Presbyterian and Reformed churches are ruled by elders. In fact, the term Presbyterian comes to us from the Greek word presbyteros, meaning “elder.” It is closely related to the term episkopos, often translated “overseer” (as in the ESV). Both Presbyterian and Reformed churches are churches ruled by men (elders or overseers, and ministers) whose duties are spelled out throughout the New Testament — especially in the so-called Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus) but also in James and 1 Peter.
While many people’s eyes wax over with disinterest when the subject of church government comes up, how churches are to organize and govern themselves is a major theme throughout the New Testament. Church government is an important topic in virtually all the Protestant confessions and in most of our major systems of theology. Whether the subject piques our interest, the biblical writers thought it very important and devoted much time and attention to direct those who would come after them as to how to organize and govern their congregations. Remember that all those who trust in Jesus Christ are part of His body and are to be members of a local church. Christ’s church must ensure that the souls of God’s people are cared for, that they are protected from heresy as well as from those who confess their faith in Christ but who still behave like pagans.
A very brief survey of the New Testament reminds us that as the successors to the apostles and as those who rule the church in the name of Christ (while submitting to Christ’s headship), ministers and elders are called to their respective offices to do the work assigned them in Scripture. As successors to the apostles, Paul exhorts Titus to ordain elders when new churches are established (Titus 1:5). Elders are shepherds of Christ’s flock in His physical absence (1 Peter 5:1–5), and some of these men labor in teaching and preaching (1 Tim. 5:17). Elders (also called overseers) are to be above reproach, they are to be able to teach, and they are to be men whose conduct is to be impeccable within the community they serve, especially in terms of the way they manage their own households (3:1–7). At the famous Jerusalem Council of Acts 15:1–35, the apostles assembled together with the elders to decide what to do about the pressing problem of Jewish-Gentile relations within the church. This assembled body made a number of important decisions about what to do to promote the cause of Christ and keep the peace within the church.
Recall that Jesus left His church with the following marching orders. In the great commission (Matt. 28:18–20), Jesus commanded His disciples to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Christ’s church is to be about the business of preaching the gospel, teaching the nations all that He commanded, as well as baptizing in the name of the triune God. In fact, says Jesus, this is how the church is to make disciples.
In His final evening with His disciples, as they were celebrating the Passover together, Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and instructed His disciples that they were to celebrate His death through the bread and the wine in remembrance of Him. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul recounts the practice of the church in Corinth, which celebrated this proclamation of the Lord’s death (v. 26) whenever they came together (presumably, the Lord’s Day worship service, v. 17), and were to continue to do so until the Lord returns (v. 26).
Even from this brief catalogue of verses, it is crystal clear that Christ’s church has a very simple set of marching orders given it by Jesus Himself. The church’s primary mission is to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. This is how the church will make disciples of the nations.
In light of this, the Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes the church’s mission in question 88, reminding us that the ordinary way in which people become Christians is through the preaching of the gospel (which creates faith), the sacraments (which confirm and strengthen faith), and prayer (in which God is asked to bless the ordinary means of grace).
Therefore, if elders and ministers are to rule the church in the name and with the authority of Christ, then it should be perfectly clear that their primary job is to ensure that God’s Word is properly preached, that the sacraments are properly administered, and that in everything they seek the blessing and power of God through prayer. When elders and ministers are focusing upon these things, disciples will be made and God’s people will grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.