Skip to main content

The Duties and Qualifications of Ruling Elders: Part I by John Watkins

By April 10, 2011April 12th, 2016Leaders & Elders

Watkins was born in Virginia in 1844, and studied at Union Theological Seminary from 1869 to 1872 under Robert L. Dabney and Thomas E. Peck. He was afterwards pastor at Roanoke, Va., Raleigh, N. C., and Spartanburg, S. C. The following is excerpted from his A Hand-Book for Ruling Elders, published at Richmond in 1895 by the Committee of Publication of the Southern Presbyterian Church.

The Duties of Elders

Our Book of Church Order sums up the duties as follows: ‘Ruling elders, the immediate representatives of the people, are chosen by them, that, in conjunction with the pastor, or minister, they may exercise government and discipline, and take the oversight of the spiritual interests of the particular church, and also of the church generally, when called thereto. It appertains to this office, both severally and jointly, to watch diligently over the flock committed to their charge, that no corruption of doctrine or of morals enter therein. Evils which they cannot correct by private admonition they should bring to the notice of the session. They should visit the people at their homes, especially the sick; they should instruct the ignorant, comfort the mourner, nourish and guard the children of the church; and all those duties which private Christians are bound to discharge by the law of charity are especially incumbent upon them by divine vocation, and are to be discharged as official duties. They should pray with and for the people; they should be careful and diligent in seeking the fruit of the preached word among the flock; and should inform the pastor of cases of sickness, of affliction and awakening, and of all others which may need his special attention.’

I. The Elder in the Family

Most of our elders are heads of families. The apostle tells us that their work begins at home, and he insists upon the proper government of their own households as requisite to efficient rule in the church. An elder must be ‘one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; for if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?’ It is true that the proper government of the household is the duty of every Christian man who is the head of a family. But it devolves upon the elder, in a special manner, to set an example in this respect, inasmuch as his official standing and his usefulness are affected by it. The theory and practice of family government have undergone considerable change during the last quarter of a century, and there is a growing laxity upon the part of parents in the matter of training and discipline.

Lack of the proper exercise of parental authority is one of the weak points in the present type of family life. It cannot be said of many, as it was said of the father of the faithful, ‘I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him.’ Commanding is not popular, and the drift of the times is against it. Early self-assertion, irreverence, contumacy, and precocious individualism are characteristics of the young of our day. Under these circumstances, it is especially incumbent upon the elder to set a right example as the head of a family, and to rule well his own house. If his house is a scene of disorder; if his children are neglected or mismanaged; if he fails to command proper respect, he can hardly expect the members of his church to look to him as their spiritual adviser and guide. It is true that children sometimes turn out badly under the best parental control, but, as a rule, the words of the wise man are verified: ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.’ Neglect of family worship is another indication of the decline of family religion. The elder cannot carry out the injunction to ‘rule well his own house’ without establishing the family altar. With unfailing regularity he should observe family worship. No pressure of business or of social engagements should induce him to neglect this important duty. He should require his children to attend family devotions as well as the religious exercises of God’s house. It is his duty so to conduct himself before the members of his household as to impress them with the idea that the kingdom of God has the first place in his heart, and that it is his supreme desire to see them true Christians. If his object in life is to accumulate a fortune, or to gain distinction, or social advancement, his children will not only see it, but will catch the spirit of his life.

He may be a kind, gentle, loving, liberal father, seeking to make his home bright and attractive, encouraging all innocent amusements and recreations, winning the devotion of his children, and at the same time a godly father, making the atmosphere of the home distinctly Christian. The elder, impressed with a sense of the responsibilities of home, should adopt David’s resolution: ‘I will behave myself wisely, . . . and I will walk within my house with a perfect heart.’ A faithful and successful discharge of the duties growing out of domestic relations will enable him to be more efficient in his public duties, and the transition from one to the other will be made easy. The elder, in dispensing hospitality, and in endeavoring to make his home attractive to young people, should be careful not to encourage a spirit of worldliness. It is very difficult to draw an exact line between what is right and wrong in the way of amusements. If an elder should be very liberal in his views on the subject, and insist upon excusing what he regards as his rights, he is surely bound to see to it that excesses are avoided and that a spirit of worldliness is not encouraged. There is no incompatibility between true piety and a moderate indulgence in all innocent amusements. But somehow there are certain amusements, regarded by many good people as innocent and proper, which do not seem to combine with earnestness of Christian life and with consecration to Christ. The elder who does not object to these things, and makes his house a sort of headquarters for such amusements, should consider very carefully whether he is not endangering his influence for good as a ruler in the house of God. To make amusement an end is one thing, to make it a means is quite another thing. It loses most of its danger when it is subordinated to higher ends. Every elder, therefore, should endeavor to make his home a model Christian home, to make it an attractive place, an instructive place, a safe place, and a holy place. Everything ought to be renounced which tends to destroy personal religion, or to weaken the influence of religion in the minds of others, or to put a stumbling block in the way of many, or to give offence to the feelings of conscientious fellow Christians.

These principles must be admitted to be correct, and can generally be applied without serious difficulty by those who are thoroughly spiritually-minded. Indeed, it may be said with truth that nearly all questions, relating to worldly amusements, will be easily answered just in proportion to the depth and earnestness of one’s religion.

II. The Elder in Business and in Society

Occupying the high position of a spiritual ruler in the house of God, the elder should be fully alive to the fact that his influence for good and his usefulness in the church depend largely upon the character he maintains in business and society. It is true that every Christian is bound to be upright, truthful and fair in his worldly transactions, yet, in a special sense, it devolves upon the officers of God’s church to walk circumspectly and to maintain a reputation for honesty and integrity. It is a matter of great importance that they should so deport themselves in secular affairs as to win the confidence, respect and esteem of their fellow men. Though they may be faithful in attendance upon the services of the church, and active in the discharge of their official duties; though they may pray with fluency and speak with force in religious meetings, their usefulness is seriously crippled if they are regarded by the community as men lacking purity and integrity of character. If they are skinflints and sharpers, men who will take advantage of others in trade by misrepresentation and trickery; if they are covetous and avaricious, they cannot expect to accomplish much in their religious official capacity. The world is sometimes deceived about men, but the deception is only temporary. Every man is the product of his thoughts, feelings, purposes, habits and experiences, and cannot conceal his true inwardness for any great length of time. Men are often misrepresented and slandered, but, as a rule, the reputation of a man who has lived long in a community is generally in accordance with his real worth and his real life. Church officers cannot be too careful in guarding their reputation and avoiding all appearance of evil. It is better to endure a wrong than to have the semblance of cupidity or fraud.

Every man must find his Christian life largely in connection with those secular duties which occupy nearly all of his time. The divorce of religion and business is pharisaic and not Christian. Religion enters into business, sanctifies it, elevates it, and lightens its burdens. The merchant’s religion must be found largely in the bounds of commercial life; the politician’s religion in the bounds of politics; the teacher’s religion in the school room. The same Ten Commandments and the same Sermon on the Mount which are applicable to church life and household life are also applicable to commerce and politics. There is but one basis of ethics for all the departments of human activity.

It is also important that elders should be men of high character in their social relations. Beyond the narrow circle of home, and even the wider circle of business, there is a large number of persons brought into connection with us in various ways, and our intercourse with them brings weighty responsibilities. The officers of God’s church are in a peculiar sense bound to endeavor to purify and elevate the tone of society around them. They should studiously avoid that deportment which would give them the name of ‘worldly men.’ While they should encourage hospitality by their example, they should avoid display, extravagance, and cumbrous luxury.

III. The Elder in the Church

In general terms it may be said that it is the duty of the elder to look after the spiritual interests of all his flock, and to do everything in his power for the furtherance of the same. Paul said to the Ephesian elders: ‘Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God which he hath purchased with his own blood.’ The command ‘to feed the flock’ is a very large one. The word ‘shepherd,’ which is the literal translation, carries the idea of guidance, protection, provision, tender care, and personal interest. The perfunctory service rendered by some elders, namely, attendance in a mechanical way on meetings of session, and occasionally of other church courts, and assistance in the distribution of the elements at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, seems to be regarded by them as an adequate discharge of their official duties. But how small a part of an elder’s responsibility is discharged even by a faithful attendance upon the meetings of session and the higher courts, and by regular service at the administration of the communion! Let us endeavor to draw out in detail some of the duties plainly involved in the exhortations given to elders:

1. It is the duty of the elder to visit the members of his church. It is impossible for him to take proper oversight over them, look after their spiritual interests, and give them due attention, without coming in personal contact with them in their homes. To facilitate this work, the church, if sufficiently large, should be divided into sections or districts, and the care of each section should be assigned to one more elders for a fixed period. In this way the elders will come to know all the members, and everything peculiar in the situation and character of each one. They may find it a little difficult at first on account of the demands of business, but if thorough system is observed, very little time is required. If each elder would give two or three hours a week, or even a fortnight, or one afternoon a month, a great deal might be accomplished in the way of visitation. In a church of average size every family could be visited by an elder at least once a year, if there was a willingness of the part of each one to give one afternoon in each month. In order to reach the best results, there should be real official visitation, and not a mere hurried call and exchange of courtesies. It is scarcely possible to overestimate the benefits of such visits. Families are thus brought into close contact with the church, and made to feel that they are a living part of it. The members learn to regard the elders as their friends, and turn to them as well as to their minister for advice in trouble, and for comfort and sympathy in affliction.

2. It is especially incumbent upon elders to visit the sick, the afflicted, and the poor. ‘Is any sick among you, let them call for the elders of the church, and let them pray,’ etc. The elder, besides giving spiritual comfort, may sometimes find it in his power to render aid in temporal respects, or induce others to do so who have the ability. Our Saviour is here on earth represented in an especial manner by his sick, suffering, and needy children; and service rendered to them is service rendered to him: ‘I was sick, and ye visited them.’ The voice of the sick and the destitute is to the Christian the voice of Jesus. Their miseries are the miseries of Christ. Surely the officers of Christ’s church ought to be in tenderest sympathy with his suffering body.

The afflicted as well as the sick have special claims upon their spiritual rulers. Many of the most precious promises of the Bible relate to afflictions. Our Saviour when on earth set us an example of tender sympathy for the sorrowing. ‘Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction,’ etc. There are many who are willing to give liberally of their substance to a relief fund, but are not willing, like their Lord, to become ‘acquainted with grief.’ Benevolence enlarges and develops Christian character, but deep and tender personal sympathy with the suffering and the sorrowing is necessary to give completeness to character. The officers of the church must not only give money and advice, but they must visit. There is many a house of sorrow in which sympathy is worth more than gold. Many elders shrink from the duty of comforting the bereaved, and excuse themselves upon the ground of incompetency. Even if they cannot give spiritual instruction, they can at least show a heart-felt sympathy, which sometimes accomplishes more good. They may read a few appropriate verses from Scripture, and offer a brief prayer. The obligation to visit and comfort the bereaved rests entirely too lightly upon most elders. This is regarded as a duty which the minister only can perform. But it is a great mistake. Times of sorrow, when God softens the hearts of his children by fatherly chastenings, furnish a grand opportunity for elders to endear themselves to their people and to strengthen Christian bonds. Any genuine expression of sympathy, any kindness shown, any help rendered, when the heart is raw under crushing grief, will leave its impress forever. No definite rules can be laid down for the guidance of those who visit the sick, the needy and the bereaved. The tact and delicacy and adaptation necessary to the most successful discharge of this duty are rather the fruit of deep piety and sincere sympathy than of social rules. Genuine, ardent love is intuitive in perception, independent in action, and original in method. Love has deep insight, and is rich in invention.

3. It is very clearly the duty of elders to give careful and earnest attention to the backsliding members of their flock. The very name ruling elder implies the specialty of this obligation. And yet there are many who do not seem to feel that they have any responsibility in this direction. It is not often that Christians fall suddenly into great and heinous sins. As a rule, their spiritual decline is gradual, and beings with the neglect of the means of grace. It is important, therefore, that they should be admonished promptly when the first signs of backsliding appear.

When any member neglects the public ordinances of religion without cause, it is a sure sign of degeneracy, and should not be allowed to pass unnoticed. The officers of the church should kindly remonstrate with such a one and remind him of his Christian obligations. The pastor, of course, shares this responsibility. When members are guilty of grave offences, such as intemperance or profanity or immorality, there should be no delay on the part of the church officers to earnestly endeavor to bring them to repentance and reformation. If an offence is of a private character, efforts should be made to induce the transgressor to make acknowledgment and reparation to the injured party. If, however, it is of a public character, the offender should be kindly urged to repentance and public acknowledgment. The honor and purity of Christ’s church must be protected, and the scriptural standard of morality must be sustained. The elder is invested with a several power — power to admonish, rebuke, exhort, and comfort through his individual influence, as well as with a joint power, which is exercised in courts in voting, admitting, excluding, warning, censuring. The duty of restoring the erring is plainly taught in God’s word: ‘Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye who are spiritual restore such an one in the spirit of meekness’ (Gal. 6:1). While the restoration of a fallen brother is the work of divine grace, yet God uses his children as instruments to accomplish it. Through human forgiveness, sympathy, and intercession, wanderers from God are enabled to realize the divine compassion and goodness. We have reason to fear that there is criminal negligence in administering, rebuking, and disciplining the backsliding and excluding the unworthy. The blessing of God cannot rest upon a church which allows open sin among its members to go on unrebuked and unnoticed. The accursed thing must be removed from the camp. It is a stone in the King’s highway, which must be removed before he will come to subdue the impenitent and manifest his victorious grace. The church which is burdened with a number of doubtful professors, of worldly members, and backsliding Christians is in a very sad condition. The most devoted and earnest preacher in charge of such a flock is robbed of one of the greatest sources of power, for a godly membership is the minister’s right hand of strength, inasmuch as they are the vindication of the truths he proclaims, and a mighty power with God and man.

The work to which we have been referring is one of great difficulty and delicacy. It requires wisdom and tact, and a combination of gentleness and firmness. For its right accomplishment, the best preparation is prayer and holy living and a sincere love for the souls of men.