There might be great benefits to local churches and to teaching elders if more of those presently without connection served on local sessions. Churches would be blessed with able men who could assist (even if only part-time or as needed) with the ministry of the church. The men would benefit from the oversight of a local session—an oversight nearer and more meaningful than that of a board or a committee.
There are teaching elders in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) whose voting privileges should be taken away. Why? Not for any deficiency of character or failure of service but because they have been granted these privileges contrary to a basic principle of Presbyterianism—the right of members to be ruled by officers of their own choosing.
The PCA Book of Church Order (BCO) spells this out well in at least two places:
3-1. The power which Christ has committed to His Church vests in the whole body, the rulers and those ruled, constituting it a spiritual commonwealth. This power, as exercised by the people, extends to the choice of those officers whom He has appointed in His Church.
16-2. The government of the Church is by officers gifted to represent Christ, and the right of God’s people to recognize by election to office those so gifted is inalienable. Therefore no man can be placed over a church in any office without the election, or at least the consent of that church.
There are men who have never been elected to office by a congregation who yet have the right to vote at presbytery and the church’s highest court, the General Assembly (GA). They are ordained “teaching elders” according to the PCA definition, having been ordained and called to “the performance of a definite work” (BCO 17-3), and thus are members of presbytery. These include assistant pastors, missionaries, Reformed University Fellowship staff, seminary professors, parachurch employees, denominational employees, and others. They exercise rule in the church in a very real sense by virtue of their voting privileges at presbytery and GA contrary to the principles outlined above.
I would also argue that men who once held elected pastoral office in the local church, but who no longer serve on a local session should not have voting privileges either. What could be the reason for this “radical” position which would deprive the church courts of the votes of seminary presidents and professors, campus ministers, and ministers without call? First and foremost, ministers of this class have no ecclesial oversight except that of the presbytery (typically dominated by fellow teaching elders) or committees of the GA—they have no vital connection with the local church. Furthermore, what interests do some of these ministers represent? Possibly not those of the local church. An unemployed minister might use his voting position to curry favor with certain persons or organizations. A denominational employee might vote himself a raise or set policies which affect himself. We should not put ministers in compromising positions such as these.
There is yet another reason to remove voting privileges of elders not connected to local church sessions: the serious ruling elder/teaching elder disparity in the courts of the church. In 2019 teaching elders made up 75% of the commissioners to GA, the remaining 25% (slightly higher than average for the last decade) being ruling elders. Of the teaching elders approximately 13% (165) were ministers not serving on a local church session according to the GA minutes. The principle of parity between the two classes of elders (ruling and teaching) is another fundamental principle of PCA polity, but the PCA would seem to be teetering on the edge of a sort of de facto clericalism (see https://www.theaquilareport.com/the-ruling-elder-teaching-elder-disparity-in-the-pca/) where one class dominates. Especially in this environment, the restriction of teaching elder votes to those who are members of local sessions would seem to be advisable.
There might be great benefits to local churches and to teaching elders if more of those presently without connection served on local sessions. Churches would be blessed with able men who could assist (even if only part-time or as needed) with the ministry of the church. The men would benefit from the oversight of a local session—an oversight nearer and more meaningful than that of a board or a committee. And the men might well have a better understanding of the church (and hence, the churches) that they serve.
Finally, the churches would benefit from being governed (at all levels) exclusively by elders called and elected by the members of the churches. To be truly Presbyterian we cannot forget this vital aspect of connectionalism—the connection of the elders to the people.
Brad Isbell is a ruling elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Oak Ridge, Tenn.