The following post is part of our ‘The Work of the PCA Elder’ series. For the first post in the series, please click here.
The confession penned by Sixteenth Century Swiss Reformer Heinrich Bullinger famously proclaims: “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” For those of us trained on principles of “Sola Scriptura” and the attendant doctrines of inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy, Bullinger’s statement is striking. But this high view of the preaching of God’s Word was embraced by Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers. Bryan Chapell makes the point in more modern terms when he writes, “We do not merely speak about Jesus to his people; we speak as Jesus speaks to His people.” The point is clear: the expounding of His Word is the primary means God uses to speak to the hearts of men—to convert the lost, to sanctify believers.
I am thankful for those faithful preachers who week in and week out labor to speak as God’s mouthpiece to His people. Of course, as a ruling elder, I am not called to preach. But all elders—teaching and ruling—are equally responsible for the right preaching of the Word. Indeed, we know that we will one day give account for how we handle this weighty responsibility. So, how can ruling elders ensure that the Word if faithfully preached?
Encouraging the Fruitful Ministry of the Word in the Church
There are at least three ways that ruling elders are to encourage a fruitful ministry of the Word in the church. These are all positive, or explicitly constructive, aspects of a ruling elder’s ministry in relation to the public reading and preaching of the Word.
First, ruling elders are to take the lead whenever a church needs to conduct a search for a new pastor. It is the session that calls the congregational meeting at which a search committee is elected. Frequently, a congregation will appoint its session to serve as the search committee (BCO 20-2), but even if a group of people other than the session is elected to a search committee, ruling elders have a critically important role to play. The session must clearly communicate to the search committee the central place of the ministry of the Word in the local church and the high biblical standards that exist for any prospective candidates to the ministry. At the end of a search process, it is the session that calls the congregational meeting at which the search committee presents its recommended candidate to the congregation.
Pastoral searches should not be frequent occurrences in the normal life of a healthy and stable church. However, there is another sense by which ruling elders should take the lead in searching for future pastors. It is incumbent upon ruling elders to think intentionally and seriously about the ministry potential and prospects of men in the church who show potential for future gospel ministry. More than anyone else in the church, ruling elders should be energized to develop the next generation of gospel ministers.
In shepherding the families of our church over the years, I have noticed a pattern: when a young man loves the Lord and shows some aptitude for serving in the church, people start to say he should be a deacon. Now, deacons are vitally important and I am thankful for those men called to that office. But ruling elders should work with men to help define their sense of call—what is the nature of the call? What is the nature of the spiritual gifts? If the man is more clearly gifted for the ministry of Word and prayer, the elders should explore those gifts and, if warranted, encourage the man to pursue his call to the ministry. We should regularly search for those called to the ministry and encourage them in that direction—with the expectation that God will raise up ministers for his church.
Second, ruling elders are to be supportive of faithful gospel preachers, ensuring that such men can focus on maintaining diligence in study and preparation in their preaching and teaching ministry. This translates first into making sure that ministers are supplied with a competent portion of the good things of this life in order to maintain an undistracted ministry, “free from worldly cares and avocations” (BCO 20-6). It also means making sure that ministers have all the administrative support necessary so as not to get bogged down in day-to-day and week-to-week operational details that might otherwise keep them away from focusing on preaching and teaching the Word. Additionally, elders should engage in regular shepherding of the flock so that duty is shared and not imposed solely on the minister. And in many other ways, elders should guard the minister’s time so that he is free to focus on his primary duty—preaching the Word.
Third, ruling elders are to devote themselves to the ministry of prayer and the Word (Acts 6:4), and these two aspects of the ruling elder’s ministry go together. Before anything else, ruling elders are to pray for the fruitfulness of the ministry of the Word in their local church and for their ministers. As Presbyterians, they ought also cultivate a connectional praying ministry (BCO 8-3), diligently bringing the needs of other local congregations in their presbytery and denomination before the throne of grace. Praying for the success of the preaching and teaching of the Word ought to be the priority. As Elders, they set the pace for the congregation’s prayer life.
Encouraging the Faithful Ministry of the Word in the Church
Following up on these three features of the ruling elder’s work in encouraging fruitful ministry of the Word in the church, I want to highlight three features of our work in encouraging the faithfulness of the ministry. Beyond being explicitly positive in the sense of generating a particular effect, these aspects of our work focus on safeguarding the purity of how the Word is preached and taught in our midst.
First, ruling elders are diligent to listen to the preaching and teaching that their churches receive. Ruling elders are the frontline defense against heterodox teaching in the church. It is not without good reason that the Apostle Paul cautioned the elders in Ephesus, “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. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch” (Acts 20:28-31). There are certainly occasions when ruling elders must address teaching or preaching that seems “off” or at odds with the biblical doctrinal standards adopted by the Church. In our case, those standards are the Westminster Standards as adopted by the PCA.
Of course, this aspect of the ruling elder’s ministry in relation to the teaching elder’s preaching and teaching should be handled discreetly unless (and until) there is clear evidence of false teaching. More frequently, this aspect of the ruling elder’s work is active at the personal level as individuals come into the church uninvited, seeking to draw away followers after some pet issue or theological project. In these situations, elders must show boldness in driving away wolves from the flock.
Second, there is another sense in which ruling elders are to “watch” (Acts 20:31). We are to keep a close watch over the Christian character of both the flock and those who pastor the flock. There are times when discouragement or frustration in ministry may tempt preachers and other elders to grow sour, spiteful, or harsh—or, more often, fall into laziness or monotony rather than maintain a lively ministry. It should go without saying that if there are any signs or rumors of a minister compromising the high standard of moral conduct required by gospel ministry, the ruling elder must address that with promptness, thoroughness, and care. And elders must also work to ensure that ministers remain refreshed to present a lively, effective, and bold ministry of the Word rather than becoming complacent.
The elder’s care of gospel ministers extends beyond the local church setting. At the regional level, ruling elders have a duty to examine men presented for ministry in other local churches within the bounds of the presbytery. This vital task requires elders to guard the purity of preaching by protecting against those who would teach aberrant views or whose lives do not reflect the character required for the ministry. Our presbytery in particular has in the past few years excluded ministerial candidates when their views strike at the vitals of religion, forbade the teaching of views that contradict our doctrinal standards, and denied installation to those harboring life-dominating sins. Through these important works at presbytery, the elders guard the pulpits of the church.
Third, ruling elders are to be “able to teach” (2 Tim. 2:24) and “ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2) to do so (BCO 8-10). Though ruling elders are not engaged in teaching and preaching to the same extent as are teaching elders, they should be competent to do so in Sunday School settings, and even from the pulpit, exhorting on occasion. All elders must be prepared to bring biblical instruction and guidance to bear in the lives of those in their care. In large measure, teaching involves reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).
My fellow ruling elders, support your ministers, guard your ministers, pray for your ministers. Seek out those who are called to preach and encourage them. And protect God’s people from those who would lead them astray. In so doing, you will ensure that the preaching of the Word of God remains the Word of God.