Elders are to Rule and Pastors are to Preach by Rev. Benjamin Glaser
In a light-hearted post this last week my compatriot and dear friend, the Rev. Tim Phillips, posted a meme on an ARP Facebook page that opened up a discussion about the so-called "Three-Office" view and the "Two-Office" view. After much back and forth there was seemingly a lot that needed said. This is a question which has vexed primarily American Presbyterianism for over two-centuries. The issue I want to look at in this brief essay is: Why does this matter? What effect does one or the other have in real life? We'll look at one particular example, because to look at too much more would tax your time.
Often well-meaning people will push back at any discussion over things of this nature with the often misused phrase, "...it's like arguing over how many angels can fit on a pin!", implying that the value of the answer is so unimportant that spending much effort entering into the fray either gets in the way of ministry, or wastes vital time that could be better used in other ways. Even worse is the idea that thinking through subjects which some deem unimportant actually drive people away from the Christian faith! Well, I want to demur from such thinking. Our age is largely the way it is because so little is taken seriously. The Church is weak, because she has failed to deal vigorously with matters related to function as well as form. Any idea that discussing the two-office/three-office distinction is wasteful in itself misses the point of the need to make clear what we understand the Bible to teach. A large part of ministry is carefully dividing the word of truth. Giving over the study of ecclesiology as unnecessary gives place to the twin enemies of pragmatism and ecclesiastical bullying. Careful, nuanced understanding makes good neighbors and protects the flock. If you think this kind of thing shouldn't move the needle then you are not just wrong, but dreadfully so. A true minister in Christ's Church is a churchman and should be readily concerned with its organization and operation. As an aside here ministers and elders who make a habit of skipping ecclesiastical meetings need a good dose of the 2x4 of the Holy Spirit. If we are Presbyterians then we need to be committed to our Form of Government and defend it by our presence, as much as by our confession.
Let us move into some historical and theological considerations.
While generally speaking two-office proponents were to be found down South in the lineage of Thornwell, Dabney, and others, and three-office defenders were up North via Old Princeton and Charles Hodge it was not universally the case. There were theologians on the Yankee and Dixie sides who proffered arguments for both. The Rev. Dr. Thomas Smyth of Charleston, SC is an example of one from down here. Smyth was a keen man of the church and one who wrote copious amounts on the offices of Elder and Deacon (as well as Minister). One of things you will notice if you delve into his work on these matters (helpfully collated by our friends at the Log College Press) is that in his desire to bring clarity to the duties and responsibilities of Elder and Deacon each are strengthened alongside those of the Minister. One of the common criticisms of the Three-Office view is that it diminishes the Ruling Elder, making it a second-class position, and further lowers the Deacon to a mere caretaker. However, as we will see these accusations are unfounded. Since the focus of this article is on the why's and not as much on the how's I will link to the more detailed exegetical arguments here and here and here.
Though it would be unfair to expect you to go and read all three links before reading the rest of this post a brief look at the biblical basis for three offices is warranted. Being that we are covenant theologians it is important when thinking about practical applications to look back at the Old Testament for the movement of church government into the New Testament. Generally speaking the three-office view holds that each of the New Testament offices: Minister, Elder, and Deacon, can be found in use in the Old Testament Church. Minister continuing the labors of Prophet, Elder that of Judge, and Deacon of Priest. Given this then a preacher proclaims, an elder rules, and a deacon intercedes. Each having their own authority and station by which God thereof has provided for His Church. We see this laid out in the New Testament via Acts 6:4, deacons being set apart to wait tables and see to the needs of the widows so that those called to exhort the nations and comfort the Church in repentance and faith can give themselves over to the ministry of the Word. Elders likewise are provided for in a Acts 14:23, to serve the Church in a ruling capacity. Much as with other things whose form changed, but the principle stayed the same (circumcision to infant baptism) we see similar things going on with the caretaking of Christ's church as the parameters of the kingdom moved out of theocratic Israel to the Bride of the Redeemer, the infant under age is now grown up and the tutor has moved on to other labors. As Smyth notes in his sermon to the Charleston Union Presbytery:
Elders, a class of officers which had existed under the Mosaic Economy, and in the Jewish Synagogues, were therefore divinely appointed, that they might be associated with Pastors in the rule and government of the Church of Christ.
Having laid this out the primary question surrounds whether or not the Minister is a separate office or a different role within the office of Elder (Teaching and Ruling). While it is not 100% in anything for the vast majority of writers regardless of whether or not they hold to two or three offices there is agreement on the Office of Deacon so we'll not touch that right now.
Let's move now to see how Thomas Smyth goes about differentiating the offices according to Pastor and Elder.
The minister is:
...to make the Gospel sound forth into all the region round about, and to the very remotest bounds of the earth. For this purpose does Christ, the good shepherd, still continue to send forth ministers as under shepherds, that they may gently lead his flock along the green pastures, and beside the still waters ; gather the lambs into his arms of mercy; and feed them with milk and food convenient for them, until they grow to maturity in knowledge and in grace.
The primary role of the ruling elder is:
For this purpose are elders also given, that they may co-operate with the under shepherd in guarding the flock from all harm, violence and treachery; in leading forth the sheep to the pasture; in tending upon the weak, and sickly, and faint ; in expelling and keeping away such as are infectious and disorderly ; and in paying especial attention to the nurture and admonition of the young.
Here we see that while there are comparisons, the callings of Minister and Elder are unique and different. Mixing them by both classing them as Elders, one teaching the other ruling, makes a confusion of categories. The difference is important because the more clarity that is provided in understanding each role the better each party can accomplish the Biblical purposes for the kingdom. The Elder is called to support the preaching ministry of the Pastor through the work of discipline within the Church. He does this through ruling the local body and ensure that the people are heeding the proclamation of the Word. In older churches there used to be a line of chairs below the pulpit. This was expressly for the Elders to sit and keep an eye on the people to see whether or not they were fulfilling the call of Shorter Catechism #90. When is the last time one heard of Elders doing this? Now, I don't say this to denigrate our currently faithful serving Elders. They have not been trained to do this and I place the blame primarily on this confusion of the responsibilities of Minister and Elder. And to be clear here I am not saying churches need to put chairs in front of the pulpit so everyone can stare at the Elders. This can be accomplished just as well in the pews.
One of the ways that Smyth will talk about how this can cause trials is that if the Elders are not ensuring the planted seeds of the preached word are being nurtured and cared for then the proclaimer of the truth of Christ is acting in vain. One can see quite clearly what he is getting at. Practically on the ground the sad reality is true, real Elder visitation is almost non-existent in the Church today. Smyth understands this as being different from the regular Ministerial visitation. It is expected today that the Minister will not only spread the gospel, but do all the work of watering, tending, pruning, and harvesting. Elders are mainly for running the Church as a glorified board of directors rather than ruling the body. But this is not the way our Lord has established things. As Smyth notes:
How much strength has thus been spent in vain, and how much labor has thus been given for nought! How much seed of the word has been lost; how many geminating plants have been killed by untimely exposure and neglect; and how many flourishing and healthy plants have been allowed to fade and die through utter negligence...Where have been the daysmen to mediate between the pastor and his numerous flock ; to hear the plaints or murmurings of both ; and thus to oil the wheels which must other- wise drag heavily and with grating sound, so that the whole machinery may accomplish its designed results noiselessly and with powerful efficiency?There is no doubt that much has been placed on the plate of the Minister in the 21st Century that is not on his menu. This does not mean he has no real work to do in helping with pruning and the like, but it is the responsibility of the Ruling Elder to make first note and identify the plants which need the most help so that the man given the call to bring the salve of the gospel to bear can apply when and where needed. The Minister today is basically back in the same situation the Apostles found themselves in the beginning of Acts 6. Elders need to rule, Pastors need to shepherd, and Deacons need to serve. The more all three stay in their lanes the better the church of the Lord Jesus Christ will flourish.
In closing, this has barely remotely scratched the surface. This post could easily be another couple thousand words, but then even less people who will read this far would ponder it any farther. All this has been said to take one part and open up discussion. I highly recommend reading Smyth's work on the Ruling Elder to get a deeper and more full understanding of the situation. In order to better serve the people of God this reexamining and reorienting both Ministers and Elders to make sure they are doing their jobs in Christ's Kingdom will help to give strength to all officers, and through them to the sheep.