I recently listened to an interview of a well-respected pastor/theologian on one of my favorite podcasts. I was quite excited to see that he was a guest on the show and had been looking forward to the episode. But they didn’t get very far into the podcast before I was hit with a very disappointing blow. When the interviewer asked the Pastor about what he felt was at the root of the error of the gospel of easy-believism, his answer was, unbelievably, Jonathan Edwards!
His reasoning went along these lines. Jonathan Edwards used the same terminology that Moses Amyraut (founder of Amyraldianism, often called 4 point Calvinism) had used in describing man’s will with his distinction between man’s natural ability and moral inability. He said that those who introduced the false gospel in the Second Great Awakening claimed to be following Edwards when they taught that since man has the natural ability to believe in Christ, we can therefore manipulate him into making a decision for Christ. The pastor concluded by stating that more investigation needs to be done to discover if this is indeed what Edwards taught. Now I have no desire whatsoever to discredit this pastor in any way. (hence, no name) However, I think we can set the record straight in regards to Jonathan Edwards having any responsibility in this case. The only “further investigation” that needs to be conducted here is to read Edwards’ treatise on Freedom of the Will.
While the terms natural ability or moral inability do not appear in the Scriptures as such, the distinction they convey is both Biblical and Confessional. These terms accurately convey the fact that when we teach that God commands all men everywhere to repent and believe the gospel, yet no men anywhere have the ability to repent and believe the gospel, it is not as if God gave a man muscles that could only jump 2 feet high, yet commanded him to jump 100 feet in the air.
I think the clearest Biblical example of what we are talking about is found in Genesis 37:4.
But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him.
Joseph’s brothers could not speak peaceably to him. This was not because their lips and tongues lacked the ability to produce the noises necessary to express kindness to the brother they so dearly loved. They could not speak well of Joseph because they hated him. They had the natural ability to speak well of Joseph, but they were morally unable because of the sinfulness of their hearts.
The London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 also sets forth this distinction, though not in the exact terms. Paragraph 1 of Chapter 9 addresses the issue of natural ability when it says:
God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty and power of acting upon choice, that it is neither forced, nor by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil.
God did not give man a will that was by nature unable to choose to please God, so that even though his heart would desire to do so, he would be unable to make that choice. God gave man a will that is perfectly capable of choosing whatever it is that his heart desires. It is not as though God asked man to choose A, B, C or D, but then punished him because he should have chosen Q. Or to put a more modern spin on the idea, it is not as though 3 of the required fields on a web based form have been greyed out and cannot be filled.
Paragraph 3 goes on to discuss the other side of this equation, man’s moral inability, when it says:
Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able by his own strength to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.
Man is utterly and completely unable to do any spiritual good. This is a moral inability, because the reason he cannot do good is precisely because he has no desire to do so. He hates God and seeks only to faithfully serve his master: sin (John 8:34). His will is perfectly capable of choosing what pleases him, but quite simply, it never pleases him to please God.
The fact that man has the natural ability to trust, believe and turn, does nothing to negate the fact that he is morally unable to trust Christ, believe God or turn from his sins. The fact that he has natural ability does absolutely nothing to negate the fact that he is morally unable. No one could possibly read Edwards on this subject and walk away thinking that he was teaching that men can be manipulated into coming to Christ because of their natural ability. The entire point of his treatise is the absolute proof that man’s moral inability has rendered him utterly and entirely incapable to making any motion whatsoever toward pleasing God or forsaking sin. The regenerating work of the Spirit of God is absolutely necessary before man can even see the kingdom of God, let alone make any motion toward it.
Those who believed that the fact of man’s natural ability meant that they could manipulate him into turning to Christ may very well have claimed Edwards was on their side, but they could not possibly make that claim without taking his terminology from its context and using it in such a way that Edwards own words utterly repudiated. If you haven’t read Edwards’ Freedom of the Will, please do. It is a masterpiece.
John Calvin is renowned for his inflexible stance against the errors of Rome, the “Spirituals”, and others whose teachings compromised the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately many do not realize that while he so staunchly stood against errors from those who oppose the gospel, he also worked tremendously hard to establish and maintain peace and unity among the Reformed. He was a brilliant example of the peacemaker of Matt. 5:9.
For instance, a Synod was held at Berne in 1537 in order to establish unity among the German and Swiss Reformed churches concerning the Lord’s Supper. Zurich, Basel, Strasburg, Geneva, and Berne each sent representatives. Bucer, the Strasburg Reformer, had always been sympathetic to Luther’s view. He had been in attendance at one of Luther’s first public disputations and had held him in the highest esteem ever since. Megander, originally from Zurich, now representing Berne, was determined not to compromise Zwingle’s position in any way. Dissension prevailed until Calvin came forward. By recognizing the Biblical truth that each side was determined to uphold, he was able to set forth the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper in a manner which upheld the true sentiments of each side without compromising with error.
Bucer had “pointed out that Zwingli and Luther had set out from two different points of view; Zwingli striving to keep as far away as possible from the Roman dogma of transubstantiation, and Luther endeavoring to maintain that there is nevertheless some kind of real presence in the bread.”[i]
Calvin was able, with this in mind, to formulate a doctrinal statement that did justice to the Biblical concerns of both parties without compromising Biblical truth. In summary he said, “The Spirit is the means by which we are partakers of Christ. That Spirit nourishes us with the flesh and the blood of the Lord, and thus quickens us for immortality. Christ offers this communion under the symbols of bread and wine to all those who celebrate the supper aright and in accordance with his institution.”[ii]
To this Bucer replied “I embrace as orthodox, this view of our excellent brothers Calvin, Farel, and Viret. I never held that Christ was locally present in the holy supper. He has a real finite body, and that body remains in the celestial glory. But in raising us by faith to heaven, the bread which we eat and the cup which we drink are for us the communication of his body and his blood.”[iii]
Thus, these eminent reformers established peace with one another in regard to this vital doctrine. They were not content to simply have each side adhere to a confessional statement that propounded the particular truths they esteemed most important. They strove to establish peace, unity and agreement. The Lord greatly blessed such efforts for the betterment of His church universal and the glory of His name.
Of course, the doctrine under dispute in ARBCA today is not the nature of the Lord’s Supper, but rather, the understanding of the phrase “without passions” in Chapter 2, Paragraph 1 of the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689. This is, of course an oversimplification, but we could fairly accurately describe the dispute like this. On the one side are those whose primary concern is to uphold the unchangeable character of God. They hold to what we could call the traditional understanding of the phrase “without passions”, which was undoubtedly the understanding of that phrase by those who authored our confession. (I happen to agree with this side, in my understanding of the issue.) On the other side of the controversy are those who fear that this classical understanding of these words is prone to give the impression that God is cold, distant, or mechanical. They do not reject the phrase “without passions” but define it somewhat differently than the authors of the confession did.[iv] They rightly point to men like Warfield and Hodge as examples of how they understand the phrase.
The Heart of the Issue?
It seems to me that what lies at the heart of this issue is our understanding of the fact that man, as he is an image bearer of God, is endowed with the faculties of mind, will and emotions. Those who are defending the traditional understanding of “without passions” are almost exclusively focusing on what man’s emotions do not reveal about God. Affections in man arise from the affects of things outside of himself. God, existing outside of time, cannot be affected by anything outside of Himself, therefore He has no affections. (And other similar, sound arguments) Those who are advocating a modified view of the phrase in question do not do so in an effort to make God more like man, but rather, in an effort to do justice to the role of the emotions of man in his image-bearing capacity.
I am a great distance from the inner workings of ARBCA and have no direct knowledge of the exact means by which they plan to deal with this issue. But it seems possible, if not likely, that something like this will happen: A position paper will be published that simply states the traditional understanding of the phrase “without passions” and demonstrates that the authors of the confession had this in mind when they penned the words. This paper will be voted on and approved. Any church that has an issue with this understanding will no longer be welcome in ARBCA. Thus unity of doctrine will be firmly established among the remaining churches. I think it would be a great shame if this is what actually takes place.
ARBCA Needs a Calvin
I am not saying that a position paper defending the traditional understanding of the phrase in question should not be drawn up, it should. But it should do more. As Calvin recognized and dealt with the concerns of both sides of the issue at Berne, so those who seek to defend the traditional understanding of “without passions” should go out of their way to recognize and address the legitimate concerns expressed by the other side. A careful doctrinal statement should be drawn up that not only demonstrates what the Bible teaches about God that prevents us from rightly ascribing affections to Him, but also palpably demonstrates the manner in which the emotions of man actually do reflect something of the character of God. It must be demonstrated that justice can be done to the anthropopathisms of Scripture without resorting to any sort of modified theism. If we really want unity in the sense that the great Reformers sought it, we must go out of our way to rightly address the issues on both sides.
We must recognize the real issue that brings about concern regarding the manner in which Divine impassibility is often taught. For example, after listening to a sermon or lecture that clearly demonstrates that affections cannot be rightly attributed to God, a child of God may walk away saying to himself, “OK, so God is love, but He has no affection for me.” This is hardly a comforting thought. But if we understand that even though the love of God toward us is not an affection, in that this love is not brought about by any affect we have had on God, as a Divine perfection, it is something far greater than any affection of love we have ever experienced. We also must be clear that the emotion of love that God endowed men with is actually in some sense revelatory of what God’s love is like. It is a reflection of what the Divine perfection of love is, a dim and imperfect reflection, but a reflection none the less.
When one demonstrates that the emotion of anger cannot rightly be attributed to God, but merely expresses His determination to rightly meet out justice against all sin, the impression that may easily be given is that this is something quite cold and mechanical. The problem with this is that when God speaks of His anger, He means to convey a truth that is easily lost in this definition. God’s “hot displeasure” that will manifest itself in the eternal flames of hell is anything but cold! The human emotion of anger is truly meant to give us some insight into the nature of God’s eternal, unchangeable disposition toward sin.
Surely we are correct to insist that it is beyond the bounds of propriety to speak of God experiencing the sensation of delight. But we ought also to admit that the emotion of delight that men experience is in some real sense revelatory of what the eternal disposition of the Father toward the Son is like. In this way we not only guard against the idea that God can be affected by something outside of Himself, but we also guard against the idea that this makes Him cold and mechanical.
We ought also to go beyond the Scriptural anthropopathisms that are easier to explain, such as God repenting or relenting. We need to deal with passages such as the command “do not grieve the Holy Spirit” in such a way that God is not left just telling us not to do something that we are entirely unable to do. Perhaps one could demonstrate that the feeling of grief a parent has when he is sinned against by a child he loves gives us some insight into God’s eternal and unchangeable disposition toward the remaining sin in His redeemed people.
We need to be as earnest to establish unity among Reformed Baptists as the Reformers were to establish unity among their churches. I am not certain that this can ever be achieved in this area, but I am certain that we can strive for it more earnestly than we have thus far. May the spirit of love and peace that was so manifest in Calvin and his fellow Reformers be manifest in us today.
His Throne is Forever and Ever!
[i] Merle d’Aubigne, J. H. History of the Reformation in the Time of Calvin The AGES Digital Library, Vol. 6, Book 11, p. 271
[iv] For example, as one proponent of the modified view in this debate has explained: “We take no exception to the 1689 LBCF in 2:1. We confess that God is without body, parts, or passions. We believe in divine impassibility. God has no internal (ad intra) fluctuation, passions, or changes in his nature of any sort. We believe that his divine affections are perfectly infinite and immutable (thus, they are also impassible). Our understanding of ‘divine emotivity’ resides in his external (ad extra) interactions with his world via the very covenant condescension described in the 1689 LBCF 7:1.”
I’d like to complete this short series on delighting in God’s moral law with three further thoughts that should help spur us on and motivate us to imitate Paul and the Psalmist.
First, take a moment to contemplate what a day in your life would be like if everyone in the world perfectly obeyed God’s moral law. You could trust everything you read or heard. You could make every business transaction without fear of being ripped off. You could go wherever you wanted to without fear of harm from others. You could flip through the TV channels without seeing images that corrupt your mind. I think we can all agree that that would be one awesome day! Well, what kind of ridiculous hypocrites must we be to recognize the benefits of others keeping the law, yet refusing to do it ourselves?
Second, consider the foundation and nature of the moral law. It is the transcript of the character of God Himself.
Many years ago I was terribly disappointed to find that the administrator of one of my favorite websites had decided to leave the Reformed Baptist church he had been a part of. Part of his explanation for doing so was extremely disturbing to me. He told of how in his church they had studied the 10 commandments as they are expounded in the Westminster Larger Catechism, and how troubling that was to him. Anyone familiar with this section of the catechism will agree that it is extremely thorough. (In my opinion it is the finest concise exposition of the moral law in print.) But for this man, the exhaustive precision of what God requires was just too much. He told us that he thought to himself “Who could possibly do all this? Why even try?” I couldn’t believe it. I thought to myself, “What in the world is he going to do next time he comes across Matt. 5:48?”
Well, I have a much better use for this section of the catechism for you. Read through it again, examining the precision and exhaustive detail of the perfect obedience our Creator and Redeemer demands of us. But do that with two considerations in mind: 1. Ponder the fact that this is a description of exactly how our Lord Jesus Christ lived as he walk upon this earth. He perfectly kept every miniscule detail without the slightest deviation of any kind. Do you want to know what Christ is like? Study the moral law. 2. Consider the moral perfections described and realize that this perfection was not just something God came up with willy-nilly. This truly is the transcript of His character, to understand and love these commandments is to understand and love the author of these commandments. We all long to be more conformed to the image of our Lord and Savior. Conform yourself, inwardly and outwardly, to the demands of His moral law so that you will be more like Him.
And finally, I will conclude with what I believe ought to cause every believer to delight in God’s moral law. This has been the desire of my heart since the moment of my conversion. But unfortunately, the church has been so inundated by false teaching and fuzzy thinking about the law that it almost sounds like heresy to many. We delight in the moral law because it informs us how we can please the one who created and redeemed us!
Ralph Erskine put it this way:
A rigid matter was the law
Demanding brick, denying straw
But when with Gospel tongue it sings
It bids me fly, and gives me wings
For the unconverted man, the law is an unbearable burden. Making demands he can never fulfill, and providing absolutely no aid or consolation to anyone guilty of the slightest deviation from its requirements. But the gospel turns the law into something altogether different! Through the gospel, God takes the stony rebellious heart out of us and replaces it with a heart of flesh that seeks after God and yearns to please Him. The law then instructs us how we can show our gratitude and love for Him for whom we now live. Please allow me to make the necessary qualifications.
Unconverted man can do NOTHING to please God!
No one can do ANYTHING to earn God’s favor or salvation!
But neither of these truths contradicts the fact that Christians CAN and SHOULD live and behave in such a way that is pleasing to God! Paul Washer put it this way:
“[A lot of people] think that Christianity is you doing all the righteous things you hate and avoiding all the wicked things you love in order to go to Heaven. No, that’s a lost man with religion. A Christian is a person whose heart has been changed; they have new affections.” ~ Paul Washer, sermon, “Dating, Courtship, and Marriage.”
What are the new affections he speaks of? They are the love of Christ and the desire to please Him. But how do we go about accomplishing the desire to please Him? Is it that difficult to understand that one way to please someone is by doing what He tells you to do? It is Christ Himself who said “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” John 15:14.
Our obedience is utterly imperfect, it could never deserve God’s favor, but He looks upon our feeble efforts as a father watching a small child attempt to please him. He has cleansed the multitude impurities from our obedience with the blood of Christ and is truly pleased with it.
2 Corinthians 5:9 Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him.
Colossians 1:10 that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God;
Colossians 3:20 Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord.
1 John 3:22 And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.
This is why every Christian should delight in the moral law of God. Every true Christian eagerly desires to please the One who redeemed him. The moral law teaches us how to accomplish the goal of living a life pleasing to Him.
The Psalmist describes the blessed man as he whose “delight is in the law of the Lord” (Ps. 1:2). And the Apostle Paul himself declares that he “delight[s] in the law of God according to the inward man”(Rom. 7:22). Yet a large portion of the professing Christian church today would instantly condemn anyone who delights in the law as a “legalist.” The very idea that the Psalmist and the Apostle were guilty of legalism is on its very face preposterous. But let me further put this idea to rest with a simple truth. The legalist does not, indeed cannot delight in the law of God, for whenever the law of God is misused and abused as a means of procuring favor with God it is an unbearable burden! That is why legalism inevitably twists, truncates and manipulates the law of God into something that it is not, something that the legalist is able to fulfill, at least in his own mind.
Undoubtedly, the reason behind the disdain so many professing Christians hold toward the law of God stems from the fact that they have never bowed the knee to King Jesus. They have entered the “church” by means of an easy-believism “gospel” and have never surrendered their hearts and lives to the dominion and Lordship of their rightful King. They sit securely upon the throne of their own heart and sternly reject the right of anyone, including the God who holds their life in His hands, to tell them how they must live. Every time they are confronted with the law of God their conscience is reminded of the fact that they owe obedience to one greater than themselves and therefore they reject and despise it. There is only one solution for anyone in this frame of mind: Repent and believe. Surrender your life to the King of kings and Lord of lords and trust in Him alone to save you from your sin. Give yourself to Him, take His yoke upon you, for it is indeed light, and He will carry you to glory.
How Can I Delight in that which Brings Guilt and Shame?
I want to focus, however, on a question that others may have. Even those who have truly been converted and love the Lord Jesus may still wonder at times “How can I delight in the law of God? It is the law that brings my sin to mind. It reminds me of how much I fail my Lord and it fills my conscience with guilt and shame. How can I delight in something that does that?” I believe the answer to this question will not be difficult for us if we just look at the conscience from a Biblical perspective.
Unregenerate sinners have various unbiblical means of dealing with guilt, and unfortunately, these habits are not instantly eliminated from our minds at the moment of conversion. We need to consciously recognize and reject them. I will focus on two primary ways that the world deals with guilt and then contrast these with the means the Bible gives us for dealing with it.
Balance Guilt with Blame
One of the most common things unbelievers do with a guilty conscience is to shift the blame from themselves by concentrating the focus of their energy on someone else doing something that they consider to be so much worse. Perhaps the clearest example of this in our society is the strange marriage of pro-abortion advocacy with animal rights advocacy. It seems so illogical that those who have no concern for the rights of a human being as long as that human being resides within the womb of its mother should at the very same time spent their time and energy fighting for the “rights” of anything and everything within the animal kingdom. Until you realize that this principle is at work. The guilt they have for advocating murder in some cases is somehow, in their conscience, relieved by focusing on someone else doing something cruel to something else. The Christian is not immune to this principle however. How often, when faced with the guilt of our own sin, do we instinctively point to someone else doing something worse instead of dealing with our sin Biblically?
Pretend it isn’t Sin
The second of the two most common ways that the world deals with the guilt of sin is simply to pretend it isn’t sin. This stands out the most in our society in the homosexual agenda. The fight for “gay marriage” isn’t about “marriage equality” at all. It is about sinners trying to quiet their consciences. They know what they do is wrong, but they want to do it anyway. They fight to convince themselves and are able at times to quiet their stubborn consciences. They do everything in their might to remove every reminder that what they love to do is in fact sin. But every time they are confronted with someone who holds to the Biblical truth their conscience is again disquieted and this opposing view must be silenced so that they can return to their slumber! That is why the simple truth that according to the Bible homosexuality is sin, is being outlawed as “hate-speech” in place after place. Again, unfortunately, Christians are not immune to this practice. We have certain sins we are quite comfortable with, and when our conscience is awakened by the law of God our first reaction can be that we don’t want to hear it. Keep the law to yourself so I can go on in my blissful ignorance! Well, needless to say this is not how Christians should deal with guilt.
Dealing with Guilt Biblically
Before looking at how we should deal with guilt according to the word of God, I just want to point out one important thing about both of these worldly ways of dealing with it. Neither of them does anything at all to actually deal with the problem of guilt. They are both nothing but mind games! They are means of self-deception, nothing more. The Bible provides us with the one and only means of dealing with guilt that actually fixes the problem! What is that? Short answer: Christ.
When the law confronts us with the guilt of our sin, there is only one thing to do: Flee to Christ. 1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Don’t hide from your sin, don’t cling to your sin, take your sin to Christ! Confess and forsake your sin and leave it at the foot of the cross. He is faithful, not only to forgive you and cleanse you from the guilt of your sins. But he is also faithful to cleanse you from that sin. It is Christ and Christ alone who can give you the strength to forsake that sin, to cause you to see it the way He sees it and flee from it in disgust.
If you allow the law of God to work in your heart in this way it will inevitably become a delight to you. Allow the law to test your heart, to go down to the very depths of your soul and shine it’s light upon you. Let it expose your most intimate and secret sins, those you have been hiding even from yourself. But when you come face to face with the wickedness of your own heart in the mirror of God’s holy law do not despair. Do not be overcome with the dreadfulness and despicableness that you will inevitably find. For no matter how vile and putrid it is, the blood of Christ has more than enough power to wash you white as snow. Take it directly to the foot of the cross and lay it before your compassionate Savior. Oh what a Sweet Savior He is, for He will draw you unto Himself and cover you with His undying love.
The Question Reversed
So you see I must reverse the question. Dear Christian, how can you fail to delight in the law of the Lord. How can you not delight in that which constantly draws you to the foot of the cross and causes you to lay hold of your Savior afresh and cling to Him with all of your might? The great delight of the law of God is that it enables us to find our greatest delight in Christ Himself!
In part two I will share a number of further thoughts to help enable us to be that blessed man of Psalm 1, constantly delighting in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night.
Ever since my first exposure to the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God I have been fascinated by the subject of Compatibilism. God has decreed from eternity past whatsoever shall come to pass, including the actions of sinful men, yet men are still fully responsible for the sinfulness of their actions and God is in no way the author of sin. Meditating on this subject has brought me countless hours of fruitful contemplative reflection over the years.
By far the most substantive and thorough treatment of the subject I have ever had the pleasure of reading is a book that has been long out of print.
The Court of the Gentiles, Part IV, Book III, Wherein the Nature of Divine Predetermination is Fully Explicated and Demonstrated, both in the General, as also more Particularly, as to the Substrate Mater, or Entitative Act of Sin: with A Vindication of Calvinists and others from that Blasphemous Imputation of Making God the Author of Sin,
by Theophilus Gale, published in 1678. I believe Gale was a professor of Philosophy and a member of Thomas Goodwin’s church. (One day I would love to see a republication of this momentous work in contemporary English, Gale uses a lot of words that are no longer found in an unabridged dictionary.) Gale’s work is unique in that it is both philosophically sound and profoundly Biblical. The doctrine of Compatibilism is proved through Scripture, not philosophy. The doctrine is, quite simply, forced upon us if we hold to the conviction that all things in Scripture are necessarily true. Where Gale excels all others is in his ability to demonstrate that these truths can all be held together in a way that is indeed philosophically satisfying as well as faithful to the whole counsel of God. While I may have begun my study of the subject of Compatibilism as an intellectual pursuit, as I began to see it throughout the word of God it became much more than that. I now recognize this principle to be one of the most comforting truths revealed in Scripture.
A few years ago I had an opportunity to preach at Emmasdale Baptist Church in Lusaka, Zambia. When I asked Pastor Makashinyi if there was a subject he would like me to address, he told me that some in the church were fairly new to the Reformed faith, and that some basic teaching in that area would be helpful. I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to share the Biblical doctrine of God’s sovereignty (rightly described as Compatibilism), as it is presented in Scripture, in the hope that it might bring them the same comfort that it has afforded me in times of distress and trial. I did not enter into the philosophical realm, as this was a sermon, not a lecture. But I did my best to set forth the Biblical evidence and apply it to our lives.
I would simply ask that you might overlook my lack of eloquence in the hope that you may experience the same consolation to your soul that this doctrine has afforded me.
1 God has Decreed in Himself, from all Eternity, by the most wise and holy Counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things whatsoever come to pass; yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin, nor has fellowship with any therein, nor is violence offered to the will of the Creature, nor yet is the liberty, or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established, in which appears his wisdom in disposing all things, and power, and faithfulness in accomplishing his Decree.—1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith
Resting in God’s Decrees (sermon outline)
Deuteronomy 29:29 The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.
I. God’s Decree is whatever comes to pass.
Isaiah 14:24 The LORD of hosts has sworn, saying, “Surely, as I have thought, so it shall come to pass, And as I have purposed, so it shall stand:
Isaiah 43:13 Indeed before the day was, I am He; And there is no one who can deliver out of My hand; I work, and who will reverse it?”
Isaiah 46:10 Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, “My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure,’
Isaiah 45:9 “Woe to him who strives with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth! Shall the clay say to him who forms it, “What are you making?’ Or shall your handiwork say, “He has no hands’?
Daniel 4:35 All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven And among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand Or say to Him, “What have You done?”
Psalm 115:3 But our God is in heaven; He does whatever He pleases.
Psalm 135:6 Whatever the LORD pleases He does, In heaven and in earth, In the seas and in all deep places.
Ephesians 1:11 In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will,
Hebrews 2:10 For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
Romans 11:36 For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.
II. Including the sinful actions of men.
Proverbs 16:4 The LORD has made all for Himself, Yes, even the wicked for the day of doom.
Acts 2:23 Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death;
Acts 3:18 But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled.
Acts 4:27 “For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together 28to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done.
III. This does nothing to eliminate the sinner’s guilt.
Isaiah 10:5-12 “Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger And the staff in whose hand is My indignation. 6I will send him against an ungodly nation, And against the people of My wrath I will give him charge, To seize the spoil, to take the prey, And to tread them down like the mire of the streets. 7Yet he does not mean so, Nor does his heart think so; But it is in his heart to destroy, And cut off not a few nations. 8For he says, “Are not my princes altogether kings? 9Is not Calno like Carchemish? Is not Hamath like Arpad? Is not Samaria like Damascus? 10As my hand has found the kingdoms of the idols, Whose carved images excelled those of Jerusalem and Samaria, 11As I have done to Samaria and her idols, Shall I not do also to Jerusalem and her idols?”‘ 12Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Lord has performed all His work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, that He will say, “I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his haughty looks.”
2 Samuel 16:7-12 Also Shimei said thus when he cursed: “Come out! Come out! You bloodthirsty man, you rogue! 8 The LORD has brought upon you all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose place you have reigned; and the LORD has delivered the kingdom into the hand of Absalom your son. So now you are caught in your own evil, because you are a bloodthirsty man!” 9 Then Abishai the son of Zeruiah said to the king, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Please, let me go over and take off his head!” 10 But the king said, “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah? So let him curse, because the LORD has said to him, ‘Curse David.’ Who then shall say, ‘Why have you done so?’” 11 And David said to Abishai and all his servants, “See how my son who came from my own body seeks my life. How much more now may this Benjamite? Let him alone, and let him curse; for so the LORD has ordered him. 12 It may be that the LORD will look on my affliction, and that the LORD will repay me with good for his cursing this day.”
2 Samuel 19:19 Now Shimei the son of Gera fell down before the king when he had crossed the Jordan. 19 Then he said to the king, “Do not let my lord impute iniquity to me, or remember what wrong your servant did on the day that my lord the king left Jerusalem, that the king should take it to heart.
1 Kings 2:8-9 “And see, you have with you Shimei the son of Gera, a Benjamite from Bahurim, who cursed me with a malicious curse in the day when I went to Mahanaim. But he came down to meet me at the Jordan, and I swore to him by the LORD, saying, ‘I will not put you to death with the sword.’ 9 Now therefore, do not hold him guiltless, for you are a wise man and know what you ought to do to him; but bring his gray hair down to the grave with blood.”
IV. This does not make God the Author of Sin!
1 John 1:5 This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.
Genesis 50:20 But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.
Job 1:6-22 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. 7 And the LORD said to Satan, “From where do you come?” So Satan answered the LORD and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking back and forth on it.” 8 Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?” 9 So Satan answered the LORD and said, “Does Job fear God for nothing? 10 Have You not made a hedge around him, around his household, and around all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But now, stretch out Your hand and touch all that he has, and he will surely curse You to Your face!” 12 And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on his person.” So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD.
13 Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house; 14 and a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, 15 when the Sabeans raided them and took them away—indeed they have killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” 16 While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” 17 While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three bands, raided the camels and took them away, yes, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” 18 While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, 19 and suddenly a great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” 20 Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped. 21 And he said: “ Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked shall I return there.
The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD.” 22 In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong.
Job 2:9-10 Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die!” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity (evil)?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
V. This should be one of our greatest comforts.
Romans 8:28 And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.
(How God used an Arminian Bible college to make me a Calvinist)
My wife and I were converted in a conservative Southern Baptist church in Sioux Falls, SD. Growing up, I had attended United Methodist and Evangelical Covenant churches where the preaching was very bland and easy-believism was the norm. This SBC church was the first place I had ever heard sound expository preaching, and in my extreme naivety I assumed that all Baptist churches were like this one, standing firmly on the inerrancy of Scripture, preaching boldly against sin and faithfully proclaiming the gospel. So when I “surrendered to preach” I enrolled in the local Baptist college which had a 3-3 program with the North American Baptist seminary in town. It only took a few weeks on campus to realize that all Baptists are not conservative and this college was no place to train for the ministry. So I spent quite a bit of time researching for the most conservative Southern Baptist Bible college I could find. My search led me to Florida Baptist Bible College in Graceville, FL.
Fav Point Calvinist!
Moving from South Dakota to the Florida panhandle in January was awesome! It was -18 degrees when we left and in the 60’s when we arrived. The day after we moved into the on-campus married housing I was enjoying the balmy weather and chatting with my new neighbor in our shared front lawn, when a senior student stopped to say hello. He had just “made the loop”, visiting all the Southern Baptist seminaries in order to decide which one to attend for his post-graduate studies. At some point in the conversation he said to my neighbor, “You’ll never believe what they got for a president at Southern. –a FIVE point Calvinist!” :O (He was referring to Dr. Mohler of course.) I had never heard the term before, so after the senior had driven away I asked my neighbor, “What is a five point Calvinist?” He didn’t know exactly how to define it, and he seemed somewhat neutral on the subject, but he made it quite clear that most students looked at it as a very bad thing.
A few days later we were having dinner with another new student and his wife. When the fact that I liked Spurgeon came up in the conversation I was told “Oh, you must be a Calvinist.” To which I had to reply, “I don’t know what a Calvinist is.” My friend was still in the discovery phase, but his explanation was enough to peak my interest. I was very busy with all the various duties required in the first semester of a new college, a new job and family (at that time we had 2 children), but I knew this was an issue I wanted to learn more about.
I joined the Theology Club, hoping to engage in some additional “iron sharpening” and fellowship. This hope, unfortunately, was very short lived. We had only one meeting that I can recall. At that meeting the decision was made to host a debate: Calvinism vs. Arminianism. I was pretty excited, thinking this would be of great benefit to my understanding of these matters. Within a couple of days my excitement was turned to dismay. The college had forbidden us from having a debate on the topic! Their suggestion for a better topic of debate: abortion. I was completely dumbfounded! The theology club isn’t allowed to debate a theological issue? What in the world is there to debate about murdering babies? What a joke! Needless to say, the Theology Club simply disbanded. By this time I had two friends who shared my conservative views, and we spent most of our spare time talking about theology.
Finally, a Definition
It seemed like a day could not pass without hearing something in class or on campus about Calvinism, “five pointers”, or something of that nature. I remember quite clearly when I finally found out what “five point Calvinism” actually was. I was up late, (about 1:30 am as I recall) working on a paper, when I had to look up a term in my “Dictionary of Theological Terms”. As I was putting the book down, it suddenly struck me, maybe the term “five point Calvinist” is in here. Well sure enough it was! Under the heading “Five points of Calvinism” I found the TULIP definition as expressed in the words of J.I. Packer. I eagerly dove in, wondering what monstrous doctrine I was about to uncover.
I began to read:
Total Depravity… well that’s clearly Biblical, all men are born dead in trespasses and sins, why would anyone have a problem with that?
Unconditional Election… Why would anyone disagree with this either? If all men are completely unable to choose God what else could be the case? And besides, “We love Him because He first loved us.”
Limited Atonement… Well that’s clearly wrong, 1 John 2:2 He is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world.
Irresistible Grace… Of course, God’s grace cannot fail to accomplish His purpose.
Perseverance of the Saints… Well Duh. How could anyone ever have eternal life temporarily?
Ok, ok, what is going on here? Why is everybody so worked up about “five point Calvinism”? Four of the five points are as plain as the nose on my face. I remember waking my wife up and reading each point to her and asking “This is Biblical isn’t it? What’s wrong with that? Am I missing something?” My wife didn’t appreciate my enthusiasm, but she agreed with me that four of the five points were obviously Biblical. What a realization, I was a four point Calvinist before I even knew what the word Calvinism meant. Funny how serious Bible reading and expository preaching can bring that about, isn’t it?
Arminian Antics and Strawmen
My friends and I became convinced that someone at the college was coaching chapel speakers, asking them to deride Calvinism whenever possible. I distinctly recall one speaker, when he came across the term elect in his text, giving a completely irrelevant explanation of its meaning and concluding with the declaration: “And that’s the only place election appears in the Bible!” We looked at each other in disbelief. Did he know he was speaking at a Bible college, to people who have Bibles?
Perhaps the funniest incident regarding Calvinism that I can remember was in my Christian Education class. The instructor had for some reason brought up a question about what you as a parent should do if your daughter stays out a couple hours past curfew. Immediately a voice from the other side of the room piped out, “If you’re a fav point Calvinist, she wuz sposed to come home late!” Of course this was met with abundant laughter.
But this anti-Calvinist atmosphere did do one thing for me and my friends. It drove us into the library. Oh the library, sigh… What a wonderful, peaceful, glorious place. There we devoured everything Calvinistic we could find. A.W. Pink, Ian Murray, Charles Spurgeon and John McArthur were the most helpful to me at first, and J.I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness gave me a taste for the puritans, and we all know what a treasure trove can be found there!
The Fifth Point
But even though many of the arguments I came across in defense of limited atonement seemed logical, I could not be convinced, not in the slightest. 1 John 2:2 was always ringing in my ears every time the subject came up. I prayed for understanding & spent much time in meditation over that verse. I then decided to do all the research I could and delve as deeply as possible into the meaning of that verse. I had my Complete Word Study New Testament by Spiros Zodhiates, and I was determined to get to the bottom of every word and phrase. Then suddenly, something amazing occurred to me. It was as though God just switched a light on in the dark room that I had been groping around in. Wait a minute, if that verse means what I thought it meant, then there can’t be anyone in hell! If Christ has propitiated God’s wrath toward every individual who ever lived or will live, then no one can ever suffer under God’s wrath. Scripture is clear that all who die outside of Christ will suffer eternally under the wrath of God. Well what do you know, I’m a five point Calvinist!
I left FBTC after only one semester, it was much more conservative than Sioux Falls College, but it was still far too liberal for me. I think I’ll always have fond memories of my time there, for it was the beginning of my “cage stage” of Calvinism. I wasn’t yet what I now consider reformed, but I was indeed a “Fav Point Calvinist”!
A presentation of the parity or equality of elders in the New Testament
The Practice of the Parity of the Eldership
Pastor Dave Chanski
Poh Boon Sing argues that holding to parity of authority among the elders produces the effect of “undermining the Christian ministry.” However, it is the view that ratchets the authority of some elders up by a notch over other elders that tends to devalue the office of elder and thus to undermine the authority of the church’s leadership. This occurs in at least two ways.
First, to assert that one class of elders has supremacy or priority of authority in the rule of the church necessarily lessens the authority of the other class of elders. This has the effect of diminishing all authority in the church, since Christ has seen fit to entrust the “execution of power or duty” to the elders of the church. We have seen that the Scriptures teach that all elders have equal authority in the church. They are Christ’s appointed rulers in His church. To grant primacy of authority to one class of elders over another requires either the extra-scriptural concentration of authority in the one class or an anti-Scriptural dilution of the authority of the other. If those who hold to such a view are not endeavoring to turn “pastors” into despots, they must concede that they are watering down the authority of “ruling elders”. This is a serious enough problem in itself, especially in a day and age when the world despises authority in almost any form and when the church of Christ is itself rushing to capitulate to the dictates of the world. The problem becomes especially acute when a church at any given time is without any fully supported preaching elders. Once again, we will do well to heed the admonition of John Owen:
Their authority, also in the whole rule of the church, is every way the same with that of the other sort of elders; and they are to act in the execution of it with equal respect and regard from the church. And this institution is abused when either unmeet persons are called to this office, or those that are called do not attend unto their duty with diligence, or do act only in it by the guidance of the teaching officers, without a sense of their own authority, or due respect from the church.
Second, the unscriptural view of the inherent superiority of one class of elders and the inherent inferiority of another leads to another pitfall, the watering down of qualifications for the office of elder. Even if it is maintained with Owen that both “pastors” and “ruling elders” hold the same office and that the scriptural qualifications are therefore identical, the departure from Owen regarding relative authority will inevitably lead to a two-tiered approach to the qualifications for office. To dilute the qualifications for one class of elders in the church is to dilute the qualifications for the eldership as a whole. Such dilution of standards jeopardizes the credibility of the church’s government in the eyes of the church and world and, more seriously, puts souls at risk, particularly those of unqualified men who are placed in office (1 Tim. 3:7). On the other hand, we know of no scriptural means more calculated to uphold the integrity of the Christian ministry and to secure the esteem of the people for church leaders than the maintenance of scriptural standards for the office of elder.
We cannot pretend that upholding scriptural standards for elders will safeguard the church from sin and incompetence in the eldership—even apostolic churches had their Diotrephes. However, care at this point is a primary means of keeping men of Diotrephes’ persuasion and tendency out of the Christian ministry. Further, taking such care to insure that all the elders in a church meet the Bible’s qualifications for office gives greater grounds for confidence that the men comprising the eldership will be able to effectively work together in a calling that requires the flesh-withering labor of mutual submission, mutual trust, and real cooperation.
Another problem is likely to develop if we depart from the biblical norm of plurality. Failure to appreciate that a plurality of elders in each church is the scriptural ideal can produce laxness regarding a church’s desire and efforts to achieve this norm. Remember that Benjamin Keach saw neither scriptural warrant nor practical necessity for any other than preaching elders in the church. Dr. Poh similarly fails to appreciate the importance of pursuing the scriptural ideal at this point when he writes:
The principle of ‘plurality’ is being bandied about as a new form of ‘shibboleth’. In the face of these new problems, it would not be wise to stress ‘plurality’. No, it might not even be right to do so.
This sentiment is far from that of the Puritan Congregationalists of New England, who wrote in their Reforming Synod in 1679:
It is requisite that utmost endeavours should be used, in order unto a full supply of officers in the churches, according to Christ’s institution. The defect of these churches, on this account, is very lamentable, there being in most of the churches only one teaching officer for the burden of the whole congregation to lye upon. The Lord Christ would not have instituted pastors, teachers, ruling-elders (nor the apostles have ordained elders in every church-Acts 14.23; Titus 1.5,) if he had not seen there was need of them for the good of his people; and therefore for men to think they can do well enough without them, is both to break the second commandment, and to reflect upon the wisdom of Christ, as if he did appoint unnecessary officers in his church.
Owen himself argued in no uncertain terms that the Bible’s norm of a plurality should be the desire of every church for practical as well as theological reasons. He wrote, “It is difficult, if not impossible, on a supposition of one elder only in a church, to preserve the rule of the church from being prelatical or popular.” In other words, to neglect the scriptural norm of plurality is to implicitly invite either the perils of the prelatical system of Owen’s day or the absence of any genuine church government, such as exists in the congregationalism of our own day. Owen further argued that “The nature of the work whereunto they are called requires that, in every church consisting of any considerable number of members, there should be more elders than one.” His point is that the preservation of the life of godliness in both pastor and people, their maximum edification, and the good order of the church of Christ are all best served by a plurality of elders, not by single elder rule. He wrote, “That all these things can be attended unto and discharged in a due manner in any church, by one elder, is for them only to suppose who know nothing of them.” For good and weighty reasons, Owen held strong convictions regarding the importance of plurality. We do well to emulate him in this.
Another defect of any view which disallows or undermines parity of authority among elders is that it permits and promotes a carnal view of the ministry. Any such view is rooted in unbelief. Knowing the human heart and the track record of men—who share authority in government, whether civil or ecclesiastical, many conclude that effective government by a number of men who possess parity of authority is impracticable if not impossible to achieve. Poh writes:
The fact that one or two churches have functioned well with this system is no proof that it is correct. It only proves that the men involved have been long-standing friends who would have operated well in any other situation.
We agree that a harmoniously functioning eldership in which there is parity of authority does not prove that the system is biblical. That determination must be made exegetically. But a well-functioning eldership with parity does prove that the Bible’s order of church government is practicable. It is not only practicable, it is ideal, and its realization ought to be our aim. To suggest that such an eldership owes its harmony to quirks of personality is akin to attributing every God-honoring Christian marriage to mere compatibility of the partners and asserting that they would have been successful even if they had remained unregenerate. The reality and profundity of the Holy Spirit’s ministry is denied.
The Bible’s form of church government requires faith in the necessity and efficacy of the work of the Holy Spirit. If we walk by sight and not by faith in this area, we will inevitably settle for a pragmatic arrangement, having concluded that the Bible’s method is designed for implementation only by angels or spirits of just men made perfect. Functioning in harmony with parity requires more than simply having godly men in the eldership. It requires the present and powerful dynamic of the Holy Spirit. He alone can help men of diverse age, gift, native inclination, and experience to cooperate peaceably and successfully. Only the Spirit of God can enable men to soberly assess themselves (Rom. 12:3ff.). Only He can enable them to mortify pride. Only He can keep them from sinful contentions and enable them to submit to one another. Only He can enable a man to sincerely appreciate and welcome the genuine oversight of his own soul by men who may be his inferiors in age, learning, or gift. By the same token, it is only the Holy Spirit who can enable equals in authority to defer to those who possess greater gift, experience, insight, or familiarity in a given area or situation.
Dr. Poh sees it as an inherent weakness of parity that it gives rise to a “constant tension of having to give deference to one another.” However, pride will wreak havoc in any eldership, whether it has parity or not. No system of church government produced Diotrephes. Diotrephes spoiled the government of the church (3 John 9). The requirement of humility and the perpetual demand for submission is not peculiar to systems of church government holding to parity. It is required for the Christian ministry, period. If a man cannot defer to his fellow elders, how can he faithfully and effectively shepherd the flock of God (1 Pet. 5:2f.)? If he cannot defer to his fellow elders, how can he be the servant of Christ’s people (Matt. 20:25-27)? If he cannot defer to his fellow elders, how can he truly esteem others better than himself (Phil. 2:3-5)? If he cannot defer to his fellow elders, how will he ever spend and be spent for men’s souls (2 Cor. 12:14f.)? If he cannot defer to his fellow elders, let that be the first clue that he is not fit to be an elder in the church of Christ.
A presentation of the parity or equality of elders in the New Testament
A Contemporary Reaction to the Parity of the Eldership
Pastor Sam Waldron
Perhaps the most extended treatment of and public attack on the parity of the eldership within recent days comes in the form of a book that has for its express purpose to give ecclesiological guidance to Reformed and Baptist churches in the Particular Baptist tradition. The breadth of this book is far broader than the ecclesiological issue with which our little book is concerned. Yet a study of the contents of its content justifies the statement that one of the underlying motives which issued in its production must have been a desire to refute the parity of the eldership as it has come to be held by many in the Reformed and Baptist tradition. This is my reason for taking the time in this little book to set before you Poh Boon Sing’s view of the Eldership as expressed in his Keys of the Kingdom.
Poh Boon Sing is a Malaysian Reformed Baptist who has experienced imprisonment for his faith. His book appears to represent the views of a number of Reformed Baptists and is being given some ‘press’ by them not only in America, but in the British Isles. It is in many respects, a good, learned, and helpful book. There are, however, a number of practical areas of ecclesiology where I have severe misgivings about Poh’s views. In this chapter, then, after having given some account of the overall thrust of the book, I will limit myself to his views of the parity of the eldership. It is always difficult to be completely fair with someone with whom you disagree. Therefore, I shall attempt to allow Poh to speak for himself as much as possible.
There are eleven chapters in Poh’s book:
Chapter 1: Autonomy
Chapter 2: The Headship of Christ
Chapter 3: Rule By Elders
Chapter 4. The Priority of the Ministry
Chapter 5: The Validity of Ruling Elders
Chapter 6. The Unity of the Eldership
Chapter 7. Popular Election
Chapter 8: Ordination
Chapter 9: Rule With Consent
Chapter 10: The Gathered Church
Chapter 11: The Communion of Churches
The heart of those things with which I am concerned is found in chapters 3-6, but there are relevant things said both in earlier and later chapters. The drift of his views is signaled in fact in his introduction where he says this:
Other churches, some of them influential, believe in the “equality of elders and carry this to an extreme, calling every elder “pastor”. Closer scrutiny will reveal a Presbyterian influence in this system [p. 5].
Poh persists in describing the view which he is opposing as the absolute equality of elders. This description is an unfortunate oversimplification of our views.
A less disagreeable and very important aspect of Poh’s treatment of the subject is also signaled in his lengthy and generally very good historical introduction to the eleven chapters of his book. He premises an important distinction between Independency and Congregationalism.
A shift in the meaning of the terms began to occur very early. The extreme Independents began to forsake rule by elders for popular democracy. The followers of Robert Browne appeared to have carried his teaching about the autonomy and power of the church to an extreme. Isaac Watts (1674-1748), writing to his brother Enoch, mentioned that “there were some of the Independents heretofore called Brownists, some of whom were very irregular in the management of church affairs, but they are not to be found now.” John Owen alluded to the existence of “democratical confusion” in his days which hindered him from considering any other alternative to Episcopacy, apart from Presbyterianism, to which he adhered until his change of mind in 1644. He described in disdain the system of church government which was “absolutely democratical or popular”. The term “Congregationalism” began to mean that the congregation has power to rule the church, or, otherwise expressed, the power of self-rule. The term “Independency” began to mean that the congregation is autonomous, although maintaining close fellowship with like-minded churches [p. 22].
It is Independency that Poh sets himself to defend throughout his book. In Chapter 3, Rule by Elders, for instance, he asserts that in Independency, “Unlike Congregationalism, church officers do not have their authority delegated by the church. Instead, that authority is communicated from Christ immediately, and through the church” [p. 89]. Throughout this chapter it is John Owen’s view of the whole matter which is presented. Poh follows Owen to a fault. He adopts Owen’s view that “prophecy” in Scripture sometimes merely refers to the ordinary gift of preaching [pp. 94, 95]. He also presents very favorably Owen’s four office view of the church (pastor, teacher, elder, deacon), although he seems a trifle uncomfortable with it as well [pp. 96-100]. Reading the 1689 Baptist Confession through the lens of John Owen he concludes this discussion by saying, “Like the other Independents, the Particular Baptists believed that all pastors are elders, but not all elders are pastors” [p. 100]. While at other points it is difficult to be certain as to how to distinguish Poh from Owen, it is clear at this point (as his later chapters make clear) that Poh is stating his own position.
In Chapter 4 entitled, “The Priority of the Ministry,” Poh begins to argue more systematically for his favorite theory of the distinction between pastors and elders. He begins by arguing for the priority of the ministry. Here in a way that I have nothing to quarrel with he argues for the primacy of the Word, of preaching, and the importance of financially supported full-time preachers for the church. Utilizing Eph. 4: 11 and 1 Tim. 5: 17 he argues properly and powerfully for the importance of the preaching ministry in the church [pp. 111-114].
At this point, however, Poh begins to introduce his theory of the pastor/elder distinction. He argues that in Eph. 4: 11 “the ‘pastors and teachers’ are therefore teaching elders. The context of the passage also shows that only teaching elders are referred to here” [p. 115]. He buttresses his view by appealing to the popular doctrine of the call to the ministry. He argues that a distinct call to the ministry of the Word assumes that it is a distinct office as over against the office of ruling elder. [Cf. Poh’s comments on pp. 177, 181 about a contradiction within A. N. Martin’s views on this subject.] Thus, he proceeds to say:
Within the office of elder, therefore, we find certain elders who also occupy the office of pastor or minister. This would be the significance of the 1 Tim. 5: 17 passage…. There are two sorts of elders: those who rule and teach (often called “teaching elders” for convenience), and those who only rule (called “ruling elders” for convenience)…. Our concern is only to note the truth that the teaching elder occupies the office of elder as well as the office of pastor or minister. There are, nevertheless, two basic offices in the church, not three completely different ones: that of elders, and that of deacons…. Thus, the Christian ministry has the priority not only because of the primacy of the word, the primacy of preaching, and the necessity of the call to the ministry, but also because it encompasses the two offices of the elder and minister of the word. As an elder, the pastor rules with the other elders. As a minister of the word, he alone preaches regularly in the church. [p. 117].
As these statements make clear, Poh – apparently oblivious to any contradiction in the matter – moves back and forth terminologically. First, he states the truth that there are only two offices in the church. Then, he states that the pastoral office encompasses the two offices of elder and minister of the Word.
In the following pages Poh argues that there should be clear leadership in the church. According to his viewpoint this requires that one man be the leader. He argues that Moses as the leader of Israel, Peter as the leader of the Apostles, James as the leader of the Church at Jerusalem, Paul as the leader of his missionary team, and the angels of the book of Revelation chapters 1-3 prove this theory [pp. 118, 119]. He concludes:
The word ‘priority’ includes the idea of ‘primacy’ and more…. Of the two types of elders, the teaching elder has the priority over the ruling elders.
There are practical implications to the principle of priority of the ministry. We mention two only here. First, a church should seek to appoint a teaching elder, or pastor, before a ruling elder. ….
Second, if there are more than one elders in the church, the pastor should be the leading elder. Elders lead the church, and the pastor (or one of them, if there are more than one pastors) leads the eldership. …. If the pastor is not the leading elder, his liberty to preach, to plan, and to lead the church will be hampered [p. 119-120].
Having argued for his theory biblically and stated some of its practical ramifications, Poh proceeds to present his case from church history. He begins with the astounding statement that “The position of the 1689 Confession of Faith on this matter is crystal-clear” [p. 120]. Reading it through the lens of the Savoy Platform (and by the way ignoring differences between the 1689 and the Savoy Platform) and John Owen he believes that the 1689 Baptist Confession perfectly exemplifies his pastor/elder distinction [pp. 121-126].
Poh concludes this chapter with a section entitled, Denials of “Priority”, and deals with two which he names: “Absolute Equality” in America which derives from Presbyterian influences, he thinks, and “Absolute Equality” in the United Kingdom which derives from Brethren influences. He summarizes this section as follows:
Some Reformed Baptists are advocating a view of the eldership in which all elders are regarded as equal, with no distinction between them apart, perhaps, from the different functions they perform. To them, all elders are pastors. One stream of opinion, arising from America, appears to have adopted Presbyterian ideas into a Baptist setting. Another stream, arising from the United Kingdom, appears to have been sympathetic to the charismatic movement and Brethrenism. Their emphasis on the equality, or parity, of elders, has the effect of undermining the Christian ministry. The principle of ‘the priority of the ministry’ is thus denied [p. 134].
So as to remove any doubt as to who he is talking about with regard to “Absolute Equality” in America, it must be said that he cites chapter 26 of S. Waldron’s book entitled A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith and A. N. Martin’s tapes on the subject of the eldership.
In Chapter 5 Poh presents what he calls “The Validity of Ruling Elders”. The reactionary character of some of the opening sentences of this chapter set the tone for this chapter.
As will be shown below, the current fad to restore a plurality of elders, coupled with the emphasis on the equality of all elders, in Reformed Baptist circles, is in reality a struggle over the validity of the office of ruling elders [p. 139].
How Poh can believe in a plurality of elders in the local church, behold the widespread departure from this biblical doctrine, but use the derogatory language thecurrent fad to restore a plurality of elders is mystifying. It manifests at any rate that there is a reactionary current in Poh’s thinking.
By saying that he is arguing for the validity of ruling elders Poh intends to distance himself from two other views and argue for what he calls the “Independent view”.
He is for ruling elders over against the Presbyterian view. Here he argues that the authentic Presbyterian view denies that ruling elders are the elders of the New Testament [p. 140f.]. Thus, from Poh’s perspective the Presbyterian view really does not uphold the validity of ruling elders, since ruling elders are not New Testament elders at all. This classification of Poh’s is not really fair to the historical facts. Poh’s own book shows that calling this the Presbyterian view is not quite fair. Indeed, he himself shows that such great Presbyterians as Samuel Miller, R. J. Breckinridge, J. H. Thornwell, and R. L. Dabney held that ruling elders were elders in the New Testament sense of the word. While Charles Hodge and Thomas Smyth held that ruling elders were not New Testament elders (but only official representatives of the church), Poh himself shows that the Westminster Assembly was divided on the issue. [p. 140, 141].
Poh also means to say that he is for the validity of ruling elders as opposed to those who hold the absolute equality view. He cites a Presbyterian man named, Thomas Witherow, who defended the view of equality in the presbyterian controversies on this issue. Witherow held that there was no New Testament distinction between ruling and teaching elders. Hence, in the sense that Poh believes in them, Witherow, and the absolute equality view, hold that there is no office of ruling elder as distinct from that of teaching elder [pp. 146, 147].
It is in this section while he is arguing against the absolute equality view that the low point of Poh’s book is reached. Poh must be allowed to speak for himself:
We note here two dangers that the Absolute Equality View is prone to: namely, the extremes of the ‘committee syndrome’ and authoritarianism. The ‘committee syndrome’ sets in when there is no clear leadership provided by the pastor. All the elders are regarded as pastors. They are equal in power. They have equal right to preach. The elders may end up preaching in rotation, as have occurred in Brethren circles. There is also the constant tension of having to give deference to one another, or to prevent a strong personality in the eldership from having the preeminence in any way. The fact that one or two churches have functioned well with this system is no proof that it is correct. It only proves that the men involved have been long-standing friends who would have operated well in any other situation [pp. 153, 154].
It is difficult to restrain a sense of injustice at the many misrepresentations of the plurality and parity of the eldership as we hold it to be found in this paragraph. For instance, there is no need or desire in such a system to restrain and limit the gifts of a strong preacher or teacher. Such a system tends to enable and protect such a teacher or preacher to labor so that he may labor to his utmost at the thing he does best. We who believe in the parity of the eldership recognize vast differences in gifts and maturity among elders equal in office.
It is also difficult to restrain a sense of indignation at the cavalier disregard for the biblical mandate for humility and a servant spirit among the elders. We become indignant at the idea there can be no clear leadership where there is no single leader. Two responses occur to us. First, Jesus ought to be the senior pastor of every church. Second, the Bible teaches that wisdom consists in the ability to cooperate for great goals without a king (Prov. 30: 27).
But unfortunate as these paragraphs are, the following two or three paragraphs are worse. In them he argues that “The Absolute Equality view is prone to the danger of authoritarianism.” This view is then associated with “heavy shepherding”, being “cocksure”, and “the Diotrephes spirit” [pp. 154, 155]. In other words the assertion is made that somehow believing in parity of the eldership leads to an overbearing, harsh, and domineering eldership in which the proper freedoms of individual church-members are infringed. There are many problems with this charge. The main problem is that the charge is completely illogical. To accuse the view of church government which is most calculated to restrain a Diotrephes by placing him in a context of official equality to other elders or pastors is outrageous. Any Diotrephes who chose such a system within which to operate should have his head examined.
The following pages also reveal that a sense of personal irritation is skewing Poh’s thoughts. There is here plain over-reaction. Consider such statements as these:
When no other man is qualified or ready to be appointed as another elder of the church, there will be much fuss made of placing the single pastor under the pastoral oversight of another church [p. 156].
A church with only one elder should not be condemned as unbiblical or sinful when there are no other qualified men around to be appointed [p. 157].
Reformed Baptists who practice ‘plurality’ have themselves become authoritarian oligarchies. …. The principle of ‘plurality’ is being bandied about as a new form of ‘shibboleth’. In the face of these new problems, it would not be wise to stress ‘plurality’. No, it might not even be right to do so [p. 159].
In Chapter 6 Poh concludes his extended treatment of the eldership by speaking of “The Unity of the Eldership”. He asserts that the claim that “all elders are pastors” [p. 165] is based on three wrong assumptions.
The first wrong assumption is that “no significant distinction is to be made between the elders since they occupy the same office”. Here he cites 1 Tim. 5: 17, Eph. 4: 11, and Revelation 1 through 3 to prove that such a distinction is found in the New Testament.
The second wrong assumption, says Poh, is that “all elders are pastors”. Here Poh argues that only the verb meaning to pastor or shepherd and not the noun meaning pastor or shepherd is found in Acts 20: 28 and 1 Peter 5: 2. He then argues: “All elders do the work of shepherding, but it does not follow that they are the same as pastors of the church” [p. 166].
The third wrong assumption, says Poh, is the assumption of equality. He says, “The claim is made that since all are elders, all are equal in power, in standing before the church, and in rights to performance of all duties” [p. 167]. Here Poh, by the way, manifests his tendency to define office in terms of function and to assume that those who hold the parity of the eldership do not take into account the vast differences in gifts, maturity, financial support, and circumstances between different elders who are equal in office. Elsewhere, for instance, he says, “As far as authority is concerned, all elders have equal rights to perform all those functions” [p. 165].
Poh manifests his confusion further on page 169. Here he argues: “A difference in functions indicates a difference in gifts and therefore, a difference in the individuals who possess those gifts. Since that is the case, how can there be absolute equality of persons?” One can only respond to such argumentation by saying that we never thought of arguing for the absolute equality of persons. We can state our view in the very words which Poh uses to state his on the same page, “The only equality taught in Scripture with regard to leadership in the church is that of the office of elder itself.” We would have no disagreement with Poh, if only he did not introduce in some sense a pastoral office above that of elder. Thus, in the same paragraph Poh goes on to say, “The pastor is to be the leading elder …. If there are more than one pastors in the church, one of them should be acknowledged as the leading elder” [p. 170].
The extent of the authority which the pastor possesses in his peculiar “office” is revealed in statements of Poh both in Chapter 6 and later chapters. He asserts that the elders are responsible for what is preached in the church, and yet that the pastor is not subject to the elders of the church with regard to his preaching. Here are his own words:
Any defect in the teaching of the church must not be blamed on the preacher alone, but on the whole eldership. This does not mean that the ruling elders should be dictating to the preacher on what he may, or may not, preach. The preacher must be given the liberty to plan out a preaching syllabus, and to preach according to his assessment of the needs of the church, as he is led by the Spirit of God. On his part the preacher needs to take into account the occasional suggestions of the other elders with regard to his preaching [p. 174].
There is similar inconsistency and ambivalence with regard to the elders and pastor in Poh’s description of how elders’ meetings should handled. Of course, the pastor, should be the chairman of officers’ meetings.
The deacons would meet with the elders often. The elders would meet by themselves often. In all such meetings, the pastor should normally be the chairman. If there are more than one pastors in the church, one of them who has been recognised and approved by the church as the leading elder would be the chairman [p. 252].
Poh then describes how the pastor should resolve issues which come before the officers or elders.
In a meeting, he would put forward his proposal or decision with regard to any issue affecting the church, to the other elders. He explains to them why ‘possibility A’ should be adopted and why ‘possibility B’ should be rejected. He then asks for questions, comments, or suggestions from the other church-officers. Once the questions have been answered the comments heard, and the suggestions considered, he calls upon the meeting to give its consent to adopt ‘possibility A’ [p. 252].
All this might sound as if the other elders are allowed little or no initiative. But, of course, Poh does not want us to think he means that: “This is not to say that none of the elders, apart from the pastor, may initiate a suggestion or propose an item for the agenda of the meeting. All we are saying is that the leadership of the pastor should be recognized in practice” [p. 253]. Poh will have to pardon us for thinking that he is very ambivalent about other elders taking initiative in the pastor’s church!
Poh’s arguments against the view of the eldership commonly held among us raise a number of interesting and important questions which I think we would do well to consider more closely. Among them are the following:
Is there any evidence for a distinction between elder or overseer and shepherd (pastor) in the New Testament?
What validity has Poh’s argument that only the verb and not the noun is used in Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5?
What is the identity of the pastor-teachers of Eph. 4: 11?
Is it really wise to speak of a distinction between ruling elders and teaching elders?
Does 1 Tim. 5: 17 teach such a distinction?
In what does the parity of the eldership consist?
In what does legitimate diversity among elders consist?
Does the 1689 Confession support or refute the pastor/elder distinction?
Is the popular view that the seven angels of Revelation 1 through 3 are the pastors of the seven churches really correct?
What is the proper response to the instances of individual leaders pointed out by Poh?
Is there really a tension between the common view among us of a distinct call to the ministry of the Word and the view that the office of elder is the same as that of pastor?
Many of these questions must and will be addressed in the following chapters.
A presentation of the parity or equality of elders in the New Testament
Parity and Diversity in the Eldership
Pastor Greg Nichols
We now unfold diversity in the eldership following the same overall outline we used to develop parity. We first establish the Biblical Concept of diversity; second, we expound its Manifold Substance; and third, we apply some of its Practical Implications.
The Biblical Concept of Diversity in the Eldership
1 Tim. 5:17 – Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and in teaching.
Rom. 12:6-8 – And having gifts differing according to the grace that was given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the measure of our faith; or of ministry, let us give ourselves to our ministry; or he that teaches, to his teaching; or he that exhorts, to his exhorting: he that gives, let him do it with liberality; he that rules, with diligence; he that shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
1 Cor. 12:28,31 – And God has set some in the church, first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helps, governments, diverse kinds of tongues … But desire earnestly the greater gifts.
1 Pet. 4:10,11 – According as each man has received a gift, ministering it among yourselves as good stewards of the manifold grace of God; if any man speaks, speaking as it were oracles of God; if any man ministers, ministering as of the strength which God supplies: that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.
The warrant for diversity in the eldership rests on the shoulders of a few texts. Yet these texts are mighty men, able to carry the weight convincingly to the conscience. First among them is 1 Tim. 5:17. Here Paul explicitly requires diversity of valuation and honor, “let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor.” Some elders in virtue of grace and experience have a good track record. Since they rule with sustained proficiency and skill, they deserve special respect and appreciation from God’s people. Herein lies the first type of diversity in the eldership. Yet, in this same text, Paul implicitly discloses a far deeper diversity, one which touches the very form and structure of the eldership, “those who labor in the word and in teaching.” Some elders, not all elders, labor in the Word as their calling. Whereas some elders spend their day laboring at farming, engineering, carpentry, medicine, or law, other elders labor full-time in the study, exposition, and proclamation of the Scriptures. All elders have the same office, rank, and authority. They all belong to the same ruling body of church officers. Yet all do not have the same ministerial vocation or career. Only some are preachers, or ministers of the Word, while the rest labor in various mundane callings. What is the basis for this diversity of vocation? Why do only some of the elders labor in the Word as their life’s occupation? Although this text does not answer, three other texts rush to offer their support (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:28,30; 1 Pet. 4:10,11). These passages describe a rich diversity of spiritual gifts among the people of God. Although some of these gifts were temporary, passing away with the apostles, others remain until Jesus comes. The Lord, in his grace, continually showers upon his church militant a rich supply of ability to teach, to exhort, to give, to rule, to show mercy (Rom. 12:6-8), to help, and to counsel (1 Cor. 12:28). Herein lies the explanation for diversity of vocation in the eldership. Some elders, but not all elders, are so gifted to teach and preach that they should be set apart to labor in the Word of God as their life’s work. These must be recognized by the church and supported as ministers of the gospel, who give themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). Thus, Scripture teaches that the eldership displays a diversity of vocation, of proficiency, and of giftedness.
The Manifold Substance of Diversity in the Eldership
Having established the biblical concept, we now unfold its threefold substance. We begin with diversity of vocation, then take up diversity in proficiency, and conclude with diversity of giftedness.
Diversify of Vocation in the Eldership
Difficulty surrounds our exposition of this topic because Scripture paints a sweeping picture of ministerial work. This portrait includes both permanent and temporary forms of ministry. It includes both the ordinary gifts conveyed in all generations, and the extraordinary, restricted to the founding of the church in the apostolic generation. Consider these 12 texts:
Acts 6:4 – But we will continue steadfastly in prayer, and in the ministry of the word.
Acts 13:1 – Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers.
Rom. 12:6-8…. whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the measure of our faith; or of ministry, let us give ourselves to our ministry; or he that teaches, to his teaching; or he that exhorts, to his exhorting.
1 Cor. 9:14 – Even so did the Lord ordain that they that proclaim the gospel should live of the gospel
1 Cor. 12:28 – And God has set some in the church, first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers.
Gal. 6:6 – But let him that is taught in the word communicate unto him that teaches in all good things.
Eph. 4:11 – And he gave some, to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some pastors and teachers.
1 Tim. 4:6 – If you put the brethren in mind of these things, you shall be a good minister of Jesus Christ.
1 Tim. 5:17 – Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and in teaching.
2 Tim. 3:16,17 – Every Scripture is inspired of God … that the man of God may be complete.
2 Tim. 4:5 – do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
1 Pet. 4:11 – if any man speaks, speaking as it were oracles of God.
These texts epitomize the biblical testimony. Proceeding with caution, we recognize that some things said of the apostolic generation of ministers, with its apostles, prophets, and evangelists, do not pertain to the pastor-teachers who abide in every generation. With this warning in mind, we observe that in reference to the permanent preaching vocation, these texts address three key questions: What is this vocation called? How should this vocation be conferred and maintained? What are the essential duties and aims of this vocation? We now take up each of those basic questions and issues.
1. The biblical designations for the ministerial vocation
Paul refers to men in this vocation as those “who preach the gospel”, as “him who teaches”, as “pastors and teachers”, and as “those who labor in the word and in teaching.” Peter speaks of “the ministry of the Word.” Thus, the New Testament uses no single designation for elders who labor in the Word as their calling in life. It employs a rich variety of designations, drawn from the focal point of their labor, the Word of God, from the nature and exercise of their ministerial gifts, and from their very identity as servants of Christ. In virtue of the special relation of their work to God and Christ, they are men of God (2 Tim. 3:17) and ministers of Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 4:6). In virtue of the special relation of their work to God’s Word, they are ministers of the Word (Acts 6:4; 1 Pet. 4:11) and of the gospel (Eph. 3:6,7). In virtue of the teaching and preaching gift which they regularly use in their work, they both are teachers (Acts 13:1; Rom. 12:7,8; 1 Cor. 12:28; Gal. 6:6; Eph. 4:1; 1 Tim. 5:17) and preachers (Rom. 12:7,8; 1 Cor. 9:14). Surely even the most scrupulous will not condemn us for calling those who preach the gospel, “preachers”, or those who labor in teaching, “teachers.” Paul seems to use “teacher” more frequently and prominently. Yet, some might object that if we call ministers of the Word, “teachers”, we could obscure the fact that all elders must be apt to teach and able to exhort. We might obscure the fact that all elders may teach privately or preach occasionally. We might obscure the fact that all elders rule by teaching, in that their judgments must carry men’s consciences. We desire to obscure none of these things, but to shed light on the profound difference between an elder who by vocation is a farmer, engineer, or carpenter, and an elder who by vocation is a preacher and teacher. How then should we denominate and address those elders who labor in the Word? In virtue of their ruling office, they are bishops, pastors, and elders. In virtue of their life’s work and vocation, they are preachers, teachers, and ministers of Christ, of the Word, and of the gospel. Since Scripture does not bind our conscience, we should not bind the consciences of others. It is not unbiblical to address them either in terms of their office, or their vocation, or even, in terms of a combination of both. For example, in virtue of his office we could address a gospel minister as “pastor”, or “bishop”, or “elder.” In terms of his vocation we could address him as “minister”, or “preacher”, or “teacher.” In theory, we could use any combination of terms for his office and vocation, such as, “bishop-preacher”, or “elder-minister”, or “pastor-teacher.”
Since Scripture speaks directly about these designations, we should not be careless with them. Yet, since the Bible shows considerable flexibility, neither should we be hyper-dogmatic about them. For example, some may prefer at times to denominate elders who labor in preaching as “pastors.” This could be valuable to underscore that pastoral office regulates the design and manner of the teaching vocation. Even the 1689 London Confession, in 26:10, seems to use the term “pastor” this way, “The work of pastors being constantly to attend the service of Christ, in His churches, in the ministry of the Word and prayer … it is incumbent upon the churches to whom they minister, not only to give them all due respect, but also to communicate to them of all their good things.” Here our Confession defines the work of gospel ministers and enjoins financial remuneration for them. Yet, while speaking about their work, our Baptist fathers denominate them, not in terms of their work, but in terms of their office, as “pastors.” Is this communion of idioms inexcusable? I think not, even if men seize upon it for their own ends. I must concede that their choice of words is liable to abuse. Indeed, since it could obscure the fact that all elders are pastors and bishops of the flock, some do twist this very use of the term “pastor” to support their own view that some elders are not pastors. Search and see that our Confession in 26:11 equates bishop and pastor as synonyms to denominate the ruling office, and in 26:8,9 bishop and elder. Should we conclude that our Baptist fathers were careless about terms? Not at all. As Pastor Waldron proves so convincingly in Chapter 6, the framers of our Confession were not oblivious to the legitimate implications of their terms. Thus, they carefully revised some of the terms used in the Savoy Platform of Polity. They deliberately chose designations which would distance our Confession from the “four office” view. The Savoy Platform, Paragraph 13, says, “although it be incumbent upon the pastors and teachers of the churches to be instant in preaching the word by way of office” (26:11). The Baptist fathers changed it to, “although it be incumbent on the bishopsor pastors of the churches to be instant in preaching the Word by way of office.” They changed “teacher” to “bishop”, because, in terms of his office, the pastor laboring in the Word is a bishop, not a teacher. In this our Baptist fathers serve as a good model. They were careful about terms, but not overly scrupulous.
How shall we apply all this to those elders who do not labor in the Word? How shall we designate them so as to distinguish them from gospel ministers? Again, since Scripture binds us not, we must not bind others. Again, since any designation we employ has both strengths and liabilities, we must avoid being either overly dogmatic or oblivious. We could call them “lay elders”, since in office they are elders, though in their vocations they are laymen, not clergymen. This could be valuable to underscore that Christ conveys the highest office in His church, not only to the clergy, but even to “laymen”, who work for a living as carpenters and fishermen. It could give clericalism a much needed slap in its arrogant face. Yet, this choice of terms could backfire on us. It could promote the invalid distinction between clergy and laity practiced by Rome. It could obscure the fact that these elders, just as truly as the preachers, are ordained bishops or pastors, equally possessing all the rights and prerogatives of ordination. Again, we could call them “ruling elders “, and call preachers, “teaching elders.” This could be valuable to underscore that Christ’s church has but one ruling office, that of elder. It could provide added benefit since it identifies the chief distinctive of the pastoral office, “ruling”, with those who hold merely the office, and the prime distinctive of the pastoral vocation, “teaching”, with those who have both the office and the vocation. Yet, this is not without liability. It involves redundancy, since there is no such thing as a non-ruling elder. More importantly, it could obscure the fact that the pastoral office always has a teaching, not merely a ruling function, and that even ruling elders must be able to teach and exhort. Again, we could call them “nonsupported elders “, and call preachers, “supported elders.” This too could be valuable to underscore parity of office. This nomenclature could also be beneficial because it identifies the primary way, financial support, in which the church’s duty to her preachers differs from her duty to her other pastors. Yet it is not without liability. Since it points to no reason for financially supporting only some elders, it could obscure the propriety and basis for the very vocational distinction it purports to uphold. Thus, it could open the door for two extremes. It could encourage, on the one hand, a “no-preacher” view of the eldership, with the pastoral vocation eliminated, with all elders preaching part-time and receiving partial support; or on the other hand, an “all-preacher” view of the eldership, with non-vocational elders eliminated, with all elders preaching full-time and receiving full-support.
What then, should we just give up? I say not that we should give up altogether, but rather that we should all together give up regarding our brethren as offenders merely on account of their choice of terms. We all tend to prefer terms designed to counter evils which we regard as the most pressing or dangerous. Sadly, this oft grows out of bad church experiences. We may have seen ambitious elders, lacking greatly in preaching gift and love for the sheep, harass and criticize a godly preacher almost to madness because they coveted the pulpit for themselves. Then we may press for what amounts to a “three office” view. We may insist that we call only preachers, “pastor”, refuse ever to submit to ruling elders, or totally banish ruling elders from the pulpit. On the other hand, we may have seen preachers who love pre-eminence browbeat good but timid elders almost into lackeys and yes-men. Then we may press for what nearly amounts to full-blown Brethrenism. We may insist on equality in every respect among the elders, even to the point of requiring that elders equally share the pulpit and the chairing of meetings. Yet, brethren, carnal ambition always threatens both elder and preacher. Though our choice of terms can neither prevent nor cure it, yet it can assist in fostering biblical thinking. Thus, we prefer to speak of “vocational pastors”, who labor in the Word, and “non-vocational pastors “, who hold the office of pastor, but labor in mundane vocations. Yet, since no single set of terms can ever prove totally adequate, I prefer to use more than one, and explain what I mean by each. Combining terms may be useful at times. For example, we could call all the elders, “pastors”, and those elders who labor in preaching and teaching, “pastor-preachers”, and “pastor-teachers.” I also suggest that to counteract episcopal tendencies, it could help to call all the elders, “bishop “, occasionally, and even to speak of “lay bishops”, with mundane occupations.
2. The conferral and support of the ministerial vocation
How should a man enter this vocation? First, no man dare take it upon himself. God calls men out of their mundane occupations to be preachers. Christ gives such men as gifts to His church (Eph. 4:9-11). God’s people, both leaders and congregation, should recognize Christ’s gift. 1 Tim. 4:14 and 2 Tim. 2:2 teach that elders and preachers should play a prominent role in calling a man to this vocation. Acts 15:40 and Gal. 6:6 teach that the whole church should recognize and support those whom Christ fits to be preachers. Since the pastors, with the whole church, recognize that Christ has called a man to this work, it is incumbent upon the church to provide financially for each man they set apart to labor as a minister of the Word (1 Cor. 9:6-14; Gal. 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:17,18). The 1689 Confession (26:10) clearly affirms the church’s duty to provide a comfortable supply for her pastor-preachers.
3. The essential duties and aims of the ministerial vocation
Peter epitomizes a minister’s labor, “But we will continue steadfastly in prayer, and in the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). These few words comprehend a preacher’s duties and functions. Prayer is the foundation of all godly preaching and teaching. When a pastor-preacher prays over his flock and sermons, he does his first work. A prayerless minister builds without a foundation. He labors in the flesh, not in dependence on the Spirit and strength which God supplies. The focus and hub of this work is God’s Word. A pastor-teacher’s manifold duties all revolve around it. The ministry of the Word, like a great tree, has many branches, each branch with its own object, focus, and design. This labor focuses on God Himself, on Christ’s church, His flock, on reaching lost men with the gospel, on faithful men, able to teach others, and on the Bible itself.
First, the ministry of the Word focuses on God Himself. In one sense, God Himself is its object (Acts 13:1,2). In this respect, a gospel minister acts as a man of God. He designs to make God’s will, revealed in Scripture, known to all who hear him. He speaks to men, not for himself, but for God. When he thus speaks in God’s name, he speaks to men exhortation, admonition, consolation, and confirmation (Acts 15:32; 1 Cor. 14:3). This often occurs in corporate worship, when God meets with His people, and speaks to them through the teaching and preaching of His Word. In this way a preacher especially represents the Lord. I must qualify this. I do not mean that prophets are present in the church today. Nor do I mean that gospel ministers receive direct revelation from God, or speak infallibly for Him. Nevertheless, preaching bears some resemblance to prophetic ministry, yet only to the extent that men, sent from God, preach and teach the Lord’s mind to those who hear (Rom. 10:14,15). Second, the ministry of the Word focuses on the church, Christ’s flock of sheep. In this sense its object is the temple of God, Christ’s disciples, viewed both individually and corporately (I Cor. 3:16,17; 6:19). In this connection, the minister of the Word acts as a pastor of his flock. He aims to present every man complete in Christ (Eph. 4:11-16; Col. 1:28; 2 Tim. 4:1,2) and to order the church in all its ways according to the will of Christ and the apostles (1 Tim. 4:6). Third, the ministry of the Word focuses on reaching lost men with the gospel. In this sense its dual object is lost men and God’s gospel. Here, a gospel minister does the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4:5). He designs so to proclaim the gospel as to make it without charge, to saint and sinner alike. He also designs the eternal good of all lost men who hear him. Again, I qualify this. I do not mean to say that evangelists are present in the church today, as they were in the apostolic generation. I mean only that in this respect gospel preaching bears resemblance to their work. Fourth, the ministry of the Word focuses on faithful men, able to teach others. In this sense its object is men suited for and engaged in the Christian ministry (2 Tim. 2:2). Here a gospel minister acts as a teacher. He designs both to train faithful men for the ministerial vocation and to aid his fellow ministers. Fifth, and finally the ministry of the Word focuses on the Bible itself. Here its object is the Scriptures, the Word of God written. In this respect a gospel minister acts as a scribe (Rom. 16:22). He designs both to preserve the inspired text and to translate it into the native language of his hearers (Neh. 8:1,4,8). He also designs to read the Scriptures publicly, in the language of his hearers, so that they can both hear and understand them (Neh. 8:8; I Tim. 4:13; Rev. 1:3). Evidently, no gospel minister can do all this single-handedly. In the church, God has so designed ministerial work that pastor-preachers must cooperate, each doing part of the work, all laboring together as a team for the glory of God and the good of their fellow men (1 Cor. 3:4-7, 12:28). Thus, each minister of the Word must strive with humility and integrity to discern and do his small part of this great work, and to rejoice in that labor which God has entrusted to his brethren (Rom. 12:3).
Diversity of Proficiency and Honor in the Eldership
Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and in teaching (I Tim. 5:17).
Paul calls us to show special respect for good leaders, who rule God’s people proficiently. Here observe, first, the objects of special honor, “the elders who rule well … especially those who labor in the word and teaching”, second, the mandate for special respect, “Let … be counted worthy”, and third, the display of special appreciation, “double honor.” We now take up each of these briefly.
1. Consider the objects of special respect and appreciation.
Not all elders are to be objects of special respect, but those “who rule well.” Paul uses the Greek verb, προιστημι (proistemi), which means “to rule over”, or “to care for.” This same verb occurs in Rom. 12:8, “he that rules, with diligence”, and in 1 Thess. 5:12, “who are over you in the Lord and admonish you.” In Titus 3:8, 14, where the ASV translates it “to maintain”, it means “to be concerned about.” In 1 Tim.3:4, 12, it means to direct or manage a household. In 1 Tim. 3:4, 5 Paul uses another verb, επιμελεομαι (epimelomai), translated “take care of”, in parallel with προιστημι as a synonym. In Luke 10:34, 35 επιμελεομαι describes the Samaritan’s care for the wounded man. The Samaritan himself uses this verb when he charges the innkeeper to “take care of” him. The parallel sheds light on this use of προιστημι. The rule of elders, like parental oversight, combines management and care. Provision for needs joins enforcement of rules. Parents should make decisions and policies with the best interest of the family in mind. So too, elders should manage considerately, with the people’s good in mind.
Paul adds the adverb καλος (kalos), translated, “well.” What is the opposite of ruling well? Not ruling poorly or inadequately, for such men would not be qualified to hold the office at all. Paul speaks in comparative terms. Though all men qualified to be elders rule with a modicum of competence, some elders rule with marked proficiency. Paul refers to these. This comparative excellence in ruling stems from a number of factors, such as measure of gift, of grace, and of experience. Scripture also delineates the primary marks of proficient rule. First, ruling well involves ruling firmly. A parent ruling his household well has his “children in subjection with all gravity” (1 Tim. 3:4). When parents rule well, they run a “tight ship.” Children show respect and take directives seriously. Parents expect and enforce submission. Similarly, when elders rule well, church members show them a respect which they have earned and maintain. Proficient rulers are neither irresolute nor spineless. Second, ruling well means ruling diligently. Rom. 12:8 teaches that men should rule “with diligence.” According to 1 Tim. 4:15, one mark of diligence is evident improvement. Another mark is the prosperity it often brings (Prov. 21:5). Again, diligence, as a general rule, brings honor, not shame (2 Tim. 2:15). Again, a man diligent in his business usually obtains credibility (Prov. 22:29). Further, swift and earnest responses, not procrastination and insincerity, mark diligence. The word, σπουδη (spoude), translated “diligence” in Rom. 12:8, means to act swiftly out of genuine concern. In Rom.12:11 it is contrasted with being slothful or lazy. In Mark 6:25 and Luke 1:39 it is translated “haste.” In 2 Cor. 7:11,12 Paul cites the Corinthians’ zealous response as evidence of their diligence. Thus, diligent elders respond swiftly and sincerely. They usually obtain a good reputation among the churches. A flourishing church, blessed of God, indicates that its elders rule diligently. Third, ruling well involves ruling compassionately. It means truly caring about those you manage (1 Tim. 3:5; Titus 3:8,14). This involves giving them individual attention, feeling compassion for them, and showing genuine concern for their souls (1 Thess. 5:12). Ruling well takes place, not from an ivory tower, but in close interaction and personal care. Elders who remain aloof from Christ’s sheep, or who have no heart for them, can never rule well. To sum up: How can you spot elders who rule well? Though all qualified elders rule with some degree of firmness, diligence, and compassion, proficient elders display these qualities in great measure. Thus, they run a tight ship. They respond promptly and sincerely. The church is improving and prospering. There is no cause for embarrassment. They truly care about their people. Paul also adds the phrase, “especially those who labor in the word and in teaching.” He begins with the Greek word, μαλιστα (malista), translated “especially.” This word limits ideas. Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich offer as plausible translations, “most of all”, “above all”, “especially”, and “particularly.” The word conveys emphasis or primacy (Acts 20:38; 2 Pet. 2:10). Most render it, “primarily”, “especially”, or “chiefly.” Thus, Paul here identifies his special focus of concern. He has preachers who rule well primarily in mind.
2. Consider the mandate for special respect and appreciation.
Paul does not suggest special honor but requires it, “let … be counted worthy.” The word, αχιοω (axioo), translated “counted worthy of”, is rarely used in the New Testament (Luke 7:7; Acts 15:38; 28:22; 2 Thess. 1:11; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 3:3; 10:29). It means “to deserve”, “to be entitled to”, whether reward (1 Tim. 5:18), or punishment (Heb. 10:29). Thus, Paul means that we are obliged to think that proficient elders, chiefly preachers, are entitled to double honor. Failure to bestow that double honor would rob them of their due. It therefore behooves us to study carefully what this involves.
3. Consider the display of special respect and appreciation.
What does “double honor” mean? The Greek word τιμη (time), “honor”, has two related uses. First, it describes the respect, credit, or praise which virtue deserves and elicits (Rev. 4:11). Second, it describes the price or value of something (Matt. 27:6,9; Acts 4:34; 5:2,3; 7:16). Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich also observe these two uses of the word. They offer the translations, “honor”, or “reverence”, for the first use; and “price”, or “value”, for the second. 1 Pet. 2:7 displays the connection between these uses. The NKJV renders it, “to you who believe, he is precious.” It could literally be translated, “to you who believe, the honor.” It means that Christ is very valuable to believers. Price is oft the measure of the value people place on something. When men honor someone, they regard him as valuable, precious, of great price. Thus, Paul enters the orbit of valuation. Elders who rule well, chiefly preachers, should be considered “doubly valuable.” The Greek word διπλη (diple), “double”, means “twofold” or “twice.” Metaphorically, it expresses emphasis (Matt. 23:15; Rev. 8:6). Thus, commentators interpret “double honor” various ways. Calvin says, “I have no objection to Chrysostom’s interpretation of `double honor’ as meaning support and reverence, and anyone who wishes may follow him. But it seems more likely that there is a comparison here between presbyters and widows.” Hendriksen lists five views: (1) both salary and respect, (2) twice their current salary, (3) twice the salary of widows, (4) respect as brothers and as rulers, and (5) respect both as elders and as elders who rule well. What shall we say? Though Calvin’s view captures an element of truth, the fifth view, in my judgment, epitomizes Paul’s main point. Remembering his chief concern should keep us on the right trail. All elders are very valuable to the church, and she should highly esteem them (1 Thess. 5:12), but elders doing a good job are doubly valuable, that is, emphatically more valuable, and she should increase dramatically her esteem for them. This primarily applies to her vocational pastors, her preachers.
How then should the church express her heightened esteem for preachers who rule proficiently? In 1 Tim. 5:18 Paul enforces this command, “For the Scripture says, You shall not muzzle the ox when he treads out the corn. And, The laborer is worthy of his hire.” Two considerations strongly indicate that the special honor due to proficient preachers includes financial remuneration. These are the support Paul cites and the terms he employs. The terms “labor” and “hire” belong in the orbit of salary paid for work. In 1 Cor. 9:8-12 Paul appeals to these same texts to support his teaching that those who work as gospel preachers have a right to earn a living from that work. In 1 Cor. 9:14 he merely alludes to Christ’s polity of financial compensation, here he cites it explicitly (Luke 10:7). Thus, if Paul intends only increased respect, the scriptural support he cites is misleading at best. Nevertheless, commentators differ about this. Calvin argues for including financial remuneration, “to return to Paul, he orders that a livelihood be provided especially for the pastors who are engaged in teaching.” Hendriksen agrees, “this double honor must not be so interpreted as if any idea of remuneration is completely excluded from it … Paul is emphasizing that the respect of which excellently ruling elders are worthy implies that those among them who devote themselves entirely to gospel-work have a right to wages, and that these wages should not be withheld.” Lenski, however, disagrees, “It is generally assumed that the elders were paid for their services in the apostolic churches. We are convinced that this assumption is not tenable. The probability is that none of them were paid.” He then tries to explain how Paul, though he didn’t have salary in mind, could cite such texts, “the analogy lies in the worthiness and not in the identity of what the three are worthy of: the elders worthy of what naturally should go with their office-honor; the ox worthy of what naturally goes with the task for which he is employed-wisps of grain; the workman worthy of what naturally goes with his work-pay for his work.” Lenski, ironically, clearly points to why financial remuneration can not be excluded. Paul primarily has workers in mind, vocational pastors. A worker is worthy of what goes naturally with his work-pay for his work. The fact that even the ox is worthy of grain teaches that preachers have a right to receive salary for their labor (1 Cor. 9:6-14). Therefore, the special appreciation due to proficient preachers includes financial remuneration. All vocational pastors deserve both the respect arising from their office and the salary due for their work. The ones who rule well, being doubly valuable, should receive far more respect and salary. This displays that the church values them, not only as pastors and workers, but as good pastors and good preachers. How does this apply practically? Although Paul does not spell out the exact situation he writes to correct, the context, as Calvin says, provides a strong clue. When he sets church policy for widows in 1 Tim. 5:3-16, he corrects misplaced priorities in the use of church funds. The church should care for “widows indeed”, but not “be burdened” if Christian family members can relieve them (1 Tim. 5:3,4,16). Similarly, and more so, it should provide with right priorities for good preachers. It should not force such to work two jobs, while it sends funds elsewhere. Rather, it should honor them, not with a widow’s subsistence, but with a far better living. This also implies that compensation for preachers should be related to the quality of their work. Though proven preachers should receive more salary, Paul implies, not ten-fold increase, but a modest raise. This deters greed and idolizing very gifted men.
What then of other elders who rule well, proficient lay bishops? Paul’s directive also applies to them. As Lenski says, they deserve what goes naturally with their office, respect and appreciation. When they discharge their office well, they deserve emphatically more respect and appreciation. Further, if their proficiency stems from a larger measure of gift to preach, they should, in due time, be fully supported to preach as a vocational pastor. If they display a superior ability to manage, they might in a larger church even be fully supported to labor in oversight. Further, at times special tokens of esteem for proficient rule may be proper. For example, a non-vocational elder who for many years faithfully visits his flock may be given a new car as a token of special appreciation. Churches have many other options, as limitless as love can invent, and as manifold as need may require.
Diversity of Giftedness in the Eldership
Christ gives his church a vast number of men endowed with a wide assortment of ministerial gifts (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:28-31; Eph. 4:9-11; 1 Tim. 4:13,14). He bestows this rich deposit to further his glory and kingdom (1 Pet. 4:10,11). We consider three things about these gifts: (1) What they are; (2) How they are discerned and recognized; and (3) How and when they should be exercised and employed.
1. The Identity of pastoral gifts
In general terms, each pastor and preacher is himself a gift to the church. In Eph. 4:11, Paul names apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers, as gifts of Christ. Only the pastors and teachers abide in every generation. Some good men, such as John Owen, allege that the terms “pastor” and “teacher” describe separate offices. Owen also regards both of these as distinct from the office of ruling elder. Thus, he sees four offices: pastor, teacher, ruling elder, and deacon. In his Works, Vol. 16, pp. 42-130, he develops this “four office” view. On pp. 42-74, he seeks to establish from Scripture the general concept of the eldership. On pp. 74-96, he expounds the call and functions of “pastors”; on pp. 97-106, of “teachers”; on pp. 107-130, of “ruling elders.” He sums it up this way, “So the pastor in the church was to rule, and teach, and administer the sacred mysteries; the teacher to teach or instruct only, but not to rule or dispense the sacraments; and the ruling elder to rule only, and neither to teach nor administer sacraments.” As Pastor Chanski shows, we agree with much of what Owen says. However, we do not share his view of Eph. 4:11, on which primarily he bases the idea that pastor and teacher are distinct offices. Hodge, commenting on Eph. 4:11, makes these most insightful remarks:
According to one interpretation we have here two distinct offices-that of pastor and that of teacher. ‘The latter,’ says Calvin, ‘had nothing to do with discipline, nor with the administration of the sacraments, nor with the admonitions or exhortations, but simply with the interpretation of Scripture’ (Institutes IV, 3,4). All this is inferred from the meaning of the word teacher. There is no evidence from Scripture that there was a set of men authorized to teach but not authorized to exhort. The thing is well nigh impossible. The one function includes the other. The man who teaches duty and the grounds of it, does at the same time admonish and exhort. It was however on the ground of this unnatural interpretation that the Westminster Directory made teachers a distinct and permanent class of jure divino officers in the church. The Puritans in New England endeavored to reduce the theory to practice, and appointed doctors as distinct from preachers. But the attempt proved to be a failure. The two functions could not be kept separate. The whole theory rested on a false interpretation of Scripture. The absence of the article before διδασκαλου proves that the apostle intended to designate the same persons as at once pastors and teachers.
Thus, Paul views the body of elders, with its parity and diversity, as Christ’s gift to His church, “some pastors and teachers.” Christ gives His church each man, and all the men, whom God puts into the office of pastor or bishop, and calls into the vocation of preacher or teacher.
In specific terms, a ministerial gift is a God-given capacity or ability to perform some aspect of the Lord’s work for His glory and men’s good. Scripture delineates various pastoral gifts. Some gifts relate mainly to the ruling office, some primarily to the preaching vocation. In Rom. 12:6-8, the ability to teach (12:7) and to exhort (12:8) relate mainly, though not exclusively, to the preaching vocation. The ability to manage or govern (12:8), relates chiefly, though not only, to the ruling office. In 1 Cor. 12:28-31 Paul first lists three ministerial vocations which God placed in the church, apostles, prophets, and teachers. Apostles and prophets were restricted to the founding of the church (Eph. 2:20). Teachers are permanent, set by God in the church in every generation. I take it that Paul refers mainly to official teachers, elders who labor in the Word, whom he denominates in terms of their vocation. Yet I concede that the phrase may encompass, not only preachers, but, in Hodge’s words, all “uninspired men who had received the gift of teaching.” He next enumerates sundry abilities with which God endows some in the church. Gifts of miracles, healings, and tongues were apostolic. Gifts of helps and governments, or counsels, are permanent. As the gift of helps especially relates to the diaconate, the serving office, so the gift of wise counsels especially, though not exclusively, pertains to the eldership, the ruling office. In 1 Tim. 4:13, 14 Paul exhorts Timothy to give himself to reading, exhortation, and teaching. He then exhorts him diligently to nurture the ministerial endowment God gave him, and urges him wholeheartedly to pursue the closely related commission to which the elders ordained him. Thus, God enables men to read, preach, and teach the Bible in an edifying manner. As good stewards, men should cultivate their ministerial gifts so as to attain maximum usefulness. In 1 Pet. 4:10, 11 Peter also includes ability to speak God’s Word as an endowment received as a stewardship from the Lord. God conveys these gifts with a view, not to men burying them, but using them for His glory.
2. The recognition of pastoral gifts
Just as both the members and the elders must discern a call to labor in the Word, so also must they recognize ministerial gifts. Paul assumes the Corinthians could discern such gifts among themselves (1 Cor. 12:28-31). He reminds Timothy that the elders confirmed his gifts when they commissioned him (1 Tim. 4:14). The discernment of gift in others and in ourselves requires humility and grace (Rom. 12:3). Too commonly, we tend to desire for ourselves the greatest gifts, and to think ourselves endowed more greatly than in reality we are. Pride, jealousy, and envy pose major obstacles to an accurate assessment both of our own gifts and of the gifts of others. At times God’s people may disagree respecting the ministerial gifts deposited in their midst (1 Cor. 3:4-9). In such a case, schism can result and do great harm to the testimony of religion and the good name of the church. As Paul did, we must labor also to avoid such divisions. At times men feel a need to promote themselves and their gift, sometimes to the detriment of others, and sometimes even against the counsel of the churches. Such things ought not to be. If God has given a gift, he will also make room for it to be exercised, and will cause His people to recognize it. If we think ourselves so endowed, we need grace to wait on the Lord, “for not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends” (2 Cor. 10:13-18).
3. The exercise or use of pastoral gifts
Three major factors regulate the use of gifts: (1) their measure (Rom. 12:6-8), (2) edification (1 Cor. 14:12,26), and (3) stewardship (1 Pet. 4:10). First, the measure of gift and faith must regulate the use of gifts. For this cause, in all probability, Paul, rather than Barnabas, was the chief speaker on their first missionary journey (Acts 14:12). Second, the edification of God’s people must regulate the use of gifts. Decisions about the length of messages, the best man to speak on a given topic, and many similar issues should be made on the grounds of edification (1 Cor. 14:12,17,26). Third, stewardship of God’s endowment must regulate the use of gifts. God gave the gifts to be used. If the door of opportunity closes in one place, God by this means may be directing His servants to employ their gifts elsewhere, rather than neglect them (Acts 16:6-10; 1 Pet. 4:10). Each Christian man endowed with ministerial gift must strive to discern and fulfill that ministry which Christ has given him. He must do so in the fear of God, and in consultation with gospel ministers, the eldership, and the whole church. Similarly, each gospel minister must labor to discern how much of his time and energy he should give to any branch of labor in the Word. This is neither a simple nor static issue. May God grant us all grace and wisdom to labor for His glory in a manner and sphere most conducive to edification and peace.
Some Practical Implications of Diversity in the Eldership
We close with a word of application. We summarize and enlarge some of the primary ways in which a biblical eldership may display diversity. Consider with me seven practical implications of diversity of vocation, honor and gift in the eldership.
1. Diversity implies that some elders may have a larger share of the pulpit or lectern.
Diversity of calling and gift imply this. Elders not called to preach or to teach as a vocation should not share the preaching and teaching equally with those who are. Further, in virtue of differing gift, not even all the ministers of the Word should necessarily share the pulpit or lectern equally. In some settings, one may be the chief speaker (Acts 14:12). Edification, balanced with stewardship of gift, should determine the frequency with which each minister preaches in the pulpit or teaches from the lectern.
2. Diversity implies that some elders may take a larger share of visiting and counseling.
Some elders may have a greater gift for giving wise counsels in the private ministry of the Word, or in visiting the sick. The congregation may gravitate naturally to them for counsel with knotty personal, emotional, and domestic problems. Others may, in virtue of heavier teaching duties, be directed by the eldership to carry a reduced workload in visitation and counseling.
3. Diversity implies that some elders may have a higher profile in church administration.
In the interest of order and efficiency, the elders may appoint one of their body as a chairman, to preside at, or chair, meetings. One elder, due to experience, age, or gift, may be more suited to preside than the others. Or, an eldership may rotate the duty of chairing meetings. Owen speaks judiciously concerning this matter:
I do acknowledge that where a church is greatly increased, so as that there is a necessity of many elders in it for its instruction and rule, decency and order do require that one of them do, in the management of all church-affairs, preside, to guide and direct the way and manner thereof: so the presbyters at Alexandria did choose one from among themselves that should have the pre-eminence of a president among them. Whether the person that is so to preside be directed unto by being the first converted, or first ordained, or on the account of age, or of gifts and abilities, whether he continue for a season only, and then another be deputed unto the same work, or for his life, are things in themselves indifferent, to be determined according to the general rules of reason and order, with respect unto the edification of the church …I shall never oppose this order, but rather desire to see it in practice,-namely, that particular churches were of such an extent to require many elders, both teaching and ruling … and that among these elders one should be chosen by themselves, with the consent of the church, not into a new order, not into a degree of authority above his brethren, but only unto his part of the common work in a peculiar manner, which requires some kind of precedency. Hereby no new officer, no new order of officers, no new degree of authority, is constituted in the church; only the work and duty of it is cast into such an order as the very light of nature doth require.
4. Diversity implies that some elders may have a wider influence or recognition.
This is implied by diversity of valuation and honor (1 Tim. 5:17). Some lay bishops with vast experience, and ministers with larger gifts, will attain greater influence than other elders. This is true, not only in their own local churches, but also among the churches at large. Some will gain renown through ruling well for many years, while others will labor in relative obscurity and seclusion.
5. Diversity implies that all pastor preachers need not have the same “job description.”
By “job description” I refer to the specific proportion of time and energy given to various facets of ministerial labor. Some may labor almost exclusively in pastoral preaching and teaching. Others may devote all their labor to evangelism. Others may devote their energy to training men for the Christian ministry. Others may labor half in teaching ministerial students and half in pastoral preaching. The time spent in each sphere of ministerial labor may change over the years. It may vary with personal and domestic factors. We should decide these things by counsel and prayer, with a view to edification, maximum usefulness, stewardship of gift, and above all, the honor and glory of God.
6. Diversity implies that some are gifted to teach and preach who have not the office of elder.
The propriety of lay preaching is implicit in diversity of gift. Some may have a gift to preach and yet, may, for some other reason, not be called to rule as an elder. These too may in an orderly manner exercise their gift among God’s people. Our Confession (26:11) also affirms this liberty, “Although it be incumbent on the bishops or pastors of the churches, to be instant in preaching the Word, by way of office, yet the work of preaching the Word is not so peculiarly confined to them, but that others also gifted and fitted by the Holy Spirit for it, and approved and called by the church, may and ought to perform it.” The Confession speaks of a church calling and approving men, who are not themselves elders, to the work of preaching the Word. Thus, our Baptist fathers take a moderate view. They avoid saying that only an ordained minister can ever do the work of preaching. They also avoid saying that a call to work in preaching is a personal matter in which the church has no voice. They even avoid conferring on lay preachers the elevated status of office in the church. They do not regard them as a separate class of church officers, who by divine right hold the office of “teacher”, or “doctor.” We too should not go to extremes. We should not build our polity of Christian leadership on our view of “teacher” in Eph. 4:11. What if Paul had said “pastor-preacher”, not “pastor-teacher”? Would that stand our polity on its ear? If so, we have built on the sand. Therefore, we must not think that training men for the ministry, or grounding the church in the faith, must be entrusted only to the “doctor.” These weighty tasks belong to the work of pastor-teachers as surely as preaching a sermon on Sunday. Yet, we must not overreact and insist that none but pastor-preachers can have any part whatsoever in the work of preaching. Churches may at times approve and commission men to ancillary labor in the Word as they see fit. That is their liberty. All things are yours, and you are Christ’s.
7. Diversity implies that all pastor preachers need not necessarily receive the same salary.
1 Tim. 5:17 also implies this. A new minister, fresh from seminary, should not expect to receive the same salary as a proficient veteran of Christ’s service with 20 years of sterling labor in the Word. This expectation would violate both nature’s law and Paul’s inspired polity for pastoral compensation.
Conclusion: Here, some may say, is trouble in the making. All this diversity will provoke jealousy, ambition, greed, and division. It should come as no surprise that gospel ministers and other Christian workers struggle with these sins. Even the apostles were jealous for awhile of each other’s influence, for they argued over who was the greatest (Mark 9:34). The envy of religious leaders drove them to hate and crucify another religious leader with greater gifts and following. For centuries greed and ambition have prompted religious leaders to seek prize churches for themselves, with the largest congregation and the best financial package. For this cause the early church usually forbade ministers to transfer from one charge to another. Yes envy, jealousy, ambition, and greed are ever with us. Still, the Lord deposits a diversity of gifts in His church. Still we must honor this diversity. We must therefore mortify our envy until we truly rejoice in the influence of our more noted brethren. We must mortify our pride until we seek the help of our more gifted brethren. We must mortify our carnal ambition until we are content with whatever place Christ gives us in His vineyard. We must mortify our greed until we can thank God that our brother’s larger flock treats him with such exceeding generosity, while we struggle to make ends meet year after year in a less affluent and smaller charge. Laboring together with a diversity of gifts requires humility and grace. Without these virtues we will not profit from the ministry of the brother chosen over us to be chief speaker, or chosen instead of us to speak at the ministerium or conference. Rather, we will pick his message and manner to shreds. Without these virtues we will not help the brother appointed to be chairman rather than us, but will criticize his every move. Though much grace is required, yet through Christ we can do all things. May God grant us that grace to honor all his good gifts to His people. We come now full circle to where we began. Parity and diversity should mark our eldership. Only by God’s grace can we thus honor Him. Concern for God’s glory in His house must burn in our hearts. He can do exceeding abundantly over and above all we could ask or think. May it be so, and to God be all praise, credit, and glory (Eph. 3:20,21).
In recent days certain implications have been made by some in the Reformed Baptist world that seem to link the doctrine and practice of parity in the eldership with authoritarianism. In my opinion, the best defense against such an idea is to simply examine the doctrine of parity according to the word of God. I am extremely pleased to announce that I have been given permission to post the book: In Defense of Parity: A presentation of the parity or equality of elders in the New Testament.
I will post one chapter at a time over the next couple weeks, and will include a pdf and an mp3 made through TextAloud with my favorite voice, Daniel. I hope many will be edified by this Biblical explanation and defense of this doctrine and practice.
A presentation of the parity or equality of elders in the New Testament
Parity and Diversity in the Eldership
Pastor Greg Nichols
Introduction to Chapters 1 and 2:
The Lord loves his church supremely. She is His bride, the apple of His eye. He shed His blood for her. He endured divine wrath to spare and save her (Eph.5:25). All His sovereign purposes revolve around her welfare (Eph.1:22,23). He has sworn an irrevocable oath of loyalty and protection to her. No weapon formed against her shall prosper (Isa.54:10,17). She shall be preserved in holiness and truth forever (Matt. 16:18). Accordingly, the Lord has given His church a vital role in His saving work (Eph.3:10,11). She is designed to bring Him honor and glory (Eph.3:21) and to display His excellencies in the world (1 Pet.2:9,10). Her task is to proclaim His Word. (She is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim.3:15). Therefore, church polity should not be regarded as a peripheral detail. Zeal should burn in our hearts that God would be glorified in His church, and that men would “know how to behave themselves in the house of God, which is the church of the living God” (1 Tim.3:15). The degree to which any church successfully fulfills this noble aim depends largely upon her leadership. Her leaders will either guide her to greater faithfulness, purity and devotion to her Lord, or mire her in compromise, mediocrity, confusion and error. All this mandates conscientious study of the Scriptures in order to discern and implement the Lord’s mind respecting church leadership. The Lord Jesus Christ, as the wise and loving head of the church, has graciously prescribed that pattern of church government most conducive to the attainment of God’s glory through His church. The hub of this pattern is Christ’s will for spiritual leadership, revealed and implemented through the government of the churches by the apostles. In the exercise of this authority from Christ the apostles uniformly and universally enjoined and supervised the establishment of elderships in the local churches under their care (Acts 14:23; 15:2; 16:4; 20:17; Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:5; 1 Pet.5:1). Each of these elderships constituted the ruling body of church officers in their respective churches (Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28f). Each of these elderships was composed of each man, and all the men, ordained to the office of elder in their respective churches (Titus 1:5,6). Nevertheless, these elderships were not marked by total uniformity, but displayed a rich diversity of vocation and honor (1 Tim.5:17) as well as of gift (Rom.12:6-8). Thus, the Lord wills that elderships be established, and that their form and structure display both PARITY and DIVERSITY Chapter 1 unfolds this parity; Chapter 2 this diversity. In this chapter we first establish the Biblical Concept of parity in the eldership. Second, we expound the Manifold Substance of parity in the eldership. Third, we apply some Practical Implications of parity in the eldership.
The Biblical Concept of Parity in the Eldership
In its general nature parity in the eldership is a parity of office. Paul uses the word επισκοπη (episcope), translated “office of bishop”, or “office of overseer”, to designate the official exercise of spiritual leadership in the church, “If any man desires the office of a bishop he desires a good work” (1 Tim.3:1). Accordingly, one who holds this office is called a “bishop” or “overseer”, επισκοπος (episcopos), “The bishop must be blameless as God’s steward” (Titus 1:7). Our word “overseer” closely reflects this Greek word επισκοπος (episcopos), which means one who “looks over”, or “scrutinizes.” Incidentally, the word “Episcopal” is a transliteration (letter for letter equivalent) of that Greek word. Scripture closely binds this word for bishop or overseer to the word ποιμην (poimen), translated shepherd or pastor. This intimacy is clearly seen in 1 Pet.2:25, where our Lord Jesus is portrayed as “the Shepherd [ποιμηνα] and Bishop [επισκοπον] of your souls.” It is confirmed in Peter’s exhortation to spiritual leaders in 1 Pet.5:2, where he exhorts them to “tend [shepherd, ποιμανατε] the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight [επισκοπουντε].” This connection is also confirmed in Acts 20:28, where Paul exhorts the leaders of the church at Ephesus to “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you bishops [επισκοπους], to feed [shepherd, ποιμην] the church of the Lord.” The concepts of overseer and shepherd are thus bound by the fact that these terms together picture those whose task is caring for a flock of sheep. We, the Lord’s people, His church, are His sheep (Acts 20:28). He Himself is our chief Pastor and Bishop (1 Pet.2:25). The stewardship of spiritual leadership in His church is that of caring for his sheep (Acts 20:28-31). It is therefore a stewardship of oversight and shepherding. Accordingly, those vested with this stewardship are called in Scripture shepherds (pastors) and overseers (bishops).
Now the point and relevance of these considerations is this. The elders of the church are, in these very passages, all depicted as pastors and bishops, and are all called upon to discharge this very stewardship of shepherding and oversight. In Acts 20:17, we learn that Paul called to him “the elders of the church.” In verse 28 he addressed his charge to tend or “pastor” the flock to all of them. To these same elders, to all of them, Paul said, “the Holy Spirit has made you bishops.” Similarly while instructing Titus regarding the ordination of elders in Crete, Paul identified the elders as bishops. He says to Titus, “for this cause I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that were wanting and appoint elders in every city, as I gave you charge: if any man is blameless …. For the bishop must be blameless as God’s steward” (Titus 1:5-7). In like manner, Peter addressed his charge in 1 Pet.5:1-4 to the elders, “The elders therefore among you I exhort.” In v.2 he exhorts the elders to shepherd (pastor) the flock. If these things are so, someone might ask, then if a church has a plurality of elders, it has a plurality of bishops too, for all the elders are bishops? Precisely. This was true of the church at Ephesus, for Acts 20:28 reads, “in which the Holy Spirit made you bishops.” It was also true of the church at Philippi, for Paul addressed his letter to “all the saints that are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). Again, if a church has a plurality of elders it has a plurality of pastors, for all the elders are pastors (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet.5:1,2). To some this may sound strange, even radical, but it is nothing other than the inspired ecclesiology of the apostles. Others may think it impractical. But if an ecclesiology designed by men seems workable, why wouldn’t the Lord’s own ecclesiology, implemented by His apostles, work as well, if not better? Others may think this novel. Yet it is nothing new. Indeed, Scripture is far too clear for these basic tenets to have escaped the notice of good and scholarly men. Thus, Charles Hodge observes, “By common consent bishop and presbyter are convertible terms. If a man is a presbyter, he is a bishop, and, if he is a bishop, he is a presbyter. Even prelatists admit this to be true as far as the language of the Bible is concerned.”
One might think that this would settle the matter, but I am compelled to address one thing more, for some contend that all the elders are not presbyters. But such a one might as well say that all the elders are not elders. For “presbyter” is a transliteration of the Greek word, presbuteros (πρεσβυτερος), which, in all the passages we have just considered, is translated “elder.” By what warrant can a word’s transliteration be animated with a meaning different from its translation? If exegesis may be conducted after this fashion, surely men could make the Bible say literally anything they want it to say. It is beyond my present scope to comment upon every occurrence of presbyteros in the New Testament. Its usage may be summarized comprehensively as follows: (1) It is used sometimes to depict an elderly man, or in the feminine gender, an elderly woman (1 Tim.5:1,2). In that text it depicts those old enough to be Timothy’s father or mother. In this usage, the word obliges respect on the basis of the experience and wisdom of age. Similarly, it can depict men who lived long ago, especially the founders or luminaries of some institution, society, or school of thought (Matt. 15:2; Heb.11:2). Evidently, no notion of office in the local church exists in this usage of the word. (2) It is used frequently to depict the rulers of the entire Jewish nation (Luke 22:52,66), and, in one instance, it probably refers to the rulers of a local synagogue (Luke 7:3). (3) It is also used to describe the spiritual leadership of the Christian church. In the following passages it depicts elders in a local church: Acts 14:23; 20:17; 1 Tim.5: 1:7,19; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Pet.5:1,5. They are often explicitly said to be its bishops or pastors somewhere in the immediate context (Acts 20:17; Titus 1:5; 1 Pet.5:1). None of these passages provides a basis to assert that the term is ever used in the New Testament to depict elders of local churches who are not also vested with the stewardship of shepherding and overseeing those churches. The Bible does not acknowledge or reveal an inferior order of elders in local churches who are not the pastors and bishops of these churches. (4) Let us in all candor admit, however, that the New Testament does acknowledge another “order” of elders in the Christian church militant (Acts 11:30; 15:2,4,6,22,23; 16:4; 21:18; 1 Pet.5:1; 2 John 1; 3 John 1). This order is not “lower”, however, than the former but “higher.” It is the apostolic order, the eldership of the apostles. These are the elders not merely of a specific local church, but of all the local churches collectively, the universal church militant. To this order, the apostle Peter himself belonged (1 Pet.5:1), as did the apostle John, for thus he too depicts himself (2 John 1). By implication so did all the apostles and the Jerusalem elders who served with them (Acts 15:2,4,6,22), for they issued policy binding on all the local churches and their leaders (Acts 16:4). To this order also Paul belonged, for he cared for all the churches (2 Cor.11:28) and ordained policy binding on all the Gentile churches and their leaders (1 Cor.7:17, 14:34,37; 16:1; Titus 1:5). Let none living today claim that he too is an Apostle, or that he belongs to their eldership, or that he has jurisdiction over all true churches collectively (1 Cor.9:1; 15:7,8; 2 Cor.12:12). For as the apostles once governed all the church militant by their life and words, so they alone are yet authorized and suited to govern it by their inspired writings preserved in Scripture. (5) It might be argued with some cogency that there is yet a third order of elders among the people of God. But this order is higher still, for it does not pertain to the church militant at all, but to the church triumphant in heaven, for to this order belong only the twenty-four who surround the throne (Rev.4:4,10, etc.).
In summary, the Lord has graciously granted his church militant two “orders” of elders. The first order being the one apostolic eldership, having jurisdiction over all local churches, authorized to shepherd and oversee all the collective flock throughout this age; the second order consisting of many distinct elderships, each having jurisdiction in their own local church, authorized to shepherd and oversee their own local flock. Besides these two orders of elders in the church militant, the Scripture acknowledges none. If there is to be yet another order, men must invent it. Dabney affirms this view of parity, when he asserts that “ruling elders” have power coordinate with, not subordinate to, preachers:
One party … holds that wherever the Scriptures speak of official presbuteroi or episkopoi they mean preachers alone; that they alone are the essential bond of the church’s government; that ruling elders are in no proper, official sense presbuteroi or episkopoi and in no part of their office coordinate with preachers; that they are not entitled to any ordination by laying on of hands; that they are simply laymen admitted into presbyterial courts as representatives of the people, yet in no sense essential constituent parts of those courts … Our view, is that of Dr. Samuel Miller, that ruling elders are scriptural presbuteroi and episkopoi; that they should have a presbyterial ordination by laying on of hands-in the parochial presbytery, the church session-and that in all powers of inspection and rule they are co-ordinate with preaching elders, and have the same divine warrant for their authority.
Reformed Baptists stand confessionally committed to this perspective on parity. The 1689 London Confession, in 26:8,9, uses “bishop” and “elder” as interchangeable terms for the same office:
…the officers appointed by Christ to be chosen and set apart by the church (so called and gathered), for the peculiar administration of ordinances, and execution of power or duty, which he entrusts them with, or calls them to, to be continued to the end of the world, are bishops or elders, and deacons.
The way appointed by Christ for the calling of any person, fitted and gifted by the Holy Spirit, unto the office of bishop or elder in a church, is, that he be chosen thereunto by the common suffrage of the church itself; and solemnly set apart by fasting and prayer, with imposition of hands of the eldership of the church…
The Baptist fathers created these statements by modifying the Savoy Platform of Polity. They replaced their four offices (pastor, teacher, elder, deacon) with our two (bishop or elder, deacon). They then incorporated this polity into our Confession amid “the things most surely believed among us.”
The Manifold Substance of Parity in the Eldership
Having established that parity in the eldership is a parity of office, we now unfold what this entails. We consider the equality in authorization and representation which make up parity of office.
Equality in Authorization
The office of bishop or elder is a spiritual stewardship conveyed by the Lord, “The bishop must be blameless as God’s steward” (Titus 1:7). Stewardship always embodies authorization from a master (Gal.4:2), for which the steward is accountable to that master (Luke 16:2; 1 Cor.4:1,2). The elders are therefore equally authorized by and accountable to Christ. The generic substance of their authorization is revealed using a rich variety of analogies. Elders are portrayed not only as stewards or servants of God, but are also likened to parents caring for a household (1 Tim.3:5; 1 Thess.2:7,11), to governors administrating a province under their jurisdiction (Heb.13:17), and, as we have noted already, to shepherds and overseers caring for a flock of sheep (Acts 20:28-35; 1 Pet.5:1-4).
More concretely, the eldership is authorized, as a body, to govern the entire life of their particular church according to the Word of God. Since their oversight is comprehensive, they are responsible to promote the glory of God and to honor and implement His Word in everything germane to the church: its formative polity, membership, leadership, commission, order, assemblies, and associations. Evidently, elders cannot be newcomers to the faith, or largely ignorant of the people and ways of God, and expect to discharge such a stewardship acceptably in God’s sight (1 Tim.3:6). Regarding the formative polity of the church, the elders are responsible to insure that the doctrinal standards (confession of faith) and polity statements (constitution) of their church are biblical, respected, enforced and, where needful to defend truth and godliness, amended. They must guard against wolves arising with heretical doctrines, beguiling experiences, and false claims to draw away disciples after them (Acts 20:29-31). They must preserve doctrinal purity and unity in the church, and oppose all the errors which threaten the church (Titus 1:9-11). Regarding membership in the church, they must “take heed to all the flock,” so as to honor the biblical standard for membership, and to apply it graciously, conscientiously, impartially, objectively, and courageously (Acts 9:26; 2 Cor.6:14-18). Regarding church leadership, they must, “take heed to themselves.” They must enforce the biblical standard for leadership (1 Tim.3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9), and give careful oversight to the existing leadership, respecting both the life and teaching of the elders (1 Tim.5:17-25) and the life and labors of the deacons (1 Tim.3:8-13). Regarding the commission, tasks, and mandate of the church, the elders are responsible to know, “how men ought to behave themselves in the house of God” (1 Tim.3:15); and, knowing what is expected, must take pains that the Lord’s will is done. They must know the identity of the church’s tasks, be convinced of her basic competence to perform them, keep her from being diverted from them, and guide her to pursue them with God-honoring methods and means. Specifically, they are responsible to establish and maintain a biblical climate and content of worship, to formulate and promote a biblical policy of zealous evangelism, to institute a generous, equal and principled benevolence to poor and needy brethren, to nurture each of the disciples under their care in the Word and ways of the Lord, to implement a biblical discipline of the disorderly, regularly to administer and observe the sacraments, and to lead the congregation in corporate prayer focused upon the glory of God, the concerns of his kingdom, and the success of all the labors of the church. Regarding order in the church, the elders are responsible to know and follow the apostolic traditions, revealed in Scripture, designed to promote ecclesiastical order in all the churches on earth until Christ returns. Specifically, they must boldly and graciously implement the apostolic traditions respecting women (1 Cor.14:33-36; 1 Tim.2:11-15; 3:15), corporate giving (1 Cor.16:1,2), Christian liberty (Acts 16:4), spiritual gifts (1 Cor.14:1-33, 37-40), and marital ethics (1 Cor.7:8-17). Regarding church assemblies, they are responsible to insure that the church convenes and conducts all its assemblies in an orderly and edifying manner, and in the fear of God (1 Cor.11:17-34). Regarding church associations and relations, they are responsible to foster, establish, and maintain communion, cooperation and peace between their church and other true churches of Christ (2 Cor.8:19,24) as far as conscience and providence permit. And, they are responsible not to yoke their church unequally with unbelieving and apostate congregations from which the Spirit of God has departed, and which Jesus has repudiated and cut off from his church militant (2 Cor.6:14-18; Rev.2:5,9, 3:9). Surely we must ask with the apostle, “Who is sufficient for these things?” Yet thankfully we may in faith reply, “Our sufficiency is from God.”
Equality in Representation
Since they officially exercise authority given by Christ, through the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28), the eldership represents Christ, even as governors represent the king who sent them (Heb.13:17; 1 Pet.2:13,14). And, because they are recognized by the suffrage of the church, and are set forth as examples to the church (Heb.13:17; 1 Pet.5:3), the eldership also represents their church, both before the other churches and before the world. In this respect the elders are all equally representatives of Christ and of their church. In their exercise of Christ’s authority they speak for Him, in so far as they follow and implement His Word. To reject them and their biblical leadership is thus to reject Christ and His leadership. To receive them and their biblical leadership is thus to receive Christ and His leadership (John 13:20; Luke 10:16). This must be qualified to prevent both abuse and misunderstanding. Elders, even good and godly ones, are not always in agreement (Acts 15:38,39), and elderships are neither infallible in their judgments nor impeccable in their actions. Their sins, faults and errors of judgment should be faced with impartiality (1 Tim.5:19,20), integrity (Gal.2:11), and courage (3 John 9-12). But as far as their judgments are in accordance with biblical principle and truth, they are just that far, and no further, the living embodiment of the loving rule of Jesus Christ over His church.
Consider then the heavier judgment which awaits ungodly elders who misrepresent Christ’s loving rule over His people. Even as a tyrannical governor misrepresents a good and gracious king, so do such misrepresent the King of kings. What an awful reckoning must await such unfaithful shepherds! Consider then how all this creates incentive, through fear, to avoid the abuse of church authority. Consider also how it creates incentive, through hope of reward, to rule faithfully and diligently as unto the Lord, in spite of opposition, knowing that from the Lord, and not from men, will come the commendation in the last day (1 Cor.4:2,5) and the crown of glory that fades not away (1 Pet.5:3,4). Consider then how this pressures all the elders to be men of prayer, who seek God’s guidance and grace to rule well, with heavenly wisdom, justice, and compassion (James 1:5; 1 Kings 3:9,10). Consider also, how this should drive all the elders to read, study and meditate on the Word of God, the treasure-house of faith and wisdom, in order to discern the mind of Christ for His church (Col. 3:16). No elder should be doctrinally or scripturally “illiterate”, but to the contrary, should be steeped in the Word of God, and well versed in the essential doctrines of the Christian faith which he is pledged to defend (Titus 1:9). Consider finally, how this compels all the elders to live godly lives, knowing that the eyes of saints and sinners alike are upon them as models, and that Christ and their church will be judged in large measure by how they live.
Some Practical Implications of Parity in the Eldership
We have looked already at the concept and substance of parity in the eldership. We now consider the question, “so what?” What practical difference does it make? The seven propositions which follow are not exhaustive, but rather, suggest the primary outworking of parity in church life.
1. Parity implies that all the elders should participate in visiting and counseling the flock.
The eldership, as a body, should take heed to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit made them bishops, “to shepherd the church of the Lord” (Acts 20:28f). All the elders should watch for the souls of those under their care. Thus, the eldership as a body should systematically nurture all their sheep. Typically, pastoral nurture and care is facilitated by pastoral visitation of some kind. Since all the elders are pastors and bishops, all should visit and care for their sheep. The work is not for the minister of the Word alone, as though he were the only shepherd and bishop of the flock. Accordingly, it is beneficial to implement an annual or semi-annual house visitation of each member, in which each elder somehow participates. Similarly, it is also of benefit to address not only the preacher, but each elder as “pastor” as a means of further enforcing this perspective.
2. Parity implies that all the elders should participate in interviews of prospective members.
All the elders are charged to watch for the souls of their people. The eldership as a body is charged with preserving the purity of the church. Accordingly, membership interviews should not be restricted to the minister of the Word alone, but rather should be open to all elders. As a general rule, as many elders as is feasible should attend. This will, practically speaking, require dedication. It may necessitate special meetings, or even an occasional day of interviews. There is great benefit, however, derived from each shepherd hearing the testimony of each lamb, and from each shepherd establishing at the outset a personal and pastoral communication with each new member in the things of God.
3. Parity implies that all the elders should be included in setting church policy.
The eldership, as a body, is charged to oversee the entire life of the church. The rule of the church is not committed in Scripture to a bishop, but to the bishops, the eldership (Acts 20:28). Therefore, Christ does not authorize the minister of the Word to set church policy unilaterally. The elders are not his subordinates, who implement his directives, but peers, united with him in the same ruling body of church officers. Calvin, commenting on 1 Tim.5:17, confirms this implication:
The people elected earnest and well-tried men, who along with the pastors in a common council and with the authority of the church, would administer discipline and act as censors for the correction of morals. Ambrose complains that this custom has fallen into desuetude through the carelessness, or rather, the pride of the teachers who wanted undivided power for themselves.
Thus, fellow elders should address a minister of the Word as an equal, not as if he were superior in rank or office. Thus too, it is often expedient for elderships to meet weekly for prayer and to discuss and determine church policy. Similarly, it is prudent for elderships to meet with their diaconate regularly, and for a diaconate to furnish regular reports to their elders detailing their activities and requesting feedback and decisions on specific items of concern. A word of qualification is in order. I do not intend to denounce delegation of specific tasks to individual elders or to committees of elders. Without delegation the whole work of the church would grind to a halt and stagnate (Titus 1:5). Rather, I merely intend to assert that the eldership, as a body, has the authority to delegate tasks and that those to whom a task is delegated are accountable to the entire eldership.
4. Parity implies that each elder should get pastoral oversight from the eldership as a body.
Paul charges the eldership at Ephesus to “take heed to yourselves.” Each elder is under the pastoral care of the eldership. Even a minister of the Word is a man under authority. He too needs and deserves pastoral care. Are ministers of the gospel willing to receive oversight for their own souls and families from their fellow elders? I hope so, for we, like any other sheep, surely need loving pastors to watch for our souls, to care about our devotional life, our love for our wives, our nurture of our children, our assurance of salvation, and our progress in personal holiness. Thus, even gospel ministers should have the benefit of regular pastoral visits from fellow elders. Yet how can such oversight be received if a gospel minister thinks of himself as a superior to all his fellow elders, and always relates to them as subordinates, as inferiors in rank? Here is prelacy in the bud. Here the rubber of parity meets the road. Perhaps parity practiced more humbly and faithfully would nip discouragement or scandal in the bud, and prevent the crippling of useful ministers. This underscores why an eldership shouldn’t make any man an elder unless they can conscientiously submit to his pastoral care. This implication of parity gives new force to “lay hands hastily on no man.” Some may retort that each gospel minister is under the oversight of fellow ministers. Which fellow ministers are so charged, and by whom? Do they pay him pastoral visits? Does ministerial friendship or occasional fellowship equal pastoral care? Does any larger body of gospel ministers (such as a ministerium, or general assembly, or association) appoint someone to visit each minister regularly in his home to watch over his soul and family? I hope that any who appeal to the care of fellow ministers enjoy such oversight. I am confident, however, that Reformed Baptists have no such practice. Our souls would be ill cared for indeed if our oversight were left to association meetings or ministeriums. Thus, it is proper, and often most prudent, for a lone elder, with the consent of his congregation, to seek pastoral care for his own soul and family from the elders of another church until his own church has a plurality of elders. Such an expedient could be beneficial to prevent much harm to Christ’s servants and reproach upon his name.
5. Parity implies that the elders are equally eligible to lead the observance of the sacraments.
Since all the elders represent Christ as God’s stewards, all may lead the church in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor.11:25). Any elder, not just a preacher, may preside over the distribution of the elements. Similarly, any elder may perform a baptism. Of course, ministers of the Word will usually baptize new disciples, since their preaching often is instrumental in the conversion of the persons baptized.
6. Parity implies that the elders are equally eligible to represent their church in associations.
This also follows from the fact that each elder equally represents both Christ and the church. Representation of their church in association meetings should not be restricted to gospel ministers, but open to all the elders of the churches.
7. Parity implies that each elder must grasp sound doctrine and be apt to teach and defend it.
Paul requires this of all elders, not merely of preachers (I Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9). Each elder must have a firm grasp on God’s Word and some aptness to teach it. Else an eldership could not even begin to implement the parity called for here, or give oversight to its preachers. We need not insist that each elder have a formal seminary education. Nor do I mean that each elder must possess teaching gift to such a degree as to warrant making preaching his vocation. Yet, if the elders are largely ignorant of the truth, and unable to defend it, devastation will befall the churches from the hand of subtle ministers sent fresh from seminary with liberal or neo-orthodox notions. Again, if elders are ignorant of the historic Reformed creeds of their churches, how will they stand fast against the waves of diluted doctrine eroding the foundation of orthodoxy all around us? Again, biblical thinking is essential to sound living. Thus, elders must be grounded in the faith to give sound counsel to brethren struggling to live for God’s glory. Lenski, commenting on “apt to teach” in 1 Tim.3:2, confirms this implication:
Those who still need much teaching and are themselves incompetent to impart knowledge should not be given an office in which some proficiency in teaching is required. When we read in 5:17 that honor is to be accorded “especially to those laboring in the Word and teaching”, we take it that the elders divided the work among themselves, and that those who were most able to teach attended to most of the teaching and preaching. This does not mean that the others could not teach at all.
Dabney, defending parity, affirms this implication and applies it powerfully and eloquently:
Perhaps the most plausible objection … against our theory is this, that if you teach the ruling elders are among the scriptural presbyters, then you can no longer draw any consistent line between them and ministers, you must make them all preachers. The Scriptures make no distinction between any of those whom they call presbyters, either as to qualification or ordination or functions … it is asserted that the same qualifications are exacted, in 1 Tim.3, and Titus 1, of all presbyters alike, and especially “aptness to teach”…as to this, we assert that the ruling elder needs it also just as truly as the preacher does … It has been well remarked in support of this assertion, that the ruling elder should preach the gospel from house to house, that he should be a catechist and Bible-class teacher. This is all true, but it comes very short of the true strength of the case. Limit the ruling elder’s task as strictly as is possible to the business of ruling, and still his function is just as truly and as purely a teaching function as that of the preacher. He rules only by teaching; that is, his whole authority is exercised through the inculcative process … The church has legitimate power over the conscience only as she presents to that conscience, in the exercise of its own private judgment, what ought to be adequate evidence that her command is scriptural. The sceptre of Christ’s kingdom is his Word; to wield this is to teach. And we would distinctly declare, that our tendency to consider that teaching must mean preaching alone arises only from our over-weaning and unscriptural fondness for public preaching over the quiet, efficacious inculcation of the spiritual inspector. Had we used Christ’s plan more efficiently we should not have contracted this perverted notion. Were ruling elders what they ought to be we should perhaps find that, so far from regarding preaching as nearly all of religious teaching, it is less than half.
Conclusion: Why then, someone may well exclaim, this is nothing less than full blown Brethrenism! What room is left for any diversity at all in the eldership? Now therefore, we must address also the rich diversity of vocation, honor, and gift which the Lord designed for the eldership.