Rev. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.

The elders shall be chosen by the judgment of the consistory and the deacons according to the regulations for that purpose established by the consistory. In pursuance of these regulations, every church shall be at liberty, according to its circumstances, to give the members an opportunity to direct attention to suitable persons, in order that the consistory may thereupon either present to the congregation for election as many elders as are needed, that they may after they are approved by it, unless any obstacle arise, be installed with public prayers and stipulations; or present a double number to the congregation and thereupon install the one-half chosen by it, in the aforesaid manner, agreeably to the form for this purpose. 

—Church Order Article 22

The main subject of this article is the manner of the election of elders. The article spells out the role of the consistory as well as the congregation in the election process.

Article 22 indicates three distinct stages in the process by which men are chosen for the office of elder. The three stages are: election, approbation, and installation. With ministers there is the additional stage of examination. In the case of elders, our churches do not require any kind of formal examination, although there have been those in favor of this. The careful examination by the consistory of a man’s gifts prior to nominating him takes the place of examination.

Methods of Election

Several different methods of electing elders have been followed.

There is the hierarchical method according to which elders are appointed and foisted on a congregation. There have been those who favored appointment of elders by the civil government. There is the method according to which elders are chosen by a free election of the members of the congregation.

In distinction from all of these is the Reformed or Presbyterian method. According to this method elders are chosen under the guidance and leadership of the consistory, with the cooperation of the congregation. Both consistory and congregation play a role in the election process.

Article 22 recognizes the leading role of the consistory. “The elders shall be chosen by the judgment of theconsistory and the deacons….” “…in order that theconsistory may thereupon either present to the congregation for election as many elders as are needed . . . .” “. . . or (the consistory may) present a double number to the congregation . . . .”

But Article 22 also recognizes the role of the congregation. The membership is given the privilege of directing the consistory to names of suitable candidates for the eldership. Approbation by the congregation is required. And actual election by the congregation from a double slate of nominees is recommended.

Historically three different methods have been followed by Reformed churches in the election of elders.

There is the Aristocratic method. This was the method followed by the French Reformed churches. According to this method, the consistory selects the elders, and its choices are simply presented to the congregation for approval.

There is the Democratic method. This was the method followed by the Dutch refugee church in London. According to this method, the members of the congregation, by a free election, select a list of candidates. The consistory then chooses from this list those whom it deems most qualified.

There is the Aristocratic-Democratic method. This was the method followed by the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. According to this method, the consistory presents a double slate of nominees to the congregation, from which half are elected.

Article 22 allows for the use of the Aristocratic and the Aristocratic- Democratic methods.

Of these two, the Aristocratic-Democratic method is to be preferred, and is the method commonly followed in our churches. This method does greater justice to the right of the congregation to be actively involved in the selection of its officebearers. This is not to say, however, that a consistory may not choose to follow the Aristocratic method.

Approbation and Installment

No matter which of the two methods permitted by Article 22 is followed, there must be the approbation by the congregation. If the Aristocratic method is followed, there is one period of approbation between election and installation. If the Aristocratic-Democratic method is followed, there am two periods of approbation—one before election (after the slate of nominees has been announced), and another after election and before the actual installation into office.

As part of the approbation process, the following decision has been appended to Article 22: “Nominations and congregational meetings shall be announced upon two successive Sundays.” (Adopted by Classis of June 6, 7, 1934; and Synod of 1944, Art. 66, 67.)

Approbation provides the members of the congregation the opportunity to register with the consistory objections against certain nominees. Such objections would deal with the requirements for office laid down in I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. If the consistory up holds an objection, the man’s name would be removed from nomination, or, if he has already been elected, the election declared invalid. If the consistory does not uphold the objection, it may do one of two things. It may proceed to the installation, if it judges the objection to be trivial or without any ground. Or it may wait for the judgment of the Classis, if the objection is of a serious nature and the consistory has been assured by the one bringing the objection that he intends to appeal to Classis.

After approbation by the congregation, the consistory proceeds to the installation of the newly elected elders. Installation is the actual induction of a man into office. At the time of installation, he actually begins to function as an elder. If he succeeds someone, the outgoing elder continues in office until his successor is duly installed. Installation takes place during a formal worship service and with the use of the “Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons.”

Practical Matters

Article 22 mentions certain “…regulations for that purpose (i.e., for the purpose of electing officebearers) established by the consistory…” The reference is to local regulations adopted by the consistory to promote orderliness in the election process. VanDellen and Monsma offer a “Suggested Set of Rules Governing the Election of Elders and Deacons” (The Church Order Commentary, p. 104). Such regulations might include the time of the annual congregation meeting, the terms of officebearers, the time of installation, that a majority is one over half and that those with the highest majority are elected, that proxy votes shall be valid on the first ballot only, and so forth.

Article 22 speaks of the consistory giving the congregation opportunity to suggest possible candidates for office. This is not mandatory, but each consistory shall be at “liberty” to do this. This may be done no matter which of the two methods of election suggested by Article 22 is followed. Even when the consistory provides this opportunity to the members of the congregation, it is not bound by these suggestions.

Often the question is raised whether a father and son or two brothers may serve simultaneously in the consistory. Neither the Church Order nor Scripture expressly forbids this. There were two sets of brothers among the twelve disciples of Jesus. For practical considerations, however, it is perhaps not a very desirable arrangement. Some consistories even have local regulations to prohibit this. In some congregations, especially smaller ones, it is almost impossible to avoid near relatives serving in office together. In the end, this matter must be left to the discretion of each particular consistory.

Often a question is raised concerning the permissibility of immediate re-appointment. Article 22 does not forbid immediate reappointment. Most consistories have a custom prohibiting immediate reappointment of retiring officebearers. But there is nothing in the Church Order or Scripture that expressly forbids this. In case of reappointment, re-installation is also necessary. Installation is for a definite period of time. When that period of time comes to an end, if a man is re-appointed, he must also be re-installed. The Christian Reformed Church Synod of 1928 ruled that re-installation was “…not only desirable but also proper.”

The exception to the methods of choosing elders laid down in Article 22 is the election of elders at the time of the organization of a new congregation. Because there is no existing consistory as yet, the practice is to hold a free election of all the male members who are entitled to vote. One wonders about the wisdom of this, not to speak of the consistency of a “free election” with Reformed principles of church government. Better it would be, and more in keeping with Article 22, if at the time of the organization of a new congregation, the consistory overseeing the organization would compose the slate of nominations for the initial election.

It is proper that nominees be officially notified by the consistory, preferably by a committee of elders. Nominees ought not easily be permitted to refuse their nomination. If a man does object to being nominated, he should be encouraged to make a personal appearance at the consistory to present the reasons why he feels compelled to decline the nomination. In the end, if a man simply refuses to serve, the consistory has no choice but to remove his name from nomination. If he has no valid reason for refusing to serve, the seriousness of his refusal to serve Christ and His church by the use of his gifts ought to be impressed upon him. But persistent refusal indicates that a man does not possess one of the qualifications necessary for an elder, namely, that he “…desire the office of a bishop…” (I Tim. 3:1).