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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

What Does It Mean to be a “Ruling” Elder?
February 9, 2012

Great significance was attached to the meaning of names in biblical times. Especially when someone was renamed – such as Jacob becoming Israel, or Simon becoming Peter – the meaning of one’s name formed a crucial piece of his or her identity.

I don’t know exactly how far back the name “Sorge” goes, but it has a meaning that no doubt was amply earned back in the day. In German, Sorge means “care, anxiety, worry.” If my family were English, our family would be the “Worrywarts.” I hope I don’t live up to my name!

Our name “Presbyterian” means essentially “elder-led.” It refers to our form of government. Now excuse me for a moment, but let’s be honest – this is about as uninspired a case of branding as you can get. Good names inspire, rather than being simply descriptive. You get a lot more mileage out of naming your team “New York Giants” than “New York Blue-Hats.” The latter would be more factually correct, but imagine trying to rally fans and players around such a moniker. Truthfully, the name “Presbyterian” lies somewhere near the bottom of the inspirational chart.

Still we stick with our name, because it says something fundamental about our understanding of the nature of the church’s ministry. It reveals our conviction that God sets apart some people in the church with the charge of providing effective pastoral leadership for its life and mission. We call these pastoral leaders “elders.”

We divide the pastoral work of elders into two distinct spheres – one set of elders is responsible for proclaiming the Word of God, and the other is responsible for the people’s hearing of the Word. Over the years we have sometimes changed the labels of these two sets of pastoral leaders, but the function has remained the same – together they do the church’s pastoral work.

In our current Book of Order, those set apart for proclaiming the Word are called “Teaching Elders,” while those responsible for God’s people hearing the Word are called “Ruling Elders.” We might be forgiven if we thought a “Ruling Elder” is an elder who makes and enforces the church’s rules. But the origin of the term “Ruling Elder” is something quite different.

The term “Ruling Elder” referred originally to the task of “measuring,” as you do with a ruler. Ruling Elders were charged to measure the progress of the Gospel in the lives of church members. While “Teaching Elders” proclaimed the Good News, “Ruling Elders” had the task of ascertaining how well that proclamation was being lived out by the church’s members. They would reflect back to the Teaching Elders what they learned from their canvass of the flock, so Teaching Elders could better shape their proclamation in accord with the deepest needs of the congregation. Teaching and Ruling elders were thus joined inseparably in the task of guiding the church into living by the Word. Neither office is dispensable if the church is to be all that God calls it to be.

In recent generations, we have tended to elevate too much the role of proclaiming the Word, and to care too little about measuring how our members’ lives are being conformed to that Word. Like George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” we have said that all elders are equal – but some are more equal than others. When pastoral responsibility in the church is delegated primarily to the preacher, the growth of the community is stunted. Being authentically “Presbyterian” is about more than parity between Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders in the governance of the church – it is about cultivating between them a robust interdependent partnership in the church’s pastoral task. A congregation with a strong pastoral team of Teaching and Ruling Elders for the proclamation and living of the Gospel is a blessed congregation indeed!

That the Gospel may flourish among us,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery

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