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Previous article in this series: December 15, 2014, p. 135.

In preceding articles we have now commented on every qualification of the office of elder mentioned in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Even that qualification that we consider here, “apt to teach” (I Tim. 3:2), we have already examined as part of the broader subject of the elder’s relationship to the truth.

But this particular qualification raised more questions than we had time to answer in our last article. Does this qualification apply only to the church’s pastors (“teaching elders,” to use the term commonly used by Presbyterians), or also to her elders (“ruling elders”)? If also to her ruling elders, why must they teach, and how do they teach, when they are not preachers?

Concluding our examination of the qualifications of the office of elder, we answer these questions.

Teaching elders only?

Some are of the opinion that the phrase “apt to teach” applies only to pastors, or to what Presbyterians call “teaching elders.”

Perhaps some ruling elders favor this notion for personal or practical reasons. Asked to teach catechism when the pastor is sick or out of town, they might argue that they cannot do so, or at least they cannot do so well. After all, the pastor went to seminary, while the elder pursued some other area of study in college, or finished his formal studies when he graduated from high school, or did not even graduate from high school (years ago this was more common). The pastor knows the material better than they. And he is used to standing in front of people and speaking to them; they lack that ability.

That was a “perhaps.” More concretely, at least one Reformed pastor (Rev. Daniel Hyde) argues in writing that “apt to teach” applies only to pastors, or teaching elders. He bases his argument both on exegetical reasons, and on the claim that other Reformed fathers were also of this opinion. I’m going to quote his comments at length so that the reader has the full context of the quote and can understand Rev. Hyde’s rationale in his own words. Having quoted I Timothy 3:1-7, Rev. Hyde says:

Here we want to ask ourselves how does Paul’s list in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 (cf. Titus 1:5-10) apply to the elder?

This is an important question because, as we have seen, the offices of minister and elder are distinct. Using 1 Timothy 3 for the elder would seem to cause a problem since it lists “able to teach” as a qualification (v. 2). This text has been understood in church history, including the Reformation, as speaking of the office of the pastor. This has been the case because the terms episkopos (bishop, overseer) and presbuteros (elder) are used interchangeably in the New Testament of the office of the minister of the Word. [Rev. Hyde then makes two references to Calvin’s writings, DJK].

Yet the main reason this text has been understood to speak of the minister is that it speaks of the one who is didaktikon, that is, gifted in the skill of teaching the Word (cf. Titus 1:9). This is one of the main problems with the “two-office view” of the offices of the Church. Basically, if ruling elders are of the same office as “teaching elders,” meaning that they are both “able to teach,” then there is no reason for an elder not [to] pursue the full-time ministry of the Word. If an elder has the gift and aptitude of teaching, he is compelled to preach the Word in season and out of season. Not to do so would be to reject the gifts Christ has given.

For this reason we need to be careful to point out that being gifted to teach speaks of the minister and not the elder. When we look to 1 Timothy 3:1-7 for the qualifications of the office of elder, the list applies except for those qualifications that are exclusive of the minister of the Word (i.e., teaching, administering the sacraments)….1

Whether Calvin meant to apply “apt to teach” exclusively to pastors, and not at all to elders, is an interesting question. I will leave it aside for now, because it makes no difference for our purpose. The fundamental question is this: does (or does not) every qualification of the office of bishop listed in I Timothy 3:2-7 apply as well to elders, as to pastors? Rev. Hyde said: no. Particularly, to requote a sentence found above, “…being gifted to teach speaks of the minister and not the elder.” I take the opposite view.

Ruling elders also!

I Timothy 3:2 requires both pastor and ruling elders to be “apt to teach.”

To say this is not to deny that in the New Testament church the office of pastor and elder are distinct. Nor is this to deny that the work of teaching is the primary work of the minister, while for the elder the primary work is ruling.

Rather, to say this is to deny that I Timothy 3:2 distinguishes between pastor and elder.

Nowhere in the entire passage (I Tim. 3:1-7) does one find any indication that some qualifications apply only in particular instances. Paul does not so much as hint in the passage that he distinguishes between the offices of pastor and elder. The inspired apostle is explicit that he speaks throughout the passage of one who holds “the office of a bishop” (v. 1). Literally, the bishop is an “overseer,” a ruler. Thus Paul indicates that he refers to the office of rule—the office of elder (pastor included). So when he says that “a bishop then must be…” (v. 2), he states what every ruler in the church, every teaching elder, but also every ruling elder, must be. To quote another: “However, it should be noted here that these qualifications [he refers to I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9] count for both the teaching and the ruling elder. No distinction is made.”2

The fact is that to introduce a distinction of offices into I Timothy 3:2-7 is to muddy the waters. Now we have to keep asking with regard to each qualification: does this apply to the pastor only, to the elder only, or to both? And, why the one, or the other, or both?

I am convinced that the Spirit did not intend us to be asking these questions while reading this passage.

Nor can one appeal to the distinction between pastors and ruling elders as found in I Timothy 5:17, to help understand I Timothy 3:1-7. I’m not denying that Scripture interprets Scripture. And clearly, I Timothy 5:17 does distinguish between pastors (“those who labor in the word and doctrine”) and ruling elders (those who do not labor in the word and doctrine). Also, I Timothy 5:17 clearly implies that teaching is the primary work of the minister, for their field of labor is especially “the word and doctrine.” But the distinction made in I Timothy 5:17 cannot be read back into I Timothy 3:2-7. If anything, I Timothy 5:17 indicates that, while there is a distinction to be made among elders (teaching and ruling), both kinds of elders are elders. So the qualifications of I Timothy 3:2-7 apply to all.

It follows, then, that one who is “apt to teach” is not compelled, by that very fact, to pursue the gospel ministry. This qualification, and the ability to convince gainsayers (Tit. 1:9), “are not the equivalents of a call to, gifts for, and ordination to the office of the minister of the gospel.”3

Why Must Ruling Elders Teach?

My purpose in the foregoing sections was to emphasize that the qualification “apt to teach” applies as well to ruling elders as to pastors. This begs the question, why must ruling elders be able to teach?

They must, because teaching is one means by which they rule. The rule of elders in the church is the enforcing of God’s law and the principles of Scripture in the lives of God’s people. To restate more simply, elders administer the Scriptures to the congregation. To do so, elders must teach the people what the Scriptures say. It is not reality to suppose that every child of God, at all times, understands the Scriptures and properly applies them. The elders must teach us how to do this.

For instance, the work of discipline involves teaching— teaching the erring member what God’s law requires, teaching what constitutes true repentance, and teaching the certainty of enjoying God’s forgiveness in the way of that repentance.

I do not say that the rule of the elders involves teaching only; rather, teaching is one means by which elders rule.

How Do They Teach?

How, then, do the elders implement this aspect of their work?

Not just by stepping in to help the pastor teach catechism. True, when the elders do teach catechism, they are teaching. But this is not all; it is not even primary.

As I alluded to earlier, the elders teach when they visit the wayward sheep. Titus 1:9 tells us why the bishop must hold “fast the faithful word as he hath been taught”: so “that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.” The Spirit uses the teaching and application of the Scriptures to turn the erring.

The elders teach on family visitation. I don’t mean that family visitation is a formal class, with the family being visited participating but little. But in conducting family visitation from the viewpoint of a Scripture passage, the elders have something to teach. And perhaps something said at family visitation gives occasion for instruction.

The elders teach when they visit the sick. Comfort, which the sick need, is based on knowledge of the truth. (Does anything serve to illustrate this better than our own Heidelberg Catechism, and especially the first Q&A?) But this truth must not merely be stated; it must be explained and applied.

Lawrence Eyres states it well, and emphatically (all emphasis in the following quote is his): “This teaching function must be done with a view to its application to the needs of men.… I hasten to add that an elder need not be a gifted public speaker, or an able teacher of the Bible to large groups, though both these gifts are highly desirable. But at the very least, an elder must be able to deal with people on a one-to-one basis, applying the Word to the needs of the individual.”4

1. Daniel R. Hyde, “Rulers and Servants: The Nature of and Qualifications for the Office of Elder and Deacon,” Called to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons, ed. Michael Brown (Grandville, MI: Reformed Fellowship, Inc., 2006), 11.

2. Cornelius VanDam, The Elder: Today’s Ministry Rooted in All of Scripture (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009), 115.

3. W. M. Henry Roberts, A Manual for Ruling Elders and Church Sessions (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1918), 65. BRING THE BOOKS…

4. Lawrence R. Eyres, The Elders of the Church, (Phillipsburg, PA: P&R Publishing, 1980), 34.