Three-Offices of the Church Part One

Why I Came to a Three-Office View

Mark R. Brown

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 4, no. 1 (January 1995)


Many readers of this magazine rightly hold the memory of Bob Atwell in high regard. In 1978 the venerable Mr. Atwell asked me a church government question as part of my presbytery ordination exams: “Do you hold to three offices or two offices in the church today?” I answered naively that I was not yet sure to which position I held. Because of very limited exposure during seminary days to the issues involved in this debate, I had not yet come to any firm convictions on this subject. As I began my church planting labors in Hollidaysburg, PA, I used the few modern booklets on Presbyterian officers that were available and taught the popular two-office view. Only later as controversy erupted in the session would I come to realize that some elements of the current literature were in conflict with our Orthodox Presbyterian Church Form of Government.

The works of Thornwell are highly respected in conservative Presbyterian circles. He said, “Presbyterianism stands or falls with the distinction between ruling and teaching elders.”[1]

All Presbyterian two-office views recognize some distinction between preachers and other presbyters. That is why Presbyterian two-office views are often labeled “2-1/2” office views because they recognize two different functions (teaching and ruling) within their office of elder.[2]

Tensions developed at Westminster Orthodox Presbyterian Church Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania when several of our elders pushed two-office views that allowed for no distinctions of function within the office. I had always taught parity in governing; now these men took it to mean equality in all functions. To recognize distinctions in calling and functions between the pastor and other elders was seen by them as evidence of clericalism, hierarchy, and arrogance. For example, the dissident elders were offended when I would encourage young men to consider a call to the ministry. To them this was a put down. They felt I was falsely assuming ministerial prerogatives to myself. They wanted a rotating pulpit, and the right to baptize, administer communion, and bless the people on the basis of their calling as elders. They were offended that a pastor must be present to conduct session meetings. They preferred to talk of the eldership rather than the session (consisting of a pastor and the ruling elders). I was to be seen as one of the elders. We were all the elder/ pastors of the church.[3]

As our session studied the Orthodox Presbyterian Church Form of Government the opposition of the dissident elders to Presbyterian views hardened. They presented this false choice to the whole session: “Are we going to follow the Bible or the Form of Government?” Our session tried very hard to bring compromise and resolution by using Larry Wilson’s excellent article from Ordained Servant entitled “How Many Offices are There?” It clearly sets forth the Presbyterian boundaries of office. The dissidents would not agree that preaching was distinct from ruling. They would not agree that ruling elders could serve who did not teach publicly. They wanted all elders to be preachers. In essence their position was similar to the Plymouth Brethren. They created a new office of local lay preachers and rulers all simply called elders. Of course, this view falls outside the bounds of our presbyterian standards since it disposes of both our preachers and rulers. A helpful analogy to this situation comes from the field of eschatology. Reformed churches allow for pre-, post-, and a-millennial interpretations while rejecting the dispensational premillennial view as being outside the bounds of the Reformed confessions. In like manner our Orthodox Presbyterian Church Form of Government allows both a teaching elder/ ruling elder and a minister/ruling elder framework within our standards while the lay eldership view is clearly beyond our bounds.

Why did this spirit of envy and rivalry develop in our session? I am convinced that it is due to the current confounding of the offices in popular Presbyterian presentations. Where the offices of minister and ruling elder are not clearly defined and distinguished, tensions do develop within sessions. There has been controversy throughout Presbyterian history about the precise relation of the ruling elder to the minister.

The 2-1/2 office view is a mediating view that is both inconsistent and ambiguous. The strict two-office men here rejected it as merely a variant of the three-office view. In trying to respond to the objections of these two-office men, I found solid answers as I discovered the historic three-office position. Charles Dennison encouraged me to gather a book of essays on this subject for the benefit of the whole church. That is the genesis of the new book Order in the Offices: Essays Defining the Roles of Church Officers. In addition to some 19th century reprints from Campbell, Smyth, and Hodge, the book consists of new essays by eight Orthodox Presbyterian Church and two Presbyterian Church of America ministers. Our conclusion is that the classic three-office Presbyterian structure of ministers, elders, and deacons better expresses the biblical framework of church office than does the current two functions within an eldership view.[4]

We often hear the popular phrase that “all Christians are ministers.” Of course we do not believe that all Christians are preachers, rulers, or ministers of mercy. The word minister (deacon) has both general and special usages. So does the word elder (presbyter). The great mistake of the two-office people is in making an across the board equation of the word elder (presbyter) with the ruling elder in all the biblical passages. Elder sometimes refers to an older man, sometimes to a governor or elder of the people, and sometimes to a bishop or pastor. Many in our day just assume an equation between the ruling elder and the bishop. Do not most Presbyterians today read ruling elders into Acts 20 and I Tim. 3? That is not the view of Calvin and other classic Presbyterian interpreters as Steve Miller and Jeff Boer point out in their essays in Order in the Offices.[5]

The question of ordination is highly relevant to the number of offices. The word office itself is not a biblical term. In common parlance an office is either a function or a position. It can be either a task or a role. By either definition our standards are three-office in orientation, as are the standards of the Presbyterian Church in America.[6] Our form of government defines an office as “a publicly recognized function” (p. 17). Note that in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church men are not ordained to the eldership. They are ordained to an office: deacon, ruling elder, or minister (p. 73). I have never been good at math, but I count three offices there. The sacred office (position) and the work of preaching the gospel (function) are not equated with the eldership. The ministry of the gospel is not a subdivision of the eldership but is a distinct calling common to all Protestant denominations. The minister is not an elder who teaches but a preacher who also governs. Out standards present three discreet ordinations with three special gifts: teaching, ruling, and serving (p. 17). There are three ordinary offices for the ministry of the Word, rule and mercy. (p. 18).

To speak of two offices within the office of the eldership is an illogical use of language. But, as Dr. Clowney reminds us, the essence of the matter is not the number of offices but whether all who rule in the church must have gifts for public ministry of the Word. Three-office views prevent clericalism and preserve the importance of the office of ruling elder in all the courts of the church. Nothing I have said is in any way meant to demean the godly, wise, and respected men who have been called to the office of ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (p. 34). I highly value the many godly ruling elders who share in the government and discipline of the church. With Thomas Smyth I would say:

…ought not ruling elders to be very thankful to us for defending them from the imposition upon them of clerical titles, clerical office, clerical duties, and clerical responsibilities? We think so for who among them could endure to be clothed with the pastoral office without education, fitness, desire, or opportunity for it—without, in short, a call to the ministry.[7]

In our congregation (and in many others with whom I am familiar from correspondence, both within and without the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) the ambiguous two-office view leads to tensions and strife among the officers. May I encourage you to take some time to read Calvin’s Commentaries on the key office passages, Charles Hodge’s three essays on office, and above all Thomas Smyth’s “Theories of the Eldership I and II.” Smyth is to the subject of church officers what Geerhardus Vos is to biblical theology.

I believe Robert Rayburn is right when he says that the two-office view is the opinion of the majority in our circles today. However, many have never studied a positive defense of the classic three-office position. Order in the Offices is the first major book-length presentation of the three-office view since the works of Hodge and Smyth over 100 years ago. Before you reject our classic three-office Presbyterian heritage, please give it some thoughtful consideration. I would also be glad to personally respond to correspondence from any of you on this subject.


[1] Thornwell’s Works, Vol 4, p. 125.

[2] Thornwell and Dabney are actually much closer to classic three-office views than to contemporary two-office views. See the Annotated Bibliography of Order in the Offices for references to their views on office.

[3] See Greg Reynold’s essay in Order in the Offices and Nathan Hatch’s book The Democratization of American Christianity on the development of egalitarian views about American church officers.

[4] All readers of Ordained Servant may obtain a copy of Order in the Offices at the special price of $10.00 postpaid from Classic Presbyterian Government Resources, 807 Peachdale Lane, Duncansville, PA 16635.

[5] Steve Miller writes on “The New Testament Warrant of the Minister of the Word” and Jeff Boer writes on “Calvin’s View of the Teaching Elder-Ruling Elder Distinction.”

[6] See Robert S. Rayburn’s essay on “Ministers, Elders, and Deacons” in Order in the Offices for evidence that the Presbyterian Church in America, as well as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is basically three-office in orientation.

[7] From the essay “The Forgotten Thomas Smyth,” p. 116 in Order in the Offices.

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3 thoughts on “Three-Offices of the Church Part One

  1. Hmmm…. so you’re saying that there are these deacons. And then there are these presbyters. Beyond that, there’s a sort of….overseer?

    Man…this sounds familiar. If I could only remember where I’ve seen that before.

    CLL+

    (P.S. – and here I thought I was gonna get a lecture on the munus triplex!)

  2. While I would not argue strongly that all ruling elders should have a public preaching ministry, in I Timothy 3:1-13, and Titus 1:5-9, Paul clearly states that elders must be able to teach the doctrines of the church (perhaps in private settings) and be competent (if not scholarly) theologians.

    Should ruling elders who have preaching gifts be encouraged to develop and exercise that gift? Probably. Does being a competent teacher always indicate a gift and calling to preach? Probably not.

    Having served as a ruling elder, I can attest that a number of teaching elders have a “low” view of their ruling elders and attempt to settle all disagreements with the “I’m seminary trained and you are not” assertion. (A number of my fellow RE’s are seminary trained). Some of those same TE’s felt that RE’s had no useful input on the content of preaching or other TE activities.

    A contentious and divided session might have its roots in the Two Office view, but in the hearts of the elders, both TE’s and RE’s. More care in the selection and training of both might be the remedy.

    Respectfully,

    Sidney Bostian

  3. Correction of last paragraph of my previous comment:

    A contentious and divided session might not have its roots in the Two Office view, but in the hearts of the elders, both TE’s and RE’s. More care in the selection and training of both might be the remedy.

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