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Should Ruling Elders Ordain Ministers?

by Charles Hodge

Copyright © 2000, All rights reserved.

Excerpted from "The General Assembly of 1842" by Charles Hodge
Princeton Review, July 1843 / Volume 15, No. 3

The question was overtured to the Assembly of 1842, whether ruling elders had, under our constitution, the right to join in the imposition of hands in the ordination of ministers; and was decided by an unanimous vote in the negative. As this answer was given without debate and during the absence of some members who took an interest in the subject, a vote was taken to reconsider the subject; and it was then laid on the table and passed over with other items of unfinished business to the late Assembly. In the meantime the Synod of Kentucky had decided in favour of this supposed right of elders, and a protest was entered by the minority against the decision. The Presbytery of West Lexington sent up an overture in the form of a resolution declaring it to be their judgment that, according to the constitution of our church, ruling elders have the right to unite with preaching elders in laying on hands in the ordination of ministers. The committee submitted a resolution declaring that neither the constitution nor practice of our church authorizes the ruling elders thus to participate in the act of ordaining ministers. This resolution became the topic of an extended discussion, and was finally adopted by the following vote: yeas 138; nays 9; non liquet 1; excused from voting 4. Of the nays one voted under instructions, his private judgment being in favour of the affirmative; and four were elders, so that the proportion of elders in favour of this new claim was not greater than that of ministers. Rev. Wm. L. Breckinridge was the principal speaker in opposition to the resolution of the committee and in favour of the right in question. His argument was sustained by the Rev. Mr. Cummings, and we believe one other member. We present the best report of Mr. Breckinridge’s speech that we have seen; borrowing it from the Presbyterian of June 3d. The report is necessarily imperfect and does not do justice to the ability of the argument, which was moreover greatly recommended by the liberal and courteous spirit which characterized its delivery. Mr. B., we think, did full justice to his side of the question, and said all that well could be said pertinently to the question; for, as he himself remarked, the real argument on that side is comprised in a very narrow compass.

Rev. W. L. Breckinridge stated that the subject came up in his presbytery in 1841; that it came before synod last year, in reviewing the records of presbytery, and that thirty five voted in favour of the practice, twenty against it, and ten voted non-liquet. He conceived it to be simply a matter interpretation of the constitution—an inquiry into its meaning. It need not be inquired at present, what is the mean of scripture? because it is a settled question that our book accords with scripture. He would not be understood as intimating that scripture is not the ultimate standard; but only that it was not necessary to appeal to it at this stage of the question. The appeal is not to the Church of Scotland, however much we may venerate her. It is not her constitution that is in question, but our own. The question at present is not what the Assembly of Westminster Divines taught: he did not consider any of these opposed to him, but he would not bring up any thing which would turn our attention from the single point before us. He did not consider our own usage, or the usage of the framers of our constitution, as of consequence to the settlement of the question; but the simple point is—what says the constitution? The literal sense of the constitution, is the only point bearing directly on the question. Surely no one will think usage a safe interpreter, or capable of deciding the matter in debate. Usage sanctioned the plan of union; but was this considered a good argument for continuing it? It was discussed until the plan of union and the usage of thirty years were alike declared unconstitutional. . . . Let us admit that the alleged novelty of the practice in question is true; yet this is no argument to prove that the general usage, however old, is right. If novelty be a ground of valid objections then the Reformation itself must be wrong. . . . There were some opinions connected with the subject, which, previous to coming to the main point, he wished to disclaim. He did not, for instance, believe in the jus divinum of Presbyterianism, or of any other form of church government. He was not prepared to unchurch all who did not agree with him in respect to the best form of the church. He believed that God has settled the great principles of ecclesiastical government; but not that he has defined any particular form. He did not believe in the warrant for ruling elders, in the sense of a jure divino; nor base his argument for that office on the principle of the common interpretation of the passage in Timothy, usually alleged in its support. Elders are ecclesiastical men, but not clerical. Their rights are, to a certain extent, coincident with those of the preaching elders; they are not the same as to official dignity, In Timothy, as will be seen by comparing the context, elders do not mean those who are such officially: but aged ecclesiastical persons, who on account of their years and experience, are worthy of Veneration. It would be seen, therefore, that he did not derive his ideas of the superior dignity of the preaching elder from this passage. For certain purposes, and in certain acts, the honour and privilege of the two classes of elders are the same. As for example, on this floor, where both are equal, except perhaps, in this, that the moderator must, by a provision of the constitution, always belong to the order of preaching elders, because it is proper that every meeting of this court should be opened with a sermon. From this equality of the two orders in all our church courts, he derived his first argument for their equal right to impose hands in ordination. The lowest judicatory, the session, owing to the structure of our system, presented an exception to our general remark on the courts. In this, the preaching elder presides only, and the ruling elders have all the power. . . . It is the sense of the constitution, that every court (above the session,) should consist of an equal number of the two orders, and that they should have the same dignity, power, and rights. In our Form of Government, ch. x., presbytery is defined and its powers enumerated. Here we find it consisting of two orders of ecclesiastical men, possessing a perfect equality of rights, and whose duty it equally is to ordain ministers. By the theory of the constitution, the presbytery consists of an equal number of preaching and ruling elders, and that all have equal rights and powers in that court. Ordination is to be performed by the whole body—by a body, the rights of whose members are alt equal-and if done by the whole, certainly the constituent parts of that whole have equal right to participate. This is a simple and sufficient argument for the rights of the ruling elder, which cannot easily be set aside. But there are some objections which lie in the way of brethren, and which he would attempt briefly to remove. It is objected, that elders, in a session, may vote that a person may be baptized, but they cannot baptize him; so, in a presbytery, they may vote that a man may be ordained, but they cannot ordain them. The force of this is removed, by keeping in view the distinction between the action of a court, and the official act of a person belonging to the court—between a sessional or presbyterial act, and a personal, and individually official act. The baptism of a person is not a sessional act, but the ordination of a person is a presbyterial act; the parallel between the two cases does not hold, and therefore the objection founded on that supposed parallelism falls to the ground. Another objection is that an elder cannot take a newly ordained minister by the hand, and use the words prescribed in the constitution, "I give thee the right hand of fellowship, to take part in this ministry with us." But the direction of the constitution is express, that all the members of Presbytery shall do this, and thus takes away every ground of scruple on this subject. The member that presides shall do it first, and then all the members of presbytery in their order. Is the member that presides, a member of the presbytery in any sense that the other ministers are not? Is he a member in any sense which the elders are not? No one will maintain this. All are equally members of the presbytery, and have equal rights. But it is still objected, that an elder has no ministry, and therefore the prescribed form of words, in his mouth has no meaning. But the book is explicit in its direction, that all the members should give the right hand of fellowship, and there must be a sense in which the words in the mouth of an elder have a meaning. The elder has a ministry in the government of the church as well as the bishop; and with the utmost propriety, he can welcome the bishop to take part with him in that ministry. "And all the members of presbytery, in their order," &c. Here, the constitution indicates the two orders, of which presbytery is constituted, and who equally give the right hand of fellowship. "In their order"—does this mean successively? No—but that in their respective order, as bishops and elders, they shall perform the prescribed act. . . . He might meet other scruples, and produce additional considerations in opposition to the report of the committee, but he was unwilling to trespass longer on the time and patience of the house.

The principal speakers in favour of the resolution were Mr. Fraser, Mr. Baker, (elder,) Dr. Leland, the Chancellor Johns, Dr. MacLean, and Messrs. Junkin, Eagleson, Smith and Howard. The main argument, on the other side is, that the constitution declares that a Presbytery consists of ministers and ruling elders; that ordination is the work of the Presbytery; and therefore, as much the work of elders as of ministers. This, which is so much the most plausible, that it may be said to be the only argument in favour of the right in question, rests entirely on the meaning of the constitution. How is this to be determined? How do we proceed when we wish to ascertain the sense of a passage of scripture? The thing to be done is to find out what idea, Paul or John in using certain language, meant to convey. If we can ascertain that, we have that sense of the words which we must admit to be the true one, and, in the case of a rule or precept, the one which we are bound to obey. To ascertain the sense which an apostle meant to express, we ascertain in the first place the literal, etymological meaning of the words. In a multitude of cases, this is enough. Very often, however, the words in themselves will bear different interpretations; to determine which is the true one, we ascertain how the author uses the same language in other parts of his writings; how it was used by cotemporary writers; how it was understood by those to whom it was addressed; how it is explained by the nature of the thing spoken of, by the design and connection of the passage in which the language occurs, and by other declarations relating to the same subject; and finally how the conduct of tile sacred writers and of those whom they instructed, interprets the language in question. If they so acted as to show they understood the language in a certain way, that is the way in which we are bound to take it. Paul calls Christ a sacrifice; but in what sense? In the sense of a propitiation? or in the sense in which we are exhorted to offer ourselves as a sacrifice to God? The words in themselves will bear either interpretation; but as we find Paul uses the language in reference to Christ in many places in such a way that it can only have the former of these senses; as in all cotemporary writers, this language was used to express the idea of a propitiation; as those to whom it was addressed universally understood it in that sense; as the effects ascribed to the sacrifice of Christ, such as pardon of sin, &c., show the sense of the term; as many declarations used in relation to the same subject admit of no other meaning; as the conduct of the apostles and their disciples in placing their hopes of acceptance with God, on the death of Christ, and in exhorting others to do the same, proves that they regarded it as a real propitiation, we are sure that this is the true sense of the language which they employ. We say that the constitution is to be interpreted by these same principles and that we are bound to abide by the sense thus elicited. Let it be admitted that the words presbytery, member, and ministry, as used in our book, may in themselves admit of the interpretation put upon them by the advocates of the other side of this question, yet if this interpretation is inconsistent with other parts of the book; if it is inconsistent with the sense in which this language was used by contemporary writers; with the sense in which it was understood by those to whom it was addressed; if it is incompatible with the nature of the service spoken of; and the rights and duties of elders as elsewhere explained; and if it is inconsistent with the practice of those who framed the constitution and of those who adopted it, then we are perfectly sure that it is not the true meaning of that instrument. As to the first of these points it is clear that a presbytery, in the sense of our Book, is a body of ministers regularly convened, in which ruling elders have a right to deliberate and vote as members; that the ministers are the standing, constituent members, the elders, members only as delegated, for a particular meeting, and for the special purpose of deliberating and voting. This is the idea of a presbytery on which our whole system is founded; and which runs throughout our whole constitution. An interpretation of any particular passage, inconsistent with this distinction, is inconsistent with the constitution. It is by virtue of this leading principle the presbytery often means the body of ministers who are its standing members, without including the delegated, any more than the corresponding members who may hap pen to be present. Hence, too, the presbytery is said to do what its standing m members do, in obedience to the vote of the body; and hence the word "member" is used only of ministers.

Again, the interpretation which makes the expression "the hands of the presbytery" include ruling elders, is inconsistent with the sense that language bears in all writings cotemporary with our standards, or of authority in Presbyterian churches. Thus in the Westminster Directory, whence our formularies were derived, this language is admitted to mean the hands of the preaching presbyters, because it can there have no other meaning, since the Directory elsewhere teaches that the work of ordination belongs to ministers. It has the same sense in Stewart’s Collections, a book still of authority in Scotland, as it was formerly with us; it has the same sense in all the publications of the age in which our Confession of Faith was formed, which are regarded as giving an authentic exposition of Presbyterian principles. This is the point to which Dr. MacLean principally directed his remarks; and which he demonstrated in the clearest manner by abundant references to the works in question. What would be thought of an interpretation of an expression in the writings of Paul, which was inconsistent with the sense the phrase had in every other book in the Bible?

Again, as the ministers and elders who adopted our constitution had been accustomed to understand the expression "hands of the presbytery" in the sense in which it is used in the Directory, under which they had so long acted, it is clear they must have understood it the same way, when that expression was transferred to the new constitution. And if it be a sound principle of interpretation that we must take the language of any document in the sense which it was designed to bear to those to whom it was addressed, then we are bound to take the constitution in the sense in which it was framed and adopted. That is its true sense; the sense in which it is obligatory on the church.

Again, the new construction of the passage in question, is inconsistent with the nature of the subject spoken of, and with the doctrine elsewhere taught in our standards concerning the office of the ruling elder. When it is said God sits on a throne; or, This is my body, we know that the language is not to be taken literally, because the literal interpretation is inconsistent with the nature of the subject spoken of, and with what is elsewhere taught concerning God, and the Lord’s Supper. So when it is said that the presbytery shall ordain, we know that the standing and not the delegated members are intended from the nature of the service. When it is said "some member" shall open the sessions of the judicatory with a sermon, the nature of the service, of necessity, limits the phrase to those members that are entitled to preach. So when ordination to the ministry is the subject, the language is of necessity confined to those members who are in the ministry; who can say to the newly ordained brother " we give you the right hand of fellowship, to take part in this ministry with us." The word ministry means ministry of the gospel, and in our standards it means nothing else. The language just quoted means and can only mean, ‘we recognise you as a fellow minister of the gospel.’ This act of recognition is from its nature confined to those who are in the ministry. Besides, as ordination is a solemn setting apart to a certain office, it belongs according, to the doctrine of all churches, except the brownist, to those who are clothed with the office conferred, or one superior to it, and which includes it. If ordination were merely induction into the order of presbyters, from which some members by a subsequent process, were selected to preach, and others to rule, then the service might from its nature belong to all presbyters; but as beyond dispute ordination is an induction into a particular office, it cannot, according to our constitution, belong to any who do not hold that office. Ordination to the ministry is therefore as much a peculiar function of the ministry as preaching is. The construction of the constitution which would give ruling elders the right to join in the ordination of ministers, is no less inconsistent with what that constitution teaches of the nature of the office of ruling elder. Ordination is all act of executive power, which does not pertain to the ruling elder. They have the right to deliberate and judge, but the execution of the determinations of our judicatories belongs to the ministry. This argument was thus presented by Chancellor Johns: "The constitution of our church confers upon its officers three kinds of power—legislative, judicial and ministerial. The ruling elders are clothed by the constitution with the first two, legislative and judicial, and can carry with them nothing else place them where you may. Look at your elder in the lowest court, the church session. He sits here as a legislator and a judge. But the moment you have to execute the sentence which is passed in this court, it devolves on your minister as the executive. Trace the elder up to the presbytery or synod, there he appears as the representative of the church, but only with legislative and judicial power. When the constitution refers any act to this body, it requires that it be done in a constitutional manner, and by those possessing the requisite constitutional power. After the decree has been passed that a man shall be ordained, it follows that it must be done by those who are not defective in power. It is clear that the moment you decide that ordination is a ministerial or executive act, that moment you decide that it must be performed by those possessing ministerial or executive authority. The execution of the acts necessarily devolves on the competent parts of the body. A ministerial or executive act therefore can be performed only by ministers. Unless you make an elder a minister at once, I never can admit that he can perform an act belonging to the ministerial office. This distinction unlocks the whole difficulty. On this principle, the presbytery give the right hand of fellowship to a co-presbyter ‘to take part of this ministry.’ But ruling elders are not in the ‘ministry,’ and therefore even this act does not belong to them."

Mr. Breckinridge says a minister, per se, has no power to ordain, but only as a member of presbytery, and adds "The question comes to this, do ministers as such ordain, or is it as members of presbytery? If as the latter, and not as the former, then elders being equally members of presbytery, share in the act, and in the executive power vested in the whole body." If the whole matter depends on the question, whether ministers, as such, ordain, or only as members of presbytery, we think it may be soon settled. Mr. B. appears to think that ministers and church courts get all their powers from the constitution; whereas the constitution is but the declaration of the powers which belong to ministers and judicatories, and the stipulations agreeably to which those who adopt it agree to exercise their respective functions. Suppose the constitution was out of existence, would ministers and courts have no power? Have not any number of ministers, no matter how or where convened, the right to ordain? Are not the ordinations by the ecclesiastical councils in New England valid, although such councils are not presbyteries within the definition of our book? An affirmative is the only answer that can be given to these questions; consequently ordination is a ministerial act; it is performed by ministers as such, and not merely as members of presbytery. It is true all the ministers of the Presbyterian church have entered into a contract with each other not to exercise this right, except under certain circumstances, or on certain conditions. They have agreed not to ordain any man who does not understand Greek, Latin and Hebrew; who has not studied theology with some approved minister, at least two years, who does not adopt our Confession of Faith and form of government. They have also agreed not to exercise this right unless regularly convened after due notice, that all interested and having a right to be present, may have the opportunity. The reason of all this is obvious. These ministers are connected with others; every man whom they ordain, becomes a joint ruler and judge over all the others; the others therefore have a right to a voice in his ordination, that is, to a voice in deciding under what circumstances or on what conditions ordination may be administered. But this does not prove that the power to ordain comes from the constitution, or that it belongs to ministers only when convened in what we call a presbytery. Any two or three ministers, and (according to Presbyterian doctrine, as we understand it,) any one minister has as full right to ordain as Timothy or Titus had. Presbyterial ordination is ordination by a presbyter or presbyters, and not by a presbytery, in our technical sense of the term. This is surely the doctrine of the scriptures, and the only doctrine on which we can hold up our heads in the presence of prelacy. It is the only ground on which we can admit the validity of ordination—by a single prelate, or by an ecclesiastical council, or, in short, of any ordinations but our own. If then, as Mr. Breckinridge says, the only question is whether ministers as such ordain, we think that even he, on reflection must admit that the right to ordain is inherent in the ministerial office, and does not arise from any provision of our constitution, or from the association of ministers and elders in the form of a presbytery.

Again, the new interpretation given to the constitution is contradicted by the practice of its framers, and the uninterrupted usage of the church. This consideration has been set aside as an argument from tradition. But no argument is more legitimate. No man can doubt that if we had authentic information how the apostles and their disciples acted in carrying out the commands of Christ, we should have the most satisfactory of all rules for the interpretation of those commands. Christ directed his disciples to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a memorial of him, and the conduct of the apostles and early Christians under that command, is the best possible proof of the perpetual obligation of the command. He directed them to teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Holy Trinity; the conduct of the disciples in baptizing whole households, is one of our best arguments in favour of infant baptism. Apostolic usage also is the main ground of our observance of the first day of the week as the weekly sabbath. The Protestant objection to the Roman doctrine of tradition is not that apostolic teaching and practice are of no authority, but that we have no authentic or satisfactory proof of what that teaching and practice were, except in the inspired scriptures. If papists will produce undoubted proof that the apostles understood the commands of Christ, and especially their own commands in a certain way, we will admit that such is the true way. So if our opponents will produce satisfactory proof that the framers of our constitution and those who adopted it, intended to express a certain idea by any of its provisions, we will admit that such is the true meaning of the instrument. As to the case in hand there is no room for dispute. The framers of our constitution find a certain expression in the Westminster Directory, under which they had long acted, and where it had an undoubted meaning, they transfer that expression to the new constitution, and continue to act precisely as they did before, and the church has continued to act in the same way ever since. If this does not fix the meaning of the constitution, nothing can do it. No man, as far as we know, doubts or can doubt that the expression " laying on of the hands of the presbytery" was intended to mean the hands of the ministers, the standing members of the Presbytery, and that it has been so understood ever since. This being the case, we see not what shadow of proof there can be that such is not it’s meaning. Let it be remembered that while Presbyterians have ever contended for presbyterial ordination, they have always contended for ministerial ordination, and that no case of lay ordination, or of an ordination in which ruling elders participated, has been produced, or, as is believed, can be produced in the history of any Presbyterian church. Surely it is rather late in the day to begin to teach the whole Presbyterian world what are the first principles of their own system.

We have used above the expression lay ordination, without intending to decide whether ruling elders are laymen or not. This is a mere question of the meaning of a word. If a layman is one who holds no office in the church, then they are not laymen; and then too Dr. Lushington and other judges of the ecclesiastical courts in England are not laymen. But if a layman is a man who is not a clergyman, not a minister of the gospel, then they are laymen. The latter is certainly the common meaning of the word, which is used to designate those whose principal and characteristic business is secular, and not sacred, or clerical.

Finally, it was objected to the new doctrine that it was destructive of the office of ruling elder, by merging it into the ministry. The only satisfactory or constitutional ground on which the participation of elders in the ordination of ministers, can be defended is that they hold the same office, that they take part in the same ministry, or in short that elders are ministers. But this conclusion is subversive of the office of ruling elder and of our whole system. And cui bono, what good is to be attained, what evil cured by this new doctrine? It adds nothing to the dignity or usefulness of the elder’s office. If it is a mere ceremony, it is not worth contending about; if it is a serious matter, it is so only because the principles on which the claim is made to rest, seriously interferes [sic] with our ecclesiastical constitution.

Copyright © 2000, All rights reserved.

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