.

That is difficult, but at the same time beautiful. Elders in their contact with church members may not confine themselves to the usual polite chit-chat. They have to pass on God’s promises and, for that matter, His commandments and His threats. With them they must support or guide church members in their choice for or against God. No effort should be too much. Shepherds devote themselves with all their power to the sheep entrusted in their care.

1.2 The Remaining Work of the Elder.

The form for ordination mentions still more when it comes to the task of the elders.

a) Their correction of church members can lead to the application of discipline.

b) Furthermore, they will have to take care that everything in the church happens in an orderly fashion. From this phrase one may conclude that the consistory may not act arbitrarily, but only with forethought in order that the church members always know where they are at. In the first place we can think here of the calling of office-bearers, but there are many other matters which also demand a systematic approach, which in turn promotes mutual harmony.

c) Finally, the elders must assist the minister. In view of that they must see to it that he doesn’t go wrong in his opinions and behavior. They must prevent the minister from adversely influencing the congregation. According to the form, this means that they are to pay attention to his visits and preaching, and to see that they indeed edify the congregation. This underlines the importance of a regular discussion of his preaching during consistory meetings. Such a point should be on the agenda.

Perhaps the minister, fearing criticism, hesitates to put it on the agenda. That being the case he will have to learn to listen and to deal positively with critical remarks. That is beneficial for both him and the congregation. He should therefore be prepared to urge the office-bearers to make their critical remarks and their praise (for a minister needs that also), truthfully known.

To give such a discussion some direction, we do well to make a distinction between form and content.

With reference to the matter of form, the following could be discussed: - How is the sermon structured? (Does it develop logically?) Is sufficient or insufficient use made of repetition What about linguistic usage and how is the sermon delivered? (Does he speak too loud, too soft, or is he boring? Are his gestures functional?).

With reference to the matter of content, the following should be discussed: - How does the minister deal with the text? (Does he remain faithful to the whole of the Bible and the confessions? Does he explain enough? Does he remain superficial or is he too profound) and

How does the minister approach the congregation with the text? (Does he deal with the concerns of the congregation or does he leave the situation for what it is and avail himself only of the usual cliched applications? Does he make an effort to let the chosen text speak in light of the situation today?). To be sure, it is extremely difficult to criticize in such a way that it becomes useful for the minister in the preparation of his sermons. Don’t expect the minister to act upon all sensible criticism either, for as it is, each of us has his own character and capabilities. The intent of all criticism then is to help the minister reach the maximal development within his own limits, for the sake of the growth of the congregation toward Christ.

1.3 The Elder over against Himself

The form of ordination mentions one more task for the elder, not over against the congregation, nor over against the minister, but over against himself. It is stated that in order for the elders to be able to fulfill their task they must study the Bible diligently and train themselves in serving God. In agreement with that the final task, to be examples to the flock, is impressed upon them.

In it the necessity for elders to live close to God is indicated. There must not be a conflict between an elder’s official function and his private life. This is something which can happen quite easily. You might do what you can to keep the flock within the fold, meanwhile your own faith is found wanting. The busier you are, the greater that danger. For that reason the apostle Paul remarks in I Cor. 9: 27, “I beat my own body and make it my slave so that after I have preached, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” Office-bearers, therefore, must make sure that their own faith keeps pace with what they tell the church members. They must pay attention to their own bond with God, and for that reason must busy themselves with God’s Word. Then there will be harmony between their personal opinions and behavior and what they have to say and do as office bearers.

1.4 The Elder and the Minister

Until recently the minister alone was denoted among us as the shepherd. When a church became vacant, it was called shepherdless. This terminology arises from an unscriptural over-estimation of the minister’s task. Not only he but all elders are shepherds. The new form for the ordination makes this clear.

At the same time it means that an elder absolutely cannot unload the visiting on the minister. Of course, a minister has been freed from non-ecclesiastical work, so that he can devote himself to the congregation all day long. That is primarily because of his teaching function, which requires much study and thus much time. You may expect too that pastoral work, which requires extra time, effort and skill, will be pre-eminently his domain. For the rest the minister and the elders are equal. Both are to involve themselves intensely with the sheep.

2. Questions to Which the Elder Should Try to Get Answers.

In what follows I will leave what has been said under 1.2 and 1.3. It is not so much my intention to deal with the enforcement of discipline, nor with the task of the elder over against the minister and himself. Above all I wish to give pointers for the ordinary work in the congregation. Therefore, I will deal in detail with his task as shepherd. It has already been determined in 1.1 that he has to comfort, instruct and/or correct the congregation. If he is to do that effectively, he must be well-informed about someone’s relationships. That will bring about all sorts of questions.

I will mention a few. In parenthesis I have added some practical remarks, which are intended to help the elder to speak about cases in question (much of what follows can be discussed with children from age ten and up, it is good therefore, that they are present at the beginning of a house-visit). The questions an elder must ask themselves are related to:

2.1 The External Circumstances

2.2 Living with the Bible.

2.3 Prayer

2.4 Church Attendance

2.5 The Attitude towards the Office-bearers.

  • Do we see the office-bearers in the right light? (It can happen that in them we only see weak fellow church members. With all their limitations they must be recognized as people whom Christ uses and through whom He concerns Himself with the congregation).
  • Do we pray (at the table) for the office-bearers and their work; do we prepare ourselves in prayer for the church services and house visits? (Important for the children as well, for he who prays, promotes in himself, and in others, a correct attitude towards office-bearers, church services and house visits).
  • 2.6 The Place in the Community.

  • Do we go out of our way to do something for fellow church members; in other words, do we visit them, and if necessary, do we do things for them (shopping, little jobs, babysitting); do we pray for them? (Complaints about lack of contact within the congregation are often a sign that we don’t do anything ourselves. Do not ask: “What are others doing for me”, but “What am I doing for others?” Of course you cannot be everybody’s friend, but you should feel responsible for those to whom you are especially related, e.g. those of the same age, those that live close by or those you especially can help. You will have to emphasize constantly that together with the other members you belong to Christ and commonly share in His gifts. This aspect must also have the attention of the deacons).
  • Do we attend ecclesiastical meetings, such as congregational meetings, mission evening, annual meeting, etc. (It is contradictory if we pray, for instance, for the local church or mission work but fail to attend the meetings where information about these activities is given. In addition, meetings such as these strengthen mutual bonds).
  • 2.7 The Giving and Receiving of Instruction.

  • Do the parents free themselves or make any effort to talk with the children about the service of God today? (This for example in connection with a certain incident, a book, a TV program, a particular question asked by someone, etc. It is not enough for parents to command and forbid, or just to say “because it is that way”, or “because I say so”. You will have to give children and especially young people arguments based on the Bible. It should be noted here that the most important part of upbringing takes place at home, not in school or in catechism classes).
  • Do the parents pay attention to the education their children receive in school, notably the ideological subjects and the literary works they read and have to read? (In case of non-reformed education corrections may be necessary. Even if the education is reformed, the interest of the parents is indispensable).
  • Are young people stimulated by their parents and/or peers to be active members of a study society; do the parents show interest in what the young people do there? (Parental involvement promotes the interest of the young people).
  • Concerning those twenty years old and up: Are they members of a Bible study society and do they study beforehand? (Many remain on the side lines saying “l am not a society-person”. In the meantime it is a fact that a systematic, private Bible study often fails. By going prepared to a study meeting you force yourself to be busy with the Bible on a regular basis. In addition you receive the opportunity to learn from others and/or to serve others with your insights).
  • 2.8 The Further Life of a Christian

    (Most of us tend to hide those aspects of our Christianity which an outsider finds unacceptable. Furthermore many of us do not make use of opportunities to witness because of uncertainty or even fear. Everyone of us must therefore learn to witness unashamedly, when the right moment presents itself. The person who does that will notice that he is strengthened in his choice for God.)

    This article appeared in volume 1 (1987-1988) of Diakonia and is used by permission. It was Translated Dienst volume 29, number 1 (January-February 1981) and published with special permission from the Comite voor de Centrale Diakonale Conferentievan de Gereformeerde Kerken (Committee for the Central Diaconal Conference of Reformed Churches). Look for part 2 of this article in the next issue.