Unsung Heroes of the Church
Every week, important church related matters come streaming into the inbox of my email account. Many of those matters also make their way into the inboxes of our elders. On many occasions, one of our ruling elders (i.e. a lay elder who was elected by the congregation to volunteer his time in the service of the church) offers thoughtful analysis, objective input or a willingness to take the lead in a response to whatever need has surfaced. My heart frequently wells with gratitude for the service of such individuals, while recognizing that faithful and diligent ruling elders are among the greatest unsung heroes of the Kingdom of God.
The Scriptures are clear that God gifts the church with pastors, teachers and evangelists (Eph. 4:11). However, Scripture is equally clear that God has so ordered the government of His church as to appoint men to shepherd the flock in a variety of other ways as elders chosen from among the people. In the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)--the denomination in which I am blessed to minister as a teaching elder--we draw a distinction between the teaching elder and the ruling elder based on our understanding of the teaching of 1 Timothy 5:17: " Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching."
Our Book of Church Order seeks to explain this distinction, when it says:
"Within the class of elder are the two orders of teaching elders and ruling elders. The elders jointly have the government and spiritual oversight of the Church, including teaching. Only those elders who are specially gifted, called and trained by God to preach may serve as teaching elders" (BCO 7-2).
Whether or not one is convinced of this precise articulation of a division of giftings within the one office of elder, we must surely recognize the fact that more than one elder is needed to care for all of the spiritual needs of the congregation. The Apostolic references to those who rule over the congregation (1 Tim. 5:17; Hebrews 3:7, 17. 24), can only be understood in light of an eldership that properly cares for the flock in a variety of ways in addition to those elders who preach and teach in a formal setting. All elders are to be "apt to teach," however, the work of shepherding the flock certainly involves quite a lot more than simply teaching and preaching.
Both teaching and ruling elders are called by God to "watch diligently over the flock committed to his charge, that no corruption of doctrine or of morals enter therein...exercise government and discipline, and take oversight...of the spiritual interests of the particular church...visit the people at their homes, especially the sick...instruct the ignorant, comfort the mourner, nourish and guard the children of the Church...set a worthy example to the flock entrusted to their care by their zeal to evangelize the unconverted and make disciples...pray with and for the people, being careful and diligent in seeking the fruit of the preached Word among the flock" (BCO 8-3).
It is a great blessing for a church to have men who can give themselves fully to the work of pastoral ministry--being paid well for their labors (as our Lord and the Apostles taught us to do). However, there is something even more admirable about the work of the ruling elders who labor diligently and faithfully for the well-being of the flock without pay. These men give their spare time to volunteer their labors for the spiritual care of the congregation. This is all the more admirable in a society in which we have almost entirely lost a sense of secondary and voluntary vocations. There was a time when men and women volunteered their time--after their ordinary work was complete--in social services. Our Congressional leaders, for many years in this country, were bi-vocational volunteers. However, as more and more has been outsourced to paid staffing--even within the local church--the sacrifices of those men who serve as volunteer ruling elders ought to be recognized and praised accordingly.
Sinclair Ferguson once said that his elders would often tell him, "Sinclair, we're 100% behind you;" to which he would quickly responded by saying, "Oh, but I often wish that you were just 3% in front of me!" The teaching elder needs the ruling elders as a support team and as a buffer from many of the attacks that will be levelled at him from among the congregants. There is almost nothing so wonderful as a ruling elder who will--figuratively speaking--take a bullet for the pastor. When ruling elders rise up to protect the pastor, the pastor(s), elders and congregation will almost certainly live to see another day in ministry. This too is a vital part of the work of the ruling elder.
There is, however, another--and far more difficult--aspect of the work of the ruling elder. It is one that is has not often been given enough focus in our day. We live at time in which we have seen myriads of "successful" pastors and ministry figureheads fall into a variety of disqualifying sins. How essential it is then that we regain the importance of having ruling elders to help shepherd the teaching elders in a local church. It is not enough to have an outside board of pastors from other church. Carl Trueman explains this vital aspect of the work of ruling elders when he writes:
"The task of the elder is to pastor the pastor. If they do not do it, nobody else will. That means there will be times when the elder has to confront his pastor because he sees that his teaching, or his life, or maybe both, are starting to wander from the path of truth and godliness. Whenever a pastor falls, one has to ask: Where were the elders? Sometimes, of course, the pastor can be good at hiding his faults; At other times, elders just turn a blind eye to peccadilloes, assuming that the pastor is a good chap and could not possibly be heading in a spiritually lethal direction...If you are a pastor, cultivate a culture where your elders are comfortable speaking frankly to you, where they feel part of a team of equals and not a subordinate part of a rigid hierarchy."
While there are many other reasons why we should view the ruling elders as among the greatest unsung heroes of the church, based on what we have considered we can conclude that those who sacrifice their time to serve as ruling (lay) elders in a local church are deserving of our sincere gratitude and praise. These men are often passed over on pastoral appreciation day, are often not as highly esteemed as the teaching elders in the church and are sometimes viewed with an envious eye by others in the congregation who wish to have a place of prominence. However, a local church will almost never rise higher in spiritual maturity and diligence than the level set by its ruling elders. May God give us such men to pour their lives out for the well-being of the members of His churches.