Should OSP churches have “Term Eldership?”

One of the questions that comes up frequently when Presbyterian churches are getting started or later after they have grown in size is whether or not there should be “rotating” or “term eldership.” Under this system, ruling elders (but interestingly, not teaching elders) spend a period of time as active members of the session, and then become “inactive” for a while during which time they continue to hold the title of “elder” but do not perform any of the duties of the office. In some churches they must once again receive an affirmative vote from the congregation in order to return to active status, so on occasion “term eldership” effectively becomes term limits for ruling elders. I plan on addressing this subject at length in following articles, but for the moment, let me just reaffirm what I said in a response to a question regarding term eldership, namely that I don’t think it fits well with Old School Presbyterian ecclesiology, and more importantly for people concerned with being as true to the scriptures as possible in their church government, it has no support in the scriptures.

Many years ago John Murray wrote an article addressing this subject and arguing against the institution of term eldership, here is a summary of Murray’s arguments against Term Eldership which was originally printed in the Presbyterian Guardian and is included as chapter 29 of volume 2 of his collected works:

1) We find no warrant from the New Testament for Term Eldership

2) There is evidence in the NT that falls into the “good and necessary inference” catagory that militates against the propriety of this practice, to whit:

a) The gifts for eldership are not of a temporary nature, where they exist, they permanently qualify the candidate for the discharge of the functions of his office.

b) In electing an elder, the congregation is recognizing the gifts given him by Christ, and acting ministerially in doing the will of Christ.

c) The weight of the consideration of points a and b plus the fact that these gifts increase in fruitfulness and effectiveness with exercise strongly indicate that only a “conclusive warrant for ordination to temporary office would have to be provided in order to justify this kind of ordination”

3) No cogent argument can be put forward for Term Eldership for Ruling Elders that would not necessitate Term Eldership for Teaching Elders; “One cannot but feel that the practice of term eldership for ruling elders is but a hangover of an unwholesome clericalism which has failed to recognize the basic unity of the office of elder and, particularly, the complete parity of all elders in the matter of government”

a) He then presents three arguments against any sort of argument based on the idea that one office is “full-time” (TE) and the other “part-time” (RE).

Murray then lists 7 practical arguments against Term Eldership, which I’ll list verbatim:

“1) It tends to create in the minds of the people the notion of trial periods. That should have no place whatsoever in the election of elders.
2) It tends to develop such a notion in the minds of elders themselves, and therefore a decreased sense of responsibility and office.
3) It interferes with the continuity, and therefore with the sense of responsibility, as also with the stability of the office.
4) It may occasion the removal of good elders as well as bad ones
5) It may minister to party division and strife
6) It is rather liable to give the impression of representative government and of democracy. Presbyterianism is not democratic.
7) It tends to promote the idea that the eldership should be passed around.”

[All Quotes are from John Murray, Arguments against Term Eldership, in Collected Works, Vol. 2, pp. 351-356]

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About Andrew Webb

Andrew James Webb, Pastor Providence PCA, Fayetteville NC. Born: July 29, 1969 Rochford, Essex England Education: MA Modern History, St. Andrews University, Fife, Scotland, 1991 M.Div., Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside, PA, 2001 Personal Details: Husband of Joy Webb, Father of Margaret (6), Victor (5), Graham (3) and Isabel (10 Mos.) Secular Work History: Upon graduation from University, I returned to the United States and worked for two Madison Ave Advertising Firms in copy writing and advertising space sales. After moving to Northern Virginia, I went into computing. I worked as a Systems Administrator in Washington D.C. for both the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA) (a legal publishing firm,) and the International Republican Institute. Experience: Licensed by Potomac Presbytery, May 1997 and Philadelphia Presbytery in 1999. From 1998 to 2001 I did a three year apprentice/internship under Dr. Mark Herzer while working with the Christ Covenant church plant in Hatboro, PA. Ordained as an RE at Christ Covenant PCA in 2000 and as a TE by Central Carolina in 2001 when I was called to be the Organizing Pastor for Providence PCA Mission, Cross Creek PCA's church plant in Fayetteville, NC (home to Ft. Bragg and Pope Airforce Base). In 2005 when the Providence PCA Particularized I was blessed to be called by the congregation to be their Pastor. Presbytery Committees: Assistance and Membership (Philadelphia), Candidates (Central Carolina), Nominations (Central Carolina) GA Committees: Bills and Overtures, Covenant Theological Seminary Other: I have had a number of my essays on theological topics published including What is the Reformed Doctrine of Divorce? and Five Reasons Not To Go See The Passion of the Christ Why I Don't Have an English Accent: I don't have an English accent because my parents moved to New Jersey when I was six!
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5 Responses to Should OSP churches have “Term Eldership?”

  1. Matt says:

    I’ve actually heard stories recently of (4) happening in 2 or 3 churches that would probably purport to be OSP churches — a minister was able to drive out dissenting elder(s) because of term-eldership in the church bylaws.

    Thinking out loud — I wonder to what degree Dutch Reformed polity can be cited as an influence here….because (and I’m willing to be corrected on this if I’m wrong) every CRC/URC that I’ve seen does this. I don’t know if it’s historically a distinctive of their polity or not.

  2. Andrew Webb says:

    Hi Matt,

    This is certainly something that has long existed in the Dutch Reformed Churches, but did not used to be followed in the Presbyterian churches. Alexander T. McGill addressed the history of the practice in the Princeton Review in the 19th century, but I’ve misplaced my copy. Anyway, its very possible that it is one of many “Dutch imports” into American Presbyterianism. Here’s Miller on the Dutch vs. the American practice from his THE RULING ELDER:

    “The Reformed Dutch Church in the United States, after the example of her parent Church in Europe, adopts the following plan for the election of Elders and Deacons:-“In order to lessen the burden of a perpetual attendance upon ecclesiastical duties, and by a rotation in office to bring forward deserving members, it is the established custom in the Reformed Dutch Church, that Elders and Deacons remain only two years in service, after which they retire from their respective offices, and others are chosen in their places; the rotation being always conducted in such a manner, that only one half of the whole number retire each year. (See Syn. Dort. Art. 27.) But this does not forbid the liberty of immediately choosing the same persons again, if from any circumstances it may be judged expedient to continue them in office by a re-election.”[10]

    Yet, notwithstanding this annual election, those who have ever borne the office of Elder or Deacon in the Dutch Church, are still considered, though never re-elected, as bearing while they live, a certain relation to the offices which they have sustained respectively. This appears from the following additional article, found in the same code. “When matters of peculiar importance occur, particularly in calling a Minister, building of Churches, or whatever relates immediately to the peace and welfare of the whole congregation, it is usual (and it is strongly recommended, upon such occasions, always) for the Consistory to call together all those who have ever served as Elders or Deacons, that by their advice and counsel they may assist the members of the Consistory. These, when assembled, constitute what is called the “Great Consistory.” From the object or design of their assembling, the respective powers of each are easily ascertained. Those who are out of office, have only an advisory or counselling voice; and, as they are not actual members of the board or corporation, cannot have a decisive vote. After obtaining their advice, it rests with the members of the Consistory to follow the counsel given them, or not, as they shall judge proper.”

    But in the Presbyterian Church in the United States, the office of Ruling Elder is now, and has been from the beginning, perpetual. The election to it, is once for all. It, of course, continues through life, unless the individual be deposed from office. Like a minister of the gospel, he cannot lay aside his office at pleasure.[11] He may, indeed, from ill health, or for other reasons, cease, if he think proper, to perform the active duties of the office. But he is still an Elder; and if he recover his health, or the reason which induced him to withdraw, be removed, he may resume the duties of the office without a new ordination.-Of this, however, more in a subsequent chapter.”

    Footnotes
    10.Constitution of the Reformed Dutch Church in the U. States.
    11.The writer is here stating what is the actual constitution of the Presbyterian Church as to this point. He does not suppose, however, that there is any infringement of Presbyterian principle in the annual elections of Ruling Elders, formerly practised in the Church of Scotland, and still practised in the Dutch and French Churches. Where a Church is large, containing a sufficient number of grave, pious and prudent members, to furnish an advantageous rotation, and where the duties of the office are many and arduous, it may not be without its advantages to keep uup some change of incumbency in this office. But, in general, it seems manifest, that the spiritual interests of a congregation will be likely to be managed most steadily and to edification by permanent officers, who are never even temporarily withdrawn from the sphere of duty in which they move, and who are daily gaining more knowledge of the Church, and more experience.”
    [Samuel Miller, The Ruling Elder]

  3. Matt says:

    Thanks! I’m more familiar with the historic Presbyterian practice of perpetual eldership; I think I remember seeing that when I read Hodge’s ‘Polity’ book, though the references escape me at the moment. Interesting quotes from Miller about the Dutch church practices.

    BTW, I’m not laying the fault here on the Dutch for corrupting our Presbyterian practices today. I suspect there are many other ‘factors’ at work that would explain this shift in Presby polity.

  4. so what you are saying is you are going to work for an overture that would work on a position paper on this subject….hehe. If that were to happen, I don’t think it would be passed.

    Hey, when do you think GA will address the women deacons issue?

  5. henk Wondergem says:

    It is improper to blame the Dutch Reformed Church.
    Yes they have always had term eldership, but so has John Knox.
    The First Book of Discipline 1561 by Knox
    The Eighth Head, touching the Election ofElders and Deacons, etc.
    The election of elders and deacons ought to be used every year once (which we judge to be most convenient the first day of August); lest that by long continuance of such officers, men presume upon the liberty of the church. It hurts not that one man is retained in office more years than one, so that he is appointed yearly, by common and free election; provided always, that the deacons, treasurers, be not compelled to receive the office again for the space of three years.

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