« PreviousContinue »
cording to the circumstances in which we are placed." In the present instance, we have texts which indubitably prove that there were presiding, Superintending, or ruling elders (the words bear the same meaning) in the church in the apostolic age, and that this office is fully warranted by the Word of God. Thug we read in Acts xx. 17–28. “ From Miletus he (Paul] sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. And, when they were come to him, he said unto them, Take heed-unto yourselves, and to all the flock over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you oVERSEERS," &c. The word overseers in this place fignifies, as it does every where, persons who had a confiderable degree of superintendency over the work in which they were employed. Again, in i Tim. v. 17, we read, “ Let the elders that rule will be counted worthy of double honour," &c. Every person who understands the original or even our own language, well knows that there is no difference at all in the sense between the words presiding and ruling, and that one might be substituted for the other. Once more, St. Peter, in his ist Epistle, v. 1-3, obferves “ The elders which are among you, I exhort, -Feed the fiock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind, neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.” Here we also see, that there were elders, who had the oversight or fuperintendence (for so the word fignifies) of the flock of God: nor could St. Peter have cautioned these against lording it over God's heritage, if they had not had some authority in the church, which they might abuse. And we must desire our readers to remember, that we are not speaking here or in our observations concerning the episcopacy, of the powers which the apostles themselves exercised, but of those with which they invested others, or which the churches conferred upon their ministers respectively.
On the principles or data above-mentioned, ali the episcopal churches in the world have, in fome measure, formed their church-government. And we believe we can venture to asiert, that there never has been an epifcopal church of any great extent, which has not had ruling or presiding elders, either expressly by name as in the apostolic churches, or otherwise in effet. On this account it is, that all the modern episcopal churches have had their presiding or ruling elders under the names of grand vicars, archdeacons, rural deans, &c. The Moravians have prefiding elders, who are invested with very considerable authority, though we believe they are simply termed elders. And we beg leave to repeat, that we are confident, we could, if need were, shew that all the episcopa' churches ancient and modern, of any great extent, have had an order or set of minifters corresponding,
more or less, to our presiding or ruling elders, all of whom were, more or less, invested with the superintendence of other ministers.
Mr. Wesley informs us in his works, that the whole plan of Methodism was introduced, step by step, by the interference and openings of divine Providence. This was the case in the present instance. When Mr. Wesley drew up a plan of government for our church in America, he desired that no more elders should be ordained in the first instance than were absolut:ly necessary, and that the work on the continent should be divided between them, in respect to the duties of their office. The general conference accordingly elected twelve elders for the above purposes. Bishop Albury and the district conferences afterwards found that this order of men was so necessary, that they agreed to enlarge the number, and give them the name by which they are at present called, and which is perfectly scriptural, though not the word used in our translation: and this proceeding afterwards received the approbation ci Mr. Wesley.
In 1792 the general conference, equally conscious of the neceflity of having such an office among us, not only confirmed every thing that bishop Albury and the district conferences had done, but also drew up or agreed to the present section for the explanation of the nature and duties of the office. The conference clearly saw that the bishops wanted affiftants; that it was impossible for one or two bishops fo to superintend the vast work on this continent as to keep every thing in order in the intervals of the conference, without other official men to act under them and allift them : and as these would be only the agents of the bishops in every respect, the authority of appointing them, and of changing them, ought, from the nature of things, to be in the episcopacy. If the presiding or ruling elders were not meu in whom the bishops could fully confide, or on the loss of confidence, could exchange for others, the utmost confusion would ensue. This also renders the authority invested in the bishops of fixing the extent of each district, highly expedient. They must be supposed to be the best judges of the abilities of the presiding elders whom they themselves choose : and it is a grand part of their duty, to make the districts and the talents of the presiding elders who act for them, fuit and agree with each other, as far as possible: for it cannot be expected, that a sufficient number of them can at any time be found, of equal talents, and, therefore, the extent of their field of action must be proportioned to their gifts.
From all that has been advanced, and from those other idea's which will present themselves to the reader's mind on this fub
ject, it will appear that the presiding elders must, of course, bo appointed, directedy and changed by the episcopacy. And yet their power is so considerable, that it would by no means be sufficient for them to be responsible to the bishops only for their condud in their office. They are as responsible in this respect, and în every other, to the yearly conference to which they belong, as any other preacher ; and may be censured, suspended, or expelled froin the connection, if the conference see it proper : nor have the bishops any authority to over-rule, suspend, or meliorate in any degree, the censures, fufpenfions, or expulsions of the conference. Many and great are the advantages arising from this instituti.
1. It is a great help and blefiing to the quarterly meetings respectively, through the connection, to have a man at their head, who is experienced not only in the ways of God, but in men and manners, and in all things appertaining to the order of our church. Appeals may be brought before the quarterly meeting from the judgment of the preacher who has the oversight of 'the circuit, who certainly would not be, in such cases, so proper to preside as the ruling elder. Nor would any local preacher, leader, or steward be a suitable president of the meeting, as his parent, his child, his brother, fifter, or friend, might be more or less intereited in the appeals which came before him: befides, his Iscal situation would lead him almost unavoidably to prejuuge the case, and, perhaps, to enter warmly into the interests of one or other of the parties, previously to the appeal. It is, therefore, indisputably evident, that the ruling eldler is most likely to be inpartial, and, consequently, the most proper person to preside.
2. Another advantage of this office arises from the necessity of changing preachers from circuit to circuit in the intervals of the yearly conferences. Many of the preachers are young in years and gists; and this must always be the case, more or less, or a fresh supply of travelling preachers in proportion to the necellities of the work could not be procured. These young men, in general, are exceedingly zcalous. Their grand forte is to awaken souls; and in this view they are high y neceffary for the ipreading of the gospel. But for fome time their gifts cannot be expected to be various ; and, therefore, half a year at a time, or sometimes even a quarter, may be fufficient for them to labour in one circuit : to change them, therefore, from circuit to circuit, in the intervals of the yearly conferences," is highly ne. cessary in many instances. Again, the preachers themselves, for family-reasons or on other accounts, may define, and have reason to expect, a change. But who can make it in the absence of the bishops, unless there be a presiding elder appointed for the ditrict? A recent instance proves the justice of this remark. A large district was lately without a presiding elder for a year.
Many of the preachers, sensible of the necessity of a change iu. the course of the year, met together, and settled every prelimi., nary for the purpose. Accordingly, when the time fixed upon for the change arrived, several of them came to their new appointments according to agreement, but, behold, the others had changed their minds, and the former were obliged to return to their old circuits, feeling not a little disgrace on account of their treatment. And this would be continually the case, and all would be confusion, if there were no persons invested with the powa er's of ruling elders, by whatever name tbey might be called; as it would be impoflible for the bishops to be present every where, and enter into the details of all the circuits.
3. Who is able properly to supply the vacancies in circuits on the deaths of preachers, or on their wiihdrawing fron the travelling connection? Who can have a thorough knowledge of the state of the district, and of its resources for the filling up such vacancies, except the presiding elder who travels through the whole district ? And shall circuits be often neglected for months together, and the flocks, during those times, be, more or less, without thepherds, and many of them, perhaps, perish for want of food, merely that one of the most scriptural and useful offices among us may be abolished ? Shall we not rather support it, notwithstanding every thing which may be subtilly urged by our enemies under the cry of tyranny, which is the common cry of restless spirits even against the best governments, in order that they may throw every thing into confusion, and then ride in the whirlwind and direct the storm.
4. When a bishop visits a district, he ought to have one to Saccompany him, in whom he can fully confide; one, who can inform him of the whole work in a complete and comprehensive view; and, therefore, one who has travelled through the whole, and, by being present at all the quarterly meetings, can give all the information, concerning every circuit in particular, and the district in general, which the bishop can desire. Nor is the advantage small that the bishops, when at the greatest distance, may receive from the presiding elders a full account of their respective districts, and may thereby be continually in possession of a more comprehensive knowledge of the whole work, than they could possibly procure by any other means.
5. The only branch of the presiding elder's office, the importance and usefulness of which is not so obvious to some persons, but which is, at the same time, perhaps the most expedient of all, is the suspending power, for the preservation of the purity of our ministry, and that our people may never be burdened with preachers of insufficient gifts. Here we must not forget, that the presiding elder acts as agent to the bishops; and that the bishops are, the greatest part of their time, at a vast distance from him.
hé must, therefore, exercise episcopal authority (ordination cxcepted) or he cannot act as their agent. All power may be abused. The only way which can be devised to prevent the abuse of it, if we will have a good and effective government, is to make the executive governors completely responsible, and their responsibility within the reach of the aggrieved. And, in the present instance, not only the general conference may expel the presiding elder--not only the episcopacy may fufpend him from The exercise of his office but the yearly conference may also impeach him, try him, and expel him: and such a threefold guard inust be allowed, by every candid mind, to be as full a check to the abuse of his power, as, pei haps, human wisdom can devise.
But is it not frange, that any of the people should complain either of this or of the episcopal office ? These offices in the church are peculiarly defigned to meliorate the severity of christian discipline, as far as they respect the people. In them the people have a refuge, an asylum to which they may fly upon all occasions. To them they may appeal, and before them they may lay all their complaints and grievances. The persons who bear these offices are their fathers in the gospel, ever open of access, ever ready to relieve them under every oppression. And we believe we can venture to assert, that the people have never had even a klausible pretence to complain of the authority either of the bishops or the presiding elders.
6. We may add, as was just hinted above, that the bishops ought not to enter into small details. It is not their calling. To select the proper men who are to act as their agents to preserve in order and in motion the wheels of the vast machine to keep a constant and watchful eye upon the whole--and to think deeply for the general good form their peculiar and important avocation. All of which shews the necessity of the office now under consideration.
The objection brought by fome, that many of the most useful preachers are taken out of the circuits for this purpose, whose preaching-talents are thereby lost to the connection, will by no means bear examination. Even if this was the case, the vast advantage arising from a complete and effective superintendence of the work would, we believe, far over-balance this consideration. But the objection is destitute of weight. Their preaching abilities are, we believe, abundantly more useful. Though all the preachers of matured talents and experience cannot be employed as presiding elders, yet those who are employed as such, generally answer this character. They are qualified to build up believers on their most holy faith, and to remove scruples and answer cases of conscience, more than the younger preachers in general. In many circuits, some parts of the society might suffer much in respect to the divine life, for want of those gifts peculiarly necef