Letter to Timothy

Dear Timothy, 

In our correspondence together we have been discussing the rise of the special offices in the Church: the offices of minister, elder, and deacon. And in connection with this discussion, we have also examined the basic meaning of the offices as they stand related to the one office of Christ which He holds in His Church. 

It is time now to discuss a slightly different aspect of this question, that is, the relation between the special offices in the Church and the office of all believers. This question quite naturally arises from the fact that the special offices in the Church are all the reflection in the Church of Christ’s three-fold office of Prophet, Priest, and King. You are fully aware of the fact that our own Heidelberg Catechism, in discussing the name Christ, discusses also this three-fold office of Christ. But then it adds the significant question and answer: “But why art thou called a Christian? Because I am a member of Christ by faith, and thus am partaker of his anointing; that so I may confess his name, and present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him: and also that with a free and good conscience I may fight against sin and Satan in this life: and afterwards reign with him eternally, over all creatures.” (Lord’s Day XII, question and answer 32.) 

The whole point of this beautiful paragraph in our Heidelberg Catechism is that all believers also share, by the anointing of the Spirit, in the three-fold office of Christ. All believers are also prophets and priests and kings. If therefore believers hold this three-fold office, and ministers, elders, and deacons hold this three-fold office, what is the relationship between believers and their officebearers? This is a very fundamental question of Reformed Church Polity. In a way, I would almost say that it is the most fundamental of all. It stands at the very heart of all the life of the Church of Jesus Christ in her institutional form. In a way too, it is a very difficult question. I recall that at the time of various court cases in connection with the split in 1953 efforts were made to make this point of Church Polity clear in the civil courts of the land. But all such efforts proved to be fruitless. The courts, erected on a system of higher and lower courts, each higher court with supervision over a lower court, simply could not get this point through their heads. Of course, this question arose also in connection with the relation between the broader ecclesiastical assemblies and the consistories; but at the heart of it stood the relation between the office of believers and the special offices in the Church. 

There is no question about it that the Scriptures teach that these special offices were ordained and instituted in the Church by the command of Christ Himself through His holy apostles. We have looked already at some of this Scriptural proof and need not go over it again. It is also clear that, by the gift of the Holy Spirit which was poured out upon the Church at Pentecost, all God’s people are prophets and priests and kings. To cite but one passage, Peter writes to the Church that “ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (I Peter 2:9) Here, literally, God’s people are called a royal priesthood. And the office of prophet is implied in the words: “that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light,” for this is exactly the fundamental idea of the office of prophet. 

If, therefore, the people of God hold the three-fold office of Christ, while officebearers, in their respective offices hold only one part of that office—ministers that of prophets, elders that of kings, and deacons that of priests—it would seem that the office of believers is the main office in the Church and that those who hold the special offices hold offices which are subordinate to that of the office of believers. The result, of course, would be a kind of democracy in the Church where all decisions and all authority are exercised by the office of believers and the officebearers are some kind of representative assembly voted in to carry out the will of the majority, or some kind of “Board of Trustees” to act in the name of the congregation as a whole. 

But this is not the Scriptural idea. Scripture also makes it very clear that those who hold the special offices in the Church hold a position of authority. Hebrews 13:7 leaves no doubt about this at all; “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” Paul speaks to the elders of Ephesus of the authority which they have over the Church when he says: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers. . . .” (Acts 20:28) And so it is clear that there is an authority which officebearers possess by which they rule over Christ’s Church. 

This authority rests first of all in their office. The relation between authority and obedience, as defined by the fifth commandment, extends also to the Church of Christ. Officebearers hold an office. They represent Christ. They are given the right to rule in Christ’s name. They are authorized to speak for Christ. Obedience is their due. But their authority rests also in the Word. There have been, and always will be, men who hold an office in the Church who do not come with the Word of Christ, but rather come with their own word. Insofar as they speak their own word, they have no authority whatsoever. No man is obligated before God to bow to the word of a man. Only when they speak the Word of Christ, as that is recorded in the Scriptures, do they have authority. But these two belong together. They do not have two separate sources of authority. Their authority as officebearers is directly connected to the authority of the Word. Christ has placed them in office with the express purpose of speaking His Word to His people. That is really the sole function of their office. And because Christ alone has authority in His Church, Christ’s Word alone has authority over the lives of the sheep. So the two come together. They are united in officebearers appointed by Christ to bring Christ’s Word. 

Now the question is: what is the relationship between these special offices in the Church and the office of believers? Quite obviously, if believers also hold an office from Christ, they too have authority. One cannot hold an office without holding authority at the same time. How then can believers exercise the authority of their office and still submit to the authority of special officebearers in the Church? It is the answer to this question which forms the heart of Reformed Church Polity. 

We must narrow down the problem just a bit more before we specifically answer it. The fact of the matter is that the believer, in his office, functions as officebearer in all his life. The believer, be he man or woman, is prophet, priest, and king in all that he does. He is not simply on occasion and in certain aspects of his life an officebearer. This is impossible. This world, with all its relationships and responsibilities, is God’s house. God, through Christ, calls every child of God to function as an officebearer in all His house and in everything which he does. He is prophet, priest, and king in his family, in his work, in relationship to his employer and his magistrate. He is prophet, priest, and king every step of his pilgrim’s pathway, and nothing can ever relieve him from the responsibilities of that office. The question, in the narrower sense therefore, is: how does the believer function as officebearer, prophet and priest and king, in the Church of Jesus Christ? What is the unique nature of his function in that part of his life which is characterized by his membership in the institution of the Church where the Word is preached, the sacraments administered and discipline exercised in the name of Christ;! That is the question which now concerns us? 

The answer to that question is that he functions within the Church as institute in such a way that the exercise of his office is always through the special offices which Christ has ordained and instituted. And the determinative word here is “through.” When he exercises his office in this way, then you have, in the Church of Christ, the officially appointed means of grace. 

There is a certain sense of the word in which believers are specifically prophets, priests, and kings even in relation to their fellow saints. For example, believers must function as prophets and bring the Word of God to their fellow saints. They must do this when they visit their fellow saints in suffering and distress. They do this when they come to admonish a fellow saint because of his sin. They do this when they witness to the truth both within the Church and outside it. And even then that Word carries the authority of the Word of Christ which they speak as believers. There is a sense in which they even “rule” over their fellow saints. This is especially evident when they fulfill the mandate of Christ in Matthew 18:15-17: “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church. . . .” Those to whom believers come are obligated to “hear” the Word of admonition which is brought. There is emphatically a certain sense in which believers show the mercies of Christ when they help one another with material gifts when their brothers are in great need. In all these senses they function in the office of believers apart from the church institute.

But, within the church institute, they exercise their office only through the special offices in the Church. It is very important that we understand this. It is always the office of believers which functions in the Church of Christ. It is the office of believers which preaches the Word on the Lord’s Day—but through the office of minister. It is the office of believers which rules in the Church of Christ and exercises Christ’s discipline—but only through the office of elder. It is the office of believers which shows Christian mercy—but only and ever (within the Church institute) through the office of deacons. 

We must stop for the moment. We shall have to demonstrate in a concrete way how exactly that works out in the Church. But it is this singular fact which forms the “anomaly” of Reformed Church Polity and is at the same time its real genius. 


H. Hanko