11. In which way the office in the church of Christ works in the New Dispensation.
The office was instituted originally in the apostolate as one single office. “Just as the father has sent me, so send I you.” “And whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.” The teaching office, the ruling office, the office of alms, all were concealed in that one apostolic office. Ananias and Sapphira laid their offering at the feet of the apostles, and the apostle of the Lord immediately rejected that offering; but not because that offering did not belong at his feet, but because they lacked the smell of charity before the Lord. Also the holy apostle Paul collected money again and again on his journeys for the impoverished Jerusalem church. Thus originally the apostles ministered the Word and served tables. This shows that the three or four offices¹ which later came to separate development in the church did not stand alongside of each other as independent offices, but, in the nature of the case, formed one single office, and ought to be seen and understood in their unity. Thus unity lies in the unity of the King’s majesty. Just as during the Lord’s sojourn on earth the preaching of the gospel was not alongside of the healing of the sick, nor the rule of His disciples alongside of the feeding of the hungry, but just as both this preaching and this ruling of the disciples and this wonderful demonstration of love were all three expressions of the one and the same anointing, so also, in the nature of the case, there is only one work which, through the instrumental ministry of one office, even though divided into different branches, still now proceeds from the King toward His church. Where in the midst of the heathen world new churches are arising, the missionary still displays that unity of the office in his person since he is preacher, elder, and carer for the poor all at the same time.
Division in this one office began first through the spread of the church in connection with the limitations in those who were clothed with the office. Thus we see from Acts 6 that for this reason and no other the distinct deaconate was separated from the apostolate. It was, as we read, because “the number of the disciples was multiplied,” and because this spreading of the church prevented the apostles from treating every concern with the required exactness, that gave rise to murmuring. And this murmuring moved the apostles to recognize, not: “it should not be that we as apostles should busy ourselves with material things”; but rather: “it is not proper that we should neglect the Word of God to serve tables.” Thus as long as the service of tables was still of such small extent that the ministry of the Word received no damage, the deaconate and preaching were together in one office. But as soon as the spread of the church expanded the ministry of tables in such a way that the Word was damaged, the apostles created a separate office for the ministry of tables. Or, better yet, they made to shoot out from the stem of their original office a separate shoot in the deaconate. This was a circumstance therefore of importance because it appears from this how accurate, according to God’s Word, our Church Order is in Article 25. The same is true in our liturgical formula for the installation of elders and deacons which recognizes the deaconate as an office. And this is also confessed in our confession, namely, that deacons “with the shepherds and overseers” of the congregation “form as it were a council of the church.” This is no less important because this loosening of the deaconate from the apostolate puts in our hand the unsought key by which to solve easily the ancient contention for mastery which the office of teaching attempted to exercise over the office of elders.
This dispute still continues, as is well-known, over the question whether the minister is the proper officebearer and the elder only his helping instrument; or rather that both, teaching and ruling elders, standing on a completely equal footing as instruments of King Jesus. Just as first the deaconate loosed itself from the apostolate, thus the teaching and ruling office of elder also gradually split .for a similar reason. The Jerusalem church originally had a gloriously outstanding consistory, composed of twelve apostles, who were at the same time teaching, ruling, and ministering instruments of King Jesus. In consequence of the expansion of the church, presently seven deacons were added. And these nineteen persons would undoubtedly have proved to be perfectly capable of exercising the kingly authority of Christ in His church if a congregation had only existed in Jerusalem and the calling of the apostolate had been limited to Jerusalem. But this was not the case. Churches had to be established everywhere, and because it was impossible that each of these churches possess 12 apostles, the official ministry of local teachers separated itself from the world apostolate. And because the number of these teachers remained very small in most churches, the local office of government had, again in an entirely natural way, to separate from this local teaching office as a local official ministry, existing in complete equality of rank alongside of the teaching office and the deaconate. The office of professor remained, after that threefold development of the office, for a long time hidden in the teaching office. This lay in the nature of the case. As long as the opposition of heretics and the defense of the truth took place exclusively on practical and ecclesiastical grounds, this important task was still entirely the responsibility of the minister in his ordinary preaching and epistles. But when later the struggle with heresy became more technical, the shepherd or ministers would have had to leave behind the ministry of the Word in order to save the church in a more technical way. Wherefore, because this was not good nor could take place, the doctorate gradually, and as if by itself, shot out a shoot from the official stem, and the minister of the church was henceforth only a shepherd. A shepherd, although always to be understood not in the current sense as if the preacher is a teacher on the pulpit and a shepherd only in family visitation; but shepherd with the understanding that in the first place on the pulpit and further with each official action, the flock is pastured.
Attention ought to be paid to two things which follow from this. In the first place, our attention ought to be fixed upon the undeniable fact that the four offices of “shepherd, elder, deacon, and teacher” may be regarded as four stalks on one root; and must therefore never be considered as four cuttings rooted separately alongside of each other, each in its own earth on its own root. The office of shepherd in Jesus’ church is therefore at the same time the office of ruling. The ruling elders, though kept distinct from the ministry of the Word, must watch for the purity of the ministry of the Word. And just as the deaconate must be abundantly busy in the comfort of the Word (and therefore in far and away most churches sits with the official council of the church) the deaconate stands in the middle of the ministry of the Word, and ought at the same time to be merged with the ruling organism of the churches. Finally, as much as the deaconate is more particularly the office for the manifestation of Christendom which exists not in words, but in power, nevertheless none of the three remaining offices stands outside the ministry of mercy, and each office would be forfeited that did not let light shine before men.
The other observation is that in this division of offices in the visible church on earth there only repeats itself what is seen in the Messiah-office of Christ. Just as that office of Messiah is one in origin, nature, and scope, and for all that does not divide itself into the three-fold office of prophet, priest, and king, so also the office of the visible church on earth is one in stem and root but divided in operation. Our chief Prophet and Teacher speaks more particularly through the office of shepherd and teacher. Through the presbytery our eternal King rules in a narrow sense. And through the deaconate the mercies of our eternal High Priest are revealed in a special way. But even as it can be asserted with equal right that the ministry of the Word testifies prophetically, priest-like, and rules in a kingly way, and even as both other ministries have a part in each of the three offices of Christ, so these three stalks are intertwined on earth in the visible church, and the right knowledge of each office is lost if men lose from sight the unity of the root of all three.
Our conclusion, therefore, can be no different than that the ecclesiastical office on earth is nothing more nor less than an instrument of the office of Messiah to the end that He Who has received a name above all names on earth and throughout eternity in the midst of the Father’s elect performs prophesying, ruling, teaching, and mercy. A concentrated office thus proceeds from moment to moment from the one office of Messiah which is called to preach the Word in the office of shepherd, to plead through the doctorate, and to bring to dominion over sin through the consistory, and to work against that misery which is the fruit of sin in the office of deacon.
¹Kuyper speaks here of three or four offices because there is some question in Reformed churches whether the professors of theology in the seminary hold a separate office. This latter was the view of Calvin and it reappears in our church order in Article 2. Our churches, however, have always maintained that the office of professors of theology is part of the office of the minister.