As most of you are aware, we have been supporting the planting of a new English-speaking Reformed church in the southern suburbs of Cape Town. This is an exciting development because it is helping enable the riches of the Reformed tradition to spread beyond the Afrikaans language and reach more people than before. This growth in the Reformed witness to the faith is all the more important because of the great need for Bible-based and God-honoring churches that are accessible to people in the English language in the Cape Town area. One of the strengths of our Reformed tradition is a concern for proper church government, which helps safeguard the gospel and the spiritual health of God’s people. According to the Three Forms of Unity, we confess that the three marks of a true church are: (i) the faithful preaching of God’s Word, (ii) the due administration of the sacraments, and (iii) the proper exercise of church discipline. Each one of these marks has to do with church government.
One of the places in Scripture where we find instruction on church order is in the book of Titus.
In the first four verses of the book of Titus, Paul writes to his child in the faith, Titus, who is busy planting churches on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea. In addition to the various challenges of overseeing multiple young churches, Titus had to deal with so-called Christians who are questioning Paul’s authority as an Apostle. So, in the first few verses of Titus 1, Paul defends his Apostolic calling from God as a servant and a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Then in verse 5, Paul directs Titus to “put what remained in order” in the churches on the island of Crete “and appoint elders in every town.” In other words, Paul wants Titus to establish proper church government by appointing elders. * With these words from Paul, the Holy Spirit teaches us about the important role of elders – some of which are called to minister the Word of God and others to rule over the congregation only. Here we also get a window into the tasks that God has given them for our good: so that we can elect them wisely, encourage them and hold them accountable to their high callings. *
Old Testaments elders
When Paul introduces the term elder in verse 5, like he does in the other Pastoral Epistles, he is basically borrowing from the world of the Old Testament. Remember that during the time of Paul and Titus, the NT church was like a newborn baby, fresh out of the womb of the OT. This was the time of the great outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit in which the doors of the church were flung wide open to include both Jews and Gentiles through the proclamation of the gospel. But it was also a time of new difficulties for God’s people as young churches, many planted by Paul, were trying to find their way in the world. On the island of Crete, there was the challenge of Gentile converts with their immature thinking about God and spirituality. There were also Jewish false teachers who still believed that OT laws and ceremonies, like circumcision, should govern the church. They did not understand that such laws had expired with the coming of Christ.
Unlike Jewish teachings such as circumcision, the OT notion of “elder” is something that carries forward from the OT into the NT. The term elder is an OT title and office. In fact, the first time the term is used in the NT, in Acts 11:30, it is introduced without comment. It is simply an OT office carried over into the NT Apostolic church. But why does God do this? He does so because NT church government and worship shares important aspects of continuity with the OT covenant community. What is more, there were many Jews in the NT church that had an intimate knowledge of the OT. Paul for example, many argue, had the OT memorised.
If Paul is assuming things about the use of the term “elder” in the NT, it makes sense that we should have some familiarity with its use in the OT. In the OT, we find that God provides no record of the institution of the office. Rather, it grew naturally out of the family unit in which the father was the head of the home. By the time God’s people have been delivered out of captivity in Egypt and are wandering in the wilderness, elders are representatives of the whole congregation of Israel. Over time they became more prominent as spokesmen on behalf of God’s people.
The main function of the OT elder was to rule and exercise judgment over the covenant community. Elders served as judges in court to settle disputes and they decided on punishment for crimes. They also helped with the enforcement of civil laws by providing counsel and leadership to the state. With this said, it is important to note that nowhere in the OT is there evidence of elders ministering the Word or teaching the law of God. These responsibilities were not the concern of the office of elder. Rather, in the OT, there was another separate and distinct office entrusted with the service of the Word: which was the priesthood. These men were drawn from the tribe of Levi and assigned separate membership among the people of God. The priests and the Levites shared with the elders the duties of judgment and rule, but their primary calling was to minister the Word of God to the covenant community. It should also be added that the OT prophets shared in this distinct office as well.
Elders and ministers in the NT
As we come forward to the NT, we find no evidence to suggest that the ancient pattern of separate offices of elder rule, on the one hand, and the ministry of the Word, on the other, have ended or been overturned. Instead, these distinct and separate offices are carried into the Apostolic church. This continuity is evident for example in Matt 21:23 where Jesus, after entering the temple after cursing the fig tree, is addressed by the chief priests and elders. In the book of Acts, Luke refers to the elders and the scribes. We must also keep in mind that the term elder is introduced in Acts to a predominantly Jewish audience who would have been accustomed to thinking of eldership and the ministry of the Word as different, though mutually supporting, offices and callings. The reference to “elders” in, for example, Acts 11, would have brought to mind senate rulers and counselors, but not teachers.
During the early life of the NT church, as far as we can tell, the Apostles and prophets were the only ones responsible for officially teaching the Word. In Acts 15, we read that Paul and Barnabas were sent to the Jerusalem council that consisted of apostles and elders, which is much like the distinction between priests and elders in the OT. However, it should be kept in mind that there is not a one-to-one correlation between the OT priest and NT minister of the Word. Why? Because the OT priesthood must be understood in light of the coming of Christ in the NT. Jesus fulfilled the ministry of the OT priesthood as our final high Priest who shed his blood once and for all for the sins of humankind. By faith in Jesus, we have all become part of God’s royal priesthood. Nevertheless, it still remains that some men have been commissioned to the special office of ordained minister: whose life’s calling is to preach the Word and administer the sacraments.
How, then, should we understand the office “elder” in terms of its development from the OT to the New? Well, a close reading of the NT books outside of the Gospels and Acts reveals several instances of a wider application of the term ‘elder’, to include ministers of the Word as well. In 1 Peter 5:1, for example, we find that the term “elder” is extended to include apostles. Therefore, it is fair to say that the word “elder” was the readiest available term in the early church for describing Apostles, ministers of the Word and those who helped in church governance. Thus, while an Apostle could be called an elder, an elder could not be called an Apostle. In other words, by calling Apostles “elders” does not mean they shared one office, without distinction, with the rest of those men called “elders”.
Further proof for this distinction among elders is found in Paul’s straightforward discussion of the gifts given to the church by the Holy Spirit in Rom 12 and 1 Cor 12. Here we find that God has given some men the gift of teaching the Word, while others are called to rule over the church only: by supporting the minister of the Word and helping shepherd the flock in other ways.
Back to Titus 1:5
When it comes to Titus 1:5, I think we now have a better grasp of what Paul is assuming from both the OT and other parts of the NT when he refers to “elders”. Basically, what Paul is saying here is that he wants Titus to put things in order among the churches on the island of Crete by appointing elders who can minister the Word as well as those elders who can support the minister by helping rule the church in various ways other than preaching and teaching.
How then does this all apply to us as the church today who live outside of Apostolic times? One of the defining features of the book of Titus is that it represents a bridge between the extraordinary Apostolic era of Paul and the ordinary NT times that we share in today. Like Titus and his church planting efforts on the island of Crete, our churches have pastors and teachers who fulfill the ministry of the Word rather than Apostles and prophets. In turn, the church council is also made up of ruling elders and deacons who together with minister help govern and bring order to Christ’s church according to his Word. In other words, in God’s goodness he has chosen to rule over his church through the means of three offices: ministers, elders and deacons. In fact, according to Calvin and the historic Reformed tradition, we believe there is a fourth office as well, which is the Doctor of theology who serves in the seminary setting to prepare men for ministry.
Why church government?
Beloved, we live at a time and in a place where it is becoming increasingly unpopular to affirm church authority and to distinguish among the roles of Christians in the church. This should come as no surprise when we understand that our broader culture is governed by a liberal democracy based on principles like individual freedom, human rights and equality. These are no doubt good things in their proper context. But when they are used to dismiss the importance and the authority of the ordained minister and his council, they are encroaching on the jurisdiction of the Word of God.
Nevertheless, you may still be asking, why church government? Why church authority? Why church discipline? What we find in the Word of God, like in the book of Titus, is that God has commanded his church to be governed in a certain way. In God’s wisdom, he has ordained that ministers and elders are the means by which he ultimately protects the message of the gospel and saves his people. Yes, the men that we elect as ministers and elders are imperfect – they are sinners – but they are nevertheless God’s chosen means to bring salvation to us. The minister is God’s mouthpiece to his people. With the support of his elders, the minister is the under-shepherd of Christ to God’s people.
In God’s inscrutable wisdom, he has chosen to bridge the gap between Jesus, our Elder brother who is heaven, and us, his church on earth, by the working of his Holy Spirit through the means of church government. It is through the public means of the Word preached and the sacraments administered that we receive Christ and all his benefits for our salvation.
So therefore, brothers and sisters let us thank God for these gifts that he has given to us. Let us pray for them. Let us hold them accountable to the great tasks that God has called them to. Let us be especially thankful for our minister, who, through the support of his council, faithfully delivers the gospel to us each Lord’s Day for the good of our souls.
And finally, will you pray for our church council as we seek to plant a new English-speaking Reformed church in the southern suburbs of Cape Town? Will you pray that God would provide us with our own elders and deacons in the future? Please consider how you might use the gifts God has given you in supporting this work, out of gratitude for your redemption in Christ. Amen.
Simon Jooste, Bellville Reformed Church, Morning Service, December 30, 2012