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The Case for Two Classes of Church Elders: Ruling and Shepherding 

In the diverse landscape of church governance, the concept of delineating elders into two distinct classes—ruling elders and shepherding elders—presents a compelling model. This division aligns with a nuanced understanding of biblical mandates, historical practices, and theological principles, aiming to enhance the church's operational efficiency and spiritual vitality. Let's explore the biblical, historical, and theological case for this model. 

Biblical Foundations 

The New Testament provides the primary framework for church leadership, notably in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus). While it does not explicitly outline a dual-class system, the varied roles and responsibilities attributed to elders suggest a differentiation in functions could be beneficial. For example, 1 Timothy 5:17 distinguishes between elders who rule well and those who labor in preaching and teaching, indicating a potential for distinct roles within the elder body. 

Acts 6:1-7 offers another foundational precedent. Although this passage directly references the appointment of deacons, the principle behind it—to separate the practical and spiritual responsibilities of church leaders—can be extrapolated to support a dual-class system of leadership. 

Historical Context 

The Reformation period offered rich insights into church governance, with figures like John Calvin advocating for a structured ecclesiastical hierarchy that included distinct roles within church leadership. The Presbyterian Church, following Calvin's teachings, formalized a system of governance that includes both teaching elders (ministers) and ruling elders, underscoring a historical precedent for differentiated roles based on the unique gifts and callings within the church body. 

Theological Rationale 

Theologically, the differentiation between ruling and shepherding elders aligns with the principle of diverse gifts within the body of Christ (Romans 12:4-8; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31). Just as the body is composed of different parts with distinct functions, so too can the eldership embody a diversity of roles, each contributing to the church's overall health and mission. This division allows for the optimization of gifts, with some elders focusing on governance and others dedicating themselves to pastoral care and spiritual guidance. 

Ruling Elders: Stewards of Governance 

Ruling elders focus on the church's administrative, financial, and organizational aspects. They ensure the church operates efficiently, stewards its resources wisely, and fulfills its mission in the community and beyond. By concentrating on these areas, ruling elders free up shepherding elders to dedicate more time to ministry, teaching, and pastoral care. 

Shepherding Elders: Guardians of Souls 

Shepherding elders are primarily concerned with the spiritual well-being of the congregation. Their role involves preaching, teaching, pastoral care, discipleship, and prayer. This focus on spiritual leadership and pastoral responsibilities ensures that the congregation is nurtured, edified, and guided in their faith journey. 

Harmonizing the Dual Roles 

The key to the effectiveness of this dual-class system is harmony and mutual respect between ruling and shepherding elders. Each class recognizes the value and necessity of the other's contributions, working together for the church's common good. Communication, collaboration, and shared vision are essential for maintaining unity and purpose within the elder body. 


While the New Testament does not mandate a specific organizational structure for church leadership, the biblical, historical, and theological case for distinguishing between ruling and shepherding elders offers a viable model for contemporary churches. This approach allows for a more specialized application of gifts within the eldership, fostering efficient church governance and profound pastoral care. As churches consider their governance structures, the dual-class system of eldership presents a balanced framework for meeting the diverse needs of the congregation and advancing the church's mission in the world. 

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