Acts 20:38 — Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
I Corinthians 16:15 I urge you, brethren—you know the household of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints— 16 that you also submit to such, and to everyone who works and labors with us.
I Thessalonians 5:12And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 In love, hold them in highest regard because of their work. Live in peace with one another.
I Timothy 5:17 Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.
Hebrews 13:7 Remember those who [a]rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct….
17.) Obey those who [e]rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.
The function and role of an elder is well summarized by Alexander Strauch in his book Biblical Eldership:
“Elders lead the church [1 Tim 5:17; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 5:1–2], teach and preach the Word [1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:9], protect the church from false teachers [Acts 20:17, 28–31], exhort and admonish the saints in sound doctrine [1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 3:13–17; Titus 1:9], visit the sick and pray [James 5:14; Acts 6:4], and judge doctrinal issues [Acts 15:6]. In biblical terminology, elders shepherd, oversee, lead, and care for the local church” (16).
Obvious truths we have learned from the Scripture we have cited;
1.) There exists and has always existed a God ordained hierarchy not only in the home where husbands are to rule their wives and children, and not only in the civil realm where Magistrates are to rule the citizenry, but also in the Church where the Elders are to rule the laity.
2.) This truth in turn reminds us when discussing all of this of the necessity to understand Jurisdictionalism. There are these sphere of jurisdiction that God has appointed and in those spheres of jurisdiction God has named different authorities. These jurisdictions are important to keep in mind since the respective authorities in the differing jurisdiction must seek to honor the distinct jurisdictions.
For example, as an Elder, I do not have the authority to come into your home and rule your home unless for some reason you have grossly abdicated your legitimate authority by no longer ruling your home “in the Lord.” At that time the Elders will come to you, point out the appropriate Scripture that someone is walking contrary to, and then will ask you to repent. This is the kind of action that we see the Apostle Paul call for in I Corinthians 5;
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even [a]named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! 2 And you are [b]puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. 3 For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5 deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord [c]Jesus.
Here St. Paul is taking up his authority as an Elder to correct both an individual in the Corinthian congregation but also the Church as a whole. St. Paul later in II Timothy gives Timothy the Elder to do this very same kind of work:
16 All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction,
Now obviously this kind of authority, like all authority can be abused. The maxim, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” does not find any exceptions among those who are Elders in Christ’s church. So, when we insist, with Scripture that the role of the Elder is to engage, when necessary, in reproof and correction of the flock Elders should understand that power can go to their head. This is why, we have a plurality of Elders so that no one Elder is holding all the authority.
So we see here that one area in which an Elder rules in the Church and one area therefore upon which the laity are obliged to submit (Hebrews 13:17) is when it comes to the area of morals and doctrine. The Elders are to be the gatekeepers for the proper thinking (Doctrine) and proper morals (Behavior) as among God’s people. This is why St. Paul told the Church in Corinth to excommunicate the man who was sleeping with his step-mother. It is why Scripture repeatedly calls Elders to guard what was committed to their trust (I Timothy 6:20-21).
The Church is the Bride of Christ and it is the role of the Elders to protect the purity of the Bride.
Now, of course Elder’s fail and given this high and holy calling they can’t help but be hypocrites since they themselves can never reach the standard that is placed upon all God’s people for holiness of living and thinking. Yet, despite that reality Elders are called to rule and the laity is called to submit.
Now, what we have seen so far?
1.) We have seen a wee bit what Elders are called to do in their role as God’s appointed leader of the Church.
2.) We have noted that the role of the laity is to submit when their Elders are ruling them as “in the Lord.” Now, if an Elder comes to you to speak on some matter of course the initial route is not likely going to be instant ultimatums but rather the course is going to be one of reasoned conversation. The exception to that is if someone here would be doing something extreme like sleeping with their stepmother or advancing Radical Two Kingdom theology among the saints.
3.) We began to look at the notion of jurisdictional spheres and tried to emphasize that the authority of an Elder rests in the jurisdictional sphere of the Church just as the role of the Father/Husband rests in the jurisdictional sphere of the home.
Let’s talk about that one just a wee bit more.
The jurisdictional spheres as found in the Scripture means there are boundaries for authority. Jesus Christ is the only one who has all authority. Any authority here whether exercised by husband, Elder, or Magistrate is authority that exists in a very circumscribed sphere.
So a Magistrate cannot enter the Church and based on his authority as a magistrate violate the jurisdiction of the Church by presuming to rule in the affairs of the church unless the Church has grossly abdicated its legitimate authority by no longer ruling the Church as “in the Lord.” In the same way Elders in the Church cannot enter the civil sphere of the Magistrate and on the basis of his authority as an Elder violate the jurisdiction of the Magistrate by presuming to rule in the affairs of the civil order unless the Magistrate has grossly abdicated its legitimate authority by no longer ruling the civil order as “in the Lord.”
So, we have these spheres of jurisdictions and we have proper authorities ruling in each jurisdictional sphere. Conceptually this is not difficult to understand. Practically, if the God ordained rulers of each sphere rule as “in the Lord,” there is not going to be a problem in honoring those jurisdictions or the authorities therein. However, when one sphere gets out of whack that makes matters often very difficult.
For example when one jurisdiction ceases ruling as “in the Lord” then eventually authorities from another jurisdiction are going to have to interpose into that errant jurisdiction and set matters right. This is called the doctrine of interposition.
But let us not get to far afield from where we are at this morning. We will talk, I think, more about interposition in a later sermon. Right now let’s concentrate on the fact that the Church is a jurisdictional sphere of authority where God has placed a structure of hierarchy so as to have a ruler and ruled ecclesiastical order.
We have seen that Elders in the Church have ruling authority. This is indisputable from the Scripture that we have looked at. However, we pause to note again this stated hierarchy because it is in some sense disputed in some circles. Among the Anabaptist movement today one will learn that there is a leveling when it comes to the roles of leaders. In the Anabaptist movement (Mennonites, Amish, Brethren,) there is the principle that there is no such thing as interposition of human authority since the New Covenant. This means that the role of Elder in those Christian communities are going to be more egalitarian.
As such Anabaptist churches and Christians have a view of ecclesiastical authority that is going to be very different from the view of ecclesiastical authority as found among Roman Catholics who go to the opposite extreme. If the Anabaptist have a tendency to level all hierarchical structure in the Church, Rome and ecclesiastical models like Rome tend to absolutize ecclesiastical authority in the Church so that Priests, Bishops, Cardinals and Popes are seen as being vested with uber-authority that is not to be questioned.
The Reformed understanding of the role of Elders as a rulers was that of a ministerial role and not a magisterial role such is found in Rome. The Reformed understanding of the role of Elders as a rulers was that of the Shepherd of the flock who is a sheep himself with real authority and not as just some kind of life coach such as might be found among the Anabaptists.
And because the Elder has real authority to lead, to lead by serving, and to rule the flock is called upon to submit as they are “ruled in the Lord.” We’ve seen that in the Scripture this morning. We also see it in our Confessions;
“All men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with the Church, maintaining the unity of the Church;3 submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ;4
Belgic Confession Article 28
Now let us talk a wee bit more about what Elder authority looks like and how does it apply?
And for the answer to that we have only to reference our own Heidelberg Catechism as it faithfully teaches Scripture.
Question 82: Are they also to be admitted to this supper, who, by confession and life, declare themselves unbelieving and ungodly?
Answer: No; for by this, the covenant of God would be profaned and His wrath kindled against the whole congregation;10 therefore it is the duty of the Christian church, according to the appointment of Christ and His apostles, to exclude such persons 11 by the keys of the kingdom of heaven till they show amendment of life.
Question 83: What are the keys of the kingdom of heaven?1
Answer: The preaching of the holy gospel, and Christian discipline,2 or excommunication out of the Christian church;3 by these two, the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and shut against unbelievers.
We learn here that by sound preaching the Elders exercise their authority. This would mean that every Lord’s Day upon your attendance at Morning, and Evening service as well as Sunday School you are at that point practicing a submission to the Elder’s authority by sitting under the preaching of the Gospel.
As to Christian discipline, the word discipline in the Greek is paidea and it means to instruct or correct. Elders have the responsibility to instruct and correct the flock. This can happen as easily as in a casual conversation and it can happen as officially in official Church discipline. Most often it should happen in casual conversation. The more drama that is injected into the context of Christian discipline the less likely there will be a satisfactory result.
Question 85: How is the kingdom of heaven shut and opened by Christian discipline?
Answer: Thus: when according to the command of Christ,8 those, who under the name of Christians, maintain doctrines or practices inconsistent therewith,9 and will not, after having been often brotherly admonished, renounce their errors and wicked course of life, are complained of to the church or to those10 who are thereunto appointed by the church;11 and if they despise their admonition, are by them forbidden the use of the sacraments;12 whereby they are excluded from the Christian church and by God Himself from the kingdom of Christ; and when they promise and show real amendment, are again received as members of Christ and His church.13
Q. 85 here demonstrates again that the Elder is to rule and one means of ruling is to admonish (to lead, to have charge over) and the rule of is to be submitted to by the flock because a lack of submission means excommunication.
Now, having noted all this lets be realistic about Elder’s ruling and the flock submitting in today’s Church. I’ve been at this long enough now to know how this works in real life. When there is something that needs correction I go to the person in question and they blow me off. For example there have been numerous times over my 35 years in the ministry that I would challenge people about a tender subject and they would essentially tell me to mind my own business. If the matter is serious enough such as someone sleeping with their stepmother what happens is that somewhere along the path to excommunication they just up and leave and join the church down the block who doesn’t care about where they were because the other church is just happy for the new meat in the seat. Because, that is true the authority of the Elder in today’s church is largely irrelevant in the every day life of the Church.
And yet not irrelevant to God. Elders should take up their authority even if they know it will have little impact because in doing so they are being faithful to God even if there is little or no submission on the part of the laity and even if there is little or no fruit as a consequence of seeking to exercise Godly authority.
Finally, all that being said, as an Elder, I recognize how hard it must be for the flock to submit to Elders today given the character and lack of wisdom that we as clergy and Elders demonstrate today.
All of this is a matter we should be diligently in prayer about. The Church in the West is a mess and only God can deliver us now.
The good news is that in His time He will certainly do that. God will, in His time once again raise up good men to be Elders who wield authority with humility, yet with boldness. God will, in His time once again raise up laity who will see that their safety and well being lies in submitting to godly Elders. God will, in His time, renew, reform, and revitalize His Son’s bride so that she is once again without spot and without blemish.
May it happen in the lifetime of some of us in attendance today.