Do Ruling Elders Represent the Congregation?

There is a very common conception present in churches today that because ruling elders are elected by the congregation that therefore they represent the congregation, and have their authority from the congregation. This is not true. That the ruling elder’s authority comes from God via the ordination process seems clear enough (the congregation does not ordain ruling elders any more than it ordains teaching elders). Geerhardus Vos addresses this question in volume 5 of his Reformed Dogmatics.

He notes that the accountability of ruling elders is not “to their constituents but to God and His Word” (p. 57). He says flat out: “That elders are chosen by the congregation does not mean that they are representatives of the congregation…If the office of ruling elder were in its essence an office of representation of the congregation, then one must say: a ruling elder chosen by an apostle is a contradictory notion” (p. 58). He goes on to say that the method of choosing or electing ruling elders is two-fold: God can choose directly by His apostles, and He can use the election of the congregation (pp. 58-59). This position is buttressed by an even stronger argument: “It is well established that even in electing an apostle the congregation is consulted for its choice” (p. 58). One can cite the replacement of Judas as an example. Yet no one would claim that the authority of the apostle comes from the congregation, even if the church elected Matthias to replace Judas.

At the very least, these considerations prove that the election of ruling elders is a separate issue from their function, and that election of ruling elders does not prove that they represent the congregation. Unfortunately, the idea of ruling elders representing the congregation is a rather deep-seated error in congregations today.

The practical implications of this truth are rather far-reaching, though I am not going to tease them out in this post. My readers can draw conclusions for themselves regarding the mutual relationships of ruling elder to congregation, ruling elder to teaching elder, congregation to pastor, and ruling and teaching elder to presbytery.

The logical conclusion to all of this is that it is much more true to say that the ruling elders represent God to the congregation than that they represent the congregation to God, even though, of course, ruling elders should pray on behalf of the congregation to God. However, this duty of intercession is not unique to the ruling elders at all.

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