Years ago, I had a conversation with a ruling elder at a PCA church in another city, where he told me that he thought one of his spiritual gifts was “serving on boards.” It was clear both from the rest of the conversation and from the way that particular church conducted its affairs, that he viewed his ruling elder office as just another board membership. I fear this view is all too common, especially among some of our larger churches where it is easy to push work onto church staff.
Ruling elders are not board members. The church is not run by a board of directors. The PCA constitution embraces a two-office view: we have deacons, and we have elders. Elders govern the church jointly, sitting in the courts of the church, primarily on church sessions. Disconnecting that governing from teaching and shepherding is unbiblical and fraught with peril.
Rather than thinking of your ruling elders as board members, it is more accurate to think of them as associate pastors. The BCO certainly emphasizes the spiritual nature of the office as well as its full scope:
This office is one of dignity and usefulness. The man who fills it has in Scripture different titles expressive of his various duties. As he has the oversight of the flock of Christ, he is termed bishop or pastor. As it is his duty to be grave and prudent, an example to the flock, and to govern well in the house and Kingdom of Christ, he is termed presbyter or elder. As he expounds the Word, and by sound doctrine both exhorts and convinces the gainsayer, he is termed teacher. These titles do not indicate different grades of office, but all describe one and the same office. BCO 8-1 (2017 Revision). Note that this section applies to both ruling and teaching elders.
Elders being of one class of office, ruling elders possess the same authority and eligibility to office in the courts of the Church as teaching elders. They should, moreover, cultivate zealously their own aptness to teach the Bible and should improve every opportunity of doing so. BCO 8-9 (2017 Revision).
I realize I am preaching to the choir to some extent, based on the likely readers of this blog. But if you are a ruling elder and most of what you do in that role involves going to session meetings, you might want to re-examine how you view your responsibilities. All of us should encourage our ruling elders to embrace the full scope of their office. That means shepherding God’s people, teaching, and governing the church—at the local, regional, and national levels.
Not every ruling elder needs to attend presbytery and general assembly every time, but if your church is not sending its full allotment of ruling elders to those courts, then you should encourage your brethren to step up and fulfill their duties. If your ruling elders are not regularly teaching, then you should encourage them to do so. Similarly, pastoral care should not fall entirely or even mostly on the teaching elders.
The office of elder is a gift Christ has given his church and those who bear that office should embrace its full scope, for the good of the brothers and sisters whose care they are charged with and for the glory of God.