Ruling Elder terms of service - Rotating or for life?

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Staff member
there may be only one or two elders on a session that remotely remind one of the aforementioned.
Then there should only be one or two elders on that session -- opps, if only one, that means there are not enough elders in the congregation to have a separately functioning session. So be it; that's better than inventing a "better" system.

While a sabbatical can be quite helpful (our pastor did so a few years ago and we have one elder on sabbatical now) a rotation does not seem to meet the perpetual nature of the office. What's critical here is that God gives the church specific gifts and the men on session, while having the same qualifications, often have different personalities, previous experiences in life, and so forth. Who can predict when the church might need to draw on these resources?


Snow Miser
Can be. What Fred is pointing out though is the obvious conflict of interest present. In some situations, someone might be bringing charges against most, if not all, of a session. Then what? They hold a court for themselves?

In my experience, there is an astounding lack of oversight at the local level in Presbyterianism; especially for a set of denominations that seems to strive for accountability. The only thing you can do is, as you say, bring charges. It's either full throttle, or nothing. In some cases, bringing charges against an elder or elders means complete ostracism in the community; e.g. unwelcome at church, not spoken to at the grocery store, excluded from social functions. In larger urban areas, this wouldn't be noticed. In smaller, rural communities, it is.

The change to the rules proposed in the OP can, in some cases, prevent things like this from occurring. It's not fool proof though. The congregation may simply re-elect unfit elders perennially.

---------- Post added at 04:12 PM ---------- Previous post was at 04:08 PM ----------

Then there should only be one or two elders on that session -- opps, if only one, that means there are not enough elders in the congregation to have a separately functioning session. So be it; that's better than inventing a "better" system.

I emphasized the key part of your point.

I agree with you wholeheartedly. There should be only one or two men on the session if only one or two are fit to serve. I can't tell you how much I agree with you. The problem is, many people who fills the pews on a weekly basis don't care. The men they are electing are their friends and family members. It doesn't enter their mind to consider whether they're going to be good elders.

In practice, I agree, what you state should be the case. In reality, it's not. It's the reason why I want to interview the session of the next church I join.


Vanilla Westminsterian
Staff member
The PCA BCO makes this de jure impossible. The reality of life in the PCA, ARP and OPC makes this de facto impossible.

Fred: Apologies if I misunderstand, but is it not possible for a member of a PCA (or OPC, ARP, etc) congregation to bring charges against an elder? That's what I meant by "appeal to Presbytery". If a charge is brought, and the Session does not rule correctly, the decision can be appealed to Presbytery.

This is theory, not reality. Therefore it is dangerous.

When someone brings charges, the reality of it is that it is full throttle. More likely than not, it will mean an end to one's life in a church (as Andrew mentions above). Most often, in my experience, it will mean a church split at minimum, and maybe the death of the church. This reality is why pastors leave churches rather than fight to the bitter end.

As far as process goes, the court that holds the trial is the Session. Often these cases are not black and white. Sometimes unBiblical elders are lording it over the flock. Sometimes, willful congregants are bucking true oversight. It can be hard to tell, and harder still to show by the rules of evidence. Once the Session has ruled, the matter can be taken to the Presbytery. The first challenge with that is that the congregant will likely have to wait around 6-9 months for the matter to be resolved (from when charges were first brought). The turmoil in a church during that time can be unbelievable. The second thing is that on appeal, the substance of the ruling is often not a matter of debate. It is whether the process was followed (procedure). The PCA BCO makes the role of the higher court clear (and limited) :

2. A higher court should ordinarily exhibit great deference to a lower
court regarding those factual matters which the lower court is more
competent to determine, because of its proximity to the events in
question, and because of its personal knowledge and observations of
the parties and witnesses involved. Therefore, a higher court should
not reverse a factual finding of a lower court, unless there is clear
error on the part of the lower court.
3. A higher court should ordinarily exhibit great deference to a lower
court regarding those matters of discretion and judgment which can
only be addressed by a court with familiar acquaintance of the
events and parties. Such matters of discretion and judgment would
include, but not be limited to: the moral character of candidates for
sacred office
, the appropriate censure to impose after a disciplinary
trial, or judgment about the comparative credibility of conflicting
witnesses. Therefore, a higher court should not reverse such a
judgment by a lower court, unless there is clear error on the part of
the lower court. (BCO 39-3, emphasis added)

I'd be surprised if the ARP book is much different. I know the practice isn't.


Puritan Board Graduate
Andrew: I want to let you know that I sympathize with a lot of what you are saying. I grew up (a pastor's kid) in a small, rural Reformed church. I saw first hand members of the church electing their uncles, brothers, cousins, etc to the Session (and deacon board!). I also saw "the system" fail. The right system: Presbyterianism (or at least it was called). I fully appreciate the situation you describe.

Also, I think your idea of "interviewing the session of the next church you join" is wonderful. At Communion Presbyterian, when a person wants to join the church, the elders interview him/her, but it is also an opportunity for the potential member to interview us. As a matter of fact, we encourage regular visitors to come to a Session meeting and see how things work, ask any questions they may have, and give us any feedback long before they consider joining. We want Session to be open and accessible. I'm not trying to puff myself up (none of those things were my ideas, anyway!), but I do wish more Reformed churches approached Session and membership the way it's done at Communion.

So, I sympathize with your position. I've seen Presbyterianism fail, due to "good ol' boy" networks. But, I remain very skeptical about rotating elders off active duty every year, two years, four years, etc. I just can't find biblical warrant for that. Perhaps, a better method would be for the Session to approach an elder who needs a break about taking a sabbatical (if he doesn't "volunteer" himself for a sabbatical). In other words, if the elders would hold each other accountable, perhaps term limits wouldn't even be considered.


Snow Miser
I don't recall it being much different. I looked into the matter, but it was some time ago. In substance, everything you say is 100% correct from what I've seen.

Independent is taking a stab at changing things for the better. It won't necessarily work. I've seen that plan not work. They have an extremely large pool of available candidates though. I know men personally there who would make very fine elders. Men who I would joyfully sit under. Where I have not seen it work is with smaller pools of men. Things are less competitive and it's easy to dominate large portions of the vote. I don't think that can happen so much at the OP's church. Given their size, I'm inclined to think this plan has a better chance of working than I've seen in other places.

One thing I'm convinced of is that Presbyterianism needs more oversight. That sounds like such an odd thing to say. However, the option of filing charges is very problematic and not even likely to render a result any different than that reached by the local session. In situations where the local session is the problem... how is that proper? There needs to be some independent and objective way to examine potential problems with elders, other than asking the elders themselves. In theory, all elders would be men above reproach. The very fact that we have to contemplate a procedure for bringing charges against them drives home the reality that they're not. Why then do we write a procedure as if they are?

---------- Post added at 04:46 PM ---------- Previous post was at 04:36 PM ----------

In other words, if the elders would hold each other accountable, perhaps term limits wouldn't even be considered.

I agree 100%. Again, that hinges on the elders actually doing that. In some situations though, it's the whole Session that potentially has problems. They're sure not going to be addressing the other guy, because that means they have to address themselves.


Puritan Board Graduate

It appears that "deference to a lower court" is not part of the ARP's Book of Discipline (though I admit I am not as familiar with it as I ought to be). Here is the relevant section (full PDF is available here, if anyone is interested):

1. An appeal is a legal proceeding by which a case is brought from a lower to a higher court for rehearing. The effect of an appeal is to suspend all further proceedings in the case, including the sentence, until the case has been finally decided in a higher court. If a sentence of suspension or deposition be appealed from, however, it shall be considered in force until the matter is decided.

2. An appeal can normally be made only by an accused party, called the appellant, who has submitted to a regular trial. An appellant who has not submitted to a regular trial is not entitled to an appeal.

3. An appeal can be made only to the next higher court, except with the express consent of that court.

4. An appeal may be made either from a definite sentence or from any particular part of the proceedings. The grounds for an appeal include matters such as any irregularity in the proceedings of the lower court; hindrance of procedural rights; refusal of reasonable indulgence to a party on trial; receiving
improper or declining to receive proper evidence; rendering a decision before all testimony is taken; evidence for bias or prejudice in the case; and an unjust or mistaken sentence.

5. The appellant must make his appeal, together with the reasons for it, in writing, either to the court hearing his case before it adjourns or to the moderator or the clerk of that court within ten days after the judgment appealed from is pronounced. The appeal, however, should not be refused if reasons for unavoidable delay can be demonstrated.

6. The appellant shall lodge his appeal, with the reasons for it, with the clerk of the higher court prior to the beginning of its next regular meeting. The clerk of the lower court appealed from shall send the full record of the case or a certified copy to the higher court by the same time.

7. Evidence that has come to light at the first trial may be presented by either the appellant or appellee in an appeal.

8. The higher court may, at its own discretion, appoint one or more of its members to assist in the presentation of the case to its court.

9. After a higher court has decided that an appeal is in order and that it should be considered by the court, the following procedures are to be followed: (1) reading the appeal, with the reasons for it; (2) reading the record of the case, which may include the whole record or only that part of it against which appeal is being made; (3) hearing the parties, the appellant
having the right of opening and closing the argument; (4) taking the vote, with members having the right to vote either to sustain, to sustain in part, or not to sustain the appeal.

10. If the appeal is sustained, either in whole or in part, the judgment of the lower court is set aside, and the court may either close the case, if further proceedings are unnecessary; it may try the case itself; it may send the case back to the lower court for a new trial; or it may remit the case back to a lower court for the purpose of amending the record, if it appears incorrect or defective.

11. If the appeal is not sustained, the judgment of the lower court is upheld.

12. The decision of the higher court shall be recorded and a copy of it shall be sent to the lower court.

13. If after entering his appeal, the appellant does not appear before the higher court either in person or by counsel at its next meeting following the date of his notice of appeal, the appeal shall be treated as abandoned and the judgment of the lower court shall stand, unless the appellant can furnish the
court with satisfactory explanation of his failure to appear.

14. In cases where an appeal would necessarily and injuriously delay proceedings, it is proper for the lower court to refuse to admit an appeal and proceed with the trial. In such cases the party refused an appeal may register his complaint with the next higher court.


Puritanboard Commissioner
Anecdotally, I have not seen the widespread problems mentioned.

Rather, the opposite.

The process for qualifying an officer (deacon or elder) involving a semester study with other other potential candidates, led by Senior Pastoral staff.

Then a separate doctrinal examination.

Then an extensive home life examination involving the spouse (by I Timothy 3, e.g. wives of deacons), culminating in a home visit by at least two elders, a vote by session, then presentation to the congregation by way of Christian testimony and later a vote by the congregation.

Lots of steps to confirm that God is calling and equipping that man for office, tested by I Timothy 3 and Titus I.

If all is confirmed (and many, many are screened out along the way for various reasons, often withdrawing themselves), then they are ordained in public ordinance of worship with vows, and installed for a term of office.

At the end of the term, mandatory sabbatical is required, and to serve again for term, at least an abbreviated form of the above process, all over again.

While not perfect, this helps all- session, diaconate, congregation and the man himself to assess God's calling.

Even the sabbatical is a proper and good period for spiritual assessment.

God blesses and leads this process, and we have every right to have faith that He will- after all, He is the one who calls and appoints those who would be officers in authority for the benefit of His people.

Set terms of office, with mandatory breaks, and re-installation requirements don't detract from this in any way, but are safeguards that benefit the church, and the individuals involved.

Backwoods Presbyterian

Puritanboard Amanuensis

What you mention above I have not seem to be the norm. I would welcome a separate thread about our experiences with the training of Elders (if the mods and/or you and/or the OP deem it necessary). Unfortunately I have seen what Andrew describes being the norm of my experience.


Puritan Board Freshman
What Andrew said. Is there a scriptural basis for "terms" of service for elders/deacons? If not, by what authority does a church limit the service of a man called to be an elder?

As a side note, I find it hard to believe that, even in a congregation of 2000, you have enough qualified men to serve as elders to be able to fill a Session, AND have 25% of the men rotate out every year. I looked at your church's website. Currently, you have 19 men listed as Ruling Elders (Link). Assuming you plan on keeping the Session the same size if term limits are imposed, that means between 4 and 5 men rotating off the Session every year, and 4 to 5 men coming on to Session every year. You would, at a minimum, need 5 more elders than what you currently have, but I'd be suspicious that it wouldn't always be the same 4 or 5 men coming on/leaving Session, which means you would need new men to fill those empty spots. It sounds like an easy way to force unqualified men into the office of elder simply because you "don't have enough guys".

(In case anyone was wondering about the math, like I was, a congregation of 2000, with 19 ruling elders is a ratio of 1 RE to every 105 congregants. Assuming women and children make up about 75% of that number, that means one man in every 26 men is currently serving as an elder. If you add just 5 more elders, your ratio of elders to men in the congregation changes to 1 elder for every 20 men in the congregation. Now, maybe y'all in Tennessee are blessed with an overabundance of qualified men, but I'd be hard pressed to find 1 man in 20 in California that is qualified and called to serve as an elder.)

One final note: Will the Teaching Elders also be rotating out every 4 years? Why not?

Wow... I ask a question and leave the house for the day, then... BOOM! More info... the elders/deacons may be reelected/reinstalled perpetually. And, my church wants to come up to 1:50 elder:congregant ratio. Other than that, I have not yet read all of the responses.


Puritan Board Freshman
And, as further clarification, the positions on the session are what will be rotated. The elders will always be elders, or deacons always deacons. Those positions on the session can be perpetually filled by the sitting elders (as I understand it). One reason mentioned in the meeting we had this Lord's Day was to identify other individuals who might be called to serve as elders/deacons. We also have an extensive training process for candidates, as I have been told.


Puritan Board Freshman
Wanted some thoughts on RE/Deacon elections. Currently my PCA church nominates elders/deacons for an indefinite (life, resignation, or discipline, I guess) period of time. We are considering elections on a 4-year rotational basis, with elections happening every year, rotating approximately 25% out every year, when fully implemented. My church has approximately 2,000 congregants. This change will be decided by a congregational vote.

Can I get some thoughts (particularly from those who believe an elder-led congregation is correct) on the pros/cons of making the switch? If more info is needed, please let me know.

Being a Ruling Elder is a calling from God. When the Elder feels that he is no longer called to serve in that position he should resign. Unless of course the rest of the Elders need to remove him under Biblical discipline.
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