The Three Offices
Let all things be done decently and in order. —1 Cor. 14:40, NKJV
Christ has instituted three offices in the church: minister of the Word, elder, and deacon (Article 1).
The Idea of an Office
The current Church Order of the United Reformed Churches in North America begins by identifying three ecclesiastical offices, those of minister of the Word, elder, and deacon. The word office comes from a Latin word meaning “work” or “work-doing” and is “an official, appointed task with special duties and dignity.” Generally speaking, an office can be defined as “the position of one who has been intrusted [sic] by a superior person with a definite task, and with the authority to perform that task.” The persons in the offices of minister of the Word, elder, and deacon are appointed and entrusted to govern the church “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40).
The Source of an Office
As sole Mediator and exclusive Head of the church, Jesus Christ has all authority over every aspect. Within his church, he exercises this authority through a threefold office of prophet, priest, and king. He further delegates the exercise of this authority to men whom he calls to the offices of minister of the Word, elder, and deacon, three offices that correspond to prophet, priest, and king. These offices and their authority are not derived from the people of the congregation in a democratic fashion; they are derived from Jesus Christ himself.
The Distinction of the Offices
While the apostolic age had numerous extraordinary offices (e.g., apostle, prophet, evangelist), the New Testament church today knows of only three offices with each having its respective duty and tasks. These duties and tasks are further described in later articles of the Church Order. Older versions of Reformed Church Orders identified four offices, adding the office of professors of theology, based upon John Calvin’s interpretation of Ephesians 4:11, “some pastors and teachers.” This distinction of office between professors of theology and ministers of the Word was gradually abandoned as the churches recognized Ephesians 4:11 to be referring to a distinction of emphasis of labor within the office of minister of the Word. Most ministers of the Word labor as pastors in congregations while some ministers of the Word labor as teachers in seminaries. Reformed churches have historically insisted on its seminary professors being experienced and gifted ministers of the Word.………………………………..
The Duties of the Minister
The duties belonging to the office of minister of the Word consist of continuing in prayer and in the ministry of the Word, administering the sacraments, catechizing the youth, and assisting the elders in the shepherding and discipline of the congregation (Article 2).
The Delineation of Duties
Essential to the good order of the churches is the understanding and exercise of the biblically revealed duties of each particular office. Older commentators on the Church Order point out that the duties listed in this article are the essential but not exhaustive duties of the minister of the Word. All of the duties of the minister are to be seasoned with prayer. He is to be a man of private prayer and public prayer in both the corporate worship service and pastoral visitations. Generally, the duties of the minister are divided into three categories: Word, sacraments, and supervision. The minister’s primary task is to preach the Word of God publicly and privately (catechism classes, pastoral visits, weddings and funerals). In preaching, he is to faithfully bring forth expository and applicatory sermons, “a clear, simple, and concise sermon that can be followed by almost all” (W. J. Van Oene, With Common Consent). In connection to preaching, the minister must also administer the sacraments. Furthermore, while the task of pastoral oversight among the congregation is the duty of the elders, the minister, as a teaching elder, is to assist the ruling elders in the task of supervising the doctrine and life of his fellow office bearers and members of the congregation. Older forms of the Church Order summarize this aspect of the minister’s duty as “see[ing] to it that everything is done decently and in good order.”
The Importance of Duties
These duties of the Word, sacraments, and supervision are connected with the marks of the true church and are closely related to the well-being or lack thereof of a congregation. This is because the church lives by “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). While licensed theological students may speak a “word of edification” and readers may read sermons in vacant pulpits, only those in the office of minister of the Word authoritatively preach the Word of God and administer the sacraments. This preaching of the Word of God, by faithful exposition and relevant application, is the most essential work of the minister, who is to be ever “a servant of the Word” (Van Oene).
The Limitation of Duties
In our age, it is vital for the minister, the consistory, council, and congregation to recognize and appreciate the focused scope of ministerial duties. The minister is the not the CEO (chief executive officer) of the local church. He is and is to be a minister of the Word. The old adage, “jack of all trades; master of none,” critiques the minister who is spread too thin with non-essential duties in regard to his office.
Rev. Greg Lubbers is currently serving as Minister of the Word and Sacraments at Covenant Reformed Church (URCNA) in Pella, IA.