Officers of a Church
THE permanent officers of a Church are of two kinds: elders (who are also called pastors, teachers, ministers, overseers or bishops) and deacons.
The Scriptures furnish us with an enumeration of all the gifts which were bestowed upon the apostolic churches. They mention apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers; deacons, miracles, gifts of healing, helps, governments, and diversities of tongues.128 It is evident that many of these must have been extraordinary, designed to meet the peculiar exigences of Christianity in its incipient efforts for diffusion. That miraculous and prophetic gifts have ceased is unquestionable. So have others. It was the design of Christ to provide for only two permanent officers in the Churches, bishops and deacons.
It has been strenuously contended that the apostolic office is permanent, and that it is continued in a succession of Bishops who profess a superiority in ministerial power and rights over the elders and the Churches. The weakness of this assumption can be easily exposed. The qualifications of an apostle were such as none of their pretended successors can be shown to have possessed.
1. The apostles were witnesses of Christ. To qualify them for this important office, our blessed Lord selected the twelve as his personal attendants, communicated to them his plans and purposes, and made them the witnesses of his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. These are the great facts upon which the Christian religion is founded. It was indispensable, therefore, that they should be sustained by the most clear and unimpeachable testimony. To bear this testimony, and thus lay the foundation of the glorious edifice of the Christian faith, was the primary and peculiar design of the apostolic office. "He ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out devils:"?Mark 3: 14 ; Matt. 10: 5. The same view is presented by Christ, after his resurrection. In his last interview with his disciples, he thus addressed them: "Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day; and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things." Luke 24: 45?48. So the Saviour spoke, and so the apostles understood him. This is manifest from the words of Peter, when an apostle was about to be selected to fill the vacancy occasioned by the defection of Judas. "Of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us, of his resurrection."?Acts 1: 21, 22. That this was the distinctive character of the office, is further evinced by the account which is given of the labors of the apostles. " This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we are witnesses." Acts 2: 32; 5: 32; 10: 39?41, etc.
The representation which has been given of the apostolic office derives strong confirmation from the case of the apostle Paul. He was called to the apostleship after the ascension of Christ. He had not had, therefore, that opportunity for personal observation which was necessary to qualify him to be a witness of Christ. How was this defect supplied? By supernatural revelation. Christ appeared to him on his way to Damascus, and transformed a bitter persecutor into a noble and unflinching apostle of his cause. We have three distinct accounts of his conversion and of his appointment to the apostolate. In each of these the design of the office is stated. "The God of our fathers hath chosen thee," said Ananias to the future apostle of the Gentiles, "that thou shouldst know his will, and see that Just One, and shouldst hear the voice of his mouth; for thou shalt be his witness unto
all men of what thou hast seen and heard."?Acts 22: 14, 15. "I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness."?Acts 26: 16. This latter was the language of Christ to Paul in the original commission. That it was understood by the apostle himself in the manner in which it has just been represented, is manifest from his own subsequent appeal in 1 Cor. 9: 2. In reply to those who challenged his claims to this high office, he asks most triumphantly: "Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?" Nothing can be more clear than that to have seen Jesus Christ was an indispensable qualification for the office of the apostleship, and that its main design was to bear witness to the cardinal facts of Christianity.129
2. The apostles were distinguished by special prerogatives, which descended to none after them; receiving their mission directly from Christ. The power of conferring the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, and the knowledge, by inspiration, of the whole doctrine of Christ.
3. They were universal bishops; the whole of Christendom was their charge, and the whole earth their diocese.
4. We have full proof that no idea of succession to the office was entertained in their own age, or in the times immediately succeeding; for no one, on the death of one apostle, was ever substituted in his place; and when the original college became extinct, the title also became extinct. The apostles were the ambassadors of Christ. Having delivered their message, and committed it to writing for the future use of the churches, their office became obsolete at their decease, and it was unnecessary that successors should be appointed.130
A fatal objection to the notion of apostolic succession, and the consequences derived from it, consists in the fact, that no such succession can be established by historical evidence. The links of the chain are broken, and lost beyond the possibility of recovery. The transmission of apostolic grace is no longer practicable; for the wires of the mystic telegraph are disconnected, tangled, and, along a portion of the pretended line, nowhere to be found.
The vanity of the episcopal claim to an uninterrupted apostolical succession has been happily exposed by Archbishop Whately.
"There is not a minister in all Christendom, who is able to trace up, with any approach to certainty, his own spiritual pedigree. The sacramental virtue (for such it is that is implied, whether the term be used or not in the principle I have been speaking of) dependent on the imposition of hands, with a due observance of apostolical usages, by a bishop, himself duly consecrated, after having been in like manner baptized into the church, and ordained deacon and priest; this sacramental virtue, if a single link of the chain be faulty, must, on the above principles, be utterly nullified forever after, in respect of all the links that hang on that one. For if a bishop has not been duly consecrated, or had not been, previously, rightly ordained, his ordinations are null, and so are the ministrations of those ordained by him, and their ordination of others (supposing any of the persons ordained by him to attain to the episcopal office); and so on, without end. The poisonous taint of informality, if it once creep in undetected, will spread the infection of nullity to an indefinite and irremediable extent.
"And who can undertake to pronounce, that during that long period, usually designated as the Dark Ages, no such taint ever was introduced? Irregularities could not have been wholly excluded, without a perpetual miracle; and that no such miraculous interference existed, we have even historical proof. Amidst the numerous corruptions of doctrine and of practice, and gross superstitions that crept in during those ages, we find recorded descriptions, not only of the profound ignorance and profligacy of life of many of the clergy, but also of the grossest irregularity in respect of discipline and form. We read of bishops, consecrated when mere children; of men officiating who barely knew their letters; of prelates expelled, and others put in their places by violence; of illiterate and profligate laymen, and habitual drunkards, admitted to holy orders; and, in short, of the prevalence of every kind of disorder, and reckless disregard of the decency which the apostle enjoins. It is inconceivable, that any one, even moderately acquainted with history, can feel a certainty, or any approach to certainty, that, amidst all confusion and corruption, every requisite form was, in every instance, strictly adhered to by men, many of them openly profane and secular, unrestrained by public opinion, through the gross ignorance of the population among which they lived; and that no one, not duly consecrated or ordained, was admitted to sacred offices."131
The attempt to prove that an order existed in the ministry of the primitive churches as successors to the apostles, and therefore superior to elders, proves a failure. We may therefore consider it as comprising only elders and deacons. These are all that the Head of the Church has embraced in its ordinary and permanent organization. Even these are not indispensable. The Church at Jerusalem was in existence some time before it was found necessary to institute the order of deacons; and many other churches seem to have had no officers of either description. Paul and Barnabas, in their first missionary excursion from Antioch, passed through Pamphylia, Pisidia, and Lycaonia, and planted churches. After the lapse of about four years, they returned through those regions, "confirming the souls of the disciples," and "ordaining them elders in every Church." Up to this period, therefore, there had been no elders in the churches. The same is true of other churches. It would seem, therefore, that "the officers of a church are not essential to its being, though they are to its well being."132
The apostolic churches seem, in general, to have had a plurality of elders as well as deacons. The apostle addressed his epistle to the Church at Philippi "with the bishops and deacons;" sent for "the elders of the Church at Ephesus;" and Paul and Barnabas as well as Titus "ordained elders" in the churches of Asia Minor and Crete. It seems, therefore, a fair inference that this was their usual practice. Of the reason of it we are not informed; but the existence of the practice seems unquestionable. Perhaps the explanation given by Elsley and others is the most satisfactory. "In that age," he remarks, "Christians had no public edifices, but held their meetings in private houses. When they were numerous, these meetings, and the inspectors or bishops who presided over them, were multiplied in proportion."133 The number of officers, whether elders or deacons, necessary to the completeness of a church, is not determined in Scripture. This must be decided by the circumstances of each case, of which the party interested is the most competent judge.
A distinction has sometimes been made between teaching and ruling elders. This was formerly the custom of Congregational churches, and obtains, at the present time, in the Presbyterian Church. For the support of this distinction, the passages of Scripture principally relied on are 1 Tim. 5: 17; 1 Cor. 12: 28.134 The latter passage is too indefinite in its phraseology to establish the distinction, and would probably never have been supposed to contain it, had not an erroneous interpretation of the former passage previously led to the belief that such a distinction really existed. The passage in the first epistle to Timothy reads as follows: "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine." The attempt to establish the distinction in question on the authority of this passage, is encumbered with many and weighty difficulties. (1.) The appellation elder is, every where else, used to designate ministers of the Gospel. It is interchanged with bishop, and must therefore refer to the same officer. The qualifications necessary for a teacher are the same as those of presbyters. It was, therefore, foreign to the design of the apostle to draw the line contended for between ruling and teaching elders, and confine the members of each division to a particular sphere of duty.135 That the term elder is used only with reference to teachers or ministers of the Gospel, is conceded by many advocates of the Presbyterian polity.136
(2.) The Scriptures connect teaching and ruling together as the appropriate work of those to whom the care of the churches is committed. "We beseech you to know them which labor among you and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you." These separate divisions of duty must be the province of the same officer, unless we suppose that an order has been instituted for the purpose of admonishing the Churches, as well as for ruling and teaching them. Compare Heb. 13: 7, 17, 24. (3.) The total absence of any directions with respect to the qualification of ruling elders, proves that no such officer is contemplated in the New Testament. If these are necessary to the completeness of Church organization, it is unaccountable, that while the other officers of the Church are plainly specified, and their qualifications enumerated, no provision should be made for ruling elders. On these grounds, we contend that an order of men in the Church, whose sole business is to assist the pastor in its government, is not warranted by the precept or practice of the apostles.
What, then, it may be asked, is the distinction to which the apostle refers? The reply is obvious. It has been shown that a plurality of elders was customary in the apostolic Churches. Many of these, after the example of Paul, labored with their own hands for support; and as they were stationary, might do so with little inconvenience. Others felt impelled by the Spirit, to make missionary excursions into the contiguous settlements, and devote themselves to the preaching of the Gospel. While the apostle urges upon the Churches the duty of supporting all their elders, he commends to their special regard those of them who had consecrated themselves to this laborious and self-denying work. The distinction is not one of officers, but of duties belonging to the same office.137
An elder who devoted himself exclusively to the preaching of the Gospel in destitute regions, was termed an evangelist, a title which occurs only thrice in the New Testament. Acts 21: 8; Eph. 4: 11; 2 Tim. 4: 5. Although not located in any particular place, he belonged to the Presbytery (or Bishops) of some particular Church, by whom he was sent forth to evangelize the nations, found Churches, and extend the kingdom of the Redeemer. As the religion of Jesus Christ is essentially aggressive, this class of ministers will be needed until the world is converted to the faith. Modern missionaries have succeeded to the duties of the primitive evangelists.
A careful examination of the Scriptures has thus led us to the conclusion, that Christ has provided for his Churches only two classes of officers; bishops, or elders, and deacons. These officers are chosen by the people, and derive all their authority, under the Great Head of the Church, from the consent of the governed. Their position involves the most solemn responsibilities. It is their duty to provide for the welfare of the particular flock which has been committed to their charge; watch over and feed it with the bread of life, and minister to its comfort and security while on its journey to the celestial fold. They are not to lord it over God?s heritage. Any attempt on their part to restrict the privileges of believers, to invade their just rights, and deprive them of the liberty with which Christ has made them free, should be firmly and steadfastly resisted by all who are interested in preserving the institutions of the Gospel, as the only Lord and Master has delivered them. "The ecclesiastical office," says Gros, "is a service of the Church (ministerium), not a lordship (imperium), over its members."138 A hierarchy claiming a divine right of jurisdiction over the servants of Christ, is as alien to the spirit of the Gospel, as it is hostile to their moral and spiritual interests. The growth of ambition, avarice, and corruption, its embrace is pollution and death.
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