The Ruling Elder

by Samuel Miller



The account which has been given of the nature and duties of the office of Ruling Elder, is adapted to reflect much light on the qualifications by which he who bears it ought to be distinguished. Those who are called to such extensive, interesting and highly important spiritual duties; duties which enter so deeply into the comfort and edification of the Church of God;--it surely requires no formal argument to show, ought to possess a character in some degree corresponding with the sphere in which they are appointed to move. There cannot be a plainer dictate of common sense Yet to attempt a brief sketch of the more important of the qualifications demanded for this office, may not be altogether unprofitable.

And here, it may be observed, in the outset, that it is by no means necessary that Ruling Elders should be aged persons. For although it cannot be doubted that the title is, literally, expressive of age; and although it is equally certain, that, originally, the office was generally conferred on men somewhat advanced in life, as being most likely, other thing being equal, to possess wisdom, prudence, experience, and weight of character;--yet the term, from a very early period, came to be a mere title of office, without any respect to the years of the individual who bore it. This is evident, not only from the history of Jewish practice, but also from the statements of the New Testament. If Timothy was not merely a Ruling, but also a Teaching Elder, though so young a man, that the Apostle said, to him,--Let no man despise thy youth; and if, in every age of the Church, young men have been considered as qualified on the score of age, to be Elders that labor in the word and doctrine, as well as rule; there can be no doubt that young men, if otherwise well qualified, may with propriety be appointed Elders to assist in ruling the Church of God. Nay, where such persons, with other suitable qualifications are to be found, it is expedient to introduce some in younger life into the Eldership of every Church, not only that there may be individuals in the body fitted for more active duties; but also that some of the number may have that kind of official training, and that familiarity with ecclesiastical business, which early experience, and long habit alone can give.

It may be remarked, however, that, although neither Scripture, nor the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church, prescribes any absolute rule with respect to the age of those who may be considered as candidates for the Eldership; yet it is very manifest, that those who are either minors in age, or "novices" in the Christian character and profession, ought by no means, in ordinary circumstances, to be elected to this office. In the Church of Scotland, the rule is, that no one can be chosen an Elder who is not twenty-one years of age. A similar regulation, it is believed, exists in some other foreign Churches; and it may be considered as a dictate of common prudence.

But, though the circumstance of age, as a general rule, does not enter into the essential qualifications of Ruling Elders; there are other qualifications which are highly important, and, indeed, indispensable, These are stated by the inspired Apostle, in writing to Timothy, in the following comprehensive, and pointed language:--An Elder must be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children; one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; not accused of riot, or unruly; not self-willed; not soon angry; not given to wine; no striker; not given to filthy lucre; but a lover of hospitality; a lover of good men; sober, just, holy; temperate, sound in the faith, in charity, in patience. See Timothy iii. compared with Titus i. 6-8, and ii, 27 which passages evidently appear, on tracing the connexion, to be equally applicable to Teaching and Ruling.

The design of appointing persons to the office of Ruling Elder is, not to pay them a compliment; not to give them an opportunity of figuring as speakers in judicatories; not to create the pageants of ecclesiastical ceremony; but to secure able, faithful and truly devoted counsellors and rulers of the Church. To obtain wise and efficient guides, who shall not only go along with the flock in their journey heavenward, but go before them in every thing that pertains to Christian duty.

It cannot be doubted, indeed, that every member of the Christian Church is bound to exhibit a holy, devout and exemplary life; to have his mind well stored with religious knowledge; to be able to give an answer to every one that asketh a reason of the hope that is in him; and to avoid every thing that is criminal in itself, that may be just cause of offence to his brethren, or that, may have even, the appearance of evil. But it is equally manifest that all these qualifications are still more important, and required in a still higher degree, in those who are intrusted with the spiritual inspection and regulation of the Church. As they occupy a place of more honor and authority than the other members of the Church; so they also occupy a station of greater responsibility. The eyes of hundreds will be upon them as Elders, which were not upon them as private Christians. Their brethren and sisters over whom they are placed in the Lord, will naturally look up to them for advice, for instruction, for aid in the spiritual life, and for a shining example. The expectation is reasonable, and ought not to be disappointed. The qualifications of Elders, therefore, ought, in some good measure, to correspond with it.

1. An Elder, then, ought, first of all, to be a man of unfeigned and approved piety. It is to be regretted when the piety of any member of the Church is doubtful, or evidently feeble and wavering. It is deplorable when any who name the name of Christ manifest so much indecision in their profession; so much timidity and unsteadiness in their resistance to error and sin; so much conformity to the world; and so little of that undaunted, ardent, and thorough adherence to their professed principles;--as to leave it dubious with many, whether they are "on the Lord's side" or not. But how much more deplorable when any thing of this kind appears in those who are appointed to watch, to preside, and to exert an extensive influence, over a portion of the family of Christ! What is to be expected, when "watchmen on the walls of Zion;"--for such Ruling Elders are undoubtedly to be regarded appear as beacons, to warn private Christians of what ought to be avoided, rather than as models, to guide, to attract, and to cheer them on to all that is spiritual, and holy, and becoming the gospel?

Can he who is either destitute of piety, or who has but a small portion of it, engage in the arduous and deeply spiritual duties of the Ruling Elder, with comfort to himself, or with any reasonable hope of success? It cannot be supposed. To fit ecclesiastical Rulers for acting in their appropriate character, and for performing the work which pertains to it, with cordial diligence, faithfulness and perseverance, will require cordial and decisive attachment to the service of the Church; minds intent upon the work; hearts filled with love to Jesus, and to The souls of men; and preferring Jerusalem above their chief joy. Unless they are animated with this affectionate interest in their work; unless they are habitually impelled by an enlightened and cordial attachment to the great cause in which they are engaged, they will soon become weary of their arduous and self-denying labors; they will find waiting on the flock, visiting and praying with the sick, instructing the serious and inquiring, correcting the disorderly, watching over the spiritual interests of all, and attending the various judicatories of the Church, an irksome task. But with such a zeal as has been described, they will be ready to contend for the truth, to engage in the most self-denying duties, nay, to "spend and be spent," for Christ. To promote the best interests of Zion will be their "meat and drink." No labors, no trials, no difficulties will move them; neither will they count their lives dear unto themselves, so that they may finish their course with joy, and accomplish the work which they have received of the Lord Jesus. A few such Elders in every Church, would, with the divine blessing, do more to silence infidelity,--to strike even the scorner dumb,--to promote the triumph of gospel truth,--and to rouse, sustain and bear forward the cause of vital piety, than hundreds, of those Ministers and Elders, who act as if they supposed that supplying the little details of an ecclesiastical formality was the whole purpose of their official appointment. And, in truth, we have no reason to expect, in general, that the piety of the mass of members in any Church, will rise much higher than that of their Rulers and Guides. Where the latter are either lifeless formalists, or, at best, but "babes in Christ," we shall rarely find many under their care of more vitality, or, of superior stature.

2. Next to piety, it is important that a Ruling Elder be possessed of good sense, and sound judgment. Without this he will be wholly unfit to act in the various difficult and delicate cases which may arise in the discharge of his duty. A man of weak and childish mind, however fervent his piety, is by no means adapted to the station of an ecclesiastical Ruler, counsellor and guide. He who bears the office in question, is called to have intercourse with all classes of people; to engage in the most arduous and trying duties; and to deliberate and decide on some of the most perplexing questions that can come before the human mind. Can it be doubted that good sense, and solid judgment are indispensable to the due discharge of such official work as this? How would a judge on the bench, or a magistrate in his office, be likely to get along without this qualification? Much more important is it, if possible, that the ecclesiastical Ruler be enlightened and judicious; because he deliberates and decides on more momentous subjects; and because he has no other than moral power with which to enforce his decisions. Moses, therefore, spoke the language of good sense, as well as of inspired wisdom, when he said to the people of Israel (Deut. i. 13.) Take ye wise men, and understanding, and known among your tribes, and I will make them Rulers over you. This point, indeed, it would seem, can scarcely be made more plain than common sense makes it; and might, therefore, be considered as foreclosing all illustration; did not some Churches appear disposed to make the experiment, how far infinite wisdom is to be believed, when it pronounces, by the Prophet, a woe against those who make choice of babes to rule over them.

3. A Ruling Elder ought to be sound in the faith, and well informed in relation to gospel truth. The Elder who is not orthodox in his creed, instead of contributing, as he ought, to build up the Church in the knowledge and love of the truth, will, of course, be the means of scattering error, as far as his influence extends. And he who is not well informed on the subject of Christian doctrine, will not know whether he is promoting the one or the other. Accordingly, when this class of officers is ordained in our Church, we call upon them to do what we do not require from the private members of the Church, viz., solemnly and publicly to adopt the Confession of Faith, "as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures." When this is considered; and also that they are expected to be, to a certain extent, instructors and guides in divine things to many of those committed to their oversight; and, above all, that they will be often called to deliberate on charges of heresy, as well as immorality; and to sit in judgment on the doctrinal belief, not only of candidates for admission into the Church, as private members; but also on cases of alleged aberration from the truth in ministers of the gospel; the necessity of their being "sound in the faith," and of their having enlightened and clear views of the system of revealed truth, is too plain to need argument for its support.

The truth is, the Ruling Elder who is active, zealous and faithful, will have occasion, almost every day, to discriminate between truth and error; to act as a guardian of the Church's orthodoxy; to pass his judgment, either privately or judicially, on real or supposed departures from it; and to instruct the inexperienced and the doubting in the great doctrines of our holy religion. And although all Elders are not expected to be profound theologians, any more than all ministers; yet that the former, as well as the latter, should have a general and accurate acquaintance with the gospel system, and be ready to defend its leading doctrines, by a ready, pertinent, and conclusive reference to scriptural testimony, and thus be able to "separate between the precious and the vile," in theory as well as in practice, is surely as little as can possibly be demanded of those who are placed as leaders and guides in the house of God.

4. Again; an Elder ought to be a man of eminent prudence. By prudence here is, of course, not meant that spurious characteristic, which calls itself by this name, but which ought rather to be called timidity, or a criminal shrinking from duty, on the plea that "there is a lion in the way." Yet, while we condemn this as unworthy of a Christian, and especially unworthy of a Christian Counsellor and Ruler; there is a prudence which is genuine, and greatly to be coveted. This is no other than practical Christian wisdom, which not only discerns what is right, but also adopts the best mode of doing it; which is not at all inconsistent with firmness, and the highest moral courage; but which happily regulates and directs it. It has been often observed, that there is a right and a wrong way of doing the best things. The thing done, may be excellent in itself; but may be done in a manner, at a time, and attended with circumstances, which will be likely to disgust and repel, and thus prevent all benefit. Hence a man who is characteristically eccentric, undignified, rash, precipitate, or indiscreetly talkative, ought by no means to be selected as an ecclesiastical ruler. He will, probably, do more mischief than good; will generally create more divisions than he heals; and will rather generate offences than remove them. Perhaps there is no situation in human society which more imperiously calls for delicacy, caution, reserve, and the most vigilant discretion, than that of an ecclesiastical Ruler. If Popular rumor begin to charge a Church member with some delinquency, either in faith or practice: let one of the Elders, under the notion of being faithful, implicitly credit the story, go about making inquiries respecting its truth, winking and insinuating, and thus contributing to extend its circulation; and however pure his motives, he may, before he is aware, implicate himself in the charge of slander, and become so situated in respect to the supposed culprit as to render it altogether improper that he should sit in judgment on his case. The maxim of the wise man; "be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath"--applies to every human being; especially to every professing Christian: but above all to every one who is appointed to maintain truth, order, purity, peace and love in the Church of God.

It requires much prudence to judge when it is proper to commence the exercise of discipline against a supposed offender. Discipline is an important, nay, a vital matter in the Christian Church. But it may be commenced indiscreetly; vexatiously; when that which is alleged cannot be shown to be an offence against the divine law; or when, though a really censurable offence, there is no probability that it can be proved. To attempt the exercise of discipline in such cases, is to disgrace it; to convert it, from one of the most important means of grace, into an instrument of rashness, petulance, and childish precipitancy. Often, very often, has the very name of discipline been rendered odious, the peace of families and neighborhoods grievously disturbed, the influence of ecclesiastical judicatories destroyed, and the cause of religion deeply wounded, by judicial proceedings, which ought either never to have been commenced, or to which the smallest measure of prudence would have given a very different direction.

The importance of the subject constrains me to add, that prudence--much prudence is also imperiously demanded, in the exercise of a dignified and cautious reserve while ecclesiastical process is pending. One great reason why it is thought better by Presbyterians, to exercise discipline rather by a bench of wise and pious ecclesiastical Senators, than by the vote of the whole body of Church members, is, that the public discussion and decision of many things concerning personal character, which the exercise of discipline necessarily discloses, respecting others, as well as the culprit, is adapted in many cases, to do more harm than good, especially before the process is closed. To guard against this evil, it is very important that the Elders carefully avoid all unseasonable disclosures in respect to the business which may be at any time before the Session. Until they have done what shall be deemed proper, in a delicate case, it is surely unwise, by thoughtless blabbing, to throw obstacles in their own way, and perhaps to defeat the whole purpose which they have in view. Yet how often, by one imprudent violation of this plain rule, has the discipline of the Church been degraded or frustrated, and the character of those who administered it exposed to ridicule?

These, and similar considerations, serve clearly to show, that no degree of piety can supersede the necessity of prudence in ecclesiastical rulers; and that, of all characters in a congregation, an indiscreet, meddling, garrulous, gossipping, tattling Elder, is one of the most pestiferous.

5. It is important that an Elder be "of good report of them that are without." The circumstance of his being chosen to the office by the members of the Church, does, indeed, afford strong presumption that he sustains, among them an unexceptionable character. But it is also of great importance that this class of officers, as well as those who "labor in the word and doctrine," should stand well with those who are without, as well as those who are within the pale of the Christian community. The ecclesiastical ruler may often be called, in discharging his official duties, to converse with the worldly and profane, who have no particular regard either for his Master, or his office. Nay, he must be, almost every day that he lives, the object of the scrutiny of such men. In this case, it is peculiarly desirable that his personal character be such as to command universal respect and confidence; that it be not liable to any particular suspicion or imputation; but that, on the contrary, it possess such weight and respectability in the community, as will render him an aid and a blessing to his ecclesiastical connexion. To this end, his unbending integrity in all the walks of life; his spotless probity and honor in every pecuniary transaction; his gravity and dignity in all the intercourse of society; his exemplary government of his own family; his abstraction from all unhallowed conformity to the world;--ought to present, in some good measure, a pattern of Christian consistency. It is saying little in favor of a Church officer, to allege that his reputation is such that he does no harm to the ecclesiastical body with which he is connected. It is to be regretted, if he do not promote its benefit every day by his active services, and extend its influence by the lustre of his example.

6. A Ruling Elder ought to be a man of public spirit and enlarged views. He who is called by his official duty to plan and labor for the extension of the Redeemer's kingdom, surely ought not, of all men, to have a narrow and illiberal mind; to be sparing of labor, parsimonious in feeling and habit, or contented with small attainments. It is eminently desirable, then, that a Ruling Elder be a man of expanded heart toward other denominations, as far as is consistent with entire fidelity to scriptural truth and order; that he aim high in spiritual attainment and progress; that he be willing to give much, to labor much, and to make sacrifices for the cause of Christ; and that he be continually looking and praying for the further enlargement and prosperity of Zion. Such a man will not be willing to see the Church fall asleep, or stagnate. Such a man's mind will be teeming with desires, plans and prayers for the advancement of the Saviour's cause. Such a man will not content himself, nor be satisfied to see others contenting themselves, with a little round of frigid formalities, or with the interests of a single parish:--but the aspirations of his heart, and the active efforts of his life will be directed to the extension and prosperity of the Church in all its borders, and to the universal establishment and triumph of that gospel which is "the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth."

The qualification of which we speak has been, in all ages, and from the nature of the case, must ever be, of inestimable importance in every Ruler and Guide of the Church. But we may venture to pronounce that it never was so important to the Church that she should have such Rulers as it is at the present day. Now, that she is awaking from her slumber, and arousing to a sense of her long forgotten obligations: now that she is, as we hope, arising from the dust, and "putting on her beautiful garments," and looking abroad in the length and breadth of those conquests which have been promised her, by her Almighty Head: now that all her resources, physical and moral, are called for, in every direction, with an emphasis and a solemnity never before equalled:--is it not manifest that all who, in such a stage of her course, undertake to be her counsellor and guide, ought to be neither drones nor cowards; neither parsimonious of labor and sacrifice, nor disposed to sit down contented with small acquisitions? Ruling Elders, at the present day, have, perhaps, an opportunity of serving the Church more extensively and effectually than ever before. How desirable and important, then, that they have a heart, in some measure, commensurate with the calls and opportunities of the day in which their lot is cast! How desirable that they cherish those enlarged and liberal views, both of duty and of effort, which become those who are called to act a conspicuous and interesting part in a cause which is dear to all holy beings! So important is this, that it is probable we shall generally find that, in liberality of contribution to the various objects of Christian effort, and in enlargement of mind to desire and seek the extension of the Redeemer's kingdom, the mass of the members of any Church may commonly be graduated by the character of their Elders. If the leaders and guides of the Church be destitute of public spirit, and be not found taking the lead in large plans, labors and sacrifices for extending the reign of knowledge, truth and rightousness, it will be strange indeed if a more enlarged spirit be found prevailing among the generality of their fellow members.

7. The last qualification on which I shall dwell, as important in the office before us, is ardent zeal, and a spirit of importunate prayer. Large views, and liberal plans and donations, will not answer without this. The truth is, the Church of God has the most serious and unceasing obstacles to encounter, in every step of her progress. As long as she is faithful, her course is never smooth or unobstructed. In maintaining truth;--in guarding the claims of gospel holiness;--and in sustaining discipline--the enmity of the human heart will not fail to manifest itself, and to offer more or less resistance to that which is good. The worldly and profane will ever be found in the ranks of determined opposition. And alas! that some who bear the name of Christ, are not unfrequently found in the same ranks; thus grieving the hearts, and trying the patience of those who are called to act as the representatives and leaders of the Church. To meet and overcome difficulties of this kind, requires all the fixedness of purpose, and all the zeal in the service of Christ, which his most devoted servants can bring to their work.

Besides all this, there is much in the daily duties of the Ruling Elder, which puts to a very serious test all his devotedness to the cause of his Master. He is called to live, like a minister of the gospel, in the very atmosphere of prayer and religious conversation. In the chamber of the sick and dying; in conversing with the anxious inquirer, and the perplexed or desponding believer; in the private circle, and in the social meeting for prayer; abroad and at home, in the house and by the way--it must be "his meat and drink" to be found ministering to the best interests of his fellow men. So that if he have but little zeal; but little taste for prayer; but little anxiety for the welfare of immortal souls; he will not, he cannot, enter with proper feeling into his appropriate employments. But if he be animated with a proper spirit, he will find it pleasant to be thus employed. Instead of shunning scenes and opportunities of usefulness, he will diligently seek them. And instead of finding them wearisome, he will feel no happiness more pure and rich than that which he experiences in such occupations as these.

It is evident, then, not only that the ecclesiastical Ruler ought to have unfeigned piety; but that his piety ought to be of that decisive character, and accompanied with that fervent zeal, which bears its possessor forward, without weariness in the discharge of self-denying duties. The higher the degree in which he possesses this characteristic, provided it be accompanied with wisdom, prudence and a knowledge of human nature, the greater will probably be his usefulness in the Church which he serves; and the greater, assuredly, will be his own personal enjoyment in rendering that service.

It is more than possible that this view of the qualifications proper for the office which we are considering, may cause some, when solicited to undertake it, to draw back, under the conscientious impression, that they have not the characteristics which are essential to the faithful discharge of its duties. And it would be wrong to say that there are not some cases, in which such an impression ought to be admitted. There can be no doubt that there are those who bear this office, who ought never to have accepted it. To this class, unquestionably, belong all those who have no taste for the appropriate duties of the office, and who do not resolve sedulously and faithfully to perform them. But let no humble devoted follower of Jesus Christ, who truly desires to serve and glorify him, and who is willing, from the heart, to do all that God shall enable him, for the promotion of the Redeemer's kingdom;--let not him be deterred, by the representation which has been given from accepting the office, if called to it by his Christian brethren. The deeper his sense of his own unfitness, the more likely will he be to apply unceasingly and importunately for heavenly aid; and the nearer he lives to the throne of grace, the more largely will he partake of that wisdom and strength which he needs. There are, no doubt, some, as was said, who are really unqualified for this office; but in general, it may be maintained, that those who have the deepest impression of the importance and arduousness of its duties, and of their own want of adequate qualifications, are far better prepared for those duties, than such as advance to the discharge of them with unwavering, confidence and self-complacency.

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