Question and Answer
Pastors: Voting and Membership
Do the pastor and assistant pastor of a local church have the power to vote at a session meeting? They are not members of the local church, as I understand it. Rather, they are members of the presbytery. Could you help me understand if the OPC has ever addressed this issue?
Thank you for your question to us. You have basically asked two different questions:
1. Can the pastor and assistant pastor vote in a session meeting?
2. Has the OPC ever addressed the fact that they are not members of the local church, and yet vote in the decisions of the Session?
I will cite pertinent portions of the Form of Government (hereafter FG); you may find this document online here. Here are the answers:
1. All the ministers of a particular church can vote in Session meetings. (The Constitution of the OPC has no category of "assistant pastor" or "associate pastor." All ministers called by a particular congregation are installed as its ministers, even if called as Teachers, regardless of how their particular responsibilities may be described by the calling body.) Our Form of Government indicates that a Pastor "joins with the ruling elders in governing the congregation" (FG VIII) and that the Session, "the governing body of the local church, consists of its pastor, its other ministers, and its ruling elders" (FG XIII:5). So it is clear that the ministers of a particular church can vote on all issues coming before the Session.
It is common that the Moderator, who is often the pastor, declines to vote unless his vote would change the outcome of the issue. This is derived from Parliamentary procedure, the idea being that the chairman is thereby less likely to be perceived as biased. But this is his choice: circumstantial, not mandatory.
2. Your other question poses a problem which is there because of the way you have phrased it, not by necessity. The basis for voting isn't membership, but consent of the governed. Elders don't vote because of their being members of the local church, for the church has many members who do not vote on the Session. The Elders vote because the members of that church—believing that God will bless them through the rule of these men and believing that the men are gifted and called by God to office—have voted to call these men to office. They are, in other words, entitled to vote in the session because the people have called them to rule over them, not because their membership is in the congregation.
The same principle is applied to ministers. They vote because the people have voted to call them to serve in office there.
Notice how this principle is carried out in other ways. If the pastor is absent for some reason, and the session has asked another minister to meet with them, that minister cannot vote (FG XIII:6). Only if there is no pastor and the Session has requested a minister to be appointed for awhile can that minister vote (FG XIII:7). A church may come into circumstances where they have an insufficient number of elders to function properly. In such a case, the Session may be "augmented" by elders from other churches, but the congregation must consent to that governance or it cannot be done (FG XIII:10).
As to the implied question—why do ministers have their membership in presbytery instead of in the local church?—in some Reformed traditions, particularly those of Dutch heritage, ministers are in fact members of the local church. In our own denomination the membership of ministers is in the presbytery, though such ministers have communing fellowship with the local church.
There are three reasons or arguments in favor of this practice: First, we expect our ministers to have a broader range of responsibilities over the whole work of the church than do the elders. Their responsibility, more than that of the elder, is in the region. (Yes, individual elders from the different congregations are also called to serve the regional church through their presence and voting at meetings of the presbytery, but not all elders are called to do such.) Second, we recognize the need for a large measure of specialized education for our ministers that we do not require for our elders (e.g., knowledge of Greek and Hebrew). Consequently, we think it more proper that they are subject to the examination and oversight of others with that same level of training. Finally, since the ministers are members of presbytery, that fact makes any discipline of them, or any dispute over their call to a particular church, immediately the concern of the presbytery. This provides a large window for the regional church to view the happenings, and to participate in working to promote the purity and peace of the church.
I hope this is helpful. If we can assist further, please let us know.
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