The Ruling Elder

In the two churches I serve, we are taking a small break from Exodus in order to take a look at elders and deacons. There are a fair number of misconceptions out there concerning these two offices. I would like to write a few words concerning these misconceptions, and how we are to view the offices of elder and deacon properly. This post will look at the ruling elder.

The qualifications for ruling elder are listed in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 (a very similar list of qualifications is given in Titus 1:5-9). We can summarize these qualifications under three general headings: holiness, love, and wisdom.

Under holiness, we include the following: above reproach, husband of one wife, self-controlled, not addicted to wine, not greedy, and having a good reputation.

Under love, we may include hospitality, not a bully but gentle, and not quarrelsome.

Under wisdom, we include sensible, respectable, able teacher, one who manages his own household well, having his children under control, and not a new convert.

Some of these qualifications need a bit more explanation. Being above reproach always reminds me of the character in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress who has a robe of such spotless white that all the mud that the world throws at him cannot stick to his spotless robes, but always falls to the ground. An elder must wear the spotless white robe of Christ’s righteousness by faith.

The phrase “husband of one wife” has reference to the known practice of polygamy prevalent at the time. Hence, an elder whose wife has died and he has remarried is not barred from being an elder. Nor is a divorced and remarried elder necessarily barred from being an elder (all will depend on the circumstances of the divorce, and of his second wife, as to whether they are biblical reasons or not).

The phrase “able teacher” is also vitally important. Paul means not only that an elder must be able to teach, but that he must also be a learner. Someone who does not continually learn cannot possibly teach. Much mischief is done in churches where the elders are not grounded in solid Reformed teaching, and therefore they cannot recognize error in a pastor who comes along. Ruling elders must not take the pastor’s word for it. They must always compare the teaching of the pastor with the teaching of Scripture. And by the latter phrase I mean the whole counsel of God, which consists not only in what is expressly written down, but also what may by good and necessary consequence be deduced from Scripture. The analogy of faith is very important here. The elder of a Presbyterian or Reformed church must be very familiar with the creeds and confessions of his denomination.

Verses 4-5 compare the family of an elder with the church itself. The family is a mini-church. Not a whole church, mind you, since the body is made up of all members of the local body who have all the necessary gifts of the Holy Spirit given to them. This is why men must be leaders of the church, since they are to be the leaders in the household as well (see Ephesians 5). See this article for an excellent argument on this very topic.

Verse 6 shows the dangers of new converts in relation to positions of authority. I have heard many stories about new converts being thrust into positions of responsibility in the church, only to have terrible things happen as a result. New converts tend to have a very polarized view of situations. They do not tend to recognize how complicated the Christian life can be. As a result, they tend to be rash in coming to decisions, when patience and wisdom are required. The new convert can therefore be quite the bull in the china closet. I offer these few thoughts on the ruling elder in the hopes that they might prove useful to someone somewhere.

25 Comments

  1. January 4, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    Your thoughts are always useful!

  2. Bill Brown said,

    January 4, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    An excellent summation on the qualifications for elders. I especially like your point about elders and continued learning. The office of elder isn’t an end, it’s a continuim. The office itself should be ever learning and reforming.

  3. todd said,

    January 4, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    Lane,

    You assume a two-office view. Just curious. Are there any three office guys in the PCA?

  4. Roy said,

    January 4, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    It puzzles me greatly that no one has written a book with a detailed, extensive, intensely practical check list regarding identifying elders and deacons. (I hope some Green Baggins reader proves me wrong.) Each of the characteristics of Timothy’s and Titus’ lists imply a group of visible, recognizable,identifiable characteristics.

    For instance, hospitality could be detected and even measured a variety of ways. How is the candidate hospitable? To whom is the candidate hospitable? How often is the candidate hospitable? How does the candidate’s family fit into that hospitality? Each of those (and similar) questions could open into a bunch of subsidiary questions. Eg, “How” could ask: Meals? Emergency aid at short term notice? Sharing of resources other than board or bed?

    I’m looking for a book that does with officers in the church what a personnel department would do in looking for someone to fill a job as an acountant or an engineer or a nurse.

  5. Stephen Welch said,

    January 4, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    Lane, thank you for presenting the qualifications of the ruling elder in a very practical way. This is a very helpful summary.

  6. Stephen Welch said,

    January 4, 2010 at 7:43 pm

    Todd, in reference to your question in number 3 there are not many in the PCA, at least that I am aware of, that hold to a three-office view. I am a teaching elder in the PCA and I hold to the three-office view; bishop, elder, and deacon. The office of the bishop is that of the teaching elder, who is called to preach and administer the sacraments, the ruling elder is called to rule, and the deacons are called to serve. The denomination in which Lane is laboring out of bounds as a PCA minister (RCA), the elders and deacons serve together on the consistory (session), but the elders are responsible for the spiritual oversight of the congregation. In I Timothy 5:17 Paul says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” I believe the case can be made for the distinction between ruling and teaching elders. This was certainly Calvin’s position. There are many in the OPC that hold the three-office view. I would add to what Lane has stated that the qualifications for elders in I Timothy and Titus apply to both ruling and teaching elders.

  7. Cris said,

    January 4, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    Martin Bucer’s Concerning the True Care of Souls has recently been translated (Banner). It gives an excellent coverage of the shepherding duties of the ruling elder. It includes some material on how to choose them, if perhaps not to the level of detail Roy is looking for.

  8. todd said,

    January 5, 2010 at 1:04 am

    Thanks Steve.

    It does seem to me that there are not many three office guys in the PCA. Not wanting to start a new debate on this, but most of the oldest commentaries see I Tim 3 as referring to pastors (bishops), not elders, which is why they should be able to teach.

  9. gjware said,

    January 5, 2010 at 1:43 am

    I’ve been browsing through Cornelius Van Dam’s recent work on The Elder.
    He does a thorough job of demonstrating that the current role of eldership is based on the whole testimony of the Bible.
    I found Van Dam’s comments on term/life tenure eldership helpful. At the very least some form of sabbatical would be useful. We practice life tenure with retirement and no stated form of sabbatical.
    In the Presbyterian Church of Australia the diaconate is not widely instituted, and though most would affirm teaching and ruling eldership as one office they really function quite distinctly.
    Van Dam’s position on teaching and ruling eldership being two offices were useful in this regard.
    Gary Ware.

  10. Jeff Cagle said,

    January 5, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    Todd (#8):

    … most of the oldest commentaries see I Tim 3 as referring to pastors (bishops), not elders, which is why they should be able to teach.

    Do those commentaries see a difference between the use of “elder” in ch. 3 and the use of elder in ch. 5, which clearly includes teaching and non-teaching elders?

    The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.

  11. todd said,

    January 5, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    Jeff,

    I Timothy 5:17 is a very difficult verse; there are probably five or six plausible interpretations. Calvin, who thought I Tim 3 was only addressing ministers, not lay elders, thought 5:17 did address elders and pastors, but did not think they were the same office.

    Matthew Henry thought 5:17 only concerned ministers; from his commentary:

    “Some have imagined that by the elders that rule well the apostle means lay-elders, who were employed in ruling but not in teaching, who were concerned in church-government, but did not meddle with the administration of the word and sacraments; and I confess this is the plainest text of scripture that can be found to countenance such an opinion. But it seem a little strange that mere ruling elders should be accounted worthy of double honour, when the apostle preferred preaching to baptizing, and much more would he prefer it to ruling the church; and it is more strange that the apostle should take no notice of them when he treats of church-officers; but, as it is hinted before, they had not, in the primitive church, one to preach to them and another to rule them, but ruling and teaching were performed by the same persons, only some might labour more in the word and doctrine than others. Here we have, 1. The work of ministers; it consists principally in two things: ruling well and labouring in the word and doctrine. This was the main business of elders or presbyters in the days of the apostles.”

  12. Josh said,

    January 5, 2010 at 11:23 pm

    The news on Ruling Elder is whether he should have a separate office or function than the Teaching elder. I would love your thoughts on this two office or three office debate, Lane.

  13. rfwhite said,

    January 11, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    Is it agreeable to say that the 1 Tim 3 section has to be seen especially (though not exclusively) against the backdrop of the excommunication of two leaders (1:18-20)? Understandably, the Ephesian church had been rocked by this event. Overall, as a remedy for the church’s malady, the Apostle lists traits that are mandatory for meeting, opposing, and defeating false teachers. Those traits include exemplary personal traits in matters of drink, money, temper, and speech, and exemplary interpersonal traits observable within his own family, within the church, and with those outside the church. Without such shepherds, the church remains in jeopardy, humanly speaking, without adequate defenses against the world, the flesh, and the devil.

  14. Cally said,

    January 12, 2010 at 8:03 am

    In the past I have been in a situation where submission to authority fell through even going to the pastor of the church (this was a not a PCA church). Lane, I was wondering if you could write a post for women and submitting to authority especially if the shepherding of the church fails. Maybe concerning communication as well as men and women tend to communicate differently. I have observed that when the structure becomes just that ‘a structure’ and there is no close net accountability (people who know you well), then even the system fails. How does one overcome a “system” so that the “system” works in God’s Ways and God’s Word?

  15. January 12, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    I think the qualification of being able to teach undermines significantly any distinction between ruling and teaching elders that someone might try to read into the text. There’s never any such distinction actually in the text. There are different words (overseer and elder), but most NT scholars don’t see a difference in officer corresponding to those different words.

    To be clear, I’m fine if one or two elders get paid for their work and devote more time to it than the other elders. I just see no biblical ground for calling some of them teaching elders and some ruling elders. I also see no office of pastor. The office is elder/overseer.

  16. Roy said,

    January 12, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    Jeremey, you’ve just illustrated what drives me nuts in my #4 above. What would happen if one (eg, a candidates and credentials committee) were to develop a check list so that there existed some kind of objective measures for “able to teach” (which, btw, I’ve heard some argue really is “teachable”, wrongly, imho)?

    Would “able to teach” mean one got letters from your students commending your communication skills and your making the class fun, easy to follow, and informative (as I’ve gotten from my physics students)? Would it mean that one can not do very well in front of a class, but does very, very well in tough one on one sessions, especially those involving counseling? Would one have no ability to teach unless one could do so in a pulpit ministry?

    I think asking the questions suggests what I think the Bible means regarding elders being able to teach. I expect a diversity of gifts such that some not gifted in pulpit speech, maybe even unable to meet the standards of a college speech class, still shine in other settings, and thus are “able to teach”.

  17. rfwhite said,

    January 13, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    14 Jeremy Pierce: would you help us out by telling us what you understand the distinction between RE and TE to mean? Also, would you help us by telling us what you make of 1 Timothy 5.17, where, ostensibly at least, all elders are said to rule, and some of them labor in preaching and teaching?

  18. January 13, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    Roy: I have no problem with a broad range of skill levels and appropriate settings for elders teaching. My view is not that all elders have to be equally good at teaching or that they should all preach or teach in the same ways as each other as often as each other. It’s simply that there’s no biblical categories of teaching elder and ruling elder, just elder.

    rfwhite: I don’t understand the distinction to amount to anything. Elders are elders. There is no distinction. I Tim 5:17 indicates the some elders especially labor in preaching and teaching. In my own congregation, we have three elders, and two of them do more preaching and teaching than the other (in this case partly because those two are paid and the other is not and has a full-time job in addition to his elder responsibilities, but it’s also fitting with their giftedness). All three have equal role in leading the church, but some do some responsibilities more than others according to giftedness. All are able to teach, and all are competent to preach. Two are better and do it more often. As far as I’ve been able to tell from scripture, this is as it should be. Adding in a bunch of other people to be ruling elders who do little to no teaching seems to establish an office not found in the Bible.

  19. rfwhite said,

    January 13, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    18 Jeremy Pierce: thanks. I’m sorry I didn’t ask my question more clearly. I intended to ask what you understand presbyterians like Lane to mean by the distinctive designations ruling elder and teaching elder. Perhaps Lane can respond to your comments, especially whether he would agree with your last sentence.

  20. Roy said,

    January 13, 2010 at 11:58 pm

    Jeremy: OK. I tend to concur, wanting to support the parity in a plurality position. Then I spend time pondering the, for want of better word, imbalance of TE and RE representation at GAs. Makes me think sometimes that a grassroots origination will end in a committee system rule. ‘nother topic….

  21. January 14, 2010 at 8:20 am

    I think folks read too much into 1 Tim 5:17, perhaps reading it out of context. Taken as a unit with 1 Tim 5:17-19, I believe that Paul is simply arguing for the flock to support their elders, both spiritually and financially. This is consistent with his admonition in 1 Cor 9:12-18, specifically verse 14. Paul is merely passing on what Jesus taught in Mat 10:10 and Luk 10:7-8. There’s no argument there for distinctions between particular offices, but an admonition to support those preaching and teaching the gospel. That’s my humble opinion, anyway.

  22. rfwhite said,

    January 14, 2010 at 10:55 am

    21 reformedmusings: would you mind clarifying two things? First, in your understanding, is there a biblical basis for distinguishing ruling elders from teaching elders? Second, what do you understand presbyterians to mean when they use the distinctive designations, RE and TE? That is, in what does the distinction consist?

  23. rfwhite said,

    January 14, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    21 reformedmusings: let me add this clarification to my reference to 1 Tim 5.17 in #17 above. Personally I wouldn’t say that 1 Tim 5.17 can carry the weight of an argument for a distinction between particular offices. It can carry some weight of an argument for one office with a distinction of two orders within that one office. What I have in mind is expressed in the PCA BCO 7-2: “The ordinary and perpetual classes of office in the Church are elders and deacons. 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.”

  24. January 14, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    Dr. White,

    Thank you for your clarification in #23. RE #22:

    1) Yes. I concur with your citation from PCA BCO 7-2. And,

    2) I believe that the distinctions are clear in the BCO, and I support those. I agree with George Knight III’s analysis in his Appendix to the Ad Interim Committee on the Number of Officers from the 7th GA. The second part of his paper deals specifically with the distinction w/in the office of elder. I find his treatment from Scripture to be quite comprehensive and agreeable.

  25. January 25, 2010 at 6:41 am

    […] at Green Baggins there is a great post addressing some misconceptions on the role and responsibility of […]


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