Welcome to our latest HTS blog series entitled “Officer Qualifications By Way of Catechism” by Dr. Patrick Morgan.
The elders’ catechism, Question 1. What is the first duty of elders according to 1 Timothy 2:1-8?
Answer: The duty of elders according to 1 Timothy 2:1-8 is that an elder ought to be first a man of urgent prayer – desiring God’s glory, through supplication, prayer, intercession, and thanksgiving on the basis of Christ and His work on behalf of himself, his family, his church, and all people’s salvation and obedience to the will of God. (note 1)
I was once reading a book by Tom Clancy called “Patriot Games” in which the wife and daughter of the hero, Jack Ryan, are in the hospital after a terrorist attack. Jack is portrayed by Clancy as a good Irishman, a Roman Catholic. (Despite stereotypes of modernity, the history of the early church reveals this connection between the being Irish and Roman Catholic is actually a revisionist fabrication. For a good one hundred years, Ireland was a bastion of the pre-imperial catholic (i.e., un-Roman) orthodoxy. Anyway, Jack is met by one of his friends who asks if there is anything he can do for Jack. Jack is concerned with little more than the task of catching the perpetrators and punishing them. The friend asks, can I pray for them? Jack answers, “I’ve got a priest working on that job” (Or words to that effect). Clancy wants us to see that Jack is the hero, a man of action! He’s a real man, and real men, according to Clancy, can’t be bothered with something so passive as prayer – real men delegate those things to a pro with a funny looking collar.
The vignette from Clancy’s book reveals a lot of what is wrong with the prevailing view in the world about prayer and devotion. What I am calling the ‘prevailing view’ is this: that it is entirely acceptable, even preferred, to pass on the weightier matters of private and public prayer to a ‘professional’ than to undertake it one’s self; piety is not what real men concern themselves with – real men take charge; real men can’t be bothered by the inaction of prayer. Real men farm that kind of thing out to others and get down to doing stuff. What rot!
First, it is a complete fallacy that prayer is inaction. Ephesians 6 contains the “whole armor of God” passage popular among Christians. I have seen church kids dress up in the armor ready for action. We will miss something in our application of the Scripture if we don’t ask the proper question: What are we donning the armor for? The clue is in the verbs of the passage, specifically the syntactical connection between the imperative “Stand” in verse 14 and the participle expressing the nature of this standing in verse 18: Stand … (having put on all the armor)… praying. Too many times I have observed the symptoms of pray-less-ness among men in leadership in the church. Elders gather and meet and want to get right to business, right down to work, thinking their role is one of sitting on a council passing resolutions and making decisions; if shepherding concerns are discussed, they are handled as tasks, and if prayer IS offered, it is usually short, devoid from personal understanding, and formulaic. The lesson of Ephesians 6 is that prayer is the work.
Second, it is a mistake to think you can do anything successfully (toward God) without prayer. Paraphrasing from J.C. Ryle’s classic, “A Call to Prayer”:
Bibles read without prayer; marriages contracted without prayer; journeys undertaken without prayer; residences chosen without prayer; friendships formed without prayer… If the daily act of private prayer is hurried over, neglected or gone through without a heart of devotion, it amounts to nothing more than backsliding. This neglect has led to the lingering Lots, the unstable Samsons, the wife-idolizing Solomons, the inconsistent Asas, the pliable Jehoshaphats, the over-careful Marthas, of whom so many are to be found in the Church of Christ. All share a simple history: they became careless about private prayer in favor of what outwardly was seen in their life.
The conclusion is that true under-shepherd-elders are to be men of action, and that means that they are to be, above all, men of prayer.
The illustration from Mr. Clancy’s book demonstrates what I call The Heresy of Substitutionary Devotion.
Substitutionary devotion has two aspects: first, it is the tendency to hand over our own devotion to God to another (someone ‘professional’) like Mr. Clancy portrays his hero Jack Ryan, or, and this second aspect is much more common in our Reformed and Presbyterian churches, it is the willing assumption of exercising the means of grace for another – substituting our devotion for theirs.
On the first aspect: relinquishing of piety to others (the second aspect is the next entry in this series).
Devotion or piety is an essential quality of the Christian life. We often think of it as the ‘manner of life’ which is a visible evidence of a credible profession of faith. Christian piety is nothing that can be delegated or relinquished to another. Proverbs warns us about hiding our hearts from God: “The backslider in heart will be filled with his own ways, but a good man will be satisfied from above” (Proverbs 14:14).
Piety or devotion, then, refers to how a Christian exercises his or her affections toward God in obedience to His will and devotion to His service. Admittedly, it is difficult to gauge another’s status in this, but the question is not for others, it’s for you. What is the quality of your own devotional life? Weak piety most often shows in outward things: elders with a lack of Scripture knowledge or interest, elders’ prayers read verbatim, or their impromptu prayers that are the samey-same words prayed each and every time.
So Ryle asks, “Do you pray?…Whether you attend worship or not, your minister knows. Whether you have family prayers in your house or not, your relations know. But whether you pray in private or not, is a matter between yourself and God.” (note 2) The one who leaves to others the labor of praying for themselves and others in private and yet thinks himself still suited to labor as an elder deacon, minister or even a believer, deceives himself (and others).
In fact, can a non-praying person say he is a disciple of Christ? Unlikely – oh, for a time, there are barren stretches in believers’ lives during which he kicks against the pricks of providence, but in the end, as Westminster Confession 18.6 says, they return and are supported even in the most stern providence.
18.6. True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin, which the conscience and grieveth the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God’s withdrawing the light of His countenance, and suffering even such as fear Him to walk in darkness and to have no light: yet are they never so utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived (note 3); and by the which, in the mean time, they are supported from utter despair.(note 4)
The ‘non-praying elder’ (or ‘Christian,’ for that matter) is an oxymoron. Prayerlessness is perhaps the greatest sin never confessed among us. Yet, it is such a grave sin that it is correct to say that anyone, in his pray-less-ness, is not suited for any labor in the church at all. If you are in such a state (i.e., prayerless), do the honorable thing and seek the spiritual ones in the church for help, better yet, ask God Himself, “who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him (you).” (James 1:5b)
Prayer is the most basic and essential measure of one’s piety, it is said to be one of the surest marks of true Christian. The men we need and don’t need are like those Samuel Miller wrote about 200 years ago:
“A few such (pious) Elders in every church, would, with the divine blessing, do more to silence infidelity, to strike even the scorner dumb – to promote the triumph of the gospel truth – and to rouse sustain, and bear forward the cause of vital piety, than hundreds, of those Ministers and Elders, who act as if they supposed that supplying the little details of an ecclesiastical formality was the whole purpose of their official appointment. And, in truth, we have no reason to expect, in general, that the piety of the mass of members in any church, will rise much higher than that of their rulers and guides. Where the latter are either lifeless formalists, or, at best, but babes in Christ we shall rarely find many under their care of more vitality or superior stature.” (note 5)
Miller is saying that there is no more basic or essential qualification for office than a man should be a man of prayer; Miller’s warning, from 1842, seems to suggest that prayerlessness and the Heresy of Substitutionary devotion has typically been a common ailment of church leaders throughout the history of the church. In the Jack Ryan/Tom Clancy sense, it manifests itself in one relinquishing Christian duty and privilege to another. But, as said above, there is a second side to the coin – the Assumption side of Substitutionary Piety, the subject of the next entry in this series.
- This ‘catechism’ is not a standard adopted by any church, but is an appendix of a larger work by the author based on 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and other applicable passages from the pastoral epistles.
- Ryle, J.C., A Call to Prayer, p.17.
- Miller, Samuel, The Ruling Elder, (M. Ogle & Son, Edinburgh, 1842):134.
- 1 John 3:9. Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. Luke 22:32. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren. Psalm 51:8, 12. Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice…. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit. See Psalm 73:15.
Micah 7:7–9. Therefore I will look unto the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation: my God will hear me. Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord shall be a light unto me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against him, until he plead my cause, and execute judgment for me: he will bring me forth to the light, and I shall behold his righteousness. Jeremiah 32:40. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me. Isaiah 54:7–14. For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee. In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer…. For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee…. In righteousness shalt thou be established: thou shalt be far from oppression; for thou shalt not fear: and from terror; for it shall not come near thee. 2 Corinthians 4:8–10. We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.
Dr. Patrick Morgan resides in Sioux Falls, SD, serving as Heidelberg’s Director of International Studies.