As it is a fundamental principle of the Presbyterian Church that the office of Ruling Elder is permanent; that when a man is once set apart to it, he is always an Elder, while he lives, unless deposed by regular constitutional process;-a variety of questions, naturally resulting from this principle, claim our notice. Among these, some of the more obvious and important will be briefly considered in the present chapter.
A Ruling Elder, after being regularly and solemnly set apart to his office, with, perhaps, as full an intention of faithfully performing its duties to his life's end, as ever man had-may lose his health, and thus become physically and permanently unable to perform those duties. Or he may become, unavoidably, so situated, with regard to his temporal business as to render the regular fulfilment of his duties altogether impracticable. In this case, the individual supposed, may resign his place in the Session; in other words, be may cease to be an acting Overseer, or Inspector and Ruler of that Church. He will, of course, still retain his place and privileges as a regular member of the Church; but he will no longer take any part in its spiritual government. This is so reasonable a provision, that it can scarcely be thought to require either illustration or defence. We all know that a Teaching Elder, or Minister of the Word and Sacraments, after being for a time a Pastor, may, if the state of his health, or any other circumstance should imperiously demand it, resign his pastoral charge, and retire, as long as the cause of his resignation continues to operate, to private life. He who does this, it is well known, though he ceases to be a Pastor, still continues to be a minister, fully invested with the powers of an "Ambassador of Christ." He may still, if he think proper, reside within the bounds of the congregation which he formerly served; and he may, occasionally, if mutually convenient and agreeable, minister to them in sacred things. But he is no longer their minister; and he may never think proper again to take a pastoral charge.
All these principles apply to the Ruling Elder. If he verily think that he cannot any longer perform the duties of his office in a manner acceptable either to the Head of the Church, or to his people;-he may withdraw from active service. When he does this, however, he does not lay down his office. He does not cease to be an Elder. He only ceases to be an acting Elder. If his health should ever be restored, or his temporal circumstances undergo a favorable alteration, he may resume the duties of his office, and again take his place in the Session from which he withdrew, or some other, without a new ordination. When an Elder thus wishes to resign his station, he is to give official notice of his desire to the Session;-they are to declare if they think proper, their acceptance of his resignation;-the whole transaction is to be distinctly recorded in the Sessional Book;-and report made to the Presbytery that the individual in question has ceased to be an acting member of that Session.
Again; an Elder may become wholly incapable of serving the Church with which he is connected, by the entire loss of his popularity. He may not have become either heterodox In his theological opinions, or so irregular in any part of his practice, as to render himself liable to process or deposition from office:-and yet he may, by indiscretions, or by undignified conduct, so lose the respect and confidence of the people; or, in a moment of prejudice or passion, the popular felling, without any just ground of blame on his part, may be so strong against him, that he may be no longer able to serve the Church either acceptably, or to edification, as a spiritual Ruler. In either of these cases, he ought voluntarily to resign his place in the Session, as stated in the preceding paragraph; and the Session, after taking a vote of acceptance on the resignation, ought distinctly to record the same in the minutes of their proceedings, and make regular report of it, for the information of the Presbytery. In all this there will be recognized an almost exact similarity to the usual course of proceeding, when a Pastor is sensible that he has become unpopular, and wishes to resign his charge.
It may be, however, that the Elder, whose popularity is thus prostrated, may not be sensible of his real situation; may be unwilling to believe that he is not popular; and may, therefore, refuse, even when requested, to resign his station. In this case, the course prescribed in our Form of Government, is, that the Session make due report of the whole matter to the Presbytery, giving due notice to the Elder in question of the time and place at which it is intended to make the report; and that the Presbytery decide, after due inquiry and deliberation whether he ought to resign, or continue his connexion with the Session. On the one hand, no, Church ought to be burdened by the incumbency of an unpopular and obstinate Elder, who, instead of edifying, is injuring it. And, on the other hand, no innocent and really exemplary Elder ought to be abandoned to the fury of popular prejudice, and permitted to be trampled under feet, when, perhaps, he ought to be sustained and honored for his fidelity.
Further; Ruling Elders, like other Church members, may find it their duty to remove their residence from the bounds of the Church which called them to office, to another. Such cases not unfrequently arise. The question is, when they do occur, how is the official standing of such a removing Elder to be disposed of? He, of course, when he goes, ought to take with him a regular certificate of good standing, as a private Christian, and a dismission and recommendation to the Church to which he removes. The certificate ought also to bear an attestation of his regular standing as an Elder, and of his official as well as personal dismission from his former Church. With this certificate he will repair to the Church to which he is recommended, and will, of course, be received as a private member in good standing. If the existing Eldership and members of the Church to which he removes, think it for their edification that he be introduced into their Session, he may be elected in the manner "most approved and in use in that congregation;"-that is, either by a nomination by the Session, or by a popular vote of the Church members; and if thus elected, introduced to an official relation to that people, not by a new ordination, which ought never to be repeated: but by being regularly installed as their Elder. This is effected by the candidate appearing in the face of the congregation, as one about to be ordained;-answering in the affirmative the Fourth question directed to be put to candidates for the Eldership at their ordination;-the members of the congregation publicly professing to receive him as their spiritual Ruler, agreeably to the last question, in the same formula; declaring him one of the Ruling Elders of that Church; and closing with prayer for the divine blessing on the transaction.
It may be, however, that when an individual, who has served one Congregation as an Elder, removes into the bounds of another, that other may not, on the whole, think best to elect him as one of their Elders. They may already have as many as they think there ought to be in one Church. Or his character, though unexceptionably good, may not be such as to promise great benefit by taking him into their parochial Presbytery. In this case, they are under no obligation to elect him one of their Elders. And if they do not think best to employ him in his character, he may live among them as a private member of the Church. At this he ought to take no offence. It would be a hard case, indeed, if Churches were not left at liberty to act agreeably to their own views of propriety and duty in such cases. If a preaching Elder, or Pastor, be liberated from his pastoral charge, and remove his residence within the bounds of another Church, however excellent his character, that Church is not bound to employ him. To suppose it bound, would indeed be ecclesiastical slavery. A preacher inferior to him, in every respect, might be preferred. Every Church must be left to its own unbiassed choice. Still the Elder, as well as the minister, in the case supposed, though in retirement, and without official employment, retains his office, and is capable of being employed in that office, whenever the judicatories of the Church think proper to avail themselves of his services.
When Ruling Elders become chargeable with heresy or immorality, and, of course, liable to the discipline of the Church, they are amenable to the bar of the Church Session. By that body they are to be arraigned and tried. Process against them is to be conducted according to the same general rules which regulate the trial of private members of the Church, excepting that, as their character is, in some respects, more important and their example more influential, than the character and example of those who bear no office in the Church; so there ought to be peculiar caution, tenderness, and care in receiving accusations, and in commencing process against them. "Against an Elder," says the inspired Paul, "receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses." If, therefore, any person observe or hear of any thing in a Ruling Elder which he considers as rendering him justly liable to censure, he ought by no means immediately to spread it abroad; but to communicate what he has observed or heard to the Pastor of the Church, and take his advice as to the proper course to be pursued; and if the Pastor cannot be seen and consulted, then similar consultation and advice should be had with one, at least, of the brother Elders of the supposed delinquent: and all this, before any hint respecting the alleged delinquency is lisped to any other human being.
As the Church Session is the tribunal to which the Ruling Elder is, at least in the first instance, always amenable; so it is generally proper that he should be tried by that judicatory. Yet where there is any thing peculiar or delicate in the case of process against an Elder, a Presbytery should be consulted.
There are cases, however, so very peculiar as to preclude the possibility of an impartial trial, and sometimes, indeed, of any trial at all, before the Session. A few such cases may be specified.
An instance occurred, a few years since, in which there were only two Elders in a certain Church Session, and the moral conduct of both these Elders became impeached. It was, of course, impossible to try them in the usual manner.
In another case, the Session was composed of two Elders beside the Pastor. These Elders were own brothers. One of them was charged with immoral conduct; and it was judged altogether improper that any attempt should be made to try the delinquent in that Session.
In a third class of cases, when process against members of Church Sessions had been commenced, it was found that so many of the brother Elders of the delinquents were cited as witnesses, that there was no prospect of a dispassionate and impartial trial by the remainder.
In all these cases, it was wisely judged proper to apply immediately to the Presbytery, to take the several causes in hand, and to commence and issue process.
It has been sometimes proposed, in exigencies similar to those which have been stated, without applying to the Presbytery, to call in the aid of the Eldership of a neighboring Church, and to submit the case to their decision. To this course there are two objections. First-the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church knows of no such body. It has no where provided for the formation of a parochial tribunal in such a manner. And, secondly, the adoption of this plan would be to set one Church as a judge over a neighboring sister Church.
To avoid this incongruity, it has been sometimes proposed to form a tribunal for the trial of delinquent Elders, by selecting one or two of the same class of officers from each of several neighboring Sessions. This was intended as an expedient to avoid the impropriety of setting one Church in judgment over another. But this expedient, besides that it is unauthorized by any constitutional provision, is liable to the charge of a selection of judges which may not always be fair and impartial. It is far better on every account, and especially more in harmony with the nature of the case, and with the spirit of our general principles,-to go immediately to the Presbytery. That body is the natural resort in all cases in which the Church Session is unable, in its ordinary structure and situation, to perform the contemplated work.