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On the permanency of the office of Ruling Elder.
The Parmasim, or lay senate in the synagogue, whose authority and office is, in some respects, similar to that of the session, hold their office but for one year, being annually chosen by the free voice of the people.* The sidesmen and other lay representatives of the people in the ancient British churches, were also, as we have seen, temporary officers. Such also were they who were anciently admitted to sit in councils. And when the reformers revived and re-established the order of the church courts, presbyteries, synods, and assemblies, with lay representatives as competent members of them all, these officers were, in all cases, of a temporary character, and reelected from year to year.
Such was the case in Geneva,and such continues to be the case in that church until the present time. $ Such was the case also in Scotland during the continuance of the Book of Common Order, and the First Book of Discipline. The same plan was adopted by all the Reformed churches on the continent; in some cases the election of elders being annual, and in others for a longer period.§
This plan, however, has been disapproved by our own church, which has stamped the same perpetuity and sacredness upon the office of ruling elder which it attaches to the ministry. It pronounces it to be "perpetual, and not to be laid aside at pleasure," and that “no person can be divested of it but by deposition.” Now against this arrangement we contend, and to this language also we object, and the order here laid down we believe to be inexpedient, and unscriptural in its character and injurious in its results.
This order is unscriptural. There is no warrant, either in Scripture precept, apostolic practice, or primitive usage, for such an arrangement. THE BRETHREN who sat in the council of Jerusalem, “the helps and the governments,” and the layofficers of the early churches, were, as far as we can gather from what is said in Scripture, and from the policy of the synagogue, temporary. Nor have we seen any thing in the history of the church to countenance the opposite opinion. A perpetual eldership is also contrary to the very principle upon which the Reformers based its authority, namely, the truth that
*Bernard's Synagogue, p. 38.
Heugh's Religion in Geneva and Belgium, pp. 10, 11. $Dr. Miller on the office of Ruling Elder, 1844, p. 118. De Moor's Comment. Perpet. tom. vi. p. 330, and Spanheim, ibid.
(as Luther words it) “ALL Christians belong to the spiritual state,” and have an inherent and unalienable right to co-operate in the government of the church, and to hold ecclesiastical offices. The Christian laity, therefore, as God's “clergy,” are to exercise their liberty, under a sense of responsibility to Christ, and in accordance with the rules of his word, in choosing their own pastors, and in electing and in appointing their own representatives. The church is a spiritual commonwealth, and all its officers, while their office, dignity, and rights are sacred by divine appointment, are chosen by the church, are responsible to the church, and may, and ought to be removable from office by the church, acting through its properly constituted organs. Especially and pre-eminently ought this to be the case with "ruling elders,” which are, as our standards teach, “properly the representatives of the people, chosen by them.” “Now by attaching inviolability and permanency to the office, this character and object of the office is practically destroyed, since the great body of any church may, and often do live and die without having any opportunity to choose representatives," and this too, even while they may feel very sensibly that they are misrepresented by the existing elders, and that the government and discipline of the church is altogether neglected or abused by them. The liberty and birthright of the Christian people are thus seriously curtailed, and their rights of spiritual citizenship practically abrogated and annulled. The republican and representative character of the church is in this way denied. The free, open, and popular design of our institutions, is also exchanged for a close corporation which cannot be changed, and which, at the same time, can perpetuate itself. Christian freemen, therefore, have a right from time to time to express their opinion in a Christian spirit, and under the direction of Christian rules, of their delegated representatives; and either to continue or to displace those who may have been found inefficient or unworthy.
But it may be said that these objections will apply equally to the ministers who, though elected by the people, are not removable by them, at pleasure. But we think differently. For, practically, the people can remove their minister and secure the services of one under whom they may be more benefited. And as ministers are not the officers of any one church, nor limited to any one territory, they can still continue in their office; and while objectionable to one particular church, still discharge the functions of the ministry to the spiritual benefit of others. But the ruling elder is the officer only of that church by which he has been elected, and he is fixed and permanent in his residence and location. And therefore, in his case there is a perfect contrast to the condition of the minister, since he is
necessitated to retain his office when no longer fit for it or acceptable in it, and, since the people are required to regard and treat as an elder the man who has no longer any claims on account of any duties he can render, (or it may be, he ever has rendered) to either their respect or their gratitude. This case, therefore, is perfectly anomalous and unreasonable.*
And where, we again ask, does Scripture warrant the prelatical notion that there is an inviolable and immutable sacredness, or something, attached to "the office" of a ruling elder apart from the officer himself?+ What is the nature of this mysterious abstraction? Where does this invisible grace reside?-and when-where-and how is it imparted? Where does Scripture teach us that a man may be incapable of holding an ecclesiastical office, and of discharging any of its duties, and yet that his office is nevertheless perpetual and cannot be laid aside? Surely we may search Scripture in vain for any such quiddity as this, which clothes its possessor with a secret charm and character, like our civil dignitaries of Colonel and of General, which the service of a single month may wreath around the brows of their honorable possessors for a long lifetime. Oh yes, we must go elsewhere among the misty and smoky closets of mediæval casuistry, to discover the true original source of this wonderful grace; and it ill becomes those who scout the whole assumption as the baseless fabric of a vision, and the concerted legend of monkish mysticism, to authenticate the truth of the dogma, and practically exhibit to the world such inexcusable inconsistency,
Nor is this arrangement less inexpedient than it is unscriptural. No man “can be divested of the office of elder but by deposition," and yet "he may become through age or infirmity incapable of discharging the duties of his office," and "from any other cause incapable of serving the church to edification !" Can such an arrangement as this be proper, becoming, edifying, or desirable? What is gained? We can see nothing but that indescribable and undiscernible something or nothing of which we have spoken. And what is hazarded and lost? Much, every way. The dignity and high character of the office is lost; for this consists not in any ecclesiastical appointment, but in the respect, confidence, and affection of the people. And how can they cherish such feelings towards those in whose election the great majority have had no choice; over whose continuance they have none of them any power or check or
*The Reformed Churches of France, (see Form of Discipline, Can. xi. in Quick's Synodicon, vol. i. p. 19,) the ministry was declared to be for life, “unless they be lawfully discharged upon good and certain conditions."
When it was declared that ordination to ecclesiastical office "imprimit characterem indelibilem," may be seen in Binius, tom. viii. p. 425, and Mourius De Sacris Eccl. Ordinibus, passim.
control; and whom they have noi even the privilege of requesting from time to time to continue to render to them their duly estimated services? How poor is the encouragement, and how cheerless the reflections of a ruling elder who has no evidence of the free and hearty good will of his constituents, compared with the man who is urged to continue in his office from time to time by the approving votes of his respected brethren! The minister has this high, inspiring, and ennobling feeling, for he knows that by the continued kindness and reciprocated feelings of his people, he is useful and honored by them, and esteemed very highly in love for his work's sake; and when he perceives that it is otherwise, he can seek some other field, where God may open to him a wide and effectual door.
By our present arrangement, the motives to zeal and usefulness in the work of the eldership are, in a great degree, destroyed. The elected elder, being no longer directly responsible to the people, or dependent upon them for continuance in office, is led by all the evil tendencies of our corrupt nature, to fold his arms in indolence, to sit down and take his ease in Zion, and to do no more than his convenience or absolute necessity requires. We appeal to the state of our church sessions every where for illustrations of this melancholy truth, and we allege the very common (though thank God by no means universal) inefficiency and inactivity of the eldership, and their unwillingness to enter upon any field of self-denying Christian effort, as lamentable proof of the truth of our position. But were elders elected for a time, and made re-eligible to office, the office would at once rise in its practical interest and importance; the minds of the people would be more frequently directed towards it; and the minds of the elders more constantly directed towards the interests of the people, and thus be led, under the impulse of every high and stimulating principle, to be steadfast and immovable, and always abounding in the work of the Lord.
By the present arrangement we lose also the power of rectifying mistakes in judgment, and of removing from the office of the eldership men who have committed no crime which can be clearly proved against them, or even charged upon them, and who may be in the judgment of charity regarded as pious, and yet who have proved themselves unfit for the acceptable discharge of the office by their imprudence, their inert inefficiency, their want of gifts, their growing coldness and formality, their neglect of the Sabbath and week day services of the sanctuary, or from any
As it now is, such men, and often too with the greatest tenacity, hang like millstones about the neck of a church; form prominent stumbling blocks in the way of sinners; and act like a drag upon the wheels of
the church, in every attempt at spiritual and benevolent enterprise.
By the present arrangement also we lose the services of many of the very best and most capable members of our church, who would, under an opposite arrangement, be found ready to enter upon the office of the eldership. As it is, they are so engrossed with necessary engagements, or so diffident and modest, or so affrighted by the prospect of a life of engagement, and by the mysterious awe which is made to surround the very character of "the office"-or so reluctant to enter into a permanent association with the existing members of the session, as to be unwilling to enter upon its discharge at all. The consequence is, that in some cases the least capable are the most certain to be inducted to this office, because they alone, perhaps, can be induced to accept of the office. And thus, it is sometimes seen, that the man who cannot or does not manage properly his own business, or his own family, and who is as unstable as water, is set up to manage the affairs of Christ's household, and to sit as a prince upon the throne of spiritual judgment. But were the office temporary, say biennial or triennial, the persons we have described could be induced to make trial of their gifts and of their fitness for the work, and if found acceptable and useful, be encouraged to continue their zealous and valuable services, and to lend their name, their character and their example, to the moral influence and power of the session.
Neither can it be said that the corruptions of the Genevan, French, or any other Reformed churches, have resulted from the temporary nature of this office. There is nothing to warrant such an inference, any more than the inference of prelatists and Romanists from the same facts, against our doctrines and order generally. No! the evil in these churches lay in allowing these officers to be appointed by the State, and to be therefore men of whose protestantism and genuine piety there was no evidence either sought or given ;—and from excluding them altogether from the supreme councils of the church. It was this Erastian character of the Reformed churches—their alliance with the State, their adaptation to the civil constitution, their consequent tendency to seek for worldly honor, respectability, and favor; their neglect to establish and enforce discipline altogether, or their procrastination until its effective administration became impossible,* and the necessary withholdment and gradual corruption of the doctrines of the gospel—these were the true sources of this lamentable decay.
*See a most affecting and learned exhibition of this truth by Comenius in his Exhortation to the Churches of Bohemia, and to the Churches of England. London, 1661, 4to.