The Session: Its Roles and Responsibilities

Last week’s Elder’s Edition article considered expectations that can arise out of common practices in the use of electronic communications as they might impact how a congregation can interact with the Session. Lastly, the article covered the role and function of the Session as set out in the OPC Book of Church Order (BCO).

This weeks’ edition picks up that thread covering the principles set out in the BCO for the two functions of the Session.

The Responsibilities of Pastors and Teachers

One question often asked by members of Reformed and Presbyterian churches is this: “What does our pastor/minister/teacher do all day?” Very often this question arises out of a frustration either due to delays in response to a particular matter of concern, or else over a disagreement over a response that has been received. A pastor is often expected to function as a Chief Executive Officer of the session or congregation. The tension that arises from such assumed responsibilities may result in faulty expectations, which if not corrected may lead to unrest among members of a church.

The BCO Form of Government (FG) chapters are our guide to help the congregation to set more appropriate expectations. Furthermore, they clarify the standards to which pastors and teachers may be held accountable. Later, this series will explore how the accountability process should function. Let us turn to the BCO FG as our guide.

The Pastor
Let’s make one thing very clear – the pastor is NOT the CEO of the congregation, nor of the Session (all the elders of the church including the pastor/s).

The godly pastor is a man who has been vested by the Presbytery at the call of a congregation to nurture the saints of a local assembly or gathering that forms a recognized congregation of the OPC. That congregation may be a recognized mission work or an established church. A man who has been ordained by the presbytery is called to function in the office of minister or pastor may rightly be expected to serve in a local congregation of God’s people, joining with the ruling elders in governing the congregation. Government is NOT just the responsibility of ruling elders, but it is shared with all the elders (pastors, evangelists, teachers, and ruling elders). Likewise, spiritual oversight is NOT just the responsibility of the minister – it is shared by the whole session functioning with the special office of elder.

The minister of the Word is called to stewardship in the gospel (FG VI:1). The gifts required for office are many, all are essential to the discharge of evangelistic, pastoral, and teaching functions. Every minister of the Word must reflect the gifts and calling in the various aspects of the ministry to which he is called to labor. See FG VI for a detailed overview of the characteristics of ministerial functions and the gifts and skills needed to fulfill them.

The role and functions of the pastor are described in FG VIII. The pastor is Christ’s under shepherd in a local congregation. He joins with the ruling elders in governing the flock as Christ’s minister, and is called a pastor. He is called to lead the congregation in all the service of Christ, to conduct the public worship of God; to pray for and with the people of God as the mouth of the people unto God; to feed the people, teaching them the oracles of God. The pastor has ministerial authority to administer the sacraments; and to bless God’s people as God’s voice to the people.

The Ruling Elder
Ruling Elders are men who Christ has endowed with spiritual gifts for the government of his church. Such necessary gifts being recognized by the congregation, may lead any member of the congregation to nominate a man to be considered for the office of ruling elder. See FG X – page 13 of the 2020 edition of the Book of Church Order (BCO).

Ruling Elders must be of sound faith and practice, exhibiting exemplary walk of faith and life. Ruling Elders, serve as individual members of the Session and also severally (jointly, together representing the overall office called the Session). They are to watch over the people committed to their charge, not as overlords, but as servants of Jesus Christ and also of the people who elected them to the sacred office as an elder of the church. Ruling Elders, just as the minister or pastor, must lead the people to Christ.

The ruling elder ministers primarily to the congregation, visiting the people, especially the sick, instructing them as needed, comforting them in all their circumstances, nourishing them with the Word, and guarding the children of the covenant (the children of believing parents). They must pray with and for God’s people, lifting them up to Christ from whom comes all help.

In particular, the ruling elders share a responsibility of ministering to the pastor, as a leader among God’s people. The work of the pastor is endless and constant for 24 hours every day. The ruling elders must oversee the teaching of the Word, the doctrine and conduct of the pastor in his work. They must pray with and for the pastor, seeking constantly the provision of the blessings of strength and clarity of calling in all his work, and they must also help minister to the family of the minister to ensure that the husband and father of his own house is cared for just as the congregation must be cared for.

In the next edition: How ministers are called and ordained, and how ruling elders are called and ordained.

Elder John H. Terpstra