What We Believe
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Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapters 25–26

Alan D. Strange

Chapter XXVI
Divesting from Office

1. An officer may be divested of his office, or deposed, by judicial discipline for an offense in doctrine or life. Such divestiture, or deposition, shall be in accordance with the provisions of the Book of Discipline.

Comment: This chapter of the FG often appears to be the most challenging, if not to say the most confusing, of all the FG chapters. It need not be. The comments on the next section (2) will address the question of the overall place of this chapter within the FG. This section, due undoubtedly to its title (“Divesting from Office”), among other things, has been the source of some of that confusion. Persons are doubtless drawn here by the title when they are thinking something like “that person should not, for some reason (s), be in special office,” whether the person in view is a minister, ruling elder, or deacon. Carefully attended to, however, this first section should be a help not a hindrance in rightly interpreting this chapter, particularly as one pays attention to the distinctions drawn in this section of the chapter.

Section 1 of this chapter helps distinguish with respect to the reasons one might think that an officer should be divested and clearly sets forth that an officer might be divested, or deposed, i.e., removed from his church office, for an offense in doctrine or life. This would not mean any offense of any sort in doctrine or life but an offense that is sufficient to warrant trial and consequent censure in accordance with the Book of Discipline. BD 3.7.b., para. 2 makes clear that such an offense in doctrine is different for the office-bearer than for the unordained member. For the member, an offense in doctrine would involve holding beliefs that would contradict a credible profession of faith. For the ordained officer, an offense in doctrine serious enough to warrant censure would be any views that “constitute a violation of the system of doctrine contained in the Holy Scriptures as that system of doctrine is set forth in our Confession of Faith and Catechisms.” The standard for ethical conduct is the same for both non-ordained and ordained members: “an offense in the area of conduct and practice which seriously disturbs the peace, purity, and/or unity of the church.”

If an offense in either doctrine or life is in view, according to FG 26.1, one may not consider divestiture under the rubrics of this chapter. If one thinks that an office-bearer should be removed from his office of minister, ruling elder, or deacon because of any such alleged offense in doctrine or life, then that one must leave the Form of Government and go to the Book of Discipline. This is because this section in the FG provides for something that is part of the ordinary administrative and governmental part of the work of judicatories. When one is considering, however, an offense in doctrine or life, one should be acting not simply governmentally but judicially, and this means that one must proceed in terms of the Book of Discipline where full judicial due process is in play.

It might be put bluntly: “if you have come here to FG 26 looking to remove someone from office because of an alleged offense in doctrine or life, you must go instead to the Book of Discipline.” It is the Book of Discipline that will direct you on how to proceed if one wishes to deal with matters of alleged offenses, either in terms of what one believes and teaches or in terms of how one is thought to be departing from proper ethical behavior. The Book of Discipline affords someone accused particular protections—one is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and the burden of proof rests on the bringer of charges, whether the judicatory or private parties—and offenses must be dealt with by a judicial rather than by an ordinary governmental process.

It should be noted that this chapter may be used in a mixed case, i.e., one in which there are valid governmental and judicial concerns. It is just that if something is dealt with under the rubric of this chapter, offenses must not be in view but only administrative matters (e.g., “he does not have gifts and graces for office; his services are not edifying.”). A man thought unqualified for office may, in other words, also be thought liable for accusations of offense. If the judicatory, however, chooses only to deal with that which is potentially disqualifying and not clearly sinful (it is not sinful not to have qualifications for office; otherwise, every unqualified, unordained man in the church would be liable for charges, a manifest absurdity), then a judicatory may address such under this chapter. If a charge of an offense is in view, on the other hand, then the BD is the appropriate venue for dealing with such concerns.

2. An officer may also be divested of his office without censure, for reasons other than delinquency in faith or life.

Comment: Section 2, after Section 1 has warned readers to leave the Form of Government and go to the Book of Discipline if they have judicial matters in view, now proceeds to recognize that there are reasons for removal from special office “other than delinquency in faith or life.” The rest of the chapter proceeds to deal with these non-judicial, what we might call administrative, reasons for such removal. Some have needlessly puzzled, in my estimation, over this chapter and the reason(s) for its being in the FG, even calling into question that there should be such a chapter and such a provision.

I would argue, though, that such a chapter is needed, at least in part, due to the recognition that we routinely express as Protestants that the church, at every level and in all judicatories, never claims to be infallible. The church can and does err. And one of the errors of the church is that she does not always get it right with respect to whether any given candidate for special office indeed possesses the necessary qualifications. In other words, the church occasionally puts men in special office, who, subsequent events prove, do not belong in special office. Just as it is a governmental, not a judicial, act for a judicatory to go through the process of ordaining men as ministers, ruling elders, and deacons, so it is a governmental act when a judicatory comes to recognize that it should not have placed men in these special offices, because it has become clear that they lack the graces, gifts, and temperament for such offices.

Sometimes it is not a matter of the church coming to think otherwise about a man’s qualification for office than they did when they placed him in such an office. Rather, the man himself, though earlier qualified, has through subsequent developments become disabled for office and is for whatever reason “hanging on to office,” refusing to relinquish it. Perhaps an accident has rendered the previously qualified officer to be now intellectually or emotionally incapable of any longer fulfilling the duties or meeting the requirements of his office.

This is the purpose of this chapter: it makes eminent sense that the same FG that provides for the process of ordination/installation also provides for the removal of those who either never truly had or came to lose the gifts and graces necessary for such office-bearing. And when one considers, especially for the office of minister, the level of support necessary for one to enter upon the office (exams must be sustained by a vote of three-fourths plus one), it seems reasonable that if a man comes to lack support in his presbytery as to his proper qualifications, that there should be an FG process whereby he might be removed from office. This chapter provides such a process and is wise and useful over against its detractors and naysayers.

3. a. A presbytery shall consider divesting a minister of his office without censure if:

(1) he fails to seek a ministerial charge actively unless temporarily for reasons of health; or

(2) it appears to the presbytery, over a period of time normally not to exceed two years, that he is not called to ministerial service because he does not possess the gifts requisite for the gospel ministry; or

(3) he fails to perform adequately the work of the ministry through lack of the requisite gifts; or

(4) permanent physical or mental disability prevents him from exercising the office.

b. If a presbytery contemplates divesting a minister without censure the minister in question shall be duly informed and given the opportunity at a meeting of the presbytery to defend his continuance in office or to demit the ministry.

c. A motion to divest shall require a two-thirds majority of those voting.

d. When a minister is divested of his office or demits the ministry, the presbytery shall remove his name from its roll and dismiss him to a local church. Until his reception he shall continue a member of the regional church without membership in a local congregation.

e. If a minister desires to resign from or refuses to serve in his office, the presbytery ordinarily shall require him to wait six months and in the meantime ascertain whether the reasons for his actions are of sufficient weight. If at the end of this time his desire is unchanged and the presbytery is satisfied of his reasons, he shall be allowed to demit the ministry and the presbytery shall record the fact in its minutes and remove his name from the roll.

Comment: Now the FG turns to address the circumstances in which a minister of the gospel may be removed from office without censure. The first instance involves a minister not currently serving in a ministerial office, i.e., a minister who does not have a ministerial charge. A minister lacking a current ministerial charge, is, all things being equal, bound to engage in such a quest. Otherwise, he opens himself to being asked by his presbytery, if he continues not to seek a charge, to demit the office, or, if he refuses to do so, to be prepared for the presbytery to divest him of the office. The listed exception is that his health, temporarily, keeps him from pursuing a charge of some sort. It is tacitly assumed that upon the recovery of his health he will pursue a charge. If he continues not to pursue one, the provisions of this chapter that describe his removal may be utilized.

The second and the third instances of such governmental (as opposed to judicial) removal are related. The second applies to a man who is presumably relatively new to the ministry. The presbytery, through whatever means, comes to make a judgment that a more recently ordained minister in fact lacks the necessary gifts (and graces, though not explicitly cited here, yet likely tacitly assumed) for office and moves to remove him under the terms of this chapter. The third instance in which a man may be removed from office without censure is related to the second: the second was an explicit provision for the removal of a newer ordained man (hence the time reference of “over a period of time normally not to exceed two years”), while the third involves the removal of a minister from office without any specified term of service on his part being in view, i.e., he may have been in the ministry some time, though previous circumstances did not afford presbytery the opportunity to evaluate his gifts and graces as subsequent ones have.

In this third case, a man may be removed from office if it becomes clear to the presbytery, through whatever means, that the man lacks the gifts necessary to perform adequately the work of the ministry. The second instance seems to suggest the presbytery coming to realize that it ordained a man that it should not have ordained and the third that, whatever service this man has hitherto rendered, he has made it evident that he ultimately lacks the requisite gifts for adequate ministerial performance. In both cases, the presbytery comes to the conviction that whatever gifts (or graces) that it (or another presbytery) earlier concluded rendered the man fit for ministry, the man in question does not, in fact, appear to have such gifts at this point and is no longer fit to continue in gospel ministry. The fourth and last case involves a minister coming to be afflicted with some physical or mental disability of the sort that the presbytery determines renders him to be no longer qualified for ministerial office.

Section b. then proceeds to detail the process whereby a man described under the four-fold categories listed under section a. might be removed from office without censure. Whatever circumstances may have preceded getting the question of the man’s qualifications before his presbytery, the process of non-judicial divestiture begins with the presbytery of the minister in view voting to “contemplate” such divestiture. This means that his presbytery must be convinced that there is sufficient warrant for it formally to consider the question, which presupposes that matters have been brought to its attention that call into question the minister’s continued service. Thus, by a simple majority vote in the presbytery determination is made that at some upcoming meeting of the presbytery the minister in question will be given opportunity either to defend his continuance in office or permitted to demit the office. The presbytery shall duly inform the minister in question about the details of when such a meeting shall take place.

At the meeting where consideration of such occurs, the presbytery shall, if the minister defends his continuance in office, either accede to his defense and the matter proceeds no further, i.e., the man remains in ministerial office, or else entertain a motion to divest him. A motion to divest must be carried by a super-majority (two-thirds of the members of presbytery voting). If he demits his office or is divested from the ministry under the terms of this chapter, the man in question shall be dismissed to a local congregation (mutually agreeable to all concerned), meaning that his name shall be removed from the roll of ministerial members of presbytery. Until he is received by some local church, his name will remain on the rolls of the regional church, not as a ministerial member, of course, but simply as any other non-ministerial member of the regional church. 

Section e. describes two different situations: one in which an ordained minister seeks to resign his office without any other ministerial charge in prospect, or another in which he refuses to serve in his office. Presumably, the minister in question has either come to presbytery seeking to resign, or the presbytery has discovered that he is unwilling to serve. In either case, the presbytery ordinarily (but not necessarily in every case) asks the man seeking to resign or refusing to serve to wait for six months so that the presbytery can assess the case and ascertain what is going on, including his reasons for wanting, or needing, to demit the ministry. The presbytery, if it determines his reasons to be of sufficient weight, at the end of the six-month period, can grant him permission to demit.

If he does not cooperate with the presbytery and insists on leaving on his own terms, contrary to the provisions of this section of the FG, the presbytery is under no obligation to grant him demission as herein provided. It may proceed to judicial process if it finds such warranted. This is, of course, true in any of these cases. A presbytery may determine at any point that judicial process is needed in any given case and proceed immediately thereunto. If he cooperates with the presbytery, and it deems his reasons for wanting to demit satisfactory, he shall be permitted to demit the office. The presbytery shall record in its minutes the circumstances under which such demission was permitted and remove his name from the roll of the presbytery.

4. a. A ruling elder or deacon may be divested of his office if his services do not appear to be edifying to the congregation. In such a case the following procedure shall be followed:

(1) The process of divestiture may be originated by the session or by a petition to the session signed by one-fourth of the communicant members in good and regular standing. The officer in question shall be given the opportunity at a meeting of the session to defend his continuance in office or to demit the office.

(2) If the question is to be presented to the congregation it shall be at a regularly called meeting. The call for the meeting shall stipulate that this matter is to be considered at the meeting, and the officer shall be notified at the same time.

(3) The congregation, by a two-thirds majority of those voting, may request the presbytery for permission to remove him from office.

(4) If the presbytery gives its permission the session shall divest him of his office.

b. A ruling elder or deacon who desires to resign from or refuses to serve in the office shall be counseled by the session concerning his decision. If, after such counseling, he persists in his decision, he shall be allowed to demit his office, and the session shall record the fact in its minutes.

Comment: Here we come to the situations in which an elder or deacon, whose membership is customarily in some local congregation, may be divested of office without censure. We do not have in the governmental removal of either the elder or deacon the specificity that we do in the removal of a minister without censure. Rather, the grounds upon which either elder or deacon may be removed are simply stated as their “services do not appear to be edifying to the congregation.” This means that the congregation, together with the session (the procedure makes it clear that the approbation of both is ordinarily necessary), may determine that the service of a given elder or deacon, whatever it may have been in the past, is currently not viewed by the congregation and session as any longer being something that builds up (the meaning of “edifying”) the congregation. It is a determination that lies in the discretion of the local session and congregation. If it “appears” to them to be such, it seems difficult for the local office-bearer, especially at the conclusion of the process, no matter how much he may see things contrariwise, to continue successfully to argue that his services are indeed edifying. In all these cases, including ministers, the officers in view should listen carefully to judicatories and congregants and not simply ceaselessly and determinedly defend themselves at all costs.

Such a process of governmental removal of a local elder or deacon may be started by the session or by at least a quarter of the communicant members of the congregation (in good and regular standing, earlier defined in this commentary on FG 16.1) asking the session to consider such a question (cf. FG 16.1). The session may, either on its own determination or in fulfillment of the request of a part of the congregation, make its own assessment of the fitness of the officer before the elder or deacon in question comes before the session. In any case, it shall call the officer before it and present him with either their settled view of the matter or simply report what a part of the congregation thinks. The elder or deacon can either demit the office upon hearing that the session or some in the congregation find his services unedifying, or he can defend his continuance in office.

If the officer in question demits, then the matter is concluded by such action. If he defends his continuance in office, then the session, if this question of divestiture originated with the session, can either find his arguments for such satisfactory, and this concludes the matter (hence the conditional language about whether this is brought to the congregation), or it can, if it does not find such satisfactory, proceed and bring it to the congregation. It is my view that if this originated with the congregation by way of petition, if the officer wishes to continue in office, after his defense to the session, the matter goes to the congregation in any case. This is in keeping with the right of a quarter to require the session to call a congregational meeting (cf. FG 16.1). When it goes to the congregation, the session shall specify that this is a meeting for the purpose of considering divestiture of the officer in question. The officer shall also be notified of the upcoming congregational meeting as well.

When the matter comes to the congregation, the disposition of the session respecting the officer—whether it supports his continuance in office or thinks he should demit—would ordinarily be communicated to the congregation. While the officer in question has the right to full participation in the congregational meeting as does any other member of the congregation (and any such extra time as the session may grant), the formal defense of his continuance was given already before the session. When it is ready for the vote, the congregation shall determine whether it finds the service of the officer in question to be edifying. If a super-majority finds the service not to be edifying, it can request the presbytery for permission to remove him from his office. If the presbytery grants permission for such, the session shall divest the elder or deacon in question from his office. The basis of presbytery permission is that presbytery is involved, at least, in ascertaining that an orderly process occurred at the sessional and congregational level; it may go further than that if it deems it necessary, though customarily it would not repeat all that was done at the lower level.

Section e. sets forth a process for the elder or deacon like that for the minister in 3.e. of this chapter. If an elder or deacon, of his own accord, wishes to resign from or refuses to serve in his office, the session shall counsel the officer in question regarding such. If the officer in question persists after such counsel in his desire to demit, the session shall permit him to do so and record the circumstances in its minutes. If, of course, the session, under 4.a.(1) of this chapter, urged the officer in view to demit, this section does not apply. This section has to do with an officer seeking to resign or refusing to serve, maintaining such a course in counsel with the session, and ultimately demitting the office at his discretion.

5. A man who has been divested of office and who is subsequently elected to that office shall be viewed as receiving initial election to that office.

Comment: If a man is divested of office, under any of the rubrics of this chapter, if he is subsequently elected, he shall be subject to all the procedures of FG 24–25, as if he were newly elected as a minister, elder, or deacon. That process, eventuating in ordination and installation, is not to be short circuited: a man divested of office who subsequently comes back into office goes through the full regular process of anyone coming into office for the first time.

6. Nothing in this chapter shall be held to imply that when a minister retires, or is retired, because of advanced age or disability, from his official position, he shall be divested of his office or prevented from performing any of the functions of that office.

Comment: Nothing herein suggests that upon retirement from the pastorate or other ministerial position, either because of advanced age or disabilities, a minister is thereby divested of his office. After retiring from a pastorate, for instance, a man remains fully a minister, able to fulfill the duties and functions of such when called upon and as he sees fit. A minister who is retired, lacking a call or a charge, is still a minister and may preach, administer sacraments, etc.

7. Nothing in this chapter shall be held to imply that when a ruling elder or deacon retires, or is retired, because of advanced age or disability, from his official position, he shall be divested of his office or prevented from performing, on occasion, the functions of that office.

Comment: Similarly, a ruling elder or deacon upon his retirement, due to his being older or having a disability, retains his office and is not thereby divested. He may, as occasion affords, perform the functions of his office, not only in the local congregation, perhaps assisting in the distribution of the elements in holy communion, but also serving in higher judicatories and on committees of such (with sessional approval).

Chapter XXVII
Missions

1. Sessions, presbyteries, and the general assembly have their respective responsibilities for the work of missions. Each congregation and presbytery, as well as the general assembly, is obliged to pursue the task of evangelism within its respective bounds. Foreign missions is conducted by the general assembly on behalf of the whole church, or by individual presbyteries and congregations acting in coordination with one another and with the general assembly.

Comment: In the history of the OPC, missions (both home and foreign) have played a key role. The denomination came into being, in no small measure, due to the refusal of Machen and others to compromise with the liberalism then infecting the churches, including the PCUSA, which modernism also demanded the recasting of missions to serve a world offended by the exclusive claims of the Christian faith. This section reflects that the responsibility for missions obtains at every level of the church—the local, the regional, and the national. Thus, judicatories at all those levels—sessions, presbyteries, and the general assembly—rightly have responsibilities proper to each for the work of missions. Each is obligated to pursue the task of evangelism—proclaiming the good news, the free gospel offer—to all within its respective bounds. Thus, this task of home missions especially pertains to local and regional churches.

Even foreign missions, for which the whole church, and therefore the general assembly, has responsibility, may be conducted by local and regional churches, by sessions and presbyteries, acting in concert with each other and with the general assembly. Most obviously, and most regularly, the general assembly, acting on behalf of the whole church, does and will conduct the foreign mission endeavors of the OPC. It is perfectly proper, then, that foreign missions be conducted at lower levels, in consultation and cooperation with the general assembly; moreover, it is most fitting that the general assembly, acting through its committee on foreign missions, commit itself to and devote due resources to pursuing this work on behalf of the entire denomination.

2. The general assembly or its agencies normally may initiate mission work within the bounds of a presbytery only with the consent of that presbytery; but in extraordinary circumstances the general assembly on its own initiative may appoint missionaries to labor within the bounds of a presbytery for a period not to exceed six months.

Comment: The general assembly or its agencies (CHMCE, The Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension, for instance) can also initiate mission work within the bounds of a particular presbytery only with the consent of that presbytery. In extraordinary circumstances, perhaps the presbytery has been rendered inoperative by attrition or other deleterious circumstances, the general assembly (or its agencies which have executive powers to act on its behalf, as the program committees do) may, on its own initiative, appoint missionaries to labor temporarily within the bounds of that presbytery. Such labor shall not exceed six months. The purpose of this limit is that while a presbytery may be temporarily aided by a general assembly, it should not be dominated by it.

3. A person appointed to labor within the bounds of a presbytery shall place himself under the jurisdiction of that presbytery as soon as practicable. If his work is not limited to one presbytery he shall be under the jurisdiction of that presbytery most convenient to him.

Comment: Someone appointed to labor within the bounds of a presbytery, like the sort of temporary missionary cited in section 2, should place himself under its jurisdiction as early as practicable. If his work overlaps presbyteries, such a missionary shall come under the jurisdiction of the presbytery that is most convenient to him, perhaps where his residence is, or his chief labors are.

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, April 2022. A list of available installments in this series appears here.

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