By Cornelis Van Dam
P&R Publishing (November 2009)
Dr. Cornelis Van Dam, professor of Old Testament at the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada has written a very helpful and informative work entitled The Elder. This book will serve professors, students, pastors, and laymen well in their understanding and application of what it means to be a servant leader elder in the Church of Jesus Christ. Admittedly, the range from professor to laymen is a wide one, but Van Dam's style, reliance on Scripture, and clarity help him pull this off.
As I read the book I found it exceptionally helpful in a number of ways. Therefore allow me to take a few of the most salient points I discovered in this work and exposit them briefly. Van Dam's work is divided into five major parts or sections: An Introduction, the Old Testament origins of elders, the concept of continuity and transformation between the testaments, the elders as preservers and nurturers of life in the covenant community, and what it means to maintain and build on this heritage. The sub-title of the book gives us extra insight into the scope and intent of the author: "Today's Ministry Rooted in All of Scripture." Again, Van Dam delivers what he promises in that he demonstrates how the office of elder is truly found throughout the scriptures.
By way of general comment, I'll begin by saying that this book will be an exceedingly valuable tool for all who are serious about the ordinary means of grace ministry described and prescribed in Scripture. Van Dam clearly and cogently delineates the duties of a biblical elder as well as his importance for the proper and decent functioning of a biblical congregation. But he does far more than this. For example, he engages the reader regarding the nature of an "ecclesiastical office," which is a subject that is in dire need of thorough biblical examination in the twenty-first century Church. There exists a lack of understanding regarding the nature of the office of an ecclesiastical office bearer and, as often as not, the biblical elder is not treated with the respect his office demands.
After the author has laid the groundwork of the nature of the office, he moves to an exposition of the "shepherd" and his flock, including an explanation of what it entails to be under-shepherds of the "Good Shepherd." What significantly bolsters Van Dam's case is that he writes this book in concert with Scripture. The reader discovers a treasure trove of scriptural references throughout the work. His exegesis is solid and the texts cited are always pertinent and germane. In other words, what Van Dam gives the reader is not his opinion, but rather he opens the riches of Scripture for us and points us to the treasures and benefits that accrue to believers from the God of the covenant of grace. He makes it patently clear that elders are not merely a New Testament phenomenon, but that they have deep roots in the Old Testament economy.
In the second part of the book, the author devotes quite a bit of time discussing elders as "leaders" and "judges" in the Old Testament and how that played out in the lives of God's people. He explains their tasks and how they rose to positions of leadership from among the tribes and clans of Israel. This Old Testament background, should not, according to Van Dam, be viewed as discontinuous, but rather should be viewed as the Older Covenant counterpart to the New Testament reality of elders. In other words, Van Dam asserts that within covenant theology there is a strong strand of continuity that gives an overarching unity to Holy Scripture.
Part 3, Chapter 6 is particularly insightful as it treats the distinction between Teaching and Ruling elders as well as some of the most salient of the practical/spiritual consequences of this distinction. He is well versed in this difference and provides a very helpful and informative chapter on the subject. Of particular importance is the emphasis placed on the mutual respect and good working relationship between Teaching and Ruling elders. In the modern Church, this harmonious relationship is not always the case. Younger pastors and church planters will benefit from this clarification and it will provide them with a strong foundation when they go to their respective congregations. It is heartening to find Van Dam spending time on this feature since it is not often discussed in much detail in his Reformed church affiliation. It is more than gratifying to note how truly knowledgeable he is on matters outside of his own ecclesiastical circles.
Chapter 7 contains a discussion that far too many do not understand and apply today: The place of elders in the administration of the "keys of the kingdom." Because the biblical concept of the keys of the kingdom is rarely discussed, few today have given ample serious consideration to how this plays out in a local congregation. The book will be invaluable to those people and to those who simply need to refresh their memories on what Jesus meant when he gave the keys of the kingdom to the Church. Van Dam's account is both clear and concise. He accurately delineates how the exercise of the keys of the kingdom functions within a local covenant community (congregation). Understanding the place and importance of the keys of the kingdom is a highly valuable tool for local congregations as it teaches them about true, biblical submission to their respective elected elders.
Also in Part 3 the author devotes a section explaining precisely what biblical ordination is and particularly what the "laying on of hands" at ordination signifies. He provides the Old Testament background for the practice, which also puts it into the New Testament perspective. Before he concludes Part 3, Van Dam takes the time to tie the section together by sketching the relationship among elders, the keys of the kingdom, and the congregation.
Part 4 aims at more application of what has been discussed and described previously, thus functioning as a building block in erecting his biblical argument. The focus in this part is on elders as "preservers" and "nurturers" of the congregation's spiritual life and development. This is highly important for a number of reasons, but two immediately come to mind. First, elders should be at the forefront as those who preserve the scriptural and confessional tradition of the congregational members.
Second, the elder should be prepared to nurture the congregation scripturally and confessionally in order to aid them in their spiritual growth and maturity. The author opens with a chapter directed at what it means concretely to rule and to have authority in the congregation. First and foremost, Van Dam explains that ruling well entails loving leadership. This, too, is an indispensable characteristic of an elder, since he needs to be empathetic with those entrusted into his care and patient with them in their spiritual development.
Closely following upon this requirement is the recognition by elders that they are "stewards" of God's house. In addition, they have been entrusted with the gospel for the edification of God's covenant people. The upshot of Van Dam's statements is that "office bearers are essentially dealing with family members, as a father deals with his children." (140.) Thankfully, Van Dam has touched on the notion of stewardship because it, too, is not often mentioned either in terms of the Christian life generally or the role of biblical elders specifically.
Chapter 9 changes the spotlight's direction and concentrates on the elders' "self-watch." He derives this concept from Acts 20:28. Certainly, keeping watch over his own life and spiritual development is an essential aspect of the elder's calling. Knowing that he will be "targeted" by the forces of evil, he must ensure that he makes regular and frequent use of the ordinary means of grace provided by God and then passes those benefits on to God's people. Van Dam draws two fundamental and basic recognitions from the Acts 20 text: "First, elders will do everything without their power to make sure that their lives are focused on Christ." In other words, he calls elders to a consistent spiritual walk themselves.
Second, he states, "the realization of their own limitations will make elders sensitive to the struggles of those in their charge." (161.) Biblical elders are not meant to be figureheads or mere "appointees," but rather they are called to be empathetic towards those under their loving care. Van Dam proceeds from the premise that biblical elders will be elected by the congregation and not appointed by the pastor to serve as a cadre of "yes men."
In summary, then, elders should lead, gather, and nurture the flock with which they have been entrusted in a very conscious, deliberate manner. They are to point God's people to Scripture and patiently provide positive encouragement to the congregation in its walk of faith.
Part 5 is entitled "Maintaining and Building on the Heritage." Here Van Dam touches on two "hot button" topics, namely female elders and the issue of elders for life. He is aware that "Our present egalitarian culture has asked why women cannot be elders." (207.) The question is asked whether the texts in Scripture prohibiting women to be elders and ecclesiastical leaders are not culturally bound. Moreover, "Does not limiting the eldership to males unjustifiably exclude the use of the gifts that women have to offer the church?" (Ibid.) Certainly, these are questions that are alive and well in the modern Church. There are many services a woman may render and perform in the local congregation, but serving as an elder is not one of them. Van Dam states that while the cultural context is an important matter in these discussions, more important still is "what Scripture itself tells us about changing contexts and the unchanging demands of God." (208.) To make his case against ordaining females as elders, Van Dam takes the reader on a brief excursion through 1 Timothy 2:11-14, 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, and 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35. His arguments are convincing and succinct. Therefore, he concludes that even though a woman might serve as a CEO/CFO in a business, she is prohibited by the Word of God from serving as an elder--either Teaching or Ruling.
It is not as if, however, Van Dam's treatment of this subject is purely negative. The exact opposite is the case. He devotes an entire sub-section dealing with "The Participation of Women in the Church." Nevertheless, the author's conclusion is that "Scripture teaches and requires a male eldership." (217.)
After this, Van Dam tackles the question of the "tenure" of elected elders: Should it be Definite or Indefinite tenure? In other words, is the concept of elders for life a correct one? Here the author walks us through a very interesting history of the question going back to Scotland and The First Book of Discipline (1560) and moving forward from there. His explanation is both worthy of note and informative regarding the question of elders for life. In terms of the experience on the continent in dealing with this matter, Van Dam points out that "the Provincial Synod of Utrecht declared in 1612 that it was desirable for elders to be chosen for life although the synod recognized that this was no longer possible and thus accepted the established practice of eldership for a definite term. However, in the province of Groningen elders were chosen for life until the end of the eighteenth century." (220.) At the end of the discussion, however, Van Dam is forced to conclude that "there is no clear biblical instruction that the eldership must have an indefinite term" (224) and that "one must be careful not to force the issue and insist that an eldership of indefinite tenure is the only right way." (225.)
The final chapter deals with the matter of "The Privilege of the Eldership." This privilege is twofold: First, there is the privilege of being an elder in the Church of Jesus Christ and second, there is also the privilege that a congregation has to have elders. (227.)
The Elder also contains a series of discussion questions in the back of the book on each chapter making it suitable for study in small groups or in Session/Consistory meetings. It also contains a list of other resources dealing with the elder for further study.
In conclusion, let me unequivocally state that I am convinced that this book should be read and re-read simply because there is so much biblical helpful information contained in it. Moreover, I highly recommend this to pastors, church planters, students, and the man and woman in the pew. I recommend that those teaching Pastoral Theology add this book to their required reading list. Dr. Van Dam has performed a great service to the Church of Jesus Christ with this excellent book.
Ron Gleason, "The Elder: A Review", Reformation21 (March 2010)
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