Ruling Elder Renaissance

By Brad Isbell | June 20, 2023

Ruling Elder Bob Mattes in shock that he bested Moderator Teaching Elder Fred Greco on a point of parliamentary procedure.
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The recently-concluded 50th Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly in Memphis, TN was the second-largest ever with (unofficially) 2250 elders in attendance; only the previous year’s assembly was larger with 2385 in attendance. More significantly, this year’s meeting solidified a trend of greater ruling elder (RE) participation in the courts of the PCA.

The parity of the two classes of elder (ruling and teaching) in the PCA is a notable feature of PCA polity. Most committees are structured so that equal numbers for ruling and teaching elders are possible if fully attended. The principle of parity is baked in; the reality of parity has been harder to achieve. Various reasons for this difficulty are given, but most agree that the high cost of attendance and/or the need for a week off of work for REs (most of whom work outside the church for a living) are at least partially to blame. Most teaching elders are paid their salary and expenses to attend both presbytery and GA meetings.

The first PCA General Assembly in 1973 saw more ruling elders than teaching elders (pastors) in its ranks, but a downward trend in lay attendance began after the fourth general assembly. Ruling elders comprising something like 50% of assembly attendance became a thing of the past, and RE participation bottomed out between 2009 and 2018—averaging only 23% of commissioners at those assemblies.

Image Credit: Brad Isbell

Things began to change in 2018 in Dallas with REs making up 25% of commissioners. Part of the reason for greater RE numbers there may have been the sheer size of the North (everything-is-bigger-in) Texas Presbytery, which hosted the assembly. But the next year in St. Louis there were 25% again, then more than 30% of the commissioners at the last two assemblies (Birmingham and Memphis) were REs. Something is changing; ruling elders are showing up…but why? Here are several possible reasons:

  • Issues – The Side B and Revoice-related controversy and the judicial cases and Book of Church Order amendments associated therewith (all post-2018) surely motivated ruling elders to show up at GA.
  • Examples – A number of faithful REs have proven to be consistent leaders at the GA level, spurring others to follow suit. Many have noted an increase in RE contributions to GA committee work and debate in the last few years. More ruling elders may have developed the habit of following the issues and going to GA.  
  • Organization & Events – MORE in the PCA has helped a few dozen ruling elders and small churches pay for GA expenses each year since 2018. Their assistance alone cannot explain the increase, but MORE may have inspired more men than they helped. And MORE has sponsored free or inexpensive fellowship events at the last three assemblies attended by more than 800 ruling elders “and those who love them.” These events have helped REs feel at home and connected during the pastor-dominated week of GA.
  • Promotion of Polity – More elders (of both classes) are teaching and emphasizing the vital importance of ruling elder involvement. There is evidence of a renewed interest in the presbyterian polity embedded in the PCA BCO and in Southern Presbyterianism more generally.
  • (Slightly) Reduced Costs – Members of the Committee of Commissioners for the Administrative Committee voted to reduce the RE registration fee from $450 to $300 (and raised the fee for most pastors to $525) at the 2022 GA (to take effect for the most recent GA in Memphis). This change was slightly revenue-positive for the denomination and actually saved money for any church sending as many ruling elders as teaching elders.

Again, the parity of elders is built into PCA polity. BCO 9-8 reads:

Elders being of one class of office, ruling elders possess the same authority and eligibility to office in the courts of the Church as teaching elders. They should, moreover, cultivate zealously their own aptness to teach the Bible and should improve every opportunity of doing so.

The reason for this parity of elders principle is obvious—the founders of the PCA viewed ruling elders as a reliable, commonsense bulwark against doctrinal and denominational decline. The founders were not insensible to the fact that teaching elder professors and influential large-church pastors had presided over the liberalization of the old Southern mainline church from whence the PCA came. The late increase in ruling elder participation is a fitting tribute to the founders of the PCA, many of whom were ruling elders. Retired Stated Clerk Roy Taylor has written:

“The PCA was started primarily through the efforts of Ruling Elders.”

May the tribe of involved ruling elders increase and do their part to preserve the PCA in faithfulness to the Scriptures, the Reformed faith, and the Great Commission.

Brad Isbell is a PCA Ruling Elder serving on the session of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, TN.

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