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EDITORIAL INTRODUCTION: Although the specific occasion for Dr. Clowney’s comments in the Presbyterian Guardian (No. 53, April 1956) was a mid-1950’s proposal to alter the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s Form of Government (the Committee’s Version referred to in the body of the article), nevertheless, the relevance of his exposition and defense of the Scriptural and classic Reformed tradition on the subject of the offices of Minister and Elder cannot be doubted seeing that what was proposed more than 40 years ago has now become the default wisdom in most of conservative Presbyterianism at the turn of the century. This essay, of course, presents in summary form what the author was later to lay out in much more detail. Interested students are encouraged to read Dr. Clowney’s two other works on this subject: "A Brief for Church Governors," in Order in the Offices: Essays Defining the Roles of Church Officers, ed. by Mark R. Brown (Classic Presbyterian Government Resources, 1993) and Called to the Ministry (Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1963). —Rev. Jeffrey J. Meyers

The Relation of Ministers To Ruling Elders

By Edmund P. Clowney, Jr.

WHAT IS THE RELATION of the office of the minister of the gospel to that of the ruling elder in Presbyterian polity? This question was warmly discussed in America a century ago, with James H. Thornwell and Charles Hodge as the principal protagonists in the debate. The proposed revision of the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has brought this matter before us again.

In the Committee’s Version, as has been indicated in earlier Guardian articles, there is a tendency to elevate the office of the ruling elder. The office of the minister and that of the ruling elder are seen to be substantially one office: that of the presbyter of the New Testament, although some who hold this office have a particular and recognized function of teaching which others do not. This was Thornwell’s position.

Unity of Office

The emphasis on the unity of the office is seen in the Version in the definition of Presbyterianism in Chapter 1:3 "the church . . . is ruled by presbyters, commonly called elders, who are set apart for this purpose by solemn ordination and who exercise this authority by delegation from Christ. Such presbyters perform this function of government jointly and on a parity with one another. (See also XI: I.)

This emphasis becomes emphatic in Version III: 2 which reads, "The ordinary and perpetual officers of the church are elders, or presbyters, and deacons." This is substituted for our present form which reads, . . . "ministers, ruling elders, and deacons."

In particular, the Committee’s Version stresses the parity of ministers and ruling elders with respect to rule. See the quotation from 1:3 above, and XII:3. Our present form speaks of ruling elders as "the particular representatives of the people" (Chapter V). The proposed revision deletes this phrase, making it clear that the minister and the ruling elder stand in precisely the same relation to the people so far as the ruling function is concerned.

This position adopted in the revision has decided practical consequences: the minister is made subject to the discipline and jurisdiction of the session "in all matters which concern his membership in the congregation" (IV: 2). It is no longer necessary for the pastor to be the moderator of the session (XII:3,4), or of a congregational meeting (XXVIII:3; XVIII:3). When the church is without a pastor the session may proceed to conduct all its business without the presence of a minister, although it is "usually expedient" for a minister to be present (XII:5). Even in cases of illness or necessary absence of the pastor the same procedure may be followed (XII: 5). Under our present form of government a session may proceed only "informally" without a ministerial moderator, "any action taken at such an informal meeting being subject to ratification at a duly constituted meeting" (Form of Government IX:4).

Further, in the Committee’s Version, ruling elders lay on hands in ordaining ministers, other elders, and deacons, and are themselves ordained with the laying on of hands (XVL:5; XIX: 10). In one respect the Committee goes beyond Thornwell: it allows for exhorting and teaching by ruling elders in the congregational service of worship on the Lord’s Day (XXV: 1). The wording here is quite remarkable. As an alternative to the reading of a sermon of a minister approved ‘by presbytery, "an elder shall teach and exhort when recognized by the presbytery as qualified to do so in the circumstances." There appears to be in view here some presbyterial examination of ruling elders with a licensure to teach and exhort in emergencies. In addition to teaching elders there are ruling elders licensed to teach "in the circumstances."

Distinction of Office

However, while there is a clear tendency to stress what is regarded as the common ruling office of presbyters in the Committee’s Version, there remain numerous instances of another type of formulation. The definition of ruling elders in Chapter VIII of the Version is put in quite different terms: "Christ who has instituted government in his church has furnished some men, beside the ministers of the Word, with gifts for government, and with commission to execute the same when called thereunto. Such officers, chosen by the people from among their number, are to join with the ministers in the government of the church and are properly called ruling elders."

The first sentence of this statement is adopted from the Form of Presbyterial Church-Government of the Westminster Assembly (1645), and the second sentence from our present [OPC] Form which reflects the same source. The "common office" emphasis may account for omissions from both of these sources, but the only accommodation in the words retained is the substitution of "properly" for "commonly" in the last clause. (Note: In the thinking of the Westminster Divines, "Church Governors" is the proper title for the office. "Elders" while common, has the disadvantage of confusing two offices regarded by them as distinct.)

This formulation, it will be observed, speaks of the ministers in sharp differentiation from these other officers, who also have gifts for government and are to join with the ministers in the government of the church.

Other elements in the Committee’s Version seem to accord with this view of the ministry and church governors as distinct offices. The session is said to consist of the pastor or pastors and ruling elders of a particular congregation (XLI: 1). The wide differences between ministers and ruling elders in our present Form of Government with respect to the manner of their trials, examination, and ordination are in the main retained and justified (1:9; XVII:1). Ministers are all permanent members of presbyteries and of general assemblies. Ruling elders are members only when commissioned by a particular church (XIII:1; XIV:2). The session is competent to proceed to the divestiture of a ruling elder or deacon, but not of a minister (XVI: 7; XIX: 15).

In studying the problems we do well to recognize the two contrasted emphases. On the one hand, the Thornwell position starts with the basic office of the presbyter as ruler and differentiates two classes of presbyters by the addition of the teaching function to this fundamental office. On this view there are many references in the New Testament to the ruling elder. Indeed, he is assumed to be in view along with the teaching elder in all the New Testament references to elders (presbyters), bishops, and pastors, unless there is clear contextual evidence for restricting the term to only one class of presbyter. Therefore when Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church (Acts 14:23) ruling elders are chiefly in view. Otherwise, it is argued, a plurality of elders in each church is difficult to account for. Similarly it is to a group composed mainly of ruling elders that Paul says, "Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops, to feed the church of the Lord . . ." (Acts 20:28). Many present supporters of this view hold that when Paul declares that bishops must be "apt to teach" this applies to ruling as well as teaching elders, since there is no limitation of the type of "bishop" spoken of (I Tim. 3:2).

This approach however has not been by any means universal in the older Presbyterianism. In opposing it Hodge may appeal with justice to Presbyterian tradition. Calvin, to begin with, does not adopt this approach. Both in the Institutes (4.3.8) and in his commentaries he refers the terms, pastor, bishop, and presbyter to the minister of the Word, and sees the Scriptural warrant for the "Governors" of the church in I Cor. 12:28 and Romans 12:8. This is also the position of the Westminster Assembly, which places the church governor beside the pastor and teacher and the deacon as a distinct and permanent office in the church, and establishes it from these same two Scriptures. George Gillespie informs us that this was determined without a negative vote on Dec. 8, 1643. In The Divine Right of Church-Government, Second Edition, 1647, a group of London Presbyterian divines argues for the office of the ruling elder from these two Scripture passages and I Tim. 5:17. The passages are exegeted at great length and objections met (pp. 123-175).

It is against this background that our present Form of Government asserts, "This office has been understood, by a great part of the Protestant Reformed churches, to be designated in the holy Scriptures by the title of governments and of those who rule well but do not labor in the word and doctrine" (Chapter V). This is again a reference to the same Scriptures.

It is evident that in the approach of Calvin, the Westminster Assembly, and our present Form of Government the office of the ruling elder is quite distinct from that of the minister and rests upon a narrow and specific Scriptural base. To those who object that the base is too narrow–Thornwell for example, urges that in effect the Scriptural warrant for the office is removed–the defenders of Calvin’s position appeal to the Old Testament background. The function of elders who rule only is not a novelty, but a continuance of an Old Testament institution in which elders were quite distinct from priests and Levites. The Westminster Form of Presbyterial Church-Government appeals in this connection to II Chron. 19:8.

Some Questions Considered

In considering this question an awareness of the history of the discussion is important. It is naive to assume that the Thornwell position may be taken for granted in modern Presbyterianism. Our interest, however, is not primarily in which view has the deepest roots in Presbyterian tradition. The question is, which is Scriptural?

It would be presumptuous to seek to determine this question in so brief an article. The following suggestions are given in the hope that they may stimulate study and discussion of this matter.

1. Can it be demonstrated that the term "presbyter" in the New Testament does include ruling elders?

Thornwell thought that this could be shown as a "negative instance" from I Tim. 5:17: "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor especially those who labor in the word and in teaching."

Thornwell reasoned that if some elders rule but do not teach, teaching cannot be essential to being an elder. Ruling, however, is.

It has been too readily assumed that "elders" in this verse is used in the technical sense. When the word is used in the preceding context (5:1) an older man, not an official, is meant. Verse 17 makes good sense if the same meaning of "elder" is retained: "Let the older men that rule well be counted worthy of double honor." The honor that is spoken of here is financial, as we learn from the following verse and v. 3. In the immediately preceding verses pensions for widows are discussed. These are to be given only to older women. The next question might well be, what of the older men? These too are worthy of "honor," i.e. a pension. But some older men are also rulers, church governors. These are worthy of double honor: that is to say, they are entitled not only to subsistence as pensioners, but their labors in the church should be compensated, for "the laborer is worthy of his hire. This applies especially to those older men who not only rule well, but also labor in the word and in teaching.

This interpretation has the advantage of explaining the "double honor’ naturally. If "elders" are thought of as officials, the verse seems to suggest double pay for elders who rule well in contrast to those who do not rule well. It might be noted that this verse, so understood, teaches that all rulers and teachers, of whatever age, are entitled to remuneration, but that special consideration is due to older men without normal means or families who might aid them.

2. Can it be maintained that the term "presbyter" could not refer to the ruling elder of the New Testament church in its technical sense?

Even if the exegesis of I Tim. 5:17 above be adopted, it is very difficult to answer in the affirmative. The background of the Jewish usage is significant. All members of the Sanhedrin could be called "presbyters" and the council is the "presbytery", but the term had a special application to presbyters who were not priests or scribes (Lk. 20:1). This however did not prevent its use to designate specifically the priests and scribes who were members of the council (Lk. 22:66). Against this background any ruler or governor in the Christian community would naturally participate in a council and be called a presbyter.

3. Can the term "presbyter" be used without further limitation to refer to ministers exclusively?

Yes. A clear parallel is the use of "minister" (diaconos) . This term may be used of all Christians (John 12:26), of all officers of the church (I Peter 4:10), of deacons in the narrow sense, exclusive of bishops (Phil. 1:1; I Tim. 3:8), or of ministers of the gospel, exclusive of both ruling elders and deacons (Rum. 12:7; Col. 1:23; 1 Cor. 3:5; I Thess. 3:2; II Tim. 4:5, etc.).

In the use of "presbyter" a similar variety is possible, and it would seem that just as "deacon" may be used of the minister of the gospel as a title for his particular office in spite of a broader use and another specialized meaning, so "presbyter" may apply to the minister specifically in spite of the fact that there is a more general usage for older men and for all who are rulers, and another specialized use, in Jewish circles at least, for an elder who is precisely not a teacher but only a ruler.

It must be observed that in many of the passages where a bishop or presbyter is spoken of there is a strong emphasis on the teaching function. See 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:5-9; Acts 20:28; cf. II Tim 2:2; Heb. 13:7,17. There is no reason to demand the teaching function of all who might be called "presbyters" or "bishops," because of these passages any more than there is reason to demand the teaching function of deacons because this term is applied to ministers of the gospel.

4. It is, therefore, a mistake to assume that where "presbyter" is used without further distinction, all who could be called "elders" must be meant.

To do this is to blur over the very distinction which I Tim. 5:17 clearly makes, that there are rulers who do not teach. This also is the import of the classical passages in I Cor. 12:28 and Romans 12:8 where the gift of government is separately mentioned and may obviously be possessed and exercised in the church by those who do not have the distinct and additional gift of teaching. This involved no radical shift from the practice of the Jewish community, for there were scribes as well as elders of the people in the Jewish council.

There is abundant and emphatic teaching in the New Testament concerning the office of the Gospel ministry. This evidence itself indicates an emphasis which must be preserved. There is also ample evidence for the office of the church governor, or ruling elder. Because both have gifts for government, there is an area in which they work together. But their office or total function is by no means the same, and even in the ruling function there are some differences. Christ rules the church through his Word and Spirit. The teacher of the Word therefore is particularly necessary in the councils of the church. In the words of our Form of Government: "The office of the minister is the first in the church, both for dignity and usefulness" (Chapt. IV).

Perhaps the greatest danger in our present situation is that of voting on a "Version" with too little study of the New Testament. There is a vast reservoir of such study behind our present Form of Government. There is the most admirable scholarship amid earnestness reflected in the Committee’s Version. The points of disagreement between the two must be resolved in the light of the Word of God. This we must do although we are not Thornwell’s or Hodges. But we must expect that it will take us somewhat longer!

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