Special offices in the Reformed churches

Essay written for the celebration of Reformation Day, 2021, and presented at Living Hope Free Reformed Church in Chatham on October 26, 2021.

The Protestant Reformation criticized the church organization of the Middle Ages. Martin Luther first pointed out the abuse of power by the bishops and other clergy, but soon he opposed the system itself. It was taught that God gave his grace through the hierarchy of pope, bishops, and priests—and this hierarchy was called “the church”. The Reformers disagreed; they declared that the grace of Jesus Christ comes directly to the believers in Word and Sacrament, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

This Reformed conviction led to the doctrine of the “office of all believers”.1 The church is not the clergy, but the congregation of believers. Luther concluded: “We are equals in any right or authority.”2 And: “A Christian congregation has the power to judge all doctrine, and to call, install, and remove teachers.”3

Still, as Reformed and Presbyterian church, we do have a system of church offices: ministers, elders, deacons. What then is their role? In this essay I will first address the Reformer’s view of the special offices in general. Second, I will speak briefly on the distinct offices of minister, elder, and deacon. Finally, I will focus on the proper limitations of the offices in the practice of church life.

Ministers, not magistrates

First of all, the offices of the church do not have any authority of their own. Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 4:1, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” Office bearers serve Jesus Christ, and specifically they serve the Word of Christ. Luther summarized it in the following one-liner:“The ministry of the Word makes the priest and the bishop.”4 If a priest or bishop does anything other than administering the Word of God to the people, he is not acting in line with his office, and should have no authority at all.

This is why in the Reformed churches, the preachers are called ministers of God’s Word. Ministers—that is, servants. Not masters. Sadly, people have often thought of ministers as somehow a higher class of people. Not too long ago, Dutch people placed “de dominee” on a high pedestal; you find some of that even today. But he is not a dominee, a “lord”. He is a minister, a servant. A servant first of all of Jesus, second of the divine Word, and third of the church of Christ.

How are these special servants different from other church members? Luther wrote: “Anyone who knows himself to be a Christian must know that we are all equally priests, and have the same authority in regards to the Word and every Sacrament. But also, that nobody is free to use that authority unless there is agreement from the Christian community, or because of a calling by something greater than he.”5 We all have the “office of believers”, but to execute that office in a more special way, there must be a more special calling as well. That calling does not come from the hierarchy of pope and bishops, but from the congregation. But it is more than just delegated power, more than just a democratic choice of officers. When the congregation uses its right to call its office bearers, this must be understood as a calling by God himself.6

Do you see how balanced the Reformers were in their view of office bearers? On one hand, it is firmly rooted in the authority of Jesus Christ, and in the special gifts of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, it respects the whole congregation as the church, who has the authority and responsibility to call people on behalf of her Lord. It is the Lord Jesus himself who, by his Holy Spirit, gives unique gifts to the members of his church. These gifts are meant to serve the church. And the church should recognize these gifts and acknowledge them, by appointing office bearers.

Ministers, elders, deacons

The church of Rome had a large number of church offices, which differed in authority and task. The Reformers first got rid of that hierarchy, but then had to figure out what offices there should be. This took some time. Especially in the writings of John Calvin we see growth and development on this point.

The Bible says many things about special offices in the church. Ephesians 4:11 mentions “apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers”; Romans 12:7 talks about gifts of “serving” and “teaching”; 1 Timothy 3 discusses “bishops/overseers”7 and “deacons”. The Reformers did not try to translate these Bibical elements one-to-one into the churches of their time. Rather, men like Calvin considered the kind of work that was indispensable for a good functioning of the church.8 The gospel should be proclaimed and taught; the church needed governing; the poor should be cared for. These functional considerations led to the division of the offices of minister, elder, and deacon. On this point, the Reformers were in good agreement with each other, and in many ways they returned to the practice of the early church.

Sometimes people discuss how many offices there really are. Some Presbyterian church federations explicitly self-identify as “two-office,” treating the minister as a “teaching elder”.9 The Reformers, such as Luther, Bucer, and Calvin, usually mention three distinct offices, but they are not always consistent. Calvin and others sometimes even included a fourth office, that of the theological professor.10 We should not be too “dogmatic” about this matter. After all, all the special offices belong to the same ministry of the church, which is ultimately the one ministry of the Word of Christ. Moreover, the Bible does not have a clear list of how many offices there should be; the Lord has left the details to the wisdom of the churches, as they are guided by the Holy Spirit. That is why it should not bother us when Reformed and Presbyterian churches differ somewhat in the organization of church offices.

Limited power

Finally, let’s focus on the limited power of the office bearers in the Reformed church. In the Roman church, bishops have nearly unlimited authority over any aspect of the church. The Reformers opposed this strongly. The officers of the church must be mere servants of the Word, serving the church on Jesus’ behalf; never more.

This principle is spelled out in the confessions of our church. The Belgic Confession, in article 32, allows that “those who govern the church establish a certain order to maintain the body of the church”; that is, it is not wrong to have consistory decisions or a Church Order. But “they must at all times watch that they do not deviate from what Christ, our only Master, has commanded. Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the service11 of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.” The Westminster Confession of Faith, in chapter 31, comes at it from a somewhat different angle, but makes the same point: the “decrees and determinations” of church assemblies “are to be received with reverence and submission”—but only “if consonant with the Word of God”.

The mainstream Reformers (in contrast to the Anabaptists of their time) were not anarchists. They recognized the need for order and structure in the church, and they believed that the Lord provided these things by giving spiritual gifts to office bearers, who were to be appointed by the churches. But these office bearers should always be focused on the way of salvation, as proclaimed in the Word of God.

If church leaders start making rules merely based on preference, or to keep the majority of church members happy, their decisions no longer reflect the will of Jesus Christ, the only Master of the church. The church is then in danger of becoming a sect based on human ideas. This danger is ever-present in the church, and we should pray for wisdom to remain pure in this regard.

On the other hand, if the office bearers take their task seriously, and they serve the church by administering the Word of God—if they preach from the Scriptures, perform the sacraments, discipline the members in faithfulness to Jesus, and put into practice the mercy of Christ—then their ministry should be held in high honour; then you may see in them the loving care of the Lord Jesus, shepherds working on behalf of the great Shepherd.

  1. See Heidelberg Catechism, q&a 32.
  2. Luther, De captivitate babylonica, 7.17: ...et excusso tyrannidis iugo, sciemus, quod, qui Christianus est, Christum habet, qui Christum habet, omnia, quae Christi sunt, habet, omnia potens...
  3. Luther, Daß eine christliche Versammlung oder Gemeinde Recht und Macht habe, alle Lehre zu urteilen und Lehrer zu berufen, ein- und abzusetzen, Grund und Ursache aus der Schrift (1523). See here for the German text of this essay.
  4. Luther, De captivitate babylonica, 7.13: ...ministerium verbi facit sacerdotem et episcopum.
  5. Luther, De captivitate babylonica, 7.15: Esto itaque certus, et sese agnoscat, quicunque se Christianum esse cognoverit, omnes nos aequaliter esse sacerdotes, hoc est, eandem in verbo et sacramento quocunque habere potestatem. Verum, non licere quenquam hac ipsa uti, nisi consensu communitatis, aut vocatione maioris. Quod enim omnium est communiter, nullus singulatiter potest sibi arrogare, donec vocetur.
  6. At the installation of office bearers, the Reformed churches traditionally ask: "Do you feel in your heart that you have been lawfully called by God's church and therefore by God himself?" (Dutch: ...wettig van Gods gemeente en mitsdien van God zelf geroepen) The Book of Praise of the Canadian Reformed churches have weakened this question somewhat, and ask: "[D]o you feel in your hearts that God himself, through his congregation, has called you to these offices?" (BoP 2014, p. 626)
  7. The English word "bishop" derives directly from the Greek word episkopos, which means "overseer".
  8. See e.g. Calvin, Institutes (3r ed.), 4.3.4-13. C. Trimp, in Ministerium (p. 102), concludes: [Calvin] did not bequeath us a biblicist church order, but a Scriptural model of church government. Undoubtedly its exegetical foundation can be strengthened, but the model itself does not require any essential modification.
  9. See e.g. Robert W. Eckardt, "Two Offices within the Eldership", in Mark Brown (ed.), Order in the Offices (ch. 9); for the opposite "three-office" view, see Leonard J. Coppes, "Three New Testament Offices" in the same volume (ch. 11). Both authors are OPC ministers.
  10. In Les Ordonnances Ecclésiastiques (1541), Calvin mentions four offices; in the Confession de Foi (1559) he notes three God-ordained offices; in the ealier editions of the Institutes, he had only two. See C. Trimp, Ministerium, p. 108-9 for these and other examples.
  11. The translation given here is from the Book of Praise (2014); however, I have changed "worship" to "service" to reflect better the original texts in French (pour servir Dieu) and Dutch (om Godt te dienen). The translation "worship" could be defended on the basis of the Latin text adopted by the Synod of Dort (pro cultu Dei); but an English reader may incorrectly conclude that this article only addresses public worship services.

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