By Dr. Wilfred A. Bellamy
In recent months I have been drawn to study the role of Ruling Elder in the Church. There are two reasons for this. The first is that in teaching Ecclesiology one must turn to the Session and church governance in general. The second is that in preparing to teach Deuteronomy one cannot escape the role of Moses the leader and his need for assistance in the task.
But to the root of the matter. In the opening of 1 Timothy 3 the Apostle Paul goes immediately to the heart that is set – the epithumeo – the burning desire to be an overseer – episkopos – one who is committed to look out for others. Before he leads us to any other qualifications he shows us the principle, the Ruling Elder is primarily not for himself but for others.
It therefore occurs to me that even as Moses said to the Lord’s people: “You are too heavy a burden for me to carry alone,” (Deuteronomy 1:9) so the model for leadership and discipleship is established for the Church, and is implicit in Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 3:1. Here the injunction of Matthew 28:19 to “make disciples” takes on a broader and more compelling perspective.
However, what has taken place in the Church over the years, and most especially in recent times, is that the Session, the Ruling and Teaching Elders together, has changed its role. The Session in many if not most of our Reformed and Presbyterian Churches has become either the Board of Directors, the organizational and strategic or financial planning committee of the church, or, worse yet, the supporters of the Pastor in doing whatever he deems right for the congregation.
Leadership in the sense of spiritual leadership, being shepherds and disciplers of others, seems to be less and less the goal or intent of the Session. The fervor and vibrancy of the people of God appear to be a diminished purpose of the Session while more mundane matters have assumed the ascendency.
When Moses determined that he could not manage alone he struck a nerve. Many a Pastor must agree that his aloneness in his task leads to a degree of busyness that denies effectiveness. Common sense says that there is no way that he can disciple a congregation alone, however skilled he may be or however hard he tries. So the net effect of such a Pastor is that he will gradually find himself discouraged while his congregation agrees that he is being ineffectual.
So where does the solution lie? If we return to 1 Timothy we can conclude that the breakdown begins when the Ruling Elder assumes his role without first understanding that he is to “look out for others.” The Scripture explicitly says so. He must also be “apt to teach” – not necessarily to stand before a class and teach a portion of Scripture, even though that would be advantageous, but to teach by discipling, by caring, by modeling, by witnessing the grace of God in Christ before individuals. Perhaps this might be in a one-on-one relationship in mentoring another believer toward maturity, or in gathering a small group and providing guidance and instruction regarding their walk of faith. There may be times when a Ruling Elder will take a person aside for advice, or a young person who needs correction.
There are many in congregations who privately have doubts concerning their relationship with Christ. Others may have serious questions regarding points of doctrine that puzzle them, while others may be thinking about seeking another fellowship where certain aspects of teaching or practice may not apply. There are a host of reasons why the people of a congregation need someone to whom they can turn for help, someone whom they know and can trust, and someone who will neither ridicule nor avoid answering their questions. Someone who is already among them.
Here is where the Session becomes the “lookers out for others.” Here is true discipleship. This is not the meeting to discuss the business of the church, but a manifestation of true spiritual leadership, being engaged with the members of the congregation, demonstrating care and concern, and training in righteousness.
So the question before us is: “Can a Session that has shifted away from its primary purposes be recovered to become a discipling group of spiritual leaders in the church?” That’s a tall order. First the Pastor must embrace the idea and, as Moderator of the Session, initiate change. Next, the congregation must be made aware of a change in perspective that they can endorse. Then when nominations take place these matters may be considered. Further, a purposeful intentional beginning must take place as Ruling Elders demonstrate their newer role by becoming concerned and interested men in the lives of the membership.
Now we know. The Pastor cannot be held accountable for all the spiritual ministry of the church. It is foolish to imagine that this is possible. Moses couldn’t do it and Paul certainly established a pattern, before God, that no one else would have to try and do it. The church needs its Elders, but it does not need them to be only the determining committee of the church, it needs them to “look out for them.”
-Dr. Wilfred A. Bellamy, is an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and a former missionary to Nigeria.