The Ruling Elder

by Samuel Miller



In this chapter it is proposed to show, that the office in question is mentioned in the New Testament, as existing in the apostolic Church; that it was adopted from the Synagogue; and that it occupied, in substance, the same place in the days of the Apostles, that it now occupies in our truly primitive and scriptural Church.

The first assertion is, that this class of officers was adopted in the Church of Christ, under its New Testament form, after the model of the Synagogue. Some have said, indeed, that the Apostles adopted the model of the Temple, and not of the Synagogue service, in the organization of the Church. But the slightest impartial attention to facts, will be sufficient, it is believed, to disprove this assertion. If we compare the titles, the powers, the duties, and the ordination of the officers of the Christian Church, as well as the nature and order of its public service, as established by the Apostles, with the Temple and the Synagogue systems respectively, we shall find the organization and service of the Church to resemble the Temple in scarcely any thing; while they resemble the Synagogue in almost every thing. There were Bishops, Elders, and Deacons in the Synagogue; but no officers bearing these titles, or performing similar functions in the Temple. There was ordination by the imposition of hands in the Synagogue; but no such ordination in the Temple. There were reading the Scriptures, expounding them, and public prayers, every Sabbath day in the Synagogue; while the body of the people went up to the Temple only three times a year, and even then to attend on a very different service. In the Synagogue, there was a system established, which included a weekly provision, not only for the instruction and devotions of the people, but also for the maintenance of discipline, and the care of the poor; while scarcely any thing of this kind was to be found in the Temple. Now, in all these respects, and in many more which might be mentioned, the Christian Church followed the Synagogue model, and departed from that of the Temple. Could we trace a resemblance only in one or a few points, it might be considered as accidental; but the resemblance is so close, so striking, and extends to so many particulars, as to arrest the attention of the most careless inquirer. It was, indeed, notoriously, so great in the early ages, that the heathen frequently suspected Christian Churches of being Jewish Synagogues in disguise, and stigmatized them as such accordingly.

And when it is considered that all the first converts to Christianity were Jews; that they had been accustomed to the offices and service of the Synagogue during their whole lives: that they came into the Church with all the feelings and habits connected with their old institutions strongly prevalent; and that the organization and service of the Synagogue were of a moral nature, in all their leading characters, proper to be adopted under any dispensation; while the typical and ceremonial service of the Temple was then done away;-when these things are considered, will it not appear perfectly natural that the Apostles, themselves native Jews, should be disposed to make as little change in converting Synagogues into Christian Churches, as was consistent with the spirituality of the new dispensation? That the Synagogue model, therefore, should be adopted, would seem beforehand, to be the most probable of all events. Nor is this a new or sectarian notion. Whoever looks into the writings of some of the early Fathers; of the Reformers; and of a large portion of the most learned men who have adorned the Church of Christ, subsequently to the Reformation, will find a very remarkable concurrence of opinion that such was the model really adopted in the organization of the apostolic Church. Most of the distinguished writers whose names are mentioned in the preceding chapter, are, as we have seen, unanimous and zealous in maintaining this position.

Accordingly, as soon as we begin to read of the Apostles organizing Churches on the New Testament plan, we find them instituting officers of precisely the same nature, and bestowing on them, for the most part, the very same titles to which they had been accustomed in the ordinary sabbatical service under the preceding economy. We find Bishops, Elders, and Deacons every where appointed. We find a plurality of Elders ordained in every Church. And we find the Elders represented as "overseers," or inspectors of the Church; as "rulers" in the house of God; and the members of the Church exhorted to "obey them," and "submit" to them, as to persons charged with their spiritual interests, and entitled to their affectionate and dutiful reverence.

The following passages may be considered as a specimen of the New Testament representations on this subject. And when they had ordained them ELDERS in every Church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed; Acts 14, 23. And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the Church, and of the Apostles and ELDERS. And the Apostles and ELDERS came together to consider of this matter; Acts 15, 4, 6. And from Miletus, he (Paul) sent to Ephesus, and called the ELDERS of the Church; and when they were come unto him, he said unto them, take heed flock unto yourselves, and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made you OVERSEERS; Acts 20, 20,28. Is any sick among you? Let him call for the ELDERS of the Church; and let them pray over him, &c.; James 5, 14. The ELDERS which are among you I exhort, who am also an ELDER, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed. Feed the flock of God that is among you, taking the OVERSIGHT THEREOF, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being Lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock; I Peter v. 1, 2, 3. For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain ELDERS in every city, as I had appointed thee; Titus i. 5. Obey them that HAVE THE RULE OVER YOU, and submit yourselves, for they watch for your souls as they that must give account; Hebrews 13,17. And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labor among you, and are OVER YOU in the Lord, and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work sake, 1 Thessalonians, v. 12, 13. Let the Elders that rule well be accounted worthy of double honor, especially, they who labor in the word and doctrine; 1 Tim. v. 17. To whatever Church our attention is directed, in the inspired history, we find in it a plurality of Elders;-we find the mass of the Church members spoken of as under their authority;-and while the people are exhorted to submit to their rule, with all readiness and affection; these rulers are commanded, in the name of Christ, to exercise the power vested in them by the great Head of the Church, with firmness, and fidelity, and, yet with disinterestedness and moderation, so as to promote most effectually, the purity and order of the flock.

The circumstance of our finding it so uniformly stated that there was a plurality of Elders, ordained in every Church, is certainly worthy of particular attention here. If there had been a plurality of these officers appointed only in some of the more populous cities, where there were probably several worshipping assemblies; where the congregations may be supposed to have been unusually large; and where it was important, of course, to have more than a single preacher; then we might consider this fact as very well reconcileable with the doctrine of those who assert, that all the Elders in the apostolic Church, were official teachers. But as both the direction and the practice were to ordain Elders, that is, more than one, at least, in every Church, small as well as great, there is, evidently, very strong presumption that it was intended to conform to the Synagogue model; and if so, that the whole of the number so ordained could not be necessary for the purpose of public instruction; but that some were rulers, who, as in the Synagogue, formed a kind of congregational Presbytery, or consistory, for the government of the Church. The idea that it was considered as necessary, at such a time, that every Church should have two, three, or four Pastors, or Ministers, in the modern popular sense of those terms, is manifestly altogether inadmissible. But if a majority of these Elders, whatever their ordination or authority might be, were in fact employed, not in teaching, but in ruling, all difficulty vanishes at once.

Accordingly, the learned Vitringa, before mentioned,. whose authority is much relied upon to disprove the existence of the office of Ruling Elder in the primitive Church, explicitly acknowledges, not only that there was then a plurality of Elders in every Church; but that, as in the Synagogue, the greater part of these were, in fact, employed in ruling only; and that although all of them were set apart to their office in then same manner, and were, ecclesiastically, of the same rank; yet a majority of them, from want of suitable qualifications, were not fitted to be public preachers, and seldom or never attempted this part of the service. [1]

But there are distinct passages of Scripture, which have been deemed, by some of the most impartial and competent interpreters, very plainly to point out the class of Elders now under consideration.

In Romans xii. 6, 7, 8, the Apostle exhorts as follows:-Having, then gifts, differing according to the grace given to us; whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; or ministry, let us wait on our ministering; or he that teacheth on teaching; or he that exhorteth on exhortation; he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; HE THAT RULETH, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness. With this passage may be connected another, of similar character, and to be interpreted on the same principles. In I Corinthians xii. 28, we are told,-God hath set some in the Church, first Apostles, secondarily Prophets, thirdly Teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healing, helps, GOVERNMENTS, diversities of tongues. In both these passages there is a reference to the different offices and gifts bestowed on the Church by her divine King and Head: in both of them there is a plain designation of an office for ruling or government, distinct from that of teaching: and in both, also, this office evidently has a place assigned to it below that of Pastors and Teachers. Now, this office, by whatever name it may be called, or whatever doubts may be started as to some minor questions respecting its powers and investiture, is substantially the same with that which Presbyterians distinguish by the title of Ruling Elder.

Some, indeed, have said that the Apostle in 1 Cor. xii. 2S, is not speaking of distinct offices, but of different duties, devolving on the Church as a body. But no one, it is believed, who impartially considers the whole passage, can adopt this opinion. In the whole of the context, from the 12th verse, the Apostle is speaking of the Church of God under the emblem of a body, and affirms that, in this body, there is a variety of members adapted to the comfort and convenience of the whole body. For the body, says he, is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body, is it, therefore, not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body, is it, therefore, not of the body? If the whole body were, an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? Plainly implying that in every ecclesiastical, as well as in every natural body, there are different functions and offices: that all cannot be teachers: that all cannot be governors, or governments; but that to each and every functionary is assigned his proper work and duty.

Nor is this interpretation of the Apostle confined to Presbyterians. Peter Martyr, the learned Italian reformer, interprets the passage before us just as we have done. In his Commentary on 1 Cor. xii 28, he speaks thus: "Governments. Those who are honored with this function, are such as were fitted for the work of government, and who know how to conduct every thing relating to discipline righteously and prudently. For the Church of Christ had its government. And because a single pastor was not able to accomplish every thing himself, there were joined with him, in the ancient Church, certain Elders, chosen from among the people, well-informed, and skilled in spiritual things, who formed a kind of parochial Senate. These, with the pastor, deliberated on every matter relating to the care and edification of the Church. Which thing Ambrose makes mention of in writing on the Epistle to Timothy. Among these Elders the Pastor took the lead, not as a tyrant, but rather as a Consul presiding in a council of Senators." Many Episcopalians and others find in the passage the same sense. The Reverend Herbert Thorndike, before quoted, a learned divine of the Church of England, who lived in the reign of Charles I., speaks thus of the passage last cited. "There is no reason to doubt, that the men whom the Apostle, I Cor. 12, 28, and Ephes. 4, 11, called Doctors, or Teachers, are those of the Presbyters, who had the abilities of preaching and teaching the people at their assemblies. That those of the Presbyters who preached not, are called here by the Apostle, governments; and the Deacons, antilipshs, that is, helps, or assistants to the Government of Presbyters; so that it is not to be translated helps in governments, but helps, governments, &c. There were two parts of the Presbyter's office, viz., teaching and governing, the one whereof some attained not, even in the Apostle's times." [2]

But there is a still more pointed reference to this class of Elders in 1 Timothy v. 17. Let the Elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine. It would seem that every person of plain common sense, who had never heard of any diversity of opinion on the subject would, without hesitation conclude, on reading this passage, that, at the period in which it was written there were two kinds of Elders, one whose duty it was to labor in the word and doctrine, and another who did not thus labor but only ruled in the Church. The Apostle declares that Elders who rule well are worthy of double honor, but ESPECIALLY those who labor in the word and doctrine. Now, if we. suppose that there was only one class of Elders then in the Church, and that the were ALL teachers, or laborers in the word and doctrine, we make the inspired Apostle speak in a manner utterly unworthy of his high character. There was, therefore, a class of Elders in the apostolic Church who did not, in fact, or, at any rate, ordinarily, preach, or administer sacraments, but assisted in government;-in other words, Ruling Elders.

For this construction of the passage, Dr. Whitaker, a zealous and learned Episcopal divine, and Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge, of whom Bishop Hall remarks, that "no man ever saw him without reverence, or heard him without wonder"-very warmly contends-"By these words," says he, "the Apostle evidently distinguishes between the Bishops and the Inspectors of the Church. If all who rule well be worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine, it is plain that there were some who did not so labor; for if all had been of this description, the meaning would have been absurd; but the word especially points out a difference. If I should say that all who study well at the University are worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the study of theology, I must either mean, that all do not apply themselves to the study of Theology, or I should speak nonsense. Wherefore I confess that to be the most genuine sense by which Pastors and Teachers are distinguished from those who only governed; Romans xii. 8. Of this class of Elders Ambrose speaks in his commentary on 1 Timothy 5.1." [3]

The learned and venerable Dr. Owen, gives his opinion of the import of this passage, in still more pointed language. "This is a text," says he, "of incontrollable evidence, if it had any thing to conflict withal but prejudice and interest. A rational man, who is unprejudiced, who never heard of the controversy about Ruling Elders, can hardly avoid an apprhension that there are two sorts of Elders, some who labor in the word and doctrine, and some who do not so do. The truth is, it was interest and prejudice which first caused some learned men to strain their wits to find out evasions from the evidence of this testimony. Being found out, some others, of meaner abilities, have been entangled by them.-There are Elders, then, in the Church. There are, or ought to be so in every Church. With these Elders the whole rule of the Church is intrusted. All these, and only they, do rule in it." [4]

Equally to our purpose is the judgment of that acute and learned Episcopal divine, Dr. Whitby, in his Commentary on this passage:-"The Elders of the Jews," says he, "were of two sorts; lst, such as governed in the Synagogue, and 2dly, such as ministered in reading and expounding their scriptures and traditions, and from them, pronouncing what did bind or loose, or what was forbidden, and what was lawful to be done. For when, partly by their captivity, and partly through increase of traffic, they were dispersed in considerable bodies through divers regions of the world, it was necessary that they should have governors or magistrates to keep them in their duty, and judge of criminal causes; ind also Rabbins, to teach them the law, and the tradition of their fathers. The first were ordained ad judicandum, sed non ad docendum de licitis et vetitis, i.e. to judge and govern, but not to teach. The second, ad docendum, sed non ad judicandum, i.e. to teach, but not to judge or govern." "And these the Apostle here declares to be the most honorable, and worthy of the chiefest reward. Accordingly, the Apostle, reckoning up the officers God had appointed in the Church, places teachers before governments; I Cor. xii. 28."

I am aware that a number of glosses have been adopted to set aside the testimony of this cogent text in favor of Ruling Elders. To enumerate and show the invalidity of them all, would be inconsistent with the limits to wfiich this manual is restricted, But a few of the most plausible and popular may be deemed worthy of notice.

Some, for example, have said, that, by the Elders that rule well in this passage, civil magistrates are intended; while, by those who labor in the word and doctrine, ministers of the gospel are pointed out. But it will occur to every reflecting reader that, at the time when the passage of Scripture under consideration was addressed to Timothy, and for several centuries afterwards, there were no Christian Magistrates in the Church; and to suppose that the Church is exhorted to choose heathen judges or magistrates, to compose differences, and maintain order among the followers of Christ, is in the highest degree improbable, not to say altogether absurd.

Others have alleged, that by the Elders that rule well are meant Deacons. It is enough to reply to this suggestion, that it has never been shown, or can be shown, that Deacons are any where in the New Testament distinguished by the title of Elders; and, further, that the function of ruling is no where represented as belonging to their office. They were appointed Diakoveiv trapezais, to serve tables; Acts vi. 2, 3; but not to act as rulers in the house of God.-Of this, however, more in a subsequent chapter.

A third class of objectors contend, that the word malista, which our translators have rendered especially ought to be translated much. That it is not to be considered as distinguishing one class of Elders from another; but as marking intensity of degree; in other words, that it is meant to be exegetical of those who rule well, viz: those who labor MUCH, or with peculiar diligence, in the word and doctrine. On this plan, the verse in question would read thus:-Let the Elders who rule well, that is who labor MUCH in the word and doctrine, be accounted worthy of double honor. If this were adopted as the meaning of the passage, it would go to show, that it is for preaching alone, and not for ruling well, that Elders are entitled to honor. But is it rational or consistent with other parts of Scripture, to suppose that no honor is due to the latter? It has also been contended, by excellent Greek critics, that the structure of the sentence will not, naturally, bear this interpretation. It is not said, oi malista kopiwntes, as would have been the proper order of the words, if such had been the meaning intended to be conveyed; but malista oi kopiwntes:-not those who labor with especial diligence and exertion; but especially those who labor, &c. But the most decisive consideration is, that not a single case can be found, in the New Testament ` in which the word malista has the signification here attributed to it. It is so generally used to distinguish one class of objects from another, that we may safely venture to say, it cannot possibly have a different meaning in the passage before us. A few decisive examples will be sufficient. In the same chapter, from which the passage under consideration is taken, (I Tim. v. 8,) it is said: If any man provide not for his own, and especially (malista) for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, &c. Again; Gal. iv. 10:-Let us do good unto all men, but especially (malista) unto them who are of the household of faith. Again? Philip. 4, 22;-All the saints salute you, chiefly (malista) they of Caesar's household.-Thus, also, 2 Tim. iv. 13:-When thou comest, bring with thee the books, but especially (malista) the parchments. Further; 1 Tim. iv. 10: Who is the Saviour of all men, especially (malista) of those who believe. Again; Titus i. 10:-For there any many unruly and vain talkers, especially (malista) they of the circumcision. Now, in all these cases, there are taw classes of objects intended to be distinguished from each other. Some of the saints were of Caesar's household, and others were not. Good was to be done to all men; but all were not believers. There were many vain and unruly talkers alluded to, but they were not all of the circumcision: and so of the rest.

A fourth class of objectors to our construction of this passage, are certain prelatists, who allege, that by the Elders that rule well, the Apostle intends to designate superannuated Bishops, who though too old to labor in the word and doctrine, were still able to assist in ruling. To this it is sufficient to reply, that, whether we understand the "honor" (timhs) to which the Apostle refers, as intended to designate pecuniary support, or rank and dignity, it would seem contrary to every principle, both of reason and Scripture, that younger and more vigorous laborers in the word and doctrine, should have a portion of this honor awarded to them, superior to that which is yielded to those who have become worn out in the same kind of service. These aged, venerable, and exhausted dignitaries, according to this construction, are to be, indeed, much honored, but less than their junior brethren, whose strength for labor still continues.

A further objection made to our construction of this passage is, that when the Apostle Speaks of double honor (diplhs timhs) as due to those who rule well, he refers, not to respect and regard, but to temporal support. [5] Now, say this class of objectors, as Presbyterians never give salaries to their Ruling Elders, they cannot be the kind of officers contemplated by the sacred writer in this place. But is it certain that by the original term here translated "honor," salary, or maintenance, is really intended? Why not assign to the word timh its more common signification, viz.: honor, high respect, reverence? It is common to say, that the illustration contained in the 18th verse. Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn; and the laborer is worthy of his reward, seem to fix the meaning to temporal support. But those illustrations only carry with them the general idea of reward; and surely a reward may be of the moral as well as of the pecuniary kind. But supposing the inspired Apostle really to mean double, that is liberal maintenance, still this interpretation does not at all militate against our doctrine. It might have been very proper, in the days of Paul, to give all the Elders a decent temporal support, as a reward for their services. But if any Elders chose to decline receiving a regular stipend, as Paul himself seems to have done, he surely did not, by this disinterestedness, forfeit his office. It may be that Ruling Elders ought now to receive a compensation for their services, especially when they devote to the Church a large part of their time and talents. But if any are willing to render their services gratuitously, whether they be ruling or preaching Elders, every one sees that this cannot destroy, or even impair their official standing.

Accordingly, it will be seen in the sequel, that there is a concurrence of sentiment, in favor of our construction of this celebrated passage in Timothy, among the most distinguished divines of all denominations, Protestant and Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed, truly remarkable, and affording a very strong presumptive argument in favor of its correctness.

There is another class of passages, already quoted in a former part of this chapter, which is entitled to more formal consideration. I mean such as that found in I Thessalonians v. 12, 13. "And we beseech you brethren, to know them which labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their works sake." Such also as that found in Hebrews xiii. 17. "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls as they that must give account," &c. Here the inspired writer is evidently speaking of particular Churches. He represents them as each having a body of Rulers "set over them in the Lord," who "watch over them," and whom they are bound to "obey." In short, we find a set of officers spoken of, who are not merely to instruct, and exhort, but to exercise official authority in the Church. Now this representation can be made to agree with no other form of government than that of the Presbyterian Church. Not with Prelacy; for that presents no ruler in any single Church but the Rector only. It knows nothing of a Parochial Council, or Senate, who conduct discipline, and perform all the duties of spiritual rule. Not with Independency; for according to the essential principles of that system, the body of the communicants are all equally rulers, and even the Pastor is only the chairman, or president, not properly the Ruler of the Church. But with the Presbyterian form of Church government, in which every congregation is furnished with a bench of spiritual Rulers, whom the people are bound to reverence and obey, it agrees perfectly.

There is only one passage more which will be adduced in support of the class of Elders before us. This is found in Matthew xviii. 15, 16, 17. Here it is believed that the 17th verse, which enjoins-Tell it to the Church-has evidently a reference to the plan of discipline known to have been pursued in the Jewish Synagogue; and that the meaning is, "Tell it to that Consistory or Judicatory, which is the Church acting by its representatives." It is true, indeed, that some Independents, of more zeal than caution, have confidently quoted this passage as making decisively in favor of their scheme of popular government. But when carefully examined, it will be found not only by no means to answer their purpose; but rather to support the Presbyterian cause. We must always interpret language agreeably to the well known understanding and habit of the time and the country in which it is delivered. Now, it is perfectly certain that the phrase-"Tell it to the Church"-was constantly in use among the Jews to express the carrying a complaint to the Eldership or representatives of the Church. And it is quite as certain, that actual cases occur in the Old Testament in which the term Church (ekklhsia) is applied to the body of Elders. See as an example of this, Deuteronomy xxxi. 28, 30, comparing our translation with that of the Seventy, as alluded to in a preceding chapter. We can scarcely avoid the conclusion, then, that our blessed Lord meant to teach his disciples, that, as it had been in the Jewish Synagogue, so it would be in the Christian Church, that the sacred community should be governed by a bench of Rulers regularly chosen and set apart for this purpose.

In support of this construction of the passage before us, we have the concurring judgment of a large majority of Protestant divines, of all denominations.-We have not only the opinion of Calvin, Beza, Paraeus, and a great Number of distinguished writers on the continent of Europe; but also of Lightfoot, Goodwin, and many others, both ministers of the Church of England, and the Independents of that country. It is worthy of remark, too, that Chrysostom, known to be an eminently learned and accomplished Father, of the fourth century, evidently understands this passage in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, as substantially agreeing with the views of Presbyterians; or, at any rate, as totally rejecting the Independent doctrine. Zanchius, (in Quart. Proecept.) and Junius (Controv. iii. Lib. ii. Cap. vi.) quote him as asserting, in his Commentary on this place, that by the Church to which the offence was to be told, we are to understand the proedroi kai prwestwtes of the Church.

It may not be improper, before taking leave of the Scriptural testimony in favor of Ruling Elders, to take some notice of an objection which has been advanced with much confidence, but which, manifestly, when examined, will be found destitute of the smallest force. It has been said that great reliance is placed on the word proestwte¸, found in I Timothy v. 17, as expressive of the ruling character of the office under consideration; whereas, say these objectors, this very word, as is universally known and acknowledged, is applied by several of the early Fathers to Teaching Elders, to those who evidently bore the office of Pastors of Churches, and who were, of course, not mere rulers, but also "laborers in the word and doctrine." If therefore this title be applied to those who were confessedly teachers, what evidence have we that it is intended, in any case, to designate a different class? This objection is founded on a total misrepresentation of the argument which it is supposed to refute. The advocates of the office of Ruling Elder do not contend or believe that the function of ruling is confined to this class of officers. On the contrary, they suppose and teach that one class of Elders BOTH rule and teach, while the other class rule ONLY. Both, according to the doctrine of the Presbyterian Church, are proestwte¸; but one only "labor in the word and doctrine." When, therefore, cases are found in the early records of the Church in which the presiding Elder, or Pastor, is styled proestwte¸, the fact is in perfect harmony with the usual argument from I Tim. v. 17 the import of which we maintain to be this:-Let all the Elders that rule well, be counted worthy of double honor, especially those of their number who, besides ruling, besides acting as proestwtes, in common with the others, also labor in the word and doctrine.

It has also been contended that the whole doctrine of the Ruling, as distinct from the Teaching Elder, tends to weaken, if not wholly to destroy, the Presbyterian argument in favor of parity in the Gospel ministry, drawn from the fact, that both Scripture and early Christian antiquity represent Bishop and Presbyter as convertible titles for the same office. Presbyterians maintain, and I have no doubt, with perfect truth, that, in the language of the New Testament, a Bishop means the Pastor, or Overseer of a single Church or parish; that Bishop and Presbyter are not titles which imply different grades of office; but that a Presbyter or Elder who has a pastoral charge, who is the overseer of a flock, is a Scriptural Bishop, and holds the highest office that Christ has instituted in his Church. Now, it his been alleged by the opponents of Ruling Elders, that to represent the Scriptures as holding forth TWO CLASSES of Elders, one class as both teaching and ruling, and the other as ruling only-and, consequently, the latter as holding a station not exactly identical with the former;-amounts to a virtual surrender of the argument derived from the identity of Bishop and Presbyter.

This objection, however, is totally groundless. If we suppose Elder, as used in Scripture, to be a generic term, comprehending all who bore rule in the Church; and if we consider the term Bishop, as also a generic term, including all who sustained the relation of official inspectors or overseers of a flock;-then it is plain that all Bishops were Scriptural Elders; and that all Elders, whether both teachers and rulers, or rulers only, provided they were placed over a parish, as inspectors or overseers, were Scriptural Bishops. Now this, I have no doubt, was the fact. When, therefore, the Apostle Paul, in writing to the Church at Philippi, addresses the Bishops and Deacons; and when in his conference with the Elders of the Church of Ephesus, at Miletus, he speaks of them all equally as Overseers; or, as it is in the original, Bishops (Episkpou¸) of that Church, I take for granted he included the rulers as well as the teachers, in both instances. In a word, I suppose that, in every truly primitive and apostolic Church, there was a bench of Elders, or Overseers, who presided over all the spiritual interests of the congregation; that, generally, a small part only of these, and perhaps seldom more than one, statedly preached; that the rest, though probably ordained in the same manner with their colleagues, very rarely, if ever, taught publicly, but were employed as inspectors and rulers, and it may be, also, in visiting, catechizing, and instructing from house to house. If this were the case-and every part of the New Testament history favors the supposition-then nothing can be more natural than the language of the inspired writerss in reference to this whole subject. Then we readily understand why the Apostle should say to Titus: For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain ELDERS in every city, as I had appointed thee. if any be blameless, &c; for a BISHOP must be blameless, as the steward of God, &c. We may then perceive, why he speaks of a number of Bishops at Philippi, and a number also at Ephesus; and, in the same breath, calls the latter alternately Bishops and Elders;-and, on this principle, we may see, no less plainly why the Apostle Peter said:-The Elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an Elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed. Feed the flock of God that is among you, taking the oversight thereof, (episkotounte¸)-acting as Bishops among them-not by constraint but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being Lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. And accordingly, it is remarkable that the word poimavate, used in the second verse of the last quotation, is derived from a word signifying a shepherd, and carries with it the ideas of guiding, protecting and ruling, as well as feeding in appropriate spiritual pastures. See Matthew ii. 6, and Revelation ii. 27.

This view of the subject takes away all embarrassment and difficulty in reference to the titles given to the primitive officers of the Church. There is abundant evidence that every class of Elders, as well those who commonly officiated as rulers only, as those who both ruled and taught, bore the names of Bishops, Inspectors, Overseers, during the apostolic age, and for some time afterwards. This was a name most significantly expressive of their appropriate function, which was to overlook, direct and rule each particular Church, for its edification. How long this title continued to be applied to all the Elders, indiscriminately, it is not easy to say. It was probably in the Church, as it was known to have been in the Synagogue. All the rulers of the Synagogue were popularly called Archi-synagogi, as is evident from several passages in the New Testament; but sometimes, as we learn from the same source, this title was applied, by way of eminence, to the presiding or principal Ruler of each Synagogue. So with regard to the title of Inspector, Overseer, or Bishop, we know that all the Elders of Ephesus (Acts xx. 17, 28,) were indiscriminately called Bishops by the inspired Paul. We know too that the same Apostle recognizes a plurality of Bishops, or Overseers, in the Church at Philippi,-(chapter i. 1.,)-who, could not posssibly have been Prelates, as Episcopalians themselves allow. We find, moreover, the same "chiefest of the Apostles," giving the titles of Bishop and Elder, without discrimination, to all the Church Rulers directed to be ordained in Ephesus and Crete, as the Epistles to Timothy and Titus plainly evince. In those pure and simple times no difficulty arose from this general application of a plain and expressive title. For more than a hundred years after the apostolic age, this title continued to be frequently applied in the same manner, as the writings of Clemens Romanus, Hermas, Irenaeus, and others, amply testify. We find them not only speaking of the Elders as bearing rule in each Church; but also calling the same men, alternately, Bishops, and Elders, as was evidently done in apostolic times. In process of time, however, this title, which was originally considered as expressive of duty and labor, rather than of honor, became gradually appropriated to the principal Elder, who usually presided in preaching and ordering the course of the public service. Not only so, but, as a worldly and ambitious spirit gained ground, he who bore this title began to advance certain peculiar claims;-first those of a stated Chairman, President, or Moderator;-and finally those of a new order, or grade of office. That there was an entire change in the application of the title of Bishop not long after the apostolic age, a majority of our Episcopal brethren themselves allow. They grant that in the New Testament this title is given indiscriminately to all who were intrusted with the instruction and care of the Church. But that, in the succeeding period, it was gradually reserved to the highest order. In other words, they grant that the title Bishop had a very different meaning in the second and third centuries, from that which it had borne in the first. Now, even conceding to them that this change took place earlier than the best records give us reason to believe; it may be asked-why make such a change at all? Why not continue to get along with the language which the inspired Apocies had authorised by their use? Why insidiously make an old title, which was familiar to the popular ear, signify something very different from what it had been wont to signify from the beginning; and thus palm a new office with an old name on the people? Were there no other fact established by the early writers than this, it would be quite sufficient to convince us that the apostolic government of the Church was early corrupted by human ambition.


1. VITRINGA, De Synagoga Vetere. Lib. ii. Chap.ii. [back]

2. Discourses of Religious Assemblies. Chap. iv. p. 117. [back]

3. Proelectiones, as quoted in CALDERWOOD'S Altere Damascenum, p. 681. [back]

4. True Nature jof a Gospel Church. Chapter vii. p. 141, 142, 143. [back]

5. It is worthy of notice that Calvin, in his commentary on this place, gives the following view of the Apostle's meaning when he speaks of double honor. "When Chrysostom interprets the phrase double honor, as importing support and reverence, I do not impugn his opinion. Let those adopt it who think proper. But to me it appears more probable that a comparison is here intended between Widows and Elders. Paul had just before commanded to have Widows in honor. But Elders are still more worthy of honor than they. Wherefore to these double honor is to be given." This interpretation is natural, and consistent. "Honor Widows, says the Apostle, that are widows indeed;" but "let the Elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those that labor in the word and doctrine." The same word is used to express honor in both cases. [back]


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