What We Believe
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What difference can a ruling elder make? Many people do not know what elders are supposed to do and often even less of what they actually do. Yet ruling elders are vital to the life of the church as well as to our lives personally. On June 26, 2020, John Leding, who was a fellow elder and one my close personal friends, went to be with Christ when he died unexpectedly in a car wreck. His work as an elder behind the scenes illustrates why we need faithful ruling elders and the influence that they can have on our lives and ministries.

John and I served together on the session of Frist OPC Sunnyvale, CA. We usually kept in touch every other week on average long after I left the congregation to teach at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The following reflections illustrate how a busy and successful businessman can serve Christ and his church to further the gospel, often behind the scenes. Often our views of church offices are two-dimensional, resting on abstract principles and qualifications alone. Reflecting on the godly example and service of a faithful elder can help make them three-dimensional, realistic, and concrete.

He Was a Spiritual Man

John was more concerned with godliness than he was even with orthodoxy. This may sound jarring at first. Our denomination has “orthodox” in its name, showing how highly we value right thinking about the Lord and his Word. Yet, the truth we confess is the truth that accords with godliness (1 Tim. 6:3). We should never study Scripture or sound doctrine as ends in themselves. The Triune God’s purpose in revealing doctrine is so that we would know the right God in the right way (John 17:3). John’s concern was that many Reformed Christians were more concerned with being right than they were with right living. While we would argue the finer points of predestination, he would ask young men and candidates for the ministry whether they were viewing pornography. While we would argue over justification and union with Christ, he was concerned with whether the Spirit was conforming God’s people to the image of God’s Son (Rom. 8:29). While many wanted to form the best arguments for infant baptism, John wanted to press us to improve our baptisms and to live for God’s glory. While many are concerned with the right interpretation of the law of God, he wanted the law to be an instrument of the Spirit to love the God of the law.

John was as zealous for sound doctrine as any faithful OPC elder, but he never lost sight of why we should care in the first place. In short, everything he pursued and promoted in the church revolved around union with Christ and the glory of the Triune God. He was consumed with knowing Christ and with rooting the benefits of the gospel in him, rather than merely debating theology and getting the system of doctrine right for its own sake. He always reminded me that the end of good theology is the reason for good theology. This, above all else, is what made him a good elder and a godly man, and a good elder because a godly man. This is precisely what our churches need from our officers.

He Was a Businessman

John was a successful businessman, running one of the largest tour bus companies on the West Coast. Sometimes people elect elders because they are leaders in the community and not because they are spiritual men. This only harms the church. We want men who are full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:3). Yet, we should not go to opposite extremes. Sometimes sessions and presbyteries need men with good business sense simply because they know how to do business and how to get things done. Frankly, we often take too long to make decisions in governing the church and shepherding the flock. We take too long to approve men to serve churches as ministers and to keep church discipline on a timely track. Often exasperating our churches, we linger when we need to take action. John kept things moving.

He had a good sense for how we use church and presbytery funds and make decisions. While others saw no problem, for example, with people serving on committees that also paid their salaries, arguing that we were the church and not the world and we should expect the best, John had a healthier and more realistic view of human nature. He had a way of showing a session or presbytery that adding new information would not change our final decisions, and he would press us to act. He was always concerned with getting pastors in pulpits, and he was instrumental behind the scenes in bringing at least four pastors into three different pulpits in our presbytery. A good businessman, who is a godly and wise Christian as well, can be precisely what a session needs to be responsible and timely in making important decisions that affect the church.

He Was a Churchman

John attended every presbytery meeting, served on various committees, augmented sessions in other churches, and persevered through many day-long session meetings on Saturdays. He participated in prayer meetings faithfully, even via conference calls when work and travel would not permit him to attend in person. Loving the church, he showed commitment to its worship and work at every level he could. He was a model of someone with a busy schedule who never neglected his family and made time to serve the church. Maybe it takes a successful businessman to teach us how to manage our time well enough to do all that the Lord calls us to do.

He also humbled, and sometimes shamed, me through his public prayers. He had the gift of brevity and could say what most of us tried to communicate in half the words and with greater meaning and profit to the congregation. We have a lot to learn from men who know how to get to the bottom line, especially in public prayer.

Ruling elders are not in full-time ministry. They have full time jobs and busy schedules. Participating in session and presbytery meetings, serving on committees, attending visitation, leading new members classes, and being part of similar activities take time. These cannot be all consuming and no one can do everything. Elders should pace themselves and not overcommit. Doing a little bit every month in service to the church is better than setting unrealistic goals and burning out or holding a place on a session without doing much of anything. John gives us an example of how far devoting a few hours at a time, a few times a month, can stretch into fruitful and necessary labor in spreading Christ’s kingdom. The old saying rings true that where there is a will there is a way, with Christ opening the way and the Spirit making us willing and able to serve the Father.

He Was a Faithful Friend

John and I frustrated each other at times. Maybe we even irritated each other once in a while. Yet, we also trusted and loved each other. All of these things go along with friendship. He was not afraid to tell me when I was preaching too long, even though he loved preaching. He would tell me when my sermons lacked warmth for the congregation, even when I thought I had poured my heart out to them. He was willing to press me to be more concrete and give more examples in my application, even when I labored to do so. He was willing to confront hard pastoral issues with church members, even while the rest of us on the session wrestled with how to broach difficult subjects. Yet, none of us ever doubted his love when he did these things. He was patient, kind, generous, prayerful, open-hearted, straightforward, and sensitive. He was constructive and supportive without being critical. Pastors rarely need more critics, but they do need elders who love them enough to help them do better when they know that they can with the Spirit’s help. I am a much better preacher, and a better man, for John’s faithful service as an elder.

Pastors need elders who are their friends. Many ministers complain about being lonely in the ministry with no one really understanding the challenges that they face. I never felt lonely laboring with my elders in Sunnyvale. John was my friend (as are the other men on the session there), and we truly bore the burdens of ministry together, including the ministry of the Word. Those who do not understand the trials of the ministry are probably not investing adequate time into people’s lives through regular (even if once a month) visiting, hospitality, counselling, and having fellowship with people. A minister should never be lonely if he has ruling elders who are not afraid to get their hands dirty, who love their pastors, and who share life and genuine friendship with him and with the people they serve. Men like this make our ministries more fruitful and more joyful.

On one occasion two ruling elders, whom I knew well, asked me what was the best thing they could do to help the new minister the church was calling. I responded without hesitation, be friends with him and don’t merely work with him. We only need read Paul’s epistles, especially 2 Corinthians, to see the strong bonds of friendship and love that existed between Paul, the churches, and his fellow church officers. We need less of the mentality that ministers and elders should never be close to people in the church because they will likely be betrayed. Jesus was betrayed by Judas and forsaken by the other eleven apostles (Matt. 26:31), yet he laid down his life for his friends (John 15:14).

He Was a Persistent and Kind Evangelist

John brought the gospel to people everywhere he went. Every time someone complained that our churches needed more evangelism, while I agreed with them generally, I would point to John as a faithful example. He knew people in his town. He really got to know them, and he genuinely cared about what mattered to them. This was why so many were ready to receive the gospel from him. He taught me that we need more empathy with non-believers. We must confront people with their sin and with their need for Christ. Yet, we must not forget how strange we are to them and that they are real people with real values, even if those values are wrong or misguided. If we want people to take Christ seriously, then we must learn to take them seriously. John was unafraid to talk to a lesbian couple and find out what made them tick and what they were passionate about before sharing his passion for Christ. This is why they often gave him the time to tell them about the Savior. Christ was always in his heart and never far from his lips. This is the best way to evangelize the lost. Jesus treated people as real people with real concerns and problems. He ministered to them body and soul. He was a friend of tax collectors and sinners. We need ruling elders to lead in evangelism by example, but this takes ruling elders who are willing to care for people who hardly share any of their beliefs or values. John helped show me how this should be done.

Conclusion

I have preached at funerals and, like all of us, I have experienced the death of loved ones. When some people die, my memories of them are clouded by selfish lives that ran like a thread even through their acts of service to others. People can buy gifts for others, do kind things for them, spend time with them, and entertain them with an eye primarily on what they want, on their self-esteem, their possessions, and how people will remember them. Sin teaches us to love ourselves, then others, and then God, if there is any room left for him. The Holy Spirit teaches us to love God first, then our neighbor for his sake, then ourselves, if we have any room left to do so. When I think of John’s life, I am moved to praise and thanksgiving because I see such clear evidence of a life reoriented by grace. I don’t need to call the comforts of the gospel to mind under the weight of losing him because they cannot stay out of my mind. They come flooding in without bidding.

Reflecting on my friend’s life impresses me with the power of the Spirit of Christ. Elders must first be Spirit-filled men if they hope to have Spirit-filled ministries. We need elders who have good Christian sense, and maybe a dose of good business sense, and who are committed to the church without neglecting their families. We need elders who are friends to their ministers and to the members of their congregations. We need men who live in Christ and whose lives spill into those of the lost in everyday living. Faithful ruling elders may not receive much recognition in this world, but they can make a world of a difference, storing up treasures for the life to come. This is a three-dimensional picture of the difference that a faithful ruling elder can make, rather than a two-dimensional definition of office and list of qualifications. Elders need to be men we can serve with and under, and whom we can imitate as they imitate Christ, rather than men we can simply define theologically and fill open slots when elections come around.

Ryan M. McGraw is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as a professor of systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. Ordained Servant Online, December 2020.

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Ordained Servant: December 2020

A Faithful Elder

Also in this issue

Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapters 7–11

With All Your Heart: Orienting Your Mind, Desires, and Will Toward Christ by A. Craig Troxel

The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers: Selections from Her Novels, Plays, Letters, and Essays, Edited by Carole Vanderhoof

Synopsis of a Purer Theology by Polyander, et al., edited by Antonius Walaeus, translated by Riemer A. Faber, volume 3

Nativity

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