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Concerning our Congregational Elders


Numbers 11:16-17     Judges 2:16-19     Acts 15:1-11

Concerning our Congregational Elders


I: — Why do all Presbyterian Churches have elders?   Why did our foreparents think we needed elders?   The 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 USSR 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 church life.

In 16th century Switzerland (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 Presbyterian foreparents.

I stress Presbyterian foreparents. Methodists were another major stream of Protestants in Canada . 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 tyranny.

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 ancestors.


The 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 Switzerland and France to Scotland . 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 “elder.” Nevertheless they were unlike in that their respective responsibilities were never blurred. The minister was commissioned to teach; he was never permitted to rule.


III: — Let’s jump ahead 100 years, from the 1500s to the 1600s.  In 1647 there was published in England 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 Israel .

Then who were the judges of ancient Israel ? 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 Israel 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 Israel were recognized as saviours or deliverers.

In the older testament elders were associated with Moses as well.  Moses had led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt , 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 had in Egypt , 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 it alone.”

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.


IV: — The 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 congregation.

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 is needed.

Elders 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.


V: — All 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 all.


                                                                                            Victor Shepherd            

January 2007