Ruling Elders

“And God hath set some in the church…  governments…”

1 Cor. 12:28

“…he that ruleth, [let it be] with diligence…”

Rom. 12:8

“Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labor in the Word and doctrine.”

1 Tim. 5:17

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Order of Contents

Articles  2
Books  2

On the Nature of the Office

Why Elders are Needed in the Church
Ruling Elders, Unlike Ministers, Respresent the People
Ruling Elders are Ordained Officers, not Lay-Persons
The Power of Ordination of Rulings Elders Comes from a Presbytery
The Office is for Life, though Elders may Serve by Rotation
Ruling Elders Ideally ought to be Paid
Elders may be Reproved

On the Functions of Ruling Elders

Ruling Elders do Not have the Calling or Authority for Preaching or
.      Ministering the Word in Public Worship by Office
Ruling Elders do Not have the Authority for Congregational Prayer by Office
Ruling Elders are Not able to Confer Power in the Ordination of a Pastor

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Articles

1600’s

Guthrie, James – A Treatise of Ruling Elders & Deacons

Guthrie (1612?–1661) was a Scottish covenanter.

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1800’s

Binnie, William – ‘The Ruling Eldership’  9 pp.  from The Church, p. 122 ff.

Binnie was a minister in the Free Church of Scotland.

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Books

1600’s

Gillespie, George – An Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland in the Points of Ruling Elders, etc.  EEBO  (1641)  270 pp.

The classic, and fullest, historic, reformed piece on the office of the ruling elder.  Gillespie sets forth the (right) view that the ruling elder is a distinct office from minister, is not a lay-position, and is still an ‘elder’, or Biblical ‘presbyter’.

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1800’s

Miller, Samuel – The Warrant, Nature & Duties of the Office of Ruling Elder  (1842)  310 pp.

Miller follows the paradigm of Gillespie and was the last American to get the office right, before the American presbyterians mainly in the north, Hodge, Smyth, etc., and the presbyterians in the South, Thornwell, Dabney, Breckinridge, etc. went separate directions.

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Why Elders are Needed in the Church

John Calvin

Commentary on 1 Cor. 5, v. 4

“It is to be carefully observed, that Paul, though an apostle, does not himself, as an individual, excommunicate according to his own pleasure [in 1 Cor. 5], but consults with the Church, that the matter may be transacted by common authority.  He, it is true, takes the lead, and shows the way, but, in taking others as his associates, he intimates with sufficient plainness, that this authority does not belong to any one individual.

As, however, a multitude never accomplishes anything with moderation or seriousness, if not governed by counsel, there was appointed in the ancient Church a presbytery, that is, an assembly of elders, who, by the consent of all, had the power of first judging in the case.  From them the matter was brought before the people, but it was as a thing already judged of.

Whatever the matter may be, it is quite contrary to the appointment of Christ and his apostles — to the order of the Church, and even to equity itself, that this right should be put into the hands of any one man, of excommunicating at his pleasure any that he may choose.  Let us take notice, then, that in excommunicating this limitation be observed — that this part of discipline be exercised by the common counsel of the elders, and with the consent of the people, and that this is a remedy in opposition to tyranny.  For nothing is more at variance with the discipline of Christ than tyranny, for which you open a wide door, if you give one man the entire power.”


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Ruling Elders, Unlike Ministers, Represent the People

Quote

George Gillespie

English Popish Ceremonies  (1637), pt. 3, ch. 8, Digression 4, p. 186

“Now if Christ has committed the power of excommunication unto the Church, what have bishops to say for themselves, who appropriate the power [wholly] unto themselves, each one in his own diocese? (Calvin & Cartwright on Mt. 18; Paraeus on 1 Cor. 5)  For we cannot give the name of the Church unto a bishop: because he is but one man, and the Church is a company of many men.

Nay, nor yet can we give the name of the Church unto a company of bishops; for if they might be called the Church, it should be for this respect alone, because they represent the Church.  But soli Episcopi, etc. ‘Bishops alone’ says [Johann] Gerard [a Lutheran]:

‘or they who teach, cannot represent the Church, since hearers also pertain to the definition thereof, but the presbytery can represent the Church, whereunto not only they pertain who labor in the Word, but also elders or governors, put in authority, for expeding of ecclesiastical matters in [the] name of the whole Church.’

We grant then (Trelcatius, Instittutes of Theology, bk. 1, p. 291), that by the ‘Church’ [in Mt. 18], Christ means that company of Church governors whereby a certain particular Church is represented, but for as much as the Church consists of two integrant parts, viz. pastors and sheep, teachers and hearers, we therefore deny that the representative Church whereof Christ speaks can be any other than that eccle∣siastical consistory whereof we have spoken.”

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Ruling Elders are Ordained Officers, Not Lay-Persons

Quote

Samuel Rutherford

Lex Rex…  (1644; rep. Sprinkle), p. 216, speaking of his Anglican opponent

“…his invectives against ruling elders, falsely called lay-elders…”


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The Power of Ordination of Rulings Elders Comes from a Presbytery

The power of ordination comes from a presbytery though only the implicit consent of the presbytery is needed for such a valid ordination in regularly constituted churches.

The English presbyterians directly after Westminster had the practice of their presbyteries examining and approving Ruling Elders elected by congregations as is seen in the instance of the Manchester Classis (Presbytery) on Aug. 14 & Sept. 11, 1649 on pp. 119 & 121 of ed. William A. Shaw, Minutes of the Manchester Presbyterian Classis, 1646-1660, Part 2  New Series, vol. 22 (Chetham Society, 1831).

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The Office of Ruling Elder is for Life, though Elders may Serve by Rotation

Quotes

The Scottish 2nd Book of Discipline  1578

ch. 6, ‘Of Elders & their Office’

“2. …Elders once lawfully called to the office, and having gifts of God meet to exercise the same, may not leave it again.  Albeit such a number of elders may be chosen in certain congregations, that one part of them may relieve another for a reasonable space, as was among the Levites under the law in serving of the temple.  The number of elders in every congregation cannot well be limited, but should be according to the bounds and necessity of the people.”

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George Gillespie

An Assertion of the Government of Scotland… (Edinburgh, 1641), pt, 1

ch. 14, pp. 104-6

“As for the maintenance and the continu­ance of the office of ruling elders, we love not unnecessary multiplication of questions, let every Church do herein what they find most convenient.

The manner of our Church in these things is such as best befits the condition of the same, and such as cannot be in reason condemned; Neither is a stipend, nor continuance in the function till death, essential to the ministry of the Church, but separable from the same.

The Levites of old served not at all times, but by course, and when they were 50 years old, they were wholly liberat[ed], from the burden and labor (though not from the attendance) of the Levitical service; and ministers may still upon the Church’s permission, for lawful reasons and urgent necessities, be absent a whole year, and lon­ger too, from their particular charges.

The apostles, when they were first sent through Judea, took no stipend, Mt. 10:8-9.  Nei­ther did Paul take any at Corinth, 1 Cor. 9:18.  The ministers among the Waldenses work with their hands for their maintenance.  The old patriarchs were priests and preachers to their families, and maintained themselves by the work of their hands, fee­ding of flocks, tilling the ground, etc.

These things I do not mention as rules, to be followed by us, but to show, that the intermission of the exercise of the ministry, the want of maintainance and laboring with the hands, are not altogether repugnant, nor inconsistent with the nature of the vocation of the ministers of the Word, but in some cases hic & nunc [here and now], may be most approveable in them: much more in ruling elders.

The revenues of our Church are so small that they cannot spare stipends to ruling elders, which makes them willing to serve without stipends; and lest they should be overburdened with this their ser­vice, though they be chosen and called to be ruling elders as long as they live, at least till they merit to be deposed, yet our book of policy [Second Book of Discipline] allows them that ease of intermission and serving by course which was allowed to the Levites of old in the Temple.

The double honor which the apostle commands to give unto elders that rule well, Tim. 5:17, needs not to be expounded of maintenance and obedience; for by double honor we may either simply understand much honor, or by way of comparison double honor in respect of the widows, whom he had before commanded to ho­nor, 1 Tim. 5:3, as Calvin expounds the place.  Both these interpretations does Oecumenius give upon the same place.”

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Postscript, p. 5

“The second defect which he [an opponent] wishes supplied is that the temporary ruling elders may be made perpetual and for life…  This I assent unto providing he admit a distinction betwixt the office itself, and the exercise of the same.  The office of a ruling elder ought to be for his life no less than the pastors; yet must we not condemn those Churches which dispense with the intermission of their actual attendance for a certain space, and permit them to exercise their office by course, as the Levites did of old, whose example himself here takes for a pattern.”

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Samuel Rutherford

A Peaceable & Temperate Plea…  (London, 1642), p. 290  Rutherford overlooks the term ‘lay-elders’ here from the opponent.

“Question [Objection] 4:  But the ancients knew no lay-elders.

Answer:  Nor do we de jure [by right] know them [as a standing and universal law in all cases], they are Church-men, and should be for all their lifetime entertained upon the Church’s charges; what our Church de facto [in actual fact] does tolerate by reason of our Church’s poverty, is another question.”

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Articles

Not Wholly Recommended

Murray, John – ‘The Ordination of Elders: Some Arguments Against Term Eldership’  being pp. 23-25 of The Presbyterian Guardian,  Feb., 1955.  Also reprinted as ‘Arguments Against Term Eldership’  in Works, vol. 2, ch. 29, pp. 351-356.

Note the discrepancy between Murray’s position and that of the Church of Scotland and Gillespie above.  Murray begins his article by distinguishing two positions (both of which are wrong), he arguing for the latter:

(1) Elders are elected and ordained to the office for a limited period of time, or a term (and then they cease to be elders);

(2) “election and ordination should have in view permanent tenure and exercise of the office,” that is, for a lifetime.

While Murray allows for deposition from the office due to immorality or inability to continue in it, yet he does not speak of allowing an intermission of service or functions, due to any number of concerns in life.  He says, “we may not separate the office from its functions.”

Murray also makes the mistake that if an elder needs to move away from that particular church, then “It is not feesible for the elder to retain his office…”  This is a principle of congregationalism.  The presbyterians distinguished between ordination and installation in a charge.  The elder remains an elder, but would no longer be installed at that charge, though may be installed elsewhere into another charge.

Murray notes:  “It is true that the practice of ordaining ruling elders for a limited period has a long history in Reformed Churches.  Many interesting facts could be brought to light if that history were to be traced.”

Reformed Reader – ‘Arguments Against Term Eldership’  7 paragraphs

This article summarizes Murray’s argument in his article above.

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Ruling Elders Ideally Ought to be Paid if Possible

1 Tim. 5:17-18

Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine.  For the scripture saith, thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward.”

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Quotes

George Gillespie

Assertion of the Government of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1641), Part 1, ch. 14, pp. 104-6

“As for the maintenance and the continu­ance of the office of ruling elders, we love not unnecessary multiplication of questions, let every Church do herein what they find most convenient.

The manner of our Church in these things is such as best befits the condition of the same, and such as cannot be in reason condemned; Neither is a stipend, nor continuance in the function till death, essential to the ministry of the Church, but separable from the same.


The apostles, when they were first sent through Judea, took no stipend, Mt. 10:8-9.  Nei­ther did Paul take any at Corinth, 1 Cor. 9:18.  The ministers among the Waldenses work with their hands for their maintenance.  The old patriarchs were priests and preachers to their families, and maintained themselves by the work of their hands, fee­ding of flocks, tilling the ground, etc.

These things I do not mention as rules, to be followed by us, but to show, that the intermission of the exercise of the ministry, the want of maintainance and laboring with the hands, are not altogether repugnant, nor inconsistent with the nature of the vocation of the ministers of the Word, but in some cases hic & nunc [here and now], may be most approveable in them: much more in ruling elders.

The revenues of our Church are so small that they cannot spare stipends to ruling elders, which makes them willing to serve without stipends; and lest they should be overburdened with this their ser­vice, though they be chosen and called to be ruling elders as long as they live, at least till they merit to be deposed, yet our book of policy [Second Book of Discipline] allows them that ease of intermission and serving by course which was allowed to the Levites of old in the Temple.

The double honor which the apostle commands to give unto elders that rule well, Tim. 5:17, needs not to be expounded of maintenance and obedience; for by double honor we may either simply understand much honor, or by way of comparison double honor in respect of the widows, whom he had before commanded to ho­nor, 1 Tim. 5:3, as Calvin expounds the place.  Both these interpretations does Oecumenius give upon the same place.”

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Samuel Rutherford

A Peaceable and Temperate Plea, p. 290  1642  Rutherford overlooks the term ‘lay-elders’ here from the opponent.

“Question [Objection] 4:  But the ancients knew no lay-elders.

Answer:  Nor do we de jure [by right] know them [as a standing and universal law in all cases], they are Church-men, and should be for all their lifetime entertained upon the Church’s charges; what our Church de facto [in actual fact] does tolerate by reason of our Church’s poverty, is another question.”

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Elders, in Certain Circumstances, may be Reproved, & that by Laypersons

Intro

1 Tim. 5:1, ‘Rebuke not an elder, but entreat him as a father,’ is evidently conditioned by the rest of Scripture, just as there are situations in which it is right and necessary to rebuke one’s father.  Circumstances occur where, for the good of the elder as a man, it is right and needful to rebuke him as any man for his own well-being in salvation and before the Lord.  An elder is never less than a man.  Here are only a few, of many, relevant Bible verses:

Lev. 19:17  “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him.”

Mt. 18:15  “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone:”

Jn. 18:19-23  “The high priest then asked Jesus of his disciples, and of his doctrine.  Jesus answered him, ‘I spake openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing.  Why askest thou me? ask them which heard me, what I have said unto them: behold, they know what I said.’

And when he had thus spoken, one of the officers which stood by struck Jesus with the palm of his hand, saying, ‘Answerest thou the high priest so?’  Jesus answered him, ‘If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil: but if well, why smitest thou me?’

Acts 7:2,  “And he [Stephen, a deacon] said [to elders], ‘Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken…  Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye…”

Eph. 5:11  “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.”

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Samuel Rutherford

A Peaceable & Temperate Plea…  (London, 1642), ch. 9, pp. 98-99

“The faults of the [Church] guides are not your faults who are private members; you are to keep public communion in the public ordinances of Christ, but not to take part with ‘their unfruitful works, but rather to reprove them.’ [Eph. 5:11]”


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Ruling Elders do not have the Authority for Preaching, or Laboring in, or Ministering, the Word in Public Worship by Office

George Gillespie

An Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland...  (Edinburgh, 1641), pt. 1, ch. 2, ‘Of the Function of Ruling Elders…’, p. 15

“The power of order alone shall make the difference betwixt the pastor and the ruling elder; for by the power of order, the pastor does preach the Word, minister the sacraments, pray in public, bless the congregation, celebrate marriage, which the ruling elder cannot.”

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Samuel Rutherford

A Peaceable & Temperate Plea for Paul’s Presbytery in Scotland…  (London, 1642)

ch. 19

p. 286

“…a well-governing elder, who cannot preach the Word and pray…”

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pp. 290-1

“Question 6:  Beza gives the keys to both pastors and elders.  Cartwright denies the keys to any except only to pastors.  But Daniel Nilius, the keys (says he) were given to Peter, ratione officii, by his office, and not to the apostles only, but also to all who were to be sent to preach and govern.

Answer: The keys by the preaching of the gospel, potestas concionalis clavium [the preaching power of the keys], were given to Peter as representing all pastors and doctors, tanquam subiecto adaequato [as an adequate subject]:  The keys by way of disciplinary binding and loosing were given to Peter, tanquam, subiecto virtuali [as a virtual subject], representing not only pastors, but also doctors and ruling elders, who were to be called and sent of God.

Question 7. How can any voice in matters of religion, but only pastors, for ruling elders are not pastors. So [Richard] Field [an Anglican].

Answer:  It is Jesuit-like to reason thus with Bellarmine, who says it is a pastoral act to define in councils; and therefore none should teach in council (says Panormitan in the Council of Basil) but prelates who are the pillars and keys of Heaven.  So said Eccius.  But the Council of Basil thought not so, nor the Greek Church, for whom Nilus speaks, alleging others whom it concerns should voice also.

2. Matters of discipline concern all, Ergo [therefore], elders representing the people should voice.

3. Suppose that the suffrage and voice of a pastor, and of an elder be voices different only in diverse relations to diverse officers, to wit, the pastor and the elder; yet in the matter of bearing weight in the conscience from force of truth, and not from the authority of men, they are equal; and therefore ruling elders having knowledge and light, and withal authority of office may well have voices:

But it follows not hence that these who have knowledge are formal canon-makers, because the decrees and constitutions of synods lay two obligations upon the people: One for the matter, and so in respect that in the moral part thereof they must be agreeable to the Word, they bind the consciences to an obedience of conscience.  2. They impose an ecclesiastical tie from the authority of the council and canon-makers, and so they require subjection or obedience of reverence for the authority-official that is in the canon-makers: The second command lays on the first bond or tie, and the first command lays on the other bond and tie.”

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ch. 20, Whether or not the government of the Church of Scotland can be proved by God’s Word to be lawful?

11th Article, Elders and Deacons

“Elders help the pastors in governing, but labor not in the Word and doctrine, 1 Tim 5:17, and yet visit the sick, oversee the ways and manners of the people, and so rule with diligence, Rom. 12:8; 1 Cor. 12:28, and judge with pastors and doctors, Matt 18:18-20.”

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George Gillespie

English-Popish Ceremonies  (1637), pt. 3, ch. 8

Digression 1, p. 171

“This number of preaching elders in one city, together with those elders which in the same city labored for discipline only ([Johann] Gerard [a Lutheran], Theological Places, tome 6, pp. 134, 136), made up that company which the apostle, 1 Tim. 4:14, calls a presbytery, and which gave ordination to the ministers of the Church.”

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Digression 4, p. 184

“…according to the Scripture phrase it is termed a ‘presbytery’.  It is made up of the pastor or pastors of every congregation, together with those governing elders which labor there (not in doctrine, but) in discipline only: of which things, we have spoken before (above, Digression 1 [pp. 161-2, 170-1]).”


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Ruling Elders do Not have the Authority for Congregational Prayer by Office  Pastors do

See also the page, Congregational Prayer, Apart from Necessity, is to be by Ministers.

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Westminster’s Form of Presbyterial Church Government

“Pastors.


First, it belongs to his office,

To pray for and with his flock, as the mouth of the people unto God,[g] Acts 6:2-4, and 20:36, where preaching and prayer are joined as several parts of the same office.[h] The office of the elder (that is, the pastor) is to pray for the sick, even in private, to which a blessing is especially promised; much more therefore ought he to perform this in the public execution of his office, as a part thereof.[i]

[g] Acts 6:2-4Acts 20:36
[h] James 5:14,15
[i] 1 Cor. 14:15,16

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George Gillespie

An Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland...  (Edinburgh, 1641), pt. 1, ch. 2, ‘Of the Function of Ruling Elders…’, p. 15

“The power of order alone shall make the difference betwixt the pastor and the ruling elder; for by the power of order, the pastor does preach the Word, minister the sacraments, pray in public, bless the congregation, celebrate marriage, which the ruling elder cannot.”

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Samuel Rutherford

A Peaceable & Temperate Plea…  (London, 1642)

p. 194 (bottom)
p. 197 (top)
p. 272 (Query 2)

ch. 19, p. 286

“…a well-governing elder, who cannot preach the Word and pray…”


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Ruling Elders are Not able to Confer Power in the Ordination of a Pastor

Westminster’s Form of Presbyterial Church Government

“Touching the Doctrine of Ordination


Every minister of the word is to be ordained by imposition of hands, and prayer, with fasting, by those preaching presbyters to whom it doth belong. (Acts 14:23Tit. 1:5Acts 20:17,28)

Touching the Power of Ordination


The preaching presbyters orderly associated, either in cities or neighbouring villages, are those to whom the imposition of hands doth appertain, for those congregations within their bounds respectively.

Concerning the Doctrinal Part of Ordination of Ministers


4. Every minister of the word is to be ordained by imposition of hands, and prayer, with fasting, by these preaching presbyters to whom it doth belong. (1 Tim. 5:22Acts 14:2313:3)

10. Preaching presbyters orderly associated, either in cities or neighbouring villages, are those to whom the imposition of hands doth appertain, for those congregations within their bounds respectively. (1 Tim. 4:14)”

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Samuel Rutherford

A Peaceable & Temperate Plea…  (1642)

p. 80 (bottom)

p. 290

“Question 5:  How is it that your ruling-elders do not give imposition of hands and bless pastors when they are ordained, and so the lesser should bless the greater?  So the author of Survey.  So Dr. Field.

Answer:  If they judicially consent to imposition of hands, it is sufficient.  2. There is no inconvenience that a ruling elder, as a part of the presbytery, bless one who is not yet a pastor, but to be ordained a pastor: For the ordainer as he is such is greater than the ordained.”

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