The Ruling Elder

Historically, Presbyterian church polity has distinguished between pastors or ministers[1] and ruling elders. In drawing this distinction, it has not been the intention to deny that pastors or ministers are elders, nor to suggest that they have no function, so far as rule in the church is concerned. Rather, the purpose has been to emphasise the distinction between those who preach and expound the Word of God and those whose primary function is to exercise rule or oversight in the church.

While this distinction has been made and continues to find a place in Presbyterian ecclesiology, nonetheless, the use of such terms and the underlying basis for the distinction have not been free from controversy. Indeed, controversy regarding such issues stretches back to the Westminster Assembly and has continued with greater and lesser intensity to the present day.[2] The controversy has tended to focus upon the scriptural basis for the distinction between ministers and ruling elders.

The sensitivity of the issue is highlighted by the careful wording which was employed by the Westminster Assembly in describing the office of those who were to exercise rule within the church and who today are referred to commonly as ruling elders. It is noticeable that when the Assembly came to the description of that office, it baulked at employing the title ruling elder or even elder, but opted for the description, ‘other church governors’. The Form of Presbyterial Church Government formulated by the Westminster Assembly reads:

“The offices which Christ hath appointed for the edification of his church, and the perfecting of the saints, are, some extraordinary, as apostles, evangelists, and prophets, which are ceased. Others ordinary and perpetual, as pastors, teachers, and other church governors, and deacons”

The apparent hesitancy of the Westminster Assembly to describe those who held that office as elders becomes even more apparent when consideration is given to the description of the work associated with that office. Under the heading “Other Church-Governors”, the following appears:

“As there were in the Jewish church elders of the people joined with the priests and Levites in the government of the church; so Christ, who hath instituted government, and governors ecclesiastical in his church, hath furnished some in his church, beside the ministers of the word, with gifts for government, and with commission to execute the same when called thereunto, who are to join with the minister in the government of the church. Which officers reformed churches commonly call Elders.”

The Assembly clearly recognized that those who filled this office were referred to commonly as elders in the Reformed tradition, nonetheless, they declined to make use of that designation. When the Assembly came to the description of that office, it baulked at employing the title ruling elder or even elder, but opted for the description, ‘other church governors’. Not only does the use of the term “church governors” and the apparent reluctance on the part of the Assembly to employ the common Reformed title of “elders” suggest that this was a matter in respect of which there was some tension, but the source of the tension begins to emerge when consideration is given to the proof texts which the Assembly appended to the Form of Presbyterial Church Government in support of the office of church governor. One may have expected that passages such as 1 Timothy 3:1-7, 1 Timothy 5:17 and Titus 1:5-9 may have been cited, but the proof texts are confined to Romans 12:7, 8 and 1 Corinthians 12:28. While it is true that these texts provide arguably adequate proof for the office of church governor, nonetheless, the absence of the Timothy and Titus passages, provides an indication of the tensions present in the Assembly concerning the office of the ruling elder.

Indeed. this matter was one of the most contentious issues which the Assembly faced. Some members of the Assembly maintained that church governors occupied the same office as ministers of the Word, namely, the office of elder; this office, they contended, encompassed two aspects; a call to rule in the church and a call to labor in the Word and doctrine. As is evident from the Assembly’s final pronouncement on the subject, this view was not shared by all. We will return to a more detailed consideration of the proceedings at the Assembly in due course because they play an important role in the controversy which has simmered since that time.

The Issues

Following the Westminster Assembly, the issue remained dormant for many years. However, it resurfaced again in the 19th century in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. It arose in this way. Samuel Miller who was Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government at Princeton Theological Seminary became concerned at the demise of the ruling elder[3] within his denomination and the tendency for those who occupied that office not to take their responsibilities seriously. Furthermore, he was concerned that those who held the office of minister failed to give proper recognition to the office of the ruling elder in the life of the Church. As a consequence, he preached initially on the subject and then published a work on the eldership. This work was first published in 1821, but was expanded and revised subsequently and published in 1831 under the title, The Warrant, Nature and Duties of the Office of the Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church. At the time that he published this work, Miller knew that it contained views which did not enjoy the unanimous approval of all his colleagues. It proved to be the catalyst for an ongoing debate within the Presbyterian Church which was to last for the next thirty years.

In his work, Miller did not deviate from the three fold classification of ordinary church officers recognized by the Westminster Assembly, namely those of pastor/minister, ruling elder/church governor and deacon. He gave the office of ruling elder a clear and unambiguous place within church polity.

“In every Church completely organized, that is, furnished with all the officers which Christ has instituted, and which are necessary for carrying into full effect the laws of the kingdom, there ought to be three classes of officers, viz: at least one Teaching Elder, Bishop, or Pastor – a bench of Ruling Elders – and Deacons. The first to “minister in the Word and Doctrine,” and to dispense the Sacraments; – the second to assist in the inspection and government of the Church; – and the third to “serve tables;” that is, to take care of the poor, and sometimes to manage whatever relates to the temporal support of the gospel and its ministers.”[4]

In that respect, his work was unexceptional. However, what did attract attention was Miller’s justification of the office of ruling elder upon the passages from 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. When dealing with the qualifications of the ruling elder, Miller relies on the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. In referring to these passages, he makes the observation that it is evident that these passages appear to be “equally applicable to Teaching and Ruling.”[5]

Although this was certainly not Miller’s intention, the publication of his book triggered a reaction within the Presbyterian Church whereby the office of ruling elder and the scriptural basis for it came under intense scrutiny. Substantial disagreement surfaced within the Church which lead to a proliferation of articles on the subject. Furthermore, the debate on this issue arose peripherally with other matters of church polity which surfaced within the denomination. For example, it found its way into discussions on what constituted a proper quorum for Presbyteries, the appropriateness of church boards, and the manner of ordination of ministers and elders.

Traditionally Presbyterianism had viewed teaching and ruling elders as distinct offices. However, this view was questioned by some leading southern Presbyterians such as James Thornwell, Robert Dabney and Robert Breckinridge. They preferred to emphasise that the Scriptures spoke of only one office of elder, though they acknowledged that it encompassed two differing aspects, namely, the preaching of the Word and the exercise of rule or oversight. In their view, the two aspects came to manifestation in the teaching elder and the ruling elder respectively. It may be thought that such views do not differ radically, at least in practice, from the position espoused by Miller and in many respects, that is true. However, as we shall see, other implications flowed from the treatment of the office of elder in this way.

Their views brought them into sharp conflict with men from Princeton such as Charles Hodge and Thomas Smyth who rejected the idea of one office of elder with two differing aspects. They maintained that the offices of minister and ruling elder were separate and distinct. They contended that none of the New Testament references to elders (presbuteroi) were applicable to ruling elders; in their view, all such references concerned the office of the ministry alone. Smyth highlights the issues, when writing on the issue of church boards, he states:

“It is not intended in the present discussion to raise the question of the scriptural warrant of ruling elders in the church of Christ, nor any quarrel about the propriety of the designation – ruling elders – in the general meaning of both terms – as happily descriptive of their official dignity and office as the representatives of the Christian people, and assessors with the Christian ministry in the government of the church. But as names are things, and principles precede and prepare for practical results, it is, we think, of great importance to have it clearly understood that the name of ruling elder is applicable only in the general, and not in the official sense affixed to it in the New Testament and by the early church, and indeed by the church universally until long after the Reformation; and that the true basis and authority of these official representatives of the people are to be found in other terms contained in the only recognized constitutional code of doctrine, order and officers of the church of God.”[6]

This was the contentious issue. Were ruling elders, truly the elders (presbuteroi) of the New Testament?

The long running debate was carried on in publications controlled by Thornwell and Hodge. The issue found its way regularly into the General Assembly of the Church. The debate was at times acrimonious. For example, Hodge described Thornwell’s views as “an utter impracticality” which was “utterly unscriptural” and devoid of any claim to a heritage in American Presbyterianism.[7] He opined further that Thornwell’s views amounted to “hyper -hyper -hyper – High Church Presbyterianism.”[8] Thornwell retorted that Hodge’s principles were “no, no, No, Presbyterianism,no, no, No, Churchism.”[9] The differing views resulted in frequent verbal skirmishes.

It should be recognised that neither side denied that the office of ruling elder was scriptural. Furthermore, although Hodge denied that ruling elders were the elders (presbuteroi) of the New Testament, it would appear that he held a high view of the office.

“The power which this view [i.e. Hodge’s view] of their office attributes to the eldership, is not only great, but controlling. In the primary Church court, the session, they are always the majority, and in all other courts they are, as a general rule, as numerous as the ministers. Nothing can be done without their concurrence. They admit and exclude from the church, in opposition to the ministers, in opposition to the pastors.”[10]

However, Thornwell questioned Hodge’s commitment to the office of the ruling elder. He stated:

. . . [Hodge’s] persistent representation of the clergy as an estate in the Church, separate and distinct from the people, and his degradation of the office of Ruling elder to a lower order than that of the Minister of the Word, are thoroughly Prelatic. To this extent, therefore, he is no Presbyterian.”[11]

The scriptural basis upon which the office of ruling elder could be justified was at the heart of the protracted and at times heated debate. This was not simply an academic question because some very practical issues so far as the life of the Church was concerned flowed out of it. For example, when Acts 15:6 declares that at the Council of Jerusalem, “the apostles and elders (presbuteroi) came together to consider of this matter”, was this a reference only to the apostles and teaching elders or did this embrace the ruling elders also?

This very issue came to the fore in the General Assembly of 1843 when the Assembly dealt with an overture concerning what constituted a quorum for Presbyteries. The Form of Government (Chapter x.7) stated, any three ministers, and as many elders as may be present belonging to the presbytery, being met at the time and place appointed, shall be a quorum competent to proceed to business.”

Acting on this overture, the Assembly adopted a resolution stating, “that any three ministers of a Presbytery being regularly convened, are a quorum competent to the transaction of all business, agreeably to the provision contained in the Form of Government, chap. x. sec. 7.”[12] Breckinridge was opposed vehemently to the adoption of this overture. From a cursory consideration of the overture, one may wonder at the degree of his opposition. However, mature reflection reveals that the overture touches the very heart of Presbyterian polity, namely, who are the office bearers required to constitute a bona fide Presbytery and as such who are competent to conduct ecclesiastical business. The unstated question is, May this be confined to teaching elders alone?

Breckinridge maintained that both teaching and ruling elders must be present in order to constitute a legitimate quorum; clearly this had been denied by the Assembly of 1843 which had determined that the Church Order, did not require necessarily the presence of ruling elders. The interpretation given to the Church Order was that if competent ruling elders were present, they were entitled to participate in the decisions, but their presence was not required absolutely. Breckinridge viewed that decision to be a fundamental denial of the principles of Presbyterian church government. In particular, he saw it as an attack on the parity of elders and a step toward clerical domination and hierarchy.[13]

The difference of views bubbled to the surface again in 1860 when the subject of church boards came under discussion at the General Assembly. The issue of church boards concerned whether it was legitimate for the Church to utilise church boards or committees to transact its business or whether by utilising such boards the Church was abrogating its responsibilities and devolving to these boards authority which should be exercised by the Church through its ecclesiastical assemblies. Hodge and Smyth supported the use of boards, whereas Thornwell, Breckinridge and Dabney were opposed to their use.

In April 1860, as a precursor to the forthcoming Assembly and a full scale debate between Hodge and Thornwell on Presbyterianism, Smyth wrote a series of articles on the subject of the eldership. Subtlety was not his strong point. He writes:

“The tendency of the human mind is to extremes, Man, by his fall, lost that perfection of wisdom, which would ever have preserved him in the middle path, safe from the dangers of latitudinarianism on the one hand and ultraism on the other. As it is, we find the human mind like the pendulum, perpetually verging from one extreme to the other. This tendency is manifested in a very striking manner when the attention has been directed with absorbing interest to some great perversion of the truth.”[14]

Although, Thornwell is not mentioned by name, he and his colleagues are clearly in view. Smyth continues:

“The truth of God as it is contained in the doctrines of His Word, and the purity of these ordinances which have been established in His Church, have been both assailed, and both triumphantly defended. And as the power, with which such opposing views were advocated, has been great, and is still threatening us with a renewed assault, so has it called forth a fiercer and more determined resistance.”[15]

This was something akin to getting in the first shot!

Hodge also put pen to paper and produced an article entitled “Presbyterianism”. He reiterates his previously stated views that there are two radically different theories on the eldership. He describes those views in the following way:

According to the one, the ruling elder is a laymen; according to the other he is a clergyman. According to the former, he belongs to a different order from the minister, holds a different office, has a different vocation and ordination. He is not a bishop, pastor, or teacher, but officially a ruler. According to the latter the reverse is true.The ruling elder belongs to the same order with the minister. He is a bishop, pastor, teacher, and ruler. . . They therefore have the same office, and differ only as to their functions, as a professor differs from a pastor, or a missionary from a settled minister.”[16]

In his assessment of the office of ruling elder, Hodge is careful not to denigrate the office. He goes on to say:

“It is to be noticed that the point of difference between these two theories is not the importance of the office of ruling elder, nor its divine warrant. According to both views, the office is jure divino. The Spirit who calls one man to be a minister calls another to be an elder. The one office is as truly from Christ as the other. Nor do the theories differ as to the parity of elders and ministers in our church courts. Both enter those courts with the same credentials, and have the same right to sit, deliberate and determine. The vote of the one avails as much as that of the other. On all these points the theories agree.”[17]

Having noted the points of agreement, Hodge then proceeds to identify those points at which he considers the views diverge. He says:

The point of difference between them which is radical, affecting the whole character of our system, relates to the nature of the office of the ruling elder. Is he a clergyman, a bishop or is he a layman? Does he hold the same office with the minister or a different one? According to the new theory the offices are identified. Everything said of presbyters in the New Testament, this theory applies equally to elders and ministers of the word. . . . This new doctrine makes all elders, bishops, pastors, teachers, and rulers. It applies all directions as to the qualifications and duties, as to election and ordination of presbyters, as much to the ruling elders as to the minister of the word. It therefore destroys all official distinction between the two of them..”[18]

It is in this article that Hodge also notes the difference between himself and Miller, though he downplays the significance of their disagreement. Referring to the view of Thornwell, he states:

“It need hardly be said that our fathers, and especially the late Dr. Miller, did not hold any such doctrine as this. . . . We do not differ from Dr. Miller as to the nature of the office of the ruling elder. The only point of difference between him and us relates to the method of establishing the divine warrant for the office. He laid stress on one argument, we on another. That is all.”[19]

It is appropriate to note at this juncture that the description that Hodge provides of Thornwell’s views leaves something to be desired. The impression given is that Thornwell was advocating that the office of ruling elder was identical in all respects with that of the minister. However, that was not the case. Thornwell maintained that they held the same office, but he drew a clear distinction between the work which was to be performed by teaching and ruling elders. He makes this distinction clear when he comments on the preaching of the Word:

“The considerations which have been presented we deem sufficient to show, that our standards and the Scriptures concur in teaching that the Ruling Elder is truly and properly a Presbyter; and therefore has a right to participate in all acts in which any other Presbyter can bear a part. It does not follow, however, that because he is a scriptural Pastor and Bishop he is therefore a Minister of the word and a steward of the mysteries of God. Preaching is a very different department of labour from ruling; and though all Preachers whether Apostles, Evangelists or Pastors, in the technical sense of our Standards, are rulers according to the appointment of God, yet the converse of the proposition is by no means true – that all rulers, whether elders, Bishops, aut alio quocunque nomine vocentur, are Preachers. We affirm, without hesitation, that all Ministers of the Word, lawfully called and ordained, are Presbyters, but we are very far from affirming that all Presbyters, lawfully called and ordained are Ministers of the Word.”[20]

Thornwell did not respond to the articles by Smyth and Hodge due to ill health. However, into his shoes stepped another southern Presbyterian in the form of Robert Dabney. He adopted a similar theological position to that of Thornwell. Not surprisingly, he acclaimed the views of Miller.

The view of the ruling elders office, which, we were happy to believe was becoming prevalent in our denomination, is substantially the one advocated by the venerable Dr. Samuel Miller, a man whose justness of thought and soundness in deduction the church will yet learn to value more highly than it has been the fashion to do. This theory teaches that the office of ruling elder is emphatically of divine institution in the church. It is the same, so far as the powers of inspection and government go, with that of the preacher. Wherein the preacher is presbuteros and episcopos he holds the same office in substance as the ruling elder. The difference is that he has the additional function of acting as God’s public ambassador in the word and the sacraments.[21]

Matters settled for a short while after this barrage of papers and the death of Thornwell in 1862, but the matter was far from over. The writing debate was reignited in 1866 when Peter Campbell, the Principal of the University of Aberdeen published The Theory of the Ruling Eldership. He shared the views of Hodge and Smyth and argued forcefully that the designation ‘elders’, although often applied to those who exercised government in the church, could not be justified from the use of that term in the New Testament:

“We cannot, therefore, but consider it a subject of great regret that the valuable institution of lay councillors or rulers, as existing in the Reformed Churches, should have been exposed to attack and brought into discredit – nay, more, should have been, as we shall show, impeded in its working in some of these Churches themselves – by its connection with a specious theory, which, although resting on no formal ecclesiastical sanction, and long since abandoned as untenable by the most learned friends of the institution, is still produced from time to time in popular controversial works – the theory, namely, which classifies the lay rulers of Presbyterian churches with the presbyters or elders, technically and properly so called, of the New Testament church.”[22]

Like Hodge and Smyth, he did not dispute the existence of the office of ruling elder, but maintained that a sufficient and indisputable warrant for the office was to be found in passages such as Romans 12:8 and 1 Corinthians 12:28. However, passages such as 1 Timothy 5:17 and those in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, he asserted were only applicable to teaching elders. He drew support from the manner in which the subject had been treated by the Westminster Assembly.

He contended that the theory which classed the lay rulers or councillors of the Church with the Presbyters was untenable. He argued that nowhere else did the Scriptures indicate such a marked difference within the office of elder. He queried:

“Surely it is reasonable to suppose that some notice of such a difference would have been given in the passages of Scripture which relate expressly to the institution and duties of the presbyterate, and equally reasonable to infer, from the want of any allusion to it, that no such difference was contemplated or sanctioned.”[23]

He noted that neither in those passages of Scripture which refer to the ordination of presbyters “in every church” and “in every city”, nor in those passages which set forth expressly the qualifications and functions of elders did one find “the most distant intimation given, we do not say of a difference so wide as that in question, in the position and duties of members of the presbyterate, but of any difference whatsoever.”[24] He goes on to say:

“Scripture gives no hint of a deliberate and formal division of presbyters into two classes, designed to be permanently distinct in function or in dignity – the one authorised to teach publicly and to dispense the sacraments, the other invested with no right or authority, in these respects, beyond the other members of the flock.”[25]

In addition, he pointed to the view within the Presbyterian tradition, of the equality of the term presbyter (presbuteros) with that of bishop (episcopos). He argued that it must follow that the lay rulers of the church, if presbyters, must also be bishops. That being the case, he opined that it logically followed that lay rulers must also be pastors and so must feed the flock. In support of this, he directed his readers attention to the elders at Ephesus who were exhorted by Paul to feed the flock.[26] His argument proceeded that if that be true, then lay rulers must do the work of pastors, to nourish with the Word and doctrine those that have been committed to their care. This he categorised as a reductio ad absurdum.

Although seeking to provide a solution to the debate, Thomas Witherow’s article published in 1873 entitled “The New Testament Elder” served to muddy the waters further and to push the issue to the extremities. His views regarding the relationship between the teaching and ruling elder were radical and were not in accord with the views of the Westminster Assembly.

In 1856, while opposing the concept of lay elders, he wrote:

It is however, only candid to say that such grotesque notions of ecclesiastical order, as these terms betray, have received countenance from the disparity that in the course of time has arisen between the elders who teach and the elders who rule. This disparity is not the result of any ecclesiastical enactment, but was at the beginning, and still is, the effect mainly of a difference of gifts. The most gifted of the elders was in the beginning set to preach, and what at first was only a difference of gifts has grown in the progress of time to wear the appearance of a difference of rank.[27]

Teaching and ruling, as we have already stated, are different departments of the same office; and, while there can be no doubt that those appointed to the office have, in the abstract, a right to fill both departments, yet, in practice, it is found more convenient and beneficial for the people that each elder give most of his attention to that department whose duties he is best qualified to discharge.”[28]

The radical nature of his views becomes even more evident when cast against the background of how the office of elder is to function. For Witherow, all elders were entitled to exercise every aspect of the office including ruling, teaching, preaching and the administration of the sacraments. Any distinction arose not by virtue of the office, but as a result of an elders personal recognition of his gifts. As is evident from the following statement, this had significant implications for aspects of the office:

All elders, being bishops, have an equal right, according to the Scriptures, to preach, baptise, administer the Lord’s Supper and ordain, but these duties it is arranged to devolve on one of the elders, called by distinction the minister, who is specially trained to his work, and is by general consent, admitted to possess most gifts and attainments, and who, in consequence, is the best qualified to make these ordinances edifying to the Church.”[29]

With that background, it is not difficult to understand where he was coming from in 1873 when he wrote, “there has been a failure on all sides alike to reproduce the apostolic elder, and to put all members of the presbytery on that footing of official equality on which they stood in the New Testament age.” He rejected the views of Thornwell, as well as those of Hodge.

He rejected the approach of Thornwell and those who supported him on essentially three grounds.

There is only one passage in the New Testament that even seems “to indicate any distinction between teaching and ruling elders.” Referring to 1 Timothy 5:17, he stated, “that if such a distinction really existed, it is strange that it crops up in no part of the New Testament except this solitary passage.”
Again referring to 1 Timothy 5:17, he maintained that “there is nothing in the language used to indicate that an elder had no right to take part in any other department of the work if he pleased.” In Witherow’s opinion, the words “rather seem to imply that if an elder wrought in both departments of the work, and did well in both, he was specially deserving of double honour.”
“To limit one class of elders to government, and to deny their right to give public instruction, is inconsistent with the qualification, ‘apt to teach’.”
As regards Hodge and Smyth, Witherow’s chief line of opposition lay in the fact that if passages such as 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 were considered to be only referable to ministers, then, Where in the Scriptures did one find clear and unambiguous approval for the office of ruling elder? In furtherance of this argument, Witherow warned:

“The introduction into the church constitution of an official who can plead no warrant for his office from the Scripture, opens a wide door for the creation of other offices, as expediency may suggest or human wisdom may determine.”

He acknowledged that changed circumstances in the church from the time of the apostles, may necessitate change in the manner in which the office functioned. Nonetheless, as a principle, he contended that there was no difference between the offices. He drew this conclusion:

“So a member of the eldership ought not to have his tongue tied by legislation. It should be left to his own good sense when to speak and when to be silent. Even if he were sometimes to speak weakly and out of season, greater calamities might happen.”[30]

The Competing Views

As is evident from the views of Hodge, Thornwell and Witherow there have been essentially three views of the eldership propounded within the Presbyterian tradition.[31]

1. A two office view in which the minister is distinguished from lay ruling officers. As we have noted, proponents of this view such as Hodge and Smyth maintained that the references to elders (presbuteroi) or bishops (episcopoi) in the New Testament applied only to ministers and not to ruling elders.[32]

This view contends that the New Testament requires that all those who are designated elders must be preachers of the Word. Accordingly, the office of elder does not include those who only rule in the affairs of the Church. The term ruling elders according to this view is strictly speaking a misnomer. No one, they say, should be designated an elder or presbyter who is not called to preach. Consequently, they reject the idea that passages such as view 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 refer to ruling elders.

The view also recognises that there are those who are called to govern or rule in the Church. However, the scriptural basis for such an office is said to be found in texts which speak generally of rule or government, such as Romans 12:8 and 1 Corinthians 12:28.

2. A one office, two aspects view which contends that the New Testament office of elder is one office, but that it contains within it two aspects; rule or oversight and the preaching of the Word.[33] According to this view, all elders participate and contribute to the rule, government and oversight of the Church. However, there are those elders who not only rule, but who also labour in the Word and doctrine, in other words, who preach. These officers receive the titles “minister”, “pastor” or “teaching elder”, while those who rule only are styled ruling elders.

This view draws a clear distinction between the two aspects of the office, so that those who are only called to rule do not preach the Word, though they are required to be apt to teach. The distinction between the elder who rules and the elder who not only rules, but also preaches is not founded on pragmatic grounds, but is said to be based upon divine institution. Under this view, there is a parity of authority or rule amongst the eldership, but not a parity of function.

The proponents of this view which as we have observed included Thornwell, Dabney and Breckinridge maintained that the reference to elders in the New Testament applied to all elders, both ruling and teaching. Hence, they regarded the passages in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 as being applicable to all elders.

3. A one office view which also asserts that there is only one office of elder found in the New Testament. However, it differs from the one office, two aspects view in that it makes no distinction between teaching and ruling elders. All elders are viewed as having the same functions. Admittedly, some elders elect not to undertake the exposition of the Word and public preaching, but this is by choice on the part of the individual elder and not by design or compulsion. It contends that such a choice is made by some elders because they recognise that other elders have superior gifts as regards preaching. This was Witherow’s view.

At this juncture, it is appropriate to note that the first two views have received considerable support within Presbyterian circles. The latter view appears never to have been adopted formally by any Presbyterian Church. Both the one office, two aspects view and the two office view acknowledge that there is scriptural warrant for distinct Church officers whose principle and indeed sole function is to rule.[34] Furthermore, both views recognise that there are Church officers whose primary calling is to teach and preach, but who also exercise rule within the Church.

It is interesting to observe that the debate over the office of ruling elder appears to have been confined to the Presbyterian tradition. Those of the continental Reformed tradition do not appear to have been disturbed by the issue. If one were to identify the line within which the continental Reformed tradition were to fall, it would be the one office, two aspects view. For example, Johannes Heidegger writes:

From pastors or teaching elders are to be distinguished non-teaching but ruling elders. Their institution is divine, because if by Christ’s precept one or two more prudent men may be summoned to confute a sinning brother, Mt. 18.16, rulers may also be appointed by the Church and when appointed according to Christ’s precept may be called, approached by the Church and may maintain discipline communi – Above all St. Paul says eloquently that “presbyters who do well are given double honour, particularly those who labour in preaching and doctrine” 1Tim. 5.17.Therefore, some labour in preaching and doctrine, others do not.[35]

This same position is reflected by Herman Hoeksema who writes, “It is evident from Scripture that the office of the ministry of the Word arose out of that of elder. Evidently some elders devoted themselves more particularly to the work of the Ministry of the Word of God.”[36] He then proceeds to cite 1 Timothy 5:17 in support of that proposition.

Gerard Berghoef and Lester De Koster who are from that same tradition, when examining the development of the office of the ruling elder in Scripture state:

The Church now receives inspired instruction concerning the office of the elder. In both his First Letter to Timothy ( 3:2-7) and in his letter to Titus ( 1:5-9) Paul spells out the tasks and qualifications for eldership, while in his farewell address to the elders of Ephesus ( Acts 20:28-31) he establishes their authority and responsibilities – a pattern upon which this book is based.[37]

Having summarised the various views, we now turn our attention to the question as to which view can be said to stand in the main stream of Presbyterian thought. The proponents of at least the one office, two aspects view and the two office view claim that they represent the historic Presbyterian position. For example, Iain Murray, a supporter of the two office view, asserts that “Presbyterianism, traditionally, had seen elders and ministers as two distinct and separate classes.”[38] Furthermore, he contends that the two office view is supported by the Westminster Divines.[39] He highlights his views, when, in response to his own question of how is the work of those who govern in the Church to be justified, if the New Testament title of elder does not strictly belong to them, he refers to the Form of Presbyterial Church Government and quotes the section concerning ‘church governors’ which we noted earlier. Murray concludes:….

“My personal opinion is that the one office, two classes, theory of eldership has often found acceptance among us because we assumed it was the position biblically established by the Westminster Assembly. The truth is that the assumption is wrong.”[40]

Similarly, Leonard Coppes asserts that the two office view is:

. . . the one that has been held nearly unanimously throughout the history of the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches. . . The Westminster Standards clearly present this view. . . . The Form of Presbyterial Church Government approved by the Westminster Assembly also makes it quite clear that the framers of these documents distinguished the teaching elder or minister from the ruling elder. First, it distinguished the extraordinary or temporary offices from the ordinary or perpetual officers. It specifically lists ministers, elders, and deacons as the ordinary and perpetual officers of the Church. Furthermore, it clearly speaks of the minister of the Word as one office (which may be further divided into Pastor and teacher) distinct from that of ruling elder.”[41]

However, others differ in their assessment as to the true historic position. John Macpherson, although not an advocate of the two office view, writes:

The old Presbyterian theory maintained by Calvin, Gillespie, and others, rests largely upon that interpretation of 1 Tim. v. 17 which regards that passage as referring to a distinction of offices formally recognised in Apostolic times. It is generally admitted that so great a conclusion cannot safely be built upon a single passage, seeing that no trace can be found elsewhere in the New Testament of rulers and teachers recognised as distinct orders of church officers. We find no restriction placed upon ruling elders. They were not appointed as rulers to the exclusion of the exercise of their teaching gifts, but to the exercise of them in their office if they possessed them.[42]

Even in more recent times, Sherman Isibell has asserted:

The older position, represented, for example by Gillespie’s Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland (1641), is that there is a biblical distinction between the rule committed to all Presbyters, and certain executive functions carried out on behalf of the Presbytery. The imposition of hands is an executive function, and such executive functions like the administration of the sacraments, the preaching of God’s word to his people and the pronouncement of admonition and censures on behalf of church courts, belong exclusively to the minister of the word, for he is a messenger and herald between God and the people.[43]

Well, is it possible to identify an historic Presbyterian position? It is possible, and that view, notwithstanding the apparent leanings of the Form of Presbyterial Church Government to the two office view, accords with the one office, two aspects view.

In 1560, John Knox and others were requested by the Church of Scotland to compile the First Book of Discipline. There, the subject of Church officers was addressed in the following terms:

“Men of best knowledge in God’s word, and cleanest life, men faithful, and of most honest conversation that can be found in the kirk, must be nominate to be in election, and their names must be publicly read to the whole kirk by the minister; giving them advertisement, that from amongst them must be chosen elders and deacons. . . . The elders being elected, must be admonished of their office, which is to assist the ministers in all public affairs of the kirk; viz. in determining and judging causes, in giving admonition to the licentious liver, in having respect to the manners and conversation of all men within their charge.”

It would appear that the First Book of Discipline leans towards either the two office view or the one office, two aspect view, given the apparent distinction between the minister and the elders.

In 1578, the Church of Scotland adopted Andrew Melville’s Second Book of Discipline.[44] In chapter 6 which deals with the office of ruling elder we read:

“The word elder, in the Scripture, sometimes is the name of age, sometimes of office. When it is the name of any office, sometimes it is taken largely, comprehending as well the Pastors and doctors, as them who are called seniors or elders. In this our division, we call these elders whom the apostles call presidents or governors. Their office as it is ordinary, so it is perpetual, and always necessary in the kirk of God. The eldership is a spiritual function as is the ministry. . . . It is not necessary that all elders be also teachers of the word, albeit the chief ought to be such; and so are worthy of double honour. What manner of persons they ought to be, we refer to the express word, and namely, to the canons written by the apostle Paul. Their office is, as well severally as conjunctly, to watch diligently over the flock committed to their charge, both publicly and privately, that no corruption of religion or manners enter therein. As the Pastors and doctors should be diligent in teaching and sowing the feed of the word, so the elders should be careful in seeking after the fruit of the same in the people. . . . Their principal office is, to hold assemblies with the Pastors and doctors, who are also of their number, for establishing of good order, and execution of discipline; unto the which assemblies all persons are subject that remain within their bounds.”

The Second Book of Discipline appears to indicate that the offices of ruling and teaching elder represent differing functions of the same office. It also suggests a parity of order and authority, yet a distinction of function. That same idea is found in Chapter 7 which deals with “Elderships, Assemblies, and Discipline.” There we read, “Elderships and assemblies are commonly constitute of Pastors, doctors, and such as we commonly call elders, that labour not in the word and doctrine.”

Clearly, an argument could be mounted to assert that the Second Book of Discipline supports the one office, two aspects view.

Turning to the Form of Presbyterial Church Government. As noted earlier, the Form of Presbyterial Church Government has been appealed to particularly by the proponents of the two office view. The reason for this was the decision by the Assembly not to utilise the term “elder”, coupled with the absence of the passages in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 as proof texts for the office of church governor.

While those features appear to be conclusive that the Assembly had the two office view in mind, it would be a mistake to jump too quickly to that conclusion.

The discussion of this matter in the Assembly commenced with consideration of a proposition suggested by one of the Assemblies committees, namely “that besides those presbyters which rule well and labour in the word and doctrine, there be other presbyters, who especially apply themselves to ruling, though they do not labour in the word and doctrine.”[45] It should be remembered that the Assembly consisted of delegates who held radically different views on church government. The Assembly contained Erastians, Episcopalians, Independents and Presbyterians. Not surprisingly, the subject of church government proved to be the most controversial issue debated in the Assembly.

The debate took the form of a discussion of the texts which had been offered by way of proof for the proposition. The first to be considered was 1 Timothy 5:17. Differing views were expressed as to the meaning of this text. The debate on this and related texts continued for over a week, until it was agreed that the matter be referred to a committee which was given the mandate to draw up a statement reflecting those matters in which the parties were agreed, “with the view of arriving at some fair accommodation.”[46]

The report submitted by the committee contained three propositions which met with the approval of virtually all concerned:

Christ hath instituted a government and governors ecclesiastical in the church.
Christ hath furnished some in the church with gifts for government, and with commission to exercise the same, when called thereto.

It is agreeable to and warranted by the word of God, that some others beside the ministers of the word or church governors should join with the ministers in the government of the church. Rom. xii. 7, 8, and 1 Cor. xii. 28.[47]
After further debate all three propositions were carried. However, what was achieved was, without doubt, a compromise. Alexander Mitchell offers these observations:

My opinion is that the utmost that the Assembly at this stage of its proceedings could be got to formulate was, that the office of elder was scripturally warrantable, not that it had been expressly instituted as an office that was to be perpetual and universal obligation in the church like the ministry.”[48] He continues:

The texts adduced in proof of this proposition from the New Testament were Romans xii. 7, and 1st Corinthians xii. 28. But neither proof text was held by many of them to amount to a positive and distinct divine institution of this office. The text, which was appealed to throughout by the more zealous defenders of the divine institution of the office, was 1st Timothy v. 17, and had they got that inserted among the proof texts they would have gained their case beyond dispute. On the other hand, I do not regard the common Presbyterian interpretation of that text as having been positively rejected by the Assembly at this date . . .”[49]

The compromise was reached not because the Presbyterians did not hold a majority in the Assembly, but rather to accommodate “many influential and highly respected ministers in the Assembly.”[50] Therefore, it is inaccurate to assert that the Form of Presbyterial Church Government reflects fully the historic Presbyterian position. It only does so to a certain extent. The writings of the Scottish Commissioners to the Assembly make it plain that they favoured the one office, two aspects view. For example, George Gillespie, writes:

“. . . the apostles left only two sacred orders to be perpetual in the Church, the order of deacons and the order of elders. . . . Now, elders are of three sorts: 1. Preaching elders, or Pastors; 2. Teaching elders or doctors; 3. Ruling elders. All these are elders, because they have voice in Presbyteries, and all assemblies of the Church, and the government of the Church is incumbent to them all . . .”[51]

Analysis of the Views

In seeking to analyse the various views, it is evident that there are some difficulties which need to be confronted.

In the case of the one office, two aspects view, its critics maintain that “its most serious weakness lies in its ability to offer only one proof text to support a division of function.”[52] The text in question is 1 Timothy 5:17 which the King James version translates, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.” Literally the text reads, “Let the presbyters the having presided well ones be judged worthy of double honour, especially the labouring with wearisome effort in word and teaching ones.”

Exegetes have found it difficult to settle on the meaning of this text. Certainly, Witherow found it a confusing text. In 1856, in support of the eldership being divided into the office of ruling elder and teaching elder, he asserted, perhaps too boldly from his perspective, “Any unprejudiced person may see from 1 Timothy 5:17, that the office of the eldership divided itself into two great departments of duty in primitive times, even as at the present.”[53] However, in 1873, writing again on the same subject his view of the text had undergone a significant metamorphosis. Things had now become clearer to him.

“To us it seems clear that the whole theory rests on a misconception of the force of the passage, 1 Timothy 5:17, and therefore cannot be any real justification for the difference that actually exists between the ruling elder and the minister.”[54]

The interpretation of this verse has varied widely, with interpretations at times seeming to be determined by the view that the author takes on the office of the ruling elder.

Some have contended that the emphasis is to be laid on the word “labouring.” According to this view, all elders are required to teach, and in that regard reliance is placed upon the qualifications of elders in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:9 and particularly the requirement that an elder be “apt to teach”; while those worthy of special honour were those who had distinguished themselves by laborious application to their duty to proclaim the Word of God.[55]

It is a feature of this interpretation that the qualification of being “apt to teach” is equated to being apt to preach. However, that does not necessarily follow. John Brown commenting on 1 Timothy 3:2 and in particular the requirement that a bishop be “apt to teach” says:

“All that is asserted in it appears simply to be this, that an elder, or bishop, should be fitted to teach, according to the station which he holds in the church. The preaching elder should be qualified to preach publicly, according to the nature of his function; and the ruling elder should be qualified to teach, and admonish, and counsel privately, according to the particular nature of his office. But because an elder, or bishop should be apt to teach, according to the particular nature of his office, can it fairly be inferred that none are to be elders but those who are qualified to be preachers of the gospel? If it is still contended, that all elders of the church of Ephesus are commanded by Paul ( Acts xx. 28) to feed the church, they must all have been ministers of the word, because it is the province of the minister, and not of the ruling elder, to feed the church?”[56]

Others have suggested that the better view is that within the Church at Ephesus there were a number of elders, some of whom had the gift of teaching more eminently than others. Here the emphasis is not laid upon the labouring, but upon the distinction implied between those who ruled only and those who also taught. John Murray adopts that approach:

“‘Word and doctrine’ may properly be construed as preaching and teaching. Though it is necessary for all elders to hold fast the faithful word, so as to be able to exhort in sound doctrine and refute gainsayers, though all must be competent to teach, yet not all labour in preaching and teaching. On the other hand, there are those who do. . . . those labouring in word and doctrine are classified as elders who, in addition to ruling, devote themselves to the preaching and teaching of the Word of God and, are thus in a special way accounted worthy of the compensation which their labour warrants.”[57]

Speaking of this text, Thornwell wrote:

From this passage it would also appear to have been the custom of the apostolic church to select the preachers from the class of elders. Instead of making an additional order in the Church, the Apostles, it would seem, in the permanent arrangement of its constitution, required those who were to labor in the Word and in doctrine to be also strictly and properly Presbyters.”[58]

This was also essentially the view that found favour with John Calvin. Calvin wrote:

We may learn from this, that there were at that time two kinds of elders; for all were not ordained to teach. The words plainly mean, that there were some who “ruled well” and honourably, but who did not hold the office of teachers. And, indeed, there were chosen from among the people men of worth and of good character, who, united with the Pastors in a common council and authority, administered the discipline of the Church, and were a kind of censors for the correction of morals.”[59]

Not surprisingly, Thomas Smyth approached the text in a different way. He suggested that prostotes translated “rule” in the King James version, denoted not ruling elders, but the president, moderator or superintendent of the presbytery who was preeminently the Pastor or preacher of the Church. Therefore, he concluded that 1 Timothy 5:17 did not refer to two kinds of elders, but to the peculiar duties to which elders were assigned in the apostolic and primitive churches. In particular, he relied upon the presbyter who was set over the local Church, and who in addition to that task, in a self denying and laborious manner performed the work of an evangelist in the surrounding country. The one who not only presided over the Presbytery, but who also fulfilled the function of the evangelist, was the one who was worthy of double honour.[60]

Peter Campbell also dealt at length with the meaning of this text. His explanation of 1 Timothy 5:17 proceeds along these lines. He suggests that all who were qualified and ordained to be placed in charge of the early churches, were not alike endowed with gifts for public instruction and exhortation. Indeed, he concedes that there may have been some who did not preach at all. However, this he contends was a provisional state of things, which it was not intended should continue. Rather the intent was that preparation must be made in order that the presbyters were to be the stated and constant instructors of the flock and in respect of whom there was to be no formal distinction; all must be didaetikos “apt to teach”. He highlights the fact that the Scriptures make clear that all presbyters must be those who are apt to teach. From that he argues that all elders must be preachers of the Word.

He dismisses out of hand any suggestion that some elders may meet the Scriptural requirement of being apt to teach, in that they are to be able to privately instruct and exhort.

To meet this plain injunction with the assertion that those elders who are appointed to rule, and not to teach, who are selected without the slightest reference to capacity for teaching, are nevertheless didaetikos, in the sense of being qualified to exhort privately, is an evasion which it is painful even to notice.”[61]

Consequently, he argues that if lay rulers are indeed elders but do not preach, they ought not to be because they do not meet the scriptural criteria of being apt to teach.

He contends that in 1 Timothy 5:17 Paul was not seeking to establish a permanent office of elder in which some ruled, but did not preach. Rather, he asserts that the exact opposite was the case. Campbell opines that Paul’s purpose was to bring about a different state of things. This he sought to achieve by securing double honour to those elders who laboured in the Word and doctrine, thereby seeking to hasten the time when all elders would take up their responsibilities and be engaged in teaching. He cites in support of his view Campegius Vitringa who writes:

St. Paul, therefore, does not in this place refuse to any presbyters the right of teaching. He merely supposes that some do not teach. He wishes, however, that all should teach; nay, he stimulates and exhorts all to do so, when he declares those who teach to be worthy of double honour.”[62]

Iain Murray contends that the text can be translated, “All elders who do well as leaders are worthy of double honour, especially those who are painstaking in preaching who toil unweariedly in the word and teaching.” He suggests that translated in this way, the distinction is not between elders who only rule and others who preach, but rather that it “simply urges special commendation and support for those who are outstanding in their efforts in the preacher’s calling.”[63] That being the case, he asserts, that the text gives no leave to some elders not to preach at all.

Murray goes on to suggest that the case for 1 Timothy 5:17 not being referable to two classes of elders is strengthened by what appears in chapter 3 of the same epistle. He points out that there is no hint at all in the third chapter that Paul envisages two classes of elder. On the contrary, says Murray, aptness to teach is set out as a qualification for the office. The inference, he maintains, is that men who do not possess that ability are not to be made elders.

There are a number of weaknesses evident in Murray’s analysis and some of them are reflected in the views of Smyth and Campbell.

Murray’s initial contention that the text could be referable to a distinction between those who are outstanding in their efforts in the preacher’s calling is at least arguable, though certainly not unassailable.

The following observations while directed to Murray’s treatment of 1 Timothy 5:17 are also germane to the reason why the one office and two office views should be rejected.

1. The fact that 1 Timothy 3 makes no reference to a division of functions between elders does not lend any support to the view which Murray advocates for 1 Timothy 5:17. In 1 Timothy 3, the apostle sets out the qualifications for those who desire oversight in the church. Literality the text reads, “If anyone aspires to oversight (episcopos), he desires a good work.” Consequently, it is not surprising that in what follows the apostle sets out what is required of those who are to have oversight in the church. This is made clear by verse 2 which commences, “Therefore, it behoves the overseer (episcopos) to be without reproach . . .”

2. In that same vein, it is a mistake to equate the idea of being apt to teach with the office of the ministry to the exclusion of the office of the ruling elder. It seems to be thought that those who rule in the church do not need the ability to teach. If, as we have noted the passage in 1 Timothy 3 concerns those who aspire to oversight in the congregation, then when the apostle states that they must be apt to teach it is obviously a requirement which applies to those who are to exercise oversight in the church. The requirement pertains to oversight. It is not a requirement that is peculiar to the ministry of the Word. Murray is absolutely correct when he says that every elder must have an ability to teach, but that is not because he must preach the Word. Rather, it is required for oversight in the church. It is the means by which elders exercise oversight; they do not exercise oversight by coercive power, but by being able to exhort and to teach the members of the congregation.

3. There is a third and extremely significant point that needs to be drawn out of the passage in 1 Timothy 3. Why does Paul write about these things to Timothy? We are told the reason in 1 Timothy 3:14, 15. He says that he writes these things, “that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thy self in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” As that same passage indicates, Paul is writing because his return to Ephesus has been delayed. Therefore, he writes to Timothy who is a young pastor to provide him with information necessary to enable the church in Ephesus to function in accordance with the will of God.

In chapters 2 and 3 of 1 Timothy, Paul instructs Timothy concerning aspects of the church institute; public prayer, the role of women in the public worship of God and then he moves naturally on to address the qualifications of those who are to be overseers and deacons in the church. Now what is extraordinary is this. It is conceded by all, that the office of ruling elder or whatever title one desires to append to that office, is by divine institution. All acknowledge that it is an important office within the church. Why then would Paul, who is writing to Timothy in order to instruct him as to how he is to behave himself in the church of God, only instruct him about bishops or overseers? If Hodge and Murray are correct, Paul only instructs Timothy about the ministers of the Word? But the context is dealing with those who are to exercise oversight and rule, functions with which ruling elders ought to be concerned.

Furthermore, why would he take the time to instruct him on the qualifications for the office of deacon, but neglect to instruct him on the office of the ruling elder? This is incongruous. It defies explanation and indeed, if the interpretation placed upon the text by Murray and Hodge is correct, one might think that Paul was negligent in his instruction of Timothy. On their view of this text, he neglects to instruct him concerning the office whose principal function is to exercise rule in the congregation. None of this makes any sense.

However, what does fit with the context is the view expounded by Thornwell and Dabney, namely, that in this passage Paul is dealing in a generic way with the office of elder and so his comments are applicable to all those who rule in the church, both the teaching and ruling elders.

Similar observations can be made as regards the passage in Titus 1. There Paul is also writing to Titus a young minister whom he has left in Crete for the purpose that he “should set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders (presbuteros) in every city.”[64] Paul commences in verse 6 to set down the qualifications for those who are to occupy the office of elder. However, notice that in verse 7 of the same chapter, he switches from presbuteros to episcopos. Evidently, presbuteros and episcopos refer to the same office, though they accentuate a different aspect of that office; episcopos referring to the function of the office, namely oversight, while presbuteros refers to age and hence the dignity of the office.

As with the passage in 1 Timothy 3, the aspect of rule or oversight is on the foreground. However, if Hodge and Murray are correct, then Paul, while seeking to assist Titus to set things in order in these new congregations, informs him about the qualifications of the minister, but neglects to tell him about those who are to exercise rule with him in the congregation. Such a view of the passage is untenable.

The only sensible conclusion that can be reached is that both the passages in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 refer to both ruling and teaching elders. If that be the case, then Hodge’s contention that all references to elders in the New Testament are to ministers, is destroyed. In addition this weakens severely Murray’s argument that 1 Timothy 5:17 does not refer to both the teaching and ruling elder. In light of the above, much of the support which Murray sought to utilise to deny that 1 Timothy 5:17 relates to both ruling elders and teaching elders is removed.

If 1 Timothy 3 refers to both the teaching and ruling elder, the normal rules of interpretation would demand that when Paul again refers to elders in 1 Timothy 5:17, he should be taken to be referring to both ruling and teaching elders, unless the context dictates otherwise. The context gives no indication that the elders referred to in 1 Timothy 5:17 differ in any way from those referred to in 1 Timothy 3.

One other observation is worthy of our attention. There was a plurality of elders ordained in every Church. This is significant in the context of the eldership debate. If there had been a plurality of elders appointed only in some of the more populous cities, where there were probably several congregations, one could well understand why it would have been necessary to have more than a single preacher. However, it is not only in such congregations that a plurality of elders were appointed. It was done in every Church, some of which were relatively small and financially weak. It is difficult to reconcile this with the two office view, that all elders in the apostolic Church, were preachers of the Word.

Both the direction and the practice was to ordain elders, that is more than one, in every Church, small as well as great. Therefore, there is a strong presumption that it was intended to conform to the Synagogue model; and if that be the case then all the elders were not required for the purpose of public instruction; rather some were rulers, who, as in the Synagogue, formed a bench of elders for the government of the Church.[65]

Another potential problem with the two office view is that it destroys parity between the teaching elder and the ruling elder. Under that view, there are two distinct offices each carrying with it differing responsibilities. The existence of two distinct offices does not suggest parity.

It is also relevant to note the comments of William Heyns regarding the views of Hodge as they touch upon another weakness in his approach to this issue. Referring to the distinction made by Charles Hodge between ministers and elders in the sense that the former belong to the “clergy” but that the latter are “laymen,” Heyns, asserts that ministers cannot represent the people, but the elders, being laymen, belong to the people and can represent them. This, however, is virtually a denial of the general priesthood of the believers, and is in accordance with the Roman Catholic doctrine of two separate classes in the Church: the superior class of the “clerici” and the inferior class of the “laici,” the people. In this sense, the terms “clergy” and “laymen” are entirely out of harmony with the Reformed doctrine of the Church.[66]

In conclusion it should also be noted that the one office view is open to significant criticism. Firstly, it has no scriptural warrant. Furthermore, it denies effectively that there is a specific call to the gospel ministry which is contrary to the teachings of Scripture.[67] The idea that men are invested with office, but have no responsibility to discharge the functions of their office is anathema to the Scriptures. When men are called to an office, it is not sufficient for them to fulfil only one part of that office and to lay other aspects of it aside.


All of the divergent views on the office of the ruling elder have one thing in common and that is that they acknowledge that Scriptures require the appointment of those who are to rule and exercise oversight in the congregation. However, plotting a clear course through the various views is not easy. To suggest that these issues are unimportant or irrelevant, underestimates the complexity and importance of the matter. Even men of considerable talent have found the exercise a challenge. William Cunningham was well versed in Presbyterian Church polity, but even he found this issue intellectually challenging. He corresponded with Hodge over the scriptural basis for the ruling elder and in doing made this acknowledgment:

“I have never been able to make up my mind fully as to the precise grounds on which the office and functions of the ruling elder ought to be maintained and defended. For some time before I went to America I had come to lean pretty strongly to the view that all ecclesiastical office-bearers were presbyters, and that there were sufficiently clear indications in Scripture that there were two distinct classes of those presbyters, viz. ministers and ruling elders; though not insensible to the difficulty attaching to this theory from the consideration that it fairly implies that whenever presbyters or bishops are spoken of in Scripture ruling elders are also included. I have been a good deal shaken in my attachment to this theory by the views I have heard from you, but I have not yet been able to abandon it entirely.”[68]

Notwithstanding the difficulty highlighted by Cunningham, the view which accords best with the Scriptures and with the Confessional standards is the one office, two aspect view. In many respects this could be considered a two office view, though not on the basis as maintained by Hodge and Smyth.

It is not surprising that the one office view has never enjoyed any significant support due to its lack of clarity and certainty as regards the functioning of the church. God is not a God of disorder which is where the one office view leads.

The weaknesses of the two office view as propounded by Hodge were significant. Despite his assertion to the contrary, Hodge’s reference to ruling elders as lay elders and indeed some of the decisions taken by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States during his lifetime, provide evidence that the two office view contains within it, seeds which lead to the diminution, if not the destruction, of the office of the ruling elder.

In light of the debates over the ruling elder, all churches which hold to the Reformed and Presbyterian views of church government should learn to value the office of the ruling elder. It provides stability to church government and affords the believer the opportunity to participate in the government of the church.

It would be a significant mistake to think that these issues have passed into oblivion. Such is not the case. There are many in the professing church world who would be happy to see the demise of the ruling elder. This is evidenced by the experiences encountered by Mark Brown in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He writes:

To recognise distinctions in calling and functions between the pastor and other elders was seen by them as evidence of clericalism, hierarchy, and arrogance. For example, the dissident elders were offended when I would encourage young men to consider a call to the ministry. To them this was a put down. They felt I was falsely assuming ministerial prerogatives to myself. They wanted a rotating pulpit, the right to baptise and administer communion on the basis of their calling as elders.”[69]

Mark Shand – student for the ministry
The Evangelical Presbyterian
Volume 15, January 2000 & Volume 16, July 2000

1. Those who undertake the work of pastors or ministers have also been styled teaching elders, though that is not a term which has been universally accepted.
2. For example, T F Torrance maintains that Presbyterians have accepted the use of the term “elder” to refer to those who rule in the church, knowing that if the searchlight of the New Testament were focused upon this issue, “there is no evidence that can stand up to objective criticism for the title ‘elder’ used in our way.” The Eldership in the Reformed Church (Hansel Press, Edinburgh, 1984), p. 8.
3. For ease of reference, the title “ruling elder” will be treated as being synonymous with that of “church governor.” The designation “church governors” had almost been abandoned in Presbyterian circles by the 19th century.
4. Samuel Miller, An Essay on the Warrant, Nature and Duties of the Office of the Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church (Presbyterian Heritage Publications, Dallas, Texas, 1987), p. 28.
5. Ibid., p. 246.
6. Thomas Smyth, “Theories of the Eldership” The Princeton Review (April, 1860), pp. 185, 186.
7. James H Thornwell, The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, Vol. 4, (The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1974), p. 229.
8. Ibid., p. 228.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid., p. 264.
11. Ibid., p. 291.
12. Samuel Baird, ed. A Collection of Acts and Deliverances, and Testimonies of the Supreme Judicatory of the Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1856), p. 43.
13. Interestingly, Hodge acknowledged only “the parity of the clergy.” Cf. Charles Hodge, Discussions in Church Polity (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1878), p. 119.
14. Thornwell, Op. cit., Vol. 4, p. 581.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid., p. 626.
17. Ibid., p. 626, 627.
18. Ibid., p. 627.
19. Ibid., p. 628. While Hodge is correct when he indicates that the difference between himself and Dr. Miller concerned the scriptural proof for the office of ruling elder, it is difficult to describe that difference as being insignificant because as we have noted Miller relied on passages such as 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, whereas Hodge denied that those passages had anything to do with the office of ruling elder, yet those texts lay at the centre of the dispute.
20. Ibid., p. 114.
21. Cf. Robert L Dabney, Discussions: Evangelical and Theological (The Banner of Truth Trust, London, 1967), p. 126.
22. Mark R Brown ed. Order in the Offices: Essays Defining the Roles of Church Officers (Classic Presbyterian Government Resources, Virginia, 1993), pp. 81, 82.
23. Ibid, p. 84.
24. Ibid.
25. Ibid.
26. Acts 20:28
27. Thomas Witherow, The Apostolic Church Which is it? (Morrison & Gibb Limited, London & Edinburgh, 1954), pp. 74, 75.
28. Ibid., p. 67.
29. Ibid., pp. 67, 68.
30. Thomas Witherow, “The New Testament Elder” British and Foreign Evangelical Review 1873 (J Nisbet, Edinburgh, 1873), p. 227.
31. Cf. Iain Murray, “The Problem of the Eldership and its Wider Implications” The Banner of Truth August-September 1996, Number 395-6, p. 38; John Macpherson, Presbyterianism (T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1949), pp. 47-49. One of the problems associated with the debate is the difference in terminology which is utilised to categorise the differing views. The difficulties can be demonstrated amply by comparing those employed by Leonard J Coppes “Three New Testament Offices”, (Brown, Op. cit., pp. 203, 204), with those adopted by Iain Murray. Murray identifies three principle views in similar terms to those identified in this paper. Coppes also identifies three views, however, they do not coincide in all respects with those employed by Murray. Coppes refers to three positions which he styles as “the three office position”, “the two office position” and “the two and one half office view” respectively. He defines his views as follows:
The three office view sees three ordinary offices in the New Testament: teaching elder, ruling elder, and deacon. The two kinds of elder are both viewed as elders; i.e., both classes of elder rule over the Church and hence sit on the ruling body.
For the two office position there are but the elder and the deacon. All elders are the same in function. The functions are to be equally shared.
The two and one half view is an effort to retain a practical distinction between the teacher and the ruler, while maintaining a theological and exegetical identification of the two. To hold this position, all elders may engage in all the activities of the eldership. They may all conduct worship (including the preaching) and administer the sacraments – i.e., all are the same theologically. Practically, however, since it is desirable to have only the best teaching coming from the pulpit, the one (or ones) who teaches ought to be trained and examined before he assumes the position of the regular teacher of the congregation.
Clearly, Coppes’ “two office” position which one may have thought would correspond with the view of Witherow does not do so. Instead, he calls that view a two and one half office view. Obviously, care is needed in identifying what is meant by the various terms which are employed.
32. This position is often referred to as “the three office view” referring to the offices of teaching elder, ruling elder and deacon. The description “two office view” will be employed in this paper.
33. This position is sometimes referred to as “the two office view” referring to the offices of elder and deacon. However, the description “one office, two aspects view” will be utilised in this paper.
34. This does not mean that they are not to be “apt to teach” as required by 1 Timothy 3:2, but rather that they are to rule by means of their teaching.
35. Heinrich Heppe. Reformed Dogmatics (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1978), p. 681.
36. Herman Hoeksema. Reformed Dogmatics (Reformed Free Publishing Association, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1985), p. 628.
37. Gerard Berghoef & Lester De Koster, The Elders Handbook: A Practical Guide for Church Leaders Christian’s Library Press, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1979), p. 226.
38. Iain Murray, “Ruling Elders – A Sketch of a Controversy” Brown, Op. cit., p. 159.
39. Murray, “The Problem of the ‘Eldership’ and its Wider Implications”, pp. 39, 40.
40. Ibid., p. 43.
41. Brown, Op. cit., p. 205.
42. Macpherson, Op. cit., p. 47.
43. Sherman Isibell, “Book Reviews” The Presbyterian Reformed Magazine Vol. X, No 1, p. 38.
44. The Second Book of Discipline was approved by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1578. From that time onwards, it became the authorised standard of the Church of Scotland in respect of government and discipline
45. William M Hetherington, History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines (Still Waters Revival Books, Edmonton, Canada, 1991), p. 164.
46. Ibid., p. 165.
47. Ibid., p. 165.
48. Alexander F Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly: Its History and Standards (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath School Work, 1897), p.194.
49. Ibid., pp. 195, 196.
50. John de Witt, Jus Divinum: The Westminster Assembly and the Divine Right of Church Government (J. H. Kok N. V. Kampen, 1969), p. 85.
51. George Gillespie, Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland Vol 1, Chapt. 2, p. 11.
52. Murray, “The Problem of the ‘Eldership’ and its Wider Implications” p. 41.
53. Witherow, The Apostolic Church p. 68.
54. Thomas Witherow, The New Testament Elder (British and Foreign Evangelical Review, J Nisbet: Edinburgh, 1873), p. 216.
55. Macpherson, Op. cit., pp. 40, 41.
56. John Brown, Vindication of the Presbyterian Form of Church Government as Professed in the Standards of the Church of Scotland, (Edinburgh: H Inglis, 1805), pp. 186, 187.
57. John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray (The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1977), Vol. 2, p. 360.
58. Ibid., p. 119.
59. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to Timothy, Titus and Philemon (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan), pp. 138, 139.
60. Thomas Smyth, Complete Works of Rev Thomas Smyth ed. J W Flinn, (Columbia, S.C: R LBryan, 1912), Vol. 4, p. 54.
61. Brown, Op. cit., p. 88
62. Ibid., p. 89.
63. Ibid., p. 42.
64. Titus 1:5
65. Miller, Op. cit., p 53.
66. William Heyns, Handbook for Elders and Deacons: The Nature and the Duties of the Offices According to the Principles of Reformed Church Polity (Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1928), pp. 15, 16.
67. 1 Corinthians 9:16-17; Acts 26:15-20; Romans 10:15; Colossians 4:17.
68. Life of Charles Hodge (T Nelson: London, 1881), p. 425.
69. Iain Murray, “The Problem of the ‘Eldership’ and its Wider Implications” The Banner of Truth, Number 395-396, August-September 1996, p. 38.39


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