John, the parish associate at my first call, was a person I admired greatly and from whom I learned a lot. He never imposed his wisdom or experience upon me and yet he was available, always willing to talk, ever supportive and encouraging. The first time I presided at the Lord’s Table it was with John at a local nursing home. The first time I moderated a session meeting, John sat at the end of the table, ready to clarify a point of polity, but only if I asked.
John was quiet and understated, but there was one thing I heard him repeat frequently and with conviction: “A Presbyterian elder ought to be able to teach a Bible study at a moment’s notice.” He was emphatic that this was a basic requirement of spiritual leadership. I remember thinking that I wasn’t sure I could teach a Bible study at a moment’s notice, but because I admired and trusted him, I took this proclamation seriously. This insight, admonishment really, pushed me to maintain a discipline of Bible study. This insight shaped my thinking about every aspect of Christian formation, from meetings with parents about baptism, to confirmation classes, to, yes, the training of ruling elders. I would hear John’s voice stating firmly, “A Presbyterian elder ought to be able to teach a Bible study at a moment’s notice.” I would hear John’s voice, and ask myself, “Will this equip someone to teach a Bible study at a moment’s notice?”
Now, I know, there are many other requirements and skill sets needed for our ruling and teaching elders. Budgets needed to be balanced, buildings need to be maintained, money needs to be raised, pastoral care needs to be given, meetings need to be moderated. The list goes on and on. But without a biblical foundation so solid that an elder is comfortable enough to teach at a moment’s notice, I am not sure we will do any other tasks in ways that are Christ-like and built on the will of God.
The first ordination question asks about our belief and trust in Jesus Christ. This is rightly the first question. The second is like it: Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to you?
The Word of God witnesses to the Word made flesh. If we are to know the One, we must know the other, well enough to teach a Bible study at a moment’s notice.
C. Ellis Nelson, in his book, “Growing Up Christian: A Congregational Strategy for Nurturing Disciples,” writes, “Next to worship, the systematic instruction of adults is the most significant influence for the spiritual growth of Christians. This is because adults, in concert with the pastor, make decisions that form the congregation’s beliefs and expected lifestyle.”
Substitute the words “ruling elders” for “adults” and consider the impact intimately knowing the Bible would have on sessional decisions and subsequent congregational beliefs and practices.
I have taught new ruling elders basic systems theory, Presbyterian polity 101, a crash course on The Book of Confessions and church history from 10,000 feet. All of which is important. However, without the cornerstone of belief in Jesus Christ and the foundational knowledge of Scripture, those things are built on sand.
Too often I have seen session meetings devolve into business meetings, meetings where decisions are based on expediency, practicality and pragmatism. That’s well and good … sometimes, maybe even often. But there are those times when we are called to be fools for Christ, basing our decisions solely on faith, taking risks for the sake of the gospel regardless of the costs. We won’t make those kinds of choices unless we are surrounded by the Word, the Word made flesh and God’s living Word.
So, as we consider how to prepare elders to rule, let’s make sure we don’t forget the critical importance of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments that, by the Holy Spirit, are the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal and God’s Word to us.
Now, go teach a Bible study!
Grace and peace,