Divesting an Elder and the OPC

Discussion in 'Church Order' started by Andrew P.C., Sep 11, 2017.

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  1. Andrew P.C.

    Andrew P.C. Puritan Board Junior

    One thing I've noticed is that the OPC is different than others in regards to divesting an elder or deacon. The book of church order states: "A ruling elder or deacon may be divested of his office if his services do not appear to be edifying to the congregation."(BCO FoG, Chapter XXVI, Divesting from Office) The procedures that follow are non-judicial. There is one way in which no judicial process is enacted. The idea used for this procedure seems to come from the phrase "do not appear to be edifying".

    My questions are these:

    1) Where did this come from?

    2) What is the typical "biblical" argument for this process?

    3) Is this even correct biblically? Shouldn't there be a judicial process for removing an officer?
  2. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Junior


    There is a judicial process for removing an office-bearer and it is clearly spelled out in the Book of Discipline. The very first section of the chapter that you cite in the Form of Government makes this clear:

    "An officer may be divested of his office, or deposed, by judicial discipline for an offense in doctrine or life. Such divestiture, or deposition, shall be in accordance with the provisions of the Book of Discipline" (FG 26.1).

    This chapter addresses removal of an office-bearer in the cases when it has become manifest that he lacks the requisite gifts for office, has become disabled, and the like. In other words, it's a removal that does not come from his having sinned (which would come through judicial process), but from his having proven not to be qualified for office. It's the presbytery or session that must qualify a minister or elder/deacon for office. This is a process whereby the session or presbytery (as the case warrants) determines that the man did not, in fact, have such gifts or has lost them for some reason.

    It's a governmental, not a judicial, process that recognizes him as qualified for office; similarly, it is a governmental, not judicial, process that determines that he does not, for various reasons, possess such any longer (including the recognition that the presbytery/session might have erred in its earlier judgment that he did possess such).

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  3. Andrew P.C.

    Andrew P.C. Puritan Board Junior

    Thank you Rev. Strange for your response.

    I do have a follow up question.

    The word used is "edifying". Wouldn't this be a matter of "life"? How is it understood? I'm curious if there is a paper on this subject.
  4. Andrew P.C.

    Andrew P.C. Puritan Board Junior

    I should add that I understand there is a judicial process. However, this process for divestment is specifically non-judicial. If a session has erred, how should the presbytery respond to the session? I assume that these cases are very rare. If the man loses his physical capacity, or if he loses his mental capacity, I would understand this issue better, I think.

    However, how would one who has the biblical requirements cease to have those requirements, given he doesn't have a physical or mental problem (with this specific process in mind)? Wouldn't this force the session to take a judicial process?

    Thank you for your time. I'm just trying to understand this particular procedure.
  5. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Junior


    I was replying a bit more broadly, thinking both of ministers (who have a separate process with more distinctions involved) and elders/deacons, to whom the "do not appear to be edifying" statement applies.

    You need to go back just a bit in the quote. Here it is a little more fully: "A ruling elder or deacon may be divested of his office if his services do not appear to be edifying to the congregation." Note that it says nothing about his life but about his services as an elder or deacon.

    It's easy to envision: a man is made an elder but later proves to be ineffective at "building up" [edifying] the saints. Perhaps the session and/or congregation was mistaken in its judgment about him. Or perhaps he's had an accident that leaves him unable to communicate effectively. It's not a judicial matter (anymore than it would be when other men in the congregation are not deemed suitable for office) but a governmental one.

  6. NaphtaliPress

    NaphtaliPress Administrator Staff Member

    I assume this is on a level, or in the same general area, of when a minister for whatever reason is no longer acceptable to a congregation? It's not judicial; but governmental process as far as the process a congregation goes through to sever the relationship and look for another pastor.
  7. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Junior


    For the elders and deacons, yes, more or less. This process that Andrew cites is one in which a congregation can remove an elder or deacon from office, whose services are not deemed edifying, without judicial censure

    For ministers, what you describe is elsewhere in the FG provided for. What Andrew cites here, as it applies to ministers, is a process that occurs in presbytery and has to do with that body's determining that the man should be removed from the ministry (not simply from a particular pastorate).

  8. Wayne

    Wayne Tempus faciendi, Domine.

    The PCA only has these stipulations:

    24-9. When a ruling elder or deacon cannot or does not for a period of one year perform the duties of his office, his official relationship shall be dissolved by the Session and the action reported to the congregation.

    24-10. When a deacon or ruling elder by reason of age or infirmity desires to be released from the active duties of the office, he may at his request and with the approval of the Session be designated deacon or ruling elder emeritus. When so designated, he is no longer required to perform the regular duties of his office, but may continue to perform certain of these duties on a voluntary basis, if requested by the Session or a higher court. He may attend Diaconate or Session meetings, if he so desires, and may participate fully in the discussion of any issues, but may not vote.
  9. Andrew P.C.

    Andrew P.C. Puritan Board Junior

    Right. This is different then the OPC. I'm still curious why the OPC is different than other denominations on this issue.
  10. Wayne

    Wayne Tempus faciendi, Domine.

    The short and most likely answer is that the breakaway denominations tend to follow the polity of the mother church.
    The OPC and BPC mimic the BCO of the PCUSA; the PCA that of the PCUS. But over time modifications set in and things don't look so similar.
    I'd first look to see if the old PCUSA constitution circa 1936 had anything similar in regard to RE's and deacons.
  11. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Junior


    If you compare the church orders of NAPARC, for instance, you'll find a fair amount of difference in the details, though agreement as to the principles (largely).

    It is the case that some churches (take the URCNA, e.g.) have term eldership exclusively and so have no need for the provisions of the OPC's FG 26 (when those men are not in term, they are not considered to be elders; not true among Presbyterians). You are right, though, that other Presbyterians do not have such (in addition to the PCA): neither the Covenanters (RPCNA) nor Seceders (ARPC) have such a provision, the former making it quite clear that office-bearers can be removed only by judicial process.

    I don't know the history of this but can check with one or two who might (they're getting scarcer!). Obviously, in the OPC it came to be thought desirable to have a governmental process for removing an office-bearer (one is put into office governmentally) and not only a judicial one. I can understand why this might strike some as inequitable. I don't personally agree that it need be, but also admit that it is open to abuse, to denying full due process in a case in which what is allegedly wrong with the office-bearer should be dealt with in charges and a trial and not this governmental process set forth in FG 26. But I would end with the old dictum: abusus non tollit usum [the abuse of something does not prohibit its proper use].

  12. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Junior

    I agree, of course, with Wayne. I don't recall this being in the older PCUSA BCOs, but will check out the older editions of such when I have opportunity to later today.

  13. Parakaleo

    Parakaleo Puritan Board Sophomore

    Easy fix?

    "A ruling elder or deacon may, in accordance with his wishes, be divested of his office if his services do not appear to be edifying to the congregation."

    If the man in question agrees that there may have been an error in judgment when ordaining him to office, then by all means let the deposition be administrative. This is just like a pastor who agrees that he is not the right man to serve a particular congregation.

    If the man in question doesn't agree there was error in judgment when ordaining him to office, to me it seems this should automatically trigger judicial proceedings. Or do we think a pastor should be able to be ejected from his call without trial?
  14. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Junior

    Well, I was not right (in #12, above) in suggesting that this did not have precedence in the PCUSA.

    It's easy to miss in the old Form of Government (and it had eluded me previously), but going back into the 19th c. (it's in the FG's both before and after the OPC was founded in 1936), one finds the following provision (focusing just on the elder/deacon situation):

    "Whenever a ruling elder or deacon, from... [other] causes, not inferring crime, shall be incapable of serving the church to edification, the session shall take order on the subject...provided always, that nothing of this kind shall be done without the concurrence of the individual in question, unless by advice of presbytery."

    This follows a section that speaks of the offices as perpetual, adding, however, that an elder or deacon "may, though chargeable with neither heresy nor immorality, become unacceptable, in his official character, to a majority of the congregation..." (FG, 13:6-7, 1941 ed., also 1922 and 1911 eds.).

    The memorial to presbytery aspect of this was addressed by the Old School GA in 1867: "If a member of Session be unacceptable, and the matter cannot be arranged by consent, the proper step is to memorialize Presbytery" (Minutes, p. 369). This has been around a while!

    Clearly this is what came to be expressed as it did in the OPC in FG 26.

  15. Wayne

    Wayne Tempus faciendi, Domine.

    Thank you, Alan. I did not have time myself today to follow up on that investigation.
    Most interesting.
  16. Andrew P.C.

    Andrew P.C. Puritan Board Junior

    Thank you for the follow up Rev. Strange.

    Going through these Books seem to show a lack of exegetical thought. I find it interesting that the older denominations do not have this process as well. With this said, what is the biblical basis for governmentally divesting an officer? For myself, I do not find this in scripture. It seems the only thing I can find is through judicial process. Although, I could be putting up blinders, so to speak.

    Note: when I say "governmentally", I mean a non-judicial process.
  17. Andrew P.C.

    Andrew P.C. Puritan Board Junior

    As a side, edification can be quite subjective in a large majority of cases.
  18. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Junior


    I assume by "these books" you mean the Church Orders, and the Forms of Government, in particular. I think that's a rather remarkable statement coming from someone like you. Do you really think that our fathers in the faith who drew up such (beginning with the "six Johns" who drafted the First Book of Discipline in 1560) did so without proper exegetical reflection? Solid biblical interpretation underlay that first BD, the one that followed (in 1578), and that one adopted at Westminster.

    There, and thereafter, those Presbyterian churches that have continued to be biblical and confessional have endeavored faithfully to understand the principles of God's Word as they impact church government and to express that in a series of regulations that are in harmony with and are a reasonable and equitable application of those principles.

    Since they serve as tertiary standards and not as do the doctrinal standards (which are secondary, with Scripture as primary), they are less directly scriptural. We believe that what we are to believe and how we are to worship is rather more directly and explicitly set down in God's Word. We do not believe that the details of our Form of Government and Book of Discipline are, however. We take the principles of God's Word regarding government and discipline and seek to develop a consistent and coherent framework for their implementation.

    Here's the biblical logic of FG 26, as I see it. Deacons and Elders come into office only by the mutual approbation of the session and the congregation. The session may not impose office-bearers on the congregation not wanted by the congregation, nor may the congregation impose such on the session. The judgment brought to bear on whether a man is fit to be an office-bearer is quite subjective (you note that you find the term "not edifying" too subjective).

    Now if the man can be brought in governmentally with subjective judgment being exercised by the session and congregation, why can he not, if his service is unedifying (he can't relate well to the people, he lacks discernment, etc.), be released governmentally? The church is not infallible. Congregations and sessions can misjudge men, putting such into office who have no business there and that becomes plain later. It is no sin to be a poor elder, particularly when one was never gifted for such and/or subsequent developments have made it clear that one is not now in the possession of such.

    There are various scenarios in which a congregation and session come to lack confidence in a particular elder or deacon. They don't find his services edifying, he is not helpful. etc. Should someone trump up a charge to get him? In a case in which this is not a judicial matter (because, though the man should be removed from the eldership, there are no judicial matters here), why can't exit from office parallel entrance into it, at least somewhat? More to say here but must retire now.

    Last edited: Sep 13, 2017
  19. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    I cannot think of a reason why "withdrawal of consent" (which is basically what this amounts to) fails in some way to be "biblical" or God-honoring.
  20. Andrew P.C.

    Andrew P.C. Puritan Board Junior

    Rev. Strange,

    I think you misunderstand me. The process by which an officer is called, elected, and ordained is not the same process of divesting him found in the OPC BCO (alone I might add). I am a Presbyterian through and through, but equating this procedure of divestment found alone in the OPC to the process of ordination found historically in reformed churches, is quite anachronistic and unfounded.

    I mean this with all respect for you: I don't find the argument for a "governmental" (administrative) divestment convincing. The church votes for these men. As one example you brought up relational issues. You made a case (among many) for the officer not being able to "relate" to the people. But if they voted for him, don't they relate in some form or fashion? At least to the degree they are willing to submit to him as an elder. Or bring up the issue of discernment. If the session has erred, wouldn't they be committing the same thing they accuse him of? Shouldn't they be divested for such an error?

    I understand that churches aren't infallible. Of course they aren't. However, I don't find scriptural evidence for such a process as administrative divestment. If the man wants to step down because he does not think he is adequate or if the session convinces him of such, then willing stepping down is a correct approach. However, if the elder disagrees, than they should bring charges.

    It would seem that testing a man in all of these areas; watching him for a few years to see him in the congregation is the correct approach. If the session erred, maybe its due to a hasty decision, but that doesn't make this particular process of divestment correct.
  21. Andrew P.C.

    Andrew P.C. Puritan Board Junior

    This is the correct question. Insert "elder" in place of pastor, and it's the same question.
  22. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    Except, a pastor's call and a ruling elders differ at this pertinent point:

    The pastor's call is a three-way approval (tripartite), the elder's call is bipartite.

    In order for a man to fill an office of the ministry in typical Presbyterian order, there is required
    1) the approval of the calling entity
    2) the acceptance of the called man
    3) the consent of Presbytery​
    Nor can this call be in any way dissolved, but by the minimal agreement of two of the three, according to good order and discipline.

    The complexity of this arrangement, together with the lengthy approval process for a minister from the beginning, makes the judicial process for his removal a practical necessity. He is a man who (unlike the elder) makes his living on the gospel. It's a little more impactful in secular terms (to say nothing of prior investments, and the family-members' lives directly affected) to put a man out of his charge (or the ministry altogether), than it is to rescind an elder's call.

    The elder is a servant of the congregation, he is and continues to be a member of some particular congregation when he is called. His service is an agreement between a congregation and him. The congregation might see the need (I think it would be extraordinary) to suspend their previous hopes for the elder's service; but they might will to do this without prejudice to the man as to his moral character and his doctrine.

    Judicial discipline is for correction of wrongdoing. If a congregation wills to end a life-tenure relationship with an elder (or a term-tenure before its course is run), but not for elder misconduct, they are saying: "We did the wrong thing; the error is with us." That may be a blow to an elder's pride, but it is not (as the OPC has written its rules) a disorderly act.

    Consider this: an elder is free to resign his charge. He may leave a church, and go elsewhere or not; and his reason might be: "I couldn't herd those goats." Now, there's probably a lot of background to sift through, given such a sentiment. I'm not validating the man's deed or words. But note: this is in essence the same sort of bipartite engagement/withdrawal as when the church draws back from the man they raised over themselves. He says: either they are unleadable, or I'm not the man for the job.

    If a church may not withdraw it's consent, then by parity of reasoning an elder may not resign. He must continue to the end, despite his distaste for the job or the members, or his feeling of unfitness. Who is he to argue with the whole, which ever after refuses to reconsider their decision?

    When a pastor resigns, it again takes the consent of the congregation, and the acknowledgement of Presbytery. Two agreements may be sufficient to finally end the relationship, but two (presbytery and congregation) could conceivably agree against the minister; thus extending his service in a charge over which he has expressed unhappiness.

    The different relations to a congregation sustained by ministers and elders give rise to different rules by which those relations are both continued or concluded.
  23. Andrew P.C.

    Andrew P.C. Puritan Board Junior

    Thank you for your response Rev. Buchanan.

    Although the call may differ, the disciplinary action toward an officer is the topic. Administrative divestment is still a form of discipline.

    The Westminster Larger Catechism reminds us that "The duties required in the second commandment are, the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his Word; particularly prayer and thanksgiving in the name of Christ; the reading, preaching, and hearing of the Word; the administration and receiving of the sacraments; church government and discipline..." (WLC 108). Church government and discipline fall under the regulative principle. I personally would like to see a paper or book on this particular portion of the BCO, since our standards technically require it to come from scripture.
  24. Andrew P.C.

    Andrew P.C. Puritan Board Junior

    One particular note: we don't discipline for practical reasons. If anything, the particular point of this particular provision in the BCO, for divesting an elder administratively, seems to be for practical reasons. That is my concern. Divesting an officer is not just divesting an officer; he is a spiritual elder in the kingdom of God, called to shepherd the flock and take particular care of their souls. Anything seen less then this diminishes the office to a place holder.
  25. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    Here are some hypothetical situations. Do they all require an ecclesiastical trial and formal censure? How do you think they should be handled/remedied?

    1) On the mission field, a man is chosen to be an elder (a genuine Christian), and he serves faithfully and well for three years. It is then discovered he has a second wife; now, he is not permitted scripturally to be an elder. He did not hide the fact he had another wife; it is just the case that the subject was overlooked when his faith and other qualities were evaluated. It was assumed he was monogamous. There is no Bible in these folks' language. The oversight may be reasonably blamed on the missionary.

    2) The church rashly chose a youth in his teens to be an elder. Afterward, his undisguisable immaturity was exposed. The church unilaterally "withdraws their consent," while not claiming that their desire to do so rests on any judgment of sin on his part. Should they instead have a full blown trial and judge this boy?

    3) An elder in the church resigns. His action amounts to a unilateral, administrative judgment essentially negating previous, lawful, orderly, congregational and sessional actions, done in the sight of God; which move strips the kingdom of God of an elder, one called to shepherd the flock and take particular care of their souls. Is he allowed to do this, biblically? Would the proper response of the church be: to deny him this resignation? Should they hold a trial and strip this man of his eldership? What else might they do?
    Saying "we don't discipline for practical reasons," is an assertion, and it needs a defense if it is to be taken as the basis for further questioning the church's procedure.

    I don't question whether administrative discipline is still discipline. In the case of a church member, he vows submission, and does not claim authority outside of congregational votes and liberty of conscience. He does not have one "say" and the congregation an equal "say." He is subject to considerable administrative discipline.

    But in the case of an elder's relationship to a congregation, the matter is bipartite. He has "say," and the congregation has "say," and those says are in some sense equal. But why should there be no "administrative discipline" in his case? The congregation is the court of original jurisdiction. Each side is entitled to a degree of unilateral action.

    In the case of a minister's relationship to a congregation, the matter is tripartite. There are equal says among those two parties with the presbytery a third. The Presbytery is the court of original jurisdiction for a minister. In the nature of the case, any actions brought against the minister must be judicial. The congregation cannot bring an administrative action; the Presbytery cannot bring an administrative action (for that matter, the minister cannot bring an administrative action against either). There are no unilateral powers to invoke.
  26. Edward

    Edward Puritan Board Doctor

    A deacon's call, likewise, is tripartite. The session, the man called, and the congregation.

    Thus, the better argument might be, rather than attempts to distinguish it from the teaching elder, to liken it to the situation of a ruling elder who is divested of office without censure. XXVI 3, and more specifically 3.a.3 or 4.
  27. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    Your point is good, however, one of those cases (3) requires input from whatever charge he serves. The adequacy of his service is generally judged by those who receive his ministry (such as it is). But see also four para.'s below.

    Cases 1, 2, & 4 generally apply when a man is evidently not engaged in a call, i.e. there are not three parties. There are only the two parties, so a bipartite relationship exists in those times. He does not seek a call (1); after two years without a call he is not called still (2) because (as they judge the situation) he does not have the gifts; he is debilitated, but not eligible to "retire" as a minister (4). In truth, they are not compelled to act.

    Conceivably this last could also fit a situation where a congregation had called a minister who became incapacitated; but again, typically the process to remove his ministerial credential would originate with the body that called him. Presbytery could only act unilaterally (administratively) if the congregation no longer maintained the viability of the call; or maybe, if the congregation is no more.

    So, in all these situations any administrative power held by Presbytery in relation to one of its members is unique, because there lacks that regular, third-party call. And when a third party exists (3), that party (such as a dissatisfied congregation) must bring its matter to Presbytery.

    Case 3 may still be an effective bipartite relation, if the minister is an evangelist in a missionary situation. He serves the Presbytery as its sole agent possessed of their full powers on his field; but then (effectively) they have 2/3 power over him, as his Presbytery and his calling body. They can then rescind his call if they determine he is not performing adequately, his gifts lacking.

    But clearly, in case 3 as it relates to a missionary evangelist, here could be another case of administrative discipline, a bipartite situation, only this time applicable to a minister as opposed to an elder.
  28. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Junior


    Busy all day teaching, conferring, meeting and the like. I see that you've furthered the conversation with Bruce, with whom I am in general agreement (I say general because the session seems to be left out of the equation in much of the discussion and it is certainly involved in FG 26). Indeed the genius of Presbyterianism at the local level is the concord that must exist between congregation and session in the desire to put an elder/deacon in office and to remove them from office, without censure (along with presbyterial involvement in the latter case, a check against abuse or misuse of the chapter).

    You continue to maintain that removing someone from office without censure is in no way apposite to placing him in said office. I continue to find it an apt analogy and so did our Presbyterian forebears in the Old School PCUSA. One issue about history--this goes back, as I noted above, into the Old School church, so it has at least some history to it, and since it was held by the OS church, that's a lot of folks, so your argument about the OPC being the only one (as if few hold it) seems irrelevant. The largest, by far, Presbyterian Church in American history held the position. That does not make it right, but it means that it was not held by one small church but by the largest that there was. I also don't see how the position I am defending is anachronistic. I have not been able to track the precise beginnings of it but hope to do so later.

    You've put it to me (and Bruce and the OPC largely) to show biblical warrant for our position. And I've sought to argue that the biblical warrant is implied in the same biblical warrant given to the session and the congregation for recognizing the gifts requisite for service as elder and deacon: those put into the office are deemed by the session and congregation as capable of edifying the congregation; in those rare cases (and this is quite rarely invoked) when the session and congregation (and there has to be 2/3 of the congregation voting to remove, approved by presbytery, serving as checks to abuse of this) conclude that some men put into office do not edify the congregation, they can remove them without censure.

    I get Andrew that you believe that such non-edifiers should only be removed from office by a judicial process: charges of immorality and/or heresy, trial, and the censure of deposition. You argue that such is biblically prescribed and that any governmental process of deposition is biblically proscribed. Could you give us your case for that? How is it that the church is mandated by God's Word to follow what you believe is correct in every case?

    Last edited: Sep 13, 2017
  29. Wayne

    Wayne Tempus faciendi, Domine.

    Regret that I don't have time just now to do this myself, but have any here consulted Samuel Miller's book on the ruling elder, to see if there's any discussion there on this point? That work was so central to 19th century discussion, that it could easily have informed the polity of the PCUSA.
  30. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Junior

    I hope, Wayne, to look at that and a few other sources, though time to do so is scarce just now. The reason that I am willing to give attention to this just now is that this is also at issue now in my own presbytery.

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