Should Laity Attend Elders’ Meetings?

As I ran errands yesterday I listened to a recent Presbycast episode from which I learned that there are NAPARC congregations in which laity (non-ordained members of the congregation) regularly attend elders meetings and participate in the decision making process. In Presbyterian churches those meetings are called session meetings (from the Latin verb sedeo, to sit and, from there, to rule). The Dutch and German Reformed churches use the word consistory (from the Latin noun, consistorium, a place of assembly) for this ruling body. In Presbyterian and Reformed (P&R) churches, these assemblies composed of ruling elders and ministers (or teaching elders),  supervise the pastor and the spiritual life and worship of the congregation. They are typically ordained, i.e., set apart, and formally installed into their offices. Traditionally, the church has spoken of clergy (usually ministers) and laity, the people. That word laity comes from the Greek word for “the people” (λαος). God’s people hold the general office of believer. By grace alone, through faith alone, by virtue of our union with Christ, we are all prophets, priests, and kings. Nevertheless, our Lord specifically gave us apostles, who, in turn delegated their authority (not their office) to three special offices, ministers (who preach the Word prophetically), deacons (who minister to the material needs of the congregation), and ruling elders (who exercise the kingly or ruling office in the church). Some Presbyterian churches speak of teaching elders (pastors), ruling elders, and deacons. It is clear in Scripture that not every Christian is called to these offices. The Apostles divested themselves of their diaconal responsibilities in Acts 6. In preparation for the next phase of life in the church, they appointed pastors and elders. Paul greeted the elders (overseers) and deacons specifically (Phil 1:1). He wrote two epistles to Pastor Timothy. In 1 Timothy 3:1–13, Paul sets out the basic qualifications for special office. As he prepared for the end of his ministry, the Apostle Peter wrote specifically to elders (1 Peter 5:1–11). Paul addressed the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:17). These offices, specifically the ruling elders, are those entrusted with the administration of the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16:19).

The idea that n0n-ordained laity should regularly attend elders’ meetings and participate in the decision-making process may be a very American, democratic thing to do but it is not a biblical thing to do. Not every Christian is called to take up the ministry of Word and sacrament. That belongs to ministers. Paul told Timothy to preach the Word when it is “in season” and when it is not (2 Tim 4:2). He did not exhort all Christians to that ministry. He gave the authority to elders to oversee the life and ministry of the congregation. He did not give that authority to every member of the congregation. He gave to the deacons to look after widows, orphans, and the needy.

One of the great challenges, however, of being P&R in North America generally but in the USA in particular is the very strong democratic or egalitarian cultural spirit of the place. Americans believe deeply in equality before the law and our political creeds speak of all men (humans) being created equal, i.e., of having an equal status before the civil magistrate. Since the early 19th century at least there has been a strong leveling impulse in America. We see it regularly in our culture. We elevate rock stars, politicians, and athletes only to level them again. It is a kind of sport. We more or less require our politicians ritually to humiliate themselves every election cycle as a condition of employment. Thus, we see a governor riding in a tank looking like Snoopy, Mrs Clinton looking distinctly uncomfortable at the Iowa State Fair, or John Kerry asking for a “huntin'” (sic) license on camera. There is nothing wrong with any of these activities. I am a great fan of each but they are were all foreign to the candidates, who did them only to show that they were regular folk.

This leveling impulse is at work in the church too. This is why, in America, just about anyone can start a church any time, anywhere, for any reason and call himself or herself a pastor. There are plenty of diploma mills that, for a nominal fee, will mail out a certificate declaring one fit for pastoral ministry. In our culture, the entrepreneurial spirit is probably a more important qualification for ministerial success than meeting the biblical qualifications for special office. All this is observably true in the religious culture of the USA but what is and what is right and true are often different things. So it is here.

The cultural pressure to flatten out distinctions, to ignore offices, to become a committee of the whole, is immense. Sometimes churches look for ways to soften the edges of the faith, to involve laity in the ministry of the church in ways that blur the distinction between the the laity and the special offices instituted by Christ. Churches face an internal pressure too, the pressure to make concessions in order to grow the church. Really what we are discussing here is the relationship between Christ and culture. How is that in cultural endeavors, in business, at school, in government, and in other spheres, the laity are able to be leaders and decision makers but not in the church? There is a history in American P&R churches of electing successful business people or political leaders to ecclesiastical leadership positions. The move to include laity in the decision-making process of the elders and ministers is arguably just an extension of the older practice.

This is not an argument to ignore the laity. That would be a mistake. The ruling bodies of the churches should seek out input from all of God’s people. They might form committees or find other avenues to hear formally and informally from all of God’s people but the act of including them in session/consistory meetings, in a decision-making capacity, seems ill-advised and even disorderly. Including in meetings, where confidential and sensitive discussions are commonplace, non-ordained persons, seems like a recipe for trouble.

Negotiating the relationship of Christ and culture is always challenging but as we do so we must keep before us basic biblical teaching. In this case it is the biblical teaching about pastors, elders, and deacons and the special offices ordained by Christ and his apostles. We ought to pray for them and seek to be of use to them as they carry out their high callings but we must do so in ways that respect the boundaries that Scripture gives us.


In Dutch Reformed polity there are two meetings attended by elders and ministers, the first is consistory and the second is Council, which includes the deacons. In that meeting more general congregational business is addressed. In Presbyterian polity, there is only the session meeting and generally part of that meeting is open to laity. To add another layer, the German Reformed in the US (the RCUS) speak of a “Spiritual Council” and a consistory. In their government, the Spiritual Council is the meeting of elders and pastors and the Consistory is the broader meeting.

I have no difficulty with laity attending the business meeting or addressing a session on matters of concern. What is at issue here is the propriety of a shadow-session or laity functioning as quasi-elders or quasi-deacons and thus blurring or wiping out the biblical teaching and practice of special office.


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  1. Perhaps the laity can attend such meetings simply as observers not as participants in decision-making. This keeps the elders accountable. Although this should be necessary, it is in this sinful world

    Of course the laity might have to leave when certain sensitive issues are discussed, as might any elder if it concerned him. But exclusion would need to be justified

    Fears that the laity might become rowdy have often been misused (I’m sure that is not your motive!). ‘Laity’ often attend legislative or court-room assemblies and can be ejected if necessary

    • Richard,

      There might be a difference between consistory and session meetings. In the Dutch and German system, there are two local leadership meetings, one with elders and ministers only, which are not generally open to the members. Then there is council, where business matters are taken up and those are open. I take it that session meetings are like consistory but if there is general, e.g., financial business to be taken up, then yes, that should be open to members.

      Confidential business, however, e.g., discipline and the like, should be conducted in executive session.

      As to accountability, to be sure the elders are accountable to the congregation and in a rightly ordered church there is a procedure for complaining to a consistory if it acts contrary to the Word or against the confession or church order. If that fails, then in a P&R church there are broader/higher assemblies to which one may appeal (e.g., classis/presbytery) and if that fails even broader/higher assemblies (synod/general assembly).

  2. Is it proper for elders to share with their wives details of deliberations during elder board meetings, including details which are not shared with other non-elders in the church?

    • Especially not his wife, as she will normally be connected to numerous other activities with the sisters of the congregation. An open meeting, as opposed to a meeting of the consistory in camera, would be more preferable than the secondhand news disseminated by the former. And it will be disseminated. Of course I am totally opposed to laity attending meetings of this nature as a matter of course.

  3. Greetings:
    Would you say basically the same thing regarding laity attending deacons meetings with regard to voting? What about “deaconesses” who have not been ordained, voting along with ordained deacons?

  4. I have always understood that consistory and council are open, except for matters of discipline and supervision. Council should not discuss discipline and supervision, as that would fall outside the realm of their office.

    • I should qualify that viewers of consistory and council are not given the privilege of the floor, unless they have been invited to appear and answer questions posed by the body.

  5. In the RPCNA, all meetings are normally open and public. We often have observers at Presbytery and Synod. Such should be allowed at Sessions.

    We also have executive session (note — small “s”, not capital “S”!) provisions for all courts. For any sensitive matters, this is, and should be, utilized.

    Speaking on the floor of *any* court for those not members or specifically, by motion or consensus, given floor privileges (and as motions or consensus allowance such should be in the court’s minutes), is not allowed. Nor should it be. This doesn’t even address voting.

    My 2¢ as a Parliamentarian of Synod.

  6. Must consistory and session meetings be open for church members to attend? There is no biblical warrant to do so. However, should they be open? To open meetings to observers is an option to be seriously considered. When the ruling body of the Church meets it should be understood that through this means Christ rules his Church in accordance with his word. Therefore, when the elders meet it is like a court in session that has power and authority to meet out rulings and decisions that are binding. Unlike a court, dissenting opinions are not published. Words like, ‘the decision of the consistory’ indicates ruling is not a personal matter but an institutional expression of rule. The risk of having various opinions of members observed might undercut the unified expression of ruling bodies. But I think it is a risk worth taking. Once decisions are made there can be a defensive posture taken which is common with closed groups. Having observers can help alleviate feelings of suspicion closed meetings can engender. A ,’we have nothing to hide’ stance can be helpful. Disciplinary matters should be closed but any member brought before ruling bodies should be allowed to bring an observer with them. This party can be a help as witness to events in preliminary and later formal disciplinary proceedings. And in all cases meetings should be recorded to reference in any type of later inquiry. One thing our Reformed Fathers were good at was their obsession over record keeping and a verifiable accurate account of held meetings. We would be wise to use modern means in following their footsteps. Just sayin’.

  7. What Richard C said, specifically “Perhaps the laity can attend such meetings simply as observers not as participants in decision-making. This keeps the elders accountable. Although this should (I think Richard meant to include the word “not”) be necessary, it is in this sinful world.”

    Indeed. Luke commends the Bereans for checking what Paul said against the scriptures. In multiple places even sheep are commanded to test the spirits, to check the message, to make scripture rather than man the final authority.

    Submission, commanded by scripture as Scott’s essay and most of the comments correctly emphasize, cannot preclude all and any inspection and submissive, humble interaction. That preclusion makes man rather than scripture the final authority. And removes one of the checks built into the wisdom of the presbyterian system of government.

    Which leads me to observe that Phil Pockras notes and commends what the church has done in thinking about honestly preserving/defending the idea of submission while simultaneously insisting on the authority of scripture. I suspect his appeal to his parliamentarian practice includes, don’t you know, not only Robert’s Rules, but the relevant denomination specific documents. For instance, both the OPC BOCO (book of church order) and PCA BCO have sections specifically addressing and permitting/regulating lay attendance at meetings of the church courts. That in addition to the matter of complaints which Scott notes in his reply to Richard. Thus I am not surprised that Peter Kok says, in effect, this is the way it’s done.

  8. I can affirm this article, so I hope my following comments are not taken as a complete dismissal or huge disagreement. Rather a caution or a bit of diversity in unity.

    I can’t (nor can any here) speak for all NPARC settings on the topic of laity folks in session meetings, etc. A few thoughts nonetheless. To be up front I fall somewhere in between the harder stance Dr. Clark would take on this and the other end of the perspective that would be more typical evangelical/ congregational. I lean in the direction of R. Scott Clark on this topic, with a healthy flare (reality check I believe) of the fact that sessions are subject to the fall and no misuse of Matthew 16:18 changes that fact. Let us make no mistake Protestants at times, not just Roman Catholics, misuse this (and many other verses) verse when it comes to the topic of Church authority and church goverment. Some Reformed leaders act almost as if there is some special blanket of immunity they have. I do not hold as sanguine a view of Presbyterian government as Dr. Clark and my more confessionalists friends. Power tripping and Hyper- Prebyterianism does exist, let us not have delusions of grandeur otherwise. Therefore, while I do not support the idea of a shadow session, I am all for more laity input to a session than my more hard line Confessionalist friends would be.
    That said a couple more points…..
    1. It is very good, proper and healthy to have an open door policy to those meetings. (Understanding that at times a need for executive sessions and closed doors are needed for sensative issues) I see no Biblical revelation indicating other wise. That open door is not somehow an embracing American democracy over Biblical truth, thankful most seem to agree on that.

    2. The protestant principle of the priesthood of all believers is biblical. Hyper- Presbyterianism can and does exist. I worry about Reformed leaders who cannot or will not admit to this. We should not allow Hyper-Presbyterianism and should be cautious of it, lest what we hold so dear becomes it’s own form of magisterium rule and Popish aping wrapped up in a confession or in precious “Presbyterian procedures.”

  9. One other point ….
    Why in the world are sessions and elders elected in many NAPARC churches for a lifetime position (supreme court / Pope) instead of a re-vote of confidence every 4-6 years?

    This lifetime position is an awful practice. Now, the retort back on this is usually ….’well 4 year terms is a very American thing don’t ya know, not biblical’. So says the position of power priest craft! Regulative principle of elder election I guess??? By this rationale I suppose we should get rid of many other practices, perhaps the social committee (now them there are fighting words!) since I don’t see it anywhere in the Bible either. Give me a break, there is nothing un-biblical in the practice of re-vote of confidence every 4 years of an elder by the congregation.

    In fact, in light of the fall , a re-vote of confidence every four years would be a good accountability practice.

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