By Brad Isbell
In 1973, 387 elders attended the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Of that number 179 (46%) were teaching elders and 208 (54%) ruling elders. Thus, the PCA began with a numerical display of the Presbyterian principle that parity exists between the two classes of elders. The decades since have seen a large shift from near-equal representation in the denomination’s first few years to teaching elders regularly dominating ruling elders at ratios of more than 3:1 since 2010. The 2017 General Assembly saw the number of teaching elders almost quadruple that of ruling elders, TEs: 1151 (79%) vs. REs: 310 (21%).
The growth in this disparity in the PCA has been steady. For assemblies in the 1970s the percentage of ruling elders attending averaged 44%. In the 1980s the percentage fell dramatically to 33%, but held fairly steady in the 1990s at 32%. The first decade of the 21st century saw a decline to 29%. The rate of decline has accelerated since 2000, averaging only 23%. The total number of ruling elders (~300 range) attending is now very close to those from the 1970s and 1980s when the denomination was much smaller.
(Source of statistics: minutes of the PCA General Assemblies from 1973-2017.)
Nearly all Presbyterian denominations – liberal and conservative – recognize the principle of parity between elders in their books of order. The PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO) 8-9 states, “Elders being of one class of office, ruling elders possess the same authority and eligibility to office in the courts of the Church as teaching elders.” The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church Form of Government notes, “Parity means equality in voice and vote, not exactly numbers in a court” (sic).
Exactly equal numbers may not be a reasonable goal, but the several denominations with delegated assemblies (where a limited number of delegates are chosen by each presbytery) come much closer to achieving parity between the two classes of elders. Furthermore, the committees of the PCA General Assembly come much closer to numerical parity in large part because of the requirements in the BCO and Rules of Assembly Operation (RAO).
The PCA is often said to be a “grassroots” denomination – a concept that, for some, may make odious the prospect of a delegated assembly. We might also assume that the “grassroots” concept, consistently held, would render the huge disparity in ruling elder and teaching elder participation equally odious.
A quick look at the minutes and proposed overtures of past PCA General Assemblies, along with floor speeches and lower-level discussions over the decades shows that some effort and much lip service has been paid to remediating the disparity. But the gap continues to widen – recently at an accelerating pace.
There is no consensus as to the cause of the disparity, but the high cost for ruling elders to attend is one of the factors cited most often. The PCA has the highest annual meeting registration fee ($450) of any NAPARC denomination. Add to this the travel costs to far-flung, sometimes expensive, and resort-like or city-center destinations, many churches and individuals simply cannot afford to attend GA. Moreover, ruling elders, unlike ministers, must often take time off work or use precious vacation days to attend. Others have also suggesed that there is a growing dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the direction of the PCA.
This year’s GA will consider Overture 7 from Calvary Presbytery which suggests lowering the ruling elder registration fee to $100. The overture’s states as one reason: “The average PCA church has fewer than 100 members and can barely afford to send a Teaching Elder to General Assembly, much less an accompanying Ruling Elder.”
Aside from this overture there is other evidence that concern about this issue is growing. MORE (More Orthodox Ruling Elders in the PCA) is a new non-profit organization started by ruling elders to help encourage and fund the participation of ruling elders in the PCA’s highest court.
The lack of parity may seem like a minor issue to some. Some may think that ministers know best and ought to dominate the church courts. Others point to the benefits that the diversity of life experience and real world perspective that ruling elders bring to the church courts. They also point out that it would be a shame to see a “grassroots” Presbyterian body devolve into a de facto form of episcopacy, run almost exclusively by clergy.
Brad Isbell is a ruling elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, TN and a board member of MORE in the PCA.