The Ruling Elder

by Samuel Miller



Having considered, so much at large, the WARRANT for the office of Ruling Elder, chiefly because there is no part of the subject more contested; we now proceed to other points connected with the general inquiry. And the first of these which presents itself is, the Nature and Duties of the office in question.

The essential character of the officer of whom we speak is, that of an Ecclesiastical Ruler. He that ruleth, let him do it with diligence, is the summary of his appropriate functions as laid down in Scripture. The Teaching Elder is, indeed, also a ruler. In addition to this however, he is called to preach the gospel, and administer sacraments. But the particular department assigned to the Ruling Elder is to co-operate with the Pastor in spiritual inspection and government. The Scriptures, as we have Seen, speak not only of "Pastors and Teachers " but also of "governments;"-of "Elders that rule well, but do not labor in the word and doctrine."

There is an obvious analogy between the office of Ruler in the Church, and in the civil community. A Justice of the Peace in the latter, has a wide and important range of duties. Besides the function which he discharges when called to take his part on the bench of the judicial court in which he presides, he may be, and often is, employed every day, though less publicly, in correcting abuses, compelling the fraudulent to do justice, restraining, arresting, and punishing criminals, and, in general, carrying into execution the laws, formed to promote public tranquillity and order, which be has sworn to administer faithfully.

Strikingly analogous to this, are the duties of the ecclesiastical Ruler. He has no power, indeed, to employ the secular arm in restraining or punishing offenders against the laws of Christ. The kingdom under which be acts, and the authority which he administers, are not of this world. He has, of course, no right to fine, imprison, or externally to molest the most profligate offenders against the Church's purity or peace; unless they be guilty of what is technically called, "breaking the peace" that is, violating the civil rights of others, and thus rendering themselves liable to the penalty of the civil law. And even when this occurs, the ecclesiastical ruler, as such, has no right to proceed against the offender. He has no other than moral power. He must apply to the civil magistrate for redress, who can only punish for breaking the civil law. Still there is an obvious analogy between his office and that of the civil magistrate. Both are alike an ordinance of God. Both are necessary to social order and comfort. And both are regulated by principles which commend themselves to the good sense and the conscience of those who wish well to social happiness.

The Ruling Elder, no less than the Teaching Elder, or Pastor, is to be considered as acting under the authority of Christ, in all that he rightfully does. If the office of which we speak was appointed in the apostolic Church by infinite wisdom; if it be an ordinance of Jesus Christ, just as much as that of the minister of the gospel; then the former, equally with the latter, is Christ's officer. He has, a right to speak and act in his name; and though elected by the members of the Church, and representing them, in the exercise of ecclesiastical rule; yet he is not to be considered as deriving his authority to rule from them, any more than he who "labors in the word and doctrine" derives his authority to preach and administer other ordinances, from the people who make choice of him as their teacher and guide. There is reason to believe that some, even in the Presbyterian Church, take a different view of this subject. They regard the Teaching Elder as an officer of Christ, and listen to his official instructions as to those of a man appointed by Him, and coming in his name. But with respect to the Ruling Elder, they are wont to regard him as one who holds an office instituted by human prudence alone, and, therefore, as standing on very different ground in the discharge of his official duties, from that which is occupied by the "ambassador of Christ." This is undoubtedly an erroneous view of the subject, and a view which, so far as it prevails, is adapted to exert the most mischievous influence. The truth is, if the office of which we speak be of apostolic authority, we are just as much bound to sustain, honor, and obey the individual who fills it, and discharges its duties according to the Scriptures, as we are to submit to any other officer or institution of our Divine Redeemer.

We are by no means, then, to consider Ruling Elders as a mere ecclesiastical convenience, or as a set of counsellors whom the wisdom of man alone has chosen, and who may, therefore, be reverenced and obeyed, as little, or as much, as human caprice may think proper; but as bearing an office of divine appointment,-as the "ministers of God for good" to his Church,-and whose lawful and regular acts ought to command our conscientious obedience.

The Ruling Elders of each Church are called to attend to a public and formal, or to a more private sphere of duty.

With regard to the first, or the PUBLIC and FORMAL duties of their office, they form, in the Church to which they belong, a bench or judicial Court, called among us the "Church Session," and in some other Presbyterian denominations, the Consistory; both expressions importing a body of ecclesiastical men, sitting and acting together, as the representatives, and for the benefit of the Church. This body of Elders, with the Pastor at their head, and presiding at their meetings, form a judicial assembly, by which all the spiritual interests of the congregation are to be watched over, regulated, and authoritatively determined. Accordingly, it is declared in the ninth chapter of our Form of Government-"The Church Session is charged with maintaining the spiritual government of the congregation; for which purpose they have power to inquire into the knowledge and Christain conduct of the members of the Church; to call before them offenders and witnesses, being members of their own congregation, and to introduce other witnesses, where it may be necessary to bring the process to issue, and when they can be procured to attend; to receive members into the Church; to admonish, to rebuke, to suspend, or exclude from the sacraments, those who are found to deserve censure; to concert the best measures for promoting the spiritual interests of the congregation; and to appoint delegates to the higher judicatories of the Church."

This general statement of the powers and duties of the Church Session, it will be perceived, takes in a wide range. Or rather, to speak more properly, it embraces the whole of that authority and duty with which the great Head of the Church has been pleased to invest the governing powers of each particular congregation for the instruction, edification and comfort of the whole body. To the Church Session it belongs to bind and loose; to admit to the conununion of the Church, with all its privileges; to take cognizance of all departure, from the purity of faith or practice; to try, censure, acquit, or excommunicate those who are charged with offences; to consult and determine upon all matters relating to the time, place, and circumstances of worship, and other spiritual concerns; to take order about catechizing children, congregational Fasts or Thanksgiving days, and all other observances, stated or occasional; to correct, as far as possible, every thing that may tend to disorder, or is contrary to edification; and to digest and execute plans for promoting a spirit of inquiry, of reading, of prayer, of order, and of universal holiness among the members of the Church. It is also incumbent on them, when the Church over which they preside is destitute of a Pastor, to take the lead in those measures which may conduce to a choice of a suitable candidate, by calling the people together for the purpose of an election, when they consider them as prepared to make it with advantage.

Although, in ordinary cases, the Pastor of the Church may be considered as vested with the right to decide whom he will invite to occupy his pulpit, either when he is present, or occasionally absent; yet, in cases of difficulty or delicacy, and especially when ministers of other denominations apply for the use of the pulpit; it is the prerogative of the Church Session, to consider and decide on the application. And if there be any fixed difference of opinion between the Pastor, and the other members of the Session, in reference to this matter, it is the privilege and duty of either party to request the advice of their Presbytery in the case.

In, the Church Session, whether the Pastor be present and presiding or not, every member has an equal voice. The vote of the most humble and retiring Ruling Elder, is of the same avail as that of his Minister. So that no Pastor can carry any measure unless he can obtain the concurrence of a majority of the Eldership. And as the whole spiritual government of each Church is committed to its bench of Elders , the Session is competent to regulate every concern, and to correct every thing which they consider as amiss in the arrangements or affairs of the Church, which admits of correction. Every individual of the Session, is of course, competent to propose any new service, plan, or measure, which he believes will be for the benefit of the congregation, and if a majority of the Elders concur with him in opinion, it may be adopted. If, in any case, however, there should be a difference of opinion between the Pastor and the Elders, as to the propriety or practibility of any measure proposed, and insisted on by the latter, there is an obvious and effectual constitutional remedy. A remedy, however, which ought to be resorted to with prudence, caution and prayer. The opinions and wishes of the Pastor ought, undoubtedly, to be treated with the most respectful delicacy. Still they ought not to be suffered, when it is possible to avoid it, to stand in the way of a great and manifest good. When such an alternative occurs, the remedy alluded to may be applied. On an amicable reference to the Presbytery, that body may decide the case between the parties.

And as the members of the Church Session, whether assembled in their judicial capacity or not, are the Pastors Counsellor's and Colleagues, in all matters relating to the spiritual rule of the Church; so it is their official duty to encourage, sustain and defend him, in the faithful discharge of his duty. It is deplorable, when a minister is assailed for his fidelity, by the profane or the worldly, if any portion of the Eldership, either take part against him, or shrink from his active and determined defence. It is not meant, of course, that they are to consider themselves as bound to sustain him in every thing he may say or do, whether right or wrong; but that, when they really believe him to be faithful, both to truth and duty, they should feel it to be their duty to stand by him, to shield him from the arrows of the wicked, and to encourage him, as far as he obeys Christ.

But besides those duties which pertain to Ruling Elders, with the Pastor, in their collective capacity, as a Judicatory of the Church; there are others which are incumbent on them at all times, in the intervals of their judicial meetings, and by the due discharge of which they may be constantly edifying the body of Christ. It is their duty to have an eye of inspection and care over all the members of the congregation; and, for this purpose, to cultivate a universal and intimate acquaintance, as far as may be, with every family in the flock of which they are made "overseers." They are bound to watch over the children and youth, and especially baptized children, with paternal vigilance, recognizing and affectionately addressing them on all proper occasions; giving them, and their parents in reference to them, seasonable counsel, and putting in the Lord's claim to their hearts and lives as the children of the Church. It is their duty to attend to the case of those who are serious, and disposed to inquire concerning their eternal interest; to converse with them, and, from time to time, to give information concerning them to the Pastor. It is their duty to take notice of, and admonish, in private, those who appear to be growing careless, or falling into habits in any respect criminal, suspicious or unpromising. It is their duty to visit and pray with the sick, as far as their circumstances admit, and to request the attendance of the Pastor on the sick and the dying, when it may be seasonable or desired. It is incumbent on them to assist the Pastor in maintaining meetings for social prayer, to take part in conducting the devotional exercises in those meetings; to preside in them when the Pastor is absent; and, if they are endowed with suitable gifts, under his direction, occasionally to drop a word of instruction and exhortation to the people in those social meetings. If the officers of the Church neglect these meetings, (the importance of which cannot be estimated,) there is every reason to apprehend that they will not be duly honored or attended by the body of the people. It is the duty of Ruling Elders, also, to visit the members of the Church and their families, with the Pastor, if he request it, without him, if he do not; to converse with them to instruct the ignorant; to confirm the wavering; to caution the unwary; to reclaim the wandering; to encourage the timid, and to excite and animate all classes to a faithful and exemplary discharge of duty. It is incumbent on them to consult frequently and freely with their Pastor, on the interests of the flock committed to their charge; to aid him in forming and executing plans for the welfare of the Church; to give him, from time to time such information as he may need, to enable him to perform aright his various and momentous duties; to impart to him, with affectionate respect, their advice; to support him with their influence; to defend his reputation; to enforce his just admonitions; and, in a word, by every means in their power, to promote the comfort, and extend the usefulness of his labors. Although the Church Session is not competent to try the Pastor, in case of his failing into any delinquency, either of doctrine or practice; yet, if the members observe any such delinquency, it is not only their privilege, but their duty, to admonish him, tenderly and respectfully, yet faithfully, in private; and, if necessary, from time to time; and, if the admonition be without effect, and they think the edification of the Church admits and demands a public remedy, they ought to represent the case to the Presbytery, as before suggested in other cases, and request a redress of the grievance.

But the functions of the Ruling Elder are not confined to the congregation of which he is one of the rulers. It is his duty at such times, an in such order as as the constitution of the Church requires, to take his seat in the higher judicatories of the Church, and there to exercise his official share of counsel and authority. In every Presbytery, Synod and General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, at least as many Ruling as Teaching Elders are entitled to a place; and in all the former, as well as the latter, have an opportunity of exerting an important influence in the great concerns of Zion. Every congregation, whether provided with a Pastor or vacant, is entitled, besides the Pastor, (where there is one,) to be represented by one Ruling Elder, in all meetings of the Presbytery and Synod; and in those bodies, vacant congregations, and those which are supplied with Pastors, are equally represented, each by an Elder, it is manifest that, if the theory of our ecclesiastical constitution be carried into effect, there will always be a greater number of Ruling Elders than of Pastors present. In the General Assembly, according to our constitutional plan, the numbers of each are precisely equal.

In these several Judicatories the Ruling, Eider has an equal vote, and the same power, in every respect, with the Pastors. He has the same privilege of originating plans and measures, and of carrying them, provided he can induce a majority of the body to concur in his views; and thus may become the means of imparting his impressions, and producing an influence greatly beyond the particular congregation with which he is connected and, indeed, throughout the bounds of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. This consideration serves to place the nature and the importance of the office in the strongest light. He who bears it, has the interest of the Church, as a spiritual trust, as really and solemnly, though not in all respects to the same extent, committed to him as the Elder who, "labors in the word and doctrine." He not only has it in his power, but is daily called, in the discharge of his official duties, to watch over, inspect, regulate, and edify the body of Christ: to enlighten the ignorant; to admonish the disorderly; to reconcile differences; to correct every moral irregularity and abuse within the bounds of his charge; and to labor without ceasing for the promotion of the cause of truth, piety, and universal righteousness in the Church to which he belongs, and wherever else he has an opportunity of raising his voice, and exerting an influence.

But when it is considered that those who bear the office in question, are called upon, in their turn, to sit in the highest Judicatories of the Church; and there to take their part in deliberating and deciding on the most momentous questions which can arise in conducting ecclesiastical affairs:-when we reflect that they are called to deliberate and decide on the conformity of doctrines to the word of God; to assist, as judges, in the trial of heretics, and every class of offenders against the purity of the Gospel; and to take care in their resptive spheres, that all the ordinances of Christ's house preserved pure and entire:-when, in a word, we recollect that they are ordained for the express purpose of overseeing and guarding the most precious concerns of the Church on earth;-concerns which may have a bearing, not merely on the welfare of a single individual or congregation; but on the great interests of orthodoxy and piety among millions;-we may surely conclude without hesitation, that the office which they sustain is one, the importance of which can scarcely be over-rated; and that the estimate which is commonly made of its nature, duties and responsibility, is far-very far from being adequate.

If this view of the nature and importance of the office before us, be admitted, the question very naturally arises, whether it be correct to call this class of Elders, Lay-Elders; or whether they have not such a strictly ecclesiastical character as should prevent the use of that language in speaking of them? This is one of the points in the present discussion, concerning which, the writer of this Essay frankly confesses that he has, in some measure, altered his opinion. Once he was disposed to confine the epithet clerical to Teaching Elders, and to designate those who ruled only, and did not teach, as lay-Elders. But more mature inquiry and reflection have led him first to doubt the correctness of this opinion, and finally to persuade him that so far as the distinction between Clergy and Laity is proper at all, it ought not to be made the point of distinction between these two classes of Elders; and that, when we speak of the one as Clergymen, and the other as Laymen, we are apt to convey an idea altogether erroneous, if not seriously mischievous.

Some judicious and pious men have, indeed, expressed serious doubts whether the terms Clergy and Laity ought ever to have been introduced into our theological nomenclature. But it is not easy to see any solid reason for this doubt. Is it wise to contend about terms, when the things intended to be expressed by them are fully understood, and generally admitted? The only question, then, of real importance to be decided here, is this-Does the New Testament draw any distinct line between those who hold spiritual offices in the Church, and those who do not? Does it represent the functions pertaining to those offices as confined to them, or as common to all Christians? Now, it seems impossible to read the Acts of the Apostles, and the several Apostolic Epistles, especially those to Timothy and Titus; and to examine in connexion with these, the writings of the "Apostolic Fathers," without perceiving that the distinction between those who bore office in the Church, and private Christians, was clearly made, and uniformly maintained, from the very origin of the Church. That the terms, Clergy and Laity, are not found in the New Testament, nor in some of the earliest uninspired writers, is freely granted. But is not the distinction intended to be expressed by these terms evidently found in Scripture, and in all the early Fathers? Nothing can be more indubitably clear. The title of "Rulers" in the house of God;-"Ambassadors of Christ;"-"Stewards of the mysteries of God;"-"Bishops, Leaders, Overseers, Elders, Shepherds, Guides, Ministers," &c., as distinguished from those to whom they ministered, are so familiar to all readers of the New Testament, that it would be a waste of time to attempt to illustrate or establish a point so unquestionable. If the inspired writers every where represent certain spiritual offices in the Church as appointed by God; if they represent those who sustain these offices, as alone authorized to perform certain sacred functions; and teach us to consider all others who attempt to perform them, as criminal invaders of a divine ordinance; then surely the whole distinction intended to be expressed by the term Clergy and Laity, is evidently, and most distinctly laid down by the same authority which founded the Church.

The word klhros, properly signifies a lot. And as the land of Canaan-the inheritance of the Israelites,-was divided among them by lot, the word, in process of time, came to signify an inheritance. In this figurative, or secondary sense, the term is evidently employed in 1 Peter v. 3. Under the Old Testament dispensation, the peculiar people of God were called (Septuagint translation) his klhros, or inheritance. Of this we have examples in Deuteronomy iv. 20, and ix. 29. The term in both these passages, is manifestly applied to the whole body of the nation of Israel, as God's inheritance, or peculiar people. Clemens Romanus, one of the "Apostolic Fathers," speaking of the Jewish economy, and having occasion to distinguish between the priests and the common people, calls the latter laikoi. Clemens Alexandrinus, towards the close of the second century, speaks of the Apostle John as having set apart such persons for "clergymen" (klhroi as were signified to him by the Holy Ghost. And in the writings of Tertullian, Origen, and Cyprian, the terms "clergy" and "laity" occur with a frequeney which shows that they were then in general use. Jerome observes, that ministers are called Clerici either because they are peculiarly the lot and portion of the Lord; or because the Lord is their lot, that is their inheritance. Hence that learned and pious Father takes occasion to infer;-"That he who is God's portion ought so to exhibit himself, that he may be truly said to possess God, and to be possessed by Him."[1]

And as we have abundant evidence that eccclesiastical men were familiarly called Clerici, or "Clergymen," from the second century; so we have the same evidence that this term was employed to designate all ecclesiastical men. That is, all persons who had any spiritual office in the Church, were called by the common name of Clerici, or "Clergmen." It was applied, continually to Elders and Deacons, as well as to Bishops or Pastors. Nay, in the third century, when not only the inceptive steps of Prelacy became visible, but when the same spirit of innovation had also brought in a number of inferior orders; such as sub-Deacons, Readers, Acolyths, &c, these interior orders were all Clerici. Cyprian, speaking of a sub-Deacon, and also of a Reader, calls them both Clerici. The ordination of such persons, (for it seems they were all formally ordained,) he calls Ordinationes Clerica; and the letters which he transmitted by them, he styles Literae Clericae. The same fact may be clearly established from the writings of Ambrose, Hilary, and Epiphanius, and from the canons of the Council of Nice. Indeed there seems reason to believe that in the fourth and fifth centuries, and subsequently, the title of Clerici was not only given to all the inferior orders of ecclesiastical men, but was more frequently and punctiliously applied to them, than to their superiors; who were generally addressed by their more distinctive and honorable titles. Those who recollect that learning, during the dark ages was chiefly confined to the ministers of religion; that few, excepting persons of that profession, were able to read and write; and that the whimsical privilege, commonly called "benefit of Clergy," grew out of the rare accomplishment of being able to read;-will be at no loss to trace the etymology of the word clerk (clericus,) or secretary, as used to designate one who officiates as the reader and writer of a public body.

To distinguish the mass of private Christians from those who bore office in the Church, they were designated by several names. They were sometimes called laikoi,-laici-laymen, from laos, populus; sometimes idwtai, "private men," from idios, privatus, (Acts iv. 13.;) sometimes Biwtikoi, i.e. "seculars," from Bio¸, which signifies a secular life. Soon after the apostolic age, common Christians were frequently called avdre¸ ekklhsiastikoi,-"men of the Church"-i.e. persons not belonging either to Jewish Synagogues, or Pagan temples, or heretical bodies, but members of the Church of Christ. Afterwards, however, the title Ecclesiastics, became gradually appropriated to persons in office in the Church.[2]

The quotations made, in a former chapter, from Augustine, and the writings of some other Fathers about his time, in which they seem to distinguish between the Clergy and the Elders, may seem to militate with the foregoing statement. But in reference to these passages, the learned Voetius, while he quotes them, as decisive of the general fact, of the early existence of the Elders under consideration, supposes that the office, in the fourth and fifth centuries, was beginning to fall into disuse; and that, of course, though it was still found in some Churches, it began to be spoken of with less respect, and sometimes to be denied a place among the offices strictly clerical.[3]

But, after all, there is no real difficulty as to this point. For although the terms "clergy" and "clerical" were pretty generally applied to all classes of Church officers, even the lowest, in the third, fourth and fifth centuries; yet this was not always the case. Thus in the Apostolical Canons, which were probably composed in the fourth or fifth centuries, there is an express distinction made between the Deacons and the Clergy. In the third and fourth Canons, having ordered what sorts of first-fruits should be sent to the Church, and what to the home of the Bishop and Presbyters, it ordains as follows:-"Now it is manifest that they are to be divided by them among the Deacons and the Clergy." From cases of this kind we may evidently infer that, although all kinds of ecclesiastical officers were generally ranked among the Clergy, during the period just mentioned, yet this was not invariably so; and, of course, no inference can be drawn from occacional diversity of expression as to this matter.

Now, if this historical deduction of the titles, Clergy and Laity, be correct, it is plain that, according to early and general usage, Ruling Elders ought not to be styled laymen or lay-Elders. They are as really in office;-they as really bear an office of divine appointment;-an office of a high and spiritual nature;-and an office, the functions of which cannot be rightfully performed, but by those who are regularly set apart to it-as any other officer of the Christian Church. They are as really a portion of God's lot;-as really set over the laity, or body of the people as the most distinguished and venerated minister of Jesus can be. Whether, therefore, we refer to early usage, or to strict philological import, Ruling Elders are as truly entitled to the name of Clergy, in the only legitimate sense of that term,-that is; they are as truly ecclesiastical officers as those who "labor in the word and doctrine."

The scope of the foregoing remarks will not, it is hoped, be mistaken. The author of this Essay has no zeal either for retaining or using the terms Clergy and Laity. So far as the former term has been heretofore used, or may now be intended, to convey the idea of a "privileged order" in the Church;-a dignified body, lifted up, in rank and claim, above the mass of the Churcli members; in a word, as designating a set of men claiming to be vicars of Christ, keepers of the human conscience, and the only channels of grace-he disclaims and abhors it. He is a believer in no such meaning or men, But so far as it is intended to designate those who are clothed with ecclesiastical office, under the authority of Christ, and authorised to discharge some important spiritual functions, which the body of the Church members are not authorized to perform-and to mark the distinction between these two classes-the writer is of the opinion that the language may be defended, and that either that, or some other of equivalent import, ought to be used, nay, must be used if we would be faithful to the New Testament view of ecclesiastical office, as an ordinance of Jesus Christ. And if the term Clergy, in this humble Christian and only becoming, sense, be applied to those who preside in the dispensation of public ordinances; it may with equal propriety, be applied to those who preside with Pastors, in the inspection and rule of the Church.

If any should be disposed to remark, on this subject, that the use of the term Clergy is so appropriated, by long established public habit, to a particular class of ecclesiastical oflicers, that there can be no hope that the mass of the community will be reconciled to an extension of the title to Ruling Elders;-the answer is-be it so. The writer of this volume is neither vain enough to expect, nor ambitious enouoh to attempt, a change in the popular language to the amount here supposed. But he protests against the continued use of the term lay-Elder, as really adapted to make an impression. Let the class of officers in question be called Ruling Elders. Let all necessary distinction be made by saying:- "Ministers, or Pastors, Ruling Elders, Deacons, and the Laity, or body of the people." This will be in conformity with ancient usage. This will be maintaining every important principle. This can offend none; and nothing more will be desired by any.

Were the foregoing, views of the nature and duties of the Elder's office generally adopted, duly appreciated, and faithfully carried out into practice, what a mighty s change would be effected in our Zion! With what a different estimate of the obligations and responsibilities which rest upon them, would the candidates for this office enter on their sacred work! And with what different feelings would the mass of the people, and especially all who love the cause of Christ, regard these spiritual Counsellors and Guides, in their daily walks and particularly in their friendly and official visits! This is a change most devoutly to be desired. The interests of the Church are more involved in the prevalence of just opinions and practice in reference to this office, than almost any other that can be named. Were every congregation, besides a wise, pious and faithful Pastor, furnished with eight or ten Elders, to co-operate with him in all his parochial labors, on the plan which has been sketched ; men of wisdom, faith, prayer, and Christian activity; men willing to deny and exert themselves for the welfare of Zion; men alive to the importance of every thing that relates to the orthodoxy, purity, order and spirituality of the Church, and ever on the watch for opportunities of doing good; then, in a word, willing to "take the oversight of the flock in the Lord, and to labor without ceasing for the promotion of its best interests:-Were every Church furnished with a body of such ELDERS-can any one doubt that knowledge, order, piety, and growth in grace, as well as in numbers, would be as common in our Churches as the reverse is now the prevailing state of things in consequence of the want of fidelity on the part of those who are nominally the overseers and guides of the flock?

While discussing the nature of this office, and the duties which pertain to it, it seems to be natural to offer a few remarks on the manner in which those who bear it ought to be treated by the members of the Church; in other words, on THE DUTIES WHICH THE CHURCH OWES TO HER RULING ELDERS.

And here the discerning and pious mind wilt be at no loss to perceive that these duties are correlative to those which the Rulers owe to the Church. That is, if they are the spiritual Rulers of the Church, and bound to perform daily, and with fidelity and zeal, the duties which belong to this station; it is evident that the members of the Church are bound to recognize them in the same character, and to honor and treat theim as their spiritual guides. Were it, then, in the power of the writer of this volume to address the members of every Presbyterian Church in the United States, he would speak to them in some such language as the following:-


Every consideration which has been urged to show the importance and duties belonging to the office of Ruling Elders, ought to remind you of the important duties which you owe to them. Remember, at all times, that they are your ecclesiastical Rulers; Rulers of your own choice yet by no means coming to you in virtue of mere human authority; but in the name and by the appointment of the great Head of the Church, and, of course, the "ministers of God to you for good."

In all your views and treatment of them, then, recognize this character. Obey them "in the Lord," that is, for his sake, and as far as they bear rule agreeably to his word. "Esteem them very highly in love for their works sake." And follow them daily with your prayers, that God would bless them, and make them a blessing. Reverence them as your leaders. Bear in mind the importance of their office, the arduousness of their duties, and the difficulties with which they have to contend. Countenance, and sustain them in every act of fidelity; make allowance for their infirmities; and be not unreasonable in your expectations from them.

Many are ready to criminate the Elders of the Church, for not taking notice of particular offences, as speedily, or in such manner, as they expect. And this disposition to find fault is sometimes indulged by persons who have never been so faithful themselves as to give that information which they possessed, respecting the alleged offences; or who, when called upon publicly to substantiate that which they have privately disclosed, have drawn back, unwilling to encounter the odium or the pain of appearing as accusers, or even its witnesses. Such persons ought to be the last to criminate Church officers for supposed negligence of discipline. Can your Rulers take notice of that which never comes to their knowledge? Or can you expect them, as prudent men, rashly to set on foot judicial and public investigation of things, concerning which many are ready to whisper in private, but none willing to speak with frankness before a court of Christ? Besides, let it be recollected, that the session of almost every Church is sometimes actually engaged in investigating cases, in removing offences, and in composing differences, which many suppose they are utterly neglecting merely because they do not judge it to be for edification, in all cases, to proclaim what they have done, or are doing, to the congregation at large.

Your Elders will sometimes be called-God grant that it may seldom occur!-But they will sometimes be called to the painful exercise of discipline. Be not offended with them for the performance of this duty, Rather make the language of the Psalmist your own: "Let the righteous smite me, it shall be a kindness: and let him reprove me, it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head." Add not to the bitterness of their official task, by discovering a resentful temper, or by indulging in reproachful language, in return for their fidelity. Surely the nature of the duty is sufficiently self-denying and distressing, without rendering it more so by unfriendly treatment. Receive their private warnings and admonitions with candor and affectionate submission. Treat their public acts, however contrary to your wishes, with respect and reverence. If they be honest and pious men, can they do less than exercise the discipline of Christ's house, against such of you as walk disorderly? Nay, if you be honest and pious yourselves, can you do less than approve of their faithfulness in excercising that discipline'? If you were aware of all the difficulties which attend this part of the duty of vour Eldership, you would feel for them more tenderly, and judge concerning them more candidly and indulgently than you are often disposed to do. Here you have it in your power, in a very important degree, to lessen their burdens, and to strengthen their hands.

When your Elders visit your families, for the purpose of becoming acquainted with them, and of aiding the Pastor in ascertaining the spiritual state of the flock, remember that it is not officious intrusion. It is nothing more than their duty. Receive them, not as if you suspected them of having come as spies or busy intruders, but with respect and cordiality. Convince them, by your treatment, that you are glad to see them, that you wish to encourage them in promoting the best interests of the Church; and that you honor them for their fidelity. Give them an opportunity of seeing your children, and of ascertaining whether your households are making progress in the Christian life. Nay, encourage your children to put themselves in the way of the Elders, that they may be personally known to them, and may become the objects of their affectionate notice, their occasional exhortation, and their pious prayers. Converse with the Elders freely, as with fathers, "who have no greater joy than to see you walking in the truth." And ever give them cause, to retire under the pleasing persuasion, that their office is honored, that their benevolent designs are daily appreciated, and that their labors "are not in vain in the Lord." In short, as every good citizen will make conscience of vindicating the fidelity, and holding up the land of the faithful Magistrate, who firmly and impartially executes the law of the land: so every good Christian ought to feel himself bound in conscience and honor, as well as in duty to his Lord, to strengthen the hands, and encourage the heart of the spiritual Ruler, who evidently seeks, in the fear of God, to promote the purity and edification of the Church.

The nature of the office before us also leads to another remark, with which the present chapter will be closed. It is, that there seems to be a peculiar propriety in the Ruling Elders (and the same principle will apply to the Deacons, if there be any of this class of officers in a congregation) having a SEAT ASSIGNED THEM, for SITTING TOGETHER, in a conspicuous part of the Church, near the Pulpit, during the public service, where they can overlook the whole worshipping assembly, and be seen by all. The considerations which recommend this, are numerous. It was invariably so in the Jewish Synagogue, The same practice, as we have seen in a former chapter, was adopted in the early Church, as soon as Christians began to erect houses for public worship. This official and conspicuous accommodation for the Elders is constantly provided in the Dutch Reformed Church, in this country, and it is believed by most of the Reformed Churches on the continent of Europe. It is adapted to keep the congregation on habitually reminded who their Elders are, and of their official authority; and also to remind the Elders themselves, of their functions and duties. And it furnishes a convenient opportunity for the Pastor to consult them on any question which may occur, either before he ascends the Pulpit, or at the close of the service.


1.Epist. 2. ad. Nepotian. 5. [back]

2.See STEPHANI Thesaurus, and BINGHAM's Origenes Ecclesiasticae. [back]

3.Politicae Ecclesiasticae, par. ii. Lib. ii. Tract. iii. [back]


Go back to The Ruling Elder Index.
Go back to BOOKS page
Return to CRTA