Should Elders Be Ordained for Life?

Ordination

Most councils in the URCNA are faced with the annual challenge of finding qualified candidates to serve as elders and deacons. Each year, at an appointed time, the council goes through the roster of male communicant members, searching for men who meet the standards set forth in 1 Timothy 3.1-13. Each year, the council sends out letters or otherwise contacts the men whom they are considering for nomination in order to inquire about their willingness to serve. Each year, many councils are met with the disappointment of having an insufficient number of qualified men who are willing to serve a term in office. For many councils, this happens each year because the Consistory has adopted the widely held practice in the URCNA of officers serving in short, rotating terms, usually for three-years in length. Each year, as the annual congregational meeting draws nigh and certain elders and deacons are at the end of their terms, the council is pressed to find qualified men who are willing to serve in office.

Perhaps some URCNA congregations do not find this practice too demanding. For those churches blessed with an abundance of qualified and willing men to serve as officers, three-year rotating terms may work quite well. Other congregations, however, do not have this luxury. Suitable candidates are in short supply. So what happens when a council cannot find qualified men who are willing to serve? Should they lower the bar so that less-than-qualified men can fill the openings? Or should they maintain their standards, not appointing unsuitable men to office, and suffer a reduction in size as those elders and deacons who have completed their terms “roll off” from their period of service?

The fact is that the practice of three-year rotating terms does not work well for every congregation. It was with foresight to this reality that the authors of URCNA Church Order Article 13 provided some flexibility:  “Elders and deacons shall be elected to a term specified by the Consistory, and upon subscribing to the Three Forms of Unity by signing the Form of Subscription, shall be ordained or installed with the use of the appropriate liturgical form before entering upon their work” (emphasis mine). The Church Order does not specify the length of the officer’s term; it is a matter left to the wisdom and judgment of the Consistory.

Recently, the Consistory of Christ URC made the decision to change their officer terms from three years to an indefinite period of service. I am convinced that this was a wise decision. While it is not a decision that every Consistory must make, it is a decision with many valid points in its favor. I offer the following nine.

First, it should be noted that there is no biblical warrant for three-year rotating terms. Although the practice of three-year rotating terms is widely held in the URCNA, it is purely pragmatic in nature. There is no evidence in the New Testament that the apostolic church held such a practice. While the New Testament certainly does not forbid three-year terms, the biblical evidence suggests that elders and deacons where appointed and ordained for an indefinite period of service. For example, Paul exhorts the elders of Ephesus to take heed to themselves and to the flock without indicating how long they should serve. They are simply told to persevere (Acts 20.17-38. See also Acts 6.1-7; Acts 14.23; 1 Tim 3.1-13; Tit 1.3-9).

Second, the gifts for the eldership and diaconate are not of a temporary nature. There is no indication from the New Testament that when an elder or deacon is called by the Holy Spirit to serve in Christ’s church he is gifted to serve only for a three-year term. While it is certainly true that an elder or deacon can disqualify himself for service due to sin, incompetence, or failing to keep his house in order, it should not be assumed that men who serve well in office possess temporary gifts. Where gifts for leadership in Christ’s church exist, they permanently qualify a candidate for service in the functions of the office. Unless the officer has disqualified himself, the rule should be, as Ned Stonehouse put it, “once an elder, always an elder.”[1]

Third, three-year rotating terms place an unnecessary strain on the council each year to find new qualified candidates. The practice of three-year rotating terms inevitably forces the council at the same appointed time each year to find men to fill new openings. Not only can this be a difficult and frustrating, it is potentially very artificial. The fact is that some years the Lord may not provide qualified candidates within the congregation. Councils should not attempt to create an “Ishmael” simply because some elders and deacons are at the end of their three-year terms and the annual congregational meeting is near. We must be content with the qualified men whom he has provided to us, and wait on the Lord to raise up men when he is pleased to do so. And when he does, they should be ordained and serve the body.

Fourth, three-year rotating terms hinders continuity in the consistory. Each time an elder leaves the Consistory after a three-year term, both the Consistory and the congregation suffers from the turnover. The Consistory is without those elders who have intimate knowledge of particular motions (at the consistorial, classical, and synodical levels) and sensitive church discipline cases. Likewise, the congregation is without those elders who have intimate knowledge of elder districts and the pastoral care of its members. Conversely, permanent elders encourage continuity within the Consistory. A similar case can be made for the diaconate.

Fifth, three-year rotating terms tend to develop a decreased sense of responsibility. As John Murray pointed out in his article “Arguments against Term-Eldership,”[2] the practice of short, rotating terms tends to promote the idea that the eldership “should be passed around.” But serving as an elder or deacon is not tantamount to serving on a church committee. To serve as an elder or deacon is hold a holy office of leadership in the church of Jesus Christ. Elders who rule well are to be “counted worthy of double honor” (1 Tim 5.17a). Deacons who serve well “gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 3.13). Service in such offices should never be viewed with the mindset that says, “I am only doing this for three years and then I’m done.” If a man has been given gifts by God to serve as an elder or deacon, he is responsible to use those gifts for the benefit of Christ’s body.

Sixth, indefinite terms of service do not preclude sabbaticals when needed. It is certainly true that the labors of serving as an elder or deacon can be challenging, even burdensome at times. Balancing the responsibilities of vocations in the home, public square, and church can try the most self-disciplined man. While God supplies grace to elders and deacons to perform their duties amid fiery trials (even as he does ministers of the Word), a sabbatical of several months or even one year can still be taken if necessary and upon approval of the Consistory. Such a provision can be written into a church’s bylaws.

Seventh, indefinite terms of service promote a lighter load of work for all. When qualified men remain in office rather than leaving the Consistory or diaconate after a three-year term, it makes the work more manageable for all. A larger number of officers can share the burden of service. As the old saying goes, “Many hands make light work.” For example, a manageable elder district might be no more than twelve family “units,” that is, families and/or single individuals in the congregation. But when the elder-to-family ratio swells to 1:25 or more, it becomes very difficult for the elder to know the people in his district well and visit them in a reasonable and responsible time-frame. For churches without an abundance of willing and qualified candidates for office, indefinite terms allows for a larger number of officers to serve, keeping the workload manageable.

Eighth, a larger number of officers promotes the use of particular gifts in capacities commensurate with those gifts. Some men are gifted to speak publicly, some to serve as clerk, some as a chairman, some as a treasurer, etc. Each of these gifts is very important for the function and health of the body, but God does not supply all of them to every officer. Indefinite terms of service, which more readily allows for a larger body of elders, encourage the placement of officers in those areas where they serve Christ’s flock best.

Ninth, the Reformed tradition has a long history of indefinite terms of service.[3] While three-year terms of service are fairly commonplace (although not universal) in the URCNA, they have not been the rule in the Reformed tradition. For example, in the Netherlands, lifetime eldership was practiced as early as the sixteenth-century. Although the Synod of Dort of 1578 gave churches the freedom to practice either definite or indefinite terms, the Synod of Utrecht in 1612 declared that lifetime eldership was most desirable.[4]

In England during the sixteenth-century, Reformed congregations elected and ordained elders for life. This included the Dutch refugee congregations in England. At a synodical meeting of the congregations in 1560, the decision was made to maintain lifetime eldership because they did not believe the office was of a temporary nature and they recognized that the church is not served well by a constant change of elders.[5]

In Scotland, the practice of lifetime eldership dates back to the sixteenth-century and continues to this day. Likewise, the American confessional descendents of the Scottish Presbyterian churches, such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, almost universally practice lifetime eldership.[6]

Still, some might oppose indefinite terms, seeing advantages in three-year rotations. Below, I answer three questions that are often raised in objection to indefinite terms:

Won’t indefinite terms keep a potentially bad elder or deacon in office? What if a man turns out to be derelict or incompetent in his duties? What if he becomes tyrannical and abusive? In such cases, the Consistory must deal with the sin of the officer, first by admonition and censure and then, if he persists, by discipline. The same is true for an officer who fails to keep his house in order: he will be admonished and, if he persists, removed.

Won’t indefinite terms limit the opportunity of other qualified men in the congregation from serving? No. If there are qualified men in the congregation who are desire to serve, they should be called and ordained. We should not be concerned about having too many good men serving in office (!).

Won’t indefinite terms cause officers to burnout in their callings? Officers can burnout whether they serve for life or for a three-year term. The length of the term is not the issue. God supplies us with his grace in order to persevere in the callings to which he has called us – fiery trials and all. Paul exhorts elders to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20.28). One of the ways in which officers can pay careful attention to themselves is by focusing on those specific tasks they have been given (i.e. URCNA CO Articles 14-15) and not taking on for themselves more work than necessary, especially when such work can be delegated to willing and capable people in the congregation.

As I stated above, the URCNA Church Order does not specify the length of the officer’s term; it is a matter left to the wisdom and judgment of the Consistory. The Consistory of Christ URC believes that indefinite terms will better serve its congregation. Other Consistories may not be so compelled. That is perfectly fine. But they should at least consider the good and valid points in favor of indefinite terms, and respect the decisions of other Consistories who, like them, seek to lead Christ’s flock in the most responsible way according to his Word and by the power of the Spirit.

Pastor Mike Brown


[1] Ned Stonehouse, “May We Prohibit Term Eldership?” The Guardian (May 16, 1955), 75-77

[2] John Murray, Arguments against Term Eldership,” in Collected Works, Vol. 2, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth), 351-356

[3] While it is true that Calvin was in favor of elders serving for one year and then standing for reelection by the congregation each subsequent year, this must be understood in light of the fact that in Geneva elders were chosen by the city council. Calvin sought to keep the city council from usurping the liberty and ecclesiastical power of the church. See Philip E. Hughes, ed. and trans., The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 41-42.

[4] See Cornelis Van Dam, The Elder: Today’s Ministry Rooted in All of Scripture (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2009), 220-21.

[5] Ibid., 219-20.

[6] The Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church allows for both practices, indefinite or definite terms, although the former is more widely practiced. See The Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2011 Edition (Committee on Christian Education in the OPC, 2011), 25:2.