In the sphere of Presbyterian church government there exist chiefly two conceptions as to the length of time to which an elder is elected to serve in the office. On the one hand, there are those who maintain that an election to the office of elder constitutes a permanent appointment. Under this conception one elected to the office of elder remains an elder for life, or until such a time when he ceases to be a member of that particular denomination. Even the inability to exercise the duties of office due to age or other circumstances, or transfer of membership from one congregation to another, does not terminate his eldership. Hence, a member of that particular denomination, if once elected to the office of elder, is an officebearer for life. This conception is generally referred to as permanent eldership.
The other conception existing in the sphere of Presbyterian church government is commonly called term eldership. According to this conception elders are elected to office for a limited time only, tit the expiration of which those elected cease to hold office, and after which they must be re-elected in order to hold office once again. According to this conception then, an election does not constitute a permanent appointment, put rather a limited one, which terminated according to rules and regulations existing at the time and place of election to the office.
The former of these two views is perhaps the most ancient, probably existing, in practice at least, since the days of the apostolic church. Permanent eldership, although in a modified form, was most likely practiced from the days of the early church until such a time, when, prior to the Reformation, the office of elder literally disappeared under the Roman Catholic hierarchy. And then again, after the Reformation, when the office of elder once more received its rightful place in the church, the practice of permanent eldership also reasserted itself in the Protestant church. Historically, therefore, this view has the preeminence.
For, term eldership has its historical birth recorded for us on the pages of the Reformation. At this time, especially through the instrumentality of Calvin, the reinstitution of the office of elder to its rightful place in the church is accompanied by the first appearance of the practice of term eldership. Term eldership, therefore, is of comparatively recent beginnings, while permanent eldership was practiced from the time that the office was in the church.
However, in spite of its comparative youth, term eldership is still maintained exclusively in the Reformed churches, in our country as well as in Europe. Fact is, that under the influence of Calvin, the Reformed churches maintain term eldership to the extent of incorporating this conception, as normative and regulatory for the churches, in the Church Order of Dordt (1618-19), Article 27. Moreover, in maintaining term eldership practically, and in harmony with Article 27 of the C.O., the Reformed churches actually discard the conception of permanent eldership as having no normative or regulatory value, regardless of its historical precedence.
In this light the question, Should elders be permanently in office? evolves into the more concrete question, Is term eldership to be maintained, to the exclusion of permanent eldership, as normative and regulatory for the church of Christ in the world? And in answering the question in this form we take a more positive approach to the Reformed conception and practice, and, if possible, can thus better reaffirm our position over against that of those maintaining permanent eldership.
To the question, Is term eldership normative and regulatory for the church in the world? the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., as officially maintaining permanent, eldership, gives a negative answer. For she positively asserts that, whereas Scripture is definitely silent on this matter, while at the same time the early church practiced permanent eldership, and that under the guidance of the apostles, permanent eldership thus is both normative and regulatory for the church. Term eldership, therefore, has neither the sanction of Scripture nor the apostles, nor of the early church by way of precedent; permanent eldership, on the other hand having at least the sanction of the apostles as well as that of the early church, and is therefore, according to them, the rule that must be followed.
Our fathers, however, interpreted the silence of Scripture, as well as the silent sanction of the apostles with respect to the practice of the early church, in a different light. According to them a modified form of permanent eldership was practiced with a view td prevailing circumstances. Few were the men, who only recently converted from Judaism and heathenism, were capable of exercising the office and duties of elder. Hence, for the good of the early church, these men were retained in their office. Hence also, the practice of permanent eldership need not be the norm for the church.
Then too, our fathers, still smarting from the painful bondage of the Roman Catholic hierarchy from which they were only recently delivered, too clearly understood that because of following the precedent set by the early church, the church of pre-Reformation days had literally lost the office of elder altogether, and therefore, also her liberty. For, in subjecting the office of elder to the precedent of permanent eldership, she in turn had allowed herself to be brought under the subjection of willfully wicked men. And under this subjection she lost all her liberty, as well as the ability to carry out her calling as church, namely, to continuously subject herself to her Lord, and that as antithetically opposed to all wickedness and powers of darkness. Permanent eldership had proved itself, not only as void of normative value, but as detrimental to the church in the world.
Through the practice of permanent eldership men were elected to the office of elder until such a time when they could no longer serve or until by reason of death others had to be elected to take their place. And, as is always the case in the world, the church is continually attacked by the powers of darkness, which, in seeking to gain the rule over the church, were at the same time seeking her overthrow. And as was the case already in the early church, so also throughout the pre-Reformation days the offices were often attacked through the instrumentality of wicked men, in order that through the offices the entire church might be brought under the scepter of Satan. In gaining control of the office of elder men were able to subject the preaching of the Word to the realization of their sinful lust for power and glory. Through the exercise of the office also the congregation could be brought under subjection to their carnal desires. And all this actually took place, with the result that man, under the guise of the authority of Christ, raised up for himself an infallible pope, whose word became law, and before whom every knee must bow. Such was the result, inevitably so because of sin, of the practice of permanent eldership. And no wonder, then, that our fathers in experiencing the glorious liberty of the church of post-Reformation days would not again subject themselves to a mere precedent.
Positively, however, the fathers of the Reformation also began to understand, and at the same time set forth the true relation of the office to the church, as well as the relation between her calling as church and her liberty to select men for the office of elder, and to determine the length of time to which they are appointed to serve.
The calling of the church in the world is one according to which she must, as antithetically opposed to all the powers of darkness, the devil and the world, as well as her own sinful flesh, subject herself to her rightful Lord. In the world then, she is called to be a separate people, distinct from the world as it lies in darkness, and thus manifest herself as the people of the living God, as the body of Christ, and as subject to Him alone. And one aspect of this calling lies in the fact that to her belongs the task of appointing men to the office of elder in the church. That is, in the office the church has the only channel through which Christ exercises His authority and rule over His people. And He has been pleased to use men as instruments to carry out His rule. When, therefore, in appointing men to the office, the church chooses faithful men, she by that very deed manifests that she subjects herself to the rule of her Lord. Fact is, that when the church faithfully appoints men of her number, who manifest themselves as subject to the rule of Christ, she essentially fulfills her calling in the world. In the appointment of God-fearing men capable of ruling her in the name of Christ, the church at the same time opposes the powers of darkness which also seek to rule over her. And if, at any time, she fails to give diligence in appointing the proper officebearers, by that very token she manifests rebellion against her Lord and subjection to the powers of darkness. Hence, her very first calling as church in the world is to manifest her loving obedience to Christ by appointing faithful officebearers.
Moreover, this calling of the church in the world is a continuous calling. Always and ever, as long as she is in the world and in the flesh the church is called, antithetically over against them, to manifest her loving obedience to her rightful Lord, and thus to manifest herself as God’s peculiar people, His wonder work of grace. Never may she rest from this calling. Nor can she. The powers of sin and darkness and her own flesh unceasingly attack her. Always they wait for an opening through which to gain the rule over the church. She cannot cease her vigilance. Nor may she. For her Lord calls her to continual obedience to Him.
With a view to this calling the fathers of the Reformation understood that no longer could the church follow a precedent of the early church, which was practiced in the light of circumstances. But rather, in harmony with her continuous calling, she must be at liberty to continually appoint or reappoint men to the office of elder, in order that she would thus be able to reassure herself that she could subject herself to her Lord. At no time may she regulate her affairs here below in a mariner that would hinder her as to her calling, and thus also enable the powers of darkness to bring her into bondage. She, the church of Christ, must so regulate her life in the world that she maintains the liberty wherewith Christ has made her free.
Therefore, not permanent eldership, but term eldership is today normative in the Reformed churches. Such is in harmony with, and conducive to, her calling as the church in the world, as well as to her manifestation as the body of Christ.