Biblical Eldership

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Scott Shahan

Puritan Board Sophomore
What excatly does biblical eldership look like? Should elders know the spiritual pulse of the members that attend their church? Should the elders at my church know where I am at spiritually. These are alot of questions that I am asking to the staff at my church. Do elder's just go to elder meetings and make business decisions? Should elders be involved in the lives of the flock? What exactly should elders be doing? What is their role and function within the Body of Christ? How do I know that they are doing their "vocation"? OK I know I asked alot of questions here, but I am just trying to get some answers about "biblical eldership". What is an overseer? what does one look like?
 

gwine

Puritan Board Sophomore
I thought the book

Elders of the Church
By Lawrence R. Eyres

was a good place to find out more about the subject. You can get it from Great Commission Publications for only $5.99. There are other books on that page as well.

Doesn't help that I am somewhat biased, since Mr. Eyres is my daughter-in-law's grandfather and I had the privilege of spending a very short time with him before he went to meet his Maker.
 

VirginiaHuguenot

Puritanboard Librarian
There are many ruling and teaching elders on the PB who can answer this question better than I, and there are a variety of points to consider in answering, but I would submit the following general observations:

1. Elders must be Biblically-qualified.

2. There are ruling and teaching elders, and the qualifications / duties for these offices overlap to some extent but are not identical.

3. In speaking of the duties of elders, they have duties both their flock and to their asssemblies of which they are members.

4. Elders are far more than mere committee members or members of a board of directors. They are spiritual overseers, shepherds, "church-governors" in the language of the Westminster Assembly, of the flock of Christ (Acts 20). Into their hands are committed the keys of the kingdom (church discipline) which is meant not to serve carnal ends (power, corruption) but the honor and glory of Christ and his kingdom, and the spiritual well-being of his people.

5. It is important to note that church members have duties to their elders just as elders have duties to their flock (Heb. 13.17).

Scottish Second Book of Discipline:

Chapter 6

Of Elders and Their Office
1. The word elder in the scripture sometimes is the name of age, sometimes of office. When it is the name of an office, sometimes it is taken largely, comprehending as well the pastors and doctors, as them who are called seniors or elders.

2. In this our division, we call those elders whom the apostles call presidents or governors. Their office, as it is ordinary, so it is perpetual, and always necessary in the kirk of God. The eldership is a spiritual function, as is the ministry. Elders once lawfully called to the office, and having gifts of God meet to exercise the same, may not leave it again. Albeit such a number of elders may be chosen in certain congregations, that one part of them may relieve another for a reasonable space, as was among the Levites under the law in serving of the temple. The number of elders in every congregation cannot well be limited, but should be according to the bounds and necessity of the people.

3. It is not necessary that all elders be also teachers of the word, albeit chiefly they ought to be such, and so are worthy of double honour. What manner of persons they ought to be, we refer it to the express word of God, and, namely, the canons written by the apostle Paul.

4. Their office is, as well severally as conjunctly, to watch diligently upon the flock commit ted to their charge, both publicly and privately, that no corruption of religion or manners enter therein.

5. As the pastors and doctors should be diligent in teaching and sowing the seed of the word, so the elders should be careful in seeking the fruit of the same in the people.

6. It appertains to them to assist the pastor in examination of them that come to the Lord's table: item, in visiting the sick.

7. They should cause the acts of assemblies, as well particular as provincial or general, to be put in execution carefully.

8. They should be diligent in admonishing all men of their duty, according to the rule of the evangel. Things that they cannot correct by private admonitions they should bring to the assembly of the eldership.

9. Their principal office is to hold assemblies with the pastors and doctors (who are also of their number) for establishing of good order, and execution of discipline. Unto the which assemblies all persons are subject that remain within their bounds.

Samuel Miller:

The essential character of the officer of whom we speak is, that of an Ecclesiastical Ruler. He that ruleth, let him do it with diligence, is the summary of his appropriate functions as laid down in Scripture. The Teaching Elder is, indeed, also a ruler. In addition to this however, he is called to preach the gospel, and administer sacraments. But the particular department assigned to the Ruling Elder is to co-operate with the Pastor in spiritual inspection and government. The Scriptures, as we have Seen, speak not only of "Pastors and Teachers " but also of "governments;"-of "Elders that rule well, but do not labor in the word and doctrine."

There is an obvious analogy between the office of Ruler in the Church, and in the civil community. A Justice of the Peace in the latter, has a wide and important range of duties. Besides the function which he discharges when called to take his part on the bench of the judicial court in which he presides, he may be, and often is, employed every day, though less publicly, in correcting abuses, compelling the fraudulent to do justice, restraining, arresting, and punishing criminals, and, in general, carrying into execution the laws, formed to promote public tranquillity and order, which be has sworn to administer faithfully.

Strikingly analogous to this, are the duties of the ecclesiastical Ruler. He has no power, indeed, to employ the secular arm in restraining or punishing offenders against the laws of Christ. The kingdom under which be acts, and the authority which he administers, are not of this world. He has, of course, no right to fine, imprison, or externally to molest the most profligate offenders against the Church's purity or peace; unless they be guilty of what is technically called, "breaking the peace" that is, violating the civil rights of others, and thus rendering themselves liable to the penalty of the civil law. And even when this occurs, the ecclesiastical ruler, as such, has no right to proceed against the offender. He has no other than moral power. He must apply to the civil magistrate for redress, who can only punish for breaking the civil law. Still there is an obvious analogy between his office and that of the civil magistrate. Both are alike an ordinance of God. Both are necessary to social order and comfort. And both are regulated by principles which commend themselves to the good sense and the conscience of those who wish well to social happiness.

The Ruling Elder, no less than the Teaching Elder, or Pastor, is to be considered as acting under the authority of Christ, in all that he rightfully does. If the office of which we speak was appointed in the apostolic Church by infinite wisdom; if it be an ordinance of Jesus Christ, just as much as that of the minister of the gospel; then the former, equally with the latter, is Christ's officer. He has, a right to speak and act in his name; and though elected by the members of the Church, and representing them, in the exercise of ecclesiastical rule; yet he is not to be considered as deriving his authority to rule from them, any more than he who "labors in the word and doctrine" derives his authority to preach and administer other ordinances, from the people who make choice of him as their teacher and guide. There is reason to believe that some, even in the Presbyterian Church, take a different view of this subject. They regard the Teaching Elder as an officer of Christ, and listen to his official instructions as to those of a man appointed by Him, and coming in his name. But with respect to the Ruling Elder, they are wont to regard him as one who holds an office instituted by human prudence alone, and, therefore, as standing on very different ground in the discharge of his official duties, from that which is occupied by the "ambassador of Christ." This is undoubtedly an erroneous view of the subject, and a view which, so far as it prevails, is adapted to exert the most mischievous influence. The truth is, if the office of which we speak be of apostolic authority, we are just as much bound to sustain, honor, and obey the individual who fills it, and discharges its duties according to the Scriptures, as we are to submit to any other officer or institution of our Divine Redeemer.

We are by no means, then, to consider Ruling Elders as a mere ecclesiastical convenience, or as a set of counsellors whom the wisdom of man alone has chosen, and who may, therefore, be reverenced and obeyed, as little, or as much, as human caprice may think proper; but as bearing an office of divine appointment,-as the "ministers of God for good" to his Church,-and whose lawful and regular acts ought to command our conscientious obedience.

The Ruling Elders of each Church are called to attend to a public and formal, or to a more private sphere of duty.

With regard to the first, or the PUBLIC and FORMAL duties of their office, they form, in the Church to which they belong, a bench or judicial Court, called among us the "Church Session," and in some other Presbyterian denominations, the Consistory; both expressions importing a body of ecclesiastical men, sitting and acting together, as the representatives, and for the benefit of the Church. This body of Elders, with the Pastor at their head, and presiding at their meetings, form a judicial assembly, by which all the spiritual interests of the congregation are to be watched over, regulated, and authoritatively determined. Accordingly, it is declared in the ninth chapter of our Form of Government-"The Church Session is charged with maintaining the spiritual government of the congregation; for which purpose they have power to inquire into the knowledge and Christain conduct of the members of the Church; to call before them offenders and witnesses, being members of their own congregation, and to introduce other witnesses, where it may be necessary to bring the process to issue, and when they can be procured to attend; to receive members into the Church; to admonish, to rebuke, to suspend, or exclude from the sacraments, those who are found to deserve censure; to concert the best measures for promoting the spiritual interests of the congregation; and to appoint delegates to the higher judicatories of the Church."

This general statement of the powers and duties of the Church Session, it will be perceived, takes in a wide range. Or rather, to speak more properly, it embraces the whole of that authority and duty with which the great Head of the Church has been pleased to invest the governing powers of each particular congregation for the instruction, edification and comfort of the whole body. To the Church Session it belongs to bind and loose; to admit to the conununion of the Church, with all its privileges; to take cognizance of all departure, from the purity of faith or practice; to try, censure, acquit, or excommunicate those who are charged with offences; to consult and determine upon all matters relating to the time, place, and circumstances of worship, and other spiritual concerns; to take order about catechizing children, congregational Fasts or Thanksgiving days, and all other observances, stated or occasional; to correct, as far as possible, every thing that may tend to disorder, or is contrary to edification; and to digest and execute plans for promoting a spirit of inquiry, of reading, of prayer, of order, and of universal holiness among the members of the Church. It is also incumbent on them, when the Church over which they preside is destitute of a Pastor, to take the lead in those measures which may conduce to a choice of a suitable candidate, by calling the people together for the purpose of an election, when they consider them as prepared to make it with advantage.

Although, in ordinary cases, the Pastor of the Church may be considered as vested with the right to decide whom he will invite to occupy his pulpit, either when he is present, or occasionally absent; yet, in cases of difficulty or delicacy, and especially when ministers of other denominations apply for the use of the pulpit; it is the prerogative of the Church Session, to consider and decide on the application. And if there be any fixed difference of opinion between the Pastor, and the other members of the Session, in reference to this matter, it is the privilege and duty of either party to request the advice of their Presbytery in the case.

In, the Church Session, whether the Pastor be present and presiding or not, every member has an equal voice. The vote of the most humble and retiring Ruling Elder, is of the same avail as that of his Minister. So that no Pastor can carry any measure unless he can obtain the concurrence of a majority of the Eldership. And as the whole spiritual government of each Church is committed to its bench of Elders , the Session is competent to regulate every concern, and to correct every thing which they consider as amiss in the arrangements or affairs of the Church, which admits of correction. Every individual of the Session, is of course, competent to propose any new service, plan, or measure, which he believes will be for the benefit of the congregation, and if a majority of the Elders concur with him in opinion, it may be adopted. If, in any case, however, there should be a difference of opinion between the Pastor and the Elders, as to the propriety or practibility of any measure proposed, and insisted on by the latter, there is an obvious and effectual constitutional remedy. A remedy, however, which ought to be resorted to with prudence, caution and prayer. The opinions and wishes of the Pastor ought, undoubtedly, to be treated with the most respectful delicacy. Still they ought not to be suffered, when it is possible to avoid it, to stand in the way of a great and manifest good. When such an alternative occurs, the remedy alluded to may be applied. On an amicable reference to the Presbytery, that body may decide the case between the parties.

And as the members of the Church Session, whether assembled in their judicial capacity or not, are the Pastors Counsellor's and Colleagues, in all matters relating to the spiritual rule of the Church; so it is their official duty to encourage, sustain and defend him, in the faithful discharge of his duty. It is deplorable, when a minister is assailed for his fidelity, by the profane or the worldly, if any portion of the Eldership, either take part against him, or shrink from his active and determined defence. It is not meant, of course, that they are to consider themselves as bound to sustain him in every thing he may say or do, whether right or wrong; but that, when they really believe him to be faithful, both to truth and duty, they should feel it to be their duty to stand by him, to shield him from the arrows of the wicked, and to encourage him, as far as he obeys Christ.

But besides those duties which pertain to Ruling Elders, with the Pastor, in their collective capacity, as a Judicatory of the Church; there are others which are incumbent on them at all times, in the intervals of their judicial meetings, and by the due discharge of which they may be constantly edifying the body of Christ. It is their duty to have an eye of inspection and care over all the members of the congregation; and, for this purpose, to cultivate a universal and intimate acquaintance, as far as may be, with every family in the flock of which they are made "overseers." They are bound to watch over the children and youth, and especially baptized children, with paternal vigilance, recognizing and affectionately addressing them on all proper occasions; giving them, and their parents in reference to them, seasonable counsel, and putting in the Lord's claim to their hearts and lives as the children of the Church. It is their duty to attend to the case of those who are serious, and disposed to inquire concerning their eternal interest; to converse with them, and, from time to time, to give information concerning them to the Pastor. It is their duty to take notice of, and admonish, in private, those who appear to be growing careless, or falling into habits in any respect criminal, suspicious or unpromising. It is their duty to visit and pray with the sick, as far as their circumstances admit, and to request the attendance of the Pastor on the sick and the dying, when it may be seasonable or desired. It is incumbent on them to assist the Pastor in maintaining meetings for social prayer, to take part in conducting the devotional exercises in those meetings; to preside in them when the Pastor is absent; and, if they are endowed with suitable gifts, under his direction, occasionally to drop a word of instruction and exhortation to the people in those social meetings. If the officers of the Church neglect these meetings, (the importance of which cannot be estimated,) there is every reason to apprehend that they will not be duly honored or attended by the body of the people. It is the duty of Ruling Elders, also, to visit the members of the Church and their families, with the Pastor, if he request it, without him, if he do not; to converse with them to instruct the ignorant; to confirm the wavering; to caution the unwary; to reclaim the wandering; to encourage the timid, and to excite and animate all classes to a faithful and exemplary discharge of duty. It is incumbent on them to consult frequently and freely with their Pastor, on the interests of the flock committed to their charge; to aid him in forming and executing plans for the welfare of the Church; to give him, from time to time such information as he may need, to enable him to perform aright his various and momentous duties; to impart to him, with affectionate respect, their advice; to support him with their influence; to defend his reputation; to enforce his just admonitions; and, in a word, by every means in their power, to promote the comfort, and extend the usefulness of his labors. Although the Church Session is not competent to try the Pastor, in case of his failing into any delinquency, either of doctrine or practice; yet, if the members observe any such delinquency, it is not only their privilege, but their duty, to admonish him, tenderly and respectfully, yet faithfully, in private; and, if necessary, from time to time; and, if the admonition be without effect, and they think the edification of the Church admits and demands a public remedy, they ought to represent the case to the Presbytery, as before suggested in other cases, and request a redress of the grievance.

But the functions of the Ruling Elder are not confined to the congregation of which he is one of the rulers. It is his duty at such times, an in such order as as the constitution of the Church requires, to take his seat in the higher judicatories of the Church, and there to exercise his official share of counsel and authority. In every Presbytery, Synod and General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, at least as many Ruling as Teaching Elders are entitled to a place; and in all the former, as well as the latter, have an opportunity of exerting an important influence in the great concerns of Zion. Every congregation, whether provided with a Pastor or vacant, is entitled, besides the Pastor, (where there is one,) to be represented by one Ruling Elder, in all meetings of the Presbytery and Synod; and in those bodies, vacant congregations, and those which are supplied with Pastors, are equally represented, each by an Elder, it is manifest that, if the theory of our ecclesiastical constitution be carried into effect, there will always be a greater number of Ruling Elders than of Pastors present. In the General Assembly, according to our constitutional plan, the numbers of each are precisely equal.

More resources for further study:

Here are a few resources on the subject of the office of ruling elder which may be useful:

An Essay, on the Warrant, Nature and Duties of the Office of the Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church by Samuel Miller

A Treatise of Ruling Elders and Deacons by James Guthrie

The Elder and His Work by David Dickson

Westminster Form of Presbyterian Church Government, see "Other Church-Governors"

Presbyterian Reformed Church Form of Church Government

1578 Scottish Second Book of Discipline

The Name, Nature and Fuctions of Ruling Elders by Thomas Smyth

The Presbyterian Elder: The Duties of the Ruling Elder by Paul S. Wright

[Edited on 7-22-2006 by VirginiaHuguenot]
 

Scott Shahan

Puritan Board Sophomore
Thanks Andrew,

That was a helpful post. Elders need to know the people that are members in their respected churches. In the Church that I attend I do not think that the elders know most of the people that go to church there. Shouldn't the elders know the "spiritual pulse" of the members of the church?
 

VirginiaHuguenot

Puritanboard Librarian
Thanks Andrew,

That was a helpful post. Elders need to know the people that are members in their respected churches. In the Church that I attend I do not think that the elders know most of the people that go to church there. Shouldn't the elders know the "spiritual pulse" of the members of the church?

:up: Yes, absolutely!
 

bookslover

Puritan Board Doctor
Since we're on the subject of elders, a question about Ruling Elders: I believe the OPC holds to lifetime eldership as opposed to term eldership. My question: is this a denomination-wide conviction, or do OPC presbyteries (or even individual Sessions) make their own determinations on this. And, what is the practice in the PCA, or other Reformed denominations?

What seems to be the norm in the Reformed world - lifetime or term eldership?
 

Michael Butterfield

Puritan Board Freshman
Since we're on the subject of elders, a question about Ruling Elders: I believe the OPC holds to lifetime eldership as opposed to term eldership. My question: is this a denomination-wide conviction, or do OPC presbyteries (or even individual Sessions) make their own determinations on this. And, what is the practice in the PCA, or other Reformed denominations?

What seems to be the norm in the Reformed world - lifetime or term eldership?

Actually, it sounds like you are confusing two different ideas. As far as I am aware, all elders in the OPC and PCA are elders for a lifetime, are they not? It’s not like you can take away ordination can you? Ordination can be taken away as a means of discipline, but I cannot see any other way. Elders simply do not serve on the session for their life time is what I think you mean. All PCA elders are elders for life, but they do not serve for life unless that is the way the individual church of which they are a member decides to operate. There is no mandate for rotation and the like schemes in the PCA, though my guess is that most PCA churches use some kind of rotation method unless they just do not have the candidates and or ordained elders. :2cents:
 

sailorswife

Puritan Board Freshman
I think Michael is right. At least for the OPC, once ordained an elder always an elder. But you may not be serving on the session. In all the 3 different Reformed churches I've been apart of, elders were voted into terms (usually 3 years) on the session but after their term they had to be voted on again. But they were still considered elders when off the session. They just didn't get a vote on administrative matters.
 

bookslover

Puritan Board Doctor
Actually, it sounds like you are confusing two different ideas. As far as I am aware, all elders in the OPC and PCA are elders for a lifetime, are they not? It’s not like you can take away ordination can you? Ordination can be taken away as a means of discipline, but I cannot see any other way. Elders simply do not serve on the session for their life time is what I think you mean. All PCA elders are elders for life, but they do not serve for life unless that is the way the individual church of which they are a member decides to operate. There is no mandate for rotation and the like schemes in the PCA, though my guess is that most PCA churches use some kind of rotation method unless they just do not have the candidates and or ordained elders. :2cents:

I believe you've answered my question, solved my difficulty, and hit the nail on the head (after another example of unclear thinking on my part - must be a case of too much Mentos and Diet Cokes [heh, heh]).

Leave it to an M.Div student (says the former M.Div student)...:book2:
 

VirginiaHuguenot

Puritanboard Librarian
I'll also recommend this: John I. Armstrong's Elders That Rule Well: The Nature, Duties, and Rewards of the Office of Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church (1923).

Table of Contents
1. The Ruling Elder, According to the Bible 5

2. The Office of Ruling Elder—Its Nature 7

(1) Appointed by God 7

(2) Elected by the people 7

(3) Ruling 8

(4) Names 9

(5) Presbyter or Elder 9

(6) Bishop or Overseer 10

(7) Shepherd or Pastor 11

(8) Limitation and Joint Rule 13

(9) Summary 13

3. The Office of Ruling Elder—Its Duties 14

A. Duties to Himself 15

(1) To Cultivate Real Religion 16

(2) To Have and Keep a Good Reputation 18

B. Duties to His Own People 19

(1) To Know His People 19

(2) To Help His People 20

(3) To Maintain Religious Worship 20

(4) To Control the Members of His Church 20

(5) To Care for the Young People 21

(6) To Promote Church Benevolence 21

(7) To Connect Pastor and People 22

(8) To Be a Shepherd to His People 22

C. Duties to the Church at Large 23

(1) To Inform Himself about the Creed and the Work and the Agencies of the Church 23

(2) To Be a Real member of Church Courts and of Committees 24

(3) To Keep the Purity of the Church and to Defend the Truth 25

(4) To Extend the Kingdom of God 25

4. The Office of Ruling Elder—Its Rewards 26

(1) The Reward of Being Helpful 26

(2) The Reward of Friendship 26

(3) The Reward of Fellowship in Service 27

(4) The Reward of the Companionship of Jesus 27

5. Why This Booklet was Written 28

6. "Of the Ruling Elder" 29

7. "Of the Church Session" 31
 
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