Question 31Are there appointed any elders in the church whose office and duty consist in rule and government only?

AnswerElders not called to teach ordinarily or administer the sacraments, but to assist and help in the rule and government of the church, are mentioned in the Scripture.

Rom. 12:8; 1 Cor. 12:28; 1 Tim. 5:17.

Explication — This office of ruling elders in the church is much opposed by some, and in especial by them who have least reason so to do: for, first, they object against them that they are lay elders, when those with whom they have to do deny that distinction of the church into the clergy and laity; for although they allow the distribution of it into officers and the multitude of the brethren, yet they maintain that the whole church is God’s clergy, his lot, and portion, 1 Pet. 5:3.

Again, they affirm them to be elders, and therein not merely of the members of the church, but officers set apart unto their office according to rule, or the appointment of Christ. And if by laity, the people distinct from the officers of the church are to be understood, the very term of a lay elder implies a contradiction, as designing one who is and is not a church-officer.

Besides, themselves do principally govern the church by such whom they esteem laymen, as not in holy orders, to whom the principal part of its rule, at least in the execution of it, is committed; whch renders their objection to this sort of church-officers unreasonable. Others, also, have given advantage by making this office annual or biennial in them that are chosen unto it; which, though they plead the necessity of their churches for, as not having persons meet for this work and duty who are willing to undertake it constantly during their lives, without such a contribution for their maintenance as they are not able to afford, yet the wisest of them do acknowledge an irregularity in what they do, and wish it remedied.

But this hinders not but that such church-officers are indeed designed in the Scripture, and of whom frequent mention is made in the ancient writers, and footsteps also yet remain in most churches of their institution, though wofully corrupted; for besides that some light in this matter may be taken from the church of the Jews, wherein the elders of the people were joined in rule with the priests, both in the sanhedrin and all lesser assemblies, there is in the gospel express mention of persons that were assigned peculiarly for rule and government in the church, as 1 Cor. 12:28.

And it is in vain pretended that those words, “helps, governments,” do denote gifts only, seeing the apostle expressly enumerates the persons in office, or officers, whch the Lord Christ then used in the foundation and rule of the churches as then planted.

He that ruleth, also, is distinguished from him that teacheth and him that exhorteth, Rom. 12:8; and is prescribed diligence as his principal qualification in the discharge of his duty. And the words of the  apostle to this purpose are express: 1 Tim. 5:17, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in the word and doctrine.” For the words expressly assign two sorts of elders, whereof some only attend unto rule; others, moreover, labour in the word and doctrine. Neither doth that word, as some would have it, “labour in the word,” intend any other labour but what is incumbent on all the pastors and teachers of the church as their constant duty. See Rom. 16:12; Acts 20:35; 1 Thess. 5:12.

Now, can we suppose that the apostle would affirm them to be worthy of double  honour, whom, comparing with others, he notes as remiss and negligent in their work? for it seems that others were more diligent in the discharge of that duty, which was no less theirs, if only one sort of elders be here intended. The Scripture is not wont to commend such persons as worthy of double honour, but rather to propose them as meet for double shame and punishment, Jer. 48:10; 1 Cor. 9:16.

And they are unmindful of their own interest who would have bishops that attend to the rule of the church to be distinctly intended by the elders that rule well, seeing the apostle expressly preferreth before and above them those that attend constantly to the word and doctrine.

And besides what is thus expressly spoken concerning the appointment of this sort of elders in the church, their usefulnss, in the necessity of their work and employment, is evident; for whereas a constant care in

the church that the conversation of all the members of it be such as becometh the gospel, that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ be not evil spoken of, is of great concernment and importance, and the pastors and teachers, being to give up themselves continually unto prayer and the ministry of the word, cannot attend unto the constant and daily oversight thereof, the usefulness of these elders, whose proper and peculiar work it is to have regard unto the holy walking of the church, must needs be manifest unto all.

But whereas in most churches there is little or no regard unto the personal holiness of the members of them, it is no wonder that no account should be had of them who are ordained by the Lord Christ to look after it and promote it.

The qualification of these elders, with the way of their call and setting apart unto their office, being the same with those of the teaching elders before insisted on, need not be here again repeated.  Their authority, also, in the whole rule of the church, is every way the same with that of the other sort of elders; and they are to act in the execution of it with equal respect and regard from the church.

Yea, the business of rule being peculiarly committed unto them, and they required to attend thereunto with diligence in an especial manner, the work thereof is principally theirs, as that of labouring in the word and doctrine doth especially belong unto the pastors and teachers of the churches.

And this institution is abused when either unmeet persons are called to this office, or those that are called do not attend unto their duty with diligence, or do act only in it by the guidance of the teaching officers, without a sense of their own authority, or due respect from the church.

The Life and Works of John Owen Vol.15