Commentary on the Form of Government of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapters 5–6

Alan D. Strange

Chapter V
Offices in the Church

1. Our Lord Jesus Christ established his church of the new covenant on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. The apostles were appointed to be witnesses to the risen Christ, testifying in the Holy Spirit to what they had seen and heard, heralding the gospel to the world, and grounding the church in the teaching of Christ. Together with the prophets they spoke by revelation, recording in the Scriptures of the New Testament the fullness of the truth as it is in Christ Jesus. When their testimony was completed their calling and office was not continued in the church, and the powers and signs that endued and sealed their ministry ceased.

Comment: Before proceeding to deal with the particular offices that now obtain in the New Testament era in the church of our Lord, the FG begins, as it customarily does, with a broader treatment of the subject of offices. A variety of offices marked the Old Covenant economy (prophets, priests, Levites, judges, elders, and kings). During the important period of transition from Old to New Covenant, in which the gospel began to extend to the nations and the composition of the New Testament was still in process— notably that which is reflected in the Book of Acts—the church received the foundation described in the first sentence, grounded on the apostles and prophets, with Christ as the chief cornerstone (citing Ephesians 2:20).

The person and work of Christ rendered the OT offices obsolete, at least in the form that they assumed under the OT. One can speak of a certain analogy of OT offices with NT offices, as in the OT kingship being reflected in the governing aspects of the NT office of elder, the OT priesthood reflected both in NT ministers as well as in the priesthood of all believers, etc.[1] Even as Christ’s completed work rendered the OT offices passé, so the completion of the NT canon rendered the apostleship no longer necessary. The work of the apostleship was to witness to what they had seen and heard Jesus do and say: that witness, alongside of the prophets, when captured in the New Testament, was completed with the last of the writing apostles and the closing of the NT canon.

Though some speak, as does the Roman Catholic Church, of the bishops being the successors of the Apostles, the office of Apostle, at least in its extraordinary capacity (the first-person witness and account of the person and work of Christ) admits of no successor (there no longer being need for such with a completed canon). Those extraordinary gifts that accompanied apostles and prophets (speaking in tongues, words of knowledge, performance of miracles, etc.) no longer appear in Paul’s valedictory writings (in the pastoral epistles), in which ordinary church order appears and there is no reference to charismata or a continuing apostolate in any fashion.[2] Rather, what we witness in those pastoral epistles is a description of the ordinary life of the church that will continue throughout this age until Christ returns. So, it may be said that while the office of apostle has no successor as to its extraordinary aspects, it does as to its ordinary ones: the preaching of the Word and prayer (Acts 6), reflected now in the New Testament in the office of minister especially.

2. Our Lord continues to build his church through the ministry of men whom he calls and endues with special gifts for teaching, ruling, and serving. Some of these special gifts can be most profitably exercised only when those who possess them have been publicly recognized as called of Christ to minister with authority. It is proper to speak of such a publicly recognized function as an office, and to designate men by such scriptural titles of office and calling as evangelist, pastor, teacher, bishop, elder, or deacon. There are diversities of ministry within any office, for every man is called to be a steward of his own gifts. At the same time, a general designation of office may be applied to a group of functions within which separate offices could be distinguished.

Comment: The church is no longer in the OT period, nor the interim period during which the witnesses of the apostles and prophets, particularly as inscripturated, prevailed. The church now has God’s complete Word in the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments.[3] Contrary to some of the Radical Reformation (Anabaptists, Quakers, Brethren, etc.), the church still needs not only the general office of believer (to which some of the Radical Reformation reduce the whole church) but also the special offices for teaching (minister), ruling (ruling elder), and serving (deacon). Given the manifest abuse of special office in the period before the Reformation,[4] we can be grateful that the Reformers retained special office and did not join in the democratization of office that we have seen not only in the Radical Reformation but the evangelical church broadly in the last two centuries.[5]

So, we continue to speak of both general and special offices, with the word “office” deriving from a Latin word that means “duty.” The focus of office in the church then is not on any privileges that may accrue to an office-holder but rather to the duties incumbent on the office. One who holds an office should be aware of such duties and seek faithfully to execute them while he holds office. Those who hold such offices do so with authority, which is to recognize that others may have such gifts without holding church office: it is not the mere possession of gifts that grants authority, but the recognition by the church of such gifts and the consequent ordination to office for the exercise of those gifts is what bestows authority.

There are various biblical titles by which office-bearers are denominated: evangelist, pastor, teacher, bishop, elder, or deacon. Each of these has specific gifts associated with the particular office, though any given office-bearer may have a multiplicity of gifts. Additionally, the office of minister has several expressions (evangelist, pastor, teacher), which subsequent chapters delineate. The office of bishop is not listed in the FG as a distinct office but is the same office as pastor of a local church.[6]

3. The ordinary and perpetual offices in the church are those given for the ministry of the Word of God, of rule, and of mercy. Those who share in the rule of the church may be called elders (presbyters), bishops, or church governors. Those who minister in mercy and service are called deacons. Those elders who have been endued and called of Christ to labor also in the Word and teaching are called ministers.

Comment: Whatever the earlier offices may have been in the Old Testament and in the time of the apostles before the closing of the New Testament canon, the offices that now obtain (the ordinary offices of minister, elder, and deacon that have succeeded the extraordinary ones of apostles and prophets) and that shall continue until Christ comes (and thus denominated “perpetual”) are those that pertain to the ministry of the Word of God, of rule, and of mercy. Those sharing together with the minister in the rule of the church are called “(ruling) elders” or by other titles. The ministry of mercy and service (especially to the poor and needy, both in and out of the church) is the primary work of those that the Bible calls “deacons.” Note here that the FG describes ministers as “elders who have been endued of Christ to labor also in the Word and teaching.” The word “elder” as a descriptor for one who governs in the church may thus be used to describe both those who serve as ruling elders as well as those who serve as ministers. In other words, the minister is an elder as well as a minister (in fact, some Presbyterian churches call them “teaching elders”); the ruling elder, however, is not a minister, as such, but is one who joins with the minister(s) in the joint rule and governance of the church. To be sure, some ruling elders may be quite “ministerial” in their gifts and be able to do many of the things that a minister or local pastor does. However, such gifting on the part of ruling elders is to be regarded as a blessing, a sort of “extra,” and not a requirement, not essential, for all who would hold the ruling elder office.  

Chapter VI
Ministers or Teaching Elders

1. The ministry of the Word is a calling of God to stewardship in the gospel. In this ministry there is a diversity of gifts that are essential to the discharge of evangelistic, pastoral, and teaching functions.

Comment: The previous chapter describes all ordinary office-bearers of our present era, the three offices set forth in Paul’s pastoral epistles of minister, elder, and deacon. This chapter focuses on the first of these: the Minister of Word and sacraments. It begins by noting that the ministry of the Word is a calling of God to stewardship in the gospel. The concept of calling (or, to use the Latinate word, “vocation”) bears a special significance for the minister.[7] The minister, unlike the elder or the deacon, in the Presbyterian tradition is an office not only in which the incumbent serves for his lifetime, but also one in which he customarily works exclusively (admittedly serving bi-vocationally in some cases). This contrasts with the offices of elder and deacon in which such office-bearers may or may not serve for a lifetime (though this writer believes that there is biblical warrant for them to do so); but, in any case, elders and deacons ordinarily have regular jobs outside the church and do not give their full-time attention to the service of the church.

The notion of calling among Protestants differs from that which proceeded it in the Roman Catholic Church. In pre-Reformational times office had developed so that all offices (deacons, presbyters, bishops) were regarded as clergy (and thus full-time). Thus, ranks were introduced among the clergy. When Calvin and other Reformed theologians spoke of “the parity of the clergy,” they meant that the offices of deacon and elder should no longer be considered clergy (as “ministers” continued to be considered, in some sense) and that those who were properly clergy were equal, even if functioning differently (as pastors, doctors, etc.). Particularly Calvin and the Reformed came to the conviction that the Roman Catholic office of bishop (leader of the diocese, or area church) and presbyter (minister, or priest, laboring in the local parish) were the same, not that the bishop was a superior cleric to the inferior parish priest.[8]  

It was only at the Reformation that the apostolic pattern of lay deacons and elders was restored and that calling came to be viewed as something that pertained not only to clerics but also to the laity at large. In the middle ages, for instance, one’s vocation (calling) was either secular (parish priest) or regular (monastic), and if one were asked what his vocation was, any such inquiry meant the questioner wanted to know, for the secular cleric, what parish he served, or for the regular cleric, in what order his monastic calling was. After the Reformation, the notion of calling expanded so that not only the religious (clergymen) had callings but everyone had a calling, whether butcher, baker, or candlestick maker. The clergy, however, did retain for the Reformers a call to special office that even the other office-bearers did not have in the same sense. In other words, the Reformers would typically speak of a minister being called to his ministerial office and would not necessarily speak of the ruling elder or the deacon as having the same sort of calling.

For the minister, calling is conceived as having two parts: an internal call and an external call. The former is that which is impressed upon the heart of one gifted for gospel ministry and involves both a subjective awareness of God’s gifting for ministry and a sense that God wills one to pursue such ministry, together with the desire for such in the case of one so called. The external call is the recognition and affirmation of that call on the part of the visible church, brought to expression by a call to labor (as a pastor, for instance, in a local congregation), eventuating in ordination and installation with the laying on of hands, in which all of the outward authority of the church is brought to bear for one entering the ministerial office.

The ministerial office is also said to involve a stewardship, inasmuch as the steward of a house is not the householder (he’s not “over the house” as only the owner and master is). Ministerial stewardship involves a right handling and management within the church of all that pertains to gospel ministry, including the mysteries of God, reading and preaching the Word, leading in prayer and singing, etc. Here in this chapter the stewardship specifically pertains to the varying gifts needed for the different functionaries that labor as gospel ministers, listed here as those which mark ministers as pastors, teachers, or evangelists.

2. Every minister of the Word, or teaching elder, must manifest his gifts and calling in these various aspects of the ministry of the gospel and seek by full exercise of his ministry the spiritual profit of those with whom he labors. As a minister or servant of Christ it is his duty to feed the flock of God, to be an example to them, to have oversight of them, to bear the glad tidings of salvation to the ignorant and perishing and beseech them to be reconciled to God through Christ, to exhort and convince the gainsayer by sound doctrine, and to dispense the sacraments instituted by Christ. Among those who minister the Word the Scripture distinguishes the evangelist, the pastor, and the teacher.

Comment: Here, as in the PCA Form of Government, the minister is noted to be a teaching elder.[9] He is an elder, one that governs in the church, and he is also a teacher, holding not only the governing office along with the ruling elders, but the teaching office, to which the sacraments are also allied. He is gifted by God and called by God, both internally in the candidate and externally by the visible church, to carry out his ministry of evangelist, pastor, or teacher. He is to fully exercise the gifts that pertain to the ministry God has given him and the church has recognized, ordained, and installed him for, so the saints might be maximally edified, i.e., so that he might work most fully to the greatest spiritual profit of those among whom he has been called to labor.

Such labor among God’s people for every minister, whatever his function, includes feeding the flock of God, which involves preaching and teaching God’s Word to them. Being an example to them involves living before and among them as Christ did, imitating Christ in all his matchless virtues. To have oversight is to give leadership and join the other ministers and elders in the spiritual government of the people. The responsibility of a minister is not only to those within the church but also to those outside, and this is why he must preach the gospel (bearing the glad tidings of salvation) to those who don’t know it and are going to hell (the ignorant and perishing), pleading with them to come to Christ, to be reconciled to God through Christ, going so far as to warn and convince those in open opposition to the truth (the gainsayer). As noted, allied to these holy tasks the minister dispenses the sacraments of initiation (baptism) and continuation (the Lord’s Supper). All of this is true to all functionaries of the ministerial office, whether evangelist, pastor, or teacher.

3. He who fills this office shall be sound in the faith, possess competency in human learning, and be able to teach and rule others. He should exhibit holiness of life becoming to the gospel. He should be a man of wisdom and discretion. He should rule his own house well. He should have a good report of them that are outside the church.

Comment: Having mentioned the duties of the office of minister the FG now lists some of the general qualifications for ministerial office. The minister must be sound in the faith, which is to say that he must be orthodox. This is what presbyterial examination seeks to ascertain: orthodoxy, competency, holiness, and wisdom. Here is the second requirement, then: a minister much possess competency in human learning, i.e., he should be able both in general learning as well as in theological learning. He should not only know and believe the faith, however, but should also be able clearly to express it so that others can understand it (teach) and give guidance and leadership to others (rule; this also includes of his household—if he can’t rule at home, how can he rule in the church?). He must also be holy as is the heavenly Father, walking with exemplary piety before the flock. He must be a man not only of learning and piety but of wisdom, the practical application of God’s Word, and have good judgment with respect to himself and others (discretion). Finally, he must not have a bad reputation with those outside the church. Outsiders may hate him for upholding the truth, but they must have no just cause for otherwise thinking ill of him.[10]

4. Every minister shall be a member of a regional church and has communicant fellowship in any local congregation of that regional church. The presbytery, with the concurrence of a ministerial member, may request a session within its bounds to exercise pastoral care over him in its behalf. A session, with the concurrence of the presbytery, may grant the right to vote in the congregation to any ministerial member of the regional church.

Comment: The membership of every minister is not in a local, particular church, as is everyone else’s membership ordinarily, including other office-bearers (ruling elders and deacons). Many wonder why this is, particularly wondering what a regional church is. Historically, a regional church was simply the congregations of a clearly defined area, based on proximity. For instance, when Paul writes to the church in Ephesus or Corinth, we are not to think that he is writing to a particular local congregation but to the church (singular) that exists in Ephesus and Corinth, made up of a number of congregations. While each congregation of thirty or forty people (meeting in homes or elsewhere) would typically have deacons and elders, they would in a regional church, typically share ministers. Thus, the minister would not be a member of any particular local congregation but of the regional church. More about the justification for such an arrangement at the appropriate place.

Perhaps it is enough here to note that this arrangement has continued even though a regional church may not be limited to a city or more discrete area. Because the minister is a member of the presbytery, this allows him fully to serve a particular local congregation, especially as a pastor, without being a member of that congregation. All the local members of a particular church, including elders and deacons, have a sort of ownership in the local church that the minister does not: while having membership in the broader church, he remains the one called to wash the feet of the saints in the local church in humble non-possessive, disinterested (non-partisan) service.  

It is the case that as a member of the regional church every minister has communicant fellowship in all the congregations of that regional church. Part of the implication of this is that any minister whose membership is in the regional church would have the privilege of the floor in any assembly of that regional church, though he would not have a vote in any of them, including his own, since his membership is not in the local but in the regional church. This is only true for ministers, being regional church members, and not for elders and deacons, being particular, local church members. However, a session, with the agreement of the presbytery, may grant a vote in the congregation to any minister of that presbytery, which is to say that a pastor of a particular church, for instance, might be granted such a right by his session and presbytery. Though he remains exclusively a member of the regional church, (he is not also a member of the local church), he simply has the right of congregational vote in the local church. The presbytery may also ask the session of any particular local church within its bounds to exercise pastoral oversight of a minister, which is to say, that a minister who serves as teacher (in a college or seminary, for instance) may enjoy such oversight by the particular local church that he attends.   


[1] R. B. Kuiper, The Glorious Body of Christ: A Scriptural Appreciation of The One Holy Church (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 132–57 provides a handy summary of the special offices treated in this section of the FG.

[2] Richard B. Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1979), 55–116; O. Palmer Robertson, The Final Word: A Biblical Response to the Case for Tongues and Prophecy Today (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1993), 22–51, passim.

[3] On the important question of “The Apostolic Origins of the Canon,” see Michael Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2012), 160–94.

[4] This was so in several respects: in employing church discipline politically against one’s ecclesiastical opponents, as did not only many popes, but also many other clergymen; in gross clerical immorality, all the way up to and including the Papacy; and in the general notion of both the secular and regular clergy that the laity were at best barely Christians and that the clergy was God’s holy preserve in the world, with many monastics thinking that only they truly lived out radical Christianity, such as what the Sermon on the Mount called for. For a balanced look at the leadup to the Reformation, see Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250–1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980), 135–181 and Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, Second edition (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 23–53.

[5] Gregory Edward Reynolds, “Democracy and the Denigration of Office,” in Order in the Offices: Essays Defining the Role of Church Officers (Duncansville, PA: Classic Presbyterian Government Resources), 235–55.

[6] See Charles Hodge for a discussion of why we could use “bishop” for “minister” or “pastor” in the Presbyterian Church but tend not to, Discussions in Church Polity (1878; repr., New York: Westminster Publishing House, 2001), 242–43.

[7] Robert L. Dabney, “What Is a Call to the Ministry?” in Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, v. 2 (1891; repr. London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 26–46.

[8] Few have as firm a grasp on the problems in the Roman Catholic Church with office, discipline, etc. and treat it as fairly as does Philip Schaff. For the early church development of these issues, see, Schaff, History of the Christian Church, v. 3 (1889; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 234–374.

[9] Morton Smith, in his Commentary on the PCA Book of Church Order, Sixth Edition (Taylors, SC: Presbyterian Press, GPTS, 2007), page 65 notes, “The PCA, after an extensive study of the question of the number of offices, has come to the position that the New Testament teaches that there are two permanent offices in the Church, namely elder and deacon.” Hence the PCA BOCO reflects that, in distinction from the OPC FG, which retains the three-office position from earlier Reformed and Presbyterian polity. Smith continues, “Once the church reached this conclusion [of two offices only], the PCA has re-written the two chapters found in previous forms of the BCO under the titles ‘Of the Ministers of the Word’ and ‘Of the Ruling Elder’ into a single chapter entitled ‘The Elder’.”

[10] One of the chief influences on Morton Smith’s Commentary (he has several, page 11) is F. P. Ramsay’s Exposition of the Form of Government and the Rules of Discipline of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (1878). Ramsey, quoted by Smith in Commentary, page 77, helpfully says in a comparison of all special officers, with an eye to all the relevant Scriptures: “All officers, then, are to excel in a living piety, deep and manifest, and in mental balance, or good sense; to these qualities Ruling Elders are to add pre-eminence in wisdom, and a grasp of the system of truth; and to all these qualities the Ministers are to add pre-eminence in learning and aptness to teach.”

Alan D. Strange is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and is associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Joliet, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, November 2020. A list of available installments in this series appears here.

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Ordained Servant: November 2020

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