Church

Big Questions

Q Does Scripture support the practice of limited tenure for elders and deacons?

A Not directly. Indeed, biblical evidence from the book of Acts and the Pauline epistles appears instead to lean toward permanent tenure. That is how the church decided the issue for centuries: once in office, always in office, unless deposed. Our sister denomination, the Reformed Church in America, still holds to this day that “the calling and election of God are without repentance” (Minutes, Classis Holland, 1848-1858).

But this does not mean that limited tenure is therefore unbiblical. The Swiss Reformation chose the practice as one way of ensuring that never again would the church be subject to the tyrannical rule of a hierarchically structured and self-perpetuating priestly caste. Was this a form of iconoclasm? An overreaction? Perhaps. But it did return the church to the New Testament practice of having members play a meaningful role in selecting their leaders in ministry. And there are definite additional advantages that may well be biblically motivated:

  • all members with gifts of leadership serve, not just some, thus distributing the load over time;
  • fresh insights are heard within the walls of the council room on an annual basis;
  • a natural end to a term of office is in sight if work has been poorly done;
  • elders and deacons for whom the work is an avocation can focus on other things for a time and recharge;
  • oligarchy (rule by a few) is avoided.

Limited tenure is not unbiblical. Neither is permanent tenure. And if our synod should ever decide that permanent tenure is preferable, changing the rule, we would not have acted in disobedience to the Word of God.

About the Author

Henry De Moor is professor emeritus of church polity at Calvin Seminary, Grand Rapids, Mich. He’s the author of Christian Reformed Church Order Commentary

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Comments

The downside of frequent turnover is that long term objectives are easily thwarted or neglected. I recall an enthusiastic council that committed to a goal of doubling the membership over a ten year period. The next year, a third of those passionate members were replaced and the following year, another third were gone. Needless to say the commitment to the goal was lost forever and never implemented.

What we lose by frequent turnover is something called institutional memory - a long term sense of who we are, why decisions were made and what vision we are trying to implement.

Have any churches used the structure of an Executive Director who is hired on a long term basis to implement the decisions of the council? That is a structure used by most Non Profit organization. Would it work in our churches? Would it help improve institutional memory?

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