It is difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of an organization without officers. The church as an organization also has its officers.
Unfortunately there are in Christendom many misconceptions of the church’s offices. And with these misconceptions are bound up erroneous views concerning the importance of the organized church. Therefore a study of these offices should prove conducive to a correct evaluation of the organized church.
The Scriptural Doctrine of These Offices
Scripture teaches that there are two kinds of offices in the church. On the one hand there is the universal office held by every member of the body of Christ. On the other hand, there are also special offices held by those who rule the church in Christ’s name. Scriptural evidence for these two kinds of offices is abundant. A little of it follows.
The eleventh chapter of Numbers relates a most interesting story. Seventy elders were chosen to assist Moses in judging the Israelites. On a certain day, at a certain hour, they had to appear at the tabernacle in order to be qualified by the Holy Spirit for their work. Sixty-eight of them obeyed orders and received the gift of prophecy. The other two, Eldad and Medad, remained in the midst of the camp but nevertheless were enabled by the Spirit to prophesy. Here was something irregular. A young man ran and told Moses about it. Joshua, Moses’ servant, said: “My lord Moses, forbid them!” But that great man of God made a truly surprising reply. Said he: “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them!” (vs. 29) Centuries later that prophetic wish was translated into a prophecy by Joel. And on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the New Testament church, that prophecy was fulfilled. Not merely the apostles, but all the disciples, were filled with the Holy Ghost and proclaimed the wonderful works of God in many different languages. In explanation of this phenomenon Peter said: “This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel: And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy; and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; and on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit, and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:16–18).
That passage teaches unmistakably that everyone who through faith in Christ is a member of his body holds the office of prophet. No less clearly does Scripture teach that every true member of Christ’s church is a priest and a king. The apostle Peter told the believers to whom he addressed his first epistle: “Ye are a royal priesthood” (2:9). The membership of the church constitutes a priesthood of kings and a royalty of priests.
We conclude that the Heidelberg Catechism is right when it first teaches that the Son of God is called Christ because he is anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our chief Prophet and Teacher, our only High Priest and our eternal King, and then proceeds to give the following answer to the question, “But why are you called a Christian?” –Ans. “Because I am a member of Christ by faith and thus a partaker of his anointing, that I may confess his Name, present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him, and with a good and free conscience fight against sin and the devil in this life, and hereafter reign with him eternally over all creatures” (Lord’s Day XII) . That is a beautiful way of saying that every Christian is a prophet, a priest, and a king.
The Special Offices
Scripture also teaches that the church has its special offices. Repeatedly Christ is spoken of as the Head of the church. As such he rules over the church. He does so by virtue of his threefold office of Prophet, Priest, and King. However, it pleases him to exercise that rule through the instrumentality of men whom he clothes with authority. Thus he governs his church through some who represent him as Prophet, through some who represent him as Priest, and through some who represent him as King. The preacher of the Word holds the prophetic office, the ruling elder holds the kingly office, and the deacon holds the priestly office. In passing it may be remarked that these offices need not always be mechanically separated from each other. For instance, a minister may well be a ruling elder also, and a ruling elder may, and even must, in certain instances teach the Word. But the fact remains that there are in the organized church the three afore-named special offices.
Of the copious Scriptural evidence for that truth a few examples may be given. Beyond all doubt 2 Corinthians 5:20 is applicable to ministers of the gospel—“Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.” The Pauline injunction, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine” (1 Timothy 5:17) distinguishes between two kinds of elders: those who labor in the word and doctrine and those who do not; but both are said to rule. The apostle besought the Thessalonians “to know them which labor among you and are over you in the Lord” (1 Thes. 5:12) . Acts 6 tells about the institution of the office of deacon. The function of this office is to care for the poor and needy. In other words, it is the office of mercy and as such represents Christ as High Priest. Is not Christ our “merciful High Priest” (Heb. 2:17)? Obviously the function of a priest is to bring sacrifices, and Scripture tells us that “to do good and to communicate,” the tasks of the deacon, are “sacrifices” with which God is well pleased (Heb. 13:16).
Corruptions of These Offices
The church of Christ has not always adhered to the plain Scriptural teaching of the church’s offices. In fact, it has often corrupted these offices. And it has done that in two ways especially. On the one hand, the special offices have been stressed to the practical exclusion of the universal office. The Romish church, for instance, has become guilty of that. On the other hand, the universal office has been emphasized to the detriment of the special offices. The Anabaptists and their spiritual descendants have fallen into that error.
Rome makes a very sharp distinction between the clergy and the laity and holds that the task of the clergy is to rule, the business of the laity to be ruled. Hence Rome is accurately described as a hierarchy, which means rule by priests. In his encylical against Modernism, issued in 1907, Pope Pius X called it a reprehensible error that a share in ecclesiastical government be given to the laity. It was in opposition to that teaching that the sixteenth-century reformers insisted on the universal priesthood of believers.
So highly does Rome exalt the special offices that it not only has greatly multiplied them beyond the warrant of Scripture, but actually claims for them the divine attribute of infallibility. It was not until 1870 that the Vatican Council declared the pope infallible in his official pronouncements on matters of faith and morals, but that was only the logical conclusion of the ancient teaching of the infallibility of the church’s offices. For centuries Rome had upheld the infallibility of ecclesiastical councils. For that reason it never changes its mind. It may receive new light from time to time, but no doctrine once officially declared by the church is ever rescinded. It is easy to see that the dogma of ecclesiastical infallibility leaves no room for the universal office of believers. All that is left for the laity is to exercise implicit faith in the teachings of the church and implicit obedience to its commands.
In other words, Rome regards itself as a totalitarian church. That claim covers a great deal of ground. It means, for instance, that the church may and must govern the state. But it also means that the church has authority over the whole of the life of its members—not only over their church life, but also over every aspect of their family and personal life. Thus the universal office of believers is effectively ruled out.
Anabaptism and the Offices
The Anabaptists were the extremists among the Protestants of the Reformation period. In many instances they went to the opposite extreme of Rome. And so it came to pass that they stressed the universal office of believers at the expense of the special offices in the church. As there is a strong strain of Anabaptism in present-day Protestantism, it is not surprising that many Protestants today underrate the special offices.
The Plymouth Brethren, followers of John Nelson Darby, go to the greatest extreme in this matter. Not only do they reject clerical ordination, they will have nothing of ecclesiastical organization. They g’o so far as to refuse to call the communion of believers by the name church.
The so-called Independent type of church government, which is found in such denominations as the Congregational and the Baptist, is of Anabaptist origin. These churches are less extreme than are the Brethren, but they too exalt the universal office to the detriment of the special offices. For example, almost all of them have done away with the office of ruling elder. Not a body of elders known as a session, a consistory, or what have you, but the congregation as a whole, attends to such matters as the reception and discipline of members.
Every good Protestant will insist on what has come to be known as “the right of private interpretation” of Scripture. It is of the essence of Protestantism that church members are not bound in any absolute sense by the interpretation of the Word of God which the church has officially adopted. Such men as Luther and Calvin, together with the other reformers, made excellent use of their right of private interpretation. But it does not follow by any manner of means that a good Protestant will ignore the creeds of the church. Contrariwise, he prizes them very highly as the product by and large of the illumination of the historic church by the Spirit of truth. And yet, sad to say, any number of self-styled Protestants today, while boasting of the right of private interpretation, sneer at the creeds of Christendom. “No creed but Christ” is their slogan. That is Anabaptism.
Let not the Reformed churches suppose that they have succeeded in steering clear of Anabaptist error. Fundamentalism, which is strongly Anabaptist, has begun to make inroads upon them. One bit of evidence to that effect is the lessening esteem in which the special offices are held. Members of Reformed churches sometimes ridicule the time-honored distinction between “preaching” by ordained ministers and “exhorting” by unordained men. And I was once informed by an aged member of a church which I was serving as minister that he had a great advantage over me in the interpretation of Scripture because I could not help being biased by my acquaintance with the creeds of the church, whereas he, being blissfully ignorant of the creeds, was guided directly by the Holy Spirit.
The Proper Recognition of These Offices
The precisely proper recognition of both the universal office and the special “Offices in the church is a difficult matter. The danger of emphasizing one of these out of proportion to the other is ever present. No church, I suppose, succeeds. in keeping them in perfect balance. And yet it may be asserted that the Reformed churches come closer to doing that than do other communions.
It must be recognized that the special officers of the church are clothed with juridical authority. They receive that authority from Christ; they represent Christ; they govern the church in Christ’s name. Most assuredly, they are not infallible, and therefore they must be supremely careful to perform their tasks according to Christ’s precepts contained in his Word. But, when they do that, they really act by the authority of the Head of the church.
The membership of a church may not deprive the special offices of those tasks which according to Scripture belong to them. For example, the administration of the sacraments is obviously a prerogative of the special offices. Hence it is wrong for a group of church members to celebrate the Lord’s Supper under any other auspices. It is just as clear that missions are a task which God has assigned to his church as it operates through the special offices. Therefore, except possibly under the most abnormal circumstances, missions should not be conducted by organizations which are independent of ecclesiastical control. In short, never may the universal office of believers be exercised in such a way as to slight the special offices.
The Nature of Ecclesiastical Authority
On the other hand, it may not be forgotten that the authority of the special offices is restricted in various ways. It is only declarative. All that the officers are to do is to interpret, announce and apply the laws of Christ for his church; never may they impose laws of their own devising. Also, their authority is only ministerial. In the words of Peter, they may never lord it over God’s heritage but should be examples to the flock (1 Pet. 3:5). And in the words of Paul, they should not preach themselves but Christ Jesus the Lord, and themselves servants of the church for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor. 4:5). Again, their authority is solely spiritual. Keys, not the sword, are the Scriptural symbol of ecclesiastical authority. The officers may employ only such spiritual. means as instruction, persuasion, reproof, if need be excommunication, but never force. If the special offices were not thus restricted, the universal office would soon be crowded out. As it is, an abundance of room is left for the universal office.
If the universal office and the special offices are to be kept in balance, they may not be separated from each other, much less opposed to each other. On the contrary, they must be properly related one to the other. The special offices then are rooted in the universal office. Therefore no superior person or group of persons may force a set of officers upon a church, but the members themselves must freely choose their officers, and they are to choose them from their own number. Christ does indeed appoint the officers, but he does it through the instrumentality of his people. From that viewpoint it is true that the government of the church is not from the top down but from the bottom up.
Need for Wider Participation
The question is in order whether in Reformed churches generally the members are sufficiently active in their universal office. It may safely be said that in that respect there is room for, and also need of, improvement in practically all churches, those of Reformed persuasion included. A few of many possible suggestions for improvement may be made. It is supremely important that the communicant members of a church attend congregational meetings, especially those in which ministers, elders, and deacons are chosen. There should be societies in every church for .all its members, only the very young. excepted, and every member should take an active part in at least one of these societies. Every church member is in sacred duty bound to witness for the Lord Jesus Christ by word and deed in both friendly and hostile surroundings. Every congregation should have a committee for environmental evangelism, and on that committee should serve, not only some who hold special offices, but many others besides. Believers should be active in kingdom activities which are not, strictly speaking ecclesiastical; for instance, the founding and maintaining of Christian institutions of learning or mercy. Church members should be reminded frequently that in sacrificial giving for kingdom causes they are exercising the universal priesthood of believers. Over and over again they need to be told that it is their business as kings to fight against the devil, the world and the flesh; and that involves fighting against national as well as personal sins. And never may they be permitted to forget that it is their responsibility, as well as that of the elders, to make sure that only sound doctrine is proclaimed from the pulpit. When the believers at Berea, having heard the preaching of the great Paul, “searched the Scriptures daily, whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11), they were exercising the universal office of believers. And the apostle, far from feeling peeved, praised them for it. One of the most important duties of the special offices in the church is to encourage the membership of the church in the exercise of the universal office.