Pragmatic Churches and Pastoral Ministry Students, The Duties of the Elders

For context, be sure and read the first eight articles listed here.

The tests mandated in Scripture are to be conducted in one particular setting: the local church. Elders are expected to have a good reputation with those outside the local body (1Tim 3:7). Nonetheless, the local body, by the leading of the word and the Spirit, has the ultimate duty of testing and approving a candidate for ministry (John 10:1-3, 16, 26-27; 1Jn 4:1-6).

Duties, unlike responsibilities, cannot be delegated. An example of this concept can be seen in the structuring of the United States military. Leaders in the military are duty bound to ensure that certain tasks and policies are upheld. They cannot abdicate or delegate these duties, but must personally fulfill them. They may, however, delegate certain responsibilities to their subordinates to ensure that the unit’s mission is accomplished in a safe and efficient manner.[1] A church might delegate some responsibilities to para-church institutions like Bible colleges and seminaries, but the moment that it abdicates its duties as they regard the ministry student, it has ceased to function in one of the most vital roles it has been given. This article will focus specifically on the duties of the elders to test and disciple elder candidates.

Discipleship of the pastoral ministry student. According to Scripture, the elders and the congregation have each been given unique gifts for this task of testing the ministerial student. Elders are uniquely qualified, if for no other reason, because they have experience in the office to which the student aspires. This is not to say that future pastors can learn nothing from mature members of the congregations, but the elders will have specific knowledge and experience of the traps of the world, the flesh, and the enemy that are unique to the office of the elder. A godly pastor, after having been faced with such pitfalls, will have already consulted Scripture and found the answers necessary for perseverance in faith, hope, and love.

As a result, it is particularly necessary for elders to have close, personal, relationships with pastoral ministry students. History abounds with examples of this type of discipleship. The Lord himself set such an example, travelling and teaching his disciples for three years before commissioning them to carry the message of the gospel to the ends of the earth. The apostle John recalled his intimate relationship with the Lord by referring to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20). Paul was close enough with Timothy and Titus to refer to them as his sons in the faith (1Tim 1:2; 2Tim 1:2; Tit 1:4).

Even the pagans in the ancient world understood the value of having and keeping close relations with their students. The teacher / student lineage from Socrates to Plato to Aristotle to Alexander is well documented. In fact, Plato was so fond of Socrates, his mentor, that he used him as a character in most of his books in order to convey his interpretation of the master’s teaching. Also of note is Cicero’s fondness of his son. Cicero’s concern for his son’s education was so important to him that he wrote his philosophical and political treatise On Duties particularly for his benefit.

Continuing in the footsteps of the Greeks and of Christ and His apostles, Athanasius and Augustine each wrote books to disciples whom they loved dearly. Athanasius wrote On the Incarnation to his protégé, Marcarius,[2] and Augustine wrote the rather lengthy tome City of God to his disciple, Marcellinus.[3] In the address line of a letter Augustine wrote to Marcellinus on another occasion, Augustine, like Paul before him, refers to his disciple as his “very dear son.”[4] Such endearments and personally addressed treatises could not have been the result of trivial, Sunday afternoon relationships. They were the result of committed relationships that resulted in an invested desire for the other party’s well-being, success, and returned affection.

In like manner, Martin Luther conducted sessions with the pastors he was in the habit of grooming called Tabletalk. He also sought to reform education in Germany so that the average person could read the Bible he had labored so rigorously to translate into the language of the people.[5] Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer, was well known for having started a Bible study that ultimately splintered off and became the seed of the Anabaptist movement. Early on, however, Zwingli included his students in every aspect of his sermon preparation, demonstrating for them how to rightly handle the word of God. Charles Spurgeon was well known for taking a personal interest in investigating the ministry qualifications of every student at the Pastors’ College and requiring that they be actively involved in ministry while they were studying there.[6] Discipleship has always been a key duty of any pastor, but particularly as it regards those who are being raised up for ministry.

Spheres of discipleship. Recognition must now be given to the biblical concept of ministerial spheres. Pastors have certain spheres of duty to which they ought to give well reasoned attention. For instance, the Bible mandates that an elder “must be one who manages his own household well” (1Tim 3:4). Thus, if he is not discipling his own family, a man should not be expected to properly disciple God’s family. From there the question must be asked of whom within the church he must take a personal interest. The question is necessary if for no other reason because, if a pastor is spread too thin, he is of no good to himself, his own family, or anyone else in the church. So, pastors would be wise to take advantage of the spheres of responsibility God has already put into place.

God has given headship in the family to the husband (1Cor 11:3).[7] Thus, if there are twenty families in a church, the elders can eliminate much busy work by specifically singling out the twenty heads of households for discipleship. They can charge those men to disciple their own families and check in on them from time to time to assess their progress.

The second group to consider for this specific attention are the older ladies in the church. In Titus 2:3-5, Paul charges Titus to have the older women teach and disciple the younger women on how to lead godly lives. William Mounce suggests that Paul might be giving this instruction to Titus (Tit 2:4) in order to ensure that Titus will be able to more surely obey the command to treat “younger women as sisters in all purity” (1Tim 5:2b).[8]

All of this discipleship is for naught if pastors neglect the discipleship of the church’s next generation of leaders. It is not enough for pastors to say that they do not have time to disciple future leaders. If a pastor does not have time to disciple future leaders, with whom does he hope to share the ever-growing responsibility of discipling the rest of his flock? If a pastor does not make time to disciple leaders early on, he will eventually find that he has no time to properly disciple anyone, because he has raised up no one with whom he might share this responsibility.

The creedal test. Elders are responsible to disciple pastoral ministry students, but they are also meant to lead the congregation in their testing. Elders, due to their unique vocation, ought to have more time and more resources at their disposal for honing their theology and rooting it in a rich, historical tradition. Their libraries alone should give them a considerable advantage over the average congregant in the pursuit of acquiring sound doctrine. The elder’s special circumstance comes with a distinct obligation to ensure the theological specificity of the local church in general and future pastors in particular. The primary way in which this obligation is fulfilled is through expository preaching.

Many pastors do not even know how great a disservice they do to their flocks by neglecting their duty to preach the word. In seeking to preach all application, they inflate their congregation with baseless morality which can only ever lead to a damnable legalism or an enduring hopelessness. In seeking to preach all doctrine, they puff up their congregation with a dead orthodoxy that will often lead to an arrogant self-centeredness or to certain forms of antinomianism. The only way to avoid such extremes is to preach the word. Preach expositionally and preach theologically, for “true biblical preaching is both expository and theological in substance.”[9] By preaching the word, the people will be grounded in the theological roots of their faith and begin to manifest the practical fruits that spring from it.

As they study for such preaching, pastors will also be able to put the time-tested creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the faith to the test of Scripture. They will have the privilege of seeing for themselves whether those documents hold up against the critique of the Bible. As they prayerfully embark on this journey, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, pastors will assuredly come to a greater understanding of Christian orthodoxy, and have a more robust faith to pass on to the next generation of pastors.

Also beneficial to the cause of testing the confession of prospective pastors is the delegation of certain teaching and preaching responsibilities in the church. As the candidate studies to teach in Sunday school, to teach a Bible study, or to fill the pulpit on occasion, he will be forced to groom his theology and improve it. Often, the best way for one to learn something is to commit oneself to teaching it to others.[10] Through this process, elders also have the opportunity to observe and examine prospective elders’ exegesis, conclusions, connections, and applications of the text. Also in this process, elders will be granting congregations more opportunities to test the ministry student on the creedal front.

The character test. In regard to testing the character of the prospective elder, elders must intentionally assert themselves into his life. If the apostle Paul did not think himself to have obtained a perfect Christian maturity (Phil 3:12), how much less should elders assume the maturity of their students. Rather, if the church is expected to confess their sins to one another (Jas 5:16; 1Jn 1:8-9), all the more the elders ought to lead by example, confessing their sins to one another, and exhorting their students to confess their sins.

The implication, then, is that the elder will be working out his own salvation, mortifying his own sins, so that he is not ashamed or hypocritical when he seeks to help his student work out his salvation and mortify his own sin. Perhaps the most salient thing a pastor can do in his testing of a pastoral student’s character is to model for him the character he is to have (Phil 3:17; 2Thess 3:7, 9; 1Tim 4:12; Tit 2:7; 1Pt 5:3). Of course, no one ever set an example for someone in their absence. Therefore, it is necessary that pastors both exemplify the character they expect out of their students and be in their lives enough that they can see it.

The aptitude test. If anyone is equipped to both recognize true giftedness for the ministry and have empathy for a pastoral candidate in the early years of his formative education, it is his elders. Undoubtedly, both of these elements are necessary for the process of examination and confirmation. Pastors should know, both scripturally and experientially, what is necessary for carrying out the duties of the office and what difficulties arise in the process of carrying them out. Thus, they are uniquely qualified to spot the gifting of a particular candidate for ministry when it surfaces.

The term gifted is an intentional term that should not be brushed over. The pastoral candidate does not have innate skills endowed upon him by nature, nor does he have acquired skills mined from personal determination. Rather, his skills ought to be recognized as just what they are: gifts from God. Granted, God may instill certain gifts in men from birth, or He may cause them to undergo a series of challenges whereby they acquire these gifts, but they are nevertheless gifts that He has given. It is Christ Himself who “distributes gifts from the fullness that he himself possesses, because he has triumphed and fills all things.”[11] The moment the elder candidate begins to assume personal ownership of these gifts he runs the risk of falling prey to either pride or self-reliance or both.

Too often pastors use their skills for personal gain to the detriment of the church and the name of Christ. The elders’ goal ought to be to safeguard the church against such men. The gifts given to pastors are mighty weapons that can be used for either great good or great harm. The elders’ duties then are to aid the prospective elder in acquiring, sharpening, and properly respecting the gifts he has been given by God. As such, his gifts will be weapons used safely, honorably, and with precision to accomplish the tasks predestined for the pastoral candidate to accomplish.


[1]http://www.armystudyguide.com, “Duties, Responsibilities, And Authority Explained,” Army Study Guide, April 03, 2006, http://www.armystudyguide.com/content/army_board_study_guide_topics/duties-responsibilities-of-nco.shtml/ (accessed December 4, 2011).

[2]Athanasius, On the Incarnation, trans. A Religious of C.S.M.V (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 25.

[3]Augustine, City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (London: Penguin Books, 1972), 5.

[4]Augustine, Saint Augustine Letters – Volume III: 131-164, trans. Wilfrid Parsons (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc, 1953), 6.

[5]William F. Leonhart, “Luther’s Vision of Free Education for Family and Church” (thesis, The College at Southwestern, Fort Worth, TX, 2011), 2-3.

[6]William F. Leonhart, “Spurgeon, Education, and the Local Church” (thesis, The College at Southwestern, Fort Worth, TX, 2011), 8-9.

[7]Paige Patterson, The Troubled Triumphant Church (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1983), 178-179.

[8]William D. Mounce, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker, Pastoral Epistles (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 270.

[9]Joel Breidenbaugh, Preaching for Bodybuilding (Bloomington: CrossBooks, 2010), 16.

[10]From the popular saying, “The best way to learn is to teach,” often attributed to Frank Oppenheimer.

[11]Vern S. Poythress, “Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic Gifts: Affirming Extraordinary Works of the Spirit within Cessationist Theology,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39, no. 1 (1996): 71.

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