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An essay on the warrant, nature, and duties of the office of the ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church online

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or more credible than the celebrated David Cald-
erwood, the venerable historian of the Church of
Scotland, whose piety, talents, learning and inde-
fatigable labours and sufferings in that Church
are universally known. The AUare Damasce^
num of that great man was published in 1623, of


course just twenty years before the Westminster
Assembly met, and while the writer was under a
sentence of banishment in Holland, for his fidelity
to the Presbyterian cause.

The Altare Damascenum is a controversial
work, directed to the refutation of many adversa-
ries. Among these, Tilenus, once a Presbyterian
and Calvinistic Professor in the Seminary at
Sedan^ but then an apostate from the truth, and
bitterly and blindly bigoted against all that he
had formerly espoused, was one of the most for-
ward and conspicuous. Tilenus objected to the
Presbyterian system, because Ruling Elders were
not considered as having a right to lay on hands
in the ordination of Pastors : — that they were
members of the Presbytery, and yet, in an ordi-
nation performed by the Presbytery, were not
allowed to take part in this significant and solemn
act. Calderwood explicitly admits the fact, that
they did not, in any case, partake in this act ;
but denies the consequence which Tilenus draws
from it. He contends that Elders might, if there
were any necessity for it, lay on hands, without
infringing any essential principle, as, in his
opinion, that act was not an essential part of or-
dination, and did not really convey, in itself,
either authority or grace. But he adds, " I con-
cede that that imposition of hands which is joined
with prayer and benediction, is confined to Pas-
tors or Teaching Elders only. Nevertheless, as
a sign of consent and assistance, the Ruling El-
ders 7uiglit lay on hands. They do not lay them
on because it is not necessary : nor, indeed, do
all the co-Presbyters of any one Classis (or Pres-
bytery) lay on hands, but only a part in the name
of the rest. Even one might act in the name of


all." "Finally, says Caldervvood, though we
should grant this act (the laying on of hands) to
be a sacrament, and that the administrators of
this sacrament are Pastor-Presbyters only — still
the others (the Ruling Elders) will not thereby be
excluded from the Presbytery, (1 Tim. iv. 14) be-
cause the laying on of hands does not belong to
t}i£rn^ for the imposition of hands may be called
the imposition of the hands of the Presbytery,
although each and every one of the Presbytery
have not the power of imposing hands. It is
enough that the leading part of the Presbytery
have that power ; just as the tribe of Levi is said
to offer incense, when it was the prerogative of
the Priests only."

(3.) The celebrated Alexander IIenderso7i^ one
of the most conspicuous and influential leaders of
the Church of Scotland, in his work entitled —
" The Government and order of the Church of
Scotland," published in 1641, in speaking of the
minute details observed in the ordination of Pas-
tors, says, Section II.: "The minister cometh
from the pulpit, and, with as many of the ?ni7n6-
ters present as may conveniently come near, lay
their hands upon his head, and, in the name of
Jesus, do appoint him to be the Pastor of that

(4.) In another treatise, by the well known
Samuel Rutherford, entitled, " A Peaceable Plea
for Paul's Presbytery in Scotland," published in
1642, the same fact is repeatedly brought out, and
the practice defended on scriptural grounds, as
well as the nature of the ministerial office. He
says, " Every where, in the word, where Pastors
and Elders are created, there they are ordained
by Pastors,'' p. 37. " Ordination of Pastors is


never given to people, or believers, or to Riding
Julders^ as is clear from 1 Tim. v. 22 ; Titus i. v ;
Acts vi. 6; xiii. 3; 2 Tim. i. 6 ; 1 Tim. iv. 14,"
p. 190. In this Treatise, Rutherford argues on
the principle that if believers who are not Pastors,
may ordain Pastors, they may again depose and
excommunicate, " which, says he, are the highest
acts of jurisdiction ; and then may they preach
and baptize, not being called as Ministers^ then
may the Sacraments be administrate where there
are no Pastors, which is absurd even to the sepa-
ratists themselves," p. 57.

(5.) The excellent James Guthrie^ of Sterling,
in his Treatise " of Elders and Deacons," ob-
serves — " Howbeit the execution of some decrees
of the Church assemblies, — such as the imposition
of hands^ — the pronouncing the sentence of ex-
communication — the receiving penitents — the in-
timation of the deposition of ministers, and such
like, do belong to ministeis alone.''''

(6.) In the Westminster Assembly of Divines,
the testimony borne on this subject is perfectly
clear and explicit. Their language is — " Every
minister of the word is to be ordained by imposi-
tion of hands and prayer, and fasting, by those
preaching Presbyters to whom it doth belongf.
1 Tim. V. 22 ; Acts xiv. 23, and xiii. 3."

(7.) With the uniform language of the Church
of Scotland, and the decisive judgment of the West-
minster Assembly, the recorded opinion of the
venerable Calvin perfectly harmonized. Calvin's
language on this subject is too explicit and pointed
to admit of doubt or controversy. " The imposi-
tion of hands in the ordination of ministers is con-
fined to Pastors alone.'''' Instit. Lib. iv. Cap. iii.
Sect. 16. And this, by the way, may be considered


as a sufficient index of the practice of the Church
of Geneva, in which Calvin had a patriarchal

In accordance with all these, it is notorious
that our venerated Fathers, who framed the pre-
sent Formularies of the Presbyterian Church in
the United States, and who might be supposed
best to know the import of their own work, never
claimed or allowed for Ruling Elders the right in
question. In no branch of European or Ameri-
can Presbyterianism was such a claim ever heard
of, until very lately, in a small portion of our

In vain is it alleged, then, that the language
of our prescribed form of ordination seems to im-
ply that all the members of the Presbytery shall
lay hands on the head of the candidate, and take
him by the hand, with an official salutation on
rising from his knees. That none but the stated,
permanent ministerial members of the Presbytery
are. intended by these terms, is perfectly manifest,
from the common laws of language ; from all the
sources whence these formularies were derived ;
and, above all, from the uniform acknowledged
practice of their framers themselves for more than
fifty years : for it was more than half a century
from the time of the adoption of our present con-
stitution, before the new claim in question was
proposed or thought of.




As it is a fundamental principle of the Presbyte-
rian Church that the office of Ruling Elder is
permanent ; that when a man is once set apart to
it, he IS always an Elder, while he lives, unless
deposed by regular constitutional process ; a
variety of questions, naturally resulting from this
principle, claims our notice. Among these, some
of the more obvious and important will be briefly
considered in the present chapter.

A Ruling Elder, after being regularly and
solemnly set apart to his office, with, perhaps, as
full an intention of faithfully performing its duties
to his life's end, as ever man had, may lose his
health, and thus become physically and perma-
nently unable to perform those duties. Or he may
become, unavoidably, so situated, with regard to
his temporal business as to render the regular ful-
filment of his duties altogether impracticable. In
this case, the individual supposed, may resign his
place in the Session ; in other words, he may
cease to be an acting Overseer, or Inspector and
Ruler of that Church. He will, of course, still
retain his place and privileges as a regular member
of the Church ; but he will no lonfrer take any
part in its spiritual government. This is so rea-
sonable a provision, that it can scarcely be thought


to require either illustration or defence. We all
know that a Teaching Elder, or Minister of the
Word and Sacraments, after being for a time a
pastor, may, if the state of his health, or any other
circumstance should imperiously demand it, resign
his pastoral charge, and retire, as long as the cause
of his resignation continues to operate, to private
life. He who does this, it is well known, though
he ceases to be a pastor, still continues to be a
minister, fully invested with the powers of an
"Ambassador of Christ." He may still, if he
think proper, reside within the bounds of the con-
gregation which he formerly served ; and he may,
occasionally, if mutually convenient and agreeable,
minister to them in sacred things. But he is no
longer their minister; and he may never think
proper again to take a pastoral charge.

All these principles apply to the Ruling Elder.
If he verily think that he cannot any longer per-
form the duties of his ofRce in a manner acceptable
either to the Head of the Church, or to his people ;
he may withdraw from active service. When he
does this, however, he does not lay down his
office. He does not cease to be an Elder. He
only ceases to be an acting Elder. If his health
should ever be restored, or his temporal circum-
stances undergo a favourable alteration, he may
resume the duties of his ofFice, and again take his
place in the Session from which he withdrew, or
some other, without a new ordination. When an
Elder thus wishes to resign his station, he is to
give official notice of his desire to the Session ;
they are to declare if they think proper, their
acceptance of his resignation ; the whole transac-
tion is to be distinctly recorded in the Sessional
Book ; and report made to the Presbytery that iho


indiv/dual in question has ceased to be an acting
member of that Session.

Again ; an Elder may become wholly incapable
of serving the Church with which he is connected,
by the entire loss of his popularity. He may not
have become either heterodox in his theological
opinions, or so irregular in any part of his prac-
tice, as to render himself liable to process or
deposition from office; and yet he may, by indis-.
cretions, or by undignified conduct, so lose the
respect and confidence of the people, or, in a
moment of prejudice or passion, the popular feel-
ing, without any just ground of blame on his part,
may be so strong against him, that he may be no
longer able to serve the Church either acceptably,
or to edification, as a spiritual Ruler. In either of
these cases, he ought voluntarily to resign his place
in the Session, as stated in the preceding para-
graph ; and the Session, after taking a vote of
acceptance on the resignation, ought distinctly to
record the same in the minutes of their proceedings,
and make regular report of it, for the information
of the Presbytery. In all this there will be recog-
nized an almost exact similarity to the usual course
of proceeding, when a pastor is sensible that he
has become unpopular, and wishes to resign his

It may be, however, that the Elder, whose popu-
larity is thus prostrated, may not be sensible of his
real situation ; may be unwilling to believe that he
is not popular, and may, therefore, refuse, even
when requested, to resign his station. In this
case, the course prescribed in our Form of Govern-
ment, is, that the Session make due report of the
■whole matter to the Presbytery, giving due notice
to the Elder in question of the time and place at


which it is intended to make the report ; and that
the Presbytery decide, after due inquiry and deli-
beration, whether he ought to resign, or continue
his connexion with the Session. On the one hand,
no Church ought to be burdened by the incumbency
of an unpopular and obstinate Elder, who, instead
of edifying, is injuring it. And, on the other hand,
no innocent and really exemplary Elder ought to
be abandoned to the fury of popular prejudice, and
permitted to be trampled under feet, when, per-
haps, he ought to be sustained and honoured for
his fidelity.

Further; Ruling Elders, like other Church
members, may find it their duty to remove their
residence from the bounds of the Church which
called them to office, to another. Such cases not
unfrequently arise. The question is, when they
do occur, how is the official standing of such a
removing Elder to be disposed of? He, of course,
when he goes, ought to take with him a regular
certificate of good standing, as a private Christian,
and a dismission and recommendation to the
Church to which he removes. The certificate
ought also to bear an attestation of his regular
standing as an Elder, and of his official as well
as personal dismission from his former Church.
With this certificate he will repair to the Church
to which he is recommended, and will, of course,
be received as a private member in good standing.
If the existing Eldership and members of the
Church to which he removes, think it for their
edification that he be introduced into their Session,
he may be elected in the manner " most approved
and in use in that congregation;" that is, either
by a nomination by the Session, or by a popular
vote of the Church members; and if thus elected,


introduced to an official relation to that people, not
by a new ordination, which ought never to be re-
peated ; but by being regularly installed as their
Elder. This is effected by the candidate appear-
ing in the face of the congregation, as one about
to be ordained ; answering in the affirmative the
fourth question directed to be put to candidates for
the Eldership at their ordination ; the members
of the congregation publicly professing to receive
him as their spiritual Ruler, agreeably to the last
question, in the same formula ; declaring him one
of the Ruling Elders of that Church; and closing
with prayer for the Divine blessing on the trans-

It may be, however, that when an individual,
who has served one congregation as an Elder,
removes into the bounds of another, that other may
not, on the whole, think best to elect him as one
of their Elders. They may already have as many
as they think there ought to be in one Church.
Or his character, though unexceptionably good,
may not be such as to promise great benefit by
taking him into their parochial Presbytery. In this
case, they are under no obligation to elect him one
of their Elders. And if they do not think best to
employ him in this character, he may live among
them as a private member of the Church. At this
he ought to take no offence. It would be a hard
case, indeed, if Churches were not left at liberty
to act agreeably to their own views of propriety
and duty in such cases. If a preaching Elder, or
pastor, be liberated from his pastoral charge, and
remove his residence within the bounds of another
Church, however excellent his character, that
Church is not bound to employ him. To suppose
it bound, would indeed be ecclesiastical slavery.


A preacher inferior to him, in every respect, might
be preferred. Every Church must be left to its
own unbiassed choice. Siill the Elder, as well as
the minister, in the case supposed, thou

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