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Editorial: Ordained Servants: The Ruling Elder

Gregory Edward Reynolds

A friend and colleague in the ministry recently told me that he resigns every Monday morning—mentally, that is. I believe this conveys both a true sense of the intensity and difficulty of our calling—that is the nature of the ministry itself—but especially the unique difficulty of the ministry in our times. Luther said, "If anyone had told me about what the ministry was really like ten wild horses could not have dragged me into it." Some things never change. But in the early 1980s a retired Reformed minister named John Piersma once told Bill Shishko and me that he did not envy us entering the ministry in the late twentieth century, because, he maintained, there is little respect for the ministerial office in the modern world. I would add to this that alongside, and partly responsible for spawning, egalitarianism is the dramatic rearrangement of social space and consciousness by the electronic environment. This combination of influences has made our world an extraordinarily challenging place in which to minister.

But this is the world in which we, as servants of the risen Lord, have been ordained to serve. In essence it is the same sinful, confused, rebellious world in which Paul ministered. Above all, it is the world in which the risen Lord Jesus Christ is gathering his elect from among the nations, to join him in inheriting the glorious kingdom over which our Lord is presently the monarch.

The Importance of the Eldership[1]

One of the great causes of the weakness of the contemporary church is its failure to understand, accept, and implement the biblical form of church government. An essential element of that form is found in the scriptural office of the ruling elder. While it has often been thought that the word "Presbyterian" in the name of a denomination or local church obscures the biblical witness of that church, it should be remembered that the word itself is preeminently biblical. "Presbyterian" comes from the Greek word πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros], which means "elder." (In various forms, presbyteros occurs seventy times in the New Testament.) To lament the low state of doctrine and morals in the church today, while at the same time neglecting and, perhaps, disdaining one of the chief means which God has appointed to correct these problems, is reprehensible and foolish.

Not only does Christ, as the head of the church, have the right to institute an office such as the ruling elder, but, as the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the flock, he has done so for the spiritual health and welfare of his people both now and forever (Heb. 13:17).

Why, then, has this good office been largely abandoned by the church in our day? I believe that there are two major reasons.

First, in battling the theological liberalism over the past century, orthodox Christians have tended to minimize doctrinal differences and theological precision in favor of a broad coalition based on certain "fundamentals." It thus becomes convenient to dismiss biblical doctrines which are not under attack as unimportant or even "divisive." This reduction of the church's confession of its beliefs has been aided and abetted by the anti-intellectualism of modern America, leading to an emphasis on emotion at the expense of clear thinking.

Pragmatism has never been a friend of careful thought, and the modern church often seems more interested in getting things done than in considering the biblical warrant or theological foundation for a given activity. Why waste precious time discussing church doctrine when souls are going to hell? Besides, assuming that evangelism is the central task of the church, then careful oversight and feeding of the flock might get the church off track. Hence, it has become generally accepted by religious leaders and laity alike that church government is not only secondary to but outside the scope of biblical concern.

Second, the minimizing of doctrine has combined with another unbiblical ingredient—radical individualism—to thwart the exercise of biblical church government. The spirit of the Enlightenment has blossomed in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Each man is his own master, accountable to no one but himself. In the church this individualism translates to: "All I need is my Bible and my God. Anything and anyone else is a threat to my freedom." Pastors may preach, but they had better not meddle. The idea of a body of ruling elders overseeing and shepherding the flock of God has fallen on hard times.

It is incumbent on elders and ministers of the Word to identify this autonomous instinct for what it is: rebellion, not an inborn right. It is perhaps somewhat understandable that secular man in Western democracies should overreact to the spread of totalitarianism in our century. What is sad, though, is that Christians often fail to realize that both totalitarianism and individualistic egalitarianism are children of the same diabolical parent: autonomous freedom. To live in absolute independence from God has been the agenda of fallen man ever since his rebellion in Eden. This autonomous freedom is the essence of secularism. In fact, pure democracy and the resultant chaos of everyman rule have often paved the way for totalitarian control. The "one-man show" syndrome in most Baptistic churches offers a case in point. At its worst this instinct, fueled by modern technologies, levels all of reality to the horizontal—the human—eviscerating human experience of all transcendence.

The other side of this secular cycle is revolution against the dictator or ruling class. Strict Plymouth Brethrenism, in which there are no officers, along with the general disdain for official authority in the church at large, are cases in point of this reaction. Resistance to the concept of church membership and walking away from problems and conflicts are both symptomatic of this pernicious spirit.

Both the abuse of God-ordained authority and the failure to respect that authority are, or course, equally unbiblical. Only a biblical view of eldership will enable the church to avoid this Scylla of dictatorship and Charybdis of radical individualism. The church will steer a safe course in this and every area only if she consciously charts that course according to the inspired map and compass of Scripture.

Positively speaking, when delegated authority in the church is respected by the people and exercised faithfully by the officers, it will bring glory to God and good to his flock (Eph. 4:11-16). In the church, unlike the world, authority is exercised in service, not to self, but to God and his people. The ruling elder is called to be an undershepherd of his self-sacrificing Lord (Acts 20:28). His regard is chiefly for the glory of his Lord and the welfare of his blood-bought flock.

In the present climate of the tyranny of the cults, the impersonal manipulation of the mega-churches and mass-media ministries, the therapeutic individualism of the emergent church, and the general malaise of leadership in the average church, a return to biblical church government is desperately needed. The doctrine of the ruling elder must be a keystone in any reform.

Today, the church must remember her true identity. In returning to her biblical roots, she will do well to consult the men who have best guided her in the past. In the area of church government, Samuel Miller should be among the first on the list, though his book is sadly out of print once again.[2] Thankfully, there are many other useful sources in our tradition, as the two reviews in this month's Ordained Servant attest.

Endnotes

[1] Based on the "Forward" to The Ruling Elder by Samuel Miller. Dallas TX: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1987 (Reprint of 1832 edition) iii-vii. © Copyright 1987 by Gregory E. Reynolds. The text of this edition was taken from the second edition of Samuel Miller's An Essay, on Warrant, Nature and Duties of the Office of the Ruling Elder, in the Presbyterian Church (New York: Jonathan Leavitt; Boston: Crocker & Brewster, 1832).

[2] Presently, we need to reach back into our Presbyterian heritage. A good place to start is Samuel Miller's The Ruling Elder. It was originally published in 1831 and proved seminal to all subsequent debate on biblical eldership. Though Miller's work was an American first, he saw himself building on a rich tradition of teaching on church office. For example, Miller demonstrates that the essential idea of the office of ruling eldership is not a New Testament innovation, but harkens back to Mosaic times. Neither is eldership the ecclesiastical invention of John Calvin. It was recognized by the earliest sixteenth-century reformers; and, in turn, they simply rediscovered and amplified what the ancient church had once known.

As a man of his age, Miller was not entirely free of a few unbiblical customs then current. The most glaring example of this fault concerns his approval of the practice of allowing non-communing, unbaptized tithers to vote in the election of elders. He believed this was a practical necessity, the abuse of which would be safeguarded by the jurisdiction of presbytery. Fortunately, due to the lack of salary, the election of ruling elders was not subject to the same corruption of patronage as was the salaried teaching eldership. The book, however, is remarkably free of this sort of anachronism.

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