our Congregational Elders
do all Presbyterian Churches have elders?
Why did our foreparents think we needed elders?
simplest reason is also profound: to prevent tyranny.
Tyranny in any form is abhorrent.
All of us have an instinctive aversion to it.
While we may have been surprised at the speed with which tyranny
was dismantled in the former
in 1989, we are not surprised at the fact that it was dismantled.
We readily understand why millions of people there couldn’t
wait to get rid of political tyranny.
At the same time as we find tyranny repulsive, we have to admit
that tyranny is highly efficient. Tyranny
is much more efficient than any form of democracy.
Tyranny is quick, precise, conclusive.
Compared to tyranny democracy is awkward, slow, meandering, and
sometimes downright silly. Clumsy
and ponderous as democracy is, however, we readily agree with Winston
Churchill when he stated that democracy was a terrible form of
government – awkward, fumbling, bumbling, often laughable – yet we
cherish democracy and will die to preserve it just because, said
Churchill, all other forms of government are worse.
Tyranny is repugnant anywhere, anytime, and no less repugnant in
In 16th century
(the setting of the non-Lutheran, Reformed or Presbyterian stream of the
Protestant Reformation) people had long wearied of tyranny.
Religious tyranny over a congregation was exercised by a priest.
Political tyranny over the wider society was exercised by a
bishop. The Presbyterian
reformers got rid of both kinds of tyranny.
Congregational authority was transferred from priest to people;
political authority was transferred from bishop to city council.
In our service this morning we are ordaining Barbara Bain as
elder. Elders like her (that
is, elders of the sort known in our church tradition) appeared in the
Presbyterian stream of the Reformation in the 1500s.
Then it’s fitting for us to look more closely at our
I stress Presbyterian
foreparents. Methodists were
another major stream of Protestants in
. The Methodist tradition is
remarkably different. In the
Methodist tradition the clergy were kings.
The Methodist clergyman simply ruled the congregation.
There was much leg work and spade work and grunt work for the
people to do, but there was virtually no authority for the people to
exercise. In the Methodist
tradition the minister ran the church; he was boss of the congregation.
Presbyterians would never stand for this.
It was in the Presbyterian tradition that authority in the
congregation was vested in lay people as a means of curtailing clergy
Now you mustn’t think that because our Presbyterian foreparents
took congregational authority away from the clergy and gave it to the
people they must have thought ill of the clergy.
On the contrary it would be impossible to exaggerate the esteem
in which the Presbyterian clergy were held.
Presbyterian ministers were expected to be learned, sound, godly,
diligent; they were expected to possess expert knowledge in scripture,
theology and history. They
were recognized for their learning and their sanctity.
They were esteemed.
Ministers were acknowledged to have a crucial calling and task.
Ministers were deemed to function largely as “first cousins”
to the apostles in the New Testament.
In the New Testament it is the task of the apostles to hold
God’s people to the truth and reality of Jesus Christ.
The apostles make sure that the people of God are acquainted with
the gospel of God, and not with a counterfeit imitation of the gospel or
a distortion of the gospel. The
task of the modern-day minister, said our 16th century foreparents, is
to make sure that it’s the truth of Jesus Christ which a congregation
hears, the life of Christ which a congregation cherishes, and the way of
Christ which a congregation walks.
In other words the only authority which the minister has is the
authority of suasion. More
precisely (said Calvin), the minister’s authority consists in this: he
claims no authority for himself but endeavours to keep unobscured the
unique, non-delegated authority of Jesus Christ.
The minister can only hold up the gospel, plead for its
reception, endeavour to render his own life transparent to it – and
then trust that Christ’s people will hear the truth and believe the
truth and do the truth themselves.
We must understand that in all of this the minister was not
belittled at all. Our
Reformed or Presbyterian foreparents esteemed the minister.
They also insisted that the minister know his place.
And the minister’s place was to acquaint the congregation with
the truth and reality of Jesus Christ.
It is never the minister’s place to coerce or control the
congregation, never to “lord” it over the congregation in any way,
but rather to function in a manner akin to that of the apostles.
Any congregation, said our Presbyterian foreparents; any
congregation, left to itself, will drift.
This week it has drifted slightly off course concerning the
gospel; next week it has drifted a little more off course; after six or
eight months the congregation’s course has turned 180 degrees, with
the result that the congregation has drifted into a counter-gospel
without knowing what’s happened. The
task of the minister is to identify the congregation’s proclivity to
drift; identify it, and help the congregation to orient itself afresh to
the gospel For this reason the godliness and learning and diligence and
faithfulness of the minister, said our foreparents, are necessary if the
congregation is to be and remain a community of Christ’s people rather
than existing merely as one more social group.
Ministers are necessary if the people of God are to be constantly
re-acquainted with the truth of God.
In other words, it’s not correct to say, in the Reformed
tradition, that ministers are important to a congregation of Christ’s
people; ministers are essential to a congregation of Christ’s people.
But ministers are never to rule the congregation – said our Reformed
Reformed or Presbyterian tradition is most closely identified with the
Swiss reformer, John Calvin. In
Calvin’s day (Calvin died in 1564) a layperson chaired presbytery.
(This fact alone tells you how suspicious the Presbyterians were
of clergy tyranny.) Presbyterianism
soon moved from
. The first General Assembly
of the newly-reformed Church of Scotland was held on
20th December, 1560
. Present were 42
church-representatives, only six of whom were clergy.
In the Church of Scotland at this time the word “elder”
included the minister; the minister was the teaching elder, while all
other elders (what we today call lay elders) were known as ruling
elders. The teaching elder
(the minister) and the ruling elders (lay people) were alike called
they were unlike in that their respective responsibilities were never
blurred. The minister was
commissioned to teach; he was never permitted to rule.
jump ahead 100 years, from the 1500s to the 1600s.
In 1647 there was published in
a document which our Presbyterian foreparents consumed every day with
their oatmeal, the Westminster Confession.
The Westminster Confession stated plainly that the elders of a
congregation are one with the judges of ancient
Then who were the judges of ancient
? What did they do?
Having jumped ahead to 1647 we must now jump back almost 3000
years, back to 1200 BCE, back to the period of the judges.
The judges in ancient
were not like the courtroom judges of our day.
Present-day judges are courtroom referees whose sole
responsibility is to preside over trials without favouring either party
in the trial. Ancient
judges, by contrast, were chiefly leaders and rulers.
They were leaders in times of controversy and conflict; they were
rulers in times of peace. In
the book of Judges the men and women (yes, women too; one of Israel’s
greatest judges was a woman, Deborah; Deborah was so highly esteemed
that she was hailed as “a mother in Israel”) – in the book of
Judges the men and women who were set aside as judges were also called
deliverers or saviours. We
must be sure to note this point: judges are deliverers or saviours.
Obviously a judge wasn’t saviour in the sense in which God is
uniquely saviour, any more than a pastor (the Latin word for
“shepherd”) displaces Jesus as the “Good Shepherd”.
Jesus alone is and ever shall be the Good Shepherd.
Nevertheless, in the company of Jesus the
shepherd, pastors are under-shepherds.
Under God the saviour, judges in ancient
were recognized as saviours or deliverers.
In the older testament elders were associated with Moses as well.
Moses had led the people of
out of slavery in
, on towards the glory of the Promised Land.
But between slavery and Promised Land there was wilderness.
At first the Israelites didn’t mind the wilderness.
(What’s a little hardship after the insults of slavery?)
Little by little, however, the wilderness became insufferable.
The people began to weep and cry out, “O that we had meat to
eat. We remember the fish we
, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic.”
Moses put up with their petulance, carping and short-sightedness
for as long as he could. Then
he cried out to God, “I am not able to carry all this people alone;
the burden is too heavy for me.” Moses
was then instructed to gather together 70 elders and bring them to the
“tent of meeting” (the church sanctuary).
Listen to what God says to Moses in this old, old story.
“I will come down and talk with you there.
And I will take some of the spirit that is upon you (Moses) and
put it upon them (the elders). And
they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you may not bear
In a word, elders are those who lead
in times of conflict, govern
in times of peace, support
the congregation in its griefs and grievances, and ease
the burden of the minister. Elders
are deliverers who save the congregation from anything which impedes its work and
witness as the people of God.
elders of this congregation do every bit as much in 2007.
Congregational elders are often thought to be concerned with
material issues; e.g., what kind of shingle we should use in
re-shingling the roof. In
fact, while elders may finally approve such decisions, all deliberations
and decisions concerning property are made by the Board of Managers.
Elders do something else: elders ultimately set the spiritual
tone of the congregation. Elders
articulate the details of that “way” which they then lead the
congregation into owning and walking.
Elders assess programmes in the church; assess them with a view
to the truth of the gospel, the turbulence in the world, the trials and
tribulations of parishioners, and the capacity of this particular
I have mentioned several times today that elders (like the judges
of old) are leaders and deliverers in times of trouble.
There will always be needed here elders who can distinguish
between gospel and pseudo-gospel, whose heart aches for the wellbeing of
the congregation, and whose wisdom can move us beyond the starkest
threats to a Christian community which anyone can recognize as well as
move us beyond the subtlest threats for which extraordinary discernment
have much to do with pastoral care.
The pastoral care of our congregation is crucial.
Let me say right now that our congregation is like few others
that I have seen. Our
congregation has affection. All
congregations have civility, politeness, respect for social conventions;
all congregations must have these or else the congregation would
fragment. In our
congregation, by contrast, I have found love; oceans of it.
As I move throughout the congregation in the course of my work I
come upon warm spot after warm spot.
It’s as though I am swimming in a lake in the summertime and I
find warm spot after warm spot in the lake.
Not surprisingly, then, I don’t find pastoral work difficult.
How could I find pastoral work onerous when I am customarily
moving from warmth to warmth? At
the same time, there’s no reason to think that pastoral contact is the
exclusive purview of the minister. It’s
important than all the folk who make up our congregation find themselves
taken deep into the heart of someone
in the congregation who cherishes them.
What I have found here I covet for all of you.
We need all the resources we can muster -- imagination, industry,
persistence, faithfulness -- we need all there is in order to magnify
affection as the atmosphere in which congregational life unfolds.
The possibilities for any elder here are limitless.
of you must have come to know, over the past several years, that most of
the convictions of our Reformed foreparents are my convictions too.
I am convinced that there is much wisdom in the matters that our
Presbyterian ancestors treasured. The
place of the elder is one such matter.
For this reason I am glad of the opportunity to ordain Barbara
Bain elder this morning. For
she stands not only in the tradition of the elders of Israel, but
specifically in the tradition of Deborah: mother in Israel, mother in
Schomberg, mother to us all here as we gather week-by-week in the
company of Jesus Christ our elder brother and our Father who is God over