By Rev. Lance Filio
I was elected and appointed as the head of the elders of my home church before I answered the call to become a pastor. I remember being the youngest member of the group and practically knows nothing about the principles and practice of eldership. During this, I am experienced in management and leadership. I was professionally working as an engineer in a telecoms company. At the same time, I practically grew up in church ministry serving in various capacities as a “worship” leader, a Sunday school and Bible study teacher. But in spite of such background, I knew nothing about the office and how I can spiritually perform my duty aside from the experiences that I have mentioned. By God’s grace, I believe I was able to “wing it” but looking back, I realized that without any foundational understanding of the doctrine of the church, its government and its realities, I was unable to practice the biblical calling of eldership.
We may have similar experiences as well. We may grow up in a church not really knowing how Christ governs it. We may have been involved in various ministries and served several key positions in the church and yet never bothered to ask why it should be done and how can it be done biblically. Or we may have been a new Christian who joined the group who helped you become one and just assumed that it is following the church order that the Scripture prescribes. Or we may have been one of those who thinks since we are not specifically called in such office, we just simply follow what others are doing because it is considered impolite to question the authorities that God placed over us.
Church doctrine and church government are often delegated as an optional area of study. We assume that we only need enough information to apply them in our lives. But in reality, how we live as a church needs to be first biblically informed in order for it to be biblically practiced. Which is why this morning, we will study as an introduction to our sermon series for the month of June this topic “Biblical Overseers”. We will lay down general principles of church government and then specifically end with the practice of Biblical Overseers.
Here are the major propositions for our preaching this morning: Christ rules his church according to His Word. In his office as Mediator, He speaks, governs and intercedes. As our final prophet, king, and priest, he shares his office with the church by appointing men as pastors, elders, and deacons.
So this morning, we will hear the doctrinal exposition of the doctrine of the church mainly outlined and taken from Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. I have arranged them into three main topics: (1) Christ and His Office as Mediator; (2) General and Special Office; and (3) Pastors, Elders, and Deacons
In order for Berkhof to establish the reformed church government, he laid down five principles:
- Christ is the head of the church and the source of all its authority.
- Christ exercises his authority by means of his royal word.
- Christ as King has endowed the church with power.
- Christ provided for the specific exercise of this power by representative organs.
- The power of the church resides primarily in the governing body of the local church
Christ and His Office as Mediator
The first three points to the reality the Christ is the living mediator for his people. We understand from our previous sermons about Christ’s mystical union with the elect that we, his people, in his church, is organically related to him. He is the source of our spiritual life (Vine and branches). He is legally and intimately one with us (Husband and Wife). He is our firm foundation, our cornerstone and we are his spiritual house which means that we are filled with his Spirit. Now all these points to the vital, spiritual, invisible and organic union we have with Christ.
So how about our visible union with him? How are we connected with Christ in terms of concrete realities?
One picture describes such reality and that is Christ being the head of his church. Paul made this clear in Colossian 1:18 when he wrote: “And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.” This means concretely that Christ is the Judge and Ruler of his church. And as head of the church, Christ leads, governs, provides for his church directly as its living King. So aside from being organically related to his church, Christ is more so visibly acting and involved in the affairs of his church. Berkhof made this emphatic point:
This Headship of Christ over the visible Church is the principal part of the dominion bestowed upon Him as the result of His sufferings. His authority is manifested in the following points: … (d) He is ever present in the Church when it meets for worship, and speaks and acts through its officers. It is Christ as King that warrants them in speaking and acting with authority, Matt. 10:40; II Cor. 13:3.
How is Christ ruling, speaking and acting towards us in his church?
Christ does so with His Royal Word. While our first point separates the Roman Catholics and the Protestants for the former recognizes a visibly human representative who is the Pope and the latter, in general, recognizes none, our second point separates modern evangelicals and the reformed. As Reformed Christians, absolute and final authority resides in the whole counsel of God inscipturated and not by the opinions of men and society. As children of the Reformation, we recognize that the Bible is necessary, sufficient, clear and the final authority of faith and practice. While I will be unable to expound on the important solas of the reformation, it will suffice to say that Christ rules according to his Word. Now, we do understand as a distinction that Christ does not rule by force but subjectively with His Spirit, we believe that he objectively apply the Word of God as the standard of authority.
This is important because we cannot imagine that Christ transferred his authority to human vessels like what the Roman Catholics would like us to believe but only appointed officers in the church as organs of his rule on earth (again going back to the head and body relationship). The authority remains with Christ and his Word. Christ rules us with his Word and uses human means to operate his church through his Word. This is the third and fourth point of Berkhof. (3) Christ as King has endowed the church with power. (4) Christ provided for the specific exercise of this power by representative organs.
With this in mind, we can make sense of the Great Commision from Matthew 28:18-20:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Again, Christ rules his church according to His Word. In his office as Mediator, He speaks, governs and intercedes.
General and Special Office
At this point, we need to make some further distinction. To whom did Christ share his office as a mediator? Is it to all his people or only with the few? Are all called to be prophet, priest, and king? Is every member a minister? Should we simply delegate all responsibility of the church to the chosen few?
A balanced view is very important in order to avoid two extremes. The first extreme that needs to be avoided is the tendency of human nature to create hierarchy and delegating authority to a chosen few. This kind of church government found its historical expression during the middle ages with the Roman Catholics and Episcopalians insisting on a “divinely” appointed priesthood. This makes priest and bishops and Popes as objective givers of graces in nature which elevates the body and replaces Christ as its head. On the other hand, the second extreme is the democratic view of leadership where everyone calls all Christians to occupy the distinct office of teaching, preaching and leading. “Everyone is a disciple” meaning all Christians should become leaders in the church and teach as disciples. However, this view ignores the reminder of Paul in Ephesians 4:7 – “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” He made the following rhetorical statements in 1 Cor 12:29-30 – “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?”
There is a distinction between the General Office of All Believers and the Special Office of Pastors, Elders, and Deacons. Berkhof laid down this specific view for us to avoid the aforementioned extremes:
There is another view, however, representing a mean between these two extremes, which would seem to deserve preference. According to it, ecclesiastical power is committed by Christ to the Church as a whole, that is to the ordinary members and the officers alike, but in addition to that, the officers receive such an additional measure of power as is required for the performance of their respective duties in the Church of Christ. They share in the original power bestowed upon the Church, and receive their authority and power as officers directly from Christ. They are representatives, but not mere deputies or delegates of the people. Older theologians often say: “All Church power, in actu primo, or fundamentally, is in the Church itself; in actu secundo, or its exercise, in them that are specially called thereto.”
The general office of all believers was also reinforced by the Heilderberg Catechism in order for us to avoid the tendency to delegate all ministry to those men occupy the special office in the church. After explaining the Three Office of Christ, Zacarias Ursinus reminded Christians of their participation in this offices:
Question 32: But why are you called a Christian?
Answer: Because by faith I am a member of Christ, and thus a partaker of His anointing; in order that I also may confess His name; may present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to Him; and may with free conscience fight against sin and the devil in this life, and hereafter, in eternity, reign with Him over all creatures.
Pastors, Elders, and Deacons
What is the special office appointed by Christ to use as his organs in the church? Before defining them we first need to understand the fifth and final point from the Berkhof: (5) The power of the church resides primarily in the governing body of the local church. While there is a sense that Christ shares this power generally to every Christian believer in his church, there is a special sense that Christ provides such power to men in office governing a local church.
Now I will reserve the expansion of this topic on our succeeding sermons but let it be said that there are three types of men occupying the office of Christ in his local church. First, the pastor who is the minister of the Word and Sacrament; the elders who rule and governs the church; and last, the deacons who perform the ministry of mercy. These are the ordinary office continuing until now since the beginning of Christ’s commision. Now, there were extra-ordinary offices occupied by the apostles, the prophets and evangelist during the laying down of the foundation in the early church but this once and for all act when concluded with the closing the NT canon, ceased and left the ordinary ministry of pastors, elders, and deacons.
Again, we will discuss this in detail next week but for now, let me summarize again by saying: Christ rules his church according to His Word. In his office as Mediator, He speaks, governs and intercedes. As our final prophet, king, and priest, he shares his office with the church by appointing men as pastors, elders, and deacons.
Application and Conclusion
We often perceive that the church needs human intervention in order for it to succeed in this world. We tend to forget that the origin and source of the kingdom of God are heavenly and not earthly. As a result, we adopt as a church and get into worldly mindsets and methodologies in order to keep up with the modern challenges set against it. Sadly, we see the church acting not as the bride of Christ but as the harlot of Babylon.
However, Christ, who is the head of the church, rules his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. The God-man, who was humiliated and now exalted, rightfully sits at the right hand of God and sent the Spirit, together with his Father, to his church. We are saved by divine intervention and we received salvation through the God-ordained means. This is the divine reality of the church between Christ’s first coming until his second coming in the future.
Viewing Christ as a head of the church is not just a theoretical and theological framework but a spiritual reality. We may give lip service to this truth by professing it in our confessional standards but those who possess true faith know it in their hearts and live according to its reality. And the way this can be lived is by joining a local church who proclaims Christ in His Word and by remaining in it as living members. So how can we be living members of Christ’s church? We, who are the body of Christ, are also called to be his prophet, priest, and king in the midst of this dying world, this passing age. We serve this world for Christ in our various lawful callings at home, in school, at work and most especially in the church.
This is the truth that governs the reality of our lives. If we profess Christ as our head then we let his Word governs us in every aspect of our lives. That comes with the complementary roles of men and women in the household, the self-sacrificing role of Christians in the workplace and the leadership role of able and humble men serving the church. We are all called to be faithful in every relationship we have with others. But keep in mind that we may all have roles to play in this world and in his church but it will always be under the rule of Christ. He is our Lord and we are his servants.
Now focusing our attention on the leadership in Christ’s church, Scripture gave us explicit instructions on how we can understand and implement it. But we may say to ourselves: “It does not concern me specifically for I am neither a man nor think I am called to such office. However, as Christ’s body in this local church, we are called to encourage one another and instruct one another, live with one another according to the precept of His Word. With such exhortations from Scripture, we need to be concerned with the principles and practice of church government.
Next week, we will hear the details of the qualifications set by God’s Word for his leaders. We will concern ourselves with the proper selection and examination of those who will occupy Christ’s office. In the meantime, let us heed God’s calling for properly rules of God’s Word in our lives. May we live according to the precepts of his Word. Amen.