An important part of the work of a minister of the gospel is his work in and with the Consistory. In order to do this work effectively it is necessary to have an understanding of the special offices which Christ has ordained within the Church. I know, of course, that you studied this whole matter during your years in the Seminary, especially in your Church Polity classes. But there are reasons, I think, why some discussion of these offices would be worth our while. One reason is that there is a growing de-emphasis on the office throughout the church world today. This, no doubt, is the result of a lack of understanding of the true idea of the offices. You have noticed, I am sure, that this is even true within the circle of Reformed Churches.
There are many contributing factors to this de-emphasis. I suppose we could mention a few. The office of deacon is increasingly de-emphasized because of the encroachment of government help in all kinds of forms to those who are in need. Another factor, with respect to the office of elder, is the growing hierarchy in the Church. It often happens that the minister in a local congregation is a kind of a pope who pretty much does what he pleases, and the elders have little courage to stand up against him. When it comes to the office of ministers, the decline in the importance of this office goes along with the deterioration of preaching, the lack of true pastoral work in the congregation, the emphasis on liturgy, and such like things. All these things, and many more, have led to a serious decline in the importance of the offices in the Church.
Another reason why this question of the offices is important is that there are serious questions being asked in some circles concerning the nature and work of the offices. Sometimes these questions are being asked within churches who have traditionally been Presbyterian in their church polity. E.g., a controversy is at present going on in some Presbyterian circles over whether there are three offices in the church (minister, elder, and deacon), or whether there are but two (elder and deacon). But there are also churches who have not traditionally been Presbyterian in their church polity who are taking a new look at this form of church government because they are dissatisfied with the traditional emphasis on congregationalism with which they have long lived and which has proved ineffectual in dealing with problems which arise in the church.
We have a Presbyterian form of church government. This has a long tradition within our Churches, dating all the way back to the Reformation under Calvin. It is a Scripturally sound form of church government. It has proved its worth over the centuries. It is, really, in the final analysis, the strength of our churches. It is extremely important that we understand it so that we may maintain it—not only in form, but also in substance .and in the actual work of the officebearers.
I have often thought that Consistories would spend their time to good advantage if they would set aside some time for a discussion at their meetings of the importance of the offices in the church. I know how difficult it is for Consistories, especially in busy congregations, to find such time. But officebearers must be thoroughly acquainted with the nature of their offices if they are going to carry on the duties of their offices faithfully and maintain the strength of their offices in the church.
It is not my purpose in these letters to go over again what you yourself learned while in Seminary. I do not think this is necessary. But I am hoping that what we will be discussing will be of advantage to you; and if you think these letters to be of any value for your fellow consistory members, you may give them to your elders and deacons to read. I do want to discuss some theoretical aspects of the offices in the church which we had no time to explore while we were in Seminary together. I think that an exploration of some of these matters could lead to a better understanding of the office and the work God requires of us in it. And, after examining some of these more theoretical questions, I want to discuss some more practical matters which pertain to the exercise of the office. Again, please respond to these letters, and give me the benefit of your thoughts on these important subjects.
I am of the opinion that, if we are to understand the nature of our offices, it is important that we go back first of all to the Old Testament and take a quick look at the offices as they were exercised in the times of types and shadows.
You recall from your Dogmatics that Adam was already created an officebearer in the garden. He was, in God’s house, a prophet, a priest, and a king. When Adam fell, he did not lose this office as such. Because he remained a rational and moral creature, he retained the ability to be prophet, priest, and king. But the fall, which brought about his total spiritual ruin, made him a prophet, priest, and king in the service of Satan.
Now, it is important to remember that, underlying this three-fold office, was the deeper relationship in which Adam stood to God. Adam did not really hold three offices; he held only one. That one office was this: friend-servant of God. He was God’s friend because he lived in covenant fellowship with God. He was servant because he represented God’s cause in the world and functioned in his office in the service of God. The prophetic, priestly, and kingly functions of Adam were only three aspects of the one deeper relation in which he stood to God. In a way we can say, I think, that this three-fold aspect of the one office of friend-servant was exhaustive of Adam’s responsibilities in the garden where God put him. As prophet he was called to speak the Word of God; as priest he was called to dedicate himself and all he possessed to God; as king he was called to rule over all God’s house in God’s name. This exhausts his responsibilities. All his work can be subsumed under these three aspects of his one office of friend-servant.
I want to emphasize, therefore, that at the bottom of Adam’s official calling was a covenant relationship. While I cannot go into detail on this whole matter now, this idea of the covenant is carried through in every aspect of the functioning of the offices. We shall have to return to this later.
When Adam fell, in fact he became a friend-servant of the devil. The three different aspects of this one office were still exercised. But now Adam (and his posterity) spoke the word of Satan (which is the lie), dedicated himself and all he did to the service of sin, and ruled on Satan’s behalf. This was the terrible implication of the fall as far as Adam’s office was concerned. And so it remains in the world throughout all time.
If we are to put the offices which are present today in the church in their proper perspective, we must remember, however, that God’s purpose with respect to this world was not attained in the first Adam. God never intended that it should be. God’s purpose was to be fully realized only in Christ, the second Adam. This too we will come to presently.
For the moment, however, the point that needs to be emphasized is this: when, with the fall, God began the work of salvation, he also restored the office to its proper place. But because Christ was not to come for some four thousand years, and because the church was not to be established in its present form until Christ came, God gave to the re-establishment of the office a typical and figurative form. This is the situation which we find in the Old Dispensation.
But it must not escape our attention that the care with which God re-established the offices in the Old Dispensation speaks of the importance God Himself gives to these offices. We can, in other words, learn a lot about our offices from what took place in the Old Dispensation. I want, therefore, to discuss this with you first of all.
There are three major ways in the Old Dispensation in which God re-established the office in the Old Dispensation. The first way was through the patriarchs. From the time of the fall to the establishment of the nation of Israel as the congregation of Jehovah, the offices were concentrated in one person. Adam (after the fall), Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the others who stood in the line of the covenant were themselves friend-servants of God and held all three of the offices of prophet, priest, and king. This was unique. It did not happen again in the Old Testament.
The second way in which God re-established the office in the dispensation of shadows was through that strange and lonely figure of Melchisedec who was priest of the Most High God and King of Salem. He held an office superior to that of Abraham even, and superior to any officebearer in the whole nation of Israel. Christ is a priest forever after the order of Melchisedec, not after the order of Aaron. (See Gen. 14:18-20, Psalm 110:4, Hebrews 5 & Hebrews 7.)
Now I do not, at this point, want to say too much about all this. I am interested now in the third way in which God re-established the office—in the nation of Israel. During the years of Israel’s life as a nation, the offices were to a certain extent, separated. There were prophets; there were priests; and there were kings. A brief examination of this truth will give us some idea of what the offices were all about, and will show us some significant features of these offices as they relate to the New Dispensation.
I think it best, however, if we wait with beginning this discussion until our next letter. We are almost at the end of our space and time, and it is better to discuss the whole matter in one letter, rather than to make only a beginning now.
So I bid you farewell for the present.