Question and Answer
Elders: Two- and Three-Office Views
Could you explain the difference between the two-office and three-office views of the eldership? I am aware of two different views in the OPC.
In his letter to the Ephesians the Apostle Paul says the risen and ascended Christ has given apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to his church. It is generally agreed by Reformed theologians and commentators that apostles and prophets were a "one-time" gift. They were foundational (Eph. 2:20). It was through them that the Lord's final and complete word revelation was given to which nothing will be added prior to Christ's second coming. It is also generally agreed that by the term "evangelist" the Apostle probably meant those who served in the early church very much as our foreign missionaries serve today. Therefore the question as whether the church is to have two permanent (present-day) offices, or three, concerns those designated as elders and deacons.
In his first Epistle to Timothy the Apostle Paul provides a clear statement of the qualifications that men must have in order to serve as elders (3:1-7) or deacons (3:8-13). I think it is self-evident from this chapter that the Apostle considered these two offices as those that would continue in the church until Christ's return. Yet in this same Epistle (5:17) he goes on to say: "Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in word and in doctrine." This clearly indicates that within the office of the eldership there were elders who did one thing (rule) while there were also those who did two things (rule plus laboring in word and in doctrine). From this comes the fact that some see only two offices (elders and deacons), albeit with an important division of responsibility among the elders; while others see three offices (teaching elders, ruling elders and deacons). I even know some who prefer to speak of two and a half offices! In other words they refuse to choose between them.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church certainly makes a distinction between ruling elders and teaching elders (commonly called pastors or ministers). The vows taken upon entrance to office differ in certain details. And if a ruling elder later on becomes a teaching elder, he receives a distinctively different ordination. I became convinced of the three-office view (teaching elder, ruling elders, deacon) when I realized that Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus were written to convey special instruction to these two men who were teaching elders. Some of the instruction given to them indicates, in my opinion, that Paul himself recognized these men as having an official task distinct from that of the body of ruling elders.
But let me add one thing: I do not think the difference between the two/three office views is of great importance. I know men of both views who seem to me to have equal concern for following what the Bible teaches concerning their qualifications and duties.
May the Lord bless you through faithful church officers!
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