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]
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.
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:
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.
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?
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.