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Studies & Actions of the General Assembly of
The Presbyterian Church in America

[7th General Assembly, 1979,7-23, p. 77]



Empowered to Serve

by Robert H. Kirksey

A new awareness of the high calling of the eldership is confronting the Presbyterian Church in America.

Sessions and congregations are approaching the election of their elders with a growing concern for evidence of calling and spiritual qualifications.

The Book of Church Order's provisions regarding the election, ordination and installation of ruling elders and deacons has focused new attention on the biblical qualifications for office as found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.

A rising interest in discipline in the church has also caused many elders to have a new consciousness that officers of the church should first walk "blameless before the flock", themselves, before they can effectively exercise discipline over others. It is an awkward thing to be involved in removing a mote from a brother's eye when there is a beam in one's own eye.

New attention to the Bible-based concept of one class of elders has led many elders to see, some for the first time, that all elders - both teaching and ruling - are scripturally enjoined to "walk blameless". The old notion that the teaching elder should live on the highest possible moral plane, while the ruling elder is indulged to live at a somewhat lower level of conduct, will no longer obtain in the light of scriptural truth.

Much soul-searching is taking place among ruling elders, some of whom have served for many years. More and more, ruling elders are asking themselves these questions: "Am I qualified to fill the office of elder?"; "Am I holy?"; "Am I a novice?"; "Am I above reproach?"; "Am I able to rule?"; "Do I desire the office?"; "Am I called to be an elder?".

As elders search for assurance and peace of mind regarding their calling and qualification, the proper place to start is in humbleness of heart. We must first acknowledge our basic unworthiness before God, before we can expect to find the power needed to effectively serve in such a high calling.

"Have mercy on me, 0 God, a sinner. Holy art Thou, 0 Lord, and it is against Thee that I have sinned. Cleanse me. Pour out your blessings on me, 0 God, that I might grow in holiness, unto the stature of the fullness of Christ. Mold me, 0 God, and use me as Thou wilt. And then, 0 God, forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ."

As an elder seeks to find himself in relationship to his office, the scriptures are an invaluable and necessary source of enlightenment. For instance, in the Third Chapter of Philippians, the Apostle (and elder) Paul gives us a most appropriate lesson for the elder who truly wants to grow in holiness. When the elder reads, here, Paul's definition of his life purpose, he is led to see that this is the answer to his own inadequacy.

"That I may win Christ, and be found in Him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God, by faith ... That I may know Him and the power of his resurrection." (Philippians 3).

So, the elder begins to see, it is not what he can attain through his own merits or efforts. No! It is what God can do through him, when life is yielded to Christ. Then God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, progressively empowers the elder to live out, in his life, all those noble qualifications ascribed to his office.

To truly "gain Christ", then, so that the elder might be what an elder should be, is to learn to depend completely on Christ - not on oneself. Only then, can the futile and frustrating human struggle to be worthy be ended. Sanctification can then begin to make progress in one's life. The will becomes more and more under subjection to the mind of Christ, which is now filling the whole being.

We must remember always that our chief purpose in life is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. Then we can say, with Paul, "Whether ye eat or drink, or whatever ye do, do all to the glory of God." (1 Cor. 10:31).

As we work hard to be the kind of elder described in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, we must take care that we are not doing it to bring glory to ourselves, but our purpose must always be, "That God may in all things be glorified." (1 Peter 4:11).

More and more, then, as elders glorify God in their lives, God in turn fulfills another of his sure promises - He gives his Holy Spirit to those who obey Him (Acts 5:32). The elder is empowered by God to fill his office.

Throughout the scriptures it is made clear, however, that an expectant faith is a prerequisite to this filling by the Holy Spirit. Before the disciples were empowered at Pentecost they were expecting it to happen. Likewise, we elders must believe that through the power of the Holy Spirit we shall indeed be enabled to "walk blameless before the flock". Understanding, of course, that we will never find total perfection in this life, but we will be constantly improving. This power enables us to avoid conscious sinning and premeditated sinning. But, if we expect God's blessing in our struggle for holiness, we must, like Enoch, first "walk with God".

Another vital means of this empowering is prayer. At Pentecost, the disciples were praying when the blessing came. We can never expect to find the power we need if we neglect our prayer life. But our prayers can, in themselves, be power-producing if we keep our lives clean and holy, our spirits filled with Christ and our faith high. God gives us this sure promise in His Word, and it is ours to claim:

"The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective." (James 5: 16b N.I.V.)

So there it is - our prayer can produce remarkable results, if we are living a righteous life. The elder who is feeling ineffective in his office has it made very plain to him - the power for effective service is available; but first, he must obey God and live righteously.

If we expect God to reward our efforts as elders it also follows that we must be at work doing those things which the scriptures tell us elders are supposed to do, like the two most obvious duties - "teaching" and "ruling". We understand that only those elders we now call "teaching elders", those who have been called to a ministry of the preaching of the Word, have that "heightened" form of the gift of teaching, known as the preaching of the Word. But all elders are called to a place of teaching in one form or another. It may be teaching a Sunday School class or a Bible study group, delivering an exhortation when a pulpit is vacant, carrying on a tract ministry, talking with our daily associates about the Lord Jesus Christ, or perhaps simply living a sermon in our daily walk. Somehow, though, the elder must teach, if he is to truly fill his office and if he is to find the full joy attendant with that office. "I Love to Tell the Story" should be the theme of every elder's life. Another advantage derived from teaching is that it helps empower us through an intensified use of God's Word. As we teach, we progressively give our lives over, more and more, to daily Bible study. We find that we are saying, from the heart, with the psalmist:

"Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path." (Ps. 119:105); and "Thy words have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against thee." (Ps. 119:11).

Elders who have been neglecting the teaching function should earnestly begin seeking God's power to cultivate it; maybe you cannot do it, but, remember - God can do it through you. Moses knew he was incapable of leading a nation out of bondage, but God empowered him and used him to accomplish it. "With God all things are possible." (Matt. 19:26).

As the elder carries out the function of "ruling", he can be assured of strengthening and guidance from on high. Jesus' promise, "Lo, I am with you alway", is carried out every step of the way as we go forth to serve him. The "ruling" which the elder is called upon to do is certainly a means of serving. That word, "ruling", has a modern-day connotation which sometimes seems harsh. We tend to think of it as meaning, "commanding", and we shy away from such a function. "Governing" would be a better word. Or "shepherding". Or "pastoring". Or "leading". Those are some of the things elders are called to do under their function of ruling. Too often, elders are not willing to shoulder the responsibilities of the ruling function and excuse themselves with an overdone humility. Christ's church needs spirit-filled, Bible-wise, praying officers, who are not afraid to assume the responsibilities of governing in His church. It needs elders who are ready to minister and under-shepherd in the flock over which God has given them leadership. Planning and implementing the spiritual development of the congregation requires officers who are dedicated and tireless in their work for the Lord.

Church discipline is one of the most difficult tasks facing the Session of any church. Too often, when matters of discipline arise, elders want to excuse themselves from that unpleasant matter by saying that they do not feel that they are qualified to pass judgment on another church member. The remedy for that inadequacy is spiritual development and growth in holiness on the part of every elder before the matters of discipline arise. When elders are empowered of God, even the bitter task of discipline can be carried out in an attitude of love. When the mind of Christ is in each member of the Session, no task in His Church is too difficult.

Yes, this high office of elder can be carried out in an attitude of assurance and joy. The key is found in that method of purposeful living explained by Paul to the Philippians: "Gain Christ" - "know Him" - "let this mind be in you which also was in Christ Jesus" - "for me to live is Christ" - "for our citizenship is in heaven". . . Not through our strength, alone, but through the empowering of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives . . . We, too, can say, "I can do all things through Christ, which strengtheneth me." (Philippians 4:13).

For those elders who may have become disheartened because of a failure to reach the state of perfection toward which they have been striving, Paul brings these words of encouragement:

"Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:13-14 N.I.V.)

Certainly, if the Apostle Paul felt that he was still called on to be "straining toward what is ahead", we should take heart when we, too, find our struggle forward to be difficult at times.

As our denomination prayerfully strives to have its elders measure up to all the scriptural qualifications of the office, let us be kind in our judgment of those whose spiritual gifts are less than ours. Not all effective elders will have exactly the same gifts. There may be a man, sitting as a member of a session who seldom says a word; and yet, God may have placed him there as a balance, or to set an example of patience and tolerance for some articulate but impetuous member, who might be inclined to speak too hastily at times. Or there might be a man who can function notably as an elder in a small congregation, who might never have been chosen for the office if he had been in a large church.

In Christian charity, let us remember, "Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart." (1 Sam. 16:7).

So, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we totally surrender our lives to Christ and apply our spiritual gifts earnestly, looking forward to that day when we shall indeed "walk blameless" in a total sense, for our great expectation is that "when He shall appear, we shall be like Him." (1 Jn. 3:2).

Longing to know that perfect holiness, we say, "Come, Lord Jesus, Come Quickly!"