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A Ministry of Discernment

January 9, 2017

“A Ministry of Discernment” Romans 12:1-13 Baptism of the Lord A/Ordination and Installation of Ruling Elders © 1.8.17 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Today, as Jace is ordained and installed, and Janis returns to the session, I want to share a few thoughts about the call and mission of ruling elders.

Note first that the ministry of both teaching elders like me and ruling elders like Jace, Janis, and so many of you arises from that of the whole people of God. As I have often said, all of us are ordained to ministry at our baptism, called to follow Jesus, who is our example. Elders of both sorts are to support and enable every believer to use his or her gifts for the good of the body of Christ, the Church.

Elders differ from every other believer only in that they fulfill particular functions. They take vows which set them apart, true, but the vows are to undertake service as Christ served, and to help the Church flourish and grow. Despite that, I have known elders in my ministry who believed they were members of some sort of ecclesiastical aristocracy, and that the rank and file person in the pew was a peasant. One in Kentucky even said openly in a session meeting that church members in general were too stupid to serve on session committees. I criticize such ruling elders, but we must recall that teaching elders, AKA ministers, used to be described by the old Book of Church Order in exalted terms. The 1933 edition of the standards of the former PCUS said that the office of Minister of the Word was “first in the Church, both for dignity and usefulness,” and accorded such a man, and in those days it was always a man, titles like “bishop” and “steward of the mysteries of God.” So maybe some ruling elders got their high-minded notions of themselves from equally egotistical pastors.

But exalting oneself and looking down on the people one is called to serve are the exact opposite of the attitude elders should have. They should celebrate and encourage the ministry of every person in a congregation, from younger to older, male and female, richer and poorer, believing that there is no one in any church without some gift of the Spirit for the common good. And in turn church members should ask currently serving elders what the needs are, come up with new ideas or point out some ministry that has gone lacking, and follow up on that by volunteering to serve on a committee or a task force.

So ruling elders, along with their counterparts, the teaching elders, are servants of all in the congregation and the broader Church for the building up of the body of Christ. Next, ruling elders have responsibilities unique to the Church and are not merely members of a not-for-profit board. Yes, like any good board member they should be present and on time for meetings, understand and promote the mission of the organization, be enthusiastic about their work, and actively participate in decision making. But ruling elders are also charged with visiting the sick and troubled, directing the worship life of the congregation, bearing witness against immorality and error, and being examples of faith, hope, and love to all in the congregation and the community. When we look for a member of a not-for-profit governing body, we typically want connections in the community, good judgment, and probably some considerable personal resources. Character is important, but it’s not the first thing we might ask about, and unless an organization is specifically faith-based, we likely don’t worry about somebody’s religion. For both sorts of elders, though, spirituality and character are at the heart of everything. Here is the Book of Order: “Their manner of life should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world.” Elders have to have “strong faith,” be dedicated disciples, and love Jesus.

So being an elder is not just another item on your resume or a passing reference in your obituary. I recall instances in my ministry in which people could barely articulate their faith, but were elected to the session because they had successful businesses, were known in the town or were rich. The session was just another board to serve on, the church merely another service organization. There was very little spiritual or even religious about any of it.

But spirituality and character are the most important characteristics of elders, whatever their other gifts that suit them for their work individually and collectively on a session and in higher councils. That has remained a constant over the years. What has changed, however, is the focus of ruling elders and sessions. Back in the day, meaning the 19th century up to about the middle of the 20th, elders were particularly charged with being the moral watchdogs of the congregation and the community. They had many other duties, but sometimes the urge to be pursed lip, stern disciplinarians won out. An 1895 publication enjoined ruling elders “to watch diligently over the flock committed to their charge, that no corruption of doctrine or of morals enter therein. Evils which they cannot correct by private admonition they should bring to the notice of the session” (

Those duties made ruling elders members of a court that could hold trials, the lowest in a system of appellate bodies that went all the way up to the General Assembly. That’s actually where the term “ruling elder” comes from. They handed down “rulings” as judges do. They were responsible for review and control in the church. The term has nothing to do with measurement, which is the spurious connection our current standards try to make by a tortured use of language.

So, at one point in our history, church members had to be examined by the session on their manner of life, and once deemed worthy by those judges, who served for life, by the way, the member was given a token which was presented at the Lord’s Table, entitling the person to take Communion. Another instance of the function of a session as a court was in Atlanta near the end of the 19th century. Some teenagers were brought up on charges before the session for having a party at which there was dancing. Now, recall from movies and books what dancing was like in the 1800s; it wasn’t a dirty, explicitly sexual activity, as it could be today. But the stern Calvinists on the session of Central Presbyterian Church considered all dancing, along with card playing and going to the theater, to be immoral. So they excommunicated the teenagers. “Fine,” the kids said. “We will no longer be members of this church.” And they went and joined some other congregation of a different denomination, turning the tables on the self-assured elders.

Fast forward to the 1940s in Alabama. The life-long clerk of session of a small church had made himself the arbiter of morals in the congregation. A divorced woman came to apply to be a member. Since the man didn’t approve of divorce, he advocated strongly that she not be admitted, despite her sincere profession of faith and the fact that she was the wronged party in the separation. Because he was not only the clerk, but an intimidating patriarch, the session agreed.

As time went on, that sort of role for the session faded, as administrative duties came to the forefront, and sessions, presbyteries, etc. were called “governing bodies.” The preoccupation in churches larger and smaller was with policies, procedures, structures, managing resources, building and repairing, and so on. Those are, of course, real world, substantive matters that must be attended to. And, truth be told, I’m at my best when I’m writing a manual, editing a set of minutes or interpreting the Book of Order.

All those efforts and more serve the cause of the kingdom. After all, the word “administration” has “minister” as its root. But they are the skeleton, not the heart, soul, and flesh of ministry. We attend to budgets and buildings so they may not dominate our time and sap our energy, and we may focus on the care of the troubled, the sick, the grieving, and the lonely. Indeed, budgets, buildings, and policies are best looked at as tools for ministry, not ends in themselves. And God forbid we should get bogged down in administrivia, all those devilish details that Presbyterians are forever arguing about. The theological term is adiaphora, “things indifferent,” about which good and faithful people disagree, but don’t really matter.

The calling and mission of ruling elders still includes administration, but the overarching concern now is the ministry of discernment. Our standards these days say that ruling elders are chosen by the congregation to “discern and measure its fidelity to the Word of God and to strengthen and nurture its faith and life.”

How can that task of discernment and measurement be carried out? I suggest the first question to ask is what fidelity to the Word of God, who is our Lord Jesus, looks like. If we are faithful to Jesus, and follow the scriptures that witness to him, how will we live? Surely it would mean to seek justice, love tenderly, and walk humbly with God. Certainly it’s to look at our lives honestly, together and apart, and ask hard questions about how we are taking seriously the claims and teachings of Jesus. The session can reflect on how we are loving our neighbors as ourselves; how we treat others as we want to be treated; how we serve the poor, the sick, the lonely as if they were Jesus himself. Ruling elders can tune up their discernment meters, usually known by a more earthy name, so they can tell the difference between truth and falsehood, right and wrong, and bear witness to their sense of things in the church and in the community. They can be so familiar with the scriptures and the standards of the church that they can tell how close or how far a congregation is from being faithful. Discernment and measurement, far from being slippery concepts, are actually practical skills that elders can cultivate, to be used when measuring is as easy as using a ruler, to times when fidelity to the Word of God in a complex situation is almost impossible to figure out.

Jace and Janis, along with John and Larry and Heather and Connie and Christy are blessed, I think, to be on the session in a congregation where fidelity to the Word is in evidence at every turn, from the way you get along with and love each other to the way you serve the community to your generosity of spirit, time, talent, and treasure. How close a church is to the measure of Christ has little, if anything, to do with numbers or with the world’s definition of success. It has everything to do with faith, hope, and love.

Among you, such qualities are easy to discern.

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