RPM, Volume 13, Number 25, June 19 to June 25, 2011

The Duties and Qualifications of Ruling Elders

Part II

By John S. Watkins

Watkins was born in Virginia in 1844, and studied at Union Theological
Seminary from 1869 to 1872 under Robert L. Dabney and Thomas E. Peck.
He was afterwards pastor at Roanoke, Va., Raleigh, N. C., and Spartanburg,
S. C. The following is excerpted from his A Hand-Book for Ruling Elders,
published at Richmond in 1895 by the Committee of Publication of the
Southern Presbyterian Church.

(d) Ruling elders should take careful oversight of the children of their flock. Many of us who are rulers fail to realize the peculiarity of our relation to the children under our care. The offspring of believing parents are admitted into the church by baptism, and this gives them special claims upon us. They are within the pale of the church, and are committed to our supervision and care. They are under its government and subject to its discipline. We are therefore bound to take a deep and affectionate interest in them, and watch for their souls as they who must give account. We are solemnly pledged to use all diligence to provide proper instruction and training for them, and to endeavor to save them from the snares and perils of the world. Through the formative period of childhood and youth our eye should be upon them, and we should never cease to pray and labor for them until they are brought to Christ. Baptized members who grow up to manhood and persist in rejecting Christ and living in sin, should be followed with tender interest, and kindly admonished and reminded of their relations to the church. They should be dealt with faithfully, and disciplined, if necessary. The church has lost many of her children by forsaking them too soon and failing to do her duty towards them. She should never forget that she is a foster-mother to her children, that she has fixed upon them the seal of the covenant, and can never secure exemption from the duty of Christian nurture. While the parent has his distinctive obligations, the church, as an organization, has likewise most solemn duties to perform. A list of all the baptized children should be kept by the session, and should be revised from time to time. God's covenant is with his people and their seed. Their children are heirs of the promise, and should be reminded, as soon as they have a sufficient degree of intelligence, of their privileges and obligations. Elders should be careful not to interfere with parental rights, and should seek to influence the child through the parent. The children of God's people are the hope of the church.

Elders should not only take an active part in the training of Christ's children, but should see to it that all the children under their supervision are properly instructed in the word of God. Children should be required to memorize verses of Scripture. Dr. James W. Alexander gives the following emphatic testimony on this point: "I venture my judgment that if a pupil must forego one or the other — the explanation of the meaning by question and answer, or the possession of the text in his memory verbatim — he had better let go the former. There is no part of household and juvenile learning so valuable as what in good old idiomatic mother-English is called 'getting verses by heart.' Having almost worn out my eyes by reading and study, let me testify that of all I ever learned I most prize is the knowledge of the English Bible, and for one verse I know by heart I wish I knew a hundred."

A point of importance is the exaltation of God's word. In these days of black-boards, orchestras, story books, and appliances of all kinds, the Bible itself may fail to be properly emphasized. Children should be taught to handle their Bibles, to find the verses promptly, to compare Scripture with Scripture, and to have the utmost reverence for the word of God.

There should be definite teaching also, as to the structure and government of our church. Without being controversial or comparative, it should be distinct and positive. Questions from the Shorter Catechism should be memorized by the scholars regularly. Many of our children grow up utterly ignorant of the meaning of Presbyterianism, having never been taught its distinctive principles and scriptural grounds; and this accounts for the easy manner in which they sometimes drift into other churches.

(e) The elder has most important duties to perform in the exercise of his joint power in the meetings of the session. A full attendance is almost indispensable to efficiency. They are bound by solemn vows to attend the regular meetings, which should be held at least monthly. Business should not be conducted in a hurried or perfunctory manner. It will be found helpful to follow a docket which brings up in regular order every matter which may come up for consideration.

The admission of applicants to the fellowship of the church is a duty of the session in its collective capacity, which involves great responsibility. Upon its proper discharge depends largely the purity of the church. Candidates are sometimes examined and received in a very slip-shod manner. While the candidate should be spared needless catechising, it is the plain duty of the rulers of God's house to require credible evidence of saintship, and endeavor to find out whether he has an intelligent view of the way of salvation, and has sincerely and heartily embraced Christ as Saviour. They manifest the truest interest in him by satisfying themselves that he is a genuine believer, and trying to save him from fostering a delusion. It is no kindness to a person to receive him into the church when he is not a Christian. Too often elders entrust this solemn duty of examining applicants to impulsive and inexperienced young ministers, yielding assent to the judgment of the latter without due deliberation.

We cannot prevent the tares from growing up with the wheat, but should consider that the demand of the times is for a purer and more consecrated church, for quality rather than quantity. We may put ourselves at a disadvantage by the side of other denominations by using great caution in receiving applicants, but in the end we will be the richer for it; for the day is coming when "the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is."

The administration of church discipline is another important duty belonging to the session in its collective capacity. We are not disposed to croaking or pessimism, but we fear there has been a down-grace movement along this line. The reclamation of offenders and the honor of Christ demand more fidelity on the part of spiritual rulers in this respect. It is too often the case that professing Christians are allowed to continue in open and known sin without receiving a rebuke or a warning. Much wisdom and tact are necessary to deal rightly with offending members. The disposition and environment of each one should be taken into consideration; and the great end of discipline should be kept constantly in mind, viz., the welfare of the transgressor. If he is dealt with affectionately and firmly, he will generally acknowledge the truth, and it will not be necessary to have recourse to a formal trial. This subject opens up a large field for discussion, upon which the writer cannot enter at this time. It may be said, however, that deep piety, loyalty to Christ, a good stock of common sense, and a tender, sincere interest in the spiritual welfare of offenders, will generally lead to right conclusions as to the best manner of dealing with them.

At the meetings of session, pastor and elders should consider the situation and needs of the church, and should confer together as to the best means for increasing church activity, stimulating its benevolence and deepening its piety. The roll of membership should be examined, and arrangements made for the visitation of the sick, the afflicted, and the needy. And elders should not regard themselves as advisers merely and collectors of information for the pastor, but as co-workers with him.

Sessions should not forget their relations to the ungodly community outside of the church, and should regard themselves as an aggressive body bound to render valiant service in battling with the powers of darkness. The talents and zeal of all church members should be utilized in this great work. The church will never reach the highest degree of efficiency until every member regards himself as an evangelist in the wide sense of the word.

Finally, the rulers of God's house should endeavor to work together in harmony and love. Any alienation between elders, any quarrels or misunderstandings, greatly impair the usefulness of the session as a court of Christ.

IV. The Elder in the Highest Courts

Ministers and elders have equal rights in the courts of the church. Ministers who are trained in public speaking, and are more intimately acquainted with theological and ecclesiastical questions, are naturally expected to take a more prominent part in public discussions. At the same time, our elders should feel more deeply the grave responsibility upon them. He may render invaluable service by making brief practical suggestions, by giving wise advice in committee work, and giving careful attention to the transaction of business. Their talents, their knowledge of business and of practical affairs, should be utilized more extensively for the good of the church in the higher courts. A too exclusive control of the affairs of the church by ministers should be studiously avoided. Monopolies have their dangers, even in the hands of good men. We believe that a larger infusion of eldership influence and power would, in a measure, correct the present tendency of our church courts to devote too much time to the discussion of nice ecclesiastical and theological points, and to the transaction of mere routine business. Our courts have a vast deal of work to do which is closely connected with the life of the church and the progress of the gospel throughout the world. They should give much time and thought to the great work of home and foreign missions. Ways and means should be devised for overtaking the destitutions within their bounds, for reaching the neglected classes, for encouraging and supporting weak churches, and for stimulating interest in the progress of the kingdom of our Lord.

We wish to emphasize the fact that our Presbyterian system embodies the grand idea of the unity of the church. Each church with its officers is a part of the great whole, and is organically connected with it. The spiritual rulers of a congregation belong, in a certain sense, to the church as a whole, and have duties to discharge growing out of this relation. In the presbytery they are not to consider merely the interests of their individual churches, but must devote themselves to the work of presbyterial oversight and inspection. As in our political government, representatives who are sent to Congress are charged, not merely with the interests of their constituency, but with those of the government at large, so the church representatives in our General Assembly are expected to legislate for the good of all under its care. They should feel that they are directly responsible to Jesus Christ, who is head over all things to the church, and the sole administrator of the kingdom of grace. He is the source of all spiritual life and of all spiritual power, and he has ordained the church to be the great agent for the evangelization of the world.

Christ has given the church an organization which is sufficient to develop and direct the energies of his people in the most effectual way, so that she is thoroughly equipped for her great work. It is the duty of his people faithfully and carefully to guard her as a divine institution, to uphold her sacred ordinances, and insist upon her prerogatives. "He gave some apostles and some prophets, and some evangelists, and pastors, and some teachers: for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ."

The Qualifications of Elders

The qualifications of elders are plainly laid down in the word of God. Titus 1:5-9: "For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee; if any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not self-willed, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; but a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate; holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers."

I Timothy 3:2-7: "A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach; not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (for if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil."

Our Book of Church Order sums up the qualifications as follows: "Those who fill this office ought to be blameless in life and sound in the faith; they should be men of wisdom and discretion; and by the holiness of their walk and conversation should be examples to the flock." In detailing the duties of elders we necessarily anticipated some of the qualifications.

The passages quoted from Timothy and Titus lay special emphasis upon Christian character. The indispensable and supreme qualification for a ruling elder is piety. First of all, he must be a godly, spiritually-minded man. The religious condition of a church depends largely upon the spiritual character of its officers. Their influence is felt through the whole congregation. T

he church ruler, therefore, should "take heed unto himself as well as unto the doctrine." His real worth is the measure of his influence. His piety is the measure of his power with God and man. It becomes him to be imbued with the mind of Christ and to be filled with the Holy Ghost. All the duties which devolve upon him are very closely related to godliness. Without this trait, administrative ability, knowledge, gift of speech, wealth and popularity will be of little avail. If he is a truly godly man, a man of faith and prayer, other important qualifications will naturally follow. But though piety is indispensable, it is not the only qualification. Our congregations should be taught that not every church member who is a devout Christian is qualified, as a matter of course, to be a ruler in the house of God. When we consider the duties belonging to this office, it is evident that intelligence, practical wisdom, experience, and administrative capacity are likewise necessary.

The best and wisest men among us should be selected. Our people should keep in mind that this office is not a mere arrangement of human expediency arising out of certain felt necessities, but finds its origin and authority in apostolic teaching and example. Congregations sometimes make a sad and egregious mistake in electing a man to the eldership because they wish to pay him a compliment, or because he occupies high social position and possesses wealth and distinction. Wealth unquestionably gives power and influence; but neither riches nor wealth nor social position can qualify a man to be a ruler in God's house. It is a matter of great importance that elders should be men of intelligence and influence. They are sometimes called upon to deal officially with questions of vast importance and to grapple with problems which perplex the ablest thinkers and theologians. To be destitute of mental capacity is to be disqualified for the elder's office. We are well aware of the fact that nearly all of our churches have great difficulty in securing a staff of thoroughly competent men for the eldership.

The apostle tells us that an elder should be "apt to teach." The reference is not necessarily to public and official instruction. There must be, however, some faculty for the communication of knowledge. It is important that our elders should use every opportunity within their reach to store their minds with religious knowledge. They should be faithful and prayerful students of God's word, so that they may be able to work efficiently in the Bible class, and guide inquirers intelligently. They should study carefully the standards of the church, and be able to explain the scriptural grounds of Presbyterianism. Soundness in the faith is an important qualification. The churches which were planted and nourished by the apostles began to deteriorate very soon after their death, and errors of all kinds crept in through false teachers. The rapid departure of some of the apostolic churches from the simplicity which is in Christ and from purity of doctrine clearly shows the necessity of having sound and orthodox rulers.

The elder who reads these pages may be discouraged on account of the very high standard of duty which is advocated. Let him remember that ideals rightly used not only produce a blessed discontent, but at the same time stimulate and inspire. They prevent stagnation. They lift us up and make us aggressive.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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