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

The elders and deacons shall serve two or more years according to local regulations, and a proportionate number shall retire each year. The retiring officers shall be succeeded by others, unless the circumstances and the profit of any church, in the execution of articles 22 and 24, render a re-election advisable. 

Church Order, Article 27

Historical Background

This article establishes the policy of limited tenure for elders and deacons. Article 12 set forth the Reformed view that those who are called to the office of the ministry are called for life. In distinction from ministers who are permanently in office, the elders and deacons serve for a limited term of office, usually between two and five years.

It was especially Calvin who introduced the practice of limited tenure into the Reformed Churches. In Geneva the elders were appointed by the government and were retired each year. The elders who performed their duties well might be recommended by the ministers for reappointment. Calvin’s main motivation for introducing limited tenure was the prevention of the tyranny that had been prevalent in the Roman Catholic Church due, at least in part, to the fact that office in the Roman Catholic Church was for life.

Early on, the Reformed Church in The Netherlands adopted the practice of limited tenure.

Apart now from every day problems, it goes without saying that the elders and deacons who have faithfully served for a certain period of time have not done this except at great disadvantage to their family affairs. Therefore we consider it profitable that every year new elders be elected . . . (Synod of Wezel, 1568). 

The elected elders and deacons shall serve two years of which half the number shall be changed each year and others chosen in the prescribed way shall be installed in their place under the same condition. But as far as the secret congregations are concerned, or those which cannot maintain this order, they are given the freedom to shorten or lengthen the time according to their need and circumstances, concerning which if any difficulty arises the classis shall judge (Synod of Dordtrecht, 1578). 

Elders and deacons shall serve two years, and every year one half shall retire and other installed in their place, unless the circumstances and welfare of any church demand otherwise (Synod of Middelburg, 1581).

To this general practice of the Dutch Reformed Churches there were a few exceptions. The Dutch Refugee Congregation of London chose their elders for life, although their deacons served one-year terms. Also some of the Dutch provinces retained permanent tenure: Groningen, Leyden, and North Holland. However, the Synod of Alkmaar, 1587 compelled these provinces to conform to the practice of the others.

In distinction from the Reformed churches, the Presbyterian tradition followed the practice of permanent or life tenure. In the Presbyterian tradition, he who is once put into office, whether minister, elder, or deacon, ordinarily remains in office for life. Even removal of membership from the church in which he was ordained, or old age, or debilitating illness does not force one to relinquish the office, only active service in the office.

Arguments for and against limited tenure

Several arguments can be put forward in support of life tenure for officebearers. The following are the principal ones.

* It seems inconsistent with the principle of equality of the offices that the ministers serve for life, while the term of the elders and deacons is limited. 

* In the Old Testament all three offices of prophet, priest, and king were for life. So should their counterparts be in the New Testament. 

* This was the practice of the early church until the time of the Reformation, and therefore is the historical precedent. 

* Since these men possess the gifts for office in Christ’s church, the church should not be denied the use of their gifts by forcing them into retirement, even if only for a time.

* Limited tenure adversely affects the continuity of the labors of the consistory. 

* The benefits of experience in the work of the officebearers favors permanent tenure.

At the same time, strong arguments in favor of limited tenure can also be put forward.

* The Scriptures do not stipulate the term of office. There is no express command that requires elders and deacons to serve for life. Scripture’s silence on the matter indicates that the church is at, liberty to regulate this matter according to her own discretion, taking circumstances and the best edification of the church into consideration. 

* The office does not cleave to the person, but to the church. It is the church who puts a man into office. The church, therefore, may determine how long a man shall have the office. 

* Uninterrupted labor in the consistory places a hardship on men who have other personal, family, and vocational responsibilities. It cannot be denied that often a man’s temporal and family life suffers when he is in consistory. Justice demands that the work of the consistory be shared by more than just a very few. 

* Limited tenure is a necessary preventative to hierarchy, which can easily creep in when a very few men serve for an extended length of time. Experience and the history of the church bear this out. With the Reformers this was the compelling reason for introducing limited tenure.

* Definite retirement also, provides the church with a way of replacing less qualified men with those who are more qualified.

Taking all the arguments into consideration, it is not difficult to see why our Church Order favors limited tenure. However, this is a matter of preference, more for practical considerations than for reasons of principle.

Definite Retirement

The rule laid down in Article 27 is that elders and deacons shall serve a definite length of time, followed by retirement from office and replacement by others.

The article leaves the exact length of term to “local regulations.” Each consistory is at liberty to determine what the length of term shall be for its elders and deacons. Length of term must be stipulated at the time that the election of officebearers takes place. That there should be “local regulations” means that each consistory should have an .adopted policy.

The article does lay down a minimum length of term of two years. Anything less than two years would be detrimental to the continuity and stability of the consistory. It usually takes several months for new consistory members to become acclimated. The general practice in our churches is three-year terms of office.

Article 27 prescribes that “a proportionate number shall retire each year.” Strictly speaking, proportionate retirement means that, when serving two-year terms, half of the officebearers retire each year; when serving three-year terms, one-third retire each year; and when serving four-year terms, one-fourth retire each year.

Proportionate retirement assures that not more than half of the consistory will retire in a given year. There will never be an entirely new consistory. Continuity of labor from one consistory to the next is thus safeguarded.


Our Protestant Reformed Churches have appended the following decision to Article 27:

In case of difficulties in the congregation, the officebearers then serving shall continue to function until their chosen successors can be installed.

This provides for continuation in office because of difficulties within the congregation, as, for example, a serious discipline case, or a case involving one of the officebearers. Continuation in office is a decision of the consistory.

Besides continuation in office, there is also the possibility of the immediate re-election of an officebearer. This is an exception that Article 27 allows, if such immediate reelection can be justified on the basis of “the circumstances and the profit” of a particular congregation. In the case of re-election, a man is included in the slate of nominees put before the congregation who would otherwise be retiring from office.

Article 27 does not prescribe the number of years a man must be retired from office before he is again eligible to serve in the consistory. There is, of course; ordinarily a one-year minimum. Some consistories have the policy of two or three years of retirement before a man (can be again nominated for office. This is feasible in larger congregations where the necessary number of qualified men to serve in office is more readily available. In determining the length of retirement, consistories must be careful not to exclude competent men from serving in the consistory for too long a period of time.

Sometimes it is asked how long a retiring officebearer continues to function officially. The answer to this question is that he retains his office until his chosen replacement is ordained into office.

May a retiring deacon be nominated for the office of elder? The answer to this question is yes. Article 27 calls for retirement from the office in which a man is presently serving. A retiring elder may also be nominated for the office of deacon.

May a non-retiring deacon be nominated for the office of elder? The answer to this question is also yes. The office of elder and deacon are two different offices. A non-retiring elder may also be nominated for the office of deacon.

Should the number of elders and deacons always be equal? This is not necessary, but should be determined by the needs and circumstances within the congregation. However, in smaller congregations where the deacons are joined to the elders in the consistory, there should be at least as many elders as deacons.