Presbyterians on Church Office

This article is a response to a new book, Order in the Offices. It is an important response at this time when Reformed and Presbyterian believers are working toward closer ties. The Editors

ORDER IN THE OFFICES: Essays Defining the Roles of Church Officers, Mark R. Brown, editor. Published by Classic Presbyterian Government Resources, 807 Peachdale Lane, Duncansville, P A 16635, 304 pp., $11.95. Review by Peter De Jong.


Here 14 writers, past and present, argue whether a Reformed church should properly have three offices (minister, elder and deacon) or two (elder and deacon). The 400-year argument is really about how we should understand 1 Tim. 5:17: “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.” The discussion becomes especially interesting to all Reformed and Presbyterians who, believing the same Bible doctrines, now, after centuries of being separate church organizations, are rightly beginning to draw closer together. The Lord, who separated His believers from the unbelieving world, prayed that they would be one in Him in obedience to His Word (John 17:11ff)

It is gratifying to see the authors’ obvious common concern to be faithful to the teachings of God’s Word. The book’s purpose seems to be somewhat hindered by the fact that instead of rather evenhandedly presenting both views, held for centuries in the churches, it generally, and some writers especially, so stress the differences and so strongly argue for the 3-office view that they threaten to divide over, rather than resolve the argument.


The book’s case is ably presented in the first essay. S.F. Miller observes that “in Presbyterian churches, the office of minister of the Word” was “the first office in the church, both for dignity and usefulness” (p.7). Near the end (p.38 ff.), he summarizes,

quoting with approval J.B. Adger of the last century. that, “the preacher is the true and only successor of the apostles’…being in some sense apostle and prophet and evangelist, there plainly can be no other office in the church comparable with the preacher’s.” In his view, the preacher’s office “includes necessarily every other which the Lord has instituted” in the church. “The preacher includes the deacon, and with the deacon he has power over things; he includes the ruler; and with the ruler he has power over persons…And thus it is indisputable that the preacher’s office is the first in the church, both for dignity and usefulness.”

Against this recognition and practice of the supreme role of the preacher, Miller sees a new consensus arising, across denominational lines (pp.15ff.), not primarily “from new exegetical insights,” but “from a desire to do things differently,” merely imitating other churches. In Reformed churches it is “represented as arising out of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers” and tries to mobilize whole congregations by minimizing preachers, denying special offices, particularly of preachers and preaching, perhaps replacing them by skits and other forms of entertainment performed by any church members, using the preacher only as leader and activist encourager.

We have to agree with this and other writers’ critical diagnosis of the demoralization of many contemporary churches as they (like ancient Israel in Amos 8:14) are losing the Word of God and therefore dying. We can welcome these efforts toward reform. But seeking a return to the Word of God in the churches does not at all imply that we exaggerate the minister’s office and give it the dictatorial authority that some of these writers do. We must not accept their alternative of either making the preacher everything or nothing! God’s Word forbids both extremes.


The position being championed is remarkably like that of one of the earliest of the ancient church fathers, Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch in the first century A.D. Concerned about the heresies and divisions that threatened the churches (then, as now), he in several letters urged each church to “regard the bishop as the Lord himself,” “do nothing without the bishop and the presbyters.” “He who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop is serving the devil.” Thus that ancient leader, with the best of intentions, urged the churches to totally submit to an all powerful clergy. Out of that teaching developed the Roman Catholic tyrannical hierarchy from which the Lord delivered our ancestors in the 16th Century Reformation. In those Romanist Middle Ages the church came to be portrayed as a ship manned by the clergy as crew, with the members as mere passengers, only paying the fare and going along for the ride! Could anything more effectively squelch a healthy Christian church life and any missionary testimony than that caricature of what the Lord called His church to be?

In contrast with people who reject all church offices and authority, the Bible teaches us to “obey those who have the rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account”...for our own good (Heb. 13:17). We are to “esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (1 Thess. 5:12, 13). On the other hand, our Lord again and again also warns His followers against their too common tendency to try to get positions of power over one another (Matt. 20:20–28). He said that although “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them, yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant…as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Compare Mark 9:34,35; Matt. 23:8.3. Similarly, the Apostle Peter (1 Pet. 5:1–4) warned church elders against the temptations to laziness, greed and bossiness that have marred much of the church’s history.

Study of the early history of both Reformed and Presbyterian churches shows how the forms of of both were to some degree adversely affected by their having to live under the rules and limits of their civil governments. The Dutch Reformed were not permitted by provincial governments in their first 50 years to hold general synods. And the famous Westminster Assembly was not really a church body but a gathering of members of Parliament with some church leaders to set up a (presbyterian) order for the English churches! Whether or not because of such government influences, the history of both kinds of churches show too many examples of their falling into the trap of letting church authority imitate that of kings, which the Lord had forbidden. Tyrannical church governments often tended to pervert and kill the churches and to prevent or ruin missionary outreach to the world.


In over 50 years of church ministry, much of it involving missions, I became increasingly aware of the way church activity and the whole history of the church has almost always been written and viewed from the point of view of the clergy or pastors, with little or no recognition of the important place and influence of the individual Christian church members. That has been so common that it was usually simply assumed. Theirs was “the forgotten office.” Some 20 years after I began to notice this curious fact, it was confirmed in 1963 in the publication of a 400-page study by the World Council of Churches of The Layman in Christian History. That begins with the astonishing claim that this material from the whole history of the Christian Church from the New Testament to the present, “has never before been brought within the covers of a single book” (p.11)! Anyone who might wish to defend this concentration of attention on the official ministry at the expense of the church members should face the fact that the Word of God shows that this emphasis is exactly wrong! Ephesians 4:11ff. tells us that the Lord gave “pastors and teachers for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” He never anywhere told us that the preacher’s own office was to include “every other which the Lord had instituted” in His church! He never told them TO DO EVERYTHING that the Lord’s Churcmust do, but to “equip the saints,” the whole vast mass of Christian believers to each do what the Lord had called him and her to do. Preachers must, through the gospel, call each individual to the Lord and try to lead each to grow in the faith and knowledge of Him and His gospel to full Christian maturity, “to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (v. 133). Thus the whole body, including every member, each actively doing his and her part (and never as mere passive “passengers just going along for the ride”—as though the rest of the trip to heaven for them were a leisurely vacation), must grow to realize the Lord’s design for the whole Church as His Body and for every member of it.


Equipping every member of the whole body of Christian believers for the Lord’s mission to the whole world was the far too generally forgotten (or even denied!) purpose of Pentecost. In the Old Testament only a few received the special gift of the Holy Spirit to enable them as “prophets”) to bring God’s message to the rest. But among those prophets, Moses wished and Joel predicted that God would make all of His people prophets to tell others about Him and His way of salvation (Numbers 11:26–29; Joel 2:28ff.). The Apostle Peter on Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4, 14–21) explained to the people, mystified by the unusual signs and behavior of the believers, what was happening. The Lord was now fulfilling His promise to pour out His Spirit on all of them (men and women, sons and daughters) so that they would bring the good news ofHis gospel to the whole world. That did not mean that all would be called to church pulpits, but that everyone would have his and her part in the Christian mission and testimony to the world.


Reading the Acts about the Spirit-guided beginning of a world mission makes it plain that, although the apostles had to begin bringing the gospel testimony, and must prepare others to continue it, that mission to the world would and COULD NEVER BE mainly the work of that dozen men and the always comparatively few ordained pastors and teachers who followed them. Read Acts 11:19ff., and see how the first missionary “breakout” into the non-Jewish world did not come by decision or action of these “officials,” but through the action of ordinary church members fleeing for their lives from intense persecution. Most of those fleeing Christians talked only with their fellow Jews. “But some of them,” when they came to far away Antioch, more accustomed to living among non-Jewish neighbors, spoke to them also about the Lord Jesus. “And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.” It was not from the apostles, who all stayed in Jerusalem (8:1), or from their decisions or representatives that this “foreign” mission began. Its further massive spread did not begin with them in Jerusalem, but, at the Spirit’s orders, it went out from the Antioch church and in its spread through the wider world, repeated the same pattern of being largely through the influence of ordinary church members. Paul wrote the Thessalonian church (1 Thess. 1:8–10): “From you the word of the Lord has sounded every place. Your faith toward God has gone out, so that we do not need to say anything…”


In 1949 we were among the 2500 foreign missionaries who had to leave China as the anti-Christian Communist government began decades of intense persecution of the estimated million Christians in that land. For 30 years we wondered, concerned about what had become of them. Only then did we learn the amazing story of the way, deprived of all foreign missionary help, and largely without officially trained and ordained leadership and formal organization, through the Holy Spirit’s grace to and through the persecuted believers, their number has increased to what is now estimated to be between seventy and a hundred million! They need and should receive what support we can give through the prayers, radio, and Christian literature (including a sizable amount of Presbyterian and Reformed translations supplied over 45 years by the little but far-reaching Reformed Translation Fellowship of some of our former Chinese associates*). The whole amazing story has been a lesson to us all that although we must give what missionary testimony we can toward this largest nation in the world, the work is always the Lord’s miracle. It does not depend on our formal church organizations, officers and plans, but on the Lord‘s sovereign work by His Word and Spirit. And it remains His plainly revealed purpose that His gospel and kingdom will reach to the ends of the earth, not mainly through the always relatively few “ordained” local leaders, but through the growing millions of the whole body of believers scattering over the whole world.

What bearing does all of this history have on our questions about Order in the Offices? It emphasizes the message we have seen in His Word. While that message stresses the serious responsibilities of all who in the churches are especially called to bring His Word, it never assigns them the sovereign rule over that church or any right to claim the gospel missionary testimony as their monopoly. Where such claims are made in these essays they need to be corrected rather than accepted. Some of the writers have criticized John Calvin as inconsistent because, while he exalted the responsibility of the pastoral office, he, like the Bible in 1 Timothy 5:17, also acknowledged laymen in church to have a right to the same title of “elder” as he. This was not a weakness or inconsistency in Calvin. It shows that the hierarchical claim some assume in this book was mistaken. Calvin, who regarded his own divine calling as preacher and teacher of God’s Word very highly, equally acknowledged the divine calling of the humblest fellow-member of the Lord’s church to serve Him in his or her job. He wrote: “Every individual’s line of life, therefore, is, as it were, a post assigned him by the Lordthere will be no occupation so mean and sordid (provided we follow our vocation) not to appear truly respectable, and be deemed highly important in the sight of God” (Institutes III, 10,6; cited by Georgia Harkness in John Calvin: the Man and His Ethics, p. 211).


In this collection of essays, some show an appreciation of the fact that the term “elders” (Greek “presbyters”) was applied in the Bible to both pastors and other church “rulers” who were not ordained preachers. (It is a nice question whether Calvin, undeniably preacher and teacher, was ever officially “ordained and installed” when Farel pressed him into helping with church reform in Geneva!) Edmund Clowney’s careful Brief for Church Governors gives a thorough study of the important office of the elders who are not pastors. He concludes (p. 65): “The glory of Presbyterian government has been the involvement of the whole church in order as this activity is carried on by elders of the people, servants of Christ and his church.” lain Murray’s Ruling Elders – A Sketch of the Controversy also clearly analyzes the way in which the Scriptures plainly speak of pastors and other church rulers as both elders, while distinguiShing their duties. The materials in this book help us to understand some centuries-old secondary differences in church organization between those who share the same Biblical Christian Faith. Rather than increasing confusion and renewing controversy about these matters, may they help us resolve or bridge some of the differences and draw together those who love the Lord and His Word (both Reformed and Presbyterians) in a faithful world-wide missionary testimony to Him.

* For information on this unique 45-year and ongoing China work write: RTF, 302 E. First St., Bloomington IN 47401.

Rev. Peter De Jong is a retired CRC minister, now a member of Dutton Independent Reformed Church.