The Ruling Elder

by Samuel Miller



Under this general head, a variety of questions occur, the solution of which is important.

I. In the First place, who are the proper Electors of Ruling Elders? This question is not definitely resolved by the "Form of Government" of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. Its language is as follows: "Every congregation shall elect persons to the office of Ruling Elder, and to the office of Deacon, or either of them, in the mode most approved and in use in that congregation. But in all cases the persons elected must be male members in full communion in the Church in which they are to exercise their office."

When a new Church is to be organized, and when, of course, there are no Elders already in office, application ought to be made to the Presbytery, stating the wishes of those who contemplate forming the Church, requesting their sanction, and also the appointment of one or more of their number to preside in the election and ordination of the candidates for the respective offices of Elders and Deacons. The person or persons thus appointed by the Presbytery to act in the case, after causing due and regular notice of their appointment and its object, to be given, ought to meet with the members of the congregation; to preach on the subject which occasions the meeting; to explain the nature and importance of the office; and, having done this, to call upon those who may be qualified as electors, to give their votes for such of their number as they would wish to have as their spiritual rulers. Having done this openly, in the face of the congregation, the Ordination of the Elders elect, may either take place on the spot, before the assembly shall separate; or may be postponed to a future time, as may be judged most expedient. By this is meant, that the election in this case, being made immediately by a popular vote of the members of the Church, there is no need of postponing the ordination, for the purpose of propounding the names of the persons elected, from the pulpit, as is necessary, and practised in other cases. In the case supposed, the full concurrence of the persons entitled to vote in the choice made, has been already ascertained by their suffrages.

In this choice, the votes may be given either viva voce, or by ballot. The latter method, however, is by far the most common, and, is evidently the most proper, for a variety of reasons, some of which will readily occur to every enlightened and delicate mind.

Concerning the persons who are properly entitled to vote in such an election, there has been some diversity of opinion. That all the male members of the Church, in what is called "full communion," have this right, there can be no question. In this all are agreed. But it has been maintained, not, indeed, with the same unanimity, yet, it is believed by a large majority of the most judicious and enlightened judges, and probably on the most correct principles, that all baptized members of the Church, who must be, of course, regarded as subject to the government and discipline administered by these Rulers, are entitled to a voice in their election. And where there are female heads of families, who bear the relation of membership to the Church, in either of the senses just mentioned, and who are not represented by some qualified male relative, on the occasion, it has been judged proper to allow them to vote in the choice of Ruling Elders, as is generally the case in the choice of a Pastor.

There seems, however, to be some good reason for restricting the right to vote for Ruling Elders within narrower bounds, than are commonly assigned in the choice of a Pastor. In that choice, in most congregations, all pew-holders, and all stated worshippers who are stated contributors to the support of the Pastor, in their just proportion, whether baptized or not, whether willing to submit to the exercise of discipline or not, and whether of fair moral character or not, are considered as entitled to a vote. But, in the election of a Pastor there is one security against an improper choice, which does not exist in the case of a Ruling Elder; namely, that the call must be submitted to the Presbytery, and receive the sanction of that body before it can be prosecuted. Whereas no such security exists in the case of a Ruling Elder. Of course, if all pew-holders, and pecuniary supporters, without any reference to membership or character, were allowed to vote in the election of the latter class of officers, they might choose persons to the last decree unsuitable for the office, and adapted to destroy rather than benefit the Church. Besides; every one, however, heterodox or immoral, may be a stated attendant on public worship:-and every stated attendant on the worship of any Church, may be said to have an interest in the character of the Pastor, and a right, as far as may be, to be pleased in the choice. But no one can be said to have any part, or particular interest in the discipline of the Church, excepting those who are subject to its operation; which can be the case with none but those who are members of the Church.

Accordingly, the General Assembly of the Church which met in 1829, in answer to a question solemnly referred to it by one of the Western Presbyteries,[1] -adopted, and sent to the Churches the following judgment in relation to the subject before us. "It is the opinion of this General Assembly, that the office of Ruling Elder is an office in the Church of Christ; that Ruling Elders, as such, according to our Confession of Faith, Book I., on Government, Chapter v., are the representatives of the people, by whom they are chosen, for the purpose of exercising government and discipline in the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ; that the discipline lawfully exercised by them, is the discipline exercised through them by their constituents, in whose name, and by whose authority they act in all that they do.[2] To suppose, therefore, that an unbaptized person, not belonging to the visible kingdom of the Redeemer, might vote at the election of Ruling Elders, would be to establish the principle, that the children of this world might through their representatives, exercise discipline in the Church of God; which is manifestly unscriptural, and contrary to the standards of our Church. Resolved, therefore, that the question in the said overture be answered in the negative."

Where there is already an existing Church Session, and the object is to add to the number of its members, in this case the election of new Elders may be made in any one of several methods:-either by the vote of the members of the Church at large, as already stated; or by a nomination on the part of the existing Elders, proposed to the Church, and considered as their choice, if not objected to; or by the nomination of double the number proposed to be chosen, by the Session, and a choice by the members of the Church out of the list so nominated.

In the Church of Scotland "new Elders are chosen by the voice of the Session.[3] After their election has been agreed upon, their names are read from the pulpit, in a paper called an Edict, appointing a day, at the distance of not less than ten days, for their ordination. If no member of the congregation offer any objection upon that day; or if the Session find the objections that are offered frivolous, or unsupported by evidence, the minister proceeds in the face of the congregation to ordain the new Elders."[4]

The same method of adding new Elders to existing Church Sessions, is adopted, in substance, by many Presbyterian Churches in the United States. The Church Sessions, in these congregations, judge when it is proper to make an addition to the number of Elders; [5] deliberate on the proper candidates; ascertain privately whether they will serve if appointed; and after completing, with due consideration and care, their lists, cause them to be announced by their moderator from the pulpit, on several successive sabbaths;-after which at the proper time, their ordination takes place. This plan of choosing has some real advantages. When wisely executed, it may be supposed likely to lead to a more calm, judicious and happy choice, than would probably result from a popular vote, especially where no consultation and understanding had taken place among the more grave, pious and prudent of the Church members. And, therefore, where this plan has been long in use, and unanimously acquiesced in, it had, perhaps, better not be changed. Yet it seems to be more in harmony with the general spirit of Presbyterian Church government, and certainly with the prevailing character of our institutions, to refer the choice, where it can conveniently be done, after due consultation and care, to the suffrages of the members of the Church.

Accordingly, the General Assembly of our Church, which convened in 1827, in reply to a complaint made respecting the mode of electing Elders adopted in one of the Churches under the care of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, pronounced the following judgment.

"While the assembly would recognize the undoubted right of each congregation to elect their Elders in the mode most approved and in use among them, they would recommend that in all cases where any dissatisfaction appears to exist, the congregation be promptly convened, to decide on their future mode of election. And they are inclined to believe that the spirit of our constitution would be most fully sustained by having, in all cases, a direct vote of the congregation in the appointment of their Elders."

In the Church of Holland, the following is the general rule in regard to the election of this class of officers:-"The Elders shall be chosen by the suffrages of the Consistory, and of the Deacons. In making this choice, it shall be lawful, as shall best suit the situation of each Church, either to nominate as many Elders as shall be judged necessary for the approbation of the members in full communion, and upon their being approved, and found acceptable, to confirm them with public prayers and engagements; or, to propose a double number, that the one half of those nominated may be chosen by the members, and in the same manner confirmed in their office." Accordingly, in that country, although an election by the members of the Church sometimes takes place; yet the common method, it is believed, is for the Consistory, or Eldership of the Church, together with the Deacons, to make choice of new Elders and Deacons, in other words, to form a list of proper candidates for the office, to nominate them, agreeably to a certain rule, to the Church, and if no objection be made, to consider the person so nominated as the choice of the Church.

In the "Explanatory Articles" of government adopted by the Reformed Dutch Church in the United States, the following article explains the practice of that Church in this country. "The manner of choosing Elders and Deacons is not rigidly detailed. A double number may be nominated by the Consistory, out of which the members of the Church may choose those who shall serve. Or, all the members of the Church may unite in nominating and choosing the whole number, without the interference of the Consistory. Or, the Consistory, for the time being, as representing all the members, may choose the whole, and refer the persons thus chosen, by publishing them in the Church, for the approbation of the people. The last method has been found most convenient, especially in large Churches, and has long been generally adopted. But where that, or either of the other modes, has for many years been followed in any Church there shall be no variation or change, but by previous application to the Classis, and express leave first obtained for altering such custom."[6]

In the Church of Geneva, the choice of Elders and Deacons is made in the manner which the foregoing article declares to be most common in the Dutch Churches in the United States,-namely, by a selection and nomination to the consistorial assembly, which, if not opposed, is final, and followed by the usual ordination, without the "laying on of hands."[7]

The same method, also, of electing Elders and Deacons was early established in the Protestant Churches of France. The Consistory nominated, and the nomination was announced from the pulpit, for the approbation of the people.[8]

II. The next question which arises, is HOW OFTEN ought this election to be made? Is it for life, or for a limited time?

According to the original constitution of the Reformed Church of Scotland, the Elders and Deacons were chosen but for one year. This was the arrangement adopted in the "First Book of Discipline," formed in l560 and also in the "Second Book of Discipline," drawn up in 1578, and which continued for a number of years in the Scottish Church. This plan seems to have been suggested by the earnest wish of the first Elders themselves, who, finding the office burdensome, as it then involved much care and labor, begged permission to resign it to others after a single year. But although the election, at that time, was made annually, and a large portion of the incumbents of the office were actually changed every year; yet the same men might be elected from year to year, if they were willing to serve, and it sometimes happened, in fact, that a few, whose piety and leisure rendered due attention to the duties of the office easy and pleasant, were re-elected for many successive years. The same form of ordination seems to have been repeated after every annual election, as well with respect to those who had often been ordained before, as to those who had never submitted to this solemnity.

This practice, however, has been long since laid aside in the Church of Scotland; and the office of the Ruling Elder been, for many years, regarded as an office for life, as much as that of the ministry of the Gospel.

In the Protestant Churches of France also, the office in question was, from the beginning, and it is believed still is temporary. The rule on this subject, found in the Book of "Discipline of the Reformed Churches of France, as drawn up by the first National Synod, in 1559, is in these remarkable words:-"The office of Elders and Deacons, as it is now in use among us, is not perpetual; yet because changes are not commodious, they shall be exhorted to continue in their offices as long as they can; and they shall not lay them down without having first obtained leave from their Churches."[9]

The Reformed Dutch Church in the United States, after the example of her parent Church in Europe, adopts the following plan for the election of Elders and Deacons:-"In order to lessen the burden of a perpetual attendance upon ecclesiastical duties, and by a rotation in office to bring forward deserving members, it is the established custom in the Reformed Dutch Church, that Elders and Deacons remain only two years in service, after which they retire from their respective offices, and others are chosen in their places; the rotation being always conducted in such a manner, that only one half of the whole number retire each year. (See Syn. Dort. Art. 27.) But this does not forbid the liberty of immediately choosing the same persons again, if from any circumstances it may be judged expedient to continue them in office by a re-election."[10]

Yet, notwithstanding this annual election, those who have ever borne the office of Elder or Deacon in the Dutch Church, are still considered, though never re-elected, as bearing while they live, a certain relation to the offices which they have sustained respectively. This appears from the following additional article, found in the same code. "When matters of peculiar importance occur, particularly in calling a Minister, building of Churches, or whatever relates immediately to the peace and welfare of the whole congregation, it is usual (and it is strongly recommended, upon such occasions, always) for the Consistory to call together all those who have ever served as Elders or Deacons, that by their advice and counsel they may assist the members of the Consistory. These, when assembled, constitute what is called the "Great Consistory." From the object or design of their assembling, the respective powers of each are easily ascertained. Those who are out of office, have only an advisory or counselling voice; and, as they are not actual members of the board or corporation, cannot have a decisive vote. After obtaining their advice, it rests with the members of the Consistory to follow the counsel given them, or not, as they shall judge proper."

But in the Presbyterian Church in the United States, the office of Ruling Elder is now, and has been from the beginning, perpetual. The election to it, is once for all. It, of course, continues through life, unless the individual be deposed from office. Like a minister of the gospel, he cannot lay aside his office at pleasure.[11] He may, indeed, from ill health, or for other reasons, cease, if he think proper, to perform the active duties of the office. But he is still an Elder; and if he recover his health, or the reason which induced him to withdraw, be removed, he may resume the duties of the office without a new ordination.-Of this, however, more in a subsequent chapter.

III. A third question which arises under this head, is-How many Elders ought to be elected in each Church? In answer to this question little more than considerations of expediency can be suggested. No absolute rule can be laid down.

In the Jewish Synagogue, we are told, there were commonly at east three Ruling Elders found in each ecclesiastical Senate. In the time of Cyprian, in the third century, there were, in the single Church of Carthage, of which he was Bishop, or Pastor, eight Elders, of whom five were opposed to his being received as their Pastor. Soon after the opening of the Reformation in Scotland, and while there was only a Single Protestant congregation in the city of Edinburgh, there were twelve Elders, and sixteen Deacons, belonging to that Church. Dunlop, ii., 638. In the year 1560, four years before the decease of Calvin, there were twelve Ruling Elders in the Church of Geneva. Calv. Epist. Gaspari Oleviano.

The Form of Government of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, does not define the proper number of Elders in each Church. Speaking of the Church Session it declares (Chapter 9, Sect. 2.,) that of this Judicatory, "two Elders, if there be as many in the congregation, with the Pastor, shall be necessary to constitute a quorum." From this rule, it seems to be a legitimate inference, that if there be only one Elder in the congregation, he with the Pastor may constitute a regular Session, for the transaction of business. The existence of so small a number as even two, however, is greatly to be regretted, and ought by no means to be submitted to, if proper candidates for the office can be found. In the smallest Church it is desirable that there should be it least from five to seven Elders. Without some such number, there cannot be that weight in their judicial counsels, and that influence drawn from every part of the congregation in aid of the Pastor, and the best interests of the whole body, which a well selected bench of officers of that number, would be likely to impart. In large Churches, there ought to be at least ten or twelve: and in Churches much beyond the usual size, fourteen or fifteen would not be more than enough to gain all the advantages which the best arrangement with regard to this office might be expected to secure.

It ought to be borne in mind, however, that there is no advantage whatever to be gained by electing unsuitable men to this office, for the sake of adding mere numbers to the Church Session. It is much better to get along with three or four pious, wise and prudent Elders, than to add two or three dozens to their ranks of men of an opposite stamp, who, by their want of piety and wisdom, might be a nuisance instead of a comfort:-a curse instead of a blessing. Pastors, then, and their Churches, instead of making haste to fill up the ranks of their congregational Senators with unsuitable members, had better wait patiently until the Head of the Church shall provide for them candidates, in some measure "after his own heart."

IV. The last question which will be proposed for solution is, who may be considered as ELIGIBLE TO THIS OFFICE?

The proper personal qualifications for this office have been considered in a preceding chapter. These are not intended to be brought into view here. All that is designed is, a reference to two or three points of legal qualifications, which are necessary to render a candidate eligible in the view of the ecclesiastical casuist.

And first, no one can be elected an Elder in any Church, who is not a member in full communion in the Church of which he is to be chosen an officer. The extreme impropriety of choosing men to represent the members of the Church, and to sit in judgment on the standing, department and Church membership of others who were not themselves in full communion with the body of Christ, is so glaring as to need no comment.

But the eligible candidate for this choice must be a male member. Some, indeed, have seriously doubted whether there were not in the apostolic Church, female Elders, or Elderesses; and also whether there ought not to be a similar class of Elders in every Church at the present day. A great majority, however, who have treated of this subject, believe, that the female officer,-apparently referred to in Titus ii. 3, and a few other passages in the New Testament, were intended to be merely a temporary appointment, arising out of that state of seclusion in which females lived, and do still live in the Eastern world, and not at all necessary in those countries where females may be approached and instructed without the intervention of individuals of their own sex. The Presbyterian Church has judged and acted in conformity with this view of the subject.[12]

It has been queried, whether a person who is an acting Ruling Elder in one Church, may be chosen to the same office in another, and, thus be an acting member of two Church Sessions at the same time? This question ought, undoubtedly, to be answered in the negative. An Elder can no more he a member of two different Sessions, and responsible, of course, to both, at the same time, than a private Christian can be enrolled as a member in two different Churches at the same time, and equally amenable to both; or than a minister of the Gospel can be a member of two Presbyteries at the same time, and liable to be called to in account by both, simultaneously, and to have entirely inconsistent requisitions made by each. An Elder in one Church, then, is not eligible to the Eldership in another, unless on the principle of his taking a dismission from the former, for the purpose of forming a regular and official relation to the latter.


1.The question submitted was in these words--"Ought an unbaptized person, who yet pays his proportion for the support of a congregation, to be permitted to vote for Ruling Elders?" [back].

2.It is well known that the General Assembly, in this clause of their judgment, did not mean to deny that Ruling Elders, in the rightful discharge of their duties, act in the name and by the authority of Christ. This great truth is plainly recognized in a preceding clause. But merely to say, that they act as the representatives, and on the behalf of the members of the Church at large; so that when a complaint is brought to the Eldership, it is, strictly speaking, according to the ancient language, "telling it to the Church." [back]

3.In the infancy of the Reformed Church in Scotland, the mode of electing Ruling Elders was by no means uniform. In some Churches, the existing Session made a nomination to the Church members, out of which a choice was made by the latter. In other Churches, the choice was made immediately by the communicants at large. In some Churches, the Session appointed electors; and in others, they acted as electors themselves. It was a number of years before the practice stated above as the prevalent one, became general. M'CRIE's Life of Melville, ii. 477, 478. [back].

4.HILL's Institutes. Part ii. Section 4th, 212, 213. [back].

5.It is hradly necessary to say, that when the Church Session, in any such congregation shall be considered as unduly delaying to make a suitable addition of new Elders to their number, it is the privilege of the members of the Church, after due application to the Presbytery for the redress of their alleged grievance. [back].

6.See the Constitution of the Reformed Dutch Church in the United States. [back].

7.See MERCIER's Church History of Geneva, p. 209. [back].

8.QUICK's Synodicon, i. 27. [back]

9.QUICK's Synodicon, i. 28. [back]

10.Constitution of the Reformed Dutch Church in the U. States. [back].

11.The writer is here stating what is the actual constitution of the Presbyterian Church as to this point. He does not suppose, however, that there is any infringement of Presbyterian principle in the annual elections of Ruling Elders, formerly practised in the Church of Scotland, and still practised in the Dutch and French Churches. Where a Church is large, containing a sufficient number of grave, pious and prudent members, to furnish an advantageous rotation, and where the duties of the office are many and arduous, it may not be without its advantages to keep uup some change of incumbency in this office. But, in general, it seems manifest, that the spiritual interests of a congregation will be likely to be managed most steadily and to edification by permanent officers, who are never even temporarily withdrawn from the sphere of duty in which they move, and who are daily gaining more knowledge of the Church, and more experience. [back]

12.The Moravians, or United Brethren, and the society of Friends, or Quakers, are the only ecclesiastical bodies in Protestant Christendom, so far as is now recollected, in whose system of Church order Female Elders actually have a place. [back]

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