Indefinite or limited terms for elders

Do you have ‘life’ or ‘term’ elders?

So ran a question I received yesterday.

It’s one of those questions that does the rounds mainly because it’s not something that the Bible specifies. It’s clear enough on the need for elders. I would argue it;s similarly clear that those elders should be plural and co-equal. Given I am convinced by the arguments for independency, I also think the Bible is clear enough that those elders should be appointed by the church (I think when Timothy and Titus are told to ‘appoint elders’ that was not a unilateral appointment cf. Denny Burk’s case here).

But the Bible doesn’t tell us anything about whether church elders should be given indefinite terms in office or should be appointed for a set time and subsequently re-elected. I recall somebody asked Mark Dever his view on this at the 2019 FIEC Conference. Dever was clear that there is no Biblical mandate but wisdom pushed him to the view that terms are best. It would be my view, with a few caveats, that terms are not best. But we all must be clear that this is not a matter of Biblical fidelity but wisdom and isn’t something to bind the conscience of others.

First, it’s important to say that any approach to eldership will only work if suitably qualified men are appointed. If we end up appointing men whose character falls short of the criteria laid out in scripture, equally if we appoint people based on their ‘skills’ or know-how, we are going to wander into problems. An unqualified elder can cause plenty of damage during a 5-year term. So, let’s just be clear from the front end, without qualified men in post, we are going to have problems come what may.

Assuming we have appointed suitably qualified men, my first question would be, why do I want to remove a godly, qualified man simply because he has served 5-years (or however long you arbitrarily set your terms)? At the same FIEC Conference, Dever was also asked about the optimum number of elders. He simply said something approximating, have as many as God has gifted to you. Why would the Lord give you suitably qualified men, gifted for eldership, but not expect you to utilise their gifts? If that is true, and I think (with maybe a few caveats) there is sense in that, why would I want to arbitrarily limit the time a godly elder can serve?

Of course, we all know the reality of sin that exists in the church and lurks in the hearts of all of us. Even apparently godly men fall. If not disqualification, there are a whole host of ways that otherwise godly men may not longer be capable of serving adequately. But to remove them because of an arbitrarily set time limit seems odd at best. If an elder has disqualified himself from office, or is not longer capable of serving in office, there should be adequate mechanisms built into your church constitution and rules to remove them.

As such, if somebody has disqualified themselves or is incapable of serving, it does not seem prudent to wait until their term runs out. Instead, there should be clear mechanims for removal. In the first instance, a godly man – should a majority of the elders be clear that they ought to stand down – would take that advice. In cases where the elder is not behaving in a godly way, and is not responding to the recommendation of the majority of elders, the matter should be brought before the church members and he should be removed from office by the church in the same way as he was appointed.

If we have adequate provisions built into our church constitution, there should be no need for terms. Those who are godly will step down should the need arise and those who are ungodly should be removed by the members who appointed him. Building in the arbitrary provision of terms is ad hoc at best.

Were that all that was at stake, whilst I would opt not to use terms, but it would be close to a matter of total indifference. But there is another issue that stands against the idea of terms. Namely, there are elders who are bullied by church members who use the existence of terms to threaten their elders into doing what they want. Our vote, they insist, will be withheld if you insist on doing X, Y or Z.

Again, answering this issue by having no terms must be balanced with adequate mechanisms to remove those whom the majority of the church believe have disqualified themselves or no longer have the capacity to serve. It would be entirely wrong to remove terms of service and then provide no means whatsoever for the church to remove and errant leader. But it seems to me that if an elder is in sin, no longer qualified or unable to serve, adequate mechanism for the church to actively remove them from office are far better than simply allowing a term of service to lapse. Indeed, we hardly serve those in sin well by simply allowing a term to lapse rather than confronting their sin. By contrast, we make service harder for those who are properly qualified and rightly love their people, especially when they can be used by members to lord it over their leaders in an exercise of power.

As I said at the top, I don’t think this is an issue of Biblical fidelity. You can have limited or indefinite terms for elders and neither stands against scripture. But wisdom and previous experience tells me that indefinite terms, coupled to robust mechanisms that allow churches to remove their elders as necessary, is the way I would go on it.