“The office of Elder amongst us is of great importance, and when rightly filled, of great value.” – Christian Discipline.
It appears by the records quoted in the Book of Discipline (Church Government, chapter iii), that the first appointment of elders took place in the year 1727, a period in our history when there was evidently great need for the better regulation of ministry. The appointment of these Church officers has been continued down to our own day, but with a valuable modification introduced in 1876. Before that time the office of elder was retained for life except in certain cases of removal. In 1876 it was decided that thenceforth the appointments, like those to the office of overseer, should undergo revision every third year.
The writer’s experience on the subject of elders points to the following conclusions, viz. :–
- That the functions of Eldership are of very great value, when exercised by properly qualified persons.
- That the qualification is a spiritual gift, not a natural attainment; and
- That the possession of the gift is comparatively rare.
- Elders who lack the proper qualification may do more harm than good.
Grateful for the kindness occasionally shown him by Friends in that station, he has very often had to deplore the entire inability of many of them to understand the real position of a minister, or the exercised of mind through which he often has to pass. Hardly any, except those who have themselves passed through them, are competent to sympathise with the trials and dangers, from within and from without, which beset the path of the young minister. With the best intentions on the part of elders, the very fact of the existence of such officers combined with that of their almost absolute silence towards him on subjects connected with his service, has been the cause of some of the writer’s sorest discouragements. Had no such office existed in the Society, of course no help would have been expected from it. But to know that there were elders, and yet never hear a word from them, either good or bad, was to be doubly oppressed with the sense of a lonely responsibility.
At a week-day meeting, for instance, the preacher has been deeply exercised and humbled before God in the course of Gospel testimony or earnest prayer. Shortly afterward the congregation comes forth with that hushed demeanour which betokens serious impressions. An elder who has been present is encountered almost on the doorstep, and his only words to the minister are these, “Is there aught fresh at the office this morning?” The contrast between the heavenly aroma within the walls and the earthly hubbub without was sharp enough in itself, but to have it hastened and intensified by the one to whom the Church directed him to look for sympathy and support, was to receive discouraging evidence of the inability of even one of the kindest and personal friends to feel the throbbing pulses of the preacher’s heart.
Such and similar incidents, not solitary, but often repeated, tend to teach one that he has little or nothing to expect from the eldership, and to deepen the desire expressed at the conclusion of my last letter for the reinstitution of meetings for counsel chiefly confined to preachers themselves. Many other Friends in the ministry have assured me, that they have derived more help in the course of their lives from the counsels of brother ministers, than from Friends in the station of elder.
There seems to be, in the fact of being selected for the latter office, a remarkable tendency to close a man’s lips. On one occasion in the recollection of the writer, a Friend who, as a private individual had often had a kind word for a young minister, and whose brotherly hints had been greatly valued, actually remarked when chosen for the eldership, “I must take care what I say to thee now they have made me an Elder, for my words will have an official meaning!” This was not a mere pleasantry, but was really put in practice, and so the seal of the Church upon him spoiled a good elder. I am far from wishing eldership to be abolished; but I do long that more of the dear Friends in that station would set before themselves a higher and broader ideal; would regard their office less exclusively as one of censorship, and more as one of privileged co-operation in the work of the Gospel, and would remember that even the gifted minister does not become a mere spiritual automaton, but still has a human side to his nature; a human nature that reached out towards other human natures for countenance, for sympathy, and for help. Why should an elder be afraid to say sometimes to a preacher, “I think the Lord has been with thee in thy exercise today”? Is that venerable bogie, the fear of “exalting the creature” to be allowed to scare us apart for ever? What a rightly exercised minister longs to know, after he has been doing his best to deliver the message that seemed to him to be called for, is not whether he has pleased the ears of his audience, but whether he has reached their hearts; whether (in the words of the “Advices”) “the baptising power of the Spirit of Truth” has accompanied his words. How much more likely is it that an occasional needed word of counsel about the length of tone of a sermon, or about something that may have seemed lacking or redundant in it, would be well received if it came from one who was accustomed, when he could, to say an encouraging word.
I have said that I conceive the true qualification of an elder to be a spiritual gift. Christ has “received gifts for men.” He will bestow them in response to believing prayer.
Joseph John Dymond
Ilkley, June, 1892
Part 5 of this series is here.