Who and what are officers of the Church?
In our day where autonomy and independence are the high marks of a real American, the idea of office is scorned; particularly with reference to the Church.
Typically the argument against special office in the church is an appeal to the priesthood of all believers. This supposedly justifies the oft comment that there is no clergy and laity in Scripture, therefore none should exist in the Church. From that follows the view that each individual is free to exercise his Christian faith any way he deems fit without any sense of accountability to anyone, “but God.”
Yet, is this really a biblical view? It is true that the Old Testament priesthood has been completely fulfilled by out High Priest Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5). Heinrich Bullinger in 1561 wrote, “The apostles of Christ do term all those who believe in Christ priests; not in regard to their ministry, but because that all the faithful, being made kings and priests may through Christ, offer up spiritual sacrifices unto God (Ex. 19:6; 1 Pet 2:5,9; Rev. 1:6). The ministry then, and the priesthood are things far different one from the other. For the priesthood, as we said even now, is common to all Christians; not so is the ministry. And we have not taken away the ministry of the Church because we have thrust the popish priesthood out of the Church of Christ” (Brown, edit. Order in the Offices, p. 11). Bullinger says it well.
It is true there is no special priestcraft in the Church, making one person in Christ superior to any other in Christ. Every believer in Christ is equally called, justified, sanctified and glorified. Every believer stands before the throne of God in Jesus Christ, have all the privileges and duties in common as co-heirs and sharers in the ministry of love to one another.
However, God has set apart offices. To these offices, He gifts, calls, and ordains men for the good service, administration and order of His Church. Not every person in Christ enters into such an office. However, this does not necessarily mean that one who is gifted and called to that special office is superior to others; or that those who are not in such special service are inferior. The office from God “does not exist to give honor or privilege to a special class of superior individuals” (K. Sietsma).
The term “office” refers to a position which involves duty, service, and responsibility. In this general sense, all believers in Christ have a common office. In the general sense, all believers are to fulfill what all man was called to fulfill, and that is to serve God and one another.
In the more particular sense, office is the special gift and mandate from God to render Him service. It is an institutional position of service, authorized by God, which has a special dignity and authority. The man is not the office; but a man may be called to that office. The office limits the person’s exercise of authority. “Office is the only justification and proper limitation of any human exercise of power and authority because no one has a natural right to rule over others. We owe no obedience to any other humans except by virtue of their office as mandated by God.” (Sietsma, K. The Idea of Office. Ontario: Paideia Press; 1985).
In the Old Testament, there were certain offices instituted by God for the kingdom. There was the office of prophet (Deut. 18; 34:5; Josh. 1:1; 2 Kings 9:7; Jer. 7:25; 29:19; etc.). Still other officials were the priests (1 Chron. 6:32). Another office was that of elder, those who ruled God’s people (Ex. 3:16; 24:1; Lev. 4:15; Num. 11:16; Deut. 21:19) and were covenantal representatives of the people. Judges were appointed by God as prophet-kings until God appointed the office of king (Job 18; Jer. 25:9; 27:6; ).
As we enter into the New Covenant, these offices were symbols that pointed to the perfect Prophet-Priest-King, Jesus Christ. He fulfills the duties and terms of those Old Testament offices perfectly and completely as the Servant of the Lord. In Christ, those special institutions with their offices were fulfilled.
Under the renewed way of the New Covenant Jesus appointed men to an extraordinary office, called apostle (John 20:19-23; Eph. 4:11ff). These men were special emissaries of Christ who were selected and trained by Him (a qualification of a true apostle), empowered by the Holy Spirit, and commissioned to establish the New Covenant community. Their primary mission was the declaration of the Word of God to establish His Church. The apostles then selected gifted men to assist them as servants of God and His Word (eg. Acts 13:5).
Officers in the New Testament Church are Christ’s servants who primarily administer the Word of God and the rule of Christ to His people (1 Cor. 4:1; 12:28ff; Rom. 12:7-8; Eph. 4:11ff; 1 Tim. 1:11). One office ordained by God to rule His people in the Old Testament that carried over into the New is that of elder. There are three terms in the New Testament which are used interchangeably that refer to the same official position: presbuteros (elder), episkopos (overseer), and poimen (shepherd) (re: Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Pet. 5:1-4). God governs His Church today through elders (of which there are two types: one who rules primarily as minister of the Word and mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1; 1 Tim. 5:17b; 1 Pet. 5:1ff), and one who teaches, but primarily rules (1 Tim. 3:1-7; 5:17; Titus 1:5-9; Heb. 13:7, 17, 24; 1 Pet. 5:1ff). Another office, but not a ruling office is for the specific and spiritual ministry of mercy to those in need. We call this the office of deacon (Acts 6; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8-13).
The elder is to govern God’s people. This means elders have jurisdiction in three ways:
(a) to have charge (1 Thess. 5:12-13), which also means to lead (Rom. 12:8); manage (1 Tim. 3:4,5,12), and rule (1 Tim. 5:17);
(b) to guide (Heb. 13:17) which is the term used for a political ruler or chief speaker (Acts 14:12 cp Heb. 13:7, 17,24);
(c) to have authority over (Ti. 3:1-2) “the right to govern and to make policy which determines the direction and emphases of the church according to the Word of God to build up His people (2 Cor. 13:10).
Some have argued that there are three particular offices in the NT Church in the manner or pattern of the OT prophet, priest, and king. The prophet would be the prototype for the minister of the Word of the Faith, the king as the forerunner to the ministry of loving oversight (elder), and the priest as that which has now become the ministry of mercy and hope (deacon).
While there has been considerable debate regarding this, it is nevertheless true that God has ordained certain offices for the spiritual government of His Church and has called, gifted and ordained men to those offices in service to Him (1 Cor. 1:4-15; Ti. 1:7) for His people.