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Ministers and Ruling Elders Do Not Occupy the Same Office

by Mark Horne

Copyright © 1999

This debate has been going on for some time. But with few exceptions, almost all explanations of Presbyterian church polity claim that a “church” (meaning a single local congregation) must be ruled by “a plurality of elders” of whom one may happen to teach and work full-time doing so. This idea seems especially prevalent on the web, except for Lee Irons’ good work on the subject. But, unless one reads it, or actually has the stamina to read the OPC’s or ARP’s Book of Church Order, no one would know that historic Presbyterian polity, from Calvin to today, has been exclusively “three-office” (Ministers, Elders, and Deacons are three distinct offices). As Calvin Beisner has pointed out (with others), even the PCA’s Book of Church Order does not break with this tradition despite public rhetoric to the contrary.

The historical position, in brief, has been that there is one order of Minister, Pastor, Presbyter (“elder”), or Bishop (Greek: episkopos). Historically, all talk of “parity” has entailed and only entailed that all Pastors are fundamentally equal in their office. While the Church can appoint “overseers” for the good order of the Church, a bishop is not a separate office above that of presbyter to which one must be separately ordained. Calvin, after arguing for the office of “governor” from other grounds, did think that 1 Timothy 5.17 showed that these governors were also sometimes called “elders.” But he quite clearly regarded all references to Bishops in the NT to mean Pastors and only Pastors, not ruling elders. The overseers in 1 Timothy 3 and the elders in Titus 1 do not include our ruling elders but only Pastors.

This is Presbyterianism. In the Westminster Form of Church Government, all NT references to presbyteroi or elders are used as prooftexts for pastors, not ruling elders. In fact, the Westminster Divines did not even call them “elders” but “other rulers in the church” who are termed “elders” only because of tradition, not NT warrant.

But was Calvin right? Were the Westminster Divines right?

I wish to offer an argument for the “three-office view,” which gets beyond the exact meaning of “elder” in its different NT contexts. Since the Apostles Peter and John both call themselves elders, I don’t think the mere word can prove that there is only one office in the eldership. We need to look elsewhere to settle the case.

So here is my proposal:

Let us consider what the Apostle Paul says about certain ministers in 1 Corinthians 9. In context, Paul is speaking not only of Himself in his office of Apostle, but also of Barnabas (v. 6), the brothers of the Lord (v. 5), Apollos (3.4ff), and Sothenes (1.1). There he says that they all have a right to be supported in their ministry:

Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? [c.f. 2 Tim 2.3-4] Who plants a vineyard and does not eat the fruit of it? [c.f. 2 Tim 2.6; 1 Cor 3.6, 8] Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock? [Act 20.28; Eph 4.11] I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the law also say these things? “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing” [Deu 25.4; c.f. 1 Tim 5.18]. God is not concerned about oxen is He? Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops. If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we should reap material things from you? If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things, that we may cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share with the altar? So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel [Matt 10.10; Luke 10.7; c.f. 1 Tim 5.18] (1 Cor 9.7-14).

Now, Paul is very clear here that he in virtue of his status or office has a right to get his “living from the gospel.” His analogies do not involve part-time service but those with a full-time vocation: soldiers, farmers, shepherds, and finally priests (“who attend regularly”, not part-time). Then he invokes the command of Jesus to his disciples:

Do not acquire gold, or silver, or copper for your money belts, or a bag for your journey, or even two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for the worker is worthy of his support (Matt 10.9-10).

And stay in that house, eating and drinking what they give you; for the laborer is worthy of his wages. Do not keep moving from house to house (Luke 10.7)

Paul cites this saying of Jesus, along with the passage above from Deuteronomy 25.4, as “Scripture,” when he exhorts Timothy to pay Presbyters (1 Tim 5.18). Jesus spoke it to his disciples, both the Twelve and then the seventy others. Paul applies it to himself and Barnabas and Timothy and Apollos and others. He later applies it to the Presbyters whom Timothy ordains and oversees (as an Apostolic delegate).. It might be good to remind ourselves of the status conferred upon the Twelve and then the seventy by Jesus. To the Twelve Jesus said, “He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me” (Matt 10.40). To the seventy His words were similar, “The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me” (Luke 10.16). These people are ambassadors, something Paul will later assert of himself and Timothy: “we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5.20).

Paul describes himself and others who have this right to make a living from the gospel in other ways. Apollos and Paul are God’s servants (1 Cor 3.5), farmers (1 Cor 3.6), and fellow-workers with one another under God’s employment (1 Cor 3.9). Paul is God’s architect and Apollos is a construction-engineer (1 Cor 3.10). They are “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor 4.1).

None of these titles can possibly belong to ruling elders as we know them.

Why not?

Because Paul’s entire argument is grounded on the fact that what his practice of making a living for himself is an anomaly. He and Barnabas did not allow the Corinthian Church to pay them. They even remained celibate so that they would be able to survive in this way (1 Cor 9.5). Everyone else who also holds the status of Paul and Barnabas expects to be paid for their services. That is the normal way for such people to live.

But if Paul and Barnabas share their status with multitudes of officers in the churches who have a secular employment by which they make a living, and then rule the church in their spare time, then Paul’s argument is completely useless. If Paul thought he shared the same office with such people (people who are have vocations in other areas of life like our ruling elders) then he could not possibly claim that his behavior is so rare. Indeed, the Corinthians would never have noticed any problem with Paul’s behavior if they regarded ruling elders as having the same vocation as Paul.

Of course, since there really is no term for “office” in the NT, settling the debate between the “two-office” view and the “three-office” is difficult. If one wants to insist that both Ministers and ruling elders are “rulers,” no one will disagree. But the fundamental question which the NT does address is that of vocational identity both for certain leaders in the churches, and for the Church as the whole.

May it never be that any Christian should claim that the Church is primarily a government that “just happens” to involve preaching, teaching, and sacraments. The Church is the body of Christ, where the Holy Spirit is present and makes Jesus present in the midst of His people. Make no mistake: It is a government. But doing things decently and in order, as important as that may be, can never be anywhere near as important as proclaiming Christ and representing Him by Word and Sacrament. The identity of the Church entails that those who serve the Church by governing (Rom 12.8; 1 Cor 12.28) cannot be identified with the “Apostles, prophets, teachers” (1 Cor 12.28), the “pastors and teachers” (Eph 4.11), the “servants of Christ and the stewards of the mysteries of God..” Those who normally work for the Church part-time, can never be identified with those who normally work for the Church full-time. If the Church is identified as the very body of Christ, then the Church needs to single out those who serve to represent Christ as His ambassadors. Such a calling cannot be simply an additional duty added on to the “basic” office of elder.

“As the Father has sent Me, I also send you” (John 20.21b). The ministry of the gospel cannot be an appendage to the government of the Church.

Copyright © 1999

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