The Ruling Elder

by Samuel Miller



It has been the habit of zealous and high-toned Prelatists, for more than two centuries past, as welt as of some Independents, to assert, that Ruling Elders were unknown in the Christian Church until about the year 1541 ; that then Calvin invented the order, and introduced it into the Church of Geneva. And some worthy men, of other denominations, have allowed themselves, with more haste than good advisement, to adopt and repeat the assertion. It is an assertion which, undoubtedly, cannot be made good; as the following testimonies will probably satisfy every impartial reader.

At how early a period the Old Waldenses took their rise is uncertain. In some of their Confessions of Faith, and other ecclesiastical documents. dated at the commencement, or soon after the commencement, of the Reformation by Luther, they speak of their Doctrine and Order as having been handed down from father to son for more than five hundred years. But Reinerius, who himself lived about two hundred and fifty years before Luther, who had once resided among the, Waldenses, but afterwards became one of their bitterest persecutors, seems to ascribe to that people a much earlier origin. "They are more pernicious," says he, "to the Church of Rome than any other set of heretics: for three reasons:-1. Because they are older than any other sect; for some say that they have been ever since the time of Pope Sylvester, (who was raised to the Papal chair in 314;) and others say, from the time of the Apostles. [1] 2. Because they are more extensively spread than any other sect; there being scarcely a country into which they have not crept. 3. Because other sects are abominable to God for their blasphemies; but the Waldenses are more pious than any other heretics; they believe truly of God, live justly before men, and receive all the articles of the creed; only they hate the Church of Rome."

Now, John Paul Perrin, the well known historian of the Waldenses, and who was himself one of the ministers of that people, in a number of places recognizes the office of Elder, distinguished from that of Pastor, or Teacher, as retained in their Churches. He expressly and repeatedly represents their Synods as composed of Ministers and Elders. The same writer tells us that, in the year 1476, the Hussites, being engaged in separating and reforming their Churches from the Church of Rome, understood that there were some Churches of the ancient Waldenses in Austria, in which the purity of the gospel was retained, and in which there were many eminent Pastors. In order to ascertain the truth of this account, they (the Hussites) sent two of their Ministers, with two Elders, to inquire arid ascertain what those flocks or congregations were.[2]

The same historian, in the same work, speaks of the Ministers, and Elders of the Bohemian Churches.[3] Now the Bohemian Brethren, it is well known, were a branch of the same people called Waldenses.[4] They had removed from Picardy, in the north of France, about two hundred years before the time of Huss and Jerome, to Bohemia, and there, in conjunction with many natives of the country, whom they brought over to their opinions, established a number of pure Churches, which long maintained the simplicity of the gospel. The undoubted existence of Ruling Elders, then, among the Bohemian Brethren, affords in itself, strong presumptive proof that the same class of officers existed in other branches of the same body. And, accordingly, a Synod, of which we have an account, as held in Piedmont, in Italy, in 1570, is represented, repeatedly, as made up of "Pastors and Elders." Again; in the Form of Government of the same people, in the chapter on Excommunication, we find the following direction respecting the disorderly, who refuse to listen to private admonition:-"Tell it to the Church," that is, to the "Guides, whereby the Church is ruled;" and that we may be at no loss who these "Rulers" were, we are. told, in a preceding chapter, that they were Elders chosen from among the people for the purpose of governing; and informed that they were distinct from the pastors.

The testimony of Perrin and others, is supported by that of M. Gillis, another historian of the Waldenses, and also one of their Pastors. In the Confession of faith of that people, inserted at length in the "Addition" to this work, and stated by the historian to have been the Confession of the Ancient, as well as of the Modern Waldenses, it is declared, (p. 490-Art. 31,) that "It is necessary for the Church to have Pastors, to preach God's word, to administer the sacraments, and to watch over the sheep of Jesus Christ; and also Elders and Deacons, according to the rules of good and holy Church discipline, and the practice of the primitive Church."

Sir Samuel Moreland, who visited the Waldenses in the year 1656, and took unwearied pains to learn from themselves their History, as well as their Doctrine and Order; informs us that, besides their Synodical meetings, which took place once a year, when all candidates for the pastoral office were commonly ordained, they had also Consistories in their respective Churches, by means of which pure Discipline was constantly maintained.[5]

Accordingly, the Rev. Dr. Ranken, in his laboriously learned History of France, gives the following account of the Waldenses and Albigenses, whom he very properly represents as the same people. "Their government and discipline were extremely simple. The youth intended for the ministry among them, were placed under the inspection of some of the elder barbes, or pastors, who trained them chiefly to the knowledge of the Scriptures; and when satisfied of their proficiency, they received them as preachers, with imposition of hands. Their pastors were maintained by the voluntary offerings of the people. The whole Church assembled once a year, to treat of their general affairs. Contributions were then obtained; and the common fund was divided, for the year, among not only the fixed pastors; but such as were itinerant, and had no particular district or charge. If any of them had fallen into scandal or sin, they were prohibited from preaching, and thrown out of the society. The pastors were assisted in their inspection of the people's morals, by Elders, whom probably both pastors and people elected, and set apart for that purpose."[6]

Further; not only does Perrin speak of the Ministers and Elders of the Bohemian Churches, thereby plainly intimating that they had a class of Elders distinct from their Pastors, or Preachers; but the same thing is placed beyond the possibility of doubt or question by the Bohemian Brethren themselves, who, in the year 1535, presented a Confession of their Faith, to Ferdinand, king of Hungary and Bohemia, with a friendly and highly commendatory Preface by Luther; and who, a number of years afterward published their "Plan of Government and Discipline" which contains the following paragraph:-

"Elders (Presbyteri, seu Censores morum) are honest, grave, pious men, chosen out of the whole congregation, that they may act as guardians of all the rest. To them authority is given, (either alone, or in connexion with the Pastor) to admonish and rebuke those who transgress the prescribed rules, also to reconcile those who are at variance, and to restore to order whatever irregularity they may have noticed. Likewise in secular matters, relating to domestic concerns, the younger men and youths are in the habit of asking their counsel, and of being faithfully advised by them. From the example and practice of the ancient Church, we believe that this ought always to be done; See Exodus xviii. 21.-Deuteronomy i. 13.-1 Cor. vi. 2, 4, 5.-1 Tim. v. 17."

This, they say, at the close, "is the ecclesiastical order which they and their forefathers had had established among them for two hundred years;[7] which they derived from the word of God; which they maintained through much persecution, and with much patience, and which they had observed with much happy fruit to themselves, and to the people of God.[8]

And that all mistake might be precluded respecting the real import of the above stated clauses, the Bohemian historian and commentator, Comenius, makes the following remarks on the Elders in question:-

Presbyter, a Greek term,.signifying the same with Senior, in Latin, (an Elder,) is applied by the Apostles both to the Pastors of the Church, and to those who assisted them in taking care of the flock, who do not labor in the word and doctrine; 1 Timothy v. 17. Such are our Elders they are styled Judges of the congregation, or Censors of the people, and also Ruling Elders. I am not ignorant, indeed, that Hugo Grotius, has labored hard to prove that, in the Apostles days, there were no other Presbyters than Pastors; and that he assigns a different meaning to the passage in 1 Timothy v. 17. Yet, inasmuch as he finally confesses, that, although such Elders of the Church as sit with the Pastors in Ecclesiastical Judicatories, be an institution of human prudence, they are, nevertheless, very useful, and ought by all means to be retained, I hope no one will easily find any reasonable objection. To guard against abuses, he subjoins very judicious cautions, at the close of chapter xi. of the book which he entitled, De Imperio Summarum Protestatum circa Sacra."[9]

In precisely the same manner are both the theory and practice of the Bohemian Brethren understood by the celebrated Martin Bucer, a very learned Lutheran divine, whose fame, throughout Europe, induced Archbishop Cranmer to invite him to England, during the progress of the Reformation in that country, where he received patronage and preferment, and was held in high estimation. Bucer was a contemporary of the Bohemian worthies who published the exhibition of their faith and practice above quoted, and, of course, had every opportunity of knowing both its letter and spirit. He speaks of it in the following terms:-

"The Bohemian Brethren, (Picardi,)[10] who published a Confession of their faith, in the year 1535, with a Preface by Luther, and who almost alone preserved in the world the purity of the doctrine, and the vigor of the discipline of Christ, observed an excellent rule for which we are compelled to give them credit, and especially to praise that God who thus wrought by them, notwithstanding those brethren are preposterously despised by some learned men. The rule which they observe was this: besides Ministers of the Word and Sacraments, they had, in each Church, a bench or College of men, excelling in gravity, and prudence, who performed the duties of admonishing and correcting offenders composing differences, and judicially deciding in cases of dispute. Of this kind of Elders, Hilary (Ambrose) wrote, when he said-"Therefore the Synagogue and afterwards the Church had Elders, without whose counsel nothing was done."[11]

It would seem difficult to deny or resist this testimony that the Bohemian Brethren held to Ruling Elders, and actually maintained this class of officers in their Churches. Could Bucer, whom Mr. Middleton, in his Biographia Evangelica, represents as "a man of immense learning;" and who is spoken of, by Bishop Burnet, as, "Perhaps, inferior to none of all the Reformers for learning;"-could he have been ignorant, either of the real meaning of a public document, put forth in his own time, or of the public and uniform practice of a body of pious people, whom he seems to have regarded with so much respect and affection, as witnesses for God in a dark world? It cannot be imagined. And what gives additional weight to the testimony of this illustrious man is, that he seems to have had no interest whatever in vindicating this class of Church officers; for it is not known that he ever had any special inducement, from a sense of reputation, or any other cause, to exert himself in maintaining them; and the latter part of his life was spent in England, in the service of the established Church of that kingdom, in the bosom of which he died.

As a further confirmation of Bucer's judgment in reference to the Bohemian Brethren, the celebrated John Francis Buddaeus, an eminently learned Lutheran divine of Germany, of the seventeenth century, who gave an edition, with a large preface, of the work of Comenius, in which the History of the Bohemian Brethren, and their Form of Government, are published, evidently understands their plan in reference to the office of Ruling Elder, precisely as Bucer, and other learned men have understood it. He employs the greater part of his preface in recommending this office. And, although he does not seem prepared to allow that it existed, as a separate office, in the apostolic Church, yet he thinks that, virtually, and in substance, it did make a part of the apostolic system of supervision and order. He thinks, moreover, that, without some such office, it is wholly impossible to maintain pure morals, and sound discipline in the Church of God; and that the Bohemian Brethren, rendered a most important service to the cause of truth and piety in maintaining it in their ecclesiastical system.[12]

Luther, in some of his early writings, had expressed an unfavorable opinion of the Bohemian Brethren; but upon being more fully informed of their Doctrine and Order, and more especially of their provision for maintaining sound discipline, by means of their Eldership in each congregation, he changed his opinion, and became willing both to speak and to write strongly in their favor. Hence, his highly commendatory Preface, to their "Confession of Faith of which mention has been already made. And hence, at a still later period, the following strong expressions in favor of the same people. "There hath not arisen any people, since the times of the Apostles, whose Church hath come nearer to the apostolical doctrine and order, than the Brethren of Bohemia." And again; "although these Brethren do not excel us in purity of doctrine, (all the articles of faith with us being sincerely and purely taken out of the Word of God,) yet in the ordinary discipline of the Church which they use, and whereby they happily govern the Churches, they go far beyond us, and are, in this respect, far more praise-worthy. And we cannot but acknowledge and yield this to them, for the Glory of God, and of his truth; whereas our people of Germany cannot be persuaded to be willing to take the yoke of discipline upon them."[13]

It is presumed that no one, after impartially weighing the foregoing testimonies, will listen, for one moment with any respect to the allegation, that the plan of a Bench of Elders for ruling the Church and conducting its discipline, was invented by Calvin. But we may go further. The truth is that, instead of the Waldenses, or Bohemian Brethren taking this order of officers from Calvin, it may be affirmed, that PRECISELY THE REVERSE WAS THE FACT. We have satisfactory evidence that Calvin took the hint from the Bohemian Brethren; and that the system which he afterwards established in Geneva, was really suggested and prompted by the example of those pious sufferers and witnesses for the truth, who had this class of officers in their Churches long before Calvin's day. This will be made clearly to appear from the following statement.

When Calvin first settled in Geneva, in 1536, he found the Reformed Religion already introduced, and, to a considerable extent, supported, under the ministry of Farel and Viret, two bold and faithful advocates of evangelical truth. Such, however, was the opposition made to the doctrines which they preached, and especially to the purity of discipline which they struggled hard to establish, by the licentious part of the inhabitants, among whom were some the leading Magistrates that, in 1538, Calvin and his Colleagues were expelled from their places in the Genevan Church, because they refused to administer the Lord's Supper to the vilest of the population who chose to demand the privilege. In a paroxysm of popular fury, those faithful ministers of Christ were commanded to leave the city within two clays. During this temporary triumph of error and proflagacy Calvin retired to Strasburg, where he was appointed Professor of Divinity and Pastor of a Church, and where he remained nearly four years.

In 1540, the year before be was recalled to Geneva, he corresponded with the Bohemian Brethren, and made himself particularly acquainted with their plan of Church government, which he regarded with deep interest; an interest, no doubt greatly augmented by the sufferings which he bad recently undergone in fruitless efforts to maintain the purity of ecclesiastical discipline; in which efforts he had been baffled chiefly by the want of such an efficient system as the Bohemian Churches possessed. In the course of this correspondence, while yet in exile for his fidelity, Calvin addressed the Bohemian Pastors in the following pointed terms:-"I heartily congratulate your Churches, upon which, besides sound doctrine, God hath bestowed so many excellent gifts. Of these gifts, it is none of the least to have such Pastors to govern and order them; to have a people themselves so well affected and disposed;-to be constituted under so noble a form of government;-to be adorned with the most excellent discipline, which we justly call most excellent, and, indeed, the only bond by which obedience can be preserved. I am sure we find with us, by woful experience, what the worth of it is, by the want of it; nor yet can we by any means attain to it. On this account it is, that I am often faint in my mind, and feeble in the discharge of the duties of my office. Indeed I should quite despair, did not this comfort me, that the edification of the Church is always the work of the Lord, which He himself will carry on by his own power, though all help beside should fail. Yet still it is a great and rare blessing to be aided by so necessary a help. Therefore I shall not consider our Church as properly strengthened, until they can be bound together by that bond." And the pious historian, after giving this extract from the venerable Reformer, adds: "It so happened, in the course of divine providence, that, not long afterwards, this eminent man was recalled to minister in the Church of Geneva, where he established THE VERY SAME KIND OF DISCIPLINE, which is now famed throughout the world."[14]

Testimony more direct and conclusive could scarcely be desired. Comenius, himself a Bishop of the Bohemian Brethren, surely knew what kind of Eldership it was which was established among the Churches of his own denomination. He says it was the very same with that which Calvin afterwards established in Geneva. We know, too, that this venerable man before he was expelled from Geneva in 1538, and, while he was struggling and suffering so much want of an efficient discipline, made no attempt to introduce the institution in question. But, during his painful exile, his attention is forcibly turned to the Bohemian plan. He is greatly pleased with it; speaks he in the strongest terms of its excellence; declares that has no hope of any Church prospering until it is introduced; and the very next year, on his return, makes it one of the conditions of his resuming his pastoral charge, that this plan of conducting the discipline of the Church by a bench of Elders, shall be received with him, and thus causes it to be adopted in Geneva.

And yet the historian of the Waldenses, John Paul Perrin, has been reproached, and insinuations made unfavorable to his honesty, because he has represented the Bohemian Brethren as having ecclesiastical Elders distinct from their Ministers of the gospel. How utterly unjust such reproaches are, every one must now see. If there were ever Elders in Geneva, they were found in the Churches of Bohemia. Nor is it any solid objection to the fact, as we have stated it, that they had some other features in their system of Church order, which were not strictly Presbyterian. All that the historian has to do is with facts. Having stated these, ho is answerable for nothing more. That those Churches gave the title of Seniors, but more frequently of Antistites to certain elderly clergyman, who were peculiarly venerable in their character, and who chiefly took the lead in all ordinations, is, no doubt, true; that, in their plan of Church government, they distinguished their Diaconi from their Eleemosynarii; and that they include in the list of their ecclesiastical offices, some which are strictly secular, is also manifest. But surely none of these invalidate the fact, that they had Ruling.Flders; a fact stated in a manner which it is impossible either to doubt or mistake.

Thus we have good evidence, that ALL the most distinguished and faithful witnesses for the truth, during the dark ages, with whose faith and order we have any minute acquaintance, carefully maintained the office for which we are contending; that some of them, at least, considered it as of Divine appointment, and accordingly quote in its support Scriptural authority: and that they appear, with good reason, to have regarded it as one of the most efficient means, under the Divine blessing, of promoting the spiritual order and edification of the Church.


1. Reinerius flourished about A. D., 1250, more than 250 years before the Reformation; and, at that time, he speaks of the Waldenses as an ANCIENT PEOPLE, of too remote an origin to be traced with distinctness and certainty. [back]

2. History of the Old Waldenses, Part ii. Book 1, Chap. 10. Book 2, Chap. 4. Book 5, Chap. 7. [back]

3. Part ii. Book 2. chapter 9, 10. [back]

4. History of the Waldenses, 4to. 1655, published by order of Cromwell. [back]

5. History of the Evangelical Churches of Piedmont, Book i. chapter viii. [back]

6. History of France, Vol. iii. P. 203, 204. [back]

7. The "Plan of Government and Discipline," from which the above extracts are made, was drawn up by their "general Synod" in 1616, and printed in 1632. When, therefore, they declare that they and their forefathers had enjoyed the same order for two hundred years, it carries back the date of this system to 1416, that is, to the time of John Huss; and, of course, nearly a century before the birth of Calvin. [back]

8. Jo. Amos Comenii Historia Fratrum Bohemorum Ratio Disciplinoe Ordinisque, &c. 11. 56, 68. [back]

9. Annotationes ad Rationem Ordinis Fratrum Bohemorum, ad Cap. i. p. 68. [back]

10. Bucer styles these worthy people Fratres Picardi, in reference to their origin from the Waldenses, or rather the branch called Albigenses in France, to which those who migrated to Bohemia belonged. But the people to whom he refers are ascertained with unerring certainty by the "Confession o Faith" which he so precisely describes. [back]

11. Scriptura duo Adversaria Latomi, &c. in Cap. De Ecclesioe Autoritate, p. 159. [back]

12. Jo. Francisici Buddaei, Praefatio de instauranda Disciplina Ecclesiastica -- Passim. [back]

13. Joh. A. Comenii Historia Bohem. Fart. Sect. 82. [back]

14. Joh. A. Comenii Historia Bohem. Frat. Sect. 80. [back]


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