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May We Prohibit Term Eldership?

By Ned B. Stonehouse

From the Guardian, (May 16, 1955), pp. 75-77

Copyright © 2002

The question whether congregations shall enjoy the liberty of determining when their best interests may be served by the adoption of term eldership is one of the important issues before the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in connection with its consideration of a revision of the Form of Government. In congregations where it has been difficult to find a sufficient number of qualified persons for the offices of elder and deacon, the question may not seem to be of great moment. But in congregations where there may be more, and perhaps even several more, qualified persons than the number that it would seem wise to elect to the session, the question may take on great practical significance. We should be greatly concerned that congregations in the latter classification will greatly increase in the years ahead. We should pray and labor that our congregations may Increase in numbers, and above all that there may be such spiritual progress throughout their membership that we shall have many congregations where a very large proportion of the adult male membership shall be men of spiritual insight and wisdom and consecration. In the latter case, rather than being in the position of being hard pressed to find the requisite number of men, our problem will happily be that of determining how we may make most effective use of our abundant resources.

The position taken here is that of the formulation of the committee in sections 3 and 4 of Chapter XIII (Version of 1954, pp. 17, 18). The position opposed is that of the alternate proposed revision of these sections (Version of 1954, p. 20), which is defended by Professor John Murray in the February, 1955, issue of the GUARDIAN. It may be well to note that the basic difference is not between permanent eldership and term eldership, as such, but rather whether congregations shall have a right to decide for one or the other. My position is that they should have this right, and indeed that it is wrong to deny them this privilege. In passing it should be observed that, though the discussion so far has apparently centered about the office of elder, the Chapter of the Form of Government at this point is also dealing with the office of deacon. What is said here concerning elders will largely apply to deacons also.

The contention of this article is that the Scriptures contain no warrant, whether expressed or implied, with regard to the tenure of the office of elders and deacons. If Scripture contains provisions for the government of the church, woe to the church that does not scrupulously follow them! But It is evident that Scripture does not prescribe all the details of church government. It does not contain a warrant for the view that there must be a warrant for every governmental feature. Nevertheless, the general teachings of Scripture also regulate church government as a whole, and it is my view that in this case there are such teachings which support the position being maintained here.

Argument Against Term Eldership Examined

Before presenting the positive argument, it seems essential to examine the force of the argument offered in support of the other view. Professor Murray’s argument, stated in summary, is that the “high order” of the gifts required and their “permanency,” and the “judgment that Christ is calling” a man to the exercise of the office are inconsonant with the idea of a limited term of service. I agree of course as to the high character of the qualifications which are necessary and as to the calling of Christ by the instrumentality of congregation and session. But my dissent concerns two matters.

In the first place, the reference to gifts involves two quite distinct matters: (a) their “high order” and (b) their “permanency.” It is gratuitously assumed that where (a) is present (b) will also be present. It is said that “when a man possesses certain endowments which qualify him for eldership we must proceed on the assumption that they are abiding and permanently qualify him for the discharge of the functions of the office.” But this is at most a practical “assumption” as to the constancy of a person’s qualifications; it does not amount to proof of such permanency.

That Professor Murray, as a matter of fact, does not himself maintain “permanency” of gifts as a principle may be observed from the consideration that he no more than the present writer holds to the view that “once an elder, always an elder.” He also maintains that “when an elder ceases to be able to exercise the functions of the office, he should no longer retain the office.” He also insists that “we may not separate the office from its functions,” and in this connection speaks of various situations in which it may be necessary to relieve or divest an elder of his office (p. 23). In particular, after stating that the gifts “are not of a temporary character,” he admits that a person may “through unfaithfulness lose them” (p. 24). If they may be lost, they can hardly be said to be permanent.

In the second place, all that the New Testament has to say regarding the high order of the qualifications of an elder, and the calling of Christ with which he must be called, have nothing to do, I must insist, with the question of tenure. An illustration from the secular world may help to make my point dear. The office of the president of the United States, as that is envisioned in the Constitution and as it has developed in history, presumably demands qualifications of a very high order. Moreover, the authority which is exercised is so extraordinary that, even prior to recent historical developments, the president has been widely recognized as holding the most powerful office on earth, But it is not assumed from his qualifications that any particular president possesses them permanently. Nor is it assumed that the extraordinary authority which he exercises gives him any claim to permanent tenure. Tenure is a quite distinct matter, which is not settled by observations as to gifts and calling.

Positive Considerations

If therefore the Scripture contains no instruction on the specific subject of tenure, how shall the church, acting as the instrument of Christ, its great Head, and in faithfulness to his Word, carry out its responsibility in calling qualified men to the office of elder? No doubt many general teachings must be kept in view. I wish, however, to stress one passage. It is the admonition of I Corinthians 14:26: “Let all things be done unto edifying.” It is a principle which Professor Murray would of course recognize as being basic. He recognizes explicitly that a person is invested with his spiritual qualifications “to the end that he may serve the church of Christ in that capacity for which these endowments fit him.” This is surely a principle of the greatest moment for the life of the church. A person is not chosen to office in order to honor the person but only that he may serve. His service must be unto Christ, but it will be so only as he serves Christ’s church.

As this principle relates to the present subject, it involves the application that all that pertains to the choice of persons to serve as elders shall have the interests of the church, rather than of any individual, in view. If accordingly, in a given instance, the interests of a church would be more fully advanced by the adoption of term eldership than by “permanent” eldership, the church would be on good ground in proceeding in this course. Thus a church might well decide from time to time, taking fresh account of the gifts of various members and their availability to serve, how its mission and responsibilities may be most fully and faithfully discharged.

As suggested above, the provision for term eldership may be especially advantageous when a congregation includes a considerable number of men qualified for the eldership, more than may advantageously serve in the session at one time. In such a situation there would be an analogy to the situation in view in I Corinthians 14 in connection with which the admonition of I Cor. 14:26 was uttered. That situation too was one characterized by a wealth of spiritual gifts. But it was not edifying when there was as full and constant exercise of spiritual gifts as was possible. The apostle therefore, with a view to the edification of the congregation, declared that not all should exercise their gifts at the same time. The gifts and endowments of which Paul is speaking were evidently of a high order, and those who possessed them were called to exercise them in the service of the church. But it does not follow that men might not alternate in the exercise of their functions. Indeed that was essential if the church was to be edified.

Let no one reply that there are essential differences between elders and prophets. Of course there are, and the above is presented only as an analogy, But the basic point is that particularly in a time of abundance, the exercise of spiritual gifts may, and sometimes must be regulated and restricted. And this regulation need not proceed by selecting one group which shall exclusively and permanently exercise these gifts. Rather the “spiritual” are to exercise their gifts “in turn.” And it is especially to be noted that Paul sets forth with great emphasis the principle that at all costs and at every point the prime consideration must be that the church shall be edified. Men are ordained to office, nor that they may be honored or set apart as possessing peculiar dignity, nor that there may be a privileged class of rulers, but that the work of the church may be done must faithfully and energetically.

Oftentimes an elder will become a more effective and useful servant through long experience in the exercise of his gifts. And thus, even on the plan of term eldership, congregations might regularly or frequently re-elect them to office. In other cases, however, they may become infirm to the extent that, though not completely incapacitated, they could carry on only in a very limited way. In still other cases, highly qualified men, though not infirm, may for a time be so overwhelmed with special burdens of other sorts, that they should be relieved from service, at least for a period. Moreover, conditions often change in the life of the churches through the influx of new members or the maturing of young men so that a session chosen in a time of a congregation’s infancy might be far from measuring up, in terms of spiritual wisdom and strength, to one that might be chosen if a congregation were allowed the liberty of making a fresh appraisal of its resources from time to time. In all of this the session itself, as well as the congregation, would be basically involved, but it need not be assumed that a session would not be eager to promote the great end of securing the strongest possible session.

Since this article has already become rather long, I cannot comment on various other aspects of the subject. In particular, it is not possible to evaluate in detail the objection that term eldership is to be rejected because it would contribute to drawing a line of cleavage between ruling elders and ministers. Here I can only note briefly that this is not an argument of principle, but only one which draws attention to certain possible consequences of distinguishing between ministers and elders. We insist on parity in respect of rule, by which we mean that the authority of the minister as regards ruling is not on a higher level than that of the elder. But the Scriptures and the Form of Government as a whole, both in the old and in the proposed revised form, maintain exceedingly important distinctions between the two offices. Considering the nature of the office and functions of the minister of the Word, it is proper that he should be ordained with indefinite tenure of office. But considering the office and functions of the ruling elder, and the necessity that is placed upon most ruling elders of devoting a very large part of their time to their secular occupations, it may be in the best interests of the church to distinguish them also with respect to the tenure of their office. In brief, considering the teaching of Scripture, both in terms of what it says and what it does not say, dare we prohibit a congregation from electing elders for a term?

Copyright © 2002

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