The Ruling Elder

by Samuel Miller



Our once crucified, but now exalted Redeemer, has erected in this world a kingdom which is his Church. This Church is either visible or invisible.

By the invisible Church we mean, the whole body of sincere believers, of every age and nation, "that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ, the glorious Head thereof." Part of these are already made perfect in heaven. Another portion are at present scattered over the earth in different denominations of professing Christians, though not certainly distinguishable from others by the human eye. And the remainder are in future to be gathered in by the grace of God when the whole number of the "redeemed from among men," will be united in one holy assembly, which is the "spouse," the "body of Christ, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all."

By the visible Church is meant the body of those who profess the true religion, together with their children. It is that body which is called out of the world, and united under the authority of Christ, the Head, for the purpose of maintaining Gospel Truth and Order, and promoting the knowledge, purity, comfort and edification of all the members. When we use the term Church, as expressive of a visible, professing body, we either mean the whole visible Church of God throughout the world, or a particular congregation of professing Christians, who have agreed to unite together for the purpose of mutual instruction, inspection and edification.

The word Church is also employed in Scripture to designate a Church Judicatory; that is, the Church assembled and acting by her representatives, the Elders, chosen to inspect, and bear rule over the whole body. This, it is believed, will be evident to those who impartially consult Matthew xviii. 15-18; and compare the language of the original here, with that of the original, and the Greek translation of the Seventy of Deuteronomy xxxi. 28-30. [1]

The visible Church is a spiritual body. That is, it is not secular or worldly, either in its nature or objects. The kingdom of Christ "is not of this world." Its Head, laws, ordinances, discipline, penalties, and end, are all spiritual. There can be no departure from this principle; in other words, there can be no connexion between the Church and the State; no enforcement of ecclesiastical laws by the power of the secular arm, or by "carnal weapons," without departing from "the simplicity that is in Christ." and invading both the purity and safety of his sacred body.

This great visible Church is one, in all ages, and throughout the world. From its first formation in the family of Adam, through all the changes of the Patriarchal, Mosaic and Christian dispensations, it has been one and the same; having the same divine Head, the same ground of Hope, the same essential characters, and the same great design. Diversity of denomination does not destroy this unity. All who profess the true religion, together with their offspring, however divided by place, by names, or by forms, are to be considered as equally belonging to that great family denominated the Church. The Presbyterian, the Episcopalian, the Methodist, the Baptist, and the Independent, who hold the fundamentals of our holy religion, in whatever part of the globe they may reside, are all equally members of the same visible community; and if they be sincere, will all finally be made partakers of its eternal blessings. They cannot, indeed, all worship together in the same solemn assembly, even if they were disposed to do so:-and the sin and folly of men have separated into different bodies those who ought to "walk together." Still the visible Church is one. All who "hold the Head," of course, belong to the body of Christ. "We, being many," says the inspired Apostle, "are one body in Christ, and every one, members one of another." Those who are united by a sound profession to the same almighty Head; who embrace the same "precious faith;" who are sanctified by the same Spirit; who eat the same spiritual meat; who drink the same spiritual drink; who repose and rejoice in the same promises; and who are travelling to the same eternal rest-are surely ONE BODY,-in a sense more richly significant than can be ascribed to millions who sustain a mere nominal unity.

This unity is very distinctly recognized, and very happily expressed, by Cyprian, a distinguished Christian Father of the third century. "The Church," says he, "is one, which, by its fruitful increase, is enlarged into a multitude. As the rays of the sun, though many, are yet one luminary; as the branches of a tree, though numerous, are all established on one firmly rooted trunk; and as many streams springing from the same fountain, though apparently dispersed abroad by their overflowing abundance, yet have their unity preserved by one common origin;-so the Church, though it extends its rays throughout the world, is one Light. Though every where diffused, its unity is not broken. By the abundance of its increase, it extends its branches through the whole earth. It spreads far and wide its flowing streams; yet it has one Head; one Fountain; one Parent; and is enriched and enlarged by the issues of its own fruitfulness." [2]

It is ever also to be borne in mind that the Church is not a mere voluntary association, with which men are at liberty to connect themselves or not, as they please. For, although the service which God requires of us is throughout a voluntary one: although no one can properly come into the Church but as a matter of voluntary choice: although the idea of either secular or ecclesiastical compulsion is, here, at once unreasonable and contrary to Scripture: yet as the Church is Christ's institution, and not men's; and as the same divine authority which requires us to repent of sin, and believe in Christ, also requires us to "confess him before men," and to join ourselves to his professing people; it is evident that no one is at liberty, in the sight of God, to neglect uniting himself with the Church. Man cannot, and ought not, to compel him; but if he refuse to fulfil this duty, when it is in his power, he rejects the authority of God. He, of course, refuses at his peril.

Of this body, Christ alone, as before intimated, is the Head. He only has a right to give laws to his Church, or to institute rites and ordinances for her observance. His will is the supreme guide of his professing people; his Word their code of laws; and his glory their ultimate end. The authority of Church officers is not original, but subordinate and delegated: that is, as they are his servants, and act under his commission, and in his name, they have power only to declare what the Scriptures reveal as his will, and to pronounce sentence accordingly. If they attempt to establish any other terms of communion than those which his word warrants; or to undertake to exercise authority in a manner which He has not authorised, they incur guilt, and have no right to exact obedience.

In this sacred community, Government is absolutely necessary. Even in the perfectly holy and harmonious society of heaven, there is government; that is, there is law and authority, under which the whole celestial family is united in perfect love, and unmingled enjoyment. Much more important and indispensable is government among fallen depraved men, among whom "it is impossible but that offences will come," and to whom the discipline of scriptural and pure ecclesiastical rule, is one of the most precious means of grace. To think of maintaining any society, ecclesiastical or civil, without government, in this depraved world, would be to contradict every principle of reason and experience, as well as of Scripture: and to think of supporting government without officers, to whom its functions may be intrusted, would be to embrace the absurd hope of obtaining an end without the requisite means.

The question, whether any particular form of Church Government is so laid down in Scripture, as that the claim of divine right may be advanced on its behalf, and that, of consequence, the Church is bound, in all to adopt and act upon it;-will not now be formally discussed. It has been made the subject of too much extended and ardent controversy, to be brought within the compass of a few sentences, or even a few pages. It may not be improper, however, briefly to say, that it would, indeed, have been singular, if a community, called out of the world, and organized under the peculiar authority of the all-wise Redeemer, had been left entirely without any direction as to its government:-That the Scriptures, undoubtedly, exhibit to us a form of ecclesiastical organization and rule, which was, in fact, instituted by the Apostles, under the direction of infinite Wisdom:-That this form was evidently taken, with very little alteration, from the preceding Economy, thus giving additional presumption in its favor:-That we find the same plan closely copied by the churches for a considerable time after the apostolic age:-That it continued to be in substance the chosen and universal form of government in the Church, until corruption, both in doctrine and practice, had, through the ambition and degeneracy of ecclesiastics, gained a melancholy prevalence:-And, that the same form was also substantially maintained by the most faithful witnesses for the truth, during the dark ages, until the great body of the Reformers took it from their hands, and established it in their respective ecclesiastical connexions.

These premises would appear abundantly to warrant the conclusion, that the form of Government which answers this description, is the wisest and best; that it is adapted to all ages and states of society; and that it is agreeable to the will of Christ that it be universally received in his Church. All this the writer of the following Essay fully believes may be established in favor of Presbyterianism. There seems no reason, however, to believe, with some zealous votaries of the hierarchy, that any particular form of government is in so rigorous a sense of divine right, as to be essential to the existence of the Church; so that where this form is wanting, there can be no Church. To adopt this opinion, is to take a very narrow and unscriptural view of the covenant of grace. After yielding to the visible Church and its ordinances, all the importance which the word of God warrants, still it cannot be doubted, that on the one hand, men in regular external membership with the purest Church on earth, may be hypocrites, and perish; and on the other, that all who cordially repent of sin, and receive the Saviour in spirit and in truth, will assuredly obtain eternal life, although they never enjoyed the privilege of a connexion with any portion of the visible Church on earth. The tenor of the Gospel covenant is,-He that believeth on the Son of God hath eternal life, and shall not come into condemnation, but is passed from death unto life; but he that believeth not the Son, shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him.

Still it is plain, from the word of God, as well as from uniform experience, that the government of the Church is a matter of great importance; that the form as well as the administration of that government is more vitally connected with the peace, purity and edification of the Church, than many Christians appear to believe; and, of consequence, that it is no small part of fidelity to our Master in heaven to "hold fast" the form of ecclesiastical order, as well as the "form of sound words" which He has delivered to the saints.

The existence of ecclesiastical Rulers, presupposes the existence and exercise of ecclesiastical power. A few remarks on the nature, source and limits of this power, may not be irrelevant as a part of this preliminary discussion.

When we speak of ecclesiastical power, then, we speak of that which, much as it is misunderstood, and deplorably as it has been perverted and abused, is plainly warranted, both by reason and Scripture. In fact, it is a prerogative which common sense assigns and secures to all organized society, from a family to a nation. The doctrine attempted to be maintained by the celebrated Erastus, in his work, De Excommunicatione, viz: that the exercise of all Church power, however modified, is to be rejected, is forming an imperium in imperio is one of the most weak and untenable of all positions. The same argument would preclude all authority or government subordinate to that of the State, whether domestic, academical, or financial. The truth is, there not only may be, but there actually are thousands of imperia in imperio, in every civil community in the world; and all this without the least danger or inconvenience, as long as the smaller or subordinate governments maintain their proper place, and do not claim, or attempt to exercise, powers, which come in collision with those of the State.

Now the power exercised by the Church is of this character. Christ is the Sovereign. His kingdom is spiritual. It interferes not with civil government. It may exist and flourish under any form of political administration; and always fares best when entirely left to itself, without the interference of the civil magistrate. Accordingly, it is notorious, that the power of which we speak, was exercised by the Church, in the days of the Apostles, and during the first three centuries of the Christian era, not only without any aid from the secular arm, but while all the civil governments of the world were firmly leagued against her, and followings her with the bitterest persecution. But the moment the Church became allied with the State, that moment the influence of each on the other became manifestly mischievous. The State enriched, pampered and corrupted the Church; and the Church, in her turn, gradually extended her power over the State, until she claimed, and in some instances gained, a haughty supremacy over all rulers and governments. This is an ecclesiastical power which the Bible no where recognizes or allows. It is the essence of spiritual usurpation; and can never have a price but where the essential character of the religion of Jesus Christ is misapprehended or forgotten. This abominable tyranny, so long and so wickedly maintained in the name of the meek and lowly Saviour, who, instead of countenancing, always condemned it;-has prejudiced the minds of many against ecclesiastical power in any form. On account of this prejudice it is judged proper to state, with some degree of distinctness, what we mean when we speak of the Church of Christ as being invested with power for the benefit of her members, and for the glory of her almighty Head.

It is evident that even if the Church were a mere voluntary association, which neither possessed nor claimed any divine warrant, it would have the same powers which are universally conceded to all other voluntary associations; that is, the power of forming its own rules, of judging of the qualifications of its own members, and of admitting or excluding, as the essential principles and interests of the body might require; and all this as long as neither the rules themselves, nor the execution of them, infringed the laws of the State, or violated any public or private rights. When a Literary, Philosophical, or Agricultural Society claims and exercises powers of this kind, all reflecting people consider it as both reasonable and safe; and would no more think of denying the right to do so, than they would think of denying that the father of a family had a right to govern his own household, as long as he neither transgressed any law of the State, nor invaded the peace of his neighbors.

But the Christian Church is by no means to be considered as a mere voluntary association. It is a Body called out of the world, created by divine institution, and created, as its members believe, for the express purpose of bearing testimony for Christ, in the midst of a revolted and rebellious world, and maintaining in their purity the truth and ordinances which He has appointed. The members of this body, therefore, by the act of uniting themselves with it, profess to believe certain doctrines, to be under obligation to perform certain duties, and to be bound to possess a certain character. Of course, the very purpose for which, and the very terms on which the Master has formed this body, and bound its members together, necessarily imply, not only the right, but the, duty, of refusing to admit those who are manifestly hostile to the essential principles of its institution, and of casting out those who, after their admission, as manifestly depart from those principles. To suppose less than this, would be to suppose that a God of infinite wisdom has withheld from a body, formed for a certain purpose, that which is absolutely necessary for its defence against intrusion, insult, and perversion; in other words, for its own preservation.

Hence the Apostle Paul, after the New Testament Church was erected, speaks (1 Cor. xii. 28.) of "governments" as well as " teachers" being "set in it" by the authority of God. He expressly claims, (2 Cor. x. 8.) an "authority" which God had given to his servants as rulers in the Church, "for edification , and not for destruction." And he exemplifies this authority by representing it as properly exercised in casting out of the Church, any one who was immoral, or profane: (1 Cor. v.). Hence the officers of the Church are spoken of as "guides," (hgoumenoi) "overseers," or "bishops" (episkopoi) and "rulers," (proestwtes)-and it is declared to be their duty, not only to instruct, warn, and entreat; but also to "rebuke," or authoritatively to admonish and censure. They were commanded by the authority of the Head of the Church (1 Cor. v. Tit. iii. 10.) to "reject," to "put away from them," after using proper admonition, those who were grossly heretical or immoral. In short, in that period of gospel simplicity and purity, the Church claimed no authority over any but her own members; and even over them, no other authority than that which related to their character, duties, and interests as members, and was deemed essential to her own well-being.

And as this power of the Church is not self-created or self-assumed, but derived from her gracious and almighty Head; and as it is, and can, of right, only be exercised over her own members; so it is merely spiritual in its nature; in other words, it claims no right whatever to inflict temporal pains or penalties. It cannot touch the persons or property of those to whom it is directed. It addresses itself only to their judgments and consciences. It includes only a right to instruct, warn, rebuke, censure, and cast out, that is, to exclude from the privileges of the body. This last step is the utmost length to which it can go. When the Church has excluded from her pale those toward whom this power is directed: in other words, when she has declared them out of her communion or fellowship, she has done every thing to which her power extends. All beyond this is usurpation and oppression. The great end of Church Government, is not to employ physical force; but moral weapons only. It can never invade the right of private judgment. It can never exert its power over any but those who voluntarily submit to it. And it prescribes no sanctions but those which have for their object the moral benefit of the body itself, and also of the individuals to whom they are awarded. The gospel knows nothing of delivering men over to the secular arm, to be punished for offences against the Church. The Church might therefore, exert her whole power, in its plenary extent, though all the governments of the world were arrayed against her in the bitterest hostility, as they have once been, and as they may again be found.

And, as all the power of the Church is derived, not from the civil government, but from Christ, the almighty King of Zion; and as it is purely spiritual in its nature and sanctions; so the power of Church Officers is merely ministerial. They are, strictly, servants, who are to be governed, in all things, by the pleasure of their employer. They have only authority to announce what the Master has said, and to decide agreeably to that will which he has made known in his word. Like ambassadors at a foreign court, they cannot go one jot or tittle beyond their instructions. Of course, they have no right to set up a law of their own. The Bible is the great Statute-Book of the body of which we speak; the only infallible rule of faith and practice. And nothing can be rightfully inculcated on the members of the Church, as truth, or demanded of them, as duty, but that which is found in that great charter of the privileges as well as the obligations of Christians.

To complete the view of that ecclesiastical power which we consider as implied in Church government, it is only necessary to add, that it is given solely for the benefit of the Church, and not for the aggrandizement of Church Officers. Tyrants in civil government have taught and acted upon the principle, that the great end of all political establishments, is the exaltation of a few at the expense of the many. And it is deeply to be deplored that the same principle has been too often apparently adopted by bodies calling themselves Churches of Christ. Nothing can be more opposite than this, to the spirit and law of the Redeemer. The "authority" which the Apostle claims as existing, and to be exercised in the Church, he represents (2 Cor. x. 8.) as given "for edification, and not for destruction." Not for the purpose of creating and pampering classes of "privileged orders," to "lord it over God's heritage;" not to build up a system of polity, which may minister to the pride or the cupidity of an ambitious priesthood; not to form a body, under the title of clergy, with separate interests from the laity of the Church. All this is as wicked as it is unreasonable. No office, no power is appointed by Jesus Christ in his Church, but that which is necessary to the instruction, the purity, and the happiness of the whole body. All legitimate government here, as well as elsewhere, is to be considered as a means, not an end; and as no further resting on divine authority, than we can say in support of all its claims and acts, "thus saith the Lord;" than it is adapted to build up the great family of those who profess the true religion, in knowledge, peace and holiness unto salvation.

The summary of the doctrine of Presbyterians, then, concerning ecclesiastical power, may be considered as comprehended in the following propositions:

1. That the Lord Jesus Christ is the only King and Head of the Church, the Fountain of all power; and that no man or set of men, have any right to consider themselves as holding the place of his vicar, or representative.
2. That the Bible contains the code of laws which Christ has enacted, and given for the government of his Church; and that it is the only infallible rule of faith and practice.
3. That his kingdom is not of this world; and of course, that the Church can take no cognizance of any other concerns than those which relate to the spiritual interests of men.
4. That the power of Church officers is not original, or inherent, but altogether derived and ministerial. They have no other authority than, as his servants, and in his name, to proclaim the truth which he has declared, and to urge to the performance of those duties which he has commanded.
5. That nothing can be lawfully required of any one as a member of the Church, excepting what is expressly taught in Scripture; or, by good and necessary consequence to be inferred from what is expressly taught there.
6. That the Church being instituted by Christ for the chief purpose of maintaining in their purity the doctrines and ordinances of Christ, is authorized and bound by Him to refuse admission to her fellowship those who are known to be hostile to this purpose, and to exclude such as are found to offend against this purpose after admission.
7. That the discipline and penalties of the Church are wholly of a moral kind, consisting of admonition, entreaty, warning, suspension, and excommunication, and that exclusion from the fellowship of the body, is the highest penalty that can be inflicted on any delinquent.
8. That the apostolic Church, though under the bitterest persecution, was instructed by the inspired Apostles, to exercise the power mentioned, and did actually exercise the same; and is to be considered as therein exemplifying and teaching the principles which ought to regulate the Church in all ages.
9. That the Church can exercise no authority over any others than her own members.
10. That none can be compelled to be members, or to submit to her authority any longer than they choose to do so.
11. That the authority of the Church cannot be lawfully exercised for any other purpose than to promote the purity, order and edification of the whole body and that of course, any exertion of Church power which has for its object the aggrandizement of ecclesiastics, at the expense of the body of the Church, is an unscriptural abuse. And,
12. Finally; that all civil establishments of religion, in any form, or under any denomination, are wrong; contrary to the spirit of Christianity; injurious to the best interests of the Church; and really more to be deprecated by the enlightened friends of piety, than the most sanguinary persecution that can be inflicted by the arm of power.

In every Church completely organized, that is, furnished with all the officers which Christ has instituted, and which are necessary for carrying into full effect the laws of his kingdom, there ought to be three classes of officers, viz: at least one Teaching Elder, Bishop, or Pastor-a bench of Ruling Elders-and Deacons. The first to "minister in the Word and Doctrine," and to dispense the Sacraments;-the second to assist in the inspection and government of the Church;-and the third to "serve tables;" that is, to take care of the Church's funds destined for the support of the poor, and sometimes to manage whatever relates to the temporal support of the gospel and its ministers.

The following Essay will be devoted to the consideration of the SECOND CLASS of these officers, namely, RULING ELDERS; and the points which it is proposed more particularly to discuss, are the following:-The CHURCH'S WARRANT for this class of officers;-The NATURE, DESIGN AND DUTIES of the office itself;-The QUALIFICATIONS proper for those who bear it;-The DISTINCTION between this office, and that of DEACONS; by whom Ruling Elders ought to be ELECTED;-in what manner they should be ORDAINED;-The principles which ought to regulate their WITHDRAWING or being DEPOSED from office, REMOVING from one Church to another, &c.;-and, finally, the ADVANTAGES attending this form of government in the Church.

The question, whether the Church has any warrant for this class of officers, will have different degrees of importance attached to it by different persons. Those who believe that no form of Church government whatever can justly claim to be, in any sense, of divine right, will, of course, consider this inquiry as of small moment. If the Church be at perfect liberty, at all times, to adopt what form of government she pleases, and to modify, or entirely to change the same at pleasure; then no other warrant than her own convenience or will, ought to be required. But if the writer of the following pages be correct in believing, that there is a form of government for the family of God laid down in Scripture, to which it is the duty of the Church, in all ages, to conform; then the inquiry which it is the purpose of several of the succeeding chapters to pursue, is plainly important, and demands our serious attention.

It is believed, then, that the following positions, in reference to the office now under consideration may be firmly maintained, viz: That under the Old Testament economy in general, and especially in the Synagogue service, Elders were invariably appointed to exercise authority and bear rule in ecclesiastical society;-That similar Elders, after the model of the Synagogue, were appointed in the primitive Church, under the direction of inspired Apostles;-That we find in the writings of some of the early Fathers, evident traces of the same office as existing in their times;-That the Waldenses, and other pious Witnesses for the truth, during the dark ages, retained this class of officers in the Church, as a divine institution;-That the Reformers, with very few exceptions, when they separated from the corruptions of Popery, restored this office to the Church;-That a number of distinguished divines and Churches, not otherwise Presbyterian, who have flourished since the Reformation, have remarkably concurred in declaring for the same office;-and, finally, that Ruling Elders, or officers of a similar kind, are indispensably necessary in every well ordered congregation. Each of these topics of argument is entitled to separate consideration.


1. It has been asserted by some that the term Church not only means, strictly, a religious assembly-a body of professing people; but that it cannot be applied, with propriety, to anything else; and that it is altogether improper to apply it, as is often done, to the building in which the assembly is wont to convene for worship. This is, undoubtedly, a groundless scruple. Under the Old Testament economy, it is plain that the word synagogue was indiscriminately applied both to the public assembly, and to the edifice in which they worshipped. Besides, the word Church is evidently derived from the Greek words, kuriou oikos, "the house of the Lord;" and therefore, may be considered as pointing quite as distinctly to the edifice as to the worshippers. Nay, it is highly probable that the word in its original use, had a primary reference to the house rather than to the assembly. And even if it were not so, still the understanding and use of the word in this double sense, if once agreed upon, cannot be considered as liable, so far as is perceived, to any particular objection or abuse. Back to main text.

2. De Unitate Ecclesioe. Sect. iv. Back to main text.

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