- Deuteronomy 1:9-18
- Numbers 11:10-30
Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ,
We will have eldership election in the near future. We have already announced this to you. But before we get to the actual meeting to elect elders, we will listen to what the Scriptures teach about eldership. There will be three sermons, following three questions about Biblical eldership.
- The “why?” about eldership
- The “what?” about eldership
- The “who?” about eldership
Principles of Church government
Let’s begin at the beginning, where all Christian denominations should start.
The supreme rule for practice and doctrine
We need to hold the Scriptures as our supreme standard for life and worship. What we believe about church government, should be in agreement with the Scriptures. So, all men in church government must, first of all, believe that the Bible is the Word of God, that it is infallible, sufficient, authoritative and inerrant. If anyone has a different view on the Scriptures, such a person should not be trusted to become an elder of the church of Christ.
Christ, the Head of the Church
The Scriptures teach that Christ is the Head of the Church. The Bible says in a few places:
And He [God] put all things under His [Christ’s] feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:22–23, NKJV)
… may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:15–16, NKJV)
and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power. (Colossians 2:10, NKJV)
“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. (John 15:5, NKJV)
… holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God. (Colossians 2:19, NKJV)
Presbyterians hold these principles as precious and authoritative: Christ is our only Mediator, He is our High Priest, and like a father, He cares for his church. We have therefore an aversion to any earthly office other than what the Holy Spirit teaches in the Scriptures. We, therefore, have no human as head of the church. Not even as a representative. We also have no priest, and we call no one our priest because in Christ the priesthood has come to an end. The Bible also warns against calling anyone “father”:
Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. (Matthew 23:9, NKJV)
What we have is the Holy Spirit who guides us by his Word to understand the Scriptures and order all temporal things of church government. We seek our rule from the Bible, and we submit to its authority. The Bible teaches us that Christ is our Head, and that is enough for us.
General forms of church government
Papists believe that the pope is Christ’s representative on earth and that he is the head of all churches and Christians on earth. Under him there are all manner of offices, including priests, bishops, deacons, canons, arch-deacons, and what not! The pope can declare what is sinful, forgive sin and make infallible proclamations, and even add doctrines not found in the Scriptures. We reject this notion as fundamentally in contrast and opposition to the teachings of the Scripture.
Episcopal churches understand the Scriptures to teach that every congregation should only have one bishop, in which the oversight of that church rests. They do believe that there should be a hierarchy from top to bottom, with an archbishop having leadership over a group of churches. He appoints bishops, who appoints others under him. The system gets fairly tricky for Presbyterians because we find it difficult to see where canons, archdeacons, vicars, and other office holders come from. The Anglican Church and some branches of the Methodist Church are episcopal denominations.
Congregational denominations do not have any hierarchy. Their church government is mostly a free arrangement of leadership chosen “demographically”, which means the majority of members decide who will be leaders, and congregational meetings have the authority to hire and sack leaders, and even determine the general teachings of a denomination. A congregation in a congregational system usually opt to join a broader group of churches (like the COC movement) but can walk away when the majority decides so. Most charismatic churches follow this form of church government.
Some other independent churches is a sort of a mix between episcopal and congregational. These congregation usually starts with leaders in a strong conviction of certain aspects of Bible teaching or a clash of leadership personalities. These leaders then, in the end, become the de facto bishops, and in many cases, everyone who disagrees with the leadership has to leave. These leaders are their own authority, and they are not accountable to any structure. Many of these leaders claim direct revelation from God in the form of visions or something similar in addition to the already declared will of God in the Scriptures.
Presbyterian and Reformed Churches
Presbyterians and reformed denominations fall in a different category. Christ is our Head, the Bible is our rule, leaders/elders are chosen by communicant members of the congregation, and perform their duties under the authority of the Scriptures. What their decisions must be in agreement with is the Scriptures, the agreed confessional creeds and the general rules of the denomination.
Our system has checks and balances. Elders are accountable to a wider group of elders, the presbytery. Members have the right to approach this court if they think that elders have contravened the Scriptures, the Confession or the general rules of the denomination. There is other courts too: the General Assembly, and the General Assembly of Australia, and these are also bound by the Word of God and the rules accepted by the denomination as a whole.
The word “presbyterian” comes from the Greek word “presbuteros” which means elder, or overseer. “Presbyterian” in our name refers therefore to the form of church government we adhere to.
The “Why” of eldership?
Our understanding of eldership finds its roots in the Old Testament. Our Scripture readings this morning takes to those beginnings.
God appointed Moses to be the leader to take his people out of slavery of Egypt to the Land God had promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. As assistant Moses had his brother Aaron, who later became the first High Priest.
The people were numerous, they were divided into their clans and had their clan leaders.
People are sinful
Rebellion against Moses and Aaron was common practice. They always wanted to go back to slavery, because the journey through the desert just seemed too hard. They doubted God and rebelled against his law. And then, there was this constant towing away from the declared command of the Lord to not mix with the people the came in contact with along the way. And, of course, there were the constant disagreements and sometimes heated disputes between people, with one party always believing they were done in.
There is a need for discipline and good order
This, of course, spells general church life in the 21st century too. Our sinful nature drags us away from God’s declared will for our lives. We begin to love the world more than we love God. The world easily dictates to us how we should live, and we can readily start to doubt the faithfulness of God. Our relationships one with the other can sometimes be volatile, and we need mediation and godly outcomes. In short, discipline and good order need to be maintained for the glory of God. We need elders!
One leader is not enough!
Moses was a human being with his own strengths and weaknesses. It all got too much for Moses. His father-in-law gave him good advice:
“The thing that you do is not good. Both you and these people who are with you will surely wear yourselves out. For this thing is too much for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself. (Exodus 18:17–18, NKJV)
Moses found himself face-down in the presence of the Lord. What he understood very well was that the people he had to lead did not belong to him, but were God’s people. He could not deal with the people other than what God wanted him to do. In fairly harsh words he prayed to God, This is too much for me.
If You treat me like this, please kill me here and now—if I have found favour in Your sight—and do not let me see my wretchedness!” (Numbers 11:15, NKJV)
He has come to the end of his line. How does he provide for the people? How can he care for the people? Should not God care for his own people?
Although God did provide the water, the manna and the quail, other aspects of care God provided through elders whom He enabled for the task. Although God could directly care for them, He appointed leaders.
Shared but Divided responsibility and accountability
To maintain discipline and order within the camp, God appointed 70 elders to work closely with Moses. Moses remained the intercessor between God, between the leaders and the people, but from that day on, the men upon whom God poured out his Spirit to set and enable them for their task them apart for service would be a help for Moses.
I will take of the Spirit that is upon you and will put the same upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you may not bear it yourself alone. (Numbers 11:17, NKJV)
What seemed impossible for Moses becomes possible through the provision and enablement of God. Where would the meat come from? Where would the men come from?
“The people whom I am among are six hundred thousand men on foot; yet You have said, ‘I will give them meat, that they may eat for a whole month.’ (Numbers 11:21, NKJV)
How did God answer?
“Has the Lord’s arm been shortened? Now you shall see whether what I say will happen to you or not.” (Numbers 11:23, NKJV)
God first sent his Spirit to rest upon the seventy men, and He gave them the ability to prophesy—which through the Scriptures was always a sign to the rest of people of God’s authentic appointment—and then He provided the quail.
This is how elders do their work. They are appointed by God; they need to care for the people because they are God’s own people; they need to continually keep their eyes focused on God for whom nothing is too hard. Elders share in the responsibility for the spiritual well-being of the people, they are called to maintain spiritual discipline and good order. When the people of God slide back to the slavery of sin, the elders encourage, teach and admonish. And in all, it is their task to lead God’s people to live to the glory of their Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Why do we need elders?
We are sinful and rebellious, and we need spiritual direction and care.
Elders share in the burden of this care. It is not good for one person to take the full load. It is not the plan of God for his church.
May our Lord give us clear guidance as we pray for men to fill the vacancies of elders in our congregation. We need to make sure that the men we elect are indeed spiritually mature, displaying a sure conviction that they called to the office. Let us pray.
Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 10 February 2019