Let’s admit that General Assembly is the easy part. The great task of shepherding is the hardest task we have as elders, and the one in which so many of us, (myself included) fall short. God help us be the kind of elders he would have us to be for the sake of Christ, his church, and the gospel.
[Editor’s note: These are the slightly edited remarks of Presbyterian Church in America ruling elder Brad Isbell at an Assembly-wide seminar, “The Future Glory of the Church: The PCA We Envision for Christ’s Purposes,” at the PCA General Assembly in Birmingham, Ala., on June 22, 2022.]
I must begin by acknowledging the great debt I owe to the two PCA pastors I’ve served with and whose teaching I have enjoyed over these last 18 years—Dr. Duncan Rankin and Dr. Nick Willborn. Few men in this room have had the privilege of serving with more thoroughgoing, learned, and principally committed Presbyterians. Their commitment to our doctrine and polity has always been infectious. I must also say that I serve on a faithful session, with men of whom I am not worthy, and who all excel me in gifts and faithfulness. And I serve a wonderful church. We learn by hearing and reading, by studying, but also by seeing and doing. Presbyterianism walks the halls of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and the officers and members there have been my best teachers. I love them dearly.
But none of us love our churches as Christ loves his church. He has told us in his word how his church must be ordered and what her simple mission is. Biblical church government is Presbyterian church government. Our polity is not optional. It is not one polity among many. It is not a spare musical score that suggests endless improvisation. It is not a hindrance to any worthy goal. Thus, my hope and vision for the future of the PCA is that she remains thoroughly and simply Presbyterian—maybe even becoming more Presbyterian, certainly not less.
As I read the scriptures and our standards, to be Presbyterian is to encourage and demand the full participation of all elders (ruling and teaching, from small churches and large churches) in the governance and shepherding of the church in courts of every level. We don’t need to be Acts 29 churches, which is to say more networked than denominational and led more by more great men and charismatic pastors than officers. We do not need to be endlessly creative and innovative, always designing something new rather than valuing simple, biblical polity. No, we need to be Acts 14 and 15 churches, relying on the ordained officers God provides, officers accountable to one another in binding ways. There is a great tendency, it seems to me, for churches to be more staff-led rather than officer-led. This is not the way, if you’ll pardon a pun related to our denominational logo and all the Star Wars memes it has inspired.
To be Presbyterian is to be biblical. To be Presbyterian is to be led by presbyters—elders of both kinds, ruling and teaching. We see little differentiation between the elders in the New Testament, a principle we call the parity of elders, a principle explicitly enshrined in our Book of Church Order, the manual and rule book of our polity. Too often, this parity, which concerns both authority and numerical representation in the courts of the church, is an on-paper principle rather than an on-the ground reality. Why should we insist on this party of elder principle? Well, first because the scriptures teach it (and that ought to be enough), but there are also obvious practical reasons for insisting on this distinctive.
Here are several reasons:
It’s good for the sheep, the members of the church. The burden of teaching and shepherding cannot (and ought not) be borne by pastors and paid staff alone. Our people need ruling elders.
It’s good for pastors. We’ve all heard the stories of a wave of pastoral resignations and burnout in the last two years. My suspicion is that many of these men were in church plants (which lack their own local sessions) or in churches without a well-developed ministry of ruling elders. Pastoral survival and longevity require good ruling elders.
An emphasis on elder parity also increases diversity in the courts and councils of the church. Ruling elders are naturally and necessarily a more diverse lot than our teaching elders are. Many lack graduate degrees. In economic and cultural terms they are more diverse. Ruling elders come into everyday contact with the cultural zeitgeist and the practical consequences of secular theories. Some of these theories and paradigms may intrigue the bookish pastor in a coffee shop but may be viewed in an entirely different way by ruling elders. With this century’s mounting cultural crises, we need the different perspectives of ruling elders to correct and guide the ministry and mission of the church.
And lastly, the parity of elders is essential to maintaining orthodoxy. Retired Stated Clerk Taylor wrote this: “The PCA was started primarily through the efforts of Ruling Elders.” Why was this? Maybe because they had the money and time to devote to the formation of a new denomination. But maybe it’s because they were not part of the pastors’ club. Presbyteries and General Assembly can become pastors’ clubs, where getting along can become more important than fidelity and frankness. We need ruling elders because our doctrine, which is not complex and does not require a specialist degree to comprehend, is always under assault. Understanding and defending our orthodoxy is every elder’s job.
And here’s a related bonus point: the nature of the church and her spiritual mission are also things any elder can understand. Ruling elders may well be less likely to veer off on cultural tangents or fall for trendy methods. We need the common sense and realism of ruling elders.
The genius of Presbyterianism—its true contribution to the church—is the concept of rule by elders and parity among those elders. We ought never undervalue our polity, even when it runs counter to the culture or to trends in the broader church, whose form of government is determined more by tradition or pragmatism than the Bible.
The great 19th century Presbyterian Stuart Robinson wrote a book entitled The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel. The title reminds us that the Gospel and polity cannot be separated. Rosaria Butterfield wrote a book entitled The Gospel Comes with a House Key. The gospel also comes with a house: the church Over that house are the elders. Now, Rosaria’s book is about hospitality, and I’d like to close with an appeal for hospitality…to ruling elders. The sacrifices ruling elders make to attend presbytery and General Assembly are enormous. Most pastors have their expenses paid and are also paid to attend General Assembly. Ruling elders often burn precious vacation days and “wife points” to attend. Many cover a portion of their own expenses. Even presbytery meetings (often held on weekdays) cut into the income or vacation time of ruling elders. We’d do well to think about that.
General Assembly is confusing to the ruling elder who can only occasionally attend. This is a vexing problem, but certainly pastors could do more to help ruling elders find their way. We can and should make every effort to structure the assembly so that real, substantive business is done and done efficiently.
Some say ruling elders are offended by conflict, debate, and disagreement. I don’t believe they are, but they are offended (in my experience) when they perceive that the outcomes at General Assembly seem almost pre-determined or everything is rushed. Give us an open, accessible General Assembly with time to do our business.
Pastor Terry Johnson was speaking of liturgy and doctrine when he said, “You need a Reformed bucket to carry Reformed water.” Well, Reformed doctrine and the Reformed understanding of Scripture demand a Presbyterian house, even if that’s not the most convenient or cheapest type of house to build. Nothing is harder than rightly ordering a Presbyterian church, but nothing has more benefits for (or better protects) the Christian. A Presbyterian church is worth all the trouble.
Finally, let’s admit that General Assembly is the easy part. The great task of shepherding is the hardest task we have as elders, and the one in which so many of us, (myself included) fall short. God help us be the kind of elders he would have us to be for the sake of Christ, his church, and the gospel.
Brad Isbell is a ruling elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Oak Ridge, TN, co-host of the Presbycast podcast, board member of MORE in the PCA and the Heidelberg Reformation Association, and a co-editor of the Nicotine Theological Journal.