And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (Colossians 1:18)
As those of you who were in attendance in worship through the summer know, I spent the whole summer preaching on our identity as a church and what God is calling us to be and do. I have preached similar series, though not as protracted, on the same theme in previous churches I have served. I probably should have warned you in advance, when I have preached on what it means to be the church, I have found that for some reason some people have gotten angry. Initially, I must confess, when I was new to ministry I was taken by surprise by this reaction. Since then I guess I have come to expect that criticism often accompanies the task of preaching. But more importantly, though, I think that biblical teaching on the identity of the church is apt to threaten our assumptions of what it means for us to be a church.
That said, John Calvin and the other reformers defined the three marks of the church as: the true preaching of the Word of God, the right administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of church discipline. We assume the first two as common practice in all churches and would be surprised to find any church in which these did not occur on a regular basis. It is the last of the three which sets us as modern people back on our heels. Church discipline smacks of unnecessary control. But according to one theologian (Louis Berkhof) it is summarized as the “maintaining of purity of doctrine and safeguarding the holiness of the sacraments.” With all three of the marks of the church, the burden of responsibility rests upon those who are charged by the congregation with the leadership of the local church.
Churches of the Reformed tradition have always recognized, along with the office of Pastor (Teaching Elder) the office of Ruling Elder. This office has been preserved most consistently in Presbyterian churches. While the office of Ruling Elder was lost in many Congregational churches along the way, it was always a part of historic Congregational polity (government) as well. The statement which I read from the Cambridge Platform of 1649 in worship a few weeks ago attests to this. What the Platform tells us in a nutshell is that the responsibilities of the Ruling Elder as well as that of Pastor involve both administration and shepherding. To be charged with the oversight (for that is what Elders are- “overseers”) is a weighty thing. That is why so much weight is placed on character and spiritual maturity by Paul in his first letter to Timothy.
I want to attest to the commitment of the three men who meet with me for three to four hours almost every Tuesday night at the church. I have a visible role as I am the paid “professional” (I say that with reservation). These three men (Tom Ross, Bob Kirkman and Tom Lanoue) are not paid, but I feel especially privileged to serve with these three men who take their responsibilities as seriously as they do. Our work is hard. We put in long hours together (and drink a lot of coffee). Do we always agree on everything? Not hardly! But this is where iron sharpens iron, and we have the responsibility of hearing each other out.
JoAnn submitted an article for last month’s newsletter- Praying for Your Pastor from Head to Toe. Maybe you think I need special prayer in each of these areas. I know I do. Please keep praying for me. But along with me, please pray for your Elders too. They need your prayer too. After all we are each jars of clay, in whom the perfect Chief Shepherd has chosen to invest the burden of leadership. And it is really about his glory, that in everything he might be preeminent.
Thank you, Tom, Bob and Tom.
Pastor Tom Bridgman