Chapter XVIII

1. In the judicatories of the church there shall be a moderator chosen from among its members as presiding officer so that business may be conducted with order and dispatch.

Comment: Sessions, presbyteries, and general assemblies elect their own moderators from among their members. We have commented elsewhere about the propriety of such being a minister, but here the only restriction is that moderators should be members of the body in which they are elected as presiding officer. This means that moderators of judicatories may be either ministers or ruling elders. In Presbyterianism, the presiding officer of the respective judicatories is styled “moderator.” The moderator is to insure that the meetings proceed with equity and efficiency or, as the FG puts it, “with order and dispatch.” Meetings are usually conducted in keeping with the current edition of Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised and whatever local by-laws or standing rules have been adopted in addition to that.[1]

2. The moderator is to be considered as possessing, by delegation from the whole body, all authority necessary for the preservation of order, for convening and adjourning the judicatory, and directing its operations according to the rules of the Church. The moderator of the presbytery as provided in Chapter XIV, Section 7, and the moderator of the previous general assembly as provided in Chapter XV, Section 5, of this Form of Government, shall be empowered to convene the judicatory before the ordinary time of meeting.

Comment: The moderator of a body presides over it with authority delegated to him by that whole body for the necessary maintenance of order within the body. He does not preside over it then according to his own whims or preferences but, acting in trust for the whole body, preserves decorum on its behalf. This is why even a younger man elected moderator can properly preside, both encouraging and correcting, as needed. He can dare to perform the duties of such an office because, though he may be young or relatively inexperienced, he acts on behalf of the whole body and not simply personally, which is to say, he acts as a moderator entrusted by his fellows to bear this rule. He acts in accordance with his office, in other words, calling meetings to order, overseeing the meetings in accordance with proper church order (both the FG and local standing rules/Robert’s Rules of Order). Additionally, moderators of presbyteries and general assemblies can convene those judicatories before the ordinary meeting time as provided in FG chapters 14–15.

3. If the moderator is a member of the body over which he presides, he may vote in all decisions of that body.

Comment: Section 1 of this chapter notes that moderators are chosen ordinarily from among the members of the respective judicatories over which they preside. As such, moderators commonly have the right to vote, insofar as they are usually members of the body over which they preside. That moderators commonly have such a right is routinely misunderstood in our circles. Because moderators do not customarily enter debate without leaving the chair (an appropriate parliamentary convention), moderators do not usually exercise their vote in the case where it is not needed to make a difference in the outcome of the vote. Such reservation in voting on the part of the moderator commonly occurs in the voice vote (and any division of the assembly that might follow, as with a standing count). This helps maintain objectivity and the appearance of it on the part of the chair. However, moderators would regularly vote in the case of a secret ballot or a roll call vote, another indication that they do possess such a right.

Moderators in any case can always break a tie (to make the affirmative prevail), and, if they are members of the body over which they are presiding, then they may make the vote a tie (to make the negative prevail). Again, moderators always have the vote when they are a member of the body over which they are presiding, though, when not needed (to make or break a tie), they generally do not express their vote in an attempt to be and to appear to be fair and impartial in their moderatorship.

There are exceptions to this, in the cases in which moderators are not members of the bodies over which they preside. For example, the moderator of the session, if a minister, will be the moderator of the congregational meeting. He does not have a vote in the congregation, so the only vote that he would possess would be to break a tie (if he chose to exercise it, wisdom would suggest that he should let such a tie vote alone and allow it to fail). Another instance of this is when a presbyter not on the session is invited in to moderate a sessional meeting (or a congregational meeting). Such a one, including a ministerial advisor to a congregation without a pastor, could vote to break a tie but not otherwise. This is why this section makes conditional the moderator’s right to vote: it extends to all judicatories of which he is a member, whether at the level of the session, presbytery, or general assembly.

Chapter XIX

Every judicatory shall choose a clerk from among those who are or those eligible to be its members to serve for such a term as the judicatory may determine. It shall be the duty of the clerk to be accountable for the recording of the transactions, to preserve the records carefully, and to grant extracts from them whenever properly required; and such extracts under the hand of the clerk shall be considered as authentic vouchers of the facts which they declare, in any ecclesiastical judicatory and to every part of the Church.

Comment: Sessions, presbyteries, and general assemblies shall choose a clerk from those either members of those judicatories or eligible to be such. The term of the clerk is set by the judicatory that he serves. The clerk’s duties include all those that the judicatory may reasonably determine and, in any case, at least those duties herein enumerated, including both receiving and sending all correspondence. The heart of such duties involves an accurate keeping of the minutes (“the recording of the transactions”), including their preservation, and the furnishing of relevant minute extracts when required by those filing judicial appeals, complaints, etc. Only the clerk’s extracts, signed by him, serve as the authentic vouchers of the facts to the whole church of such actions as are described, serving in any ecclesiastical judicatory as true attestations of such.

Chapter XX
Ordination and Installation

1. It being manifest by the Word of God that no man ought to take upon himself the office of deacon, ruling elder, or minister, the Scriptures declare that the church shall set men apart by solemn act for its service.

Comment: God gifts men for office as he sees fit. He makes this clear to the men in question by an internal call, in which they desire to serve Christ in his church as deacons, ruling elders, or ministers. This internal call is accompanied by an external call in which the church recognizes the sort of gifts and calling a man possesses, particularly as some tests are made in which such gifts may be made manifest in areas of service associated with each of the offices. Without such an external call, no man may take any office upon himself, but he must wait upon the determination of the church.[2] We do not believe that a person is infallible in thinking that he has an internal call—he may or may not have such a call. Likewise, we do not think that the church is infallible either: it may keep a truly gifted and called man out of office, and thus out of ordained service, to its own hurt, or it may, contrariwise, put in office one who is not truly gifted and called, also to its own detriment.

In any case, it is the visible church, according to the Word, that must make the determination that a man is duly gifted and called and thus fit to be ordained to office. The church, after examining deacons and elders at the sessional level, and ministers at the presbytery level, makes judgment as to whether the candidates for such office are properly qualified. Deacons and ruling elders may be duly ordained only after also receiving the approbation of the congregation. Similarly, ministers are ordained by a call of the congregation and the approbation of the presbytery. The church thus “sets apart” by a solemn act for service men it deems qualified to hold office in the church.

2. Ordination is that act by which men are set apart to the offices of deacon, ruling elder, and minister. It is the church's solemn approval of and public attestation to a man's inward call, his gifts, and his calling by the church.

Comment: This solemn act of the church “setting apart” certain men deemed fit for office (deacon, ruling elder, and minister) is called “ordination.” In some Reformed churches, and in historic Presbyterianism, only ministers were ordained with the laying on of hands. Ruling elders and deacons were often ordained without the laying on of hands, with deacons often not being ordained but only installed. These days, at least in Presbyterianism, all three offices are ordained and installed, installation being in a particular place, and perhaps for a limited time, as is the case with elders and deacons who have term limits for service. Most ordaining bodies invite ministers and elders in ecumenical relations to come forward and lay hands on both of ministers and elders, though some retain the older practice of only ministers laying hands on either, seeing the laying on of hands as ministerial act (like the apostolic salutation and benediction or administering the sacraments).[3] The laying on of hands should take place only at the ordination of church officers.

Ordination, as the section notes, is the church’s solemn approval of and attestation to a >man’s sense of inward call. It acknowledges the authority of leadership within the biblically defined limits of each office. Ordination is not the bestowment of gifts; only God gives gifts: ordination is the recognition and affirmation that God has given such gifts to a particular man that an ordaining body sets aside for service as a minister, elder, or deacon. It is not enough, as noted above, for a man to have an inward call. Such is always necessary, to be sure, but it is not sufficient, more is needed (though never less). And the more that is needed is for the church outwardly to affirm what the man claims inwardly, particularly as the church puts to the test and examines both the requisite graces (character qualities) of the man, such as we find in 1 Timothy 3:1–13, and the gifts necessary for the particular office, whether it be minister, elder, or deacon. It is not enough for a man to believe himself called; the church must concur in this opinion. As noted above, the church is not infallible and may think a called man not called or a not called man called, all to its detriment.

3. The church shall invest him with the office only when satisfied as to his gifts and only in response to a call to do work appropriate to that office. In the case of deacons and ruling elders their service shall be in the church. In the case of ministers their service normally shall be in the church, though in unusual circumstances it may be, if approved by the presbytery, in nonecclesiastical religious organizations.

Comment: This first sentence reflects what is true, especially the second part (“only in response to a call”), about ministers. A man may be seminary trained and may have clear gifts for ministry, yet he is ordained and becomes a minister only in response to a call, most commonly to a pastorate in a particular local church or mission work. The call could come to him also from the presbytery, for instance, to be a teacher or an evangelist, perhaps to teach Bible or allied subjects in a school, college, or seminary. In any case, only if a proper body extends an initial call does a man get ordained and enter into the gospel ministry in some field of service appropriate to ministers. The last sentence in this section of the FG indicates that a man may have an initial appointment to serve outside the church (as a teacher in a seminary, e.g.), though most commonly a man has a call to serve in the church, particularly as a pastor, either sole or senior, or in some sort of particular role (e.g., pastor of congregational life or teacher of the congregation) in a larger church.

Elders and deacons, contrariwise, are customarily certified, elected, and ordained/installed in the local congregation where their service will be employed. In more recent years, these lay office-bearers have begun to serve in capacities outside the local church, and I do not refer to such service as elders have in the higher judicatories or that deacons may have on presbytery or assembly diaconal and like committees. I refer rather to medical doctors who may be elders or deacons or deacons who may be engineers or builders and who engage both in those offices and in their lay callings on the mission field, either foreign or domestic. These are newer and exciting ways that these officers may serve as associates to the ministers that are missionaries, particularly in the effort to bring a full-orbed Word and deed ministry not only in the local church but also in other fields of ecclesiastical or extra-ecclesiastical service.

4. The ordaining body, before investing a man with office, shall provide, or assure itself that he has received, such training and testing of gifts as may be necessary for the proper performance of the duties required by the office.

Comment: The ordaining body, whether the session in ordaining elders and deacons or the presbytery in ordaining ministers, should make sure that candidates for all offices should be duly trained and tested. In the case of a minister, this is why a candidate for the ministry comes under “the care of the presbytery,” often in his first year of seminary (or just before), continuing on through the period of testing before licensure. Licensure makes one a “probationer,” to use the older language, and implies a period in which the licentiate further trains and receives ecclesiastical assessment. At the end of this period, the presbytery receives testimonials affirming ministerial readiness and fitness to receive and accept a call. All of this is described in some detail for the minister in FG 21–23.

For elders and deacons, training for such offices should occur at the local level, often under the direction of someone in pastoral office. After a degree of training, assessment occurs with a view to certifying the elder or deacon candidate as someone qualified to be put before the congregation for election to office, after which ordination and installation occurs (described in further detail in FG 25). Many churches prefer to do something like more general leadership training among the men, out of which suitable candidates for church office often emerge. Then, for those nominated to be elder or deacon, always with the approbation of the session, more specific elder and deacon training can occur. Many pastors have come, rightly, I believe, to regard officer training as one of their more important tasks, along with preaching/teaching, leading worship (including sacramental administration), and personal ministry.

5. Ordination shall be performed by the body which examines the candidate. In the case of deacons and ruling elders it shall be by the session, except that when a congregation is without a session the presbytery shall ordain such officers as have been elected by the congregation and approved by the presbytery. In the case of ministers ordination shall be by the presbytery.

Comment: The power of ordination is coterminous, ordinarily, with the body that has jurisdiction over the one being ordained and that has conducted his examination for office. This means that an elder or deacon is ordained by the session and that a minister is ordained by the presbytery. When a congregation does not have its own session (perhaps being a mission work or not having local elders to make up a session), the examination and approval of such an elder or deacon is carried out by such officers (usually in that presbytery) as the congregation has elected and the presbytery approved.

6. Installation is the act by which a person who has been chosen to perform official work in the church, having been ordained, is placed in position to do that work. When a man receives his first call to a service his ordination and installation shall be performed at the same time.

Comment: Installation always occurs simultaneous with ordination, though the latter only occurs once (unless a man out of office altogether comes back into office). When a man is first called to any of the offices, he enjoys both ordination and installation in the service dedicated to such. In a congregation that has elder/deacon three-year term limits, every time the elder or deacon is re-elected he is to be installed. If an elder/deacon moves to another church and is elected to service in that congregation, he must be installed there. A minister is installed in all calls to service subsequent to his ordination.

7. The installation of deacons and ruling elders shall be performed by the session except as provided in Section 5, above. The installation of ministers shall be in the charge of the presbytery.

Comment: Installation of ruling elders and deacons is performed by the session of the church that has elected them to service, whether following ordination or subsequent installations. The exception to this rule, installation in a church without an active session, is accomplished as is ordination in such a church, see section 5, above. Installation of ministers is in the province of the presbytery from whomever a call to a minister comes (from a local church, in or out of the OPC; from the presbytery; from the Committee on Foreign Missions, etc.).

8. When an officer, by reason of advanced age or disability, retires or is retired from a position and is no longer engaged in a service that requires a call in terms of Chapters XXIII or XXV of this Form of Government, the body calling him to that service in which he was last engaged before his retirement may, in recognition of his long and/or meritorious service, designate him “emeritus” with the title of his previous service.

Comment: When a minister, elder, or deacon retires or is retired (by reason of advanced age or disability), the body of his last installation (if an elder or deacon) or of his last call (if a minister), in recognition of his long and/or meritorious service, may designate him as “emeritus.” This designation follows the title of his previous service, so a session would designate such a deacon as “deacon emeritus” or a minister as “pastor emeritus.” Emeritus means “honorably retired” and generally means that the one thus designated is due whatever privileges the body thus honoring him chooses to accord. Some sessions, e.g., give emeritus elders or pastors the right but not the responsibility to come to session meetings. Some call on the emeritus officers for consultation on big decisions. Others have this as just an honorary title, meaning that it affords no special privileges other than an added measure of respect as the former pastor (or the like).


[1] Alan D. Strange, “How to Run the Session Meeting,” Ordained Servant, 22 (2013): 59-64; Ordained Servant Online, (2013), https://www.opc.org/os.html?article_id=356, addresses not only local, but wider, moderating concerns.

[2] Much has been written on the internal and external calls to the ministry. An older work that is essential here is Robert Lewis Dabney’s “What Is a Call to the Ministry,” accessible at https://gpts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Dabney_What-is-a-Call-to-the-Ministry.pdf; a more contemporary treatment of the question may be found in John Sittema, Called to Preach? Pondering God’s Commission for Your Life (Dyer, IN: Mid-America Reformed Seminary, 2010).

[3] James Bannerman, Church of Christ (1869; repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2015), 493–507. See also, particularly for the theology of the imposition of hands and of its restriction to ministers, the unpublished paper by Clowney, “Answer to the Complaint in the Presbytery of New Jersey (OPC) in re the Laying on of Hands at the Ordination of Ministers.”

Alan D. Strange is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and is associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Joliet, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, June–July 2021. A list of available installments in this series appears here.

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Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds

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Ordained Servant: June–July 2021

Poetry for Preaching and Enjoyment

Also in this issue

The Power of Poetry for Preaching and Enjoyment[1]

Your Personal Odyssey in Stereo

The Writings of Meredith G. Kline on the Book of Revelation: Chapter 2, “The First Resurrection” (1975)

Medical Technology: A Blessing Not to Be Idolized: A Review Article

Pastors and Their Critics: A Guide to Coping with Criticism in the Ministry by Joel R. Beeke and Nick Thompson

Ars Poetica—A Medley

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