Reclaiming the ministry of ruling elder

Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

1 Timothy 3:2-7

The office of Ruling Elder is central to the way in which Presbyterians think about and practice being the family of God in the world. This is because the office is central in the formation and ministry of the earliest churches described in Paul’s letters, which have come to be received as Holy Scripture by the church.

One of the popular misconceptions of the office–one that is pernicious and damages the life of the congregation–is that somehow ruling elders are supposed to represent constituencies, or interest-groups, of the church. Paul himself describes this reality in his first letter to the troubling and troublesome church of Corinth:

11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God[f] that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

1 Corinthians 1:11-16

This common misunderstanding envisions elders as representatives of “Paul” or “Apollos” or “Cephas” or “contemporary worship” or “traditional worship” or “leaving” or “staying.” These elders then bring their agenda to the Session table and argue it, advocate for it, and attempt to vocally represent their constituency before the rest of the Session. May it never be! Elders aren’t constituent lobbyists, but servants.

The_Lobby_of_the_House_of_Commons,_1886_by_Liborio_Prosperi_('Lib')

As the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church USA (G-2.0301) puts it:

“As there were in Old Testament times elders for the government of the people, so the New Testament church provided persons with particular gifts to share in discernment of God’s Spirit and governance of God’s people. Accordingly, congregations should elect persons of wisdom and maturity of faith, having demonstrated skills in leadership and being compassionate in spirit. Ruling elders are so named not because they “lord it over” the congregation (Matt. 20:25), but because they are chosen by the congregation to discern and measure its fidelity to the Word of God, and to strengthen and nurture its faith and life. Ruling elders, together with teaching elders, exercise leadership, government, spiritual discernment, and discipline and have responsibilities for the life of a congregation as well as the whole church, including ecumenical relationships.”

This echoes the lists of qualifications found in the Pastoral Epistles of the New Testament. Interestingly, in one of the most complete lists of qualifications Paul spends the majority of his focus dealing with issues of character.

  1. “Above reproach” — does the elder conduct his life with integrity?
  2. “The husband of one wife” — is the elder faithful in her marriage?
  3. “Sober-minded” — is the elder able to thoughtfully and intelligently able to deliberate important questions?
  4. “Self-controlled” — does the life of the elder give evidence of being able life faithfully?
  5. “Respectable” — does the elder avoid scandal?
  6. “Hospitable” — is the elder able to be generous toward others?
  7. “Not a drunkard” — is the elder sober?
  8. “Not violent but gentle” — is the elder governed by the Spirit?
  9. “Not quarrelsome” — is the elder able to avoid petty quarrels and divisions?
  10. “Not a lover of money” — is the elder able to order her loves appropriately?
  11. “Well thought of by outsiders” — is the elder of good repute in the community?

Abilities/Gift Qualifications:

  1. “Able to teach” — can the elder explain or communicate the message of the faith? can she teach the Scriptures to others?

The notion that elders are somehow lobbyists in the pocket of one part of the congregation or another is pernicious. Every time that I hear this view expressed or even hinted at, I’m quick to address it. Why? Because mutual submission and unity cannot exist where one’s own agenda is viewed as the most important issue for the church body to attend to. That view is one that is worthy of swift and gentle rebuke.

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