The Ruling Elder: An Indispensable Element of a Well-Ordered Church
The Minister has been in the forefront of Protestant church leadership since the Reformers recovered the primacy of preaching as the means of creating and deepening faith, having dethroned the priest, who was seen by Rome as the central actor in sacrificing Christ anew. But the Reformation established another office, one that was not present in the medieval Roman Catholic Church. Today this office stands in the shadow of the Minister, and is generally an under-valued and under-utilized office; but when properly understood, it serves as a vital part of what constitutes a true church. This office is the Ruling Elder (RE).
Church history helps us think about the RE. The Reformers saw the biblical office of Elder as a remedy to the corruption that had crept into church leadership after the apostles. The shared responsibility of church leaders, who were viewed generally as equal in power and authority, eventually morphed into a hierarchical authority structure with the Bishops perched firmly atop the power pyramid. This concentration of authority in the hands of the few led to abuses that worsened over time. The Reformers vigorously complained about the “disorders” of the church, which they blamed largely on “Our Bishops’” many vices: ruling like secular princes, living like wealthy patrons, neglecting preaching, abandoning pastoral care, and ignoring clergy offenses.
The Reformers reacted to this disordered church. The remedy they sought was “a Reformation of the same according to the rule of God’s word,”[i] and building on Sola Scriptura pursued a “rightly ordered” church. At the core was the recovery of the Eldership. Each congregation would elect qualified men whose rule would be everything the Bishops’ was not when it came to overseeing the church.
The office of RE represents a refinement of the offices found in the early church. Of the documents surviving from the earliest centuries after the apostles, some, like the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas, indicate that the ancient church recognized a plurality of offices, but limited them to two: Deacons and Elders. While the Diaconate was seen as an office of service, the Eldership was seen as a ruling office. The New Testament provided a cluster of terms for the church officers who were to govern the church: Pastor, Elder, Overseer, Minister, or Teacher. All these titles described the one ruling office in the church.
As the Reformers sought to return to a biblically based polity, they saw 1Timothy 5:17 as teaching that the office of Elder can have two types of leaders: one which rules, and the other which rules and preaches/teaches. In his commentary on this verse, Calvin states, “We may learn from this, that there were at that time two kinds of elders; for all were not ordained to teach. The words plainly mean, that there were some who ‘ruled well’ and honorably, but who did not hold the office of teachers. And, indeed, there were chosen from among the people men of worth and of good character, who, united with the pastors in a common council and authority administered the discipline of the Church, and were a kind of censors for the correction of morals.”
Thus, Calvin refined the Eldership into a two-tiered model. Then, based on this verse and his understanding of Ephesians 4:11, he established four leadership offices in Geneva: Pastors (shepherding/preaching/ disciplining), Teachers (instructing), Elders (disciplining), and Deacons (serving). Some of the Reformed Confessions produced in the Sixteenth Century follow Calvin’s four-fold church office polity, while others exhibit a three-fold scheme: Ministers, Elders, and Deacons. What is important is that REs became major agents of discipline, a key missing ingredient in the church under the Bishops. They had “jurisdiction over the correcting of faults” and were to join with the Pastors in “the exercise of discipline.”[ii]
Since discipline is one of the marks of true church, the Reformers saw the RE as an indispensable element of a well-ordered church, and so should we. For the church today, the office of RE, while at times allowed to suffer from an inferiority complex, is really an integral part of what the church is to do to fulfill its divine commission. REs possess a pedigree descending from Calvin’s Genevan polity, and their work is of great importance to the health and vitality of all true churches, maintaining the peace and purity of congregations, whether between individuals, within families, or between churches. To be faithful to this calling, churches themselves must labor diligently to bolster this office and cultivate men who rule well.
James Rich is the Assistant Pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Harleysville, PA, and holds a Ph.D. in Church History from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He taught high school history and Bible and has served as an adjunct faculty member at the college and seminary level.
[i] W. H. Frere and C. E. Douglas, eds. Puritan Manifestoes; A Study of The Origin of The Puritan Revolt with a Reprint of The Admonition to the Parliament and kindred documents, 1572 (New York, B. Franklin, 1907, reprint, 1972), 63.
[ii] Institutes IV.iii.8.