One of the great problems we have in studying issues of church government is that we too readily start with the New Testament, and try to build our doctrine there from scratch. But when the New Testament writers used the term elder, the readers already knew what that word meant, and moreover, they had known this for several millennia. The people of God had been led by elders for the longest time. In a similar way, the people of God had always had ministers, and these ministers did not hold the same office as the elders. The elders were always taken from the people, and the priests were always taken from Levi. The advent of the new covenant did not blur the boundary between elders and ministers, but rather meant that Levites could now be taken from among the Gentiles “And I will also take of them for priests and for Levites, saith the LORD” (Is. 66:21). The ministers now had the same latitude as the elders on where they were taken from. This did not mean that the place they were taken to was now identical.
Historically in the Reformed world, there is such a thing as a biblical distinction between ministers and the laity. The ruling elders of a church are members of the laity, and they are not clerical ministers. The restoration of church government accomplished by the Reformers was not to broaden the government of the church into a big clerical committee (all of them elders), but rather to include laymen in the governing of the affairs of the church (so the session was composed of those called ministers on the one hand, and seniors or elders on the other).
This inclusion of laymen in the government of the church went to its greatest extreme in the Anglican settlement, where the highest earthly rule in the church was held by laymen (the monarch and Parliament). The Roman Catholic church had been run by clerics entirely. The civil settlements after the Reformation sometimes ran to the opposite extreme, where civil “elders” were in effect the final elders of the church. This view, called Erastianism, demoted the minister’s calling.
In contemporary Reformed circles, the combination of a strict “two-office” view (deacons and elders only) with the presbyterian view that a local church should be governed by a session has actually returned us to something similar to the mistake made by Rome, and has done so with a vengeance. We have a large band of elders (the rulers) and then we have the congregation (the ruled). But in the historic Reformed position, the ruled (the congregation) had their representatives at the same table with the ministers (and these representatives were the ruling elders).
We know that this mistake of exclusive clericalism has been made when a church is grappling with the issue of how to “improve communication” between the session and the congregation-congregation here, session there. It is almost as if the session is management and the congregation is labor. But when this fundamental issue is understood, the ruling elders know themselves to be the congregation’s representatives on the session. The rule of the church is therefore shared by ministers and elders-the office of ruling elder was the ecclesiastical manifestation of the principle of the “consent of the governed.”
The wonderfully named Reformer, Oecolampadius, was responsible for initiating the reinstitution of the ruling elder in the city of Basel. The point of it was closely related to the reintroduction of church discipline. The Roman church was theoretical strict but practically lax, and so the Protestant establishment of moral discipline with teeth raised (legitimate) concerns about the possibility of ecclesiastical tyranny. So Oecolampadius established a board of 12 censors, with 4 ministers, 4 magistrates, and 4 laymen. This was the modern beginning of the ruling elder.
Consequently, if we seek to return to this thinking, we should be more clear about who is what than we generally are. In the Presbyterian world, it might be helpful if we renamed ruling elders lay elders or parish elders. Another possibility is to allow individual parishes to nominate candidates for the role of parish elders, and if the session approves the nomination, the parish can hold an election to elect a man to the elder board for a set term. We need to recover the idea of elders as representatives of the people.
The preceding notes are a hodge-podge thrown together from an article in
Credenda, notes written for our elders, and for our heads of households. The context of all this is our church’s discussion about modifying our approach to the eldership.