Of Wheels, Spokes, And Ruling Elders (Part 2)

Previously, we looked at the office of Ruling Elder (RE) in P&R churches. Today, we continue that conversation.

Truing The Spokes

When a bloc of REs, however, becomes less a counter-weight to progressive tendencies and more an anchor to prevent Reformation according to the Word of God as confessed by the churches, the church is not well served and this sort of retrograde movement can happen and has happened. For example, imagine a group of REs, angry about the restrictive Covid regime, who have determined to advance a theonomic or a Christian Nationalist agenda in their congregations and in their regional assembly. Most American P&R churches, in NAPARC, do not confess Christian Nationalism and none of them confess theonomy, which doctrine and ethical system directly contradicts what the Presbyterian churches confess in Westminster Confession 19.4:

To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.

Nevertheless, despite the very clear confession of the church, that the Mosaic judicial laws expired with the “state of that people,” and all that remains is natural law (which is what “general equity” meant then and means now), there is are people determined to reimpose the Mosaic judicial laws on the American Republic. 

There are others who, unwittingly influenced by a Seventh Day Adventist reading of the Genesis narrative, are determined to make six-day, twenty-four-hour creation a standard of Reformed orthodoxy. They refuse to accept into any regional assembly a candidate for ministry who refuses to adhere to this view. On this standard, as I noted in Recovering the Reformed Confession, J. Gresham Machen (1881–1936) held the Day-Age view, which, after the publication of Whitcomb and Morris, The Genesis Flood (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1961) is exceeding rare in the NAPARC world. Thus, for example, Orthodox Presbyterian REs are in the odd situation of excluding the founder of their own denomination from their denomination. This resolve is not hypothetical. I have had conversations with OPC REs who have told me unequivocally that they would not vote to sustain Machen as a candidate for ministry in the OPC. This stance would also exclude E. J. Young, who never, even after he rejected the Framework Interpretation of Genesis 1–2, held to a six-day, twenty-four-hour view. It excludes B. B. Warfield and many other confessionally P&R luminaries.  

Maybe the most frequently observed phenomenon, however, occurs when elders decide to preserve the status quo at all costs regardless of whether a congregation’s current theology, piety, and practice agrees with the confessional standard of the church. In this case, the REs are pursuing what they regard as a traditional agenda, but that tradition may or may not have anything to do with the Word of God as confessed by the churches. How often have the words, “But that’s the way we have always done it” been heard in the assemblies of the church? 

What is familiar and comfortable, however, is not the standard of the theology, piety, and practice of the Reformed churches. Belgic Confession article 7 is a brilliant articulation of the Reformed conviction that God’s Word is the final, unique authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life: 

We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for anyone, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says. For since it is forbidden to add unto or take away anything from the Word of God, it does thereby evidently appear that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects. Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils or decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all; for all men or of themselves liars, and more van than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatever does not agree with this infallible rule, as the apostles have taught us saying, Test the spirits, whether they are of God. Likewise: any one comes to you and brings not this teaching, receive him not into your house (emphasis added).

The Protestant Reformers faced powerful opposition by laity (contra the popular picture of the Reformation, the Reformers were not always received as liberators and heroes. Frequently they were repudiated by laity and church officials alike in favor of the status quo. We see this issue reflected in the Confession’s language about the influence of custom. 

We just celebrated Reformation Day but what would we make of John Calvin were he here to tell us that we are admitting people to the table who have no business being there? How would we respond when he tells us that God’s Word requires churches Reformed according to the Word of God to remove their organs, pianos, drum kits, blue lights, and uninspired hymns? In many congregations, and in not a few regional assemblies, he would be denounced as a radical who has upset the peace and purity of the church. What would our conservative culture warriors make of Calvin’s doctrine that God’s kingdom has two spheres, with two distinct sets of rules, one for the sacred and another for the secular? Again, he would be denounced for teaching “R2K.”

Finally, the challenge here is that elders are often encouraged in that agenda by the laity in the church. This is a powerful and influential dynamic. We all like to be approved. It is a risky thing to agree to be nominated for the office of RE. As difficult as the office of RE is, it is also encouraging to know that a majority of the congregation believes that one has the gifts and qualities necessary for the office. 

To then go against at least some of those who voted for one can be very difficult. To be the object of criticism, some of it public (e.g., in a congregation meeting) and some of it rather pointed, can be difficult to endure. Yet, when ministers, REs, and deacons are ordained and installed, they pledge to uphold not the preferences of the majority but the express and implied teaching of the Word of God as confessed by the churches. The vocation of the RE is to pursue the true sense of semper Reformanda, which does not mean what some progressives and evangelicals seem to think, that the church needs to be less Reformed. Rather, the original intent of the slogan semper Reformanda was that the church will continually need to return to the Word as confessed by the churches.

REs ought to be honored and emulated in the congregation. The office and its occupants are gifts to the church. Through them, the Lord guides his flock. They oversee the spiritual welfare of the flock and help to protect them from wolves. The office of RE is a high and sacred calling. Because it is so, its occupants owe their loyalty first of all to the Word of God and the confession of the church. In order to fulfill their vocation, it is incumbent upon REs to become intimately familiar with the Word and the Standards. As they must be men of the Word, they must also be men of prayer, devoted to mortification (dying to sin) and vivification (living to Christ). They must be devoted to the “due use” of the ordinary means of grace beginning with public worship, the preaching of the Word, and the frequent use of the sacraments. This is true of the vast majority of our REs in the confessional P&R world, for which we praise God and in which we rejoice.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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7 comments

  1. Dr. Clark,

    Could you clarify your comment in the post about an unwitting adoption of a Seventh Day Adventist reading of Genesis? I haven’t come across that argument before and would be curious what you mean.

    Is the objection that the 6-day, 24-hour view is Seventh Day Adventist? Or are you saying holding it up to the level of being confessional is Seventh Day Adventist? And could you point to a good read on this point?

    Thank you.

  2. It’s kind of funny how the same guys who like to like to say that “day” can only mean a literal solar 24 hour day, are the same guys who expand the word “psalms” in WCF 21.5 to include hymns and spiritual songs.

  3. Seems like group-think and ecumenism (low-bar) membership trump confessions. Interesting the bit about theonomy not being confessed. Unspoken additions to the confessions are frustrating at the least.

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