In our last letter we were discussing the origin of the special offices in the New Testament Church as these offices arose organically out of the life of the Church.
It is that time of the year when new officebearers are once again ordained in our congregations, and it was my privilege also to ordain new officebearers in one of our congregations. As I was reading the form for the ordination of officebearers, I was struck by the fact once again that our Form takes a certain definite position on certain matters which pertain to this very question. I thought perhaps it might be well if I call attention to some of the more interesting features of this Form. You yourself have no doubt read the Form within the last couple of weeks; and you may also have been struck by what the Form says. But to call special attention to a few items will be interesting and helpful.
In the first place, concerning the origin of the word “elder,” our Form notes that this word is taken from the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, according to the Form, the word connotes “a person who is placed in an honorable office of government over others.” The reference is undoubtedly to the incident which took place in the wilderness when Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, visited the congregation of the children of Israel. The incident is recorded in Exodus 18:13-26. Jethro witnessed the fact that all the people came to Moses with their problems and Moses passed judgment in the individual cases which were brought to his attention. Jethro talked to Moses about this and told him that if he continued to bear the burden of the rule of the congregation by himself he would wear away. Jethro therefore advised that Moses appoint able and spiritually minded men to hear the problems of the people and to pass judgment in the cases brought to them. If there were any hard cases these could be brought to Moses himself. Moses took this advice and “chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.” This was the origin of the Council of Elders in the nation.
Nevertheless, there were elders in the nation already before this time. For example, at the return of Moses from the wilderness of Sinai to Egypt, we read that he consulted with the elders of the people. (See Ex. 4:29, e.g.) These men were probably the older men in the congregation who, because of their age and position, were leaders in their families and clans.
It is striking, however, that, from the days of Jethro’s visit, there is constant mention made of elders in Israel’s history. This continued through the captivity and into the New Dispensation. The Jews maintained that the Sanhedrin of Jesus’ day had its origin in the men who were chosen by Moses on the advice of Jethro.
The two points which interest us here are these: 1) they were always men to whom was entrusted the rule of the nation; and, 2) there is clear continuity between the Old and New Testament Church in this respect.
The second point which the Form makes is that Scripture speaks of two kinds of elders. The text quoted in this connection is I Timothy 5:17: “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labour4n the word and doctrine.” The Form points out in this connection that, while both ministers and elders are called ministers, nevertheless the two offices are distinct. “Hence it is evident that there were two sorts of elders in the Apostolic Church, the former whereof did labor in the Word and doctrine, and the latter did not. The first were the ministers of the Word and pastors, who preached the gospel and administered the sacraments; but the others, who did not labor in the Word, and still did serve in the Church, bore a particular (underscoring mine) office, namely, they had the oversight of the Church, and ruled the same with the ministers of the Word.”
You will recall that a couple of letters earlier, we made mention of the fact that there was a discussion going on among some Presbyterians whether there were two or three offices in the Church. Some maintain that there were only two: elders and deacons; others maintain that there are three: elders, deacons, and ministers of the Word. The whole controversy revolves, finally, around an interpretation of this text in Timothy. But it is clear that we are confessionally bound to the position that there are three offices in the Church, not two. And this, I believe, is the correct interpretation of this passage. It is true that both ministers and elders are entrusted with the rule of the Church; and for this reason both are called in Scripture, elders. But it is also true that Scripture makes a distinction between the two offices and separates them. While, therefore, both rule in the Church of Christ, each rules in his own office. And both rule according to the unique idea of the office which they hold. The ministers rule in the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments and the elders rule in the government and discipline of the Church. The Form also speaks of this distinction when it begins to sum up the duties of the elders. It states: “. . . the office of elders is, together with the ministers of the Word, to take the oversight of the Church, which is committed to them, and diligently to look, whether every one properly deports himself in his confession and conversation; to admonish those who behave themselves disorderly, and to prevent, as much as possible, the sacraments from being profaned; also to act (according to the Christian discipline) against the impenitent, and to receive the penitent again into the bosom of the Church, as doth not only appear from the above mentioned saying of Christ (the reference is to an earlier part of the Form where Mt. 18:17 is quoted), but also from many other places of Holy Writ, as I Cor. 5, and II Cor. 2, that these things are not alone entrusted to one or two persons, but: to many who are ordained thereto.”
There is, therefore, a certain sharing of this responsibility within the council of the Church. The ministers and elders share in the rule of the Church. This works out this way also in the practical affairs of the Church. Matters of discipline are discussed and decided upon by the minister and the elders. The work of the rule of the Church falls upon both ministers and elders. Both ministers and elders visit those who walk in sin to admonish them and call them to repentance. Both ministers and elders go on family visitation. Scripture gives to both the rule and government of the Church.
Nevertheless, there is also a distinction. Elders niay not, ordinarily, engage in the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. And problems in the Church which involve specific discipline are usually the responsibility of the elders. Surely the supervision of the preaching and the sacraments belongs to their office.
The question may arise in your mind, however, why the distinction between the two offices is not sharper than this. The answer, I think, is not so hard to find. You will recall that our Church Order even makes provision for the deacons to labor along with the elders in smaller congregations where the number of officebearers is not large. Article 37 reads in part: “Whenever the number of elders is small, the deacons may be added to the consistory by local regulation; this shall invariably be the rule where the number is less than three.”
Van Dellen and Monsma, in their “Church Order Commentary,” point out that this is possible because of the fact that all the offices in the Church originate in the one office of Jesus Christ and have their unity in this one office of Him Who is alone the Officebearer in the Church. To this may be added the fact that all three offices really partake of the prophetic office. We have called attention to this more than once; and it is well that we now spell out a bit more the implications of this.
The authority of all the offices in the Church is in authority which comes only through Jesus Christ. He alone calls and ordains to office. He alone, therefore, gives authority within the Church. But this authority is always the authority of the Word. While the authority of an officebearer is given directly by Jesus Christ, nevertheless that authority is the authority of the Word of Christ. That is, only when an officebearer comes with the Word does he have any authority at all. If he should, e.g., come with his own word, whether that be as he attempts to play the role of psychologist, psychiatrist, marriage counselor, youth director, money-manager, or whatever, he has no authority, He may come with some excellent advice which he has gleaned from other sources or learned from some special courses which he took. And he may, in the capacity of giving advice, suggest to those with whom he deals that it is probably the better part of wisdom if such a person should follow this particular course of action which he suggests. But he has no authority. He cannot say: Thus saith the Lord; you are duty-bound to do what I say upon penalty of the wrath of God. He can never say this because he lacks authority. His authority is in the Word and in the Word alone.
This is true of every officebearer. Whether he be minister or elder or deacon, he comes with the Word. This is his only calling, and only when he does this does he truly function in his office.
But that Word which he brings always carries with it a certain ruling and governing power. This is in the nature of the Word itself. It is, in itself, the rule for all faith and life. Whenever it is brought, it requires of us obedience. And it itself has the power to punish the disobedient as well as bless the obedient. Thus the Word rules in our life whether that Word is brought by a minister, elder, or deacon.
It is in this respect that there is a certain unity of the three offices. They must be kept distinct in the Church. And yet they cannot be so separated from each other that they are isolated from each other in their functions in the Church. All draw their work out of the Holy Scriptures, and all manifest the one office of Jesus Christ.
Finally, the Form mentions the fact that elders act as assistants to the-ministers. “Thus we see that these sorts of ministers are added to the others who preach the gospel, to aid and assist them, as in the Old Testament the common Levites were to the priests in the service of the tabernacle, in those things which they could not perform alone: notwithstanding the offices always remained distinct one from the other.”
We cannot discuss this in detail; nor is that necessary. It is only important to point out that the idea is not that the ministers occupy some superior office. Scripture is very clear on the parity of officebearers. But again the emphasis falls upon the fact that the government of the Church is given to many who labor together for one cause.
But we must end this letter and return again to this subject at a later date, the Lord willing.
Fraternally in Christ,