The Hidden Glory of the Eldership*
Exodus 8:13-24; Matthew 18:15-20
Todd S. Bordow
My goal this evening is to briefly consider the hidden glory of both the church and her office of elder. Why do we need to look at the hidden glory of the eldership? Surely we would not approach an evening like this as simply a ritual that the church performs; that is; ordaining an elder and organizing a congregation. We must understand the significance of such an endeavor.
While we do not have the opportunity to explore the depths of our Lord's words in Matthew 18, I would like to consider the manner in which these words were spoken. In our text, the Lord Jesus speaks about the church in a manner best described as calm, confident and unapologetic.
Now it is doubtful that these words on the church made much sense to the disciples. After all, according to the Law, did not discipline within the covenant community usually result in the death penalty? The disciples were only familiar with the church in her old covenant form. What does it mean to treat a former kingdom member as a tax collector? And how can anyone be a member of God's promised coming kingdom and yet later be expelled? The disciples had assumed that Christ had come to separate the sheep from the goats, but these words suggest otherwise. The disciples's understanding of the kingdom of God had not yet developed to the point of discerning our Lord here.
Furthermore, at the time this was spoken, no such church had even been formed. Jesus knew that there would one day be local churches throughout the world, that they would be led by local elders, and that these words of Matthew 18 would be studied and obeyed. But Jesus is speaking of a situation unique to the New Covenant. These churches had not even come into existence yet; this makes his confidence all the more reassuring.
Why is this important? What we do tonight is not our idea. We ordain men and organize churches because Jesus spoke the church into existence. His discourse in Matthew 18 on the local church was not only prophetic, it was kingly.
In other words Jesus was not only predicting the formation of the new covenant church, he was assuring its fulfillment. As surely as his word created the universe, so also his word created the church; not only the church defined as believers, but as we see here the church's officers and organization. Thus tonight we enter into the accomplishment of the royal declaration of our King. His prophetic and kingly word is being fulfilled as we organize a church and ordain an elder.
Now while the disciples would not have clearly grasped the makeup of the church in the coming kingdom, they would have no problem with the principle of church officers and church discipline. After all, Israel had been under elders since Moses. As a matter of fact, Jesus himself recognized the elders of Israel, and he affirmed the validity of their office.
Jesus had spoken about the elders in Matthew 15:2 where he condemned the traditions of the elders, who had raised their oral Law to the level of Scripture. Matthew 16:21 says that Jesus began teaching his disciples that he must suffer many things from the hands of the elders. Our Lord was never ashamed to state the truth; the elders of the Old Covenant church had become corrupt, power-hungry overlords, seeking to destroy God's Beloved Son.
This is exactly what makes Jesus' words so remarkable. We might think that the last thing Jesus would want to be promoting was church leadership and church discipline. Was he not in the process of being victimized by church discipline himself? Now the Lord speaks positively about church leadership and church discipline? Surely Jesus, you of all people, should realize that the system does not work! Men are too sinful for such a thing.
How many times have you heard someone explain that because years ago they had a bad time with elders or a pastor they cannot submit to any particular church? I do not want to downplay the serious consequences of such a thing, but if you want to talk about a bad experience, have you considered the Son of God's experience? He didn't give up on the church and neither should you.
We are reminded of our forefathers who in 1936 formed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. After at least ten long years of church corruption, top-heavy authoritarianism and institutional red tape, our forefathers were cast out of the PCUSAall because they held to Sola Scriptura.
And what was their response to all this? They formed another Presbyterian denomination! Were they absolutely nuts? Gluttons for punishment? Could we have blamed them for doing what most others have done in similar circumstances; that is, given up on the church altogether? Or at least go independent. But their theology would not allow them to give up on the church.
Even in the midst of a crisis in church government, Christ offers no apology as to the need for officers and discipline in his church. Remarkably, in Matthew 18 Jesus speaks as if there were no crises going on in church leadership at all!
Now we cannot explain this confidence away by suggesting that this kind of corruption and apostasy would have no place in the New Covenant church. Is not the visible church in the New Covenant always on the verge of apostasy? Can we really look back at the history of the church and gleam with pride over the lack of abuse in the offices?
No, it is not as if the ways of Israel would never rear their ugly heads again. So how then could our Lord speak so calmly and confidently about church leadership and discipline in the midst of unprecedented leadership apostasy?
Because unlike Israel, Jesus had come to establish a kingdom of permanence, one that could not ultimately fall to corruption. Jesus came to rule an everlasting kingdom, and until his return elders would administer that kingdom on the earth. And unlike Israel, the full power and presence of the Spirit of God would lead this church. Christ's confidence was not in people, nor in officers. His confidence was in the Spirit he would pour out on his church upon his resurrection from the dead.
Thus we approach our proceedings this evening with a deep sense of awe and humility, for after so much corruption and apostasy for two thousand years, here we are mere men administering that true church spoken of by our Savior. Does this not minister to your souls, you who wrestle daily in your toils and prayers over the condition of the church? Does not our Lord's calm and confident demeanor force out of you any frantic worry about the church?
Though the church is always weak and frail because we are sinners, and though the offices are often abused by those who fill them, we need not be embarrassed for the church, for our Lord offered no apology. The faithful Reformed community will take constant hits for her high view of the church in a culture that worships freedom and individuality. But let us remember that in the midst of a church crisis, in the midst of unprecedented corruption among her officers, our Savior dares to deliver a sermon on church discipline.
Now when we come to the place of elders in the church, at first glance we might come to the conclusion that elders are not very important to the people of God. Yes, Moses agreed with his father-in-law that elders were necessary. But of course all the really difficult cases were brought to Moses himself. Certainly Moses receives the attention over these elders who worked with him to administer the Old Testament kingdom.
And when we come to the New Testament, when that promised kingdom of Christ is inaugurated, again the elders do not receive much attention. Did you notice in v. 17 of our text that when Jesus speaks of the elders he simply calls them "the church?" Now it is clear from the context that Jesus is referring here to the elders of the church. Yet the Lord chose not to use the word "elders" but "church." The individual is being overshadowed by the corporate aspect. The elders of course represent the church, but with this language Jesus is purposely placing the elder in the background.
Now is this what the disciples would have envisioned when Jesus spoke of leadership in his eschatological kingdom, that kingdom greater than Solomon's? Can you imagine their triumphalistic excitement as they approached Jerusalem? They were the chief elders in the coming kingdom of God! Thrones were being prepared for them. But their childish view of leadership must be rebuked and conformed to Christ-like leadership.
To what do we attribute this downplaying of the importance of the elder in both the Old and New Testaments? Why does Moses receive all the attention as opposed to the elders of Israel? Well, I could be self-serving and suggest that Moses was a pastor, and pastors are to get all the attention as opposed to the elders.
Some of you might be thinking, "There go those nutty three-office guys again." No, Moses does not receive the attention because he is the pastor as opposed to the elders. Moses receives the attention because he is the covenant head of the Old Testament people of God. In other words, Moses as the Old Testament head of the church is a type of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This explains why in the New Covenant the elders still do not take center stage. Our new Moses has arrived in Jesus Christ! Our chief Elder has come. Jesus, our Lord and Savior, has brought us to God through his death and resurrection. Once the chief elder has drawn near and united himself to us no man can take center stage as our leader. There is no room for personality cults in the kingdom of God. Our shepherd from heaven is our pastor and elder, and he has united himself to us most intimately and completely. This is why the offices in the New Testament lack outward glory. Once the true Shepherd has come and brought us to himself, all other leadership fades into the background.
The lack in outward glory serves as a warning to those seeking office in Christ's church. As Christ became our servant to lead us, so also the elder who leads in Christ's name must become a servant. Christ did not seek his own glory. Christ did not have any agendas besides doing his Father's business. Now, the officers of the church are to follow his example. Their leadership must flow from their own union with Christ. When they are constrained by the love of Christ for them, they will become Christ-like in their leadership; willing to become as nothing for the sake of the sheep.
The cross subsumes the outward glory of the elder. But let us not be deceived. Yes, because of the all-surpassing glory of the coming of Christ, because of the nearness of the subjects of the kingdom to their king, the elder in Christ's church is not afforded outward glory and attention. Most of the work of the elders is behind the scenes and unnoticed by men, is it not?
But it is here that the people of God must not be lulled to sleep. Let us not respond to all this as the Anabaptists, who disregard the importance or necessity of the elder altogether. God's people must discern the irony of the kingdom.
You see, it is because of the all-surpassing glory and nearness of Christ in the New Covenant that makes the eldership even more glorious. No, we do not recognize the glory of the one holding the office, but we honor the efficacy of that office in the eschatological kingdom of Christ. We honor the efficacy of the office in the kingdom of Christ.
You saw it in our Matthew 18 passage, did you not? Whatever is bound on earth is bound in heaven. Whatever is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven. Our risen King in heaven stands behind the declarations of simple elders on earth who serve in his name. What is bound on earth is bound in heaven. Do you believe this? You think church disciple is less terrible than the death penalty of the Old Covenant? It's just the opposite. Here is the irony of the cross. The foolish things of this world convey the kingly power of our sovereign Lord.
The hidden glory of the church and her elders is also seen in this brief yet powerful promise in Matthew 18:20. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst. Most of you know what I am about to say on this verse, but let me say it anyway. Jesus is not speaking here of your home Bible studies or prayer meetings. Jesus is speaking of the session or consistory that gathers for the purpose of administering church discipline. The King in Heaven, the resurrected and glorified Lord, is uniquely and personally present when these simple and fallible elders gather to fulfill their office.
Thus the glory of the church and her officers is the hidden glory of the cross. Weak yet powerful; becoming as nothing, but used powerfully by God. Thus this passage affords both a warning and an encouragement to the officers and people of the church. To the officer comes the warning that in Christ's kingdom you are purposely being subsumed into the corporate people of God. You are given a low outward status; you are a servant with no greater gift than the widow who gives two pennies in the offering. You must learn from these servants. You must not lord it over the people of God. Your goal must be to have Christ exalted in their lives, and if Christ is to increase you will have to decrease. This is true Christian leadership.
But there is great encouragement here also. The visible church is the kingdom of God on earth. Your work and declarations as a session have the backing of the King of Kings. He will not fail you, and he will give you his strength for the task. You will have to apologize quickly for your sins, but you never have to apologize for your high view of the church or your office. And when you get so caught up in the crises of the church (and you will), remember the calm and confident words of Christ as he spoke of his church. Thus we do not grow weary in our service to the church, for Christ is using us to build the tabernacle of God among men.
Since all of us are placed under elders, let us not miss the hidden glory of our submission to them. Our elders may be sinners just like us, but in their office they administer the kingdom of heaven, and the King of heaven is personally present in their declarations. He truly rules his people through elders. There is no plan B in Scripture. To ignore or treat the elder as insignificant is to treat Christ as insignificant, and Christ will not be mocked. As Hebrews 13:17 states, in heaven your elders will give an account of you, and according to the Holy Spirit you had better pray it's a good one!
The hidden glory of the church and the eldership is the hidden glory of the cross. We honor and love the office because we honor and love our King, who has made us kings and priests through his own death and resurrection. Our subjection to the office and our service to the church are offered in recognition of our King who lovingly rules us from heaven, and he has chosen to do so through mere men. But most of all, we honor the church and her officers in hope, knowing that our king who has eternally drawn near to us through the cross will come again and receive unto himself the faithful members of his kingdom.
Covenant Orthodox Presbyterian Chapel
* A sermon preached before the Presbytery of the Northwest, Orthodox
Presbyterian Church, on the occasion of the particularization of Covenant OPC, Pasco,
Washington, September 22, 2000.