The Ruling Elder: Basic Function
For the proper functioning of the church, God has established the offices of elder and deacon. Elders have the function of overseeing the church, proclaiming the Word, and shepherding the flock. While all elders must be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2), it seems that in 1 Tim. 5:17 the early church designated elders for the labor of teaching and preaching. It seems wise then to distinguish between ruling elders and teaching elders, the latter typically devoting more education and time to preaching and teaching.
What does a ruling elder do in the life of the church? Why are they important?
First, ruling elders are just as important for the overseeing of the flock as the teaching elder. Ruling elders are not like a board of directors in a Fortune 500 company. Rather, they are to be shepherds of God’s flock. God has entrusted the congregation to their care. There are not different levels of spiritual authority between teaching and ruling elders.
It is important that the ruling elder know the people in the congregation. In a large church, this does not mean he has to know every individual with equal intimacy and depth, but he should be involved in the lives of the people. He should be trustworthy so that people are comfortable seeking spiritual wisdom and counsel from him. He must be godly and understand God’s Word, being able to apply the Word to various situations.
Second, the ruling elder is also in charge of protecting and preserving the doctrine of the church just as much as the teaching elder. The ruling elder should know and understand Biblical doctrine and be able to discuss it from the Scriptures. He should be able to identify and understand when something is wrong or out of sorts with sound doctrine. He should be able instruct other Christians in the pattern of sound doctrine. He may not be the primary preacher from the pulpit but he must still be able to guide the sheep in the pattern of sound doctrine. Consider Titus 1:9 “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”
The elders may be also from time to time be called to hold to account the teaching/preaching elder or fellow ruling elders. This is to be done with love, respect, and gentleness. However, there may come a point where ruling elders need to confront an error being promulgated in the teaching of others. Even, Paul warns the Ephesians that ‘fierce wolves will come from among them [the elders]’ (Acts 20:29). No one ever looks forward to the experience of confronting falsehood from within, it is even more stressful and worrisome when it is someone from within the elder board or session—yet we would be naive to think that it will never be necessary. Of course, there is a difference between correcting a minor error or misstatement and confronting an outright wolf; nevertheless, these things do happen.
Third, ruling elders are co-laborers with the preaching/teaching pastor. They share with the pastor the weight of both making decisions and implementing decisions. Unfortunately, sometimes elders consider themselves to be merely an oversight committee for the pastor. They become the board of directors and the pastor is like the employee. “We decide what to do, and you go do it.” There should be mutual accountability among elders, and that entails the accountability of the preaching/teaching pastor. At the same time, ruling elders should be just as involved in activities of the church. They should lead by example. Their response to the pastor should not be “great idea, now you go do it” but “how can we help?” For example, they may be able to help with various visitation or hospital visits. Ruling elders may teach some Sunday school or disciple others. Maybe there is a mature ruling elder who would be excellent at doing some pre-marital counseling or walking beside a couple in church going through marital problems. Even more, in a larger church, elders oversee various committees. Even in a small church of 50-60 people, one preaching pastor cannot have his hands in every pot and still devote sufficient time to the task of teaching and preaching.
The ruling elder is important in the life of the church. Good ruling elders help the church run well. They share the burden with the preaching elder. They are trustworthy and the people respect their spiritual authority just as easily as they would the pastor’s spiritual authority. On the other hand, bad ruling elders can be detrimental to the life of the church and to individuals in the church. God has determined that the local church should have multiple elders to oversee the flock. Ruling elders are a key factor in the healthy functioning of the local church.
**As an addendum: Some Baptist churches do not distinguish formally between ruling elders and teaching elders. With respect to this: it is still important that the pastor have a board of elders around him with equal authority. All that we have said concerning the importance of other elders to help the pastor and to shepherd still applies in these contexts. Even if you debate whether the Bible distinguishes between teaching and ruling elder, the Bible still evidences and teaches the need for a multiplicity of elders.
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.