Church Offices in Historic Reformed Doctrine

We find within the broad community of Reformed churches a variety of views on the subject of the offices in the church of Jesus Christ. Some advocate a two-office view, maintaining that the church of our Lord has been given two permanent offices—the office of elder and the office of deacon. Others set forth a three-office position, affirming that there are three offices in the church—the offices of pastor, elder, and deacon. Some describe elders as though they were pastors, allowing them to preach, baptize, and administer the Lord’s Supper. Others see no distinction between New Testament references to the pastor on the one hand and the teacher on the other.

Temporary in Contrast to Perpetual

What is the historic Reformed doctrine on this subject? John Calvin taught, in the first place, that there is a distinction between the temporary and the perpetual offices. In Ephesians 4:11, he contended, the first three offices in Paul’s list—apostles, prophets, and evangelists—were for “a limited time only.” (He did concede, however, that “where religion has fallen into decay” it may happen that “evangelists” will be “raised up in an extraordinary manner, to restore the pure doctrine which had been lost.”) The last two offices mentioned in the Ephesians text—pastors and teachers—“are intended to be perpetual” (Commentaries on the Epistle to the Ephesians). While it is popular today to refer to Ephesians 4:11 as setting forth the perpetual office of pastor-teacher (thereby coalescing the two offices of pastor and teacher into the one office of pastor-teacher), Calvin insisted (as John Owen later would, as well as the American Puritans) that Paul was here referring to two distinct offices. “Pastors,” wrote Calvin, “are those who have charge of a particular flock.” In addition, “there is a distinct class of teachers, who preside both in the education of pastors and in the instruction of the whole church” (Ibid.). “We shall call it,” he said, “the order of the schools.” The office entails “the teaching of theology, the scope of which includes both Old and New Testaments” (Ecclesiastical Ordinances).

The Ephesians passage sets forth two of the permanent offices that Christ has given to the church. Paul, however, does not set forth all of the perpetual offices in this text. The common element in the five distinct offices listed in Ephesians 4:11 is the fact that each of the offices entails the gift of teaching. The other two permanent offices do not necessarily require the gift of teaching since the function of these offices is related to different fundamental tasks (ruling in the case of elders and serving in the case of deacons). In 1 Timothy 5:17, the apostle sets forth a third office in his reference to the elders who rule well. In 1 Timothy 3:8–13, Paul discusses a fourth office as he lays out the necessary qualifications that must be found in the man who is set apart to the office of deacon.



The Number of Permanent Offices

On the basis of the New Testament data, Calvin and the classical Reformed tradition held that there are four permanent offices in the church—not three, and most certainly not two. It was Calvin who wrote the constitution for the Church in Geneva called the Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541).

They state, “There are four official orders which our Lord instituted for the government of His Church: firstly, pastors; secondly, teachers; thirdly, elders…and, fourthly, deacons.” There is no disagreement at this point between the continental perspective and that of the English Reformed. The New England Puritans, for example, set forth the four-office view in the Cambridge Platform (1649).

In our time of confusion regarding the ecclesiastical offices, what have the Reformed—on the basis of biblical exegetical work—historically maintained regarding the fundamental task of each office? Here we shall restrict our consideration to the offices of pastor, teacher, and elder—since there is less confusion in Reformed circles regarding the office of deacon.

Pastors and Teachers

Let us begin with the offices of pastor and teacher. How were these two offices to be distinguished? “There is, I believe, this difference between them,” Calvin affirmed, “teachers are not put in charge of discipline, or administering the sacraments, or warnings and exhortations, but only of Scriptural interpretation—to keep doctrine whole and pure among believers” (Institutes IV.3.4). In Calvin’s thinking, men whom Christ gave as gifts to the church would be found in the schools, in institutions like the Academy in Geneva. The pastoral office, conversely, was “the highest and most comprehensive office which God could give to anyone within the Church” (Ronald Wallace, Calvin, Geneva and the Reformation, 16). Indeed, “the pastoral office includes all these functions within itself”—teaching, discipline, administration of the sacraments, warnings and exhortations, and Scriptural interpretation (Institutes IV.3.4). In Geneva, one would find a number of pastors, including John Calvin who occupied the pulpit at St. Pierre. (The unique thing about Calvin was that he held two offices at the same time, the office of pastor and the office of teacher. Even while he preached every week in the Cathedral Church, he also lectured on the Old Testament at the Geneva Academy.)

The seventeenth-century American Puritans likewise distinguished between the office of pastor and teacher. “The office of pastor and teacher appears to be distinct,” states the Cambridge Platform (Chapter VI). The New England theologians, however, understood the distinction in slightly different terms than did Calvin. It is true that the following declaration sounds very Calvinian: “The pastor’s special work is, to attend to exhortation, and therein to administer a word of wisdom: (Eph. iv.11; Rom. xii.7, 8; 1 Cor. xii.8,) the teacher is to attend to doctrine, and therein to administer a word of knowledge: (1 Tim. iv.1, 2; Tit. i.9,)” (Ibid.). The Puritans, however, were more inclined to regard the teachers in terms of men who administered the sacraments and engaged in church discipline just as the pastors did: “Either of them” may “administer the seals of that covenant, unto the dispensation whereof they are alike called; as also to execute the censures, being but a kind of application of the word.” Furthermore, each officer was called to engage in preaching: “The preaching of which, together with the application thereof, they are alike charged withal” (Ibid.).

While Calvin tended to view the teachers given by Christ in connection with schools (they were essentially the theological professors of our time), the New England men were more willing to tie the office of teacher with the church: “Forasmuch as both pastors and teachers are given by Christ for the perfecting of the saints and edifying of his body; (Eph. iv.11, 12, and i.22, 23,) which saints and body of Christ is his church: and therefore we account pastors and teachers to be both of them church-officers, and not the pastor for the church and the teacher only for the schools” (Ibid.). This doctrinal perspective is exemplified in the lives of Richard, Increase, and Cotton Mather— the father, the son, and the grandson of the Mather dynasty. Richard had held the office of pastor in the church in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Later on, Increase was called to the office of teacher at Second Church in Boston. Still later on, Cotton became the pastor at Second Church even while his father continued to occupy the office of teacher in the same congregation.

Here is the point which must be underscored against the backdrop of the contemporary commonplace perspective that Christ calls men to the office of pastor-teacher. The Reformed tradition of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—on the continent and in the Puritan tradition—insisted upon a distinction between the offices of pastor and teacher. Likewise, the history of Reformed doctrine shows that the pastor and the elder hold two distinct offices, with the deacons constituting a fourth permanent office in the church of Christ.

Pastors Versus Elders

For Calvin the pastors of the church were ministers of the word and the sacraments. Candidates for the pastoral office had to be called by God. They needed to endure an intense examination by the Company of Pastors. The men who were approved by this body were judged to be sound in doctrine, able to teach, and blameless in conduct. The educational requirements for a pastor in Geneva were so high that all the congregations in the Republic had foreigners for pastors.

Elders in classical Reformed thought were neither ministers of the word nor the sacraments. The fundamental task of the eldership, wrote Calvin, “is to watch over the life of each person, to admonish in a friendly manner those whom they see to be at fault and leading a disorderly life” (Ecclesiastical Ordinances). It is indisputable that the New Testament ties together the idea of oversight and the office of elder. Luke affirms that Paul called to himself the “elders of the church” in Ephesus (Acts 20:17). It was to these men that Paul gave the charge, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). The biblical conception is that the elders have been placed on a watchtower by God for the purpose of watching over the sheep for whom Christ died.

While pastors must be able to teach, elders must be “good-living and honourable men, without reproach and beyond all suspicion, above all who fear God and possess the gift of spiritual prudence” (Ecclesiastical Ordinances). What Calvin wanted in the reformation effort in Geneva were men with “spiritual prudence” linked with a proven ability to govern. In the unique context of the Church in Geneva, a candidate for the eldership had to be one of the civil magistrates who governed the Geneva Republic. In the thinking of the apostle Paul, a proven ability to govern may be discerned by observing the home life of the elder candidate. The epistle of 1 Timothy affirms that the overseer must be “one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence—for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?” (1 Tim. 3:4–5).

It should be noted that historic Presbyterian thought likewise maintained a distinction between the office of minister and the office of elder. The Westminster Confession identifies ministers and elders as the two types of church officers who meet in “synods or councils” (XXXI.1). “The ministers of Christ,” states the Confession, “with other fit persons, upon delegation from their Churches, may meet together in such assemblies” (XXXI.2). The Form of Presbyterial Church- Government, which was also produced by the Westminster Assembly, makes it very clear that this mentioning of “other fit persons, upon delegation from their Churches” is a reference to the office of elder: “As there were in the Jewish church elders of the people joined with priests and Levites in the government of the church, so Christ, who hath instituted government, and governors ecclesiastical in the church, hath furnished some in the church, beside the ministers of the word, with gifts for government, and with commission to execute the same when called thereunto, who are to join with the minister in the government of the church.” The Form of Government then states, “Which officers reformed churches commonly call Elders.”

The Importance of These Issues

We live at a time of great indifference regarding church polity. For most churches in the American evangelical community, the only thing that really matters is that decisions are made democratically by the local congregation. The officers, whoever they may be, merely exist to implement the will of the laity.

The Reformed tradition takes a much different approach. In the first place, it rejects democracy as a church polity in favor of an ecclesiastical republicanism. Although there is a democratic element in terms of the fact that officers are raised to their position by the suffrage of the people, the officers do not exist merely to implement the desires of the people. Their fundamental allegiance is to Jesus Christ the head of the church. Their deepest commitment is to the Word of God seeking to implement its teachings and principles in the life of the covenant community. May we reject the spirit of our age on the subject of ecclesiology. May we stand with our Reformed fathers who did not believe that proper thinking regarding the offices was a peripheral or irrelevant matter. With respect to the four-office structure that he established at the time of the Reformation, Calvin wrote, “If, then, we wish to have the Church well ordered and maintained in its entirety, we must observe this form of government” (Ecclesiastical Ordinances).

Dr. Mark Larson is the home missions pastor at Providence OPC in Aiken, South Carolina.