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Tools for the Elder's Toolbox

William Shishko

  • The Elder and His Work, by David Dickson. Edited by George Kennedy McFarland and Philip Graham Ryken. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004 (reprint), 131 pages, paper.
  • Taking Heed to the Flock. Peter Y. De Jong. Christian Education Committee of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 81 pages, paper.

Ruling elders are in need of short, practical tools to help them in their work, particularly in their work of elder visitation. The OPC Form of Government (X.3) states:

Ruling elders, individually and jointly with the pastor in the session, are to lead the church in the service of Christ. They are to watch diligently over the people committed to their charge to prevent corruption of doctrine or morals... They should visit the people, especially the sick, instruct the ignorant, comfort the mourning, and nourish and guard the children of the covenant. They should pray with and for the people.

These two volumes provide the kind of information that ruling elders need as they seek conscientiously to fulfill these duties.

The Elder and His Work by David Dickson is simply a delightful book. Written by an exemplary nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian elder, his little volume went through several printings in Scotland in the 1870s and 1880s before being published and widely used in the United States. P&R has done us a great service by reprinting it and doing so in a pleasing format. This new edition has a very insightful introduction by Elder George McFarland and Minister of the Word Philip Ryken, each of whom serve at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. The introduction summarizes Dickson's context, the work of an elder, and the work's significance in the modern church. Study questions at the end of each of the thirteen chapters, along with extensive explanatory footnotes, make this book very suitable for elder training in the local church.

The book reads as if Dickson were sitting in a rocking chair speaking with us in a down to earth manner about the character and work of a ruling elder. His "fireside chats" range from the importance and qualifications of ruling elders to their general duties and specific "means of doing good" in their work. There are even all-too-brief chapters on the work of the ruling elder in connection with church discipline, fostering good relations among church members, and working with the minister and the session.

It is refreshing to hear Dickson's love of biblical church government. "We need no new machinery in the Christian church. It is all provided ready to our hand in the Presbyterian system. What we need is motive-power to set it going and keep it going" (26). Though the author's observations are from a period quite distant from our own, they are remarkably modern: "Christian parents in these days may well be anxious about their children. The spirit of the age leads to a peculiar and precocious development of young people, and there is an earlier pressure from the world's tide of pleasure than formerly" (68). "To be occupied with our little selves is not God's way of making us either healthy or happy" (105).

Rather than giving abstract concepts, Dickson teems with practical sagacity that is often expressed in pithy statements such as, "An uneasy conscience likes to find fault in others" (32). "The church and the world are thus in danger of fraternizing, and it is always the church which loses" (33). "Where there is a revival of religion there is a revival of praise" (65). One rarely finds so many pieces of gold ore in such a small mine! I add my voice to the many who were "persuaded that the practical carrying out, by all the elders, of the suggestions of this little book, would be to many a congregation like life from the dead."

The volume by Peter Y. De Jong, Taking Heed to the Flock, augments Dickson by focusing on the elder's (and minister's) work of family visitation. Its purpose is clearly stated in the Preface:

As far as we have been able to ascertain, no monograph has been written in the American language about this aspect of the official work of the churches. Hence, our elders are particularly at a loss when they must discharge this work which belongs specifically to their office. Lest we lose something which is distinctively Reformed and which has contributed immeasurably to the spiritual strength of our churches, our people should be better informed on the nature, necessity and purpose of family visitation. To meet this need in some small way these pages have been written.

De Jong accomplishes his purpose in ten helpful chapters. Beginning with "The Name and Nature of Family Visitation," the author offers a compact but valuable overview of the history of family visitation from the ancient church through the churches of the Reformation. The chapter on "The Scriptural Basis of Family Visitation" could have been far better developed. Instances of "family visitation" by God himself in the Old Testament, and by Christ and the apostles in the New Testament are rich with insights that should have been included here. However, the continued treatments of the purposes, necessity, requirements, value, and proper practice of family visitation are most worthwhile.

While the language and the "world" of this work is rooted in the continental Reformed churches (in one of which De Jong was a minister), the essence of the material is all worthy to be "contextualized" for Presbyterians and applied according to our church standards. DeJong's high biblical view of the elders as official representatives of Christ needs emphasis in our egalitarian day. His warnings that elder visits should not degenerate into merely social visits, that they must not be "inquisitorial," and that they must not become merely routine, all hit their mark. Likewise, his reminders that family visitation must build on faithful Reformed preaching and that its goal is "the spiritual equipment of the congregation to serve God in singleness of heart" (47) help elders see both the place and the purpose of what they understandably regard as a daunting task.

Both of these otherwise very useful tools for the elder's tool box suffer from literary awkwardness that may diminish the impact they should have. Dickson's quaint expressions remind us of the book's nineteenth-century origin, e.g., "The Elder and His District." De Jong's over-use of the passive voice can make the reading somewhat tedious. How much Reformed writers with so much good to offer in print need skilled copy editors to make their presentations more palatable and digestible to a modern readership!

Beyond this stylistic criticism is a greater concern: We need modern David Dicksons and modern models of Taking Heed to the Flock that speak to Reformed churches in the twenty-first century! By all means get these two volumes and use them for ongoing elder training. Session members should read them and time should be allotted for ministers and elders to discuss them. But, after that, we must put these things into practice in the week to week life of our churches. May these books help us move forward with revived appreciation for the ruling elder and his labors, and with a revival of the necessary work of family visitation. Both revivals are absolutely essential to the ongoing biblical reformation we so desperately need in our day of low churchmanship, low spirituality, and low appreciation of what it means to be truly Reformed and Presbyterian congregations.

William Shishko
Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Franklin Square, NY

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