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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6 Comments

  1. December 12, 2016 at 8:01 pm

    As this was written by Vos (and I’m eager to get into this work, having just acquired Volume 5), I suppose his view on this represents the Dutch Reformed view. Out of curiosity, do you know if the Scots/English/Irish Reformed view agrees with this or do they take a different take on this question?

  2. rfwhite said,

    December 12, 2016 at 9:18 pm

    Green Baggins: I appreciate reading about this from Vos. From my exposure to the belief that ruling elders are representatives of the congregation, it seems (for some at least) to assume that church government mimics the popular conception of representation found in American politics. In short, according to this assumption, ruling elders (or even elders as such) are proxies for non-elders chosen to do the non-elders’ bidding — not too much different from an electoral college. How different is the conception articulated by Vos: elders are to represent the King of the church to the non-elders and to represent the non-elders before the King in prayer.

  3. Ron said,

    December 13, 2016 at 12:09 am

    Can you imagine a church destroyed by elders representing a minority of progressives looking to remove their pastor? What if the progressives are related to the elders? Prominence has no place in the church.

  4. greenbaggins said,

    December 13, 2016 at 7:41 pm

    Richard, I do not know currently what the Presbyterian view of this question is, and all my books are currently in storage.

  5. Bob S said,

    December 18, 2016 at 2:17 pm

    FWIW from the conclusion of Chapter 3 “The First Argument for Ruling Elders Taken From the Jewish Church” of Geo. Gillespie’s An Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland (1641, rpt. Naphtali Press, 2008, p.46):

    But whatsoever courts do represent the church, these represent hearers as well as teachers, &c. It is plain enough that the church cannot be represented, except the hearers of the word, which are the far greatest part of the church, be represented. By the ministers of the word they cannot be represented more than the burghs can be represented in parliament by the noblemen, or by the commissioners of shires; therefore, by some of their own kind must they be represented, that is, by such as are hearers, and not preachers. Now some hearers cannot represent all the rest, except they have a calling and commission thereto; and who can those be but ruling elders?

  6. Bob S said,

    December 18, 2016 at 2:35 pm

    Correction, make that Chapt. 4 “The Second Argument From Matt. 18:17” further to rf in #2


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