Reformation and the office of the Elder

Reformation Sunday 2020 is a significant one for Hermon. It has been more than 18 years since we last ordained an Elder in Hermon. The Lord has been good to us. We have been reminded though our journey of Ephesians that ‘pastor-teachers’ (Ephesians 4: 11)  are God’s gift to the church for equipping the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. So today, it is with much rejoicing that we give thanks to God for the ordination of Eld Sim Chow Meng.

The ordination of Elders is especially significant as we commemorate Reformation Sunday. The office of the Elder was actually on the decline for many centuries until the time of the Reformation. The early church started well by ordaining qualified elders in every church and viewing them as those through whom God ruled the church. It was significant to note that the document known as the Didache (“Teaching,” short for “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”), which was composed sometime before AD 150, understood the words “bishop” and “elder” (presbyter) in the New Testament Scriptures to refer to one and the same office. In our preaching of Philippians 1:1, we have seen that Paul addresses the ‘elders’ using the word ‘overseers’ which can also be translated as ‘bishops’.

In the 16th Century, John Calvin felt the need to call the church back to a proper understanding of the office of the Elder. In his fourth book Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote about the doctrine of the church. After presenting the biblical teaching regarding the office bearers of the church in Chapter 3, and the setting for the history of the church’s office (including the office of the elder) in Chapter 4, Calvin says in Chapter 5, “the ancient form of government was completely overthrown by the tyranny of the papacy.”  Calvin was preceded in his desire to restore the proper understanding of the office of the Elder by men like Zwingli

(Zurich, Switzerland), Johann Oecolampadius (Basel, Switzerland) and Martin Bucer (Strassburg, Germany).  They all taught that Christ is the only head of the church and that God requires the church to be governed by a body of elders. Although John Calvin was not the first to work at restoring the office of elder to its rightful place in the church, it is said that his contribution to this effort was monumental, and set the pattern for Reformed churches elsewhere.

“Calvin taught that the terms “bishops” and “presbyters” (elders) both refer to the office of the minister. Yet, in the early church there were “two kinds of elders. . . .  There were chosen from among the people men of worth and good character, who, united with the pastors in a common council and authority, administered the discipline of the Church, and were a kind of censors for the correction of morals.” Calvin also judged that I Corinthians 12:28 and Romans 12:8 refer to this latter kind of elder — the ruling elder, as opposed to the teaching elder. He writes that the church had “elders chosen from among the people, who were charged with the censure of morals and the exercise of discipline along with the bishops.” That this work involved both spiritual oversight and the administration of discipline, he stressed throughout his life.”

As we appreciate the call of the Reformation to return to a proper understanding of Scripture and thereby the appropriate recognition of the office of the Elder, let us take heed to what 1 Peter 5 says for both the Elder and the congregation.

1 Peter 5:1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

Let us persist in prayer that Hermon’s Elders and Hermonites will model after 1 Peter 5 and thereby continue in the path of the Reformation.

Adapted from https://sb.rfpa.org/pages/the-history-of-the-office-of-elder-5-restored-during-the-reformation-era/.

– Ps Daniel Tan