Democracy and the Denigration of Office, Part 2

Gregory E. Reynolds

The Restoration of Church Office

No doctrine can be properly restored to the church’s mind without careful definition. The three-office view is no exception. Distinctions made in the nineteenth-century debate are helpful in focusing the definition. In fact, it was the lack of proper distinctions that characterized the two-office theory for Hodge. The point at issue, he maintained, is

the nature of the office of the ruling elder. Is he a clergyman, a bishop? or is he a layman? Does he hold the same office with the minister or a different one? According to the new theory, the offices are identified.... This new theory makes all elders, bishops, pastors, teachers, and rulers.... It therefore destroys all official distinctions between them. It reduces the two to one order, class, or office.[1]

The focus of the question, from an exegetical perspective, is clearly stated by Iain Murray:

The question which arises is how this Presbyterian distinction between ‘ministers’ and ‘elders’ is to be justified from the New Testament. Upon what grounds should such a title as ‘pastor’ be restricted to one if the word in the New Testament is descriptive of all elders?[2]

If presbyter is used uniformly in the New Testament to refer to a single office, then the distinction between the ruling elder and the pastor cannot be maintained. But, as Clowney cautioned:

In 1 Timothy 5:17, those who engage in rule are distinguished from those who also labor in the word and doctrine. Again, the fact that both groups can be called πρεσβύτεροι [presbyteroi] by no means demonstrates that their office is identical.[3]

Hodge made a crucial exegetical point in recounting the essence of a debate he had with Thornwell:

This is the dilemma in which, as we understood, Dr. Thornwell endeavoured to place Dr. Hodge, when he asked him, on the floor of the Assembly, whether he admitted that the elder was a presbyter. Dr. Hodge rejoined by asking Dr. Thornwell whether he admitted that the apostles were deacons. He answered, No. But, says Dr. Hodge, Paul says he was a διάκονος [diakonos]. O, says Dr. Thornwell, that was in the general sense of the word. Precisely so. If the answer is good in the one case, it is good in the other. If the apostles being deacons in the wide sense of the word, does not prove that they were officially deacons, then that elders were presbyters in the one sense, does not prove them to be presbyters in the other sense. We hold, with Calvin, that the official presbyters of the New Testament were bishops; for, as he says, “[For to all who carry out the ministry of the Word it (Scripture) accords the title of ‘bishops.’]” But of the ruling elders, he adds, “[Governors (I Cor. 12:28) were, I believe, elders chosen from the people, who were charged with the censure or morals and the exercise of discipline along with the bishops.]” Institutio, &c. IV. 3. 8.[4]

Some defenders of the three-office view, such as Thomas Smyth, held that ruling elders were never referred to in the New Testament “under the term presbyter or elder, which always refers to the teacher or bishop solely.”[5] Like Calvin, he found his warrant for the office of governor or ruling elder in passages such as 1 Corinthians 12:28 and Romans 12:8. He understood passages such as 1 Timothy 3; 5:17; Titus 1; Acts 20 as referring only to ministers of the word. On the other end of the exegetical spectrum of three-office defenders, Samuel Miller understood the above passages to refer to both offices together. Miller, nonetheless, clearly held the three-office view.[6] In fact, Hodge declared himself to be in complete agreement with Miller as to the nature of the ruling office, only differing with him in the method of establishing its biblical warrant.[7] Exegetical uniformity is not required in order to base the view clearly on Scripture.

Hodge summed up the three-office position robustly:

This is the old, healthful, conservative doctrine of the Presbyterian Church. Ministers of the word are clergymen, having special training, vocation, and ordination; ruling elders are laymen, chosen from the people as their representatives, having, by divine warrant, equal authority in all Church courts with the ministers.[8]

Much study of this question needs to be carried out by Presbyterians. The integrity of the offices of both ruling elder and minister is at stake. And while we need to take seriously the warning of Thomas Smyth that our devotion does not “terminate on the outward form, order, ministry or ordinances of any church,”[9] we must not forget that the proper biblical form of office will best serve the Lord who ordained it. This is true of both offices.

The 1941 edition of the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church began the chapter “Of Ministers”: “The office of the minister is the first in the church, both for dignity and usefulness.” But this phrase was deleted from the chapter describing the office of minister in the 1978 revision, as an accommodation to the two-office view. The chapter title was also changed from “Of Ministers” to “Ministers or Teaching Elders.” Interestingly the sentence remains in the chapter on “Ordaining and Installing Ministers” (23.8, 14). However, its omission in the description of the ministerial office is unfortunate because ultimately the centrality of preaching is at stake. Calvin said it well: “God often commended the dignity of the ministry by all possible marks of approval in order that it might be held among us in highest honor and esteem, even as the most excellent of all things.”[10] It is not the privilege of persons, but the dignity of God’s Word which is being upheld. Egalitarianism, lacking any real conception of office, tends to see all official distinctions as tools of oppression. A biblical servant, however, will see such a distinction as a tool of ministry and himself as an instrument of God’s grace.

The three-office doctrine also preserves the ruling function of the eldership. As both Hodge and Clowney pointed out, the two-office view creates a gap between the clergy and the people. As every faithful minister knows, the oversight of the flock is impossible to maintain alone. The three-office position allows ruling elders to focus on the application of what the minister teaches from God’s Word. The three-office position, rightly understood, alone preserves the true dignity and effectiveness of the ruling office.

Only a careful distinction of offices will ultimately preserve the proper functions of each. Historically, the two-office scheme leads to the disappearance of the ruling elder and the atrophy of lay leadership. In some circles, the teaching function has been demeaned, but this seems to be the case more where the “no-office” idea prevails, as in Brethrenism. When everyone is a minister, no one is. The egalitarian impulse, by its very nature, erodes the idea of office to the great harm of the church.

The benefits of the three-office view are manifold. First, the parity of rule protects the church from tyranny. The minister does not rule alone. There is a balance of power—a system of checks and balances. As Miller noted, the ruling elder has “an equal voice. The vote of the most humble and retiring Ruling Elder, is of the same avail as that of his minister.”[11] Sietsma observed, “It must be remembered that office is the only justification and the proper limitation of any human exercise of power and authority.”[12] The three-office view brings this idea into its own. Egalitarianism allows power to fall into the hands of the domineering and gives voice ultimately to the loudest mouth.

Second, the three-office doctrine provides leadership. The minister, as a scribe of the Word, is a leader among the rulers. He is normally the moderator of the session, a first among equals. A ship cannot sail without a captain. As Geoffrey Thomas pointed out:

Where plural elders are in existence, the principle of single leadership is necessary. Nowhere in the Scriptures do we find leadership exercised by a committee with one man acting as a kind of chairman, although that is the consequence of the concept of parity among plural elders in many cases today.[13]

In preventing ministers from lording it over the elders, the two-office view tends to leave a vacuum of leadership. Smyth declared, “Ministers are like the head from which proceeds the stimulus, guidance, and direction, which are essential to the vitality, the activity, the dignity, and the harmony of the system.”[14] Egalitarianism engenders lordship, not leadership.

Third, the three-office view allows the minister to focus on the ministry of the Word, unhindered by the multitude of concerns that only the group of elders can attend to with him. How many of the pulpits of our land suffer because of the inordinate demands made on a minister’s time? Jethro’s advice to Moses is as pertinent today as it was over three millennia ago: “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone.” (Exod. 18:17–18). The apostles put this principle into practice in the calling out of deacons in Acts 6. Egalitarianism leads not only to tyranny but to burnout.

Fourth, this view allows for the proper and effective implementation of discipline, which the minister could not appropriately or practically provide on his own. Egalitarianism leads to moral chaos.

Finally, the three-office idea provides for the needs of all of the people. Miller beautifully depicted this full-orbed ministry:

In every department of official duty, the Pastor of this denomination has associated with him, a body of pious, wise, and disinterested counselors, taken from among the people; acquainted with their views; participating in their feelings; able to give sound advice as to the wisdom and practicability of plans which require general co-operation for carrying them into effect; and able also, after having aided in the formation of such plans, to return to their constituents, and so to advocate and recommend them, as to secure general concurrence in their favor.[15]

There are several things which need to be done to promote a more biblical view of office in our churches. First, people need to be instructed about the nature and dangers of egalitarianism. Most people are unaware of the democratic assumptions that are part of the fabric of the worldview in which they have been nurtured as Americans. To the extent that these assumptions are unbiblical, church officers, especially ministers, must foster the transformation of people’s minds, so that they will not be conformed to this world (Rom. 12:1–2).

Second, pastors and elders need to encourage each other to fulfill the ministries to which God has called them. This means that each must be aware of the biblical requirements, duties, and limits of the offices of pastor and ruler. In particular, each must understand what is specifically expected of them in the local congregation. The strengths and weaknesses of each officer should be openly discussed in the privacy of the session. Special strengths and gifts should be appreciated and cultivated so that the wide variety of needs in a given congregation will be met.

Third, a good working relationship should be cultivated among elders and ministers. This means developing biblical communication and conflict-resolution skills. The session must see itself as a team. This means that the individualist instinct must be suppressed in ministers and elders. Matters under discussion must be kept confidential. When decisions are made, the dissenter should keep his disagreement to himself unless it involves moral or doctrinal absolutes. Then the proper means of discipline should be judiciously used to deal with sin and heresy.

One of the greatest temptations presented by the democratic mentality is the idea that the ruling elder is a sounding board for congregational discontent or an agent for special interests. Smyth was aware of this danger already in the nineteenth century, when he warned:

Remember, however, that while you are the representatives of the people, you represent not their WISHES and OPINIONS, but their DUTIES and OBLIGATIONS, THEIR RIGHTS AND PRIVILEGES, as these are laid down in those heavenly laws to which you and they are both alike subject, and which no power on earth can either alter, modify, abridge, or enlarge.

Because pride enhances this temptation he added, “Seek not popularity at the expense of fidelity.”[16]

The idea, rightly emphasized by Hodge and others, that ruling elders are “representatives of the people” can easily be misused in order to pit the minister against the people, as if the pastor did not sympathize with their concerns. Frustrated preachers must not treat their elder as Absaloms. Annual sessional retreats, together with a wise and regular system of visitation by elders and minister, will do much to prevent such abuse.

The session must present a united front. This means that a wedge should never be allowed to be driven between a pastor and the elders. The pastor must be teachable and humble, never demanding his agenda. But it also means that the ruling elder must protect the pastor from the power of destructive criticism. Criticism itself is healthy, but the Devil, the original egalitarian, is a master at inspiring unjust criticism and using just criticism divisively to ruin churches and drive good men from the ministry. The wise elder will try to answer the criticisms and concerns of members on the spot or bring the matter directly to the pastor (with the critic, if necessary). It is crucial that elders support the pastor, especially when they disagree with him. Berghoef and DeKoster have an excellent section on this subject.[17] This would be a superb book for sessions to work through together. Finally, ministers and elders will serve the Lord and promote the godly government of his church best by being servants of God and his people. The three-office view, by itself, will not restore true ministry to the church. Only if those who fill the offices have the mind of their Master, the mind of a servant (Phil. 2:5–11), will egalitarianism be kept at bay and the kingdom of God built. The individualist will use the office for his own personal fulfillment and thus denigrate the office. The servant will seek the glory of his Lord.


[1] Charles Hodge, Discussions in Church Polity (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1878), 128.

[2] Iain Murray, “Ruling Elders—A Sketch of a Controversy,” The Banner of Truth Magazine, no. 235 (April 1983): 1.

[3] Edmund P. Clowney, “A Brief for Church Governors in Church Government” (unpublished paper, 1972), 15.

[4] Hodge, Church Polity, 130. (Battles's English translation in the Library of Christian Classics is substituted for Hodge's quotation of Calvin in Latin.)

[5] Thomas Smyth, Complete Works of the Reverend Thomas Smyth, D.D., ed. J. William Flinn (Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1908), 4:26.

[6] 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), 28.

[7] Hodge, Church Polity, 129.

[8] Ibid., 130.

[9] Smyth, Works, 4:26.

[10] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, LCC, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 4.3.8:1055.

[11] Miller, The Ruling Elder, 197.

[12] K. Sietsma, The Idea of Office (Jordan Station, Ontario: Paideia Press, 1985), 15.

[13] 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, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1991), 78–79.

[14] Smyth, Works, 4:28.

[15] Miller, The Ruling Elder, 311–12.

[16] Smyth, Works, 4:31.

[17] Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster, The Elder's Handbook (Grand Rapids: Christian Library, 1979), 160–62. Cf. Lawrence Eyres, The Elders of the Church (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1975), 17–18.

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, February 2014.

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Ordained Servant: February 2014

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