Elders should be “grave and prudent” according to Book of Church Order 8-1. At the 45th General Assembly, Rocky Mountain Presbytery took issue with the word choice “grave” and proposed new language.
“It seemed to me that the word ‘grave’ in the definition of elder is a word that has lost its original meaning,” says Ruling Elder Tom Minnery, explaining that the word was taken from 1 Timothy 3:8 and 11, and from Titus 2:2 in the King James Version which was completed in 1611. In that period of history, the word likely meant “devout.”
“‘Grave’ today connotes ‘gravely ill,’ ‘gravely concerned,’ ‘grave implications’ and it seemed to me it was time to update that,” Minnery says.
Minnery turned his concern into an overture that recommended the word be changed to “dignified,” based on newer translations of the Bible. While the motion failed to pass in 2017, several presbyteries (including Eastern Pennsylvania and Tidewater) have submitted revised versions of the overture to the 46th General Assembly.
As well as replacing “grave” with “dignified” in 8-1, Tidewater’s overture asks that the phrase “spiritually fruitful” be added. The phrase refers to the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5.
“The word ‘spiritually fruitful’ seems like a more well-rounded definition of what all mature Christians ought to be,” Minnery says.
The overtures also request an addition to the language in 8-3—that an elder must “demonstrate hospitality to those inside and outside the church.” According to the overtures, Paul uses the word “hospitality” in both of his descriptions of elder.
Teaching Elder David Dickson of Crosswater Presbyterian Church (Chesapeake, Virginia) says these wording changes will help bring clarity to the role of elder in the PCA.
“I think it will help us see elders more as shepherds, more than just a board that makes decisions.”
Minnery says it matters to the watching world.
“We are in an age when people seem disaffected by the organized church, when people are skeptical. This revised definition reminds us elders to be outward-facing, to be concerned for those beyond the walls, to be approachable, and to be always mindful that there are people on the fringes of our churches who need to be invited in,” he said. “And being approachable – being friendly as elders and being hospitable – is a first step toward inviting them in to the deeper truths of the Christian faith.”