What do we need elders for?
James Guthrie (1612-1661) was one of the most prominent Covenanters. Nicknamed “Sicker Foot” (Sure Foot) for his steadfastness and he was vocal in criticising the future Charles II and Oliver Cromwell. He was the first of the Covenanters to be sentenced to public execution by hanging.
22 Jan, 2024

The elders in a congregation are primarily there to watch over the flock, and their work includes both engaging with people one-to-one and collaboratively working with fellow elders. In his helpful treatise on elders and deacons, James Guthrie sets out what responsibilities elders have. As shown in the following excerpt from a recent edition of his treatise, Guthrie makes no attempt to play down the weightiness of the work, but highlights for us the importance of having the right people in office.

The duties of a ruling elder are watching over and ruling the flock, and they are of two sorts. Some duties they are to perform by themselves alone, and so may be regarded as more ‘private’ duties. Other duties they are to perform jointly with the rest of the overseers of the household of God, which may be called more ‘public.’

Elders acting individually

The duties of their calling which they should perform by themselves individually are all the duties which all Christians, office-bearers or not, are required to perform to each other by the law of charity and love.

  • To instruct one another (John 4:29; Acts 18:26).
  • To exhort and stir up one another, to provoke each other to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24-25).
  • To admonish and rebuke one another (Leviticus 19:17). We should first speak to an offending brother or sister privately, and if they will not listen, then before witnesses. If they still will not listen, then we are to tell the church; and if they will not hear the church, then let them be to us as heathens and publicans (Matthew 18:15-17).
  • To comfort the afflicted, and to support the weak (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
  • To restore those who have fallen (Galatians 6:1).
  • To reconcile those who are at variance (Matthew 5:9).
  • To pray one for another (Jude 20).
  • To visit the sick, and those who are in bonds and distress (Matthew 25:36).

All these duties elders are to perform towards the various individual members of the congregation, by virtue of their calling. The Scriptures expressly mention some of them as incumbent on elders, namely, admonishing those whom God has set them over (1 Thessalonians 5:12), visiting and praying over the sick (James 5:14), and feeding the flock by instruction, exhortation, rebuke, and comfort in such a way as is competent to their station (Acts 20:28).

The rest we may warrantably gather by analogy and proportion from these. If individual Christians who are not office-bearers are obliged to do certain duties, much more are Christian elders in a special way obliged to do them, considering they have the responsibility of caring for souls. These things are expressed well in the sixth chapter of the Second Book of Discipline.

From what has been said concerning the duties of ruling elders acting individually, these three things follow.

1. Firstly, elders ought to be men who are in some measure able to instruct, exhort, admonish, rebuke, comfort, pray, and do these duties we have mentioned.

2. Secondly, elders need not only to have some measure of ability for these things, but also to have some measure of dexterity, wisdom, experience and tenderness in carrying them out.

3. Thirdly, elders ought to be well acquainted with the condition of the congregation and its members. They should therefore be careful to observe how they live their lives, and frequently visit and evaluate what progress families are making, so that they may instruct the ignorant, exhort the negligent, admonish the slothful, rebuke those who walk disorderly, comfort the afflicted, establish those who waver, visit the sick, encourage these who do well, promote piety and godliness in families, and see every one edifying each other in love, walking in the fear of the Lord, and the comfort of the Holy Ghost.

In order that elders may more conveniently discharge their duty it is convenient that the congregation should be divided into so many parts and that some competent part be assigned to the more peculiar care and inspection of every elder — yet in such a way as he would not neglect to take heed to all the flock of God, over which the Holy Ghost has made him an overseer.

Elders acting jointly

Elders also have duties which they are to perform jointly with other elders. These duties lie on them in the assemblies or courts of the church which are made up of preaching elders, teaching elders, and ruling elders.

These assemblies are of four sorts in our church.

  • Assemblies of the elders of particular congregations. These are known as the church session or the kirk session.
  • Assemblies of the elders of more than one congregation from the same geographical area. This is known as the presbytery.
  • Assemblies of the elders of more than one presbytery. These are known as the provincial synod.
  • Assemblies of the elders commissioners from all the presbyteries in the land. This is known as the general or national assembly.

To these we may add a fifth sort, namely, the assemblies which are made up of elders from all or many different nations professing the faith of Jesus Christ. This is known as a council.

When we speak of the elders of which the assemblies of the church are made up, we mean all sorts of elders: ministers, doctors and ruling elders. However, it is true that, in the congregations of our church, there are few or no doctors or teaching elders distinct from pastors or ministers (who perform the duties both of the preaching elder, and of the teaching elder). Doctors or teaching elders tend to hold office only in seminaries or theological colleges.

In all assemblies of the church, ruling elders have power to sit, write, debate, vote, and conclude in all the matters that are handled.

The things which are handled in the assemblies of the church are either matters of faith, matters of order, matters of discipline, or that which concerns the sending of church office-bearers. Accordingly, church assemblies have a fourfold power.

  • Dogmatic. By this power an assembly judges truth and error in points of doctrine, according to the Word of God only.
  • Diatactic (relating to external order and policy). By this power an assembly discerns and judges the circumstances of things that belong to the worship of God, like times, places, persons, and all the details in ecclesiastical affairs which are not explicitly determined in the Word. The assembly judges in these matters according to the general rules of the Word, i.e., its rules concerning order and decency, not causing stumbling, and doing all to the glory of God and the edifying of the church.
  • Corrective (or critical). By this power, an assembly gives out censures on those who cause stumbling and who obstinately refuse the admonition of the church, and the assembly readmits those who are penitent back into to the ordinances, fellowship and society of the church.
  • Exousiastic (wielding authority). By virtue of this power an assembly sends, authorises and gives power to church office-bearers to serve in the household of God.

Not all these assemblies are to exercise all these powers, but they are to keep themselves within their due bounds, with lower courts leaving things that are of wider concernment to the higher courts. But in all these powers ruling elders have a share, and they exercise these powers according to the measure that belongs to the assembly of which they are members. However, some decrees of church assemblies, such as the imposition of hands, pronouncing the sentence of excommunication, readmitting penitents, deposing ministers, and such like, belong to ministers alone.

If these are the duties and powers of ruling elders in the assemblies of the church, it is requisite that elders should be endued with the abilities and qualifications which are needful in order to exercise them.

Nevertheless, in particular congregations it may happen that men may be chosen as elders even though they do not have a large measure of all these qualifications. This is because all ruling elders are not always called to sit in all these assemblies. Instead it is sufficient to have one elder from every session for the presbytery and provincial synods, and a few from every presbytery and from larger congregations or burghs in that place for the general assembly, as also a few from the whole church throughout a nation would be sufficient for a more universal council.

Therefore, although it is to be wished and endeavoured that all elders would have the due qualifications for all these things, and although special care is to be taken everywhere to choose the most qualified, yet in particular congregations men may be chosen as elders even when they lack a large measure of all the requisite qualifications, as they are otherwise men of blameless and Christian walk, and they have a measure of knowledge and prudence which is fit for governing that congregation, and judging the things that are handled in its session (which for the most part will be disciplinary cases, and examining and admitting penitents).

But if there are any who are not of a blameless and Christian conversation, and do not have some measure of the qualifications required by the Word of God in a ruling elder, no congregation ought to choose someone like that to be their elder. Nor should any session or presbytery admit them to the charge of elder, for it is not seemly that the servants of corruption should have authority to judge in the church of God. And if any men like this have been admitted to the office of elder, the session or presbytery should endeavour to remove them from office, knowing that they do not want to partake of their sin, and be found guilty before the Lord of the blood of souls, for souls cannot but be disadvantaged through the negligence or bad guiding of such men.

This updated excerpt is taken from the book titled Ruling Elders and Deacons, by James Guthrie, published by Reformation Press (2017).

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