Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

+1 864-378-5416

Rediscovering the Office of Elder. The Shepherd Model, Part II

Part 2 of 3

In 1898, the ruling elders of the Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Missouri,became aware through local media that one of their members, Dr. H.S Lowry had become sexually involved with one of his employees.Dr. Lowry repented of the sin and admitted his offense in writing to the Session. However, the elders of Second Presbyterian Church sought further to set the matter straight between the couple. They spelled out their terms. Dr. Lowry was forgiven, but to regain full “communion and privileges of membership” he would have to marry the woman. They made it clear: “An adequate repentance it seems to us can only be fully evinced by giving to the young woman you have wronged the right to bear your name and to look to you for the protection which a husband alone can afford a wife.” Here is the full letter:   

Dear Brother:

In view of the unhappy publicity what has been given your relations with your former employee and assistant you will not be surprised that as church officers we feel called upon to take notice of the results of your trial.

Recognizing that Church discipline has three purposes to subserve the acquittal of persons unjustly accused, the expulsion of members persistent in sin, and the rescue and support of those who confess and forsake their wrongdoing. We are happy to know that your written acknowledgement, placed before us, with expressions of sorrow and penitence, permit us to recognize you as belonging to the third class.

The offence to which you plead guilty is among the most grave it is possible for a man to commit, being nothing less than the seduction of one whose youth and helplessness should have appealed to your compassion, whose honor should have been defended by her employer, and whose virtue, sacredly guarded by one professing to be her lover. Her youth, her innocence, and her implicit trust in yourself ought to have appealed to your honor as a gentleman and your conscience as a Christian. We believe that, carried away by your passion at the time, you nevertheless intended to make every reparation in your power, when you realized the enormity of your offence. But illicit relations long continued blunt the moral sensibilities and beget recriminations and aversions unfavorable to betrothal vows. That however cannot free any man from the binding character of their obligations. It is not the civil service which constitutes marriage in the eye of heaven. In the forum of Christian morals we believe you to be as truly the husband of your former assistant as you ever can be, and that it is your duty to consummate that relationship by all proper and legal forms if it be permitted you to do so. Knowing as you do that this young person has held herself as absolutely faithful to you as if you were duly married any other marriage entered into by you would seem to us, and to the general public, as adulterous and bigamous. An adequate repentance it seems to us can only be fully evinced by giving to the young woman you have wronged the right to bear your name and to look to you for the protection which a husband alone can afford a wife. Exercising therefore the authority entrusted to us by our Book Of Discipline (Chap. VII Sec.47) and wishing to use it for the edification and instruction, we must pronounce you suspended from the communion and fellowship of the Church until such time as your evident penitence Christian life may warrant a full restoration of Church privileges. Trusting in the sincerity of your (indecipherable) professions, we pledge personally our sympathies and our prayers trusting that you may profess to be fully restored to that place of public confidence and Christian esteem which you once enjoyed. We offer our prayers to the great Head of the Church that we may be helped in keeping His name pure and free from reproach, we remain yours most


The Clerk of Session

Acting According to Precedent

Whatever one thinks of the efforts of the elders of Second Presbyterian Church to impose marriage upon Dr. Lowry, they were acting according to historic precedent and executing their office in a fashion that had been practiced for nearly 4,000 years, reaching back to the synagogue and the time of Moses. They were not only doing what they thought best. They were doing what they thought was their duty. These elders saw themselves as shepherds of people with a sober responsibility to care for their spiritual health, if not the condition of the souls ofindividuals under their authority. They learned this practice not only through study of Scripture but also through communal osmosis. It was the only form of elder leadership they had ever known, both as shepherds and shepherded. In the previous edition of Theology Matters 24/3 (Summer 2018), pp. 1–9), Martin Bucer’s shepherd model of elder leadership was introduced. 

Part of Bucer’s legacy was to teach this model of leadership to a young pastor whose leadership had been rejected in the city he served. That city was Geneva. The pastor’s name was John Calvin. It is his name not Bucer’s that would become synonymous with elders. If one had asked the elders prescribing marriage for their church member whose legacy and example inspired them, they would likely have mentioned John Calvin. This essay tracesthe development of the shepherd model of elders through the thought of John Calvin and Samuel Miller until its abandonment in the early 20th century for a more corporate, institutional model.

Calvin taught that there were four orders to the government of the Church: pastors, teachers (or doctors), elders, and deacons. He described the duties of elders in the Draft Ordinances of the City of Geneva: “Their office is to have oversight over the life of everyone, to admonish amicably those whom they see to be erring or to be living a disordered life, and, where it is required, to enjoin fraternal connections among themselves and along with others.”[1]

In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin put an even finer point on the role of elders:

Governors (1 Cor. 12:28) were, I believe, elders chosen from the people, who were charged with the censure of morals and the exercise of discipline along with the bishops. For one cannot otherwise interpret the statement, “Let him who rules act with diligence” (Rom. 12:9 cf. Vg.). Each church, therefore, had from its beginning a senate, chosen from godly, grave, and holy men, which had jurisdiction over the correcting of faults. Of it we shall speak later. Now experience itself makes clear that this sort of order was not confined to one age.  Therefore, this office of government is necessary for all ages.[2]  

Comments such as these suggest that Calvin focused perhaps more strongly on correction of morals and faults rather than a more holistic feeding of the sheep, as shown previously in the teaching of Martin Bucer, Calvin’s mentor in Strasbourg.

John Calvin on Church Discipline

Calvin stressed discipline not only for the sake of the individual but even more so for the sake of the preservation of the church.Exercising discipline would be considered until the last half of the 19th century one of the chief tasks of an elder. Session minutes from that period are peppered with accounts of sundry acts of discipline and oversight of church members. While Calvin spent a lot of time providing pastoral care and was deeply involved in the lives of his flock, when it came to discipline he tended to place more emphasis on the preservation of the church whereas Bucer appears to have focused more onindividual members. Simply put, Bucer emphasized love and care for the individual. Calvin sought first to defend and maintain the honor of Christ’s Bride.   

In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin names three purposes of discipline: 

The first is that they who live a filthy and infamous life may not be called Christians to the dishonor of God, as if his holy church were a conspiracy of wicked and abandoned men. … The second purpose is that the good may not be corrupted by the constant company of the wicked, as commonly happens. … The third purpose is that those overcome by shame for their baseness begin to repent.  They who under gentler treatment would have become more stubborn so profit by the chastisement of their own evil as to be awakened when they feel the rod.[3]

Although the last two purposes, perhaps phrased a bit un-delicately, aregrounded in a desire to see individual disciples lead a better life in Christ, Calvin’s other statements on discipline seem to weigh more heavily toward his first concern, the preservation of the Church.In his discussion of communion in the Catechism of the Church of Geneva, there is a discussion on fencing the table,” which he regards an important tool of discipline: 

M[inister]: But ought pastors, to whom the admin-istration is entrusted, to admit everyone always and without discrimination?

C[hild]: So far as baptism is concerned, because it is   now only conferred on infants, there is no room for discretion. In the case of the Supper, the minister ought to be very careful to offer it to none who is manifestly unworthy.

M[inister]: Why is this?

C[hild[: Because otherwise it cannot be done without affront and profanation of the sacrament.[4]

In his reply to Cardinal Sadolet, who had sought to win the Genevans back to Roman Catholicism, Calvin took Rome to task for its persistent and flagrant refusal to exercise discipline. It was not Rome’s disregard for individual believers that disturbed Calvin. It was Rome’s lack of care for the institution: “Where, pray, exist among you any vestiges of that true and holy discipline, which the ancient bishops exercised in the Church?Have you not scorned all their institutions? Have you not trampled the Canons under foot? Then, your nefarious profanation of the sacraments I cannot think of without the utmost horror.”[5]

The most infamous episode of church discipline under Calvin’s watch was the burning at the stake of the heretic, Michael Servetus. Despite the fact that Servetus would have been executed as a criminal in almost any city of Europe, Calvin showed pastoral concern for him, at whose hand Calvin himself had endured a number of vicious personal attacks. There is also evidence that Servetus wanted to be martyred and to that end forcedCalvin and the Councils’ hand. Visiting Servetus shortly before his death, Calvin pleaded with him to recant. “I prayed him to devote his efforts to asking pardon of the Son of God whom he had disfigured with his fantasies, denying that he had worn our flesh and that he was like us in human nature, and whom by this means he had renounced as his Savior.”Guillaume Farel accompanied Servetus during his final moments on Friday, October 27, 1553.[6]

Despite how he is often characterized,Calvin emphatically warned against discipline that was too severe. He criticized the discipline of “the ancients, which both completely departed from the Lord’s injunction and was also terribly dangerous.” The only result, Calvin asserts, which could come of discipline that is too severe is “either great hypocrisy or utter despair.” He also cautioned especially in the matter of excommunication that unless “gentleness is maintained in both private and public censures, there is a danger lest we soon slide down from discipline to butchery.”[7]

This demonstrates the multi-faceted nature of Calvin’s thought on the difficult practice of discipline.  Working to preserve the church need not entail the neglect of the individual or vice-versa.  The individual bleeds into the institution and the institution bleeds into the individual. Separating the two is certainly not as clean or neat as one might think. Even Bucer agreed that at some point for the sake of the sheepfold a sick sheep must be removed from the pen—either to perish or be healed. 

The stereotype of Presbyterian elders seems to suggest that Calvin’s more rigid and institutionally focused perspective became their regular course. However, there is ample evidence that elders saw their duty as more multi-faceted and holistic than many have recognized or been willing to give them credit. We see this sentiment most explicitly in the work of the Samuel Miller, whose work on elders would guide Presbyterians at least for most of the 19th century. 

Samuel Miller on Ruling Elders

Samuel Miller was born on All Hallows Eve, 1769, in Dover, Delaware. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister, the Reverend John Miller, who served as his first theological tutor. At the age of 23 Miller was ordained to the ministry and served First Presbyterian Church of New York City for 20 years. During his time as a pastor in New York, he published two widely acclaimed works in church history and served as a chaplain for the First Regiment of the New York State artillery. In 1806 he was named Moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly. In 1813 he was called to be Professor of Church History and Government at the newly formed Princeton Theological Seminary, only the Seminary’s second professor. For the next 37 years until his death in 1850 he continued teaching and publishing in service to Christ’s church. 

Miller’s Essay On the Warrant, Nature, and Duties of the Office of Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church (1831) is a work of startling depth and breadth which begins with a long apologetic aimed at demonstrating the biblical and historical case for elders.[8] Miller’s study of Scripture and history led him to believe that the primary role of the elder is governance and discipline, which in Miller’s age was defined as “direction and restraint over the behavior of men in communities.”[9]

Miller abhorred the notion that any Church would seek to function with elders exercising discipline without the assistance and guidance of pastors. He writes, “Without wholesome discipline for removing offences and excluding the corrupt and the profane, there may be an assembly; but there cannot be a Church” (178).[10] Second, Miller believed that elders and pastors were to function together as a team, each playing their own role.  If they do not, the congregation falls apart. Discipline and government, Miller says, cannot be the job of the pastor only. He calls the very suggestion “absurd.” Miller goes further in suggesting a delegation of duties between the pastor and elders:

He [the pastor] cannot be everywhere, and know everything. He cannot perform what is expected from him, and at the same time so watch over his whole flock as to fulfill every duty which the Church demands. He must give himself to reading; he must prepare for the services of the pulpit; he must discharge his various public labours; he must employ much time in private, in instructing and counseling those who apply to him for instruction and advice; and he must act his part in the concerns of the whole Church with which he is connected. …We might as well expect and demand any impossibility … (179).

Clearly, for Miller, the necessity of discipline demands that the pastor work with a dedicated group of elders, if nothing else, for the sake of sheer practicality. But this collaboration is important from another standpoint as well––our sinfulness, often displayed most fully in positions of authority and influence.To hold any minister’s sinful tendencies in check, the elders must play a significant role particularly in shepherding and caring for the people.  

We know that ministers are subject to the same frailties and imperfections of other men. We know, too, that a love of pre-eminence and of power is not only natural to them, in common with others; but that this principle, very early after the days of the Apostles, began to manifest itself as the reigning sin of ecclesiastics, and produced, first Prelacy, and afterwards Popery, which has so long and so ignobly enslaved the Church of Christ. Is it wise or safe to constitute one man as a despot over a whole Church? (180).

Miller claims further that such an arrangement is contrary to Scripture, plain wisdom, and common sense. He condemns it in the strongest terms:

Such a mode of conducting the government of the Church, to say nothing of its unscriptural character, is, in the highest degree, unreasonable and dangerous.  It can hardly fail to exert an influence of the most injurious character, both on the clergy and laity… committing the whole government of the Church to the hands of the pastors alone, may be affirmed to carry in it some of the worst seeds of Popery; which, though under the administration of good men, they may not at once, lead to palpable mischief, will seldom fail in producing, in the end, the most serious evils, both to those who govern, and those who obey (185–181).

Today, our ecumenical sensibilities steer us from such characterizations of the Papacy. But Miller’s argument for the necessity of discipline andshared responsibility reflects Scripture’s deep and sober recognition of humanity’s sinfulness..Miller takes this notion seriously and argues for a church government that takes it seriously as well.

Miller quotes John Owen to make his point. Owen called it a “vain apprehension” that “one or two teaching officers” alone, even those who give themselves to God in prayer and study, can adequately shepherd any congregation. Miller goes on to assert that to attempt to form a Church without discipline is “nothing but a preference of our own wisdom, unto the wisdom and authority of Christ” (182). Pressing his case, Miller lists the specific duties of discipline: 

To take cognizance of delinquencies in faith or practice; to admonish offenders; to call them, when necessary, before the proper tribunal; to seek out and array proof with fidelity; to drag insidious error, and artful wickedness from their hiding places; and to suspend or excommunicate from the privileges of the Church when the honour of religion, and the best interests of the body of Christ, call for these measures (185).

Miller has no illusions about discipline being easy work or anything that should be taken lightly.  He goes so far to label it “strange work” and an “unacceptable and unwelcome employment.” He adds, “We know that there are few things, in the government and regulation of the Church, more irksome to our natural feelings, than doing what fidelity requires in cases of discipline” (185). Even here we see an awareness of humanity’s sinful nature; whereby Miller argues that discipline is a practice that should be employed carefully, even with trepidation, not rushed into and handled with great care and delicacy because human beings, especially those in power, are prone to sin and error. Discipline, for Miller, is joyless, arduous; yet necessary duty which the church ignores only at her own peril. 

Miller on Church Discipline

Miller includes discipline under a larger scope of duties, both personal and public, for elders.  He makes a distinction early on like Bucer, Calvin, and many others between teaching and ruling elders. He is mainly concerned with the duties of the latter. Nevertheless, the two are intended to cooperate. Miller succinctly states the elders’ responsibility:“to cooperate with the Pastor in spiritual inspection and government” (196).

Following some rather rough comparisons between civil authorities and elders, Miller explains precisely what this shared duty entails.These duties Miller divides into three categories.

First, is the government of the church, which the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. held as one of the three chief functions of the Session for 170 years: “This body of Elders, with the Pastor at their head, and presiding at their meetings, form a judicial assembly, by which all the spiritual interests of the congregation are to be watched over, regulated, and authoritatively determined” (199). Sessions functioning well in today’s context may see their role similarly––watching over the “spiritual interests of the congregation.”

Secondly, Miller claims that the duty of supporting and even defending the pastor falls chiefly to the elders.  Although this role is balanced somewhat by the session’s responsibility, included in their role as shepherds, to hold the pastor accountable, Miller makes a full-throated case for the need of elders to support the pastor with whom they serve:

And as members of the Church Session, whether assembled in their judicial capacity or not as the Pastor’s counselors and colleagues, in all matters relating to the spiritual rule of the Church; so it is their official duty to encourage, sustain, and defend him, in the faithful discharge of his duty. It is deplorable, when a minister is assailed for his fidelity, by the profane or the worldly, if any portion of the Eldership, either take part against him or shrink from his active and determined defence. It is not meant, of course, that they are to consider themselves as bound to sustain him in every thing he may say or do, whether right or wrong; but that, when they believe him to be faithful, both to truth and duty, they should feel it to be their duty to stand by him, to shield him from the arrows of the wicked, and to encourage him, as far as he obeys Christ (202).

Miller’s conviction is for a robust team approach to elder leadership alongside the pastor. It is not a blind obedience, especially when considered alongside the later injunction when the pastor strays “to admonish him, tenderly and respectfully, yet faithfully” (204). Instead, Miller believes that the Session should serve as a company of shepherds, gifted with wisdom and compassion, no higher or lower than the pastor—equal partners in the spiritual leading of God’s people. 

Third, Miller believes elders have the responsibility to lead individuals in their walk with Jesus Christ and exercise spiritual authority in their lives. He writes they are to serve as “a judicatory of the Church” and “in intervals of their judicial meetings, and by the due discharge of which they may be constantly edifying the body of Christ.” He then goes on to list a great number of specific “Shepherding” duties. A list of this nature and extent would make the majority of today’s elders, at least of those with whom I have served, rather uncomfortable. I will quote from this at length because I believe it is this passage that stands at the heart of Miller’s understanding of the work of elders:

It is their duty to have an eye of inspection and care over all the members of the congregation and for this purpose to cultivate a universal and intimate acquaintance, as far as may be, with every family in the flock of which they are made “overseers.” They are bound to watch over the children and youth, and especially baptized children, with paternal vigilance, recognizing and affectionately addressing them on all proper occasions; giving them, and their parents, in reference to them, seasonable counsel, and putting in the Lord’s claim to their hearts and lives, as children of the Church. It is their duty to attend to the case of those who are serious, and disposed to inquire concerning their eternal interests; to converse with them, and, from time to time, to give information concerning them to the Pastor. It is their duty to take notice of, and admonish, in private those who appear to be growing careless, or falling into habits in any respect criminal, suspicious or unpromising. It is their duty to visit and pray with the sick, as far as their circumstances admit, and to request the attendance of the Pastor on the sick, and the dying, when it may be seasonable or desired. It is incumbent on them to assist the Pastor for maintaining meetings for social prayer, to take part in conducting devotional exercises in those meetings; to preside in them when the Pastor is absent; and, if they are endowed with suitable gifts, under his direction, occasionally to drop a word of instruction and exhortation to the people in those social meetings.  If the officers of the Church neglect these meetings, (the importance of which cannot be estimated), there is every reason to apprehend that they will not be duly honoured or attended by the body of the people.  It is the duty of Ruling Elders, also, to visit the members of the Church and their families, with the Pastor, if he request it; without him, if he does not; to converse with them; to instruct the ignorant; to confirm the wavering; to encourage the timid, and to excite and animate all classes to a faithful and exemplary discharge of duty (203–204).

Overcoming the Caricatures

21st century Presbyterians who possess at least a general awareness of Presbyterian Church history tend to look back upon the elders of Samuel Miller’s age and, with a clucking of tongues, reduce their role to mere disciplinarians, hauling the wayward before the session, who, being the first to cast a stone, point out the speck in their neighbor’s eye, or fence the Communion table. However, Miller––and he is not alone––outlines a broader and more encompassing role. The elder is to have a relationship with the people for whom they are charged to be overseers. They are to be spiritual examples, leading the people in prayer and devotion, offering a word or two when it is appropriate. Indeed, if they do not, in Miller’s words, they will be “dishonored.”

They are to love and care for their children and youth, learning their names, assuring them of Jesus’ grace-filled claim over their lives. They, not the deacons, are responsible for visiting and caring for the sick. Miller would have been appalled at a system of church government that divorced care for the sick from spiritual formation. They are to instruct, encourage, confirm, and excite to “faithful and exemplary discharge of duty.” The duties of elders stretch far beyond mere corrective discipline. It entails a broader and deeper understanding of their responsibility for the individual spiritual lives of the people under their charge.In short, they are to be given the authority to be shepherds and in that role they should have the respect, authority, and love of the people.  Miller goes as far as to compare that respect to that given to a “faithful” civil magistrate “who firmly and impartially executes the law of the land.”

So every good Christian ought to feel himself bound in conscience and honour, as well as in duty to his Lord, to strengthen the hands, and encourage the heart of the spiritual Ruler, who evidently seeks, in the fear of God, to promote the purity and edification of the Church (219).

WhoRuns the Church?

Since the sixth chapter of Acts, the question has been often raised, “If elders are busy shepherding people, who will run the ministry of the Church?” The answer Scripture gives is: Deacons. Miller champions the importance of deacons and understands the biblical and historic nature of the office. He conducts a brief survey of the theology and history of the office before concluding about the role of deacons:

An attentive and impartial perusal of the record of this first institution of Deacons, must convince any one, that preaching, baptizing or partaking in the spiritual rule and government of the Church, were so far from being embraced in the original destination of the New Testament Deacon, that they were absolutely precluded, by the very terms, and the whole spirit of the representation given by the inspired historian (232).

Miller laments that some Presbyterian Churches do not employ deacons. Because deacons are not called to exercise the same authority and responsibility of eldersdoes not mean they are unimportant. Indeed, for the elders to serve their proper role, the deacons must take up their mantle as well. To this end, Miller outlines nine principles that distinguish the role of deacons and elders. Among those nine, which in general speak to the importance of deacons and their unique role, a couple points are worth mentioning.

First, Miller says, “That the function to which the Deacon was appointed by the Apostles, was to manage the pecuniary [financial] affairs of the Church, and especially to preside over the collections and disbursements to the poor.”This is a major difference from how most sessions are structured today. Yet it is our current practice that reflects a departure from historic practice. My examination of 19th century session minutes from four congregations reveals this to be the case, particularly in the South. Deacons, when constituted, oversaw charitable disbursements and benevolences.  However, in at least two cases, deacons formed the entire annual church budget and presented it to the session for final approval. In fact, in one conversation I had with a 90-year-old elder and deacon who had served in those capacities in a Tennessee congregation in the 1950s, he commented: “I could never understand why anyone would want to be on Session when the Deacons had all the power.” An examination of that congregation’s Session and Deaconal minutes reveals that when the discipline function had passed from Session almost all that Session did for the next 100 years was receive and dismiss members. Deacons had the power of the purse and far-ranging authority over the mission of the congregation. In short, deacons “ran” the church

Today’s common practice, of course, is for the elders to establish the annual budget, handle personnel matters, and oversee all the business and property affairs of the congregation. The 1789 Constitution, with which Miller was very familiar, stated about deacons, “To them may also be properly committed the management of the temporal affairs in the church.” 

Second, even as Miller affirms the necessity of deacons, he leaves no doubt that their role is not one of spiritual oversight and guidance: “There is no warrant whatever for assigning to Deacons the function of government in the Church; and that their undertaking any such function, is nothing less than ecclesiastical usurpation” (249).It is important to note that Miller includes under the government function to be carried out by the elders, the care of the sick and the downtrodden of the congregation. The role of deacons, according to Miller after his thorough examination of the biblical and historical witness, is to see to the business matters of the congregation to allow the elders to focus on the spiritual development of the people. 

Advantages of the Presbyterian Plan

Finally, it is important to provide a brief mention of Miller’s final chapter, “Advantages of Conducting Discipline on the Presbyterian Plan.” In the broad main of the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition, Miller paints the Presbyterian plan for discipline as a moderating measure able to guard against clerical abuse andambition as well as “preserving unimpaired the rights of private Christians.” Against whom are these rights to be preserved? An abusive or ambitious pastor? Yes. But Miller conceives greater dangers to individual rights to be the unruly mob, who––perhaps led even by an unscrupulous officer––turns against someone who has committed an offense (324). This safeguard exists not only for the sake of pastors but for others against whom the angry mob might also turn. A strong cadre of elders may help honest ministers in their proclamation of the Gospel by calling to task those members who place themselves in opposition to that work. Miller also admits that although the system may be rather inefficient when compared to that of a single priest administering discipline alone, if practiced properly, transparently, and by men of grace and integrity, it is most effective at guarding individuals as well as the larger body.  Miller writes:

Even on the Presbyterian plan, there is no doubt that delay and perplexities may, in some cases, arise. But where the whole management of discipline, from its inceptive steps to the consummation of each case, is entirely committee to a select body of pious, intelligent, prudent and experienced men, accustomed to the work, and aware of the dangers to which their course is exposed, we may reasonably calculate on their decisions being as speedy, as unembarrassed, and as much lifted above the temporizing feebleness or the tempestuousness, irregularity and confusion, incident to popular management, as human infirmity will allow (330).

Miller,unapologetically, makes the casefor elders living out their biblically defined and historically supported role.It is common to think of church discipline as an instrument of oppression, and there is no doubt it has been sometimes used, tragically, in this way. But who among us cannot point to a committee or task force or team of elders who has not also fallen far “short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23)? So long as the church of Jesus Christ has human beings within her ranks, no system of government, no authority will be without a shadow of turning. 

When properly practiced, Miller believed, discipline is an instrument of liberation and freedom and even a safeguard for individual rights. In addition, in the proper functioning of elders, Miller sees tremendous possibilities for renewal and revitalization:

Were the foregoing views of the nature and duties of the Elder’s office generally adopted, duly appreciated, and faithfully carried out into practice, what a mighty change would be effected in our Zion! With what a different estimate of the obligations and responsibilities which rest upon them, would the candidates for this office enter on their sacred work!  And with what different feelings would the mass of the people, and especially all who love the cause of Christ, regard these spiritual Counselors and Guides, in their daily walks, and particularly in their friendly and official visits! This is change most devoutly to be desired.The interests of the Church are more involved in the prevalence of just opinions and practice in reference to this office, than almost any other that can be named. Were every congregation, besides a wise, pious and faithful pastor, furnished with eight or ten Elders to co-operate with him in all his parochial labors, on the plan which has been sketched; men of wisdom, faith, prayer, and Christian activity; men willing to deny and exert themselves for the welfare of Zion; men alive to the importance of every thing that relates to the orthodoxy, purity, order and spirituality of the Church, and ever on the watch for the opportunities of doing good; men, in a word, willing to “take the oversight” of the flock of the Lord, and to labor without ceasing for the promotion of its best interest: were every Church furnished with such a body of Elders—can any one doubt that knowledge, order, piety and a growth in grace as well as in numbers, would be as common in our Churches, as the reverse is now the prevailing state of things, in consequence of the want of fidelity on the part of those who are nominally the overseers and guides of the flock? (214–215).

The Day of Elders Has Not Yet Dawned

If only we could recover a proper understanding of the role of elders! Miller can be admired for believing such a transformation and reformation is possible. Let it not escape us that Miller believed the day of elders functioning according to their biblically mandated role had not yet arrived.  This means we can take his work to be, at least in part, prescriptive rather than descriptive. But this raises the question, “So what did the work of elders look like in Miller’s day?”

We gain at least a partial picture by looking at the example of discipline cited earlier—from the Session of Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, prescribing marriage to and withholding communion from Dr. H.S. Lowry until he took said step. We see in this remarkable letter an intimate view of the practice of church discipline, and gain an important insight into the Session’s purpose for discipline, their method in calling members to repentance, and the disciplinary measure undertaken for a repentant sinner. 

For the Session of Second Presbyterian Church, to recall, the three purposes of church discipline were: to acquit the unjustly accused, to expel persistent sinners, and to rescue and support the repentant. These do not read exactly like Calvin’s three purposes; nowhere is the defense of the church’s puritymentioned, though we may assume expelling persistent sinners serves that end. The acquittal of the unjustly accused might be a pale reflection of Miller’s warning against an unruly mob seeking its own brand of justice. Perhaps these purposes emerged from their own practice. And perhaps they were not applied as faithfully or lovingly as they should have beenby each member. But what is clear is the Session of Second Presbyterian had put great thought and prayer into the matter, and they could speak with confidence and certainty about their role.

The measure of discipline that the Session employed was the standard Reformed practice for nearly four centuries: he was suspended, not from attending services, but from communion.There is another note contained in the minutes dated March 5, 1899 that explains to a greater degree Dr. Lowry’s suspension from the sacrament. It mentions that the following note was distributed to the congregation.

Dr. H.S. Lowry having submitted to the session of this church a confession of sin, expressing his contrition thereof and asking the charitable judgment of the Church upon his offense, promising by the grace of God a newness of life for the future, it has been decided by the Session that he be, and hereby is suspended from the communion and privileges of membership until he may by the fruits of penitence justify his restoration to the same. And to this end the Session seeks the prayers of all God’s people.10

Unfortunately, there is no record in the Session minutes of Dr.Lowry ever being restored to full communion. Did he refuse to marry his assistant? Did he simply join another church or move away?We do not know. But his refusal to heed the Session’s wisdom  foreshadowed an unraveling of the disciplinary process at Second Presbyterian. After bringing charges against two members for the granting of liquor licenses, the Session was mildly rebuked by the Presbytery for not considering “each case on the merit.”11

By the early 1910s all discipline had ceased at Second Presbyterian Church. Less than ten years later in 1926, a few months after the arrival of a new pastor, the Session was organized into permanent standing committees and the minutes record that the institutional concerns of the growing congregation dominated their attention. At Second Presbyterian, a titanic shift in the role of elders happened in one generation. Elders went from recommending not only marriage to a church member, but also whom he should marry, to serving on evangelism, worship, and social committees. 

In January of 1929, only 30 years after the elders demanded that Dr. H.S. Lowry marry his assistant, worshippers at Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City would have seen in the Sunday bulletin five “Suggested Loyalty Goals”:

*          Increase the number in Church Attendance to 900. 

*          Increase the attendance at our Bible School to 1,000

and the enrollment of our School to 1,250. 

*          Increase the attendance at our mid-week service to 250. 

*          Increase our membership by Easter by at least 100. 

*          Increase the loyalty of every member of our Church – Loyalty to Jesus Christ as our

Blessed Lord of Life, and Loyalty to His Church and Kingdom.       

The goals concluded by reminding members: “We can do all this by your loyalty.”12 This simple five-part goal suggests the shift from disciple making to institution building was complete. 

A third part in this series on “Redisovering the Office of Elder” will discuss how elders can reclaim their Scriptural role as shepherds of people and its impact upon carrying Jesus’ mission for the church to “make disciples and teach them to obey” (Matt. 28:20).    

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

[1] John Calvin, “Draft Ecclesiastical Ordinances September and October 1541” in Calvin: Theological Treatises,trans. J.K.S. Reid (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), 63.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 4.3.8 (1061). Hereafter cited Institutes.

[3] Calvin, Institutes 4.12.5 (1232–1233).

[4] John Calvin, “Catechism of the Church of Geneva” in Calvin: Theological Treatises, 139.

[5] John Calvin, Reply By John Calvin To Cardinal Sadolet’s Letter to the Senate and People of Genevain Calvin’s Selected Works 1, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Baker House, 1983), 38. 

[6]Bernard Cottret, Calvin: A Biography, trans. M. Wallace McDonald (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 225. 

[7] Calvin, Institutes 4.12.8 (1236); 4.12.10(1238).

[8]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), 178. Hereafter in parentheses.

[9] Noah Webster, American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828 (San Francisco: Foundation For American Christian Education, 2002). 

10Session Minutes, Second Presbyterian Church of Kansas City, Missouri, March 5, 1899. 

11 Session Minutes, Second Presbyterian Church of Kansas City, Missouri; undated entry written in 1911.

12Worship bulletin, Second Presbyterian Church of Kansas City, Missouri, Sunday, January 27, 1929. 

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.


Don't miss out on the latest articles and opportunities from Theology Matters.

Related Articles

The Feast of Many Memories

If you keep an eye on the market for home improvement supplies, you are seeing some healthy indications. Even the sales of tools are...

The Call to Love the Small

What are the unique opportunities and challenges facing our small churches?

What is Marriage?

What is marriage? Consider two competing views: Conjugal View: Marriage is the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and...

“Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is threatened by a new Orthodoxy, a new brand of Fundamentalism, and a new breed of Fundamentalists who seek to impose new ordination standards.

Preaching The Gospel With The Great Preacher: Ten Convictions After 40 Years Of Trying To Do It Well

For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same...

Read More

On Reconciliation – Honoring the Work of Jesus Christ

Christ Jesus . . . has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. Eph. 2:...

Is Theology Practical?

This address was delivered at Theology Matters’ first conference on Hilton Head Island, Feb. 19, 2020. I made an off-hand comment to Richard Burnett one...

What is Marriage?

What is marriage? Consider two competing views: Conjugal View: Marriage is the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and...

Reclaiming Theological Education

Why rational argument and Apologetics is still vital to our witness.

Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity

In our last issue, we introduced Thomas Bergler’s book, 'The Juvenilization of American Christianity'. Here we introduce, 'From Here to Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization...


Please consider making a tax-free donation to Theology Matters so we can continue our mission to equip the Christian community.