What I’m Reading: The Elder and His Work

ElderThere are a number of books available on local church leadership. In answer to a recent question regarding my favorites, I recommended Dever’s The Deliberate Church (which I blogged on here) and Strauch’s two books Biblical Eldership and The New Testament Deacon (which I blogged on here) as among the most helpful. I’m now glad to add David Dickson’s The Elder and His Work to that list.

Dickson (1821-1885) ministered in Edinburgh, Scotland. (There’s something particularly safe about studying the works of dead men, since [a] they have stood the test of time and [b] they are very unlikely to change their opinions.) What makes his book particularly helpful is this: Dickson served as a ruling elder in his Presbyterian church. In other words, he wasn’t in full-time pastoral ministry (what Presbyterians call a teaching elder), but instead served as a lay elder in his local church.* Thus, his counsel is particularly helpful for lay elders in our churches, though I’ve benefited from it much myself. It’s an easy read, and on the few occasions when it contains outdated references, editors George Kennedy McFarland and Philip Graham Ryken provide helpful footnotes. Add to that the fact that the book is short (around 125 pages with short chapters) and extremely practical, and you’ve got an exceptionally useful book.

Dickson returns to a few vital themes again and again: the importance of pastoral visitation, friendly accessibility, and ministering to children and young people. What he writes is both instructive and convicting.

The editors do adjust some of the suggestions to fit modern life. For example, though they still press the importance of visitation, they acknowledge that there are differences in today’s world:

“[P]ersonal contact need not always come through home visitation. What is vital is direct communication. Today some spiritual care can be maintained by e-mail, by talking over the telephone, or by meeting for coffee. The common failure of elders today is not that they use the wrong methods, but that they fail to make much contact at all.” (p. 18 )

I may post some other quotations in the days ahead, so you might want to check back from time to time. Better yet, get the book yourself, and buy copies for the other elders that minister in your church. Good stuff.


*Note: I don’t care for the two designations, since Scripture indicates that all elders, whether paid or unpaid, both rule and teach.

Resource: We worked on an Office Definition project at TCBC just over a year ago. It’s not a formal presentation, but you may find it to be helpful. You can find the pdf here.


6 Responses

  1. I’m finished with the short book, and again, I encourage those who assist pastors (including deacons in most Baptist churches) to read it.

    I was especially moved by the astounding affection and appreciation Dickson commends (and evidences himself) for ministers (our “full-time pastors”). He speaks of having a “warmhearted sympathy” with them and often encourages lay elders to assist them in their work with an understanding of the particular challenges that accompany it. (p. 115) Here are a couple noteworthy comments in this regard:

    “[T]he revival of religion and its healthy continuance depend much, under God’s blessing, on the hearty cooperation of ministers and elders. It would be a kind of miracle we have no right to expect if a large harvest were gathered in when there is not a loving fellowship in prayer and effort among all those who are engaged in the same field of labor.” (p. 114)

    “I have said much on this subject because of my deep conviction that we elders fall short in this duty of sympathizing fully with our ministers in their work….It is our duty to manfully show our loyalty to them, especially in these days, when so many talk flippantly and ignorantly of the minister’s office and work.” (p. 117)

    Such commitment from godly elders should humble a pastor, not inflate him. Indeed, Dickson carefully speaks of a gracious balance in which the pastor is humble and teachable and the elders are supportive and loyal:

    “A young minister may learn much from his elders, from their local knowledge, as well as from their age and experience in the world; and they should feel it to be their duty to give him, discreetly and confidentially of course, such advice as they may think likely to be useful as to the kind of instruction most needed by the people, the style of preaching best suited to them, subjects for prayer, plans for visiting, etc.” (p. 115)

    “There should…be in all matters connected with the spiritual interests of the flock a constant, confidential, and affectionate intercourse between the minister and the elders. Let them welcome and support every proposal he makes in the way of new efforts for doing good—not raising needless objections, but encouraging him in every way possible.” (p. 115)

    Among other thoughts, these worthy words move me to gratitude to God for the good men with whom I am privileged to minister alongside at TCBC. I consider our godly elders and deacons to be one of God’s chiefest kindnesses to me. Praise the Lord.

  2. A couple of questions:
    In Appendix 2 labeled Scottish Divines in Beeke’s and Pederson’s book Meet the Puritans, they have an entry for a Scottish Presbyterian named David Dickson who lived c.1583-1662. Chris mentioned above that the David Dickson who wrote this book lived from 1821-1885. Does anyone know if someone has their dates wrong, or were there two different Scottish Presbyterian David Dicksons who lived 2 centuries apart?

    Last question: Dickson mentioned the importance of pastoral visitation, and the editors mentioned that “Personal contact need not always come through home visitation. What is vital is direct communication.” I’d be the first to acknowledge that direct communication via alternative methods is helpful; however, I deal in the business world and often there is no substitute for face-to-face contact. So, (and I agree with Chris that I don’t understand Biblically the distinction some make between ruling and teaching elders), why do I see in some churches which do name someone as the preaching/teaching elder, how this person can almost totally neglect personal visitation so he can give himself continually to prayer and the ministry of the Word? There is no substitute for personal face-to-face contact by the senior pastor, even when the other elders/deacons are giving due diligence to this responsibility. I’m not saying the senior pastor has to be out xx hours every week doing home/hospital visitation, but the people need to see and know (and the word gets around very quickly) that their pastor visits, and is not living like a cloistered monk who only shows up on Sundays and Wednesdays.

  3. Hi, Paul. I’ve been thinking and reading and praying about this matter much in the last few months. Here’s some food for thought:

    1. I definitely agree that the pastor needs to be accessible and have face-to-face relationships with people. I think that’s part of the private ministry referenced in Acts 20:20 (“house to house”), and as such, is still part of the ministry of the Word described in Acts 6:4. I certainly wouldn’t suggest that a pastor be cloistered away. The idea that the pastor should intentionally distance himself from people by either formality or schedule is wrongheaded.

    That said…

    2. What effective pastoral care looks like is more difficult to define. We try to be on top of counseling needs, crises (deaths, hospital visits, etc.), discipleship relationships, etc. Of course, we’d like to do better in these areas. We also would like to be more proactive in regular “no agenda” visits, such as Baxter commends. The difficulty is that he committed an amazing amount of time to that. We’re trying to find a strategy that allows for proactive visits, but also allows for more time to be given to more crucial needs in the body and doesn’t take away from other responsibilities. It’s not easy.

    3. My understanding of the pastor’s ministry from Eph. 4:11-12 is that he is to equip the whole body to do the work of the ministry and to edify one another. Thus, the idea that “there is not substitute for face-to-face contact with the senior pastor” needs to be corrected in many instances, IMO. (Again, I’m not speaking of particular crises.) Put it this way: if someone has a need and I don’t personally get there, but other elders do and a host of fellow members do, that’s success, not failure, IMO. I think we’ve tended to lean to heavily on pastoral activity. For some, visits from non-pastors somehow don’t “count.” I think that idea needs to be corrected. Vigorously. If anything, a visit from a non-pastor should “count” double. I’m assuming here that the pastor isn’t just looking to make his own life easier and that he’s not inaccessible or lazy. I just think we need to decentralize ministry—a successful pastor may not (and should not) have perpetual face-to-face contact any time any member has any problem. We want a whole church of ministers. We want “every member ministry.” I think we are prone to lean too much on pastors to do what all Christians should do.

    4. I think we are also to prone to differentiate between what “pastors” and other elders do. Though there are exceptions (again, perhaps particular crises), the other elders here are capable of doing the same sort of ministry that I do. People just need to be taught to appreciate that. Put it this way, if elders are calling me to let me know of needs within the body rather than vice versa all the time, I think that’s a good thing.

    5. Though a call or email isn’t sufficient, I do think a word of encouragement, a follow-up from a discussion, a “just checking in” call or note can go far. That can’t be the extent of the contact, but it’s helpful.

    6. In addition to people being trained that care from the body at large is a great thing (vs. the idea that they’ve been neglected if [ahem] The Pastor hasn’t been by), they also need to be taught that they are to request help in times of particular need (per James 5:14) and not merely test the elders by waiting for their attention. There are too many who are happy to sit and sulk that they’ve not been called or helped rather than taking the initiative and asking for help.

    Bottom line: in the long run, I think the church is better served by pastors who train and deploy other elders, deacons, and members to care for the body (along with themselves!) than by looking to the pastors as the answer to every need. That’s bad for the pastors and bad for the body.

    Now—no joke here—I’ve got to go make a visit. :)

  4. I have been doing personal study on this interesting topic and also the basic NT model of meetings and leadership. there seems to be a modern cultural and traditional separation between the “pastor” and elders. It appears that the NT shows only equal elder with the indication, as Getz in his book on elders states that there seems to be a model of one taking the lead. All are pastors. All are responsible for shepherding. The lead pastor, commonly called “senior pastor” or just “pastor” is not a biblical term. It does not even mean that the one who takes the term of “pastor” is the only teacher. When did the term “pastor” mean “sole preacher” or “sole teacher”?
    Then again, I am beginning to wonder why the lecture mode is looked upon as the best way to teach in church when it is not nearly everywhere else. What seminary or college would promote the lecture method as the best way to help students really learn? Why so little dialog and interaction? Maybe we could help our people “learn” more to interact with them and allow them to interact with each other — seeing God’s gifts and working through each other with the “pastor” leading and directing. The NT seems to indicate that we all can help and encourage each other. Maybe we would have an easier time to follow-up with private counseling and accountability it we modeled more during our big gathering together. Maybe we would have greater times of real love at work and have a greater evangelistic impact on “outsiders” as they witness real people sharing God’s reality in our “worship” services. This is what David Black (google his site) and Marva Dawn (Worship Evangelism) state in very eloquent ways.

  5. Hi, Noel. Sorry for not replying sooner.

    I agree with most of what you say regarding the pastor/elder question. You could say that TCBC has 4 pastors (shepherds), 2 of whom are paid and can minister full-time. We’ve typically made the distinction by calling the paid elders “pastor” (as Presbyterians have called them “Ministers,” etc.), but I think we need to be clear that our work is all the same—overseeing and feeding the flock. I would note, however, that the concept of different responsibilities/degrees of involvement appears (IMO) in a passage like 1 Tim 5:17.

    As for the lecture model, I think you’re pressing one truth to the exclusion of another. Certainly interaction is a good thing, and we promote that (as I mention in in this post. The NT teaches that the church has a number of gifted teachers, and that all believers are to teach and exhort one another (Col. 3:16). So I agree with you.

    However, the NT and OT both also speak often of preaching (Greek—kerusso, as in 2 Tim 4:2) that is a proclamation rather than a discussion. I think we see elements of both in Paul’s example in Acts 20:20, where his ministry of the Word was both private and public.

    Hope that helps! Thanks for reading and posting.

  6. In my study I have found what looked like two different types of meetings in the early church and I was a little confused. Then I came across this quote and it helped focus my attention:
    “There are two different kinds of meetings in Scripture—the church meeting and the apostolic meeting. …In the latter only one man spoke, and all the others constituted his audience. One stood before the others, and by his preaching directed the thoughts and hearts of those who sat quietly listening.” Watchman Nee, Normal Christian, p.118.

    Another: “First, let’s examine the commonly accepted supposition that states when the church gathers preaching should take center stage. After examining all the New Testament passages which list the words ‘preach’ and ‘teach’ and their derivatives, I made some interesting discoveries. The first discovery was that the New Testament speaks far more of ‘teaching’ than “preaching.” There are only fifteen references to Jesus preaching, while we have 58 references to Him teaching. In the pastoral epistles, where we would expect to find that which should characterize the ministry of God’s Word in the church, there are three references to preaching and fourteen references to teaching believers. Of the three verses which speak of preaching in the church, only one actually refers to preaching. The normal Greek word for preach (kerusso) occurs only in 2Tim.4:2. The other two references in the pastoral epistles which speak of “preaching” are translations of different Greek words. For example, in 1 Timothy 5:17 Paul refers to elders who labor in preaching and teaching. The Greek word for ‘preaching’ is logos, which means ‘word.’ Actually, Paul was merely describing elders who labor in the word of God. In Timothy 6:2 Paul urges Timothy to “’teach and preach these principles.’ The word for “preach” is the Greek word parakaleo, which means “to exhort, comfort, or encourage.” Paul was actually urging Timothy to teach and exhort by means of the principles he had just enumerated. Thus, it appears that our emphasis on preaching in church meetings has been misplaced. The New Testament gives a far greater emphasis to teaching than to preaching.” Brian Anderson, Discovering Interactive Teaching, Milpitas Bible Fellowship

    I do not see us ever going back to a truly NT church meeting style, but wonder if we might use the directives Paul gave the early church to promote more involvement. I see us training people to be spectators, looking at the back of each others heads. We try to make up for this loss in our small groups with some success.

    I am not trying to promote some radical idea, but wonder if we have left the biblical example and maybe miss instilling some of the experiences that powered the early church. I would love to send you my thoughts in in an acrobat format and have you critique them, if you would have the time and interest.

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