While there are many other reasons why we should view the ruling elders as among the greatest unsung heroes of the church, based on what we have considered we can conclude that those who sacrifice their time to serve as ruling (lay) elders in a local church are deserving of our sincere gratitude and praise.
Every week, important church related matters come streaming into the inbox of my email account. Many of those matters also make their way into the inboxes of our elders. On many occasions, one of our ruling elders (i.e. a lay elder who was elected by the congregation to volunteer his time in the service of the church) offers thoughtful analysis, objective input or a willingness to take the lead in a response to whatever need has surfaced. My heart frequently wells with gratitude for the service of such individuals, while recognizing that faithful and diligent ruling elders are among the greatest unsung heroes of the Kingdom of God.
The Scriptures are clear that God gifts the church with pastors, teachers and evangelists (Eph. 4:11). However, Scripture is equally clear that God has so ordered the government of His church as to appoint men to shepherd the flock in a variety of other ways as elders chosen from among the people. In the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)–the denomination in which I am blessed to minister as a teaching elder–we draw a distinction between the teaching elder and the ruling elder based on our understanding of the teaching of 1 Timothy 5:17: ” Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”
Our Book of Church Order seeks to explain this distinction, when it says:
“Within the class of elder are the two orders of teaching elders and ruling elders. The elders jointly have the government and spiritual oversight of the Church, including teaching. Only those elders who are specially gifted, called and trained by God to preach may serve as teaching elders” (BCO 7-2).
Whether or not one is convinced of this precise articulation of a division of giftings within the one office of elder, we must surely recognize the fact that more than one elder is needed to care for all of the spiritual needs of the congregation. The Apostolic references to those who rule over the congregation (1 Tim. 5:17; Hebrews 3:7, 17. 24), can only be understood in light of an eldership that properly cares for the flock in a variety of ways in addition to those elders who preach and teach in a formal setting. All elders are to be “apt to teach,” however, the work of shepherding the flock certainly involves quite a lot more than simply teaching and preaching.
Both teaching and ruling elders are called by God to “watch diligently over the flock committed to his charge, that no corruption of doctrine or of morals enter therein…exercise government and discipline, and take oversight…of the spiritual interests of the particular church…visit the people at their homes, especially the sick…instruct the ignorant, comfort the mourner, nourish and guard the children of the Church…set a worthy example to the flock entrusted to their care by their zeal to evangelize the unconverted and make disciples…pray with and for the people, being careful and diligent in seeking the fruit of the preached Word among the flock” (BCO 8-3).