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Democracy and the Denigration of Office, Part 1

Gregory E. Reynolds

Americans are not given to use the word democracy pejoratively. Hence, the title of this essay will be disturbing to some. In common usage the word loosely describes a system of government in which the rights of citizens are protected and their voices are given a fair representation in public affairs. Careful students of history, however, will be quick to make certain cautionary distinctions in order to remind us that majoritarian democracy, such as that found in Periclean Athens, and constitutional republicanism, which we often loosely refer to as “democracy” today, are quite different in many important respects.

Our present American system is, in fact, a corruption of the government of our Founding Fathers. While most may naively think of the popular franchise as the essence of the democratic ideal, we do well to remember that the essence of this form was a system of carefully defined, limited, and distributed federal powers designed to keep civil order and foster individual and corporate responsibility at the state and local levels. Furthermore, it assumed the internal constraints of true Christianity, which are now rapidly disappearing in the Western world.[1]

It is not, however, the purpose of this essay to reflect on democracy as a political system in its relationship to church government. It is democracy as a popular ideal, as a major strand in the fabric of the American mind, as that ideal impinges on the idea of church office, that is the subject of this essay. President Wilson encapsulated this American ideal in giving the rationale for our entrance into World War I with his slogan: “The world must be made safe for democracy.” This theme has been reiterated in President George H. W. Bush’s preachments about a “new world order.”

The popular imagination, increasingly disconnected as it is from its Christian and Reformation past, tends to read “democracy” as a cultural catchword which conjures up a series of narcissistic notions such as: “I have rights; my opinion is as important as anyone’s; I am equal to others in every way; I have a right to education, peace, prosperity, healthcare, and recreation; I may believe and say what I like; and I may do what I like as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.”

It is not my intention to denigrate the democracy embodied in the founding documents and institutions of our nation or to dismiss all present popular ideas about democracy. It must not be overlooked, however, that in its contemporary popular conception, the egalitarian instinct is destructive to the very institutions that have made our country great. But most importantly, the biblical idea of office has been denigrated in church and state by this idol of egalitarianism. As evangelical Anglican John Stott pointed out many decades ago: “There is much uncertainty in the modern Church about the nature and functions of the professional Christian ministry.”[2] It is my contention that this uncertainty has in large part been fostered by a growing egalitarian mentality. Egalitarianism tends to equalize God with man and then man with man, and as a result, office of every kind is destroyed. Authority in all of its God-given forms is radically undermined. When it comes to the government of the church, we tamper with its God-given order at our own peril. Thus, I have chosen generally to use the word egalitarian to denote the negative, destructive aspect of the democratic mindset that I am concerned to expose.

My intention is to make a case for a view of church office which has been clearly articulated by Presbyterian and Reformed churches since the Reformation. The “three office” idea (minister, elder, and deacon), though substantially embodied in the standards of most American Presbyterian and Reformed bodies, has fallen on hard times in recent history. This is due in large part to the egalitarian ideal which pervades the American mind and its contemporary institutions. In order to correct this problem as it is manifested in the church, we need to appreciate the cultural forces which have undermined the proper biblical idea of church office. An example that reveals this mind-set can be observed in the way in which ministers are often sought. The process is referred to as “candidating.” In many churches the resemblance of this process to contemporary political candidating is striking and tragic. The prevailing “two-office” view (elder and deacon, for some Presbyterians this means there are two functions of elder—teaching and ruling) is a concession to the egalitarian agenda, even if there is no intention to compromise biblical principle. In fact, it is especially where this compromise is unintended that it must be reckoned with. The traditional three-office idea, on the other hand, properly understood and practiced, will help to overcome all of the deleterious tendencies of the democratic spirit, while promoting the full range of pastoral ministry envisioned in the New Testament.

No doubt both two- and three-office proponents will find a large measure of agreement in assessing the threat which egalitarianism poses to the biblical view of office. Those who claim the two-office view among Presbyterians are usually functionally three-office.[3] They will also agree, in the main, on the function of church office. But beyond this it needs to be appreciated that the two-office view, especially in its pure form, is, wittingly or unwittingly, egalitarian in its conception and effect, and, therefore, tends to undermine the ministry of the church in our day.

The Historical Roots of Egalitarianism

It should be recognized at the outset that the fundamental spiritual and moral principle of egalitarianism is not equality but autonomy. Put another way, the primary motivation of this democratic spirit is found in its assertion of equality or identification with God.

Thus, egalitarianism has its roots not in the Enlightenment, but in Eden. Adam’s assertion of autonomy in God’s world is the ultimate cause of the democratic mentality in its contemporary expression. The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century is the proximate historical source, which gave egalitarianism its present form.

The word office comes from the Latin officium, a work or service performed. Biblically, office is a position of specific duty assigned to a person by the Lord through his church. Each believer has a calling to general office. The minister is called to be a servant of the Lord as his spokesman, a minister of his Word. Paul needed to remind Timothy of his office. “Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership” (1 Tim. 4:13–14). The teaching office is God’s gift to the church. It is also commanded. Sietsma asserts: “The essence of office depends on the divine mandate.”[4]

Man, created as imago dei, was given the office of a servant of God. Under God, Adam was called to be a prophet, a priest, and a king—a vice-gerent over God’s creation. God’s mandate was for his servant to cultivate all of the rich and varied potential of his creation to the eternal glory of God. In challenging the sovereign authority of God to define man’s meaning and role in history, Adam forsook his office. He became the first egalitarian by declaring his equality with God in defining his own meaning and role in history. The modern manifestation of this problem should not surprise us. It is at the heart of the thinking and motivation of fallen man in whatever form it may be historically expressed.

At the beginning of our history as a nation, this spirit was clearly present. It must not be forgotten that our nation was born in the twilight of the “age of reason.” As a true child of the Enlightenment, Thomas Paine confidently declared “my own mind is my own church.” Paine’s The Age of Reason was a virulent attack on the integrity and authority of Scripture. Several of the Founding Fathers held similar deistic ideas, however more subtly they may have stated them. Autonomy was on the march.

As sociologist Robert Bellah points out in his brilliant analysis of individualism, there are “three central strands of our culture—biblical, republican, and modern individualist.”[5] According to Bellah, the American quest for “success, freedom, and justice” comes to expression in each of these three strands throughout her history.[6] Benjamin Franklin was the quintessential individualist of the founding era. He was the heroic poor boy made good, who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps and lived by the utilitarian interpretation of Christianity captured in his famous statement, “God helps those who help themselves.” The moral maxims of Poor Richard’s Almanac, such as, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” were rooted not in God and his Word, but in personal utility.[7] As with Thomas Jefferson, whose Jefferson Bible was an attempted reduction of Scripture to its purely ethical teachings, morality was loosed from its Christian moorings. Man was the measure as well as the master of reality and history. God and his Word became the servant of man.

Given this ascendant utilitarianism, it was not difficult for equality before the law, guaranteed by our constitution, to subtly become an equality of individual success. Enlightenment men like Franklin and Paine became exemplars of the American dream. Every man can succeed, given the opportunity and the will. With this shift toward a more anthropocentric view of life, the biblical idea of office began to disappear. Man lives for his own glory. He is no one’s servant. He is a law unto himself.[8] The Enlightenment notion that governmental authority is derived from the people was a secular distortion of the covenantal idea, in which the people of God were called to respond to the sovereign initiative of their Lord. When authority is delegated by God, both government and people have mutual responsibilities. But God’s law is king, not the king or the people’s law. As authority shifted to the people, the will of the majority became king, and God was simply invoked to bless the popular will (or the will of politicians, as we are reminded at every inauguration).

Though often billed as a reaction to the rationalism of the eighteenth century, nineteenth-century Romanticism was really its offspring, or at least its younger sibling. Men like Walt Whitman and Washington Irving despised the materialism of the Enlightenment-inspired Industrial Revolution. Autonomy, however, was as much at the heart of the romantic movement as it was of Enlightenment rationalism. Whitman’s “Song of Myself” says it all in the first line: “I celebrate myself.”[9] The romantic poet and the rationalist philosopher-statesman were singing different parts to the same tune. The transcendentalist essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson echoed this theme when he asserted: “Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string.”[10]

Romantic man thought himself able to plum deeper than the Newtonian geometric-mathematical portrait of reality. The mysterious, emotional, and irrational element of man’s nature needed to be appreciated. The logic of the scientist-philosopher was to be replaced by the genius of the artist. The precincts of calculation were to be transcended. Form was to be superseded by life. The authentic individual had to pursue Shelley’s “desire of the moth for the star.”[11] With man’s reason having been set up as the final arbiter of reality and meaning, the romantic focused on the inner feelings, longings, and aspirations of the individual. In the nineteenth century, reason set out on a new voyage amidst the mysteries of life.[12]

It should not surprise us to see rationalistic science and romantic individualism appear together as brothers in the twentieth century. Squabble though they may, they are still kin. The internal combustion engine and the electronic impulse, consummate products of reason, have been harnessed to serve the individual in an unprecedented way. Timothy Leary, a leading proponent of the expansion of the individual consciousness via psychedelic drugs in the 1960s, applauded the new technology, called “virtual reality” (VR), commenting, “I hope it’s totally subversive and unacceptable to anyone in power. I am flat out enthusiastic that it is for the liberation and empowerment of the individual.”[13]

This reminds us of President Clinton’s recent assertion that the purpose of government is “empowerment” of its citizenry. As new technologies propelled by egalitarianism reshape our institutions, the individual is rapidly replacing the authority of God, his Word, his church, and the idea of office. As spontaneity and informality express people’s devotion to the idol of egalitarianism,[14] individual authority and expression assert themselves with increasing boldness in the church. It is thought by many that in the absence of such self-assertion the church as an institution lacks authenticity and is “morally hypocritical.”[15] Thus, the sadly prevailing sentiment is “There’s nothing in it for me.” Increasingly, the conviction that the church exists to “meet my needs” is held by ministers and people alike as they use the church as a vehicle for their own success.

The Effects of Egalitarianism on Church Office

The immediate precursor of the American War of Independence was the Great Awakening. Despite the spiritual good it generated, it has proved to be a major influence in kindling the egalitarian impulse. Revivalists within the Presbyterian Church of that period were mostly a “force battering at the ecclesiastical structure.[16] The Rev. John Thompson, an Old Side Presbyterian, opposed itinerancy by positing the federalist idea that ruling elders fairly represented the people.[17] But this idea stood against a tide of unrestrained leveling.

One of the plainest popular manifestations of egalitarianism is anticlericalism together with its offspring, anti-intellectualism. Ever since the Reformation, the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers has been misinterpreted by the radical wing of that movement, the Anabaptist (referring to their rejection of infant baptism). During the Great Awakening, revivalist Herman Husband, glorying in his lack of learning, confirmed the anti-revivalists’ worst suspicions by boasting, “My Capacity is not below them of the first and greatest Magnitude.”[18] Some, according to anti-revivalists, even claimed to be “abler divines than either Luther or Calvin.[19] In claiming the right to question and judge all, the extreme revivalists denied the idea of special office altogether. A genuine experience of God’s grace was, for them, the only prerequisite for preaching. James Davenport’s “repentance” during the Awakening consisted of burning his books and his clerical garb. He encouraged the laity to assume ministerial authority.[20]

In a well-intended effort to assert the priesthood of all believers and genuine religious experience over against the rationalistic elitism of some of the New England clergy, revivalists, in many cases unwittingly, undermined the authority and integrity of biblical office, especially the teaching office. The tendency to find the source of spiritual authority in the individual rather than in God-ordained office was present in American Reformed churches from the earliest times. Men like Jonathan Edwards, along with his Calvinistic contemporaries and forefathers, carefully rejected the egalitarian impulse in the Great Awakening, without denying the authentic work of God’s Sprit in that movement. Charles Dennison, late historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, summed it up cogently:

The new tone sounding from the Presbyterians harmonized well with the spirit in the new nation in which the democratic ideal blended with the rising evangelical movement. The evangelicals traced themselves straight back to the charismatic aspects of New Testament worship (Ilion T. Jones, A Historical Approach to Evangelical Worship [1954], 150). Their perspective had been promoted in part by the Great Awakening and more conspicuously by the triumphs of Methodism.... With most, there was a deliberate attempt to keep ministers and layman on the same plane (Jones, 155).[22]

In the nineteenth century, this tendency simply spread. No one exemplified it in Presbyterianism better than Charles Grandison Finney. He was a member of the New School party from his conversion in 1821 until 1836, when he became a Congregationalist. “Finney and his colleagues had drunk deeply of the new ideals of democracy and sought to devise new means to reach men like themselves.”[22] Finney’s “new measures” focused on the individual decision of seekers. Others gave more attention to the emotions.[23] New School author Albert Barnes, in opposing the doctrinal strictness of the Old School, had great zeal for “freedom of the spirit.”[24] But the net result was the same: the individual was king.

Old School Presbyterian Thomas Smyth saw the dangers of the “democratic form” in congregational churches:

Experience, however, proved, as it still proved in Congregational churches, the inexpediency of such a course, its impotency and inefficiency on the one hand, and on the other hand its tendency to produce parties, schisms and disturbances, and even tumults and open ruptures in the church.[25]

The egalitarian spirit, however, did not find Presbyterianism to be the happiest of hunting grounds, due to the latter’s strong and clear view of the importance of special office. Through the office of ruling elder, the laity already played a prominent role in the government of the church. Furthermore, the priesthood of all believers was taken seriously and insured each member a vital part in the worship and edification of the church without giving quarter to egalitarianism.

Presently, however, the power of the democratic ideal in the American mind threatens to overwhelm all institutions which dare to stand in its way. In the church a distorted version of the priesthood of all believers has been reinforced by interpreting Ephesians 4:12 to refer to ministers of the Word equipping church members for ministry. T. David Gordon presents a convincing exegetical argument against this prevailing interpretation:

To sustain such a translation, three things must be proven: (1) that the three purpose clauses, so obviously parallel in their grammatical structure, have different implied subjects (thereby disrupting the parallel); (2) that katartismon is properly translated “equip” here; and (3) that ergon diakonias refers not to acts of service, in the general sense, but to the overall “Christian ministry.”

If any one of these three is not proven, the entire argument unravels, for the “lay ministry” translation of this passage requires all three conclusions.[26]

Gordon concludes,

Further, insofar as these “gifted ones” are appointed for the edification of the body, it is detrimental to the health of the body to diminish or otherwise alter the role of the gifted ones. That is, it is a sin against all three components of Paul’s metaphor, not merely against one, to diminish the role of the gift. It diminishes the thanks that are properly due the Giver for his gracious provision. It diminishes the range and degree of edification that the body might otherwise experience. And it diminishes the honor that ought to be given to those we are commanded to honor doubly.[27]

In his recent impassioned and witty plea for America to return to the behavior and ideals of its WASP (White Angle-Saxon Protestant) heritage, Richard Brookhiser unintentionally made a very important point about egalitarianism. In commenting on the power of WASP America to assimilate a wide variety of nationalities and viewpoints, Brookhiser noted:

It is one of the pleasant surprises of the Irish experience that Catholicism adapted so well. The reason is plain. The Catholic Church in America became Americanized—that is, WASPized. The Catholic Church arrived as the one true faith, outside which there was no salvation, and it became a denomination. It was still the one true faith, of course, but then so were all the others.[28]

Here is the power, not of the WASP, who is living off borrowed capital and about to declare bankruptcy anyway, but of egalitarianism aimed at religion. All religions are created equal. It is not a big step from that assertion to declare that because all church members are created equal, the idea of office is rubbish—or, worse, that, because it stands in the way of equality and self-fulfillment, it must be abolished altogether.

Where office formally exists in church and state, it is often used more for personal aggrandizement than for service to God or man. The celebrity has replaced the servant as a major mentor in our culture. Every man has the potential to be a star. If that fails, watching TV will provide vicarious stardom. In the church, this translates into the mistaken notion that participation in worship requires a spotlight on the individual. So special music and “sharing times” proliferate. Why should the preacher own center stage? Thus, church office often degenerates into a stage for the display of one’s gifts, rather than a means of ministering God’s grace to God’s people. When it comes to opinions and ideas, many people feel that their thoughts have not been “heard” until they have been heeded. As Christopher Lasch rightly concludes, the value of self-restraint has been replaced by that of self-indulgence.[29] This is egalitarianism come into its own. Whether one worships in church or in the woods, the individual prevails.

While the view that diminishes the distinction between the pastor and the ruling elder, known as the two-office view, may not be the lineal descendent of egalitarian thinking, it is significant that it was first explicitly articulated in American Presbyterianism in the romantic nineteenth century. Furthermore, it is no coincidence that this view is predominant in our egalitarian present.

If egalitarianism is in the business of leveling distinctions, particularly where authority and office are involved, the two-office view falls prey to this instinct by obliterating the distinction between ruler and pastor. Its tendency is to bring down, not to elevate. At its worst, the preacher is thought merely to be paid to do full-time what the elder does for free. Thus, whatever distinction remains, it is not qualitative and official, but quantitative and practical. But then, ironically, this equalizing instinct brings down in order to elevate itself. In true Animal Farm fashion, “Some are more equal than others.” Pure egalitarianism always opens the door to pure dictatorship.

The defenders of the three-office view in the nineteenth century were quick to pick up on this irony in the two-office view. Charles Hodge pointed out that as a consequence of the two-office view, “we are therefore shut up by this new doctrine to abolish the office of ruling elder; we are required to make them all preachers.”[30] The very people the two-office theory purports to help are deprived of the putative pastoral connection. Hodge continues:

This doctrine is, therefore, completely revolutionary. It deprives the people of all substantive power. The legislative, judicial, and executive power according to our system, is in Church courts, and if these courts are to be composed entirely of clergymen, and are close, self-perpetuating bodies, then we have, or we should have, as complete a clerical domination as the world has ever seen.[31]

As Edmund Clowney asserts, to limit rule to those with teaching gifts creates a distance between church officers and the church, and it denies the use of men who are gifted to rule.[32] So, while the three-office idea is often billed as clericalism or elitism, it turns out actually to be just the opposite.

A further irony lies in the fact that where the two-office view prevails, the plurality of elders in a congregation tends to diminish the importance and therefore the quality of the teaching office. This was not lost on one of Hodge’s mentors, Samuel Miller, whose classic work The Ruling Elder set the agenda for the nineteenth-century debate on the eldership. He lamented that the effect of the two-office view

would be to reduce the preparation and acquirements for the ministry; to make choice of plain, illiterate men for this office; men of small intellectual and theological furniture; dependent on secular employments for subsistence; and, therefore, needing little or no support from the churches which they serve.[33]

The two-office idea, then, in its purest form, ends up denigrating both the teaching and the ruling offices. The biblical system requires both as separate offices in order to preserve the full range of ministry mandated in the Scriptures. In fact, most two-office proponents in Presbyterian churches do hold to a distinction between teaching and ruling elders, as species of one genus. This is often popularly referred to as the “two-and-a-half-office” view. But does this not really represent a transition from the three- to the two-office view? As lain Murray noted of Thornwell and Dabney in the nineteenth century, “When in writing on the call to the ministry they make plain that they are not discussing ruling elders—a position hardly consistent with their case” (i.e., for the two-office view).[34] The logic of the two-office position is bound ultimately to do away with any distinction between the pastor and the ruling elder.[35]

Endnotes

This essay is adapted from chap. 13 in Mark R. Brown, ed., Order in the Offices: Essays Defining the Roles of Church Officers (Duncansville, PA: Classic Presbyterian Government Resources, 1993) 235–55.

[1] Claes G. Ryn, The New Jacobinism, Can Democracy Survive? (Washington: National Humanities Institute, 1991), esp. 19ff. Here is an excellent primer on the points made in my first two paragraphs.

[2] Geoffrey Thomas, “The Pastoral Ministry,” in Practical Theology and the Ministry of the Church, 1952–1984, Essays in Honor of Edmund P. Clowney, ed. Harvey M. Conn (Phillipsburg NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1991), 74.

[3] Larry E. Wilson, “How Many Offices Are There? Practical Concerns” Ordained Servant (April 1992): 38.

[4] K. Sietsma, The Idea of Office, translated by Henry Vander Goot (Jordan Station, Ontario: Paideia Press, 1985), 24.

[5] Robert N. Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), 28.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 32.

[8] Sietsma, The Idea of Office, 40.

[9] Bellah, Habits of the Heart, 34.

[10] Ibid., 63.

[11] Crane Brinton, “Romanticism,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 7: 207.

[12] Franklin L. Baumer, Modern European Thought, Continuity and Change in Ideas, 16501950 (New York: Macmillan, 1977), 283–301.

[13] Glenn Emery, “Virtual Reality's Radical Vision,” Insight on the News (May 6, 1991), 25.

[14] Cf. Charles Dennison, “Report of the Committee on the Involvement of Unordained Persons in Worship Services,” Minutes of the Fifty-eighth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1991), 290.

[15] Bellah, Habits of the Heart, 64.

[16] Alan Heimart and Perry Miller, eds., The Great Awakening: Documents Illustrating the Crisis and Its Consequences (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), xxx.

[17] Ibid., 113–14.

[18] Ibid., 646.

[19] Ibid., 150.

[20] Ibid., 260.

[21] Dennison, “Report of the Committee on the Involvement of Unordained Persons,” 290.

[22] Julius Melton, Presbyterian Worship in America (Richmond: John Knox, 1967), 47.

[23] Ibid., 59.

[24] Ibid., 62.

[25] Thomas Smyth, Complete Works of the Reverend Thomas Smyth, D.D., ed. J. William Flinn (Columbia, SC: R. L. Bryan, 1908), 4:18–19.

[26]“ ‘Equipping’ Ministry in Ephesians 4?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37/1 (March 1994): 70.

[27] Ibid., 78.

[28] Richard Brookhiser, The Way of the WASP (New York: The Free Press, 1991), 23.

[29] Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Norton, 1978), 177.

[30] Charles Hodge, Discussions in Church Polity (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1878), 269.

[31] Ibid., 129.

[32] Edmund P. Clowney, “A Brief for Church Governors in Church Government” (unpublished paper, 1972), 17.

[33] Samuel Miller, An Essay on the Warrant, Nature, and Duties of the Office of the Ruling Elder, in the Presbyterian Church (New York: Jonathan Leavitt; Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1831), 187.

[34] Iain Murray, “Ruling Elders—A Sketch of a Controversy,” The Banner of Truth Magazine, no. 235 (April 1983): 9.

[35] Instructive in this regard is the transition made by G. I. Williamson from a two- to three-office view. G. I. Williamson, “A Look at the Biblical Offices,” Ordained Servant (April 1992): 30–37; “The Two- and Three-Office Issue Reconsidered,” Ordained Servant (January 2003): 5–6. See also Mark R. Brown, “Why I Came to a Three-Office View,” Ordained Servant (January 1995): 17–19.

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, January 2014.

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