Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

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Rediscovering the Office of Elder-The Shepherd Model, Part I

Part 1 of 3

At the center of our name, tradition, identity, and ethos as Presbyterians is a term that has lost almost all connection with what it meant to most who have called themselves Presbyterians over the last five centuries. Even to many of our parents and grandparents being a “presbyter” or “elder” meant something quite different than it means to most of us today.  

The not too distant past paints a picture of elders vested with spiritual authority who were deeply enmeshed in the lives of people. This is very different from the service rendered in most elder-led churches today. We have seen a total shift in understanding of what it means to be an elder over the last generation or two. The shift is so complete that few of us have any institutional memory of the way it used to be. 

A history of First Presbyterian Church of Dayton, Ohio, published in 1880, contains a section on discipline that provides a clear window into their thoughts on the practice.The fact that a section on church discipline was includedat all is remarkable by today’s standards. What it highlights is even more remarkable.It begins with a lucid and luminous description of elders caring for the congregation and calling them to a closer walk with Christ.

“To err is human,” and so long as human nature remains subject to its present infirmities the exercise of discipline will be necessary to good order, both in the church and state. One duty of church sessions is to guard the purity of the church in the lives of its members. In dealing with offenses, the session holds both judiciary and executive authority. But the most important function of elders is to watch over the flock, of which they are under-shepherds, guarding, counseling, comforting, instructing, encouraging, and admonishing, as circumstances require. The penalties imposed on wrongdoers are censure, suspension from the communion of the Church, and excommunication.[1]

As foreign as this description of duties sounds to 21st century ears, it was not the elders of First Presbyterian Church, Dayton, Ohio, in the 1880s who were guarding the purity of their members and exercising discipline that were out of touch with the historical and Biblical vision of elders. It is the elders of the 20thcentury and beyond who have tended to perceive themselves primarily as corporate managers who are out of step with nearly four millennia of precept and practice.  

There was a time not so long ago when elders saw their role primarily as shepherds of the people rather than  corporate officers. These are two distinct models. One sees elders as having spiritual authority over the flock and an obligation to help them walk as disciples of Jesus Christ.I call this theshepherd model.The other sees elders primarily as leaders of a corporation, with a mandate to protect and maintain the institution. I call this the institutional model. The change in models reflects a massive difference in focus and responsibility with far-reaching implications for the church—on par with any change impacting the church today.    

Elders in the Old Testament

What does our earliest picture of elders suggest about their role and function? The Dutch theologian Hugo Grotius is one of many who have seen a straight line between the governing structure of the synagogue and the early church: “The whole polity or order of the Churches of Christ was conformed to the model of the Jewish Synagogue.”[2]

The first reference to elders governing God’s people is in Exodus where they played an important role in helping Moses lead the people out of slavery. Moses presented himself to the elders upon his return to Egypt from the wilderness of Midian as God’s instrument of redemption and release from slavery. He gathered the elders together to institute the Passover (Ex. 12:21). And, upon the command of the Lord, he relied upon them throughout the Exodus.    

However, it was at a place called Taberah, a mere three-day journey from Mount Sinai, where the complaints of the “rabble” of Israel got to Moses. At Taberah, Moses heard “the people weeping throughout their clans, everyone at the door of his tent” (Num. 11:10). Overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility of leading the crying and moaning rabble, Moses exclaimed, “I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me.” He cried out to the Lord, “If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness” (Num. 11:14–15).

Nearly every pastor I know has reached a point when the burdens of ministry seemed too great. Most pastors will admit to times when they would have rather done anything else than to step back into the pulpit or get into the car to make another hospital call. Although the statistics vary wildly, there seems to be agreement that ministerial burnout is a growing problem.

Is there any help for it? Even as he asked Him to take his life, the Lord provided a remedy to Moses. God instructed him to appoint elders so he would not have to bear the burden of being a shepherd alone:     

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you.And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone (Num. 11:16–17).

And God gave these elders some of the same Spirit that He had given to Moses. The elders, filled with the Holy Spirit, were to reflect the godly character so prevalent in Moses.

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. And he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people and placed them around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it (Num. 11:24–25).

Although their work of prophesying proved intermittent throughout the Old Testament, elders continued to shepherd the people.  

But if anyone hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and attacks him and strikes him fatally so that he dies, and he flees into one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there, and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die (Deut. 19:11–12).

Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, “I do not wish to take her,” then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, “So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house” (Deut. 25:8–9).

Remember the days of old; consider the years of    many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you (Deut. 32:7).

Say to the people of Israel, “Appoint the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you through Moses, that the manslayer who strikes any person without intent or unknowingly may flee there. They shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood. He shall flee to one of these cities and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and explain his case to the elders of that city. Then they shall take him into the city and give him a place, and he shall remain with them” (Josh. 20:2–4)

This is not to say that elders in the Old Testament dealt exclusively with people.The institutional and shepherd models are not a zero-sum game. One need not operate at the expense of the other. The church, like the synagogue, is an institution with authorized leaders, officially prescribedprocedures, forms, governance, duties, etc.James Tunstead Burtchaell summarizes the duties of the elders of the synagogue:

The known prerogatives of the councils of elders were extensive. They continued to honor their own public servants and their gentile patrons and benefactors.They took action on behalf of the community: deciding on resistance or surrender in warfare; sending or receiving embassies between the courts of the great rulers, collecting and transmitting taxes; electing judges and empaneling themselves to give judgment. They were the interpreters of the Law, on matters such as sabbath regulations, calendar, priestly purity and prerogatives, and probate. … There is much evidence that either en banc or in panels the elders continued to mete out justice. Local courts were imprisoning robbers, and scourging violators of the law. They also resolved disputes between members.

In sum, elders as a college were expected to be both statesmen and jurists: representatives of the people’s interests to outsiders, while maintaining lawful discipline within the community.[3]

Josephus records an example of the shepherd model that demonstrates just how seriously it was taken by the elders and the community. Herod Antipater the new twenty-five-year-old governor of Galilee captured and had executed without trial Hezekiah, the captain of a band of robbers, as well as a number of his men who had been raiding Syria. In what was not an apolitical event, Antipater was hauled before the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish council consisting of 70 to 72 elders. Upon the advice of another, he brought with him an armed guard, which so intimidated the witnesses and the elders that no one spoke. According to Josephus, “a righteous man” named Sameas finally stood. In this highly unusual, politically charged atmosphere, his words are instructive to us as to how discipline in front of the Sanhedrin usually functioned.

O you that are assessors with me, and O thou that art our king, I neither have ever myself known such a case, nor do I suppose that any one of you can name its parallel, that one who is called to take his trial by us ever stood in such a manner before us; but every one, whosoever he be, that comes to be tried by this Sanhedrin, presents himself in a submissive manner, and like one that is in fear of himself, and that endeavors to move us to compassion, with his hair disheveled, and in a black and mourning garment: but this admirable man Herod, who is accused of murder, and called to answer so heavy an accusation, stands here clothed in purple, and with the hair of his head finely trimmed, and with his armed men about him, that if we shall condemn him by our law, he may slay us, and by overbearing justice may himself escape death.Yet do not I make this complaint against Herod himself; he is to be sure more concerned for himself than for the laws; but my complaint is against yourselves, and your king, who gave him a license so to do …[4]

Antipater escaped sentencing only because he fled to Damascus.Yet it is worth noting that all who appeared before the Sanhedrin were accustomed to doing so in humility and submission, hopingthey might appeal to their compassion. Sameas’ rebuke of his fellow elders for their fear in the face of Herod’s display reflects the kind of authority they held even over spoiled brat, bloodthirsty would-be kings.Though their authority wasspiritual rather than civil, Presbyterian elders alsoexercised disciplinary authority throughout the 19th century and, in some cases, even the 20th century.

Elders in the New Testament

The New Testament teaches us that the young church utilized elders from almost the very beginning.  In Acts 14, we are told that the apostles after delivering the gospel in a city, leaving behind disciples, “appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (v.23). This was common practice for the apostles and those with whom they worked closely.   Titus was also instructed to “appoint elders in every town as I instructed you” (Titus 1:5). 

But what was their work? There are two words most closely linked with the work of elders: overseer (episkopos) and shepherd (poimen).

In Paul’s farewell speech to the Ephesian elders, he charged them to have oversight and to shepherd God’s people whom He purchased at a dear price. “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28, NAS, emphasis added). This instruction we can reckon was well received because the Ephesian elders and Paul wept at his parting. 

Peter’s First Letter contains the longest New Testament job description of elders. Here oversight and shepherding factor in heavily. In fact, the ability to shepherd and oversee well will earn the elder “an unfading crown of glory”: 

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder  and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Pet. 5:1–4).

The two words are also joined together in a description of Jesus Christ, the Chief Shepherd and Overseer: “For you were straying like sheep, but now have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:25).

In Titus, immediately after the instruction to appoint elders in every town, the word overseer is used interchangeably along the same lines of instruction:

For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, holy and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Tit. 1:7–9).

First Timothy elaborates similar qualifications for the leaders of the church:

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore, an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive (1 Tim. 3: 2–4).

The following passage in Timothy goes on to cite the qualifications “likewise” for deacons, clearly inferring yet another commonly recognized church office.  

The salutation of the letter to the church at Philippi contains a like joining:  “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons…” (Phil. 1:1).

Episkopos, of course, is also commonly translated with the word bishop taken from the Middle English word bissop, coming from the Old English bisecop whose origins are in the Latin word for overseer episcopus.    The terms elder and overseer were interchangeable for the early Church. Burtchaell calls elder and overseer ‘synonyms’ in the early church.[5]

Matthew Henry, in his commentary, equates the two: 

It [Philippians] is directed to the ministers, or church-officers—with          the bishops and deacons, the bishops or elders whose office, in the first place, whose office it was to teach and rule, and the deacons or overseers of the poor, who took care of the outward business of the house of God: the place, the furniture, the main-tenance of the            ministers, and provision for the poor.[6]

Theodoret, the 4th century Bishop of Cyrrhus, also said there was no difference between the two offices. He applies the term bishops to presbyters, for at that time they had both names. … And it is clear that he makes this assumption here also. For he joins the deacons to the bishops, making no mention of the presbyters. Furthermore, it was not possible for many bishops to be shepherds to one city. So it is clear that he is calling the presbyters bishops.”[7]

Phillip Schaff, the great Reformed church historian, maintained as well that bishop or overseer and elder were interchangeable for the early church:

The terms presbyter (or elder) and bishop (or overseer, superintendent) denote in the New Testament one and the same office, with this difference only, that the first is borrowed from the synagogue, the second from the Greek communities and that the one signifies the dignity, the other the duty.[8]

Schaff goes on to say that the terms overseer and elder remained interchangeable until the end of the first century and even somewhat into the second.[9] We know that regardless of its name, the early church was governed and led by individuals who were granted authority to speak into the lives of people, to shepherd the flock (poimnion) and oversee the lives of women, men, and their children.  

Samuel Miller, the 19th century Presbyterian who authored that age’s definitive work on elders, stated the matter plainly:

To whatever Church our attention is directed, in the inspired history, we find in it a plurality of elders; we find the mass of Church members spoken of as under their authority; and while the people are exhorted to submit to their rule, with all readiness and affection; these rulers are commanded, in the name of Christ, to exercise the power vested in them by the great Head of the Church, with firmness, and fidelity, and yet with disinterestedness, and moderation, so as to promote most effectually, the purity and order of the flock.[10]

This authority over the flock, of course, follows the tradition from the synagogue inherited by the nascent church. The idea of the church, at this stage, as an institution in need of maintenance rather than a movement of people in need of spiritual transformation would have been simply incomprehensible to the Christians of the first century. The authority of the elders or overseers was directed with a laser-like focus on the lives of people:

Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly. Not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock (I Pet. 5:2–3).

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood (Acts 20:28).

Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord (James 5:14).

Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders (1 Pet. 5:5).

At the Jerusalem Council, the apostles and the elders debated whether Gentiles should be circumcised. Their debate, recounted to us in Acts 15, does not read like a discussion over corporate policy or “best practices. It focused on God, His people, and the impact circumcision as law would have on their faith. There is no slippery slope argument.Peter stood up in the assembly and after recounting God’s grace asked a question worthy of a shepherd: “‘Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’ And all the assembly fell silent” (Acts 15:10–12).

Elders in the Early Church

For the second century church, The Shepherd of Hermas leaves no doubt about where the responsibility for the condition of the flock lay.  The shepherd bears a tremendous responsibility for not allowing the flock to stray. Beware, however. Any elder (including teaching elder) who complains about the congregation they serve should read these convicting words carefully. 

Lay aside, therefore, the recollection of your offences and bitternesses, and you will be formed in one spirit. And heal and take away from you those wicked schisms, that if the Lord of the flocks come, He may rejoice concerning you. And He will rejoice, if He find all things sound, and none of you shall perish. But if He find any one of these sheep strayed, woe to the shepherds! And if the shepherds themselves have strayed, what answer will they give Him for their flocks? Will they perchance say that they were harassed by their flocks? They will not be believed, for the thing is incredible that a shepherd could suffer from his flock; rather will he be punished on account of his falsehood. And I myself am a shepherd, and I am under a most stringent necessity of rendering an account of you.[11]

Near the close of the first century, Clemens Romanus echoed this dominant idea when he instructed the Church at Corinth: “Let the flock of Christ enjoy peace with the elders that are set over it.”[12] Ignatius equated obedience to the Presbytery with obedience of Christ,[13] calling Presbyters the “Sanhedrin of God.”[14]

John’s disciple Polycarp, who served the church in the second century and was martyred for his confession, also claimed a role for elders that underscored their shepherding and oversight of the people. 

Let the elders be tender and merciful, compassionate toward all, reducing those that are in error, visiting those that are weak, not negligent of the widow and the orphan and him that is poor; but ever providing what is honest in the sight of God and man; abstaining from all worth, respect of persons and unrighteous judgment; being far from covetousness, not hastily believing a report against man, not rigid in judgment, knowing that we are all faulty and subject to condemnation.[15]

Polycarp’s disciple Irenaeus, the second century Gallic bishop, did not stray far from his mentor’s teaching when he enjoined the church to fight the good fight against heretical teaching: “it is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church … those who … have received the certain gift of truth, according to the Father.”[16]

These terms: obedience, oversight, flock, shepherd, subject are not ones that slip easily off the 21stcentury Western tongue. In the minds of many, they are synonymous with domination, subjugation, patriarchy, and abuse of power. Although the practice of the shepherd model was far from perfect, the record shows that tenderness, mercy, and compassion were abundant. We can be assured that a great many elders faithfully discharged their office as poimen and cared for the poimnion with uncommon love and compassion.

A quick read of church history shows that during the second century the use of elders began to decline in favor of a more hierarchical structure, featuring a boatload of ecclesial offices:  priest, metropolitan, doorkeeper, reader, subdeacon, exorcist, acolyte, tonsure, cantor, psalmist, and bishop, to name a few.  The simplicity of the elders and deacons of the early church gave way to a complicated bureaucracy worthy of a subcommittee of the United States Senate. In the process, the distance between the leadership and the people, the shepherd and the flock, grew exponentially. 

The fourth century Constitution of the Holy Apostles shows how far the church had come from the relatively simple days of overseers or elders and deacons and the extent to which the church now claimed the Bishop had authority over the lives of the people—bordering on idolatry. “He [the bishop] is your ruler and governor; he is your king and your potentate, next after God, your earthly god, who has a right to be honored by you.”[17] While some have celebrated this development, most Reformed Christians have lamented it.

The Reformation’s Re-Discovery of Elders 

In seeking a biblical understanding of the church, the Protestant Reformersdiscovered the Bible had a lot to say about elders. Indeed, they discovered the office of elder had been virtually forgotten for a millennium. Two notable exceptions were the Waldensians, founded by Peter Waldo in 1177, and the Moravian Church that grew out of the teachings of John Hus beginning in the late 14th century. The Moravian Church’s “Plan of Government and Discipline” placed elders, once again, at the center of the church’s leadership, practicing what could easily be labeled the shepherd model.   

Elders are honest, grave, pious men, chosen out of the whole congregation,             that they may act as guardians of all the rest. To them authority is given (either alone, or in connexion with the Pastor) to admonish and rebuke those who transgress the pre-scribed rules, also to reconcile those who are at variance, and to restore to order whatever irregularity they may have noticed. Likewise in secular matters, relating to domestic concerns, the younger men and youths are in the habit of asking their counsel and being faithfully advised by them. From the example and practice of the ancient Church, we believe that this ought to always to be done…[18]

The Moravians were a revelation to Martin Bucer (1491–1551), the great Reformed theologian and pastor of Strasbourg.  He learned of their system of elders and lauded their practice, claiming that the Moravians had “preserved in the world the purity of the doctrine, and the vigor of the discipline of Christ … an excellent rule for which we are compelled to give them credit and especially to praise … God.”[19]

The Moravian system appealed to Bucer’s conviction that it is “the Holy Spirit’s ordinance … that each church have a number of elders who are all pastors and bishops, i.e. overseers who provide pastoral care and carry out the pastoral office.”[20]

Bucer taught that there were two classes of elders, those who taught and those who had oversight over others. For the teaching elder, the primary task was the proclamation of the Gospel in public, requiring theological and Biblical training. The ruling elder fulfilled a different office in the church. Ruling elders might be pressed into the service of teaching from time to time, but oversight of the flock, not teaching, was their chief responsibility. Bucer maintained some simple yet demanding qualifications for these persons whose job it was to rule the church and keep the sheep from slipping from grace into judgment.

For to the end that someone may manifest himself to be a good elder it is sufficient that he has a good understanding of the ministry of Christ, can teach others—in so-so fashion perhaps but still faithfully—and is endowed with spiritual wisdom and zeal to rule the Church of Christ and to prevent people from falling away from the grace received.[21]

The primary work of the ruling elder was to exercise pastoral care either to individuals or entire households and, alongside the teaching elder (minister of the Word and Sacrament), to conduct discipline. It was expressly forbidden for formal discipline to be conducted without the presence of the elders. 

But what did this pastoral care look like? Bucer’s most extensive discussion of the work of teaching and ruling elders is contained in his work, Concerning the True Care of Souls and Genuine Pastoral Ministry. By instilling the so-called “discipline of life and manners,” the two offices were to function together as a team. 

As the title suggests, Buceremphasized love and care for individual souls. Since the goal was reconciliation (not a tidy church), he knew that church discipline could be messy. But his concern was for individuals––husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and employees, friends, neighbors, etc. And he encouraged them to repent and seek reconciliation. Thus, his vision for the duty of elders was clear:

Since therefore God ordained this discipline, punishment and penance to be useful and beneficial for people, carrying it out by the agency of all pious fathers, disciplinarians and rulers, and in his church there should be the best discipline and government in order that people might be drawn, led and encouraged from all that is wicked to all that is good …[22]

Though well worn and frequently misunderstood, the dominant analogy Bucer used to describe the pastoral task was that of sheep and shepherd. Bucer outlined five tasks for elders and pastors, most of which fall along the lines of church discipline and oversight. Once again, the overwhelming focus is on loving and caring for the individual.

From this it is evident that there are five main tasks required in the pastoral office and true care of souls. First: to lead to Christ our Lord and into his communion those who are still estranged from him, whether through carnal excess or false worship.  Secondly: to restore those who had once been brought to Christ and into his church but have been drawn away again through the affairs of the flesh or false doctrine. Thirdly: to assist in the true reformation of those who while remaining in the church of Christ have grievously fallen and sinned. Fourthly: to re-establish in true Christian strength and health those who, while persevering in the fellowship of Christ and not doing anything particularly or grossly wrong, have become somewhat feeble and sick in the Christian life. Fifthly: to protect from all offence and falling away and continually encourage in all good things those who stay with the flock and in Christ’s sheep-pen without grievously sinning or becoming weak and sick in their Christian walk.[23]

Bucer’s understanding of the work of the elder is holistic––where the care and feeding of the sheep is at least as important as keeping them in the sheepfold and much more important than merely maintaining the sheepfold itself. “The office of shepherd,” Bucer said, “involves being concerned and through the word of God providing that Christ’s lambs … should be gathered in … and protected … against all temptations and afflictions.”[24]

Among these five purposes for the pastoral ministry, the first seems to have an evangelistic thrust.  Discipline is the significant role in purposes two and three: correcting both those who have fallen away from the church and those who have fallen but remain in the church. The fourth task, strengthening those whose faith in Christ is “feeble and sick” could also well fit under an expanded, more proactive role conception of discipline seen more in the light of discipleship. The fifth task, protecting from “offence and falling away,” also clearly falls along the lines of oversight and discipline.  The proper care of the sheep is not a simple matter of protecting them from the weak and the sick. They themselves must first be strengthened and fed.  Bucer spells this out:

… since this Christian and godly life flows entirely from a true and living faith in Christ the Lord, it can be clearly seen that if Christians are to be maintained, guarded and encouraged so that they live in accordance with their calling and the grace they have received, i.e., that they live a truly Christian life, it must above all be ensured that they are healthy in the faith and that all their plans, decisions and actions stem from faith and a living knowledge of Christ, that they always take good account of and consider what Christ has become, done and given for us, and what he will be, do and give for us.[25]

All five purposes fall under the shepherd model. Compassion for the individual as the first task of the shepherd, rather than the preservation of a building, shows that Bucer’s understanding of the practice of discipline is more encompassing than the way it is typically understood.  It is also more demanding.

We see this again, plainly, in Bucer’s description of what he called “the Ministry of the Discipline of the Life and Manners.” 

The discipline of life and manners consists in this … by the authority and magisterium of our Lord Jesus Christ, each person should strengthen and advance his neighbors, wherever this is possible, and urge them to progress in the life of God, as his disciples, in his faith and knowledge. And if any fall into error of doctrine or some vice of life and manners, whoever can should with utmost zeal recall such persons from all false doctrine and depraved activity …[26]


I cannot recall encouraging anyone, at least lately, “by the authority and magisterium of Jesus Christ I urge you to progress in the life of God.” But it is clear that Bucer’s heart for his flock was to feed and care for them with love and grace. Discipline is not merely for those who struggle and fall. Nor is it ever reducible to hauling wayward members before the Session.  Discipline is the work of the Holy Spirit.

For Bucer, teaching and ruling elders serve together as shepherds under the One True Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Their authority derives not from personal attributes, knowledge, charisma, or any quality within them. Rather it is conferred upon them by the Holy Spirit through their appointment as servants of the Word. They have no authority in themselves, but only as they fulfill their responsibilities to love, lead, and care for the flock by the power of the Holy Spirit under the authority of God’s Word. Bucer’s words remind us of Paul’s: “In him you are also being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:22); “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry …” (Eph. 4:12).

Bucer believed it is the Holy Spirit who governs the Christian community and it is also by the Spirit that ministry is made effective. He also believed the Holy Spirit not only gives authority but ability as well.  The Spirit gifts each and every member, like the 70 elders called to serve alongside Moses, to take their “place in the body.” Every Christian belongs to Christ and “is an instrument of the Holy Spirit and ordained for the special work of the salvation of the entire body.”[27]

In 1538 Martin Bucer received into Strasbourg a young pastor, already a leader in the Reformation, who had been forced to leave Geneva, the city in which he had worked alongside Guillaume Farel to reform according to Scriptural principles. It was in Strasbourg that John Calvin, whose name is nearly synonymous with elders and is even erroneously given credit for inventing the office, was given the form of government to lead the theological and ethical reform he sought. Phillip Benedict claims that during his stay in Strasbourg from 1538–1542 “Bucer directly inspired him.”[28] To the “Master of Geneva” and his considerable influence on elder leadership, we will turn next. 


Dr. Eric Laverentz is Lead Pastor of First Presbyterian Church (ECO), Edmond, Oklahoma, Coordinator of the Elder Leadership Institute, and a Flourishing Leaders coach.

[1] Clarke McDermott, A History of the First Presbyterian Church of Dayton, OH (Dayton, OH: Journal Book and Job Printing Establishment, 1880), 69–70. 

[2] Hugo Grotius, Annotationes in Acts of the Apostles, vi, xi. Cited in Samuel Miller, An Essay Upon the Warrant, Nature and Duties of the Office of Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath School Work, 1832), 45). Hereafter Ruling Elder.

[3] James T. Burtchaell, From Synagogue to Church: Public Services and Offices in the Earliest Christian Communities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 232.

[4] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, tr. William Whiston (Philadelphia: J.A. Smith, 1854), XIV.9.4.

[5] Burtchaell, From Synagogue to Church, 296.

[6] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Volume 6 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 583.

[7] Theodoret, Comentarius in Omnes B. Pauli Epistolas, 2, ed. C.Marriot (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1852), 44–45.

[8] Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), 492.

[9] Schaff,  History of the Christian Church, 493.

[10] Miller, Ruling Elder, 52.

[11] Shepherd of Hermas,  tr. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 1867), 9:31–45.

[12] Cited in Miller, Ruling Elder, 7. 

[13] Ignatius, Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians, cited in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1, ed. Phillip Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999) Chapter V.

[14] Ignatius, Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians, Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1, ed. Phillip Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999) Chapter III.

[15] Polycarp, The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, cited in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1, 34.

[16] Iraenus, Against Heresies, cited in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1, ed. Phillip Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999) XXVI.2.

[17] “Constitutions of the Holy Apostles,” found in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 7, ed. Phillip Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999) Section XXVI.

[18] “Plan of Government and Discipline” of the Bohemian Brethren ratified by the General Synod of 1616 found in Miller, Ruling Elder, 112. Although this was ratified in 1616, Miller comments that this had been the practice since 1416, “nearly a century before the birth of Calvin” (112).

[19] Martin Bucer, Scripta duo Adversaria Latomi &c. in Cap. De. Ecclesiae Auctoritate, 159.  Miller,  Ruling Elder, 114.

[20] W. van’t Spijker, The Ecclesiastical Offices in the Thought of Martin Bucer (Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill), 175.

[21] van’t Spijker, The Ecclesiastical Offices, 428.

[22] Martin Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls and Genuine Pastoral Ministry, tr. Peter Beale, unpublished manuscript 1993, 74. Hereafter cited True Care of Souls.

[23] Bucer, True Care of Souls, 48.

[24] Bucer, True Care of Souls, 48.

[25] Bucer, True Care of Souls, 111.

[26] Martin Bucer, De Regno Christi found in Melanchthon and Bucer tr. W. Pauck (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 240.

[27] van’t Spijker,The Ecclesiastical Offices, 86, 171.

[28] Phillip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed, A Social History of Calvinism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 87.

Eric Laverentz
Eric Laverentz
Dr. Eric Laverentz is Lead Pastor of First Presbyterian Church (ECO), Edmond, OK, Coordinator of the Elder Leadership Institute, a Flourishing Life Leaders’ Coach.


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