Eldership introduction


A report to the General Assembly 2016 gave a helpful overview of the scope of elders’ service, though it is rather hidden within the results of a consultation exercise. The most useful section is extracted here.

The Third Article Declaratory entails an acceptance by the Church of Scotland of ‘its distinctive call and duty to bring the ordinances of religion to the people in every parish of Scotland through a territorial ministry.’

That commitment was re-affirmed in stark terms by the General Assembly in the Declaratory Act passed by the General Assembly in 2010:
‘The Church of Scotland… declares anew its commitment to be a national church with a distinctive evangelical and pastoral concern for the people and nation of Scotland, recognising … its continuing responsibility to engage the people of Scotland wherever they might be with the Gospel of
Jesus Christ.’

Are those simply words? If not, surely that responsibility does not fall only on the ordained ministry of Word and Sacrament?

The tone of recent Reports to the General Assembly seeks to recover a broad definition of Eldership duties in this context, such as within the Assembly Council Report on Eldership of 2003, describing an Elder’s position as ‘the call and commitment to undertake, along with the minister, responsibility for the life of the congregation in all aspects, including worship, mission, and service to the wider community.’

The Church thus declares itself nationally to be responsible to engage all people of the nation with the Gospel. That duty locally requires all members of the Church to be engaged in so doing, but particularly its office-bearers.

The question then arises, ‘engaged in what’? What might local, contextual mission look like to reflect the expression of that responsibility by the Eldership?

Since World War II, the Christian Church globally in all denominations has undergone a seismic shift in thinking about mission, based on the recognition that ‘it is not the Church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission that has a Church in the world. This is described as missio Dei (‘Mission of God’) theology.

The following two global definitions of ‘mission’, amongst many others, are drafted in the light of that realisation. The first definition is offered by the World Council of Churches:
“Mission”. This carries a holistic understanding of the proclamation and sharing of the good news of the gospel by word (kerygma), deed (diakonia), prayer and worship (leiturgia), and the everyday witness of the Christian life (martyria); teaching as building up and strengthening people in their relationship with God and each other; and reconciliation into koinonia – communion with God, communion with people, and communion with creation as a whole.
“Evangelism”. While not excluding the different dimensions of mission, this is a focus on the explicit and intentional voicing of the gospel, including the invitation to personal conversion to a new life in Christ, and to discipleship.

Therefore, under this broad definition, ‘evangelism’ by the explicit voicing of the gospel for conversion is potentially an element in the exercise of all other constituent parts of ‘mission’ but does not subsume or denigrate the other expressions such as diaconal service, prayer and worship, the Christian life, the building up of community and reconciliation.

The Anglican Communion express a similar breadth to ‘mission’ in shorter compass. The Five Marks of Mission are:
• To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
• To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
• To respond to human need by loving service
• To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
• To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

When considering a potential ‘missional agenda’ for the Eldership, the Missio Dei demands a more fundamental ethos and mind set to be evident beyond the definitions. Rather than being an occasional function which belongs to the Church and us, mission is ‘God’s activity, which embraces both the Church and world’. That realisation has very important consequences for the Church and particularly those who are commonly called the ‘laity’ rather than the ‘clergy.

The church learns of its place in the world, as ‘it is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfil in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church’. Therefore, the underlying realisation is that, in Bosch’s words, ‘there is Church because there is mission, not vice versa.’

Mission is, therefore, to be carried out by us in a spirit of ‘bold humility’ through what has been described as ‘prophetic dialogue’. Mission is exercised in ‘dialogue’ with others: listening not lecturing, being as much as the learner as the teacher, our interaction forcing us also to rethink our own understanding of the Gospel.

Mission on these terms becomes a founding core of the church, and so also of its lay people. The Church exists by the community of those that have been transformed by God’s mission, which has created the Church. It will
only survive by mission. It should not be an occasional function imagined by a small group for a series of events, but what defines it: ‘mission is not an agenda item – it is the agenda.

In that light, a re-focus would thus recognise that:
• the church is essentially missional in nature
• the local, contextual mission of God, in which the local Church community participates, defines its existence
• the Church has a vital role to play in God’s mission to the world as its only sell-conscious agent
• the Church of Scotland has declared itself as recently as 2010 to be a national church with a responsibility to engage all people with the Gospel
• the Elder holds a unique position as an ordained office bearer with responsibility, along with the minister, for the spiritual health of those in the congregation and, more importantly, in the parish
• therefore, the Eldership in the exercise of a ‘spiritual office’ needs to be at the forefront of mission.

It would follow from the above that the Elder is not simply an ordained administrative assistant dependant on the needs of the minister but, instead, by re-asserting the ‘spiritual’ nature of the office, has a dynamic role to play in shaping and flourishing the very future existence of the Church of Scotland through playing a key role in mission in all of the above terms. All duties of the Elder would then be re-assessed through a missional lens to test their ‘fitness for purpose’.

Eldership as a ‘spiritual’ office would reclaim its main purpose as spiritual ‘oversight’ of both the congregation and all in the parish as it was in the immediate post-Reformation period, but by which would now be meant
the encouragement of the growth of faith rather than its assessment, judgment and censure. In other words, Eldership might be a closer reflection of what T F Torrance describes as the Elder’s ‘diaconal/complementary’ form of ministry, whose basis and distinction from the pastor is recovered from the Second Book of Discipline:
‘As the Pastors … should be diligent in teaching and sowing the seed of the word, so the Elders should be careful in seeking the fruit of the same in the people.’

Therefore, as T F Torrance wrote:

Their distinctive ministry is not the service of the Word but the service of response to the Word… Whilst ministers are ordained to dispense the Word and Sacraments to the people, Elders are set apart to help the people in their reception of the Word and in their participation in the Sacraments, and to seek the fruit of the Gospel in the faith and life of the community.


Thus their specific calling is to help the faithful from within their midst.

A new direction may be called for which re-focuses the meaning and purpose of Eldership beyond narrower foci viewed from the ‘inside-out’; which begins the debate with the method of engagement in the office and the precise duties of the post, and then turns outwards.

Instead, we might re-orientate so as to look towards wider horizons in the first instance, and adopt that focus as normative in every decision regarding the Eldership from an ‘outside-in’ approach. The ‘outside-in’ approach encourages congregations to explore the missional opportunities of their local setting and thereafter shape the office of Eldership in this context.

We might then discern which potential roles and tasks in the eldership should be kept and which discarded within the Presbyterian tradition from the many previously employed and now proposed. We would thus place mission above the internal functioning of the Church, and retain only those duties that are key to the flourishing of the mission of God in the world, whether by streamlining the internal governance of the Church primarily for that purpose, or by enabling and empowering elders to be at the vanguard of initiating and leading mission in the world.


Main things
If the elder’s position is ‘the call and commitment to undertake, along with the minister, responsibility for the life of the congregation in all aspects, including worship, mission, and service to the wider community’, what are the principal things you think elders should be doing?

Discerning a direction
Which of these elements are you most energised by, and which least excite you:
1 preaching or proclaiming (understood in many ways in a social media world);
2 actions, often of care or mercy;
3 prayer and worship;
4 enabling everyday witness in Christian living;
5 building people up in their relationship with God and each other;
6 engaging positively with creation;
7 intentional invitation to personal conversion to a new life in Christ; and
discipleship (increased faithfulness in all of theese above).
How might the Kirk Session encourage these?

3 Mission
Would you place as much emphasis on mission as this article does? What are your reasons for your view?

4 ‘Spiritual office’?
Talk of eldership as a ‘spiritual office’ may sound a little old-fashioned. So how would you put it in contemporary language? Do you agree with this key emphasis on the spiritual (rather than the functional, or ceremonial, or administrative) nature of it?

5 Seeking fruit
What would ‘[seeking] the fruit of the Gospel in the faith and life of the community’ look like in practice for us here and now?

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