In our discussion of the offices in the Church we are about ready to talk about the subject of how these offices came into existence after Pentecost, and what their significance was for the Church of all ages. You will recall that we emphasized especially the fact that Christ is the true and only Officebearer in His Church as the fulfillment of all the typical offices of the Old Dispensation. So the question really is: How did Christinstitute the New Testament offices?
There are especially three things to remember in connection with the establishment of the offices in the New Testament Church. In the first place, God did not, so to speak, hand the early Church some kind of early edition of the Church Order of Dordrecht in which were a number of rules laid down for the operation of the Church in her institutional form. If this had been the case, all the Church would have had to do was consult certain pages and articles from time to time in order that they might learn what the will of God was in any particular instance. But God never works that way.
In the second place, along with all the principles of church government, the principles concerning the offices in the Church arose organically out of the life of the Church. This is a very important point, and we cannot emphasize this enough. As the work of the Church progressed, certain needs arose in the life of the Church. These needs could only be met by the institution of particular offices in the Church. And, in connection with these needs, the special offices were instituted in the Church. The institution of these offices, therefore, is always in connection with the history of the Church itself.
In the third place, all this was done under the direction of the apostles. We must understand clearly the implications of this. The apostles occupied a special office in the Church. This was a special office because it was the office which God used as a vehicle for divine revelation. This is why Paul can write to the Ephesians that the Church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone. Through the apostles was given the truth of revelation, which contained all the will of God for His Church for all ages; and they were the means by which this truth was recorded infallibly on the pages of Holy Writ.
In this sense of the Word, the apostles incorporated all the special offices in the Church in their office. Because they were the instruments of divine revelation, they were emphatically prophets. Thus they were used by God to bring His Word to the Church. But in the early history of the Church, they were also the elders and deacons in the Church. The rule of the Church fell upon them, and the care of the poor fell also upon them. All the work of the Church was done by them. But as the Church developed, and as various needs arose, the other offices arose out of the office of apostles. They were, so to speak, new shoots which grew out of the stem of the office of the apostles. By the time, therefore, that God’s revelation was complete and the office of apostles had served its purpose, the three offices of minister, elder, and deacon were firmly established in the Church.
There is, therefore, a close relationship between the special offices in the Church and the office of apostles. On the one hand, we can almost say that the office of apostles was subdivided into the three special offices which Scripture tells us ought to function in the Church. On the other hand, the three offices which are in the Church are guided in an absolute way by the Scripture’s which were given by the apostles. The power of the offices in the Church is the power of theWord. And that Word was given to the Church through the apostles as the infallible record of the will of God. So there remains that connection between the special offices in the Church and the office of apostles through the Word of God.
In connection with this it must also be remembered that there is here too continuity between the Old and the New Testaments. That is, when the special offices were ordained in the Church in the New Testament, this was not something radical and new in the sense that it was something wholly foreign to the thinking of the Church. It must have been true that the Church immediately sensed that this was a part of the Church’s life which grew directly out of the Old Dispensation. The Church must have sensed that the office of deacon, e.g., was a New Testament fulfillment of the office of priest; that the office of elder was the New Dispensational counterpart of the office of king; and that the office of minister was the realization of the office of prophet. There was no absolute break between the Dispensations. There was only fulfillment and perfection. It is the book of Acts particularly which tells us how these offices rose in the Church. We are all familiar with the history which is recorded for us inActs 6 and which tells of the institution of the office of deacon. There are, however, a few things we ought to notice about this passage. In the first place, it is evident that the care of the Grecian widows who were being neglected in the daily ministration was, before this time, the responsibility of the apostles. This is clear from the words of the twelve: “It is not reason that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.” The point is that the apostles found themselves too busy to take care of this work which needed to be done, and believed it important that they concentrated their attention on the Word of God. The office which was instituted, therefore, arose out of the office of apostles.
In the second place, the institution of this office arose organically out of a need in the Church. No one doubted for a moment that these widows had to be cared for. There was no question about this. It was a question who would care for them. The apostles were too busy. A special office was therefore instituted to provide for this need. And, in connection with this need, we have given to us information also as to the specific duties which were entrusted to this office.
In the third place, the office was instituted and men were chosen for this office by the Church at Jerusalem, but under the direction and control of the apostles themselves. The role of the apostles, described in vss. 3, 4, 6, indicates that the idea came from them and that the men were ordained into office by the apostles with the laying on of hands. The role of the congregation, described in vs. 5, was the actual choice of the men who were appointed by God to fill this office.
In the fourth place, the role of the deacons was, during this apostolic era, somewhat broader than the role of deacons is today. We read of both Stephen and Philip, two of the deacons, that they were also men who preached, performed miracles, and did great wonders among the people. Because these offices were arising out of the Church in the era of the apostles, the lines were not as sharply drawn as they are today. Nevertheless, there was really no essential difference. I would like to return to this a bit more in detail in a later letter, but for the moment it ought to be observed that, because all the offices share the prophetic office, all the offices in the Church essentially preach the Word. So there was no essential difference from the office today.
We do not really read of the office of elders until the time of Paul’s first missionary journey. In Acts 14:23 we read: “And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.” But in Acts 15:4 we read: “And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.” From these two passages it is evident that the Church in Jerusalem had elders before the apostles departed on their first journey, and that Paul, in ordaining elders in every city where a church was established, was only doing what was already commonly accepted practice in the Church. It is striking in this connection to note that the reference to the Jerusalem meeting which is recorded in Acts 15 is a reference to a council that was composed of apostles and elders. The two are repeatedly mentioned together. See vss. 2, 6, 22, 23 as well asActs 16:4. And the point is that the apostles and elders functioned together in a matter which concerned the rule and government of the Church.
That there is no special mention made of the institution of this office seems also to indicate that the office arose rather spontaneously in the life of the Church under the leadership and as an offshoot of the office of apostles.
There are two words which are used in the New Testament for “elder”: epikopoi and presbyteroi. Later, in the history of the New Testament Church, these two words became an occasion for disagreement. As the hierarchical system of Roman Catholicism developed, a distinction was made between episcopoi andpresbyteroi, which distinction developed into a distinction between bishops and priests. But this is really contrary to the Scriptures. Scripture looks at the office of elder from two different viewpoints: episcopoiemphasizes the aspect of the oversight which the elders have of the Church; presbyteroi means “older” or “elder” and looks at the office from the viewpoint of its continuity with the Old Testament Church in which there were elders, and from the viewpoint of the qualifications for office.
That there were ministers also in the apostolic Church is clear from the writings of the apostles—especially the letters to Timothy and Titus, both of whom were ministers of the gospel. Of this office too we read of no special institution. It appears that also this office arose because of the consciousness of continuity with the Old Testament, because of the pressure of the work of the apostles (they could not, obviously, be ministers of every congregation which was established), and because of the fact that the office of apostles quite spontaneously shot forth the shoot of this office in the Church. There are other references to ministers in the Scriptures, but to these we shall pay attention at a later date.
What is interesting to note is that the ministers were also considered elders, although they were elders who were busy in the preaching. This is clear from a passage such as I Timothy 5:17: “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine.” Here, though elders and ministers are both designated as elders, a distinction is made between those that rule and those that are busy in the Word and doctrine. That this should be the case in Scripture is not surprising when we consider the fact that there was in the New Testament a reflection of the offices as they existed in the Old Testament, especially the fact that the prophetic office was shared by the other offices.
But we must bring this letter to a close for this time, Timothy. We shall return again to this subject in our future correspondence.