The Role of the Ruling Elder in the Local Church
A Survey of the PCA Book of Church Order
The office of Ruling Elder is “one of dignity and usefulness” vital to the life of the church. Though the importance of the office is undisputed, the particulars of the service rendered are less clear among many who would fulfill the office with diligence. It is my hope that this small paper offers focus and clarity to discussions of the role and its associated duties. I am particularly interested in providing a summary of the ongoing and regular duties Ruling Elders are to provide the church in which they serve. By saying “regular and ongoing” I seek to delineate duties of a more frequent and predictable nature, rather than those duties that are performed only infrequently at a non-regular interval such as censure and discipline. Though I will not seek to ascertain a full view of the duties of the Session or other infrequent duties, I will try to use input from the full realm of the office to better inform the regular duties of Ruling Elders as individuals.
I will survey the various sections in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) Book of Church Order (BCO) from which conclusions may be drawn regarding the regular duty of Ruling Elders to a local church. The conclusions will then be studied to better understand the role and its various requirements. Though BCO Chapter 8 will figure prominently in my analysis, I will also include numerous other sections in the BCO. In all instances, emphasis in bold is mine. Each initial conclusion will be numbered as it is identified (Cxx), with the full number listed after the survey is complete. By then studying the conclusions collectively, I hope to provisionally identify a core set of duties appropriate to all Ruling Elders.
One disclaimer is in order. I do not pretend that my examination of the BCO will result in objective conclusions distinct from any subjective interpretation. Because my goal is to derive focused statements from the BCO on the role of Ruling Elder, I will necessarily summarize the material I am examining. In so doing, it may be that a particular summary offered differs from the particular way another person might choose to summarize the same material. It is my hope that the scope and general shape of my conclusions appear sound and compelling, even if particular details vary from the reader’s expectations.
Survey of the BCO
8-1. This office is one of dignity and usefulness. The man who fills it has in Scripture different titles expressive of his various duties. As he has the oversight of the flock of Christ, he is termed bishop or pastor. As it is his duty to be grave and prudent, an example to the flock, and to govern well in the house and Kingdom of Christ, he is termed presbyter or elder. As he expounds the Word, and by sound doctrine both exhorts and convinces the gainsayer, he is termed teacher. These titles do not indicate different grades of office, but all describe one and the same office.
Individual elders may be aptly described with different titles that point to the individual elders various duties. Thus, (C01) the existence of various titles for elders is not indicative in and of itself of a division of labor among the elders, where some are overseers and others shepherds. The distinction between Teaching Elder and Ruling Elder ultimately does lead to a differentiation of duties based on calling and giftedness. However, my concern in C01 is to note that such distinctions are not created within the role of Ruling Elder simply by the existence varying titles tied to related duties.
8-2. He that fills this office should possess a competency of human learning and be blameless in life, sound in the faith and apt to teach. He should exhibit a sobriety and holiness of life becoming the Gospel. He should rule his own house well and should have a good report of them that are outside the Church.
As section 8-2 focuses on the requirements of the office, I have not drawn from it any specific conclusions regarding the duties of the office. As we will see, those requirements tied to specific duties are highlighted in other parts of the BCO.
8-3. It belongs to the office of elder, both severally and jointly, to watch diligently over the flock committed to their charge, that no corruption of doctrine or of morals enter therein. They must exercise government and discipline, and take oversight not only of the spiritual interests of the particular church, but also the Church generally when called thereunto. They should visit the people at their homes, especially the sick. They should instruct the ignorant, comfort the mourner, nourish and guard the children of the church. They should set a worthy example to the flock entrusted to their care by their zeal to evangelize the unconverted and make disciples. All those duties which private Christians are bound to discharge by the law of love are especially incumbent upon them by divine vocation, and are to be discharged as official duties. They should pray with and for the people, being careful and diligent in seeking the fruit of the preached Word among the flock.
(C02) An elder’s duties must ensure his ability to maintain a diligent watch over the members of the congregation. (C03) The exercise of government and discipline is to promote the spiritual interests of the congregation. (C04) Visiting people in their homes, instructing the ignorant, giving comfort, praying with and for the people, nourishing and guarding the children, and evangelizing in an exemplary way are all duties of the elder.
8-8. As there were in the Church under the law, elders of the people for the government thereof, so in the Gospel Church, Christ has furnished others besides ministers of the Word with gifts and commission to govern when called thereunto, which are called ruling elders.
8-9. Elders being of one class of office, ruling elders possess the same authority and eligibility to office in the courts of the Church as teaching elders. They should, moreover, cultivate zealously their own aptness to teach the Bible and should improve every opportunity of doing so.
(C05) Ruling elders are to wholeheartedly seek to cultivate and improve their aptness to teach at every opportunity.
3-2. Ecclesiastical power, which is wholly spiritual, is twofold. The officers exercise it sometimes severally, as in preaching the Gospel, administering the Sacraments, reproving the erring, visiting the sick, and comforting the afflicted, which is the power of order; and they exercise it sometimes jointly in Church courts, after the form of judgment, which is the power of jurisdiction.
(C06) Certain duties are performed by elders as elders (power of order), while others are reserved for elders as a ruling body (power of jurisdiction).
6-3. All baptized persons are entitled to the watchful care, instruction and government of the church, even though they are adults and have made no profession of their faith in Christ.
(C07) Elders are to play a role in the watchful care and instruction of all baptized persons.
12-5. The church Session is charged with maintaining the spiritual government of the church, for which purpose it has power:
a. To inquire into the knowledge, principles and Christian conduct of the church members under its care; to censure those found delinquent; to see that parents do not neglect to present their children for Baptism; to receive members into the communion of the Church; to remove them for just cause; to grant letters of dismissal to other churches, which when given to parents, shall always include the names of their noncommuning baptized children;
b. To examine, ordain, and install ruling elders and deacons on their election by the church, and to require these officers to devote themselves to their work; to examine the records of the proceedings of the deacons; to approve and adopt the budget;
c. To approve actions of special importance affecting church property;
d. To call congregational meetings when necessary; to establish and control Sunday schools and Bible classes with special reference to the children of the church; to establish and control all special groups in the church such as Men in the Church, Women in the Church and special Bible study groups; to promote World missions; to promote obedience to the Great Commission in its totality at home and abroad; to order collections for pious uses;
e. To exercise, in accordance with the Directory for Worship, authority over the time and place of the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments, over all other religious services, over the music in the services, and over the uses to which the church building and associated properties may be put; to take the oversight of the singing in the public worship of God; to assemble the people for worship when there is no minister; to determine the best measures for promoting the spiritual interests of the Church and congregation;
f. To observe and carry out the lawful injunctions of the higher courts; and to appoint representatives to the higher courts, who shall, on their return, make report of their diligence.
As this list of responsibilities is assigned to the Session, we therefore know that the associated duties are based on the power of jurisdiction rather than the power of order. Thus, though individual elders may have delegated responsibilities that focus on such responsibilities, the authority originates and is maintained by the Session, not the individual elder. (C08) The Session’s oversight includes: the spiritual well-being of congregation; processing ruling elders and deacons; the Board of Deacons; the budget; the church property (at a high-level); Bible instruction; special church groups; collections for pious use; and public worship. (C09) The Session is to promote: World missions; the Great Commission; and the spiritual interests of the Church and congregation. (C10) These responsibilities given to the Session are associated with the power of jurisdiction, indicating that although individual elders may serve in varying capacities to fulfill these duties, the authority implied therein derives from the Session as a body.
28-2. The home and the Church should also make special provision for instructing the children in the Bible and in the church Catechisms. To this end Sessions should establish and conduct under their authority Sunday schools and Bible classes, and adopt such other methods as may be found helpful. The Session shall encourage the parents of the Church to guide their children in the catechizing and disciplining of them in the Christian religion.
(C11) Special emphasis is placed on the Sessions oversight of instructing and training children.
List of Conclusions
C01: The existence of various titles for elders is not indicative in and of itself of a division of labor among the elders, where some are overseers and others shepherds.
C02: An elder’s duties must ensure his ability to maintain a diligent watch over the members of the congregation.
C03: The exercise of government and discipline is to promote the spiritual interests of the congregation.
C04: Visiting people in their homes, instructing the ignorant, giving comfort, praying with and for the people, nourishing and guarding the children, and evangelizing in an exemplary way are all duties of the elder.
C05: Ruling elders are to wholeheartedly seek to cultivate and improve their aptness to teach at every opportunity.
C06: Certain duties are performed by elders as elders (power of order), while others are reserved for elders as a ruling body (power of jurisdiction).
C07: Elders are to play a role in the watchful care and instruction of all baptized persons.
C08: The Session’s oversight includes: the spiritual well-being of congregation; processing ruling elders and deacons; the Board of Deacons; the budget; the church property (at a high-level); Bible instruction; special church groups; collections for pious use; and public worship.
C09: The Session is to promote: World missions; the Great Commission; and the spiritual interests of the Church and congregation.
C10: These responsibilities given to the Session are associated with the power of jurisdiction, indicating that although individual elders may serve in varying capacities to fulfill these duties, the authority implied therein derives from the Session as a body.
C11: Special emphasis is placed on the Sessions oversight of instructing and training children.
The overriding emphasis in the conclusions above is the oversight of the spiritual well-being of the congregation, with special emphasis on the children (C02, C03, C04, C07, C08, C09, C11). The emphasis is applied to both the individual elders and the Session as a whole. As C03 states, two of the three sections in the BCO (Form of Government and Rules of Church Discipline) find their end in just such spiritual growth. Though unstated in that particular place, the third and final section of the BCO (The Directory for the Worship of God) is also intimately related to the self-same goal (see BCO 12-5.e). Thus, we see that the entire BCO is designed to promote the spiritual well-being of congregants in a church. Ruling Elders are to feel responsible for the spiritual interests of those under their care, to be watchful, and to be active in promoting such well-being.
Three points are worth considering in light of this overarching principle. First, language typically associated with the title Shepherd is found throughout the BCO in association with Ruling Elders. The Ruling Elders are to be actively watchful over the congregants, calling to mind the phrase “as shepherds watched their flocks by night” from the Gospel accounts of the incarnation. The Biblical shepherd, from whom the title gains its force, is actively engaged in the life of the flock, calling the sheep by name. As we have seen, each individual elder is expected to participate in the lives of congregants with a “watchful” outlook (C02, C04, C07).
Second, great emphasis is placed on teaching. In fact, each Ruling Elder is to demonstrate a zealousness in cultivating their “aptness to teach” and to take every opportunity to develop such gifts and abilities. This strong statement regarding teaching immediately follows the list of duties specific to Teaching Elders and is thus designed to ensure that Ruling Elders do not fall into the error of believing teaching is the duty of elders in general but not necessary to each individual elder. No such allowance is envisioned in the BCO that I can tell.
Third, both stated and implied in numerous places is the oversight elders are to collectively exercise in the Church to ensure the gifts God has distributed among the congregants are used to build up the Church (C03, C04, C07, C08, C09, C10, C11). Thus, though individual Ruling Elders might vary in the specific oversight they offer in the Church’s ministries, the general expectation is that each Ruling Elder would play an important role in such oversight, and that collectively they would wield appropriate authority to achieve such aims.
The Big Picture
Based on the above survey and analysis, I would sketch the office of Ruling Elder with the following lines of thought:
1. Ruling Elders, along with Teaching Elders, serve by governing the church for the spiritual well-being of the congregation.
2. The rule and authority of individual Ruling Elders is to be always informed and shaped by the activities of shepherding and teaching. That is, shepherding and teaching provide the required foundation to support each Ruling Elder’s contribution to the governance of the church.
a. Shepherding and teaching do not function solely as distinct ends in and of themselves, though they are necessary for the spiritual welfare of the church.
b. Rather, in the case of the Ruling Elder, shepherding and teaching allow the Ruling Elder to govern the church well, while simultaneously providing at least a subset of the needed ministries within the life of the church.
3. The Session is to use the full resources of the congregation, in so much as God has distributed good gifts among the congregation, to disciple and watch over the congregation.
a. Though all members of the Session are to be actively engaged in teaching and shepherding, such a requirement does not imply that all teaching and shepherding of the congregation must come from the Session.
b. In fact, such a view would appear to contradict the role of oversight the Session has in using the many gifts of the congregation, and would provide a logistical nightmare in a large church. In a congregation of one thousand, the Session would either have too many Ruling Elders to rule effectively (in the hopes of having enough manpower to provide all the teaching and shepherding), or would have too few Ruling Elders to provide all the teaching and shepherding needed (in the hopes of keeping the Session small enough to effectively rule).
It is my hope that the picture I have sketched of the office of Ruling Elder is helpful in focusing the efforts, thoughts, and prayers of Ruling Elders as they seek to serve the church to God’s glory. To be honest, the duties of the office are daunting. Yet I believe that the recognition of the high calling of the office is helpful in so far as it reminds us that in our weakness God is strong. May we all clearly see our own poverty and weakness so that God’s blessings may be made known in His church.