Book Review: A Treatise Of Ruling Elders And Deacons

A Treatise Of Ruling Elders And Deacons, by James Guthrie

I read this book thanks to the suggestions of one of my loyal readers who told me a place where I can read about Calvinists to my hearts content.  Admittedly, I am not a particular fan of Calvinism [1], but since like Jane Austen I like writing about ordination, I figured this would be an intriguing book to read.  And it certainly was a short (about 25 pages) and intriguing book to read, although not necessarily for the reasons I was thinking about.  Indeed, quite surprisingly to me, I found the author of this treatise to be an object of considerable pity and empathy for our shared tendency to write in such a way that offends the ruling powers that be, even if I did find plenty in this short work that was worthy of criticism and disagreement.  Even so, I did not find the author to be disagreeable even where I disagreed with him.  Rather, I think this book to be useful and instructive in showing the sort of assumptions that readers bring to texts that prevents them from seeing eye-to-eye with those who bring different assumptions to the same texts.

This short work can be said to be divided into three parts and numerous smaller chapters.  The first part of the book, which takes up several pages, serves as a biography of James Guthrie, the writer of the treatise.  This is a wise policy, because it opens the book on a mood of sympathy as the courageous and honorable writer is shown as being a victim of the vengeful authorities of Restoration Scotland who put him on a show trial in Parliament and condemned him to death and stole his estates and turned his family into beggars.  After an preface and a note to the (assumed Christian) reader, there are seven chapters that deal with ruling elders, where the author attempts to differentiate between elders who are devoted to preaching and teaching from those who are devoted to ruling over congregations, a differentiation that I plainly do not see in scripture.  After this there are a few short chapters that examine deacons and their role in serving congregations, which focuses on how deacons appear in the pastoral epistles rather than their appearance in Acts.  After that there are some short notes before the book ends.

My disagreement is one based on the assumptions that the author brings to the text that I do not share.  The author seems to be possessed of that notable Calvinist tendency to make grand and sweeping assumptions.  For one, because he sees preaching and teaching and administering as different gifts, he sees entirely different orders of elders involved in all three of these gifts.  Furthermore, when he sees the qualities demanded of elders and sees elders in 1 Timothy being commended for ruling well, he assumes that the qualities of an elder belong to a ruling elder specifically  rather than seeing that elders as a whole have responsibilities in preaching, teaching, and ruling.  Part of the fun of reading a book like this is seeing a writer attempt to weasel his way out of an implication of the text that he does not want to accept, such as seeing that an elder is supposed to be able to teach, even if the author does not consider a ruling elder as having that particular bailiwick.  Although my disagreement with the author’s assumptions on ruling elders makes this book of limited personal interest, the author’s life history does give me a sympathy for him that I would not have with the Calvinists of my own acquaintance.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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