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.

Session-Controlled Communion & 1st Corninthians 11

Last evening my wife, our two little daughters, and I had the pleasure of going to our usually Lord’s Day evening service at North Hills RP Church here in Pittsburgh. We had not been there for a couple of weeks due to car troubles, birth of Mackenzie, being out of town, etc… So it was with a little surprise that we went last night to find out that North Hills was having communion. Also another surprise (actually I had forgotten) that North Hills practices what is called “Session-controlled communion” which means that anyone wanting to take communion at North Hills must meet with the Session and be approved prior to taking the elements at North Hills. As it is with many church doctrines that the mainlines and the more conservative denominations have kicked to the wayside and plain-just forgotten the Presbyterians used to be known for this. While those like NHRPC do not hand out tokens like in days passed they take very seriously the dangers associated with taking the Eucharist with laxity and disregard for its holy nature. The rationale for session-controlled communion can be found in Paul’s warning in 1st Corinthians 11 following the words of institution that we all use. Paul says:

The Lord’s Supper

23For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you will not come together for judgment The remaining matters I will arrange when I come.

Paul clearly is teaching here that a person must examine himself/herself before taking the elements and if they do not and take the elements unworthily they will do harm to themselves. Also implicit in this warning is a call to the Elders of the church at Corinth. For as I am sure Paul directed the Elders at Corinth part of the understanding of the role of the Elder in Paul’s day and in the Presbyterian system in our day is that they are responsible for the spiritual health and welfare of those under their care (cf: 1 Tim 3:5, Titus 1:7). Therefore not only does the individual have a responsible to guard themselves but the Elders have a heavenly call to guard the sheep from hurting themselves much like the Elders would protect them from any other danger. This is why many call for quarterly communion so that all can be protected properly. However as I believe that the Scriptures call for weekly communion and because of this if you are to have both session-controlled communion and weekly communion it is imperative for the session of the local church to be active in the preparation for the worship service each Lord’s Day and that includes introducing themselves to any visitors and letting them know what the policy is at the local church (not just about communion but other things as well).

What is the policy of your local congregation? How do you think this would work at a local level in your denomination?

Let me know what you think.

The Abandonement of Hermenuetics, Part 2

Joel 2:28-29 and Acts 2:15-21 are the subject of our next inquiry into the “Science” of Hermeneutics. It has been posited in the comments section of the answer to Part 1 that this should be used as a proof text for those who support Women’s Ordination and to not to leads to “General Assembly-like” pronouncements like women not being able to teach adult men but being able to teach male children.

There are several questions that come up when thinking here and must be understood when looking at these two passages. 1) How should we look at Old Testament passages cited by New Testament authors (inspired by the same Spirit?) 2) How much can we read into a text before we obscure and obfuscate its meaning? 3) Can a text have separate contexts?

However first we need to define the major word of this pericope. PROPHECY. John Calvin in his commentary on Acts 2 says, “…this word prophesy doth signify nothing else save only the rare and excellent gift of understanding, as if Joel should say, Under the kingdom of Christ there shall not be a few prophets only, unto whom God may reveal his secrets; but all men shall be endued with spiritual wisdom, even to the prophetical excellency.” John Chrysostom in his Homily V on Acts 2 also gives the same definition as John Calvin saying,” but for the grace, he fetches the prophet as witness. “I will pour out of My Spirit upon all flesh.” [“And your sons,” etc.] To some the grace was imparted through dreams, to others it was openly poured forth.” This Prophecy of which both Calvin and Chrysostom speak has nothing to do with teaching or preaching, as some have surmised, but has to do with the revelation of the Will of God. In this case Peter is speaking to the Jews who are wondering why Cretans and Arabs are speaking in tongues they do not understand. They are speaking not only in a tongue the Jews cannot understand but of a way that cannot be understand because the Holy Spirit has not been imparted to them. John Piper in a sermon on Acts 2 says this:

In the Old Testament the Spirit of God is the presence of God in the world to reveal himself by some action or word. Therefore when Joel says that God will pour out his Spirit on all flesh, he means that God will draw near to men and women and make himself known and felt in a powerful way. There is a great difference between perceiving a lake at a distance and being immersed in the lake. So there is a great difference between experiencing God as a distant object of knowledge and being immersed in his presence. The picture of a worldwide pouring compels us to think of being soaked and saturated and swept along by the Spirit of God. Joel wanted his readers to anticipate an unmistakable flood-tide of God’s presence.

The context of Peter’s commentary and quotation of Joel 2 belies nothing that would tell us Peter here is speaking about teaching and preaching in the Church. Peter is speaking to the Jews during the event of Pentecost when Jesus’ words to the Apostles were fulfilled. To make the argument that Peter here is is quoting Joel to give the office of teacher to both men and women is stretching the meaning of the text. As we see from the several commentators we cannot give a meaning to a text that it itself cannot and does not give. This on its own not only breaks Scripture’s internal hermeneutic but it violates the rules of literary analysis, tools that even wacko conservatives use to help determine the meaning of the text. Also as Reformed Christians who hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith as the best summary of the Doctrine of the Christian life we must (unless you are like our dispensational friends that believe that we can still receive prophecy after the death of the last Apostle) say that Prophecy has ceased. Richard Gaffin, Professor at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia in his book Perspectives on Pentecost in summary says, “The apostolic witness, prophecy and tongues were bound up with the foundation of the church following the ascension of Christ, and therefore, since the foundation has been laid, have no purpose for today.” For a Reformed believer if Prophecy has ceased then what Joel and Peter speak of in this passage cannot have bearing on us because we do not live in the Apostolic age. The Westminster Confession says:

The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 1, section 1:

Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.
Chapter 1, Section 6:
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.

Even moreso Paul in 1st Timothy 5:17 says, “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” Now who is to be preaching and teaching? Elders. What are the qualifications for Elders according to Paul (who like Peter and Joel is inspired by the Holy Spirit)? Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 that the office of Overseer, or Elder is restricted to “…the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”

Now where do Elders receive their call to head the Church? For that let us take a look at Acts 20:17-38. In this passage Paul is writing to the Elders at the church in Ephesus. He is giving them a sort of pep talk and exhorting them to keep strong in the faith that has been delivered to them and to be vigilant like a shepherd tending to their flocks. Now what does this description sound like to you? Sounds like the daily work of a Pastor does it not? Also worth remembering is the location of Timothy when Paul writes to him. Where is he? Ephesus. So if Paul believes that only qualified men (not all men) can be Elders, and Elders are the Shepherds of the Church, and Elders are to be the ones preaching and teaching what does that say about Joel and Peter and there speaking of Prophesy? Well we can be sure that it does not mean that Peter in Acts 2 and Joel in his book chapter 2 cannot be, if taken with the whole counsel of Scripture, to mean that the act of “Prophesy” which both men and women are called can be conflated to therefore mean that both men and women are called to and can preach and be Teaching Elders in the Church of Christ.

The Abandonement of Hermenuetics, Part 1.

The study of Hermeneutics or better said the way in which we read and study biblical text is a dying art in the evangelical, let alone the liberal, world. There used to be a very serious set of principles that a person would employ when they came to the Biblical text that was nearly as sacrosanct as the text itself. For those of us in the Reformed circles this was done in the guise of reading the Scriptures in the framework of the Covenants between God and man. In other words when a Reformed pastor or theologian would come to a biblical text he would read it first with the idea that the Bible was constructed with a certain organizing principle, constructed by the Holy Spirit so that we could both understand the larger picture and how the little things work for the overall Glory of God in history. We all come to the text with presuppositions about the nature of the text, the way we understand God to work in his creation, etc. Through all this we take things like God’s covenant with Noah and Abraham through different eyes than Talmudic or Dispensational scholars. The Talmudic scholar will read the promises to Noah in relation to the modern Jewish milieu. The Dispensationalist will see the Noahic Covenant as the beginning of a new dispensation that is different than the one given to Adam or Moses. Once we come to this understanding the question that comes before us is why do we think we can read Scripture in such a way that it does not inform on itself? For example in the arguments between those who support Women in Ordained ministry and those who do not the defenders of the egalitarian position often posit the observation that Jesus employed women to bring the news of his resurrection to his Male disciples as one fact supporting ordained female clergy. In other words Jesus uses women to bring the Good News to the disciples, therefore women can be messengers of the Gospel, ergo Women can be preachers of the Gospel and enter ordained ministry. Understand the argument? Ok. This argument sounds pretty good on the surface and looks secure in its logic, which if taken by itself it is logical.

Jesus’ discussion with the Pharisees in Matthew 12:38-41 is a good place for us to start in working with a Biblical hermeneutic. What are the details in this text? Pharisees and Scribes are asking Jesus for a sign after the crowds call him the “Son of David” for healing the blind and mute man possessed with a demonic force. The Pharisees want him to prove that he is this person whom the crowd claims him to be. So after Jesus and the Pharisees exchange pleasantries Jesus reminds them of Jonah (whom Jesus recognizes as both real and verifiable, which is another issue for another day) and what it was that happened to Jonah. He also reminds them of Nineveh and Nineveh’s repentance and applies this text not only to himself but to the recompense that is coming. All in order to show them that the signs have already been given to them in the Law and the Prophets (cf: The Rich Man and Lazarus) and that they have no need of new signs because why? Because there is nothing new in what Christ is teaching and what he is coming to do in their time. Jesus understands (and so does Zacharias) that the Law and the Prophets not only speak of him but are about him. This is all to say that a proper Biblical hermeneutic takes into account more than just what is in front of us on the page, more than the bare logic of a pericope.

Which brings us back to Matthew 28:1-10 (also Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-12, and John 20:1-10) and the reporting of the Resurrection. Now as we saw before the argument brought forward by egalitarians makes perfect sense, in isolation. Now how does the story look in context? We’ll answer that in the next post. But for now I want you to think about it and come up with your own explanation using a Covenant hermeneutic.

The Commisioning and Calling of Timothy


As we come to the end of Chapter 1 of Paul’s First letter to Timothy there are in these last 3 verses a plethora of interesting and downright mysterious phrases. Though before we look at the individual clauses here are the last three verses

This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme.

The first thing that should pop out to you is the question of “What command?”, what is Paul referring to when he speaks to Timothy concerning his “command”? Well if we go back to verses 3 and 4 we see that Paul has charged Timothy with setting up a Seminary of sorts here in Ephesus so that the Elders (who we will get to in due time) can properly instruct the people in True Doctrine so that they will not go astray. Now I am sure that if Paul just knew better and he went to a mainline Seminary he would understand that Orthopraxy is more important than Orthodoxy. But what is that you say? Oh yeah Paul has already discussed this way back in Romans 4. What good is right action if it is not accompanied by right knowledge. Even the Pagans do good works. But what the Pagans do not have are the words of eternal life which Paul has entrusted with Timothy. (Seem to remember Peter telling Jesus this somewhere????).

The next curious clause is also in verse 18. Paul says, “in accordance with the prophetic utterances which pointed to you”. What can Paul possibly mean here? Calvin has this to say concerning the phrase:

In order to encourage him still more, he reminds him what kind of testimony he had obtained from the Spirit of God; for it was no small excitement, that his ministry was approved by God, and that he had been called by divine revelation before he was called by the votes of men. “It is disgraceful not to come up to the expectations which men have been led to form; and how much more disgraceful will it be to make void, as far as lies in thy power, the judgment of God?” But we must first ascertain what are the prophecies of which he speaks. Some think that Paul was instructed by revelation to confer the office on Timothy. That I acknowledge to be true, but I add that others made revelations; for it was not without reason that Paul made use of the plural number. Accordingly, we conclude from these words that several prophecies were uttered concerning Timothy, in order to recommend him to the Church. Being still a young man, he might have been despised on account of his age; and Paul might also have been exposed to calumnies, on account of having ordained youths, before the proper time, to the elder’s office. Besides, God had appointed him to great and difficult undertakings; for he was not one of the ordinary rank of ministers, but approached very closely to that of the apostles, and frequently occupied the place of Paul during his absence. It was, therefore, necessary that he should receive an extraordinary testimony, in order to make it manifest that it was not conferred on him at random by men, but that he was chosen by God himself. To be adorned with the applauses of the prophets was not an ordinary occurrence, or one which was common to him along with many persons; but because there were some circumstances to Timothy, it was the will of God that he should not be received by men until he had been previously approved by his own voice; it was the will of God that he should not enter into the exercise of his office until he had been called by the revelations of the prophets. The same thing happened to Paul and Barnabas, (Acts 13:2,) when they were ordained to be teachers of the Gentiles; for it was a new and uncommon occurrence, and they could not otherwise have escaped the charge of rashness. It will now be objected by some, “If God had formerly declared, by his prophets, what kind of minister Timothy should be, what purpose did it serve to admonish him, to show that he was actually such a person? Could he falsify prophecies which had been uttered by divine revelation?” I reply, it could not happen differently from what God had promised; but at the same time it was the duty of Timothy, not to give himself up to sloth and inactivity, but to render a cheerful compliance with the providence of God. It is therefore not without good reason, that Paul, wishing to stimulate him still more, mentions the “prophecies,” by which God might be said to have pledged himself on behalf of Timothy; for he was thus reminded of the purpose for which he was called.

Amazing how much one person can say about a single word. Interestingly enough Calvin spends the most time in Chapter 1 on this subject. Those of us who have been called to the Gospel ministry would do well to take heed the words of Paul in this pericope.

The final part we will look at on this subject is the words concerning Hymenaeus and Alexander who have been excommunicated, given over to Satan, because they have “shipwrecked” their faith. This of course points one back to the episode with the man who was sleeping with his Step-Mother in 1st Corinthians 5. Now these are especially hard words for us to here in our day and time mostly because any idea of discipline in the mainlines and even the more “orthodox” Presbyterian denominations have started to slide in this regard. Why is it we are so afraid to discipline? Is it because we refuse to even discipline ourselves or can it be that we fear the condemnation of the world more than the leavening of the whole loaf?