Of the three special offices in the church, that of the ruling elder represents Christ as king. Nations that have a king customarily speak of him as "His Majesty." And anyone at all familiar with Holy Scriptures knows that it, too, associates much majesty, dignity, honor and glory with kingship. Small wonder that the glory of the Christian church is reflected brightly in the office of the ruling elder.
The New Testament has two names for ruling elders. Sometimes they are called presbyters, which simply means older men or elders; at other times they are called bishops, which means overseers. It is significant that these are two names for the same men. Nowadays the term bishop is ordinarily used to denominate a clergyman who stands above other clergyman in both dignity and authority. But such is not at all the Biblical usage of that term. When Paul, on his way to Jerusalem at the conclusion of his third missionary journey, arrived at Miletus, he sent to Ephesus and called the presbyters of the church (Acts 20:17). When they had come, he spoke to them and said: "Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops" (Acts 20:28, ASV). It is clear that according to Scripture every presbyter is a bishop. And that is a way of saying that the work of the elder is to oversee the church.
Usually church members regard ruling elders less highly than ministers. In so doing they are not altogether mistaken, for it is true that a special dignity attaches to the ministerial office in virtue of the fact that the minister, being both a teaching and a ruling elder, holds two offices in one, which two offices take up, or ought to take up, all his time. On the other hand, there is great danger that the dignity of the ruling elder's office in comparison with that of the minister's office will be underestimated.
Frequently the work of the ruling elder and that of the minister overlap. The ruling elder may not leave the comforting of the distressed and the correcting of the erring exclusively to the minister, for he himself, too, is a shepherd or pastor. When, in Acts 20:28, Paul exhorted the Ephesian elders to take heed to the "flock," he evidently thought of the members of the church as sheep and of the elders as shepherds. So the ruling elder is a pastor, for pastor means shepherd. He is also a teacher. When, in the same verse, Paul enjoined the Ephesian elders to "feed" the church he undoubtedly had reference to the Word of God, for it is the only spiritual food that God has provided for His people. Therefore, when the minister is absent, it is highly proper for a ruling elder to read a sermon in a service of public worship or to "exhort" the congregation with a discourse of his own making.
In a very real sense the ruling elder even stands above the teaching elder. One of his most solemn duties is to oversee the life and work of the minister. If the minister fails to lead an exemplary life, the ruling elders of the church must correct him. If he is not as diligent in his pastoral work as he ought to be, they should spur him on to greater zeal. If his preaching is lacking in that passion which must characterize all preaching of the Word of God, they should take steps to overcome that defect. And if his preaching in any respect, whether great or small, is not according to the Scriptures, they may not rest until that evil has been remedied.
If that makes the work of the ruling elder both important and difficult — and it most certainly does — he has other duties that are nothing short of momentous. It is his task either to accept or to reject applicants for church membership and to exercise judicial discipline upon the erring members of the church.
What a responsibility, when someone express the desire to become a communicant member of Christ's church, to accept him as such! Likewise, what a responsibility it is to reject him! Well may these tasks be performed with fear and trembling. Because the elders cannot look into the hearts of men, they can never be altogether certain of the proper course. The applicant who uses pious terminology glibly may be a hypocrite, whereas the applicant who has to be "pumped" to say anything at all may be a true child of God.
Because of this difficulty, which is truly insuperable, it is not unusual for elders to let the matter go at taking the applicant's word for it that he believes in the Lord Jesus Christ. But obviously that will never do. Almost any modernist will vow that he believes in Jesus, and even among self-styled evangelicals there is no perfect unanimity as to what is saving faith.
The applicant should be closely questioned concerning three matters. First, the elders must find out whether he possesses the doctrinal knowledge that is prerequisite to saving faith. For but one example, if he does not know that Jesus is God, he must certainly be rejected. In the second place, the elders must seek to discover whether the faith which he claims to have is truly saving faith. For instance, if he trusts at all in his own works or character for salvation, he must be refused. Thirdly, the elders must ascertain whether he brings forth the fruits of faith in his life; in other words, whether he honors Christ not only as Saviour but also as Lord. In brief, the elders must do all that is humanly possible to determine whether or not the applicant is a Christian.
No less heavy is the responsibility of exercising judicial discipline. Also in this matter the elders do not dare to claim infallibility. Therefore many neglect this duty altogether and salve their consciences by referring to the well-known but little understood parable of the tares. The truth is that this parable is not at all meant to discourage the exercise of discipline but is a warning against excesses in discipline.
Scripture teaches most emphatically that church members who err in either doctrine or life must be disciplined. How unpleasant, how onerous, a task! Is it altogether certain that the member who is charged with an offense is guilty? And who possesses the wisdom to choose the most just and appropriate mode of censure? Sometimes the elders must resort to excommunication. Then they not only exclude the offender from the particular church or congregation concerned, or for that matter from the denomination, but they solemnly declare that they can no longer regard him as a child of God. Seldom, if ever, can elders resort to such action without some slight misgiving, unless indeed they mistakenly believe in an infallible church. And every time they do take such action they do it with bleeding hearts.
It might be thought that the elders are kept so busy with spiritual matters that they have neither time nor energy left for the material interests of the church. For that reason a number of churches have trustees to attend to the church's finances. Perhaps it is for the same reason that many churches have charged their deacons, not only with caring for the poor, but also with managing all the other financial aspects of the church's work. The latter is a mistake, and it may never be forgotten that the trustees are responsible to the elders for all they do. It is simply impossible to sever from each other the spiritual and material affairs of the church. The finances of the church must always be managed in business-like fashion, to be sure, but also in a spiritual way and to a spiritual end. And so this matter, too, falls under the overseeing of the church with which Scripture charges the elders.
Well may any elder exclaim: "Who is sufficient for these things?" (II Corinthians 2:16)