The Ruling Elder

by Samuel Miller



That which is not found in the Bible, however fully and strongly it may be enjoined elsewhere, cannot be considered as binding on the Church. On the other hand, what is plainly found in the word of God, though it be no where else taught, we are bound to receive. Accordingly, if we find Ruling Elders in the New Testament, as it is firmly believed we have done--it matters not, as to their substantial warrant, how soon after the apostolic age, they fell into disuse. Still if we can discover traces of them in the early uninspired writings of the Christian Church, it will certainly add something to the chain of proof which we possess in their favor. It will add strong presumption to that which is our decisive rule. Let us, then, see whether the early Fathers say any thing which can be fairly considered as alluding to this class of Church officers.

But before we proceed to examine these witnesses in detail, it may not be improper to make two general remarks, which ought to be kept steadily in view through the whole of this branch of our subject.

The first is,-that we must be on our guard against the ambiguous use of the title, Elder, as it is expressed in different languages. When we look into the writings of the Christian Fathers who lived during the first two hundred years after Christ, all of whom, if we except Tertullian, wrote in Greek, we find them generally using the word presbutero¸ to designate an Elder. Now this is precisely the same word which the advocates of Prelacy apply to the "second order," as they express it,of their "clergy," always called by them "Presbyters." And when Presbyterians translate this word by the term Elder,[1] and consider it as used, at least in many cases, to designate that class of officers which forms the subject of this Essay, they are considered and represented, by some illiterate and narrow minded persons, as chargeable with an unfair, if not a deceptive use of a term. This charge is manifestly unjust. It will never be repeated by any candid individual, who is acquainted with the Greek language. This is the very word which is almost invariably used by the translators of the Septuagint, all through the Old Testament, to designate Elders who, confessedly had nothing to do with preaching. In truth, it was a general title of office among the Jews, and it was a general title of office among the early Christians, as any one will immediately perceive by a candid perusal of the New Testament. And the fact is, that if Presbyterians wrote in Greek, they would of course, employ this very term to express their Ruling Elder. The word "Elder" is the natural, literal, and, we may almost say, the only proper term by which to express the meaning of the Greek title presbutero¸. And even when we meet in some of the early Fathers with passages in which the officers of the Church are enumerated as consisting of Episkopoi, Presbuteroi, kai Diakonoi it may be said, with perfect truth, that if Presbyterians, at the present day, were called upon to enumerate the standing officers in all their Churches, which are completely organized agreeably to their public standards-they would, beyond all doubt, if they used the Greek language, represent their regular ecclesiastical officers as every where consisting of Episkopoi, Presbuteroi, kai Diakonoi; meaning by Episkopoi a parochial Pastor or Overseer, in which sense Prelatists themselves acknowledge the title to have been generally used in the apostolic age; and meaning by the title presbuteros, Ruling Elder, which we have no doubt has been shown, and will be yet further shown to be, in many cases, the proper interpretation of the word. When, therefore, we thus translate the word in some of the following quotations, let no one feel as if we were taking an unwarrantable liberty. No imputation of this kind, tssuredly, will be made by any reader of competent learning to judge in the case.

The second preliminary remark is, that, perhaps, no class of Church officers would be, on the whole, so likely to fall into disrepute after the apostolic age, and be discontinued, as that which is now under consideration. We know that the purity of the Church began to decline immediately after the apostolic age. Nay, while the Apostles were still alive, "the mystery of iniquity" had already begun "to work." Corruption, both in faith and practice, had crept in, and, in some places, to an alarming and most distressing extent. And, after their departure, it soon "came in like a flood." The discipline of the Church became relaxed, and, after a while, in a great measure prostrated. The hints dropped by several writers in the second century, and the strongly colored and revolting pictures given by Origen and Cyprian, of the state of the Church in their own times, present a view of this subject which need no comment. Now, in such a state of things, was it not natural that the office of those whose peculiar duty it was to inspect the members of the Church; to take cognizance of all their aberrations; and to maintain a pure and scriptural discipline, should be unpopular, and finally as much as possible crowded out of public view, discredited, and gradually laid aside.

But this is not all. Shortly after the apostolic age, several ecclesiastical officers, as is confessed on all hands, were either invented or modified, so as to suit the declining spirituality of the times. To mention but a single example. The Deacons began to claim higher dignity and powers. Sub-Deacons were introduced to perform some of those functions which had originally belonged to Deacons, but which they had become too proud to perform. Was it either unnatural, then, or improbable-since things of a similar kind actually took place-that in the course of the undeniable degeneracy which was now reigning, the Ruling Elders of the Church should find the employment to which they had been originally destined, irksome both to themselves and others; by no means adapted to gratify either the love of gain, or the love of pleasure which seemed to be the order of the day;-and that both parties gradually united in dropping the inspection and discipline once committed to their hands, and in turning their attention to objects more adapted to the taste of ambitious, worldly minded Churchmen. And this result would be, at once, more likely to occur, and might have occurred with less opposition and noise, if we suppose, as some learned men have done, that Ruling and Teaching Elders, from the beginning, not only both bore the general name of Elders, but were both set apart to their office with the same formalities. If this were the case, then there was nothing to change, in virtually discarding the office of Ruling Elder, but gradually to neglect all their appropriate duties, and in an equally gradual manner to slide into the assumption of duties, and especially that of public preaching which, in the primitive Church, they had not been expected to perform.

Keeping these things in mind, let us examine whether some, both of the early and the late Fathers, do not express tbemseves in a manner which renders it probable, or rather certain, that they had in view the class of Elders of which we are speaking.

In the Epistle of Clemens Romanus, who lived toward the close of the first century, to the Church at Corinth, we find the worthy father remonstrating with the members of that Church for having risen up against their Elders, and thrust them out of office-perhaps for the very reason just hinted at-that they found their inspection and rule uncomfortable. Accordingly Clemens addresses the Corinthian Christians in the following manner:-"It is a shame, my beloved, yea, a very great shame, to hear that the most firm and ancient Church of the Corinthians should be led by one or two persons, to rise tip against their Elders."-(presbuterou¸..) Again; "Let the flock of Christ enjoy peace with the Elders (presbuterwn) that are set over it." Again; "Do ye, therefore, who first laid the foundation of this sedition, submit yourselves to your Elders, and be instructed into repentance, bending the knee of your hearts;" Epist. 47. 54. 57.

In these extracts we find an entire coincidence with the language of the New Testament; a plain indication that in every Church there was a plurality of Elders; and a distinct recognition of the idea that these Elders were rulers, in other words, held a station of authority and government over "the flock" of which they were officers.

In the Epistles of Ignatius, who lived at the close of the first, and the beginning of the second century, we may find much said about Elders, (presbuteroi.) The following is a specimen of the manner in which he speaks of them, in connexion with the other classes of Church officers. "Obey your Bishop and the Presbytery (the Eldership) with an entire affection;" Epistle to the Ephesians, 20. "I exhort you that you study to do all things in a divine concord: your Bishop presiding in the place of God, your Elders in the place of the council of the Apostles, and your Deacons, most dear to me, being intrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ." Again; "Do nothing without your Bishop and Elders;" Epistle to the Magnesians, 6.7. "It is, therefore, necessary, that, as ye do, so without your Bishop you should do nothing; also be ye subject to your Elders, as the Apostles of Jesus Christ our hope." Again; "Let all reverence the Deacons as Jesus Christ, and the Bishop as the Father, and the Elders as the Sam\nhedrim of God, and the college of the Apostles." Again; "Fare ye well in Jesus Christ; being subject to your Bishop as to the command of God, and so likewise to the Presbytery, (or Eldership;") Epistle to the Trallians, 2. 3. 13. "Which also I salute in the blood of Jesus Christ, which is our eternal and undefiled joy; especially if they are at unity with the Bisop and Elders, who are with him, and the Deacons appointed according to the mind of Jesus Christ. Again; "There is one cup, and one altar, and also one Bishop, together with his Eldership, and the Deacons, my fellow-servants." Again; "I cried whilst I was among you; I spake with a loud voice, Attend to the Bishop, to the Eldership, and to the Deacons;" Epistle to the Philadelphians, Pref. 4. 7. See that ye all follow your Bishop, as Jesus Christ, the Father, and the Presbytery (or Eldership) as the Apostles; and reverence the Deacons as the command of God." Again; "It is not lawful without the Bishop either to baptize, or to celebrate the holy communion." Again; "I salute your very worthy Bishop; and your venerable Eldership, and your Deacons, my fellow-servants; Epistle to the Smyrneans, 8. 12. "My soul be security for them who submit to their Bishop, with their Elders and Deacons;" Epistle to Polycarp,6.

The friends of Prelacy have long been in the habit of insisting much on these and similar quotations from Ignatius, as affording decisive support for their system. But I must think that their confidence in this witness has not the smallest solid ground. [2] For, let it be remembered that these several Epistles were directed, not to large, prelatical dioceses, but to single parishes, or congregations; that in each of these Churches there are represented as being, a Bishop, a Presbytery, or bench of Elders, and a plurality of Deacons; and, therefore, that it is parochial episcopacy, and not diocesan, or prelatical, that is here described. And, accordingly, we learn from different parts of these Epistles, that, in the time of Ignatius, each Bishop had under his pastoral charge, but "one altar," "one cup," "one loaf," i.e. one communion table, and that the people under his care habitually came together to "one Place," in other words, formed "one assembly."

Agreeably to this view of the subject, it is worthy of notice that Ignatius calls the Presbyters, or Elders of each Church which he addresses, the sunedrion qeou, that is the Sanhedrim, or council of God. But with what propriety could he designate them by this title-tbe popular title of a well known Jewish ecclesiastical court,-if they did not constitute a corresponding court in the Christian Church; and if the whole body of ecclesiastical officers which he addressed from time to time were not the rulers of a single flock? The truth is, the whole language of Ignatius, in reference to the officers of whom he speaks is STRICTLY PRESBYTERIAN and cannot be considered as affording countenance to any other system without doing violence to its natural import,

Accordingly, it is worthy of notice, that the learned Mr. Joseph Mede, a very able and zealous divine of the Church of England, and a decisive advocate of diocesan Episcopacy, gives a representation of the state of things in the time of Ignatius, which, in substances falls in with our account of the character of the Churches addressed by that Father. "It should seem," says he, "that in those first times, before dioceses were divided into those lesser and subordinate Churches, which we call parishes, and Presbyters assigned to them, they had only one altar to a Church, taking Church for the company or corporation of the faithful, united under one Bishop or Pastor; and that was in the city or place where the Bishop bad his see and residence. Unless this were so, whence came it else, that a scbismatical Bishop was said, constituere, or collocare aliud altare? And that a Bishop and an Altar are made correlatives?" [3]

The, same fact is asserted by Bishop Stillingfleet, in his Sermon against Separation. "Tbough, when the Churches increased," says he, "the occasional meetings were frequent in several places; yet still there was but one Church, and one Altar, and one Baptistery, and one Bishop, with many Presbyters attending him. Which is so plain in antiquity, as to the Churches planted by the Apostles themselves, that none but a great stranger to the history of the Church can call it in question. It is true, after some time, in the great cities, they had distinct places allotted, and Presbyters fixed among them;-and such allotments were called Tituli at Rome, Laurae at Alexandria, and parishes in other places. But these, were never thought, then, to be new Churches, or to have any independent government in themselves; but were all in subjection to the Bishop, aiad his college of Presbyters; of which multitudes of examples might be brought from the most authentic testimonies of antiquity, if a thing so evident needed any proof at all. And yet this distribution, (into distinct Tituli,) even in cities, was looked on as so uncommon in those elder times, that Epiphanius takes notice of it as an extraordinary thing at Alexandria; and therefore it is probably supposed that there was no such thing in all the cities of Crete in his time.

That the Elders spoken of so frequently by Ignatius, were all the officers of a single parish or Congregation, is also evident, not only from the title which he gives to the body of Elders; but also from the duties which be represents as incumbent on the Bishop with whom these Elders were connected. It is represented as the duty of the Bishop to be present ivith his flock whenever they came together; to conduct their prayers, and to preside in all their religious assemblies. He is spoken of as the only person who was authorized, in ordinary cases, to administer Baptism, and the Lord's Supper; as the person by whom all marriages among the people of his charge were celebrated; whose dutv it was to be personally acquainted with all his flock; who was bound to take notice, with his own eye, of those who were absent from public worship; to attend to the wants of the widows and all the poor of his congregation; to seek out all by name, and not to overlook even the servant men and maids under his care; to instruct the children; to reconcile differences, and, in short, to attend to all those objects, in detail, which are considered as devolving on every faithful parish minister. Now, all these representations so plainly apply to the pastor of a single Church, and are so evidently impossible to be realized by any other person, that it would be a waste of time, and an insult to common sense, to attempt a more formal establishment of the position.

But if the Bisbop of Ignatius, be a simple parochial Bishop, in other words, the ordinary pastor of a congregation; and if the Presbytery, or bench of Elders of which he so frequently speaks, are to be considered as all belonging to a single parish;-then we can scarcely avoid the conclusion, that they were not all of them employed in public preaching; but that their principal employment was, as assistants of the pastor, and in union with him, to discharge the duties of Inspectors and Rulers of the Church.

Again; Polycarp, writing to the Church of Philippi, most evidently and unequivocally conveys the idea, that there was a plurality of Presbyters, (or Elders,) not only in his own Church, but also in that to which he wrote; and that they were the regularly appointed ecclesiastical rulers. He addressed them thus: "Let the Elders be tender and merciful, cornpassionate towards all, reclaiming those which have fallen into errors; visiting all that are weak; not negligent of the widow and the orphan, and of him that is poor; but ever providing what is honest in the sight of God and men; abstaining from all wrath, respect of persons, and uprigbteous judgment; avoiding covetousness; not hastily believing a report against any man; not rigid in judgment; knowing that we are all faulty, and obnoxious to judgment." [4]

Cypriain, in his 29th Epistle, directed "to his brethren, the Elders and Deacons, expresses himself in the following terms:-

"You are to take notice that I have ordained Saturus, a reader, and the confessor Optatus, a sub-Deacon; whom we had all before agreed to place in the rank and degree next to that of the clergy. Upon Easter day, we made one or two trials of Saturus in reading when we were approving our readers before the teaching Presbyters; and then appointed Optatus from among the readers, to be a teacher of the hearers." On this passage, the Rev. Mr. Marshall, the Episcopal translator and commentator of Cyprian, remarks:-"It is hence, I think, apparent that all Presbyters were not teachers, but assisted the Bishop in other parts of his office." And Bishop Fell, another editor and commentator of Cyprian, remarks on the same passage in the following words:-"Inter Presbyteros rectores et doctores olim distinxisse videtur divus Paulus; I Tim. v. 17." i.e. St. Paul appears to have made a distinction, in ancient times, between teaching and ruling Elders, in 1 Timothy v. 17.-Here two learned Episcopal divines explicitly acknowledged the distinction between teaching and ruling Elders in the primitive Church; and one of them an eminent Bishop, not only allows that Cyprian referred to this distinction but also quotes as an authority for it the principal text which Presbyterians adduce for the same purpose.

There is another passage in Cyprian's 40th Epistle, which the very learned authors of the Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici [5] consider as containing an allusion to the office in question, and which may not be unworthy of notice. At the time when Cyprian wrote this Letter, he was in a state of exile from his Church. It is directed to the Elders, Deacons, and People at large, of his congregation; and contains an expression of his wish that one Numidicus should be reckoned, or have a place assigned him with the Presbyters, or Elders of that Church, and sit with the clergy. And yet it would appear that this was only as a ruling, and not as a teaching Elder that he was to be received by them; for Cyprian subjoins--He shall be promoted, if God permit, to a more distinguished place in his religion, (or his religious function,) when, by the protection of Providence, I shall return." Here, it seems, the Presbytery, or Eldership in that Church were directed immediately to receive, or set apart, this man to the office of Elder among them; and their absent pastor, or Bishop, promises that when he returns, Numidicus shall be promoted to a still higher office. Now the only supposable promotion in this case was to the office of a Teaching Elder. That the passage is very naturally susceptible of this construction, none will deny, At any rate, it is adopted by some of the most mature divines and scholars in England, of the seventeenth century; however unceremoniously it may have been since rejected by less competent judges.

Accordingly, it is worthy of notice, that the famous Henry Dodwell, one of the most learned and zealous Episcopal writers in the British empire, of the seventeenth century, notwithstanding his determined opposition to every thing peculiarly Presbyterian; yet, in his celebrated Dissertations on Cyprian, freely grants, that, in the days of that Father there were Elders or Presbyters in the Christian Church who did not preach. He represents this fact as undoubtedly taught by Cyprian, in his Epistles, and particularly refers, for proof, to the first of the passages cited in a preceding page. Nay, he expresses a full persuasion that a similar fact existed in the apostolic Church, and quotes I Timothy v. 17, as a decisive confirmation of his opinion. [6] The notion, then, that all testimony supposed to be derived from Cyprian in favor of non-preaching Elders, is a dream of modern sectaries, for the purpose of carrying a favorite point in Church government., is plainly not tenable. Some of the best talents and most mature learning in the Christian Church, without any leaning to Presbyterian opinions, have decisively interpreted that Father, as setting forth such a class of Elders.

Hippolytus, who was nearly contemporary with Cyprian, repeatedly speaks of these Elders as existing, and as exercising authority in his day. In his Tract "Against the heresy of a certain Noetus," he states, in the beginning of the work, that Noetus being charged with certain heretical opinions, the "Elders (presbuteroi) cited him to appear, and examined him in the presence of the Church;" that Noetus having at first denied, but afterwards openly avowed the opinions imputed to him,-" the Elders summoned him a second time, condemned him, and cast him out of the Church." It seems, then, that in the third century there were Elders, whose duty it was to examine, try, and excommunicate such members of the Church as were found delinquent with respect to either doctrine or morals. In this case, a part, at least, of the trial, seems to have been conducted "in the presence of the Church," of which they were rulers; but still the trial, conviction and excommunication were by the Elders.

Origen, who, it is well known, flourished a little more than two hundred years after Christ, in the following passage, has a plain reference to the class of officers under consideration. "There are some Rulers appointed whose duty it is to inquire concerning the manners and conversation of those who are admitted, that they may debar from the congregation such as commit filthiness." [7] This passage is replete with important and conclusive testimony. It not only proves, that, in the time of Origen, there were Rulers in the Christian Church; but that the chief and peculiar business of these Rulers was precisely that which we assign to Ruling Elders, viz.: inspecting the members of the Church; watching over all its spiritual interests; admitting to its communion those who, on inquiry, were found worthy; and debarring those who were in any way immoral. It is perfectly evident from this passage alone, that, in the days of this learned Father, the government and discipline of the Church were not conducted by the body of the communicants at large, but by a BENCH OF RULERS.

The same important fact is also indubitably implied in the language of Origen in another place. In his seventh Homily on Joshua, he speaks of one who, having, been thrice admonished,. and being unwilling to repent, was cut off front the Church by its rulers." Those who cut off then, from the communion of the Church, and restored the penitent, in the time of Origen were not the body of the communicants, but a bench of Elders. This great historical fact is, moreover, explicitly established, as having existed in the third century, (the age of Origen,) by the Magdeburgh Centuriators, a body of very learned Lutheran Divines, contemporary with Melancthon, and whose authority as ecclesiastical historians, is deservedly high. "The right" say they "of deciding respecting such as were to be excommunicated, or of receiving, upon their repentance, such as had fallen, was vested in the Elders of the Church. [8]

In the Gesta Purgationis Caeciliani et Felicis, preserved at the end of Optatus, and commonly referred to the beginning of the fourth century, we meet with the following enumeration of Church officers: "Presbyteri, Diaconi et Seniores," i.e. The Presbyters, the Deacons and the Elders." And a little after is added:-"Adhibite conclericos, et Seniores plebis, ecclesiasticos viros, et inquirant diligenterquae sint istae dissentiones," i.e. "Call the fellow clergymen and Elders of the people, ecclesiastical men, and let them inquire diligently what are these dissentions." In that assembly, likewise, several letters were produced and read; one addressed, Clero et Senioribus, i.e. "to the clergy and the Elders;" and another Clericis et Senioribus, i.e. "to the Clergymen and the Elders." Here, then, is a class of men expressly recognized as ecclesiastical men, or Church officers; who are styled Elders; who were constituent members of a solemn ecclesiastical assembly, or judicatory; who are expressly charged with inquiring into matters connected with the discipline of the Church; and yet carefully distinguished from the Clergy, with whom they met, and officially united in the transaction of business. If these be not the Elders of whom we are in search, we may give up all the, rules of evidence.

Some, indeed, have said, that the phrase ecclesticos viros, in one of the passages last cited, was not intended to designate Church officers at all; that this phrase was early introduced to distinguish "men of the Church," i. e. Christians from Pagans, and other enemies of Christ: and that it probably had some such meaning, and nothing more, in the. ancient records from which the foregoing extracts are made. It is freely granted that the phrase, ecclesiastici viri, was, for a time employed, in the Christian Church, as well as by the surrounding heathen, in the sense, and for the purpose just mentioned. That is, when Christians were'spoken of, as distinguished from Jews, Infidels, Heretics, &c., they were called ecclesiastical men, importing, that they did not belong to Jewish Synagogues,or to the Heathen Temples, or to Herretical sects; but were adherents, or members of the Church of Christ. But it is well known, that thi slanguatge was never employed in this sense among Chrsitans themselves, when distinguishing one class of their own body from anohter. When used in this case, it always deisgnated men in ecclesiastical office. [9] Besides, in the passage before us, there can be no doubt that the phrase under consideration was used in the latter sense, and not in the former. For the ecclesiastical men, in these passages are represented as joined with the clergy in ecclesiastical functions; especially as directed to investigate and settle ecclesiastical dissentions. Surely this could neither be required or expected of men who sustained no office, and were, of course, invested with no authority in the Church.

Another objection which has been confidently urged against that construction which we have put upon the extracts form the Gesta Purgationis, &c. is that the Seniors or Elders, of which they speak, are mentioned AFTER DEACONS, and, therefore, are to be considered as inferior to them. "Now," says these objectors, "the Ruling Elders of the Presbyterian Church are always considered and represented, by the advocates of that denomination, as above Deacons, rather than below them, on the scale of ecclesiastical precedence. Of course, the Senior here spoken of, cannot belong to the calss of officers for which they contend." To this objection it is sufficient to reply, that the mere order in which titles are arranged, cannot be considered as decisive of the relative rank with which these titles are connected. At once to illustrate and confirm this remark, a single example will suffice. In the Epistles of Ignatius, when he speaks of Bislops, or Pastors, Elders and Deacons, no intelligent reader supposes that he means to represent the second and third of these classes of offices as inferior to the first. Yet, in his Epistle to the Trallians, be speaks thus:-"Let all reverence the Deacons as Jesus Christ; and the Bishop as the Father; and the Presbyters as the Sanbedrim of God, and the college of the Apostles." This may argue carelessness or haste in writing; or it may argue a mind in the writer, less intent on ecclesiastical precedence, than on more important matters; but it surely cannot be considered as deciding the relative standing of the different officers of whom he speaks.

Besides,let it be recollected, that the date of these Gesta was about the year of Christ, 303, when the Office of Ruling Elder, if we may credit the very explicit testimony of Ambrose, which will be stated presently, was going gradually out of use. If so nothing was more natural than that the writers and speakers of that day should be disposed to throw it on the back ground, and rather degrade than advance its appropriate rank in the scale of ecclesiastical honor.

There is also a passage in Optatus, of the African Church, who flourished a little after the middle of the fourth century, which corroborates the foregoing quotations. It is as follows:-"The Church had many ornaments of gold and silver, which she could neither bury in the earth, nor carry away with her, which she committed to the Elders, (Senioribus,) as to faithful persons." [10] There can scarcely be a doubt that these were not mere aged persons but official men; and, especially, as we know, from the writings of Cyprian, who resided in the same country, that there were such officers in the African Church, a few years before.

Ambrose, who lived in the fourth century, [11] in his commentary on I Timothy v. i, has the following passage: "For, indeed, among all nations old age is honorable. Hence it is that the Synagogue, and afterwards the Church, had Elders, without whose counsel nothing was done in the Church; which by what negligence it grew into disuse I know not, unless, perhaps, by the sloth, or rather by the pride of the Teachers, while they alone wished to appear something." The great body of the Prelatists, as well as some others, have labored hard to divest this passage of its plain and pointed testimony in favor of the office of Ruling Elder. They insist upon it that the pious Father had no reference whatever to ecclesiastical officers, but only to aged persons, and that he meant to say nothing more than that, formerly, in the Synagogue, and afterwards in the Church, there were old men, whom it was customary to consult; which practice, however, at the time in which he wrote, was generally laid aside. This perversion of an obvious meaning is really so strange and extravagant that the formality of a serious refutation seems scarcely necessary. Can any reflecting man believe that Hilary designed only to inform his readers that in the Jewish Synagogues, there were actually persons who had attained a considerable age; that this was also, afterwards the case in the Christian Church; and that these aged persons were generally consulted? This would have been a sage remark indeed! Was there ever a community of any extent, either ecclesiastical or civil, which did not include some aged persons? Or was there ever a state of society, or an age of the world, in which the practice of consulting the aged and experienced had fallen into disuse? That thinking, candid minds, should be able to satisfy tbemselves with such a gloss, is truly wonderful. It is certainly no argument in favor of this construction of the language of Ambrose, that he prefaces his statement respecting the Synagogue and the Church, by remarking, that "among all nations old age is honorable."' Surely no rcmark could be more natural or appropriate, when he was about to state, that from the earliest period of the Christian Church, and long before in the Synagogue, all their affairs had been managed by colleges of Elders, (a title importing a kind of homage to age and experience,) without whose council nothing was done.

But there is a clause in this extract from Ambrose, which precludes all doubt that he intended to allude to a class of Church officers, and not merely to old age. It is this:-"Which by what negligence it grew into disuse, I know not, unless, perhaps, by the sloth, or rather by the pride of the Teachers, who wished alone to appear something." It is very conceivable and obvious that both the pride and the sloth of the Teachers, or Teaching Elders, should render them willing to get rid of a bench of officers of equal power with themselves, as Rulers in the Church, and, consequently, able to control their wishes in cases of discipline. But it cannot easily be conceived why either sloth or pride should render any so particularly averse to all consultation with the aged and experienced, in preference to the young, on the affairs of the Church; especially if these aged persons bore no office, and there was, of course, no official obligation to be governed by their advice, as the gloss under consideration supposes. It being evident, then, that a class of officers was here intended, the question arises, what class of Presbyters, or Elders, was that which had grown into disuse in the fourth century? Not teaching Presbyters, surely; for every one knows that that class of Presbyters had not become obsolete in Ambrose's time. His own writings amply attest the reverse. And every one also knows that this class of Church officers has never, been laid aside, or even diminished in number, to the present day.

It is worthy of very particular notice here also, as no small confirmation of the construction which we put upon the words of Ambrose, that all the most learned and able of the Reformers, and a great number of others, the most competent judges in such matters, from the Reformation to the present time, have concurred in adopting the same construction, and have considered the worthy Father as referring to a class of Elders who held the place of inspectors and rulers in the Church. Learned Lutherans, and Episcopalians, as well as Calvinists, almost without number, have united in the interpretation of this Father, which we have given, with a degree of harmony truly wonderful, if that interpretation be entirely erroneous. Is it less likely that Luther, and Melancthon, and Bucer, and Whitgift, and Zanchius, and Peter Martyr, who had no sectarian or private views to serve, should be able correctly to read and understand Ambrose, than that modern and more superficial scholars should be betrayed into a mistaken construction, on the side in favor of which their feelings were strongly enlisted? No disrespect whatever is intended to the latter; but it cannot be doubted that a great preponderancy of testimony, both as to numbers and competency, is on the side of the former.

Augustine, Bishop of Ilippo, who also lived toward the close of the fourth century, often refers to this class of officers in his writings. Thus in his work, Contra Cresconium Grammaticum, Lib. iii. Cap. 56, he speaks of "Peregrinus, Presbyter, et Seniores Ecclesiae Musticanae regionis;" i.e. "Peregrine; the Presbvtcr, and the Elders of the Church of the Mustacan district." And again, be addresses one of his Epistles intended for his Church at Hippo, in the following nianner:-"Dilectissimis Fratribus, Clero, Senioribus et universae Plebi Ecclesiae Hipponensis;" Epist. 137; i.e. To the beloved brethren, the Clergy, the Elders and all the people of the Church at Hippo."' There were some Elders, then, in the time of Avgustine, whom he distinguishes from other Presbyters, and whom he also distinguishes from the Clergy. And, lcst any should suppose that the Elders here spoken of were not officers, but mere private members of the Church, he distinguishes them from the plebs universa of the Church. Augustine, also, in another place, (De Verb. Dom. Serm. 19,) speaks thus:-"Cum ob errorem aliquem a Senioribus arguuntur, et imputatur alicui de illis, cur ebrius fuerit? cur res alienas pervaserit?" &c., i.e. "When thev are reprehended for any error by the Elders, and are upbraided with having been drunk, or with having been guilty of theft, &c." Can any one doubt that, Augtustine is here speaking, not of mere aged persons, but of Church officers, whose duty it was to inspect the morals of the members of the Church, and to "upbraid," or reprove those who had been reprehensible in their deportment? It would be easy to produce, from the same Father, a number of other quotations equally to our purpose. But Bingham, in his Origines Ecclesiastiae, Bishop Taylor, in his Episcopacy Asserted, and other learned Prelatists, have rendered this unnecessary, by making an explicit acknowledgment, that Augustine repeatedly mentions these Seniors or Elders, as belonging to other Churches as well as his own in his time and that the same kind of Elders are frequently referred to by other writers, both before and after Augustine; as then existing in the Church; as holding in it some kind of official station and yet as distinguished from clergymen. It is true, indeed, that Bingham insists upon it that these were not Ruling Elders, in our sense of the word; but that they held some kind of office in the Church, and yet were not public preachers, he explicitly grants. We ask nothing more. This is quite sufficient for our purpose.

The ancient work, entitled Apostolical Constitutions, although by no means of Apostolical origin, was probably composed sometime between the second and fifth centuries. The following significant and pointed rule, extracted from that work, will be considered by the intelligent reader as by no means equivocal in its aspect:-"To Presbyters also, when they labor assiduously in the word and doctrine, let a double portion be assigned." [12] Here is, obviously, a distinction between Presbyters who are employed in teaching, and those who are not so employed. To what duties the others devoted themselves is not stated; but it is evident that teaching made no part of their ordinary occupation, We may take for granted that their duty was to assist in the other spiritual concerns of the Church, viz.: in maintaining good order and discipline. This is precisely the distinction which Presbyterians make, and which they believe to have been made in the primitive Church. Accordingly the Presbyters, in the same relic of Christian antiquity, and in a subsequent part of the same chapter, are called "the Counsellors of the Bishop, or Pastor; and the Sanhedrim, or Senate of the Church:" expressions which entirely harmonize with our views of the office of Elder in the ancient Church.

To the same class of officers, Isodore of Hispala, who flourished in the sixth century, seems to allude, when, in giving directions as to the manner in which pastors should conduct their official instructions, be says:-Prius docendi sunt Seniores plebis, ut per ecos infra positi facilius doceantur;" i.e. "The Eld.ers of the people are first to be taught, that by them such as are placed under them, may be, more easily instructed." Here again, these Seniores are evidently spoken of as Church officers, who were set over the people, and yet occupied a station inferior to that of the pastors, or public preachers.

Nor does this class of officers appear to have entirely ceased in the Church at as late a period as that of Gregory the great, who %vrote in the latter part of the sixth century. In one of his Epistles he gives the following direction:-"If any thing should come to your ears concerning any clergyman, which may be justly considered as matter of offence, do not easily believe it; but let truth be diligently investigated by the Elders of the Church, who may be at hand, and then, if the character of the act demand it, let the proper punishment fall on the offender." [13]

Here there is evidently a very distinct reference to such a class of officers as that of which we are speaking. They are distinguished from clergymen; and yet they are represented as ecclesiastical officers, to whom it properly pertained to investigate ecclesiastical offences, and to give advice and direction in peculiarly delicate cases of discipline. At an earlier period of the Church, indeed, these Elders, as well as all other classes of ecclesiastical men, were styled clergymen; as we shall have occasion more fully to show hereafter: but from the fourth century and onward, Elders of this class declined in numbers and in popularity, and not long afterwards were in a great measure laid aside, excepting by the humble and devoted Witnesses of the Truth, of whose testimony we shall speak in the next chapter.

There is another species of evidence here worthy of notice. The representation which the fathers give of the manner in which the Bishop or Pastor and his Elders were commonly seated, when the Church was assembled and during the solemnities of public worship, afford very strong evidence that the mass of the Elders were such as it is the object of this Essay to establish. We are told by several of the early Fathers, that when the Church was convened for public worship, the Bishop, or Pastor, was commonly seated on the middle of a raised bench, or long semi-circular seat, at one end of the Church; that his Elders were seated on each side of him, on the same seat, or on seats immediately adjoining, and commonly a little lower; and that the Deacons commonly stood in front of this bench, ready to give any notice, to execute any order, or to perform any service which the Pastor or Elders might think proper to direct. This practice was evidently drawn from the Jewish Synagogue. And, indeed, the order of assembling, sitting, and worship in the Christian assemblies, for the first two or three centuries, so strikingly resembled that of the Synagogue, that Christian Churches were frequently contemned, and opposed as Synagogues in disguise." [14]

This general fact is so well attested by the early Christian writers, that it is unnecessary to detain the reader by any formal proof of it. Now, if in every Church, when assembled in ordinary circumstances, there were present a Pastor, Overseer, or Bishop, and a body of Elders, sitting, with him, and counselling and aiding him in the inspection and discipline of the Church; it is hardly necessary to say, that these Elder could not all have been such Presbyters as the friends of Prelacy contend for, as their "second order of clergy." The supposition is absurd. They could only have been such a bench of pious and venerable men, as were chiefly employed in overseeing and ruling; and corresponding, substantially, with the Elders of the Presbyterian Church. It is true, indeed, the advocates of Prelacy endeavor to persuade us that these Presbyters were the stated preachers in the several congregations or worshipping assemblies which were, as they suppose, comprehended in the Bishop's charge, But this supposition is wholly unsupported. Nay, it is directy contrary to the whole current of early testimony on this subject. The very same writers who inform us that there were any Presbyters at all in the Christian Church within the first three hundred years, represent a PLURALITY OF THEM as sitting with the Bishop or Pastor, and PRESENT IN EVERY WORSHIPPING ASSEMBLY. There is no system with which this statement can be made essentially to agree, but that which is received among Presbyterians.

Another strong argument in support of the doctrine of Ruling Elders, as drawn from the early Fathers, is found in the abundant evidence which their writings furnish, that, during the first three or four centuries after Christ, the great body of the Christian Presbyters did not ordinarily preach, indeed, never but by the special permission of the Bishop or Pastor. The following statement by the learned Bingham, in his Origines Ecclesiastae, Book ii. chapter iii. section 4. will be found conclusive on this point:

"The like observation may be made upon the office of PREACHING. Tbis was in the first place the Bishop's office, which they commonly discharged themselves especially in the African Churches. Which is the reason we so frequently meet with the phrase, Tractante Episcopo, the Bishop preaching, in the writings of Cyprian. For then it was so much the office and custom of Bishops to preach, that no Presbyter was permitted to preach in their presence, till the time of St. Austin, who, whilst he was a Presbyter was authorized by Valerius, his Bishop, to preach before him. But that, as Possidius, the writer of his life observes, was so contrary to the use and custom of the African Churches, that many Bishops were highly offended at it, and spoke against it; till the consequences proved that such a permission was of good use and service to the Church; and then several other Bishops granted their Presbyters power and privilege to preach before them. So that it was then a favor for the Presbyters to preach in the presence of the Bishops, and wholly at the Bishop's discretion, whether they would permit them or not; and when they did preach, it was wholly potestate accepta, by the power and authority of the Bishops that appointed them. In the Eastern Churches Presbyters were more commonly employed to preach, as Possidius observes, when he says Valerius brought the custom into Africa from their example. And St. Jerome intimates as much, when he complains of it as an ill custom only in some Churches to forbid Presbyters to preach. Chrysostom preached several of his elaborate discourses at Antioch, while be was but a Presbyter; and so did Atticus at Constantinople: and the same is observed to have been granted to the Presbyters of Alexandria and Caesarea, in Cappadocia, and Cyprus, and other places. But still it was but a grant of the Bishops; and Presbyters did it by their authority and commission. And whenever Bishops saw just reason to forbid them, they had power to limit or withdraw their commission again:-as both Socrates and Sozomen testify, who say that at Alexandria Presbyters were forbidden to preach from the time that Arius raised a disturbance in the Church. Thus we see what a power Bishops anciently challenged and exercised over Presbyters in the common and ordinary offices of the Church: particularly for preaching, Bishops always esteemed it THEIR OFFICE as much as any other." This statement is amply illustrated and confirmed by the learned author by numerous references to early writers of the highest reputation, which it is altogether unnecessary to recite, on account of the notoriety of the fact alleged.

Can such a statement be contemplated a moment without perceiving, that the mass of the Presbyters or Elders, during the times here spoken of, were a very different class of officers from those commonly styled Presbyters," in the Papacy afterwards, and in more modern Prelatical Churches? The very circumstance of preaching making no part of their ordinary function; nay, that, in ordinary cases, they were never allowed to do it, but in virtue of a special permission, which is evidently the import of the whole account, unless we make nonsense of it; places it beyond all doubt that the authority which they received at ordination, did not really commission them to preach at all; but that the Bishop only was the commissioned preacher. This is exactly what Presbyterians say.-And if ever Ruling Elders or Deacons among us, conduct social worship, and address the people in public, it is always under the direction of the Bishop or Pastor, who may encourage or arrest it as he pleases. It is vain to say, that Presbyters in the Protestant Episcopal Church at the present day cannot preach, or perform any ecclesiastical act without the Bishop's permission. This is an idle evasion. The fact is that every one knows, that their original ordination, as Presbyters, or "Priests,"' as they are called-conveys the full power to preach, administer sacraments, and perform every duty of the ordinary parochial ministration, statedly, and without any further let or impediment. The cases then, are wholly unlike. There were, evidently, in the days of Ignatius and Cyprian, of Chrysostom and Augustine, of Socrates and Sozomen, some Elders who did not ordinarily preach, and were not considered as authorized to engage in this part of the public service, without a special permission; and who stood, not exactly, indeed, but very much on the same ground, as to this matter, with the Elders of our denomination.

The truth is, some of the very same writers who inform us that Elders and Deacons were not ordinarily allowed to preach during the first three or four centuries;-also inform us, that laymen, in cases of necessity, might preach by the Bishop's permission. This at once illustrates and strengthens the Presbyterian argument. For the same authority which might give a special permission in each case, or a general permission, for a time, to an Elder or Deacon to preach; which permission, it seems, might be revoked at pleasure, without touching the official standing of the individual much less deposing him from office;-might also authorize the merest layman in the whole parish to perform the same service, whenever it was judged expedient to give the license.

The truth of the matter seems to have been this. A large majority of the officers called Elders, in the three first centuries, were, no doubt, Ruling Elders-ordained, it is probable, in the same manner with the Teaching Elders, i.e., with "the laying on of hands," and the same external solemnity in every respect. They were not qualified, and were not expected, when ordained, to be preachers; but were selected, on account of their piety, gravity, prudence, and experience to assist in inspection and government. When, however, the Bishop or Pastor, who was the stated preacher, was sick, or absent, be might direct a Ruling Elder to take his place, on a single occasion, or for a few sabbaths. But this function made no part of their stated work; and they seldom engaged in it. After a while, however, these Elders, like the Bishops on the one hand, and the Deacons on the other, began to aspire; were more and more frequently permitted to preach; until, at length, non-preaching Elders were chiefly banished from the Church. As this was a gradual thing, they were, of course, retained in some Churches longer than others. They were, probably, first laid aside in large cities, where ambition was most prevalent, laxity of morals most indulged, and strict discipline most unpopular. In this way things proceeded, until this class of officers was almost wholly lost sight of in the Christian community.

One more testimony, by no means unimportant, of the existence of this office in the primitive Church, is to be found in the Rev. Dr. Buchanan's account of the Syrian Christians, contained in his Asiatic Researches. It will be borne in mind that the learned and pious author considers those Christians as having settled in the East, within the first three centuries after Christ, before the corruptions of the Church of Rome bad been introduced, and when the original simplicity of Gospel order had been but in a small degree invaded. Separating from the Western Church at that early period, and remaining, for many centuries, almost wholly secluded from tbe rest of the world, they were found in a great measure free from the innovations and superstitions of the papacy. Now, if Ruling Elders had any existence in the Christian Church within the first three hundred years, as Ambrose expressly declares they had, we might expect to find the Syrian Christians, in their seclusion, retaining some traces at least of this office in their Churches. Accordingly, Dr. Buchanan in describing the circumstances of a visit which he paid one of the Churches of this simple and highly interesting people, speaks as follows:-"When we arrived, I was received at the door of the Church by three Kasheeshas, that is Presbyters, or Priests, who were habited in like manner, in white vestments. Their names were Jesu, Zecharias, and Urias, which they wrote down in my journal, each of them adding to his name the title Kasheesha. There were also present two Shumshanas, or Deacons. The Elder Priest was a very intelligent man, of reverend appearance, having a long white beard, and of an affable and engaging deportment. The three principal Christians, or Lay-Elders, belonging to the Church, were named Abraham, Thomas and Alexandros." [15]

This remarkable fact, it is believed, belongs most properly to the present chapter. For if these simple Syrian Christians were really settled in the East, as early as Dr. Buchanan seems, with good reason, to suppose, and were, for many centuries entirely secluded from all foreign influence; we may consider them as having in operation among them, substantially, that ecclesiastical system which existed through the greater part of the Christian Church at the close of the third, and the beginning of the fourth century. A kind of testimony which, of course, falls in with our purpose in examining the testimony of the early ages of the Church.

Such then, is the amount of the testimony from the Christian Fathers. They tell us, with a unanimity and frequency truly remarkable, that, in every Church, there was a bench or college of Elders:-That they sat, with the Bishop or Pastor, as an ecclesiastical judicatory, and with him ruled the Church:-That this bench or body of rulers was called by various names in different parts of the world;-such as, Ecclesice Consessus-the Session or Consistory of the Church; twn presbuterwn sunedrion, the court or Sanhedrim of the Elders;-Ecclesiae Senatus, the Senate of the Church;-boulh ekklhsia¸ the Council of the Church, &c., &c.:-That they were always present with the Bishop or Pastor when he presided in public worship:-That he did nothing of importance without consultng them:-That they seldom or never preached, unless in cases of necessity, or when specially requested to do so by the pastor:-That they were more frequently than otherwise called clergymen, like the Elders who "labored in the word and doctrine," but sometimes distinguished from the clergy:-That, however, whether called clergymen or not, they were "ecclesiastical men," that is, set apart for ecclesiastical purposes, devoted to the spiritual rule and edification of the Church:-That all questions of discipline, such as admitting members into the Church, inspecting their Christian deportment, and censuring, suspending and excommunicating, were decided by these Elders: and, finally, from all it is apparent, that as discipline became unpopular, and ecclesiastics more aspiring, the ruling part of the Elder's office was gradually laid aside, and the teaching part alone retained.


1.It is worthy of notice that whenever the word presbuteros occurs in the New Testament, our translation, when an ecclesiastical officer is meant, always renders it Elder. So far as is recollected, this is invariably done. [back]

2.Intelligent readers are no doubt, aware that the genuineness of the Epistles of Ignatius has been called in question by a great majority of Protestant divines, and is not only really but deeply questionable. All inquiry, however, on this subject is waved for the present. [back]

3.Discourse on Church Government, p. 48. [back]

4.Epistle to the Philippians, Sect. 6. [back]

5.Jus Divinum, &c. p. 171, 172. [back]

6.Dissertationes Cyprianicoe, vi. Sect. 4, 5, 6. [back]

7.Contra Cesum. Lib. iii. p. 142. Edit. Cantab. 1677. [back]

8.Cent. iii. Cap. vii. p. 151. [back]

9.BINGHAM's Origines Ecclesiasticae, Book i. chapter i. section 8. [back]

10.OPTAT, Lib. i. p 41. edit. Paris, 1631. [back]

11.It is not forgotten that learned men have generally considered the real name of this writer as Hilary. Yet as the name of Ambrose is more frequently given to him, especially by many writers hereafter to be quoted, the latter name will be more intelligible, and, therefore, more convenient. [back]

12.Apostol Constit. Lib. ii. Cap. 28. [back]

13.Epistolae, Lib. ii. Epist. 19 -- quoted from teh Politica Ecclesiasitca of VOETIUS, Par. ii. Lib. ii.. Tract. iii. [back]

14.Thorndike's Discourse on Religious Assemblies. p. 57. [back]

15.Christian Researches in Asia, p. 75. N. York Edit. 12mo. 1812. [back]


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