Order in the Offices, Mark R. Brown, ed. Duncansville, PA: Classic Presbyterian Government Resources, 1993. 304 pp. N.p. (paper). [Reviewed by Prof. Herman Hanko.]
Although I knew that the question of two offices or three offices in the church was often debated among Presbyterians, I had no idea of the extent of the disagreement and the divisive character of it. Presbyterians take it with great seriousness.
The debate was more extensive in the last century, and involved basic disagreements between Charles Hodge on the one side and Thornwell and Dabney favoring the two-office idea. One of the great debates of post-reformation times took place on the General Assembly over this question, with Hodge defending the three-office position and Thornwell the two-office idea. One wishes one could have been a witness to that debate.
This book is a collection of fifteen essays written by men of the last century and men active in the ministry today who are intent on defending the three-office position. To the editor and writers it is an important position to defend because there is confusion over the question today and because the three-office position has fallen into neglect. The editor writes: “The Southern Presbyterian church and its confessional successor, the Presbyterian Church in America, have basically followed the Dabney-Thornwell theory. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the confessional successor to the Northern Presbyterian church of Charles Hodge, has, not shown much interest in her ecclesiastical roots” (p. 116).
It might seem to us that the question .is relatively insignificant because, whether one holds to the two-office or the three-office position, one still believes that Christ has appointed ministers, elders, and deacons in the church. The difference is that ministers and elders are said, by two-office people, to hold the same office. That is why it is customary in the PCA to speaks of TE’s (teaching elders) and RE’s (ruling elders).
But the authors of these essays show that the issue is one of great importance and one that strikes at the very roots of Presbyterian church government. The debate revolves around the teaching concerning offices in both the Old and New Testaments, the teaching concerning this question in the Westminster Confessions, and the teaching of historical Presbyterianism in its various books of church order.
While we cannot go into all the issues involved, it is interesting to note a few of them. The three-office people maintain that the words “bishop” and “presbyter” in the New Testament always refer to the ministers of the gospel and never to elders. It is argued that Calvin also followed this practice and, therefore, supported a three-office position.
Three-office people point to the fact that the issue is basically one of parity, i.e., equality between the offices of minister/preacher/pastor and elder. They argue that there is no parity between the offices, that, indeed, to insist on parity is to introduce into the church an egalitarianism which is destructive of the offices.
From this position of non-parity, other conclusions, follow. The ministers in the church, with their credentials in presbytery (classis) rather than in the local congregation, constitute the essence of the church. Elders are representatives of the congregation in something akin to an ecclesiastical republic.
The book is replete with references to dozens of Old Testament and New Testament texts and careful exegesis of many of them. For example, I Timothy 5:17 is repeatedly discussed, for it becomes a crucial passage in the argumentation of two-office people. The intent of the book is to clarify the issues and deliver the present churches within. the Presbyterian orbit from confusion and practices which are inconsistent. The book succeeds admirably in forcing one to ponder the biblical idea of office, especially as it applies to the church.
While those within Reformed churches have a different church political heritage and while all the issues confronted in this book are not germane to Reformed churches, the book brings up questions and problems which ought to be answered within our tradition as well. No one ought to write again on the matter of offices in the Reformed tradition without reading this book and studying the questions which are raised.
I cannot refrain from including one quotation, found in a footnote, and really having nothing to do with the issues at hand. It refers to Thomas Smyth, an Irish Presbyterian from Belfast, a minister in the States for a number of years, and an ardent defender of the three-office position. In the course of his life he had acquired a library of 20,000 volumes, one of the largest in the country at that time! But he cautioned: “Beware of a passion for books and a blind chase of a large library. It is as a general thing vain and useless. I feel I was an exception to a general rule. I have felt a special call to collect a large library not for myself but for posterity” (p. 95).