Good Churchmanship: Understanding the Dynamics of an Effective Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America



 This paper is primarily intended to address those ruling elders who are in the position of or are considering the position of Ruling Elder Advocate for their respective presbyteries. I would also content that this paper is an exhortation to the teaching elder within our denomination.  It is a fact that over the past decade, ruling elder participation the PCA General Assembly and PCA presbyteries has been declining.  Why is this so?  Is it the cost?  Do the churches have the budgets to send their officers to General Assembly?  Do the presbyteries make it easier for ruling elders to attend?  Are the pastors doing an effective job of cultivating leadership within their respective churches where men are discipled in all areas of churchmanship, including the fundamentals of reformed theology, church polity, the connectional church and the dynamics of effective leadership?  Are the church sessions really interested in what goes on in their presbyteries and the denomination as a whole?  Perhaps it is a mixture of all the above.  This paper will not solve those problems but I would content that the leadership of the PCA needs to take note that there are reasons why there is declining participation of the ruling elder in the connectional dimensions of the Presbyterian Church, and something needs to be done to address those reasons.  As we all know, there is a reason for having parity in leadership between the office of teaching and ruling elder.  When ruling elder participation declines, then that parity is at risk and we run the danger of a teaching elder dominated denomination.

This paper will address what I believe to be some fundamental aspects of good churchmanship, which hopefully will provide a solid foundation to those prospective and existing Ruling Elder Advocates to use to help build a stronger base of ruling elders both at the presbytery and General Assembly level.

There are five aspects of good churchmanship that I believe will help to build a solid foundation of knowledge and experience for the ruling elder.

1—Knowing the Importance of the Connectional Church

 Theological Reasons

A good ruling elder will know and understand why a local church should not stand alone.  It is not healthy and according to Scripture, it is not biblical.  Going all the way back to Acts 15, we see the importance of the notion of a church council, whereby church leaders from around the region or geography get together to decide on important ecclesiastical and theological topics.   According to church history, many of the early church councils dealt with defining the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith that we still embrace today.  In the Presbyterian Church, we embrace the notion of plurality of leadership.  As Proverbs 15:22 tells us, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.”  But not only do we embrace the plurality of leadership, we also embrace the parity of leadership.  That is, when teaching and ruling elders come together to meet in their various church courts (Session, Presbytery, or General Assembly), they are equals.  There is not the notion of hierarchical form of government as this is in other denominations.  That is why it is so important to raise awareness of the importance of the office of ruling elder, if none other than to promote the parity of leadership within our denomination.

Practical Reasons

Not only is it important both biblically and theologically to hold to the doctrine of the connectional church, it is simply more practical to do so.  I offer three very important and practical benefits of the connectional church:

  • A good churchman identifies with the connectional church The connectional church at the higher court levels offers the ruling elder a vast network of contacts, education, wisdom and increased fellowship.  This is where a ruling elder can gain much more knowledge and practical applications of his office, by simply networking and collaborating with other leaders within the presbytery and the denomination.
  • A good churchman identifies with the connectional church as a A ruling elder who involves himself in presbytery and General Assembly will increase his “circle of friends” and enlarge his community base.  It just cannot be helped.  He will make more friends outside of his own church.  Additionally, by increasing his community base, he will have access to much more resources and assistance that he cannot gain by simply isolating himself to the activities of his church and the church Session.
  • A good churchman identifies with the connectional church It is in this benefit of the connectional church that the ruling elder identifies with the larger church and comes closer to understanding the meaning and importance of the universal church.  Understanding the larger church is a fundamental but very important doctrine.  It is the basis for our global mission of spreading the gospel.  It is within the confines of this concept that the ruling elder learns of the many other denominations that are connected to us through NAPARC.  It is with this concept that the ruling elder begins to understand that his church is not alone and that there many believers who have the same fundamental objective reaching out to the lost with the good news of Jesus Christ.  It is with this concept that the ruling elder participates in a denominational worship experience with many other churches.

2—Knowing Church Polity

 I have discovered in my interactions with other newer ruling elders (and even those within my own church) that there is less emphasis placed now on the basic concepts and knowledge of the Presbyterian form of government, church policy and church discipline.  More and more ruling elders within the PCA are becoming BCO-ignorant, which will degrade the effectiveness of future presbytery and General Assembly meetings in the future.  BCO 24-1.c states that all ruling elder and deacon candidates are to be examined of “his knowledge of the system of doctrine, government, discipline contained in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America.”  Our PCA Constitution is comprised of the Westminster Confession of Faith together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and the Book of Church Order, comprising the Form of Government, the Rules of Discipline and the Directory of Worship; all as adopted by the church.

I believe that we as leaders of the church must do a much better job of examining men who stand for office in this area.  I also believe that this is one area where the Ruling Elder Advocate can play a major role in helping men become students not only of Scripture, but also of our church polity.

3—Knowing Reformed Theology

 One of the things that helped me grow as a Christian, husband, father and leader within the church was embracing the fundamentals of the Reformed Faith. Many years ago when I was a young Christian, I was discipled by a pastor in a PCA church that believed in teaching the doctrines of reformed theology to as many men who would be willing to learn.  The response was overwhelming. This pastor conducted study sessions every weekday morning and a couple of lunch hours during the week.  These men were hungry both for the Word of God but learning it in a systematic way that helped them to understand Scripture better.  This training made us better students of the Bible, better fathers, better husbands and ultimately better leaders.  I cannot emphasize enough of how important it is for pastors to cultivate their leaders early.  They need to build their “pipeline” (sorry for the sales term) of leadership potential.  I would also disagree with the traditional approach of nominating a man for office and then putting him through a crash course in reformed theology.  It is a disservice to the church and to the man who stands for office.  If a church took the approach that my pastor of early years did, then the examination process of potential officer candidates would be a “a piece of cake,” and the training of such men would be more focused on the dynamics of effective leadership and the actual qualifications of the office as defined in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.

4—Knowing the Importance of Caring for the Flock

 BCO 8-1 clearly defines three major duties of the office of elder—he has oversight of the flock, in which he is termed bishop or pastor.  He is to be an example to the flock and govern well the house and Kingdom of Christ, in which he is termed presbyter or elder.  Finally, he is to expound the Word, and teach sound doctrine, in which is termed teacher.  BCO 8-1 also states that these titles do not indicate different grades of office, but all describe one and the same office.  Therefore, it is the duty of both the office of ruling elder and teaching elder to perform all of these duties.  It is not up to the Senior Pastor to have oversight of the flock.  It is the sacred duty of all the elders of the church to be loving shepherds of their flocks.  They must share in this duty both severally and jointly.  The more that the ruling elder embraces the aforementioned principles of good churchmanship, the more he will embrace the duty of shepherding the flock.  Shepherding the flock comprises all three duties and shepherding is not effective unless all three duties are truly embraced and performed within the church by all the elders.

5—Knowing the Importance of Continuing Education

 A good churchman will admit that he does not know enough.  There is no pinnacle of education that can be reached within Christendom that would lead a man to believe he knows enough within his office.  Once a leader believes he does not need to learn any more, he becomes an ineffective leader and that is a dangerous notion.  We, as leaders, must always be learning, whether it be the daily study of the Scriptures, studies in theological concepts, leadership or other areas of study that would prove to be beneficial to the church leader.  If our church leaders embrace continuing education, only good can come from it.  Again, here is an area that the Ruling Elder Advocate can play a major role, by instituting a continuing learning program for ruling elders in many areas of study, including but not limited to church government, reformed theology, effective teaching, and the dynamics of the effective leader.


 So there you have it.  Five principles of good churchmanship.  I do not expect all of them to be embraced 100%.  But we should at least try.  I understand that the duties of the office of ruling elder, when looking at it holistically, can be overwhelming, especially when the ruling elder is younger and has a full time job to hold down plus a family to raise.  But you would be surprised just how much time you would have on your hands if you truly examine your priorities in your life.   I was ordained to the office of ruling elder when I was the age of 33, but was able to maintain a balance of priorities in my life that would allow me to function in that office while not neglecting my marital and family duties.  Perhaps again, this may be another subject matter that the Ruling Elder Advocate could address.  It is starting to sound like this new position is becoming a better idea as each second of the clock ticks.  May God bless our denomination of the PCA as we endeavor to reach the world for Christ and His glory.