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The Elders of the Church

by Rev. James Moir Porteous

In 1872 the Free Church of Scotland minister of Wanlockhead and Leadhills near Dumfries published "The Government of the Kingdom of Christ " – a truly thorough, logical and illuminating treatment. The Society has made the most useful sections of this work available under the new title "Jesus Christ King of the Church."

Fashionably, church government is now placed in the category of so-called "secondary" matters which are "divisive" and therefore to be left alone – for the sake of unity. How refreshingly different is our author's approach! "Not otherwise can true unity be promoted than by a fuller possession of the truth and love of God....Error there must be, lie on whichsoever side it will. By one section or another, truth is only partially possessed." Therefore Porteous wants to ask of the competing systems of government: "Which of these forms, or is any one of them, possessed essentially of divine authority? This is our question....Scriptural principles, carefully deduced and applied, alone give the decision that can be held as a firm foundation." At the heart of presbyterianism lies the doctrine of the eldership. This extract of two chapters establishes key principles underlying that doctrine.

This article was published in thePresbyterian Standard, Issue No. 13, January-March 1999.


1. In every churcha plurality of elders was appointed. When Paul and Barnabas revisited and confirmed the societies of Christians they had established, and "when they had ordained them ELDERS in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they believed" (Acts 14:23). These churches might have very few members, because of the great difficulties with which they had to contend prevailing heathenism and persecution. Yet, in the smallest church, elders – a plurality – were ordained. There were elders in Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, Antioch, as in Ephesus. The first place where the gospel was preached in Europe was Philippi, a noteworthy city of ancient Thrace. There the Lord opened the heart of Lydia; there the jailer and all his house, upon believing, were baptised. A church was organised which met with determined opposition. Ten or twelve years thereafter, Paul wrote, as we have seen, to the church there: "Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus, which are at Philippi, with the BISHOPS and DEACONS." The Epistle was not sent to one bishop or elder, but to a plurality, along with the other constituent parts of the Church. In Crete, too, Paul notes down that Titus was left there for the special purpose of setting "in order the things that are wanting, and ordaining elders" – a plurality – "in every city". By apostolic appointment, no church was to be wanting in the services of several ordained elders.

2. And there was a division of labour amongst these officers. This was to be expected from the appointment of many. Had only one bishop or elder been appointed, the entire duties had fallen to him alone. Accordingly, it is found that –

Firstly, THERE WERE PASTORS WHO BOTH TAUGHT AND RULED. "Know them WHO LABOUR among you, and are OVER YOU in the Lord" (1 Thess. 5:12). "Remember them which HAVE THE RULE OVER YOU, who HAVE SPOKEN UNTO YOU THE WORD OF GOD"; "Obey them that HAVE THE RULE OVER YOU, and submit yourselves, for THEY WATCH FOR YOUR SOULS, as they that must give account" (Heb. 13:7,17). Not only in the Church of Thessalonica, wherever the Hebrew Christians are organised into companies of the called, they are recognised as having pastors, who both instruct and regulate in the Lord.

Secondly, THERE WERE ELDERS WHO ENGAGED CHIEFLY IN RULING. These do not appear to have engaged in the public teaching of divine truth. In private spiritual exercises, no marked distinction was drawn. When any were sick, they were directed simply to call for the elders, who were to pray in the name of the Lord, assured that "the prayer of faith shall save the sick" (Jam. 5:14, 15). That they were not all public instructors, appears from the distinctions employed to indicate their several duties. "Having ministry, let us wait on our ministering"; "He that ruleth with diligence" (1 Cor. 12:28, 29). The special work of ruling is here carefully distinguished from that of the ministry of the Word. Express mention is also made of 'governments', or governors, as well as of 'teachers', when those officers are enumerated whom God hath set in the Church. "Are all apostles? are all prophets, are all teachers?" This last question, as much as in the two preceding, indicates a special department for 'governments', or governors, as distinguished from 'teachers', in the estimation of Paul. This division of labour amongst the elders in each church is further marked in Paul's directions to Timothy, which must be held applicable to all the churches to which he was sent. "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the Word and doctrine" (1 Tim. 5:17). The word 'especially' points out that some not only ruled well, but, in addition, proclaimed the truth of God. If especial honour was to be conferred on those who performed this double duty, then there were some who had not the special labour of the Word. There were elders who confined themselves to ruling well. Doing so they were to be abundantly honoured. Those who were enabled to discharge both departments were to be specially honoured. They were entitled to this greater consideration, because of their full employment in the entire duties of the eldership. The office of bishop or elder is one; but it is for the edification of the body of Christ that the elders, according to capacity and opportunity, occupy the respective departments of that one office.



Occasion was not wanting for man's natural love of power disclosing itself amongst the disciples of Jesus. Some desired preferment to a higher rank than the others. These last were moved with indignation. The Lord Jesus emphatically set the matter at rest. "Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority over them. But, it SHALL NOT BE SO AMONG YOU: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; AND WHOSOEVER WILL BE CHIEF AMONG YOU, LET HIM BE YOUR SERVANT" (Matt. 20:25-27). This rule of the King is for all the officers in His kingdom in every age and place. The only gradation in rank which He allows and acknowledges is zealous devotion in His service. Apostles, it is true, held an exalted position. That was a special and temporary arrangement. Their superintendence is still to be had in the principles and practices which they disclosed. After them no superiority is found amongst the ordinary ministers. The address of Paul to the Ephesian elders proves that they occupied one platform of position and power. These presbyters or elders were summoned as the representatives and rulers of the whole Ephesian Church, whatever its subdivisions. These officers were divinely appointed, and as such they were exhorted. Through them all elders were instructed, whether then living, or in aftertimes. They were overseers or inspectors who fed the flock teachers and rulers. Bishop is the anglicised word employed for (επισκοπος) overseer. Those who oversaw were (πρεσβυτεροι) presbyters or elders, men of venerable parts. It was the flock of Ephesus they were to feed and oversee. Elders and flock were not subjected to one bishop. The elders were united in a common government. They were, therefore, of equal position and power. All were to feed. All were to take the oversight in view of approaching danger. The sole charge of the flock was, by the authority of God, committed to their care. Upon them unitedly was the full duty of the work of the ministry laid, under solemn responsibility.

The same equality of position and power in the elders or bishops is observable in other Churches. No higher position existed in the Philippian Church, as has been seen, than 'bishops and deacons.' So in all the other Churches. Therefore, let it be noted that (1.) equality in the eldership or overseers is unmistakable, – divergence was unknown; (2.) these officers were authoritatively appointed (3.) ordinarily to administer divine ordinances; and (4.) to regulate the interests of the Church, (5.) the members of the Church submitting willingly to that government. Elders or presbyters are thus the only ordinary administrators of the laws of the kingdom. They determine as to the admission of candidates for its outward privileges. They suspend, exclude, restore. They admit to or exclude from office. Every case, common or difficult, is to be adjudicated upon by them. They are to remove hindrances, devise and control helps. In a word, the government of His little flock is, by the Great Shepherd, committed to these under shepherds. Hence (1.) their rule is simply ministerial. It must be in accordance with His laws, not by arbitrary human will. And (2.) cheerful obedience is due to their authority, because the laws of Christ are merely applied by these officers. His will and authority must in them be recognised. Summed up, we have this –