In his epistle (3:1) to the Trallians (c. AD 114), written to one of the congregations that visited him on the way to Rome to be martyred, Ignatius, the senior pastor (ἐπίσκοπος) of Antioch mentioned three offices in the church:
Similarly, let everyone respect the diakonous (διακόνους) as Jesus Christ, just as they should respect the episkopos (ἐπίσκοπος), who is a model of the Father, and the presbyters (πρεσβυτέρους) as God’s council and as the band of the apostles. Without these no group can be called a church.1
Over time, these three offices would mutate—and Ignatius sometimes seems to give priority to the episkopos—but in other places, as above, he treats the three offices as having equal authority. Certainly, he has no idea that the other offices or their authority are derived from the episkopos.
The Three Offices In P&R Churches
Like the ancient church, in Reformed polity, there are three offices, and even in two-office Presbyterian churches (e.g., the PCA), there are functionally three offices: pastor, ruling elder, and deacon. Each of these offices has its own vocation, its own sphere of responsibility, and its own gifts. The pastor is called to preach God’s Word and to administer the holy sacraments. The ruling elder is called to supervise the ministry of the church, and especially the discipline of the congregation. The deacons, whose office means “minister,” are called to serve the Lord and the congregation by administering the ministry of mercy to the congregation.
There is a certain delicacy to the relationship between the three offices. Conceptually, the roles and callings are distinct, and so it would seem as though there should be no confusion but, in practice, that is not always true.
In this essay, I want to speak briefly to and about the office of ruling elder. This office is not only divinely established, but it is essential to the life of the church and we all ought to be deeply grateful for the men the Lord calls to this ministry. It is a difficult ministry and one for which it is difficult to prepare. We send our pastors to seminary so that they can prepare to serve the church by preaching and teaching the Word, by counseling, visiting, and assisting the elders with church discipline. Our ruling elders (REs), however, are typically laymen who are identified as being gifted, sometimes given some training (but frequently not, especially in churches in the Reformed, as distinct from the Presbyterian, tradition) and then plunged into consistory/session meetings, presbytery/classis meetings, and general assembly/synod meetings. It can be overwhelming. Few men are prepared for their first session or consistory meeting, when the various church discipline cases come before the body. Suddenly life in the congregation takes on a whole new perspective. Ministers live with these realities seven days a week, but most members are blessedly unaware (as they should be) of some of the darker realities of life in the congregation.
Faithful REs pray regularly for the ministry and for the congregation, they go on home visitations, they help to make difficult decisions, and they may even participate in pastoral counseling. To be frank, being a ruling elder can be taxing. There are many joys, like hearing professions of faith and seeing people reconciled to the Lord and to one another. The apostle Paul calls the special offices a gift (Eph 4:11–12) and, even though the office of presbyter is not listed there, Paul treats the office with high regard in the Pastoral Epistles. The Apostle Peter calls himself a “fellow elder” (1 Pet 5:1). It is an office worthy of respect as the congregation looks to the elders to set an example of godliness and maturity.
Examining The Wheel
Once upon a time, in a land far away, I was an avid bicyclist. I was a poor commuter and my bicycle was my primary transportation until it got too cold to ride. One of the things I learned was the importance of keeping the spokes in adjustment. When they become too loose or too tight, the wheel rubs against the brake calipers or perhaps the frame. Pedaling against the wind on the Plains is difficult enough without additional friction. So it is in the church.
To be sure, in my experience, perhaps the greatest challenge for REs is the responsibility of leading. Making difficult decisions, whether about the ministry of church, addressing a doctrinal problem, or working through a painful church discipline case, opens the elders to criticism. It is not my goal to add to their burdens but rather to relieve them of some weight.
In some instances, I have noticed, particularly in Presbyterian circles, that REs can become entrenched and can become a sort of power bloc, organized around non-confessional doctrines and practices, thus pulling the spoke and the wheel. To be sure, this also happens among pastors (and to the extent that is true, what I say applies to them too) but, in this essay, for the reasons I will explain, I want to focus on the office of the RE. Sometimes pastors stay in a single congregation for a decade, or even two, but more often they to take another call every five to seven years. Typically, pastors move but the REs stay. In the European Reformed churches (e.g., Dutch, German, and French) the REs are more like to be elected to terms whereas in Presbyterian churches (e.g., Scots and American) REs tend to be elected for life.
When these blocs develop it is not usually intentional. It just happens. REs naturally become permanent members of session and de facto representatives of the congregation. In contrast, ministers and deacons, unless they are blessed with an extraordinarily long tenure, may be more transitory. This dynamic can sometimes make it difficult for the elders to hear the minister or the deacons. It is almost as if the ministers become visitors.
The development of a bloc of REs can have ramifications for the regional gatherings of REs and ministers. Again, the more REs who attend the regional and national gatherings, the better. To a significant degree the health of P&R churches depends on active, faithful REs, who have to attend these meetings at considerable personal cost. It is not easy to take off a week or more from one’s job to attend ecclesiastical meetings. Family life does not stop nor do professional obligations, but when a bloc of like-minded ruling elders develops, especially when those elders see themselves as the guardians of the presbytery or the session, the three offices are no longer in balance. I write this as someone who, in the Dutch Reformed context, has held both the office of minister (since 1988) and, for a term (1988–2001), RE. At least for a time I was able to see the life of the church, to some degree, through the eyes of an RE.
Further, there are important ways in which REs should serve as a sort of counter-balance to the other two offices. For example, in the PCA, where there are blocs of more, shall we say, progressive ministers (Teaching Elders or TEs), the REs tend to be more conservative and even more confessional. The resurgence of REs in the PCA in recent years, through the work of MORE in the PCA, the Presbycast, etc is a very good thing and much to be encouraged.
- Translation modified from Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, updated ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 161. I modified the translation in order to remove the loaded word bishop, which we tend to associate with something like a regional manager. In the early second century the word did not yet have that connotation.
More to come on this in part 2.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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