We believe that the local church is God’s New Covenant community ruled over by a plurality of elders, given to the church as gifts from the Spirit, who shepherd the church as those accountable to other organically connected churches.
Reformed Christians believe that the church, as the covenant community of God, does not have the authority or the wisdom to devise its own structure and governance. The church is given sacraments that mark off the community from the world, and the church is given leaders by the Holy Spirit to rule over the church under the authority of God’s word.
Plural Elder Leadership
Reformed Christians believe the Bible teaches that local churches are to be governed by a plurality of qualified elders. Elders are to be dedicated to prayer and the ministry of the word and sacrament. In other words, the elders lead the church by preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments and discipline of the church. While the ministry of prayer, word, and sacrament belong to each member and the church community as a whole, it is led, overseen, and carried out by a select group variously called elders, pastors, and overseers in the New Testament.
Deacons hold a second office in the church, but it is not an authoritative office. In the early church, deacons collected offerings, prepared and served the tables, and cared for the poor. So while elders oversee and carry out the ministry of teaching the word, deacons ensure that the logistics of community life are consistent with what is being taught by the elders from the word as they apply it to their local church context.
Qualifications for Elders
The New Testament gives two lists that outline the broad requirements for elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Taken together, there are five basic requirements that must be met for a person to be qualified to be an elder in a local church. First, the person must demonstrate basic Christian character without any obvious character flaws that would draw skepticism upon the gospel and the church. Second, the person must be able to communicate, teach, and defend sound Christian doctrine consistent with the gospel. Third, the person must be a male since God created men and women to fulfill different roles in the home and the church. Fourth, the person must not be a relatively new convert compared to the rest of the congregation so that he is not tempted to conceit and the arrogance that often accompanies those who are new to anything. Fifth, the person must not have a poor reputation with those outside the church due to scandal or immorality such that the credibility of the church and its message would be undercut.
While church members elect their officers, elders hold authority in the local church. However, this authority is not absolute. Rather, the authority of elders is rooted in God’s authority made known in his word. Elders cannot command obedience to their will (called "magisterial authority"). They can only proclaim God’s will as it is taught in the word and demand obedience to God (called "ministerial authority"). The consciences of men must not ever be bound by the opinions or wisdom of men since God alone is Lord of the conscience. Only he can command obedience, and so elders have authority only insofar as they communicate faithfully the message of Scripture. However, when covenant community members disobey the word of God and harden themselves in sin, elders have the authority to declare a person to be living disobediently, to warn them, rebuke them, and ultimately to withdraw the church’s affirmation of their confession.
As a covenant community, a local church is not a voluntary association of individuals. The church is the body of Christ, organically connected to one another through the bond created by the Holy Spirit. So also are local churches connected to one another. This organic connection is such that the livelihood of each church is mutually dependent upon the health of the other churches. This organic unity suggests a connectionalism between churches that goes beyond mere monetary partnership in joint efforts to advance the gospel or to perform acts of mercy. Therefore, Reformed Christians believe that local churches must be accountable to and in partnership with other local churches. Therefore, Reformed churches are ruled by elders who have been examined by the elders of other churches and who remain accountable to other church elders both in doctrine and conduct. One aspect of this accountability is the creation of courts that can adjudicate conflicts within or between local churches, whether the conflict is between elders and church members or the elders themselves. Finally, churches partner together to advance the gospel in new regions by pooling their resources and members for church planting efforts.
Reformed Christians believe that God rules his church through his word. He commands, comforts, promises, and sanctifies his people through the preaching and teaching of his word by elders who are given to local churches as groups of men submitted to God with tested character who avoid both dominating others and shrinking back in fear of others.
[Editor's Note: Read part 10 of this series.]