guidance of the Apostles, officers called elders and deacons were appointed in every newly-formed church. They were elected by New Testament Authority. the people, and ordained or set apart for their sacred work by the Apostles. The elders were appointed to teach and rule; the deacons to minister to the poor. There were elders in the church at Jerusalem, and in the church at Ephesus; Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the cities of Lycaonia and Pisidia; Paul left Titus in Crete to appoint elders in every city; the elders amongst the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia received a special exhortation by Peter. These elders were rulers, and the only rulers in the New Testament Church. Just as in the synagogue there was a plurality of rulers called elders, so there was in every Christian church a plurality of elders. The elders were different from the deacons, but there is no indication that any one elder was of higher rank than the others. The elder was not an officer inferior and subordinate to the bishop. The elder was a bishop. The two titles are applied to the same persons. See Acts xx. 17, 28; “he sent and called for the elders of the church. . . . Take heed to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made you bishops.” See also Titus i. 5, 6: “ordain elders . . . for a bishop must be blameless.” This is now admitted by modern expositors. The elders were chosen by the people. This is not expressly stated in the New Testament but is regarded as a necessary inference. When an apostle was about to be chosen as successor to Judas, the people were invited to take part in the election; and when deacons were about to be appointed the Apostles asked the people to make the choice. It is inferred that elders were similarly chosen. It is worthy of notice that there is no account at all of the first appointment of elders as there is of deacons. Probably the recognition and appointment of elders was simply the transfer from the synagogue to the Church of a usage which was regarded as essential among Jews; and the Gentile churches naturally followed the example of the Jewish Christians. The elders thus chosen by the people and inducted to their office by the Apostles acted as a church court. Only thus could a plurality of rulers of equal rank act in an efficient and orderly way. They would discharge their pastoral duties as individuals, but when a solemn ecclesiastical act, like ordination, was performed, it would be done, as in the case of Timothy, by “the laying on of the hands of the presbytery”; and when an authoritative decision had to be reached, as in regard to circumcision, a synod or court was called together for the purpose. The action of Paul and Barnabas at Antioch seems to accord with Presbyterian rather than Congregational polity. The latter would have required that the question should have been settled by the church at Antioch instead of being referred to Jerusalem. And the decision of the council at Jerusalem was evidently more than advisory; it was authoritative and meant to be binding on all the churches. The principle of ministerial parity which is fundamental in Presbyterianism is founded not merely on apostolic example but on the words of Christ Himself: “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you.”
From the foregoing outline it will be seen that Presbyterianism may be said to consist in the government of the Church by Alternative Definitions. representative assemblies composed of the two classes of presbyters, ministers and elders, and so arranged as to manifest and realize the visible unity of the whole Church. Or it may be described as denying (1) that the apostolic office is perpetual and should still exist in the Christian Church; (2) that all church power should be vested in the clergy; (3) that each congregation should be independent of all the rest; and as asserting (1) that the people ought to have a substantial part in the government of the Church; (2) that presbyters, i.e. elders or bishops, are the highest permanent officers in the Church and are of equal rank; (3) that an outward and visible Church is one in the sense that a smaller part is controlled by a larger and all the parts by the whole.
Though Presbyterians are unanimous in adopting the general system of church polity as here outlined, and in claiming New Testament authority for it, there are certain differences of view in regard to details which may be noticed. There is no doubt Divergent Views. that considerable indefiniteness in regard to the precise status and rank of the ruling elder is commonly prevalent. When ministers and elders are associated in the membership of a church court their equality is admitted; no such idea as voting by orders is ever entertained. Yet even in a church court inequality, generally speaking, is visible to the extent that an elder is not usually eligible for the moderator's chair. In some other respects also a certain disparity is apparent between a minister and his elders. Practically the minister is regarded as of higher standing. The duty of teaching and of administering the sacraments and of always presiding in church courts being strictly reserved to him invests his office with a dignity and influence greater than that of the elder. It was inevitable, therefore, that this question as to the exact status of the ruling elder should claim attention in the discussions of the Pan-Presbyterian Alliance. At its meeting in Belfast in 1884 a report was submitted by a “committee on the eldership” which had been previously appointed. According to this committee there are prevalent three distinct theories in regard to the office and function of ruling elders:—
I. That while the New Testament recognizes but one order of presbyters there are in this order two degrees or classes, known Theories of the Ruling Elder. as teaching elders and ruling elders. In teaching, in dispensing the sacraments, in presiding over public worship, and in the private functions by which he ministers to the comfort, the instruction and the improvement of the people committed to his care, a pastor acts within his parish (or congregation) according to his own discretion; and for the discharge of all the duties of the pastoral office he is accountable only to the presbytery from whom he received the charge of the parish (or congregation). But in everything which concerns what is called discipline—the exercise of that jurisdiction over the people with which the office-bearers of the church are conceived to be invested, he is assisted by lay-elders. They are laymen in that they have no right to teach or to dispense the sacraments, and on this account they fill an office in the Presbyterian Church inferior in rank and power to that of the pastors. Their peculiar business is expressed by the term “ruling elders.”
II. A second theory is contended for by Principal Campbell in his treatise on the eldership, and by others also, that there is no warrant in Scripture for the eldership as it exists in the Presbyterian Church; that the ruling elder is not, and is not designed to be, a counterpart of the New Testament elder; in other words, that he is not a presbyter, but only a layman chosen to represent the laity in the church courts and permitted to assist in the government of the church.
III. A third theory, advanced by Professor Witherow and others, is that the modern elder is intended to be, and should be, recognized as a copy of the scriptural presbyter. Those who take this view hold that “in everything except training and the consequences of training the elder is the very same as the minister,” and they base their opinion on the fact that the terms “overseer” or “bishop,” “presbyter” and “elder,” are used interchangeably throughout the New Testament. It is consistent with this view to argue the absolute parity of ministers and elders, conceding to all presbyters “equal right to teach, to rule, to administer the sacraments, to take part in the ordination of ministers, and to preside in church courts.”
The practice of the Presbyterian churches of the present day is in accord with the first-named theory. Where attempts Present-day Practice. are made to reduce the third theory to practice the result is not satisfactory. Nor is the first-named, theory less in harmony with Scripture teaching than the third. In the initial stages of the Apostolic Church it was no doubt sufficient to have a plurality of presbyters with absolutely similar duties and powers. At first, indeed, this may have been the only possible course. But apparently it soon became desirable and perhaps necessary to specialize the work of teaching by setting apart for that duty one presbyter who should withdraw from secular occupation and devote his whole time to the work of the ministry. There seems to be evidence of this in the later writings of the New Testament. It is now held by all Presbyterian churches that one presbyter in every
congregation should have specially committed to him the work
- Phil. i. 1.
- Acts vi. 2-6.
- 1 Tim. v. 17; Titus i. 9.
- Acts vi. 1, 2.
- Acts xi. 29, xv. 2, 4, 6, xvi. 4.
- Acts xx. 17.
- Acts xiv. 23.
- Titus i. 5.
- 1 Peter v. 1.
- See Bishop Lightfoot's exhaustive essay in his volume on the Epistle to the Philippians.
- Acts i. 15-26.
- Acts vi. 2-6.
- Acts xiv. 23.
- 1 Timothy iv. 14.
- Acts xv. 6-20.
- Acts xv. 2.
- Acts xvi. 4.
- Matt. xx. 25, 26; Luke xxii. 25, 26.
- Proceedings of Seventh General Council of the Alliance of Reformed Churches holding the Presbyterian System (Washington, 1899).
- Hill's View of the Constitution of the Church of Scotland, pp. 37, 38.
- 1 Tim. iv. 15, v. 17; Col. iv. 17.