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
The Baptist Confession of 1689 and the Parity of the Eldership
Pastor Sam Waldron
As we have seen in the previous chapter, no small part of Poh Boon Sing’s attack on the parity of the eldership is rooted in the claim that the ecclesiastical tradition most closely associated with the Particular or ‘ Reformed Baptists clearly distinguished between pastors and elders. This claim comes to its most pointed and important expression in Poh’s assertion that this distinction is “crystal clear” in the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. This incredible claim seems very powerful. It contrasts strikingly with the reserved or restrained claims cited by Poh which I make in the exposition of the Confession. I, indeed, argue for the view that the Confession supports the parity of the eldership and rejects the pastor/elder distinction, but with less dogmatism than Poh claims for his interpretation of the Confession.
Poh Boon Sing notes in his defense of the pastor/elder distinction that I admit in my book, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith that there is some ambiguity in the Confession on this subject. The ambiguity to which I admitted was that its plain doctrine of two “offices in the churches (26:8, 11) appears to be somewhat clouded by its statement that pastors should be supported. What I precisely said is this:
The point of this paragraph is that Christ has appointed only two continuing offices in the local church—elders and deacons. Much more might be said, but the main proofs of this are these: (1) Only these two offices are mentioned in the classic New Testament passages on the continuing offices of the local church (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim 3:1-13). The implication is that there were no other offices. (2) The office of elder or presbyter, overseer or bishop, and pastor or shepherd, are one and the same (Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5-7; 1 Pet. 5:2; and 1 Tim. 3:2 with Eph. 4:11). It is common today to draw a distinction between pastors and elders. In Acts 20:17 and 28, and 1 Pet. 5:2 the elders are commanded to shepherd or pastor the church. In 1 Tim. 3:2 it is required that all elders be able to teach. Eph. 4:11’s pastor-teachers are simply elders. There are not three offices in the church—minister or pastor, elder, and deacon. There are only two offices—overseer-elder-pastor and deacon. Pastors and elders are the same. The biblical teaching should not be subtly undermined by terminology like senior pastor or assistant pastor.
The norm is a plurality of elders in each local church. This is the clear implication of both the Bible and the Confession. No instance of a New Testament church with only one elder exists. Universally, a plurality of elders is mentioned (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Phil. 1:1; 1 Thess. 5:12; Titus 1:5; Heb. 13:17; James 5:14).
It must be admitted that the position here asserted concerning the equivalence of the terms, pastor and elder, is not asserted unambiguously in the Confession. There are, indeed, statements which do seem clearly to equate pastors, elders, and bishops. In paragraph 8 the Confession speaks of “bishops or elders” as one of the two continuing offices in the church. This equation of “the office of bishop or elder” is again stated in paragraph 9. In paragraph 11 this equation of bishops and elders seems clearly to be extended to pastors when the Confession speaks of “the bishops or pastors of the churches.”
To be perfectly fair to the evidence, however, one must take into account the fact that in paragraph 10 where the financial support of elders is treated the term used is “pastors.” Furthermore, this paragraph no where states that those elder-pastors which are first and foremost to be supported are those “who work hard at preaching and teaching.” The implication of this might appear to be that all pastors (here distinguished from elders) should be supported. Yet, when the next paragraph equates bishops and pastors, this possible implication seems clearly to be contradicted. Another possible interpretation of this evidence might be that all elders should be preachers of the Word and, thus, supported by the church. While this interpretation provides a consistent interpretation of the evidence, it is difficult in my mind to see it as consistent with the clear teaching of paragraphs 8 and 9 that as a norm each church should have a plurality of elders. Could the Confession possibly be teaching that each church should normally have a plurality of elders and should support each one? This seems unlikely.
The interpretation which appears to do the most justice to the, admittedly ambiguous, language of the Confession emphasizes the qualifying phrase in paragraph 10, “according to their ability.” In the original Scripture proofs of the Confession 1 Tim. 5:17, 18 is cited at this point. Perhaps, the Confession is asserting that “ideally” all elders should be supported, but this phrase may add this thought: All elders should be supported according to the ability of the church and according to the stated priorities for pastoral support stated in the Bible. Whether or not this is precisely the right way of understanding 1 Tim. 5:17, 18, this interpretation does provide a consistent understanding of the statements of the Confession.
Any fair reader of these paragraphs will see that I was admitting that a greater clarity of statement might be wished in the Confession. I wished this in order that the Confession might not give the appearance of supporting the pastor/elder distinction which I was opposing from the Scriptures and on the basis of the Confession’s equation of bishops, elders, and pastors. It never occurred to me that someone might think to impose upon the Confession and the Reformed and Baptist movement such a pastor/elder distinction and claim that this is clearly the doctrine of the Confession. Now, therefore, I must say that if there is some slight ambiguity in the Confession viewed from the perspective of my denial of the pastor/elder distinction, there is a much greater problem for anyone who attempts to draw from it actual support for the pastor/elder distinction. I would much rather attempt to teach my view from the Confession than to defend the pastor/elder distinction from the Confession as Poh Boon Sing does.
The key statements of Chapter 26:8-11 of the Confession are italicized in the quotation below:
8 A particular church, gathered and completely organized according to the mind of Christ, consists of officers and members; and 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 intrusts them with, or calls them to, to be continued to the end of the world, are bishops or elders, and deacons.
9 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, if there be any before constituted therein; and of a deacon that he be chosen by the like suffrage, and set apart by prayer, and the like imposition of hands.
10The work of pastors being constantly to attend the service of Christ, in his churches, in the ministry of the word and prayer, with watching for their souls, as they that must give an account to Him; it is incumbent on 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 according to their ability, so as they may have a comfortable supply, without being themselves entangled in secular affairs; and may also be capable of exercising hospitality towards others; and this is required by the law of nature, and by the express order of our Lord Jesus, who hath ordained that they that preach the Gospel should live of the Gospel.
11 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.
Several comments will make plain the difficulty of interpreting these statements from the standpoint of the pastor/elder distinction. First, paragraph 8 asserts that there are only two offices in the church. Second, it equates the office of bishop and elder by using the phrase, bishops or elders. Third, paragraph 9 again equates the office of bishop and elder in the phrase, the office of bishop or elder in the church. Fourth, paragraph 11 equates the bishops of the church with the pastors in the phrase, the bishops or pastors of the churches, and asserts that it is their office to be instant in preaching the Word. In light of these plain statements it is a very small concern in paragraph 10 when the support of this office is discussed that only the term, pastor, is used. We may be bothered by the selection of this word. We may wish that another word had been selected, yet in itself there is nothing strictly inconsistent with our view in paragraph 10—as the comments above quoted from The Modern Exposition clearly show.
On the other hand the difficulties involved in imposing upon the Confession a preconceived pastor/elder distinction are really enormous. It runs counter to the explicit statements of the Confession equating bishops, elders, and pastors. This distinction is not derived and cannot be derived from the text of the Confession itself.
The only substantial reason to impose it upon or to read it into the Confession is the argument from church history given by Poh Boon Sing. The thrust of that argument is that we must interpret our Confession in light of the views of church government espoused by the Independents generally and John Owen particularly. While our faith does not stand in the wisdom of men—even good men like John Owen—, yet it may be well to point out that this mode of interpreting our Confession faces some very real difficulties. We admit, of course, that as Reformed Baptists we owe a great deal to the Independents and John Owen particularly with reference to our church government. Yet when we come to an issue as precise and fine as that about which Poh Boon Sing has taken issue with many Reformed Baptists in America , it is not so certain that we may simply read the Independents’ view into our Confession. I have argued in A Modern Exposition … that the immediate confessional ancestor of our 1689 Baptist Confession was, indeed, the Savoy Declaration of Faith and its platform of Church Polity. Independents edited this Confession from its own confessional mother, the Westminster.
When the Savoy’s Platform of Church Polity is examined carefully, it is plain that, though it was greatly influential in the construction of Chapter 26 of our Confession, its statements were not adopted thoughtlessly or uniformly. With reference to this whole issue of the pastor/elder distinction very important alterations were made in key statements imported into Chapter 26 from the Savoy platform. For instance, the Savoy teaches what has been called the four-office view of the church in the original form of its statement with regard to church offices. The language of this paragraph is identical to that of 26:8 of our Confession until it comes to the last few words. Here is how it reads with the language altered in the 1689 Confession italicized:
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 intrusts them with, or calls them to, to be continued to the end of the world, are pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons.
It is plain that the editors of our Confession deliberately altered the words that suggest that there are more than two offices and substituted for them words which plainly and emphatically teach that there are only two, bishops or elders and deacons.
A similar alteration appears in the paragraph about “the way appointed by Christ for the calling of any person” to office in the church. The 1689 reads exactly the same except for the words italicized below:
9 The way appointed by Christ for the calling of any person, fitted and gifted by the Holy Spirit, unto the office of pastor, teacher, or elder in a church …
Again the 1689 changes “pastor, teacher, or elder” to “bishop or elder”.
In paragraph 11 of the 1689 another significant alteration takes place. The almost identical paragraph of the Savoy Platform reads as follows:
Although it be incumbent on the pastors and teachers, 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.
Again the 1689 altered “pastors and teachers” to “bishops or pastors”.
These patent alterations in the Savoy platform are very significant. Poh Boon Sing’s attempts to explain them in light of the differing historical situations in which the two Confessions were written do not carry weight since the Particular Baptists in 1689 and the Independents in 1658 faced very similar situations. The true reason for these changes appears plainly to be that the editors of our Confession did not wish to confess the four office view of the church taught by the Savoy or its distinction between the office of elder and pastor.
It must be remembered that there were other influences bearing upon the minds of the original signers of our Confession. Among them was the language and thinking of the First London Confession of 1644. In contradistinction to the Savoy, but in perfect unison with the 1689 that Confession teaches very plainly the two office view of the church with no distinction visible between elders and ministers (paragraphs 36-38).
There is also evidence that the 1689 desired to take an intermediate position between the congregationalism of the 1644 and the remaining clericalism of the Savoy in its pastor/elder distinction. Hence, though the Savoy restricted the administration of the sacraments to the “minister of the Word lawfully called” (Savoy, Chapter 28:4), and the 1644 permitted any disciple to baptize, yet the 1689 marks out what appears to be intended as a less definitive and an intermediate position by saying, “These holy appointments are to be administered by those only who are qualified and thereunto called, according to the commission of Christ” (1689, 28:2).
Before we conclude this discussion of the relation of the Savoy
Platform of Church Polity and the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, it is important to point out an interesting document which sheds further light upon the views and intentions of the signers of the 1689 Baptist Confession. Benjamin Keach was one of the original signers of the 1689 Baptist Confession. In 1697 he authored a little book entitled, The Glory of a True Church, And Its Discipline Displayed. While we may not assume that Keach’s views were unanimously or slavishly followed by other Particular Baptists of the day, it is still of great interest for the present discussion to note that Keach plainly contradicts Poh’s interpretation of the Confession at several points. First, Keach clearly equates the office of pastor and the office of elder. Here is one of his opening statements:
A church thus constituted ought forthwith to choose them a pastor, elder or elders, and deacons, (we reading of no other officers or offices abiding in the church) …. Moreover, they are to take special care, that both bishops , overseers, or elders, as well as deacons, have some competent manner all those qualifications; and after in a day of solemn prayer and fasting, that they have elected them, (whether pastor, etc. or deacons) and accepting the office, must be ordained with prayer, and laying on of the hands of the eldership; being first proved, and found meet and fit persons for so sacred an office: Therefore such are very disorderly churches who have no pastor or pastors ordained, they acting not according to the rule of the gospel, having something wanting.
After this introductory statement, Keach discusses in order only two offices. The first section is entitled, Of the work of a Pastor, Bishop, or Overseer. The second is entitled, The Office and Work of Deacons. Clearly, Keach makes no distinction between pastors, bishops, and elders.
This conclusion is made even more certain by the second point of relevance in Keach for our present discussion. Keach denies that there is any office of ruling elder as distinct from pastor in the church today.
Query, Are there no ruling elders besides the pastor?
Answer. There might be such in the primitive apostolical church, but we see no ground to believe it an abiding office to continue in the church, but was only temporary.
1. Because we have none of the qualifications of such elders mentioned, or how to be chosen.
2. Because we read not particularly what their work and business is, or how distinct from preaching elders; though we see not but the church may (if she sees meet) choose some able and discreet brethren to be helps in government; We have the qualifications of bishops and deacons laid down, but of no other office or officers in the church, but these only.
The contrast between Poh and Keach could not be more pointed. Poh argues for the validity of ruling elders. Keach denies that any such office (as distinct from the office of preaching elder) exists in the church today. Keach’s view also plainly contrasts with that of John Owen. This fact shows that important Particular Baptists like Keach did not see themselves as adopting Owen’s church polity without alteration in the 1689 Confession.
A third matter relevant to the interpretation of the 1689 Confession emerges from a study of Keach’s little book. As I pointed out above, I argued in A Modern Exposition … that one plausible interpretation of 26:10’s discussion of the support of pastors was that the Confession might be assuming that all pastor-elder-bishops should be supported. This appears to have been the view of Keach. In the quotation given above from page 9 of his book he appears to recognize only preaching elders. Furthermore, in a section entitled, Of the Duty of Church Members to their Pastor, Keach points out eight duties of church members to the one he also describes in this section as “pastor or elder” [p. 8]. The sixth one deals with their financial support.
It is their duty to provide a comfortable maintenance for them and their families, suitable to their state and condition… ministers are not to ask for their bread, but to receive it honourably.
It would appear that at least Keach’s interpretation of 26:10 of the 1689 Baptist Confession was that all pastors should be supported by the church.
It is, of course, not certain whether other Particular Baptists understood 26:10 or the eldership in exactly the way Keach did. It is also very unlikely that Keach’s view that all pastors should be supported can be maintained in the light of Scripture. It is possible that there are other weaknesses in Keach’s view of the eldership. A reading of his little book gives the impression that he was weak on the Bible’s teaching that normally the government of the local church rests in the hands of a plurality of elders in each local church. However all this may be, it is abundantly clear that Keach rejected anything like a distinction between pastors and elders in the church.
We may conclude this brief discussion of the pastor/elder distinction by summarizing the results of this examination of the teaching of the 1689 Baptist Confession with regard to the pastor/elder distinction which Poh thinks is so crystal clear within it. We have seen, first, that the most natural reading of the Confession itself clearly supports the view which equates pastors and elders. We have seen, second, that at points crucial to the pastor/elder distinction alterations which reject it are introduced into the language of the Savoy Platform in the 1689 Confession. We have seen, third, that Benjamin Keach one of the signers of the 1689 Confession and one of the most influential Particular Baptists of the era clearly and explicitly rejects the pastor/elder distinction and supports the idea that at just this point Particular Baptists felt free to modify the teaching of Owen and the Independents. It may be that we cannot quite conclude by saying that the Confession is “crystal clear” in its rejection of the pastor/elder distinction. Yet we can say that no fair-minded assessment of the evidence here presented will have much doubt about which side should be citing the Confession in their favor in the present debate. Indeed, I suspect that most readers will feel that the evidence justifies the assertion that the Confession is crystal clear in equating pastors and elders.
A presentation of the parity or equality of elders in the New Testament
An Historical Examination of the Parity of the Eldership in Independency and John Owen
Pastor Dave Chanski
Dr. Poh Boon Sing has rendered a very valuable service to Reformed Baptists in his book, The Keys of the Kingdom. A study on ecclesiology from a Reformed Baptist perspective helps to begin to fill a very real void. Moreover, his directing our attention to our historical roots, most notably those of Puritan Congregationalism, is not only praiseworthy, but also needful and timely.
Our response on these pages has been necessitated however by a number of factors. The first and most obvious factor is that Poh advocates an unscriptural view of plurality and parity in the eldership. Secondly, he has misrepresented the views—and the outworkings of those views—of a large number of other Reformed Baptists. Thirdly-and this is the concern of the present chapter—he has misrepresented the views of John Owen, the great Puritan Congregationalist. (This is not to minimize the valuable service Dr. Poh has rendered in pointing us to Owen and in drawing out much good from him.) The question before us in this chapter is not primarily whether Dr. Poh’s conception of the eldership is scriptural, but whether or not his views find support in the writings of John Owen.
Plurality in the Eldership
When it comes to the subject of plurality in the eldership, we are in basic agreement with Dr. Poh. We believe in the propriety of a plurality of scripturally qualified elders holding office in the local church. With John Owen, we recognize that plurality is the scriptural norm. That is, it is the situation we uniformly encounter in the churches in the New Testament. It is therefore desirable for our churches today. However, to have less than a plurality in a given local church is not sinful in itself.
Dr. Poh, commenting on the circumstances we face in the church today, suggests a modification to our conception of plurality. First, he says that, in the face of what he calls “authoritarian oligarchies”, “it would not be wise [for us today] to stress ‘plurality.”‘ He means that we must be sensitive to the abuses of even a biblical institution and would perhaps do well to de-emphasize plurality. Secondly, Dr. Poh suggests that, for the same reasons, “It is preferable to advocate instead the validity of the office of ruling elders” (as opposed to advocating plurality). We second his concern to avoid abuses in church government. Furthermore, we share his jealousy to guard the integrity of the churches which have not yet been blessed by the Head of the Church with a plurality of elders—or in some cases even one elder. They are not in sin simply because they have not yet achieved the scriptural norm.
However, we do not agree that a de facto retreat from the emphasis on the biblical norm for the eldership is the way to face any perceived or real problems regarding church government. There are definite and weighty reasons for not retreating on this subject, especially at this juncture in the history of the church of Christ. For one thing, the same basic dangers which Owen realized plurality is designed to thwart still threaten the church today. Owen writes, “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.” Also, the times in which we live argue that the doctrine of plurality needs to be articulated and accentuated. Plurality of elders is not the prevailing practice in most evangelical churches in the United States. (Regrettably, a large percentage even of Reformed Baptist churches do not have pluralities of elders.) Further, the troubles faced by every church of Christ regardless of the size of its eldership are only intensified when the scriptural norm does not exist, or to use Paul’s terminology, when there is something “lacking” (Titus 1:5).
Therefore, we wholeheartedly concur with Owen’s sentiments when he writes:
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…. And some there are who begin to maintain that there is no need of any more but one pastor, bishop, or elder in a particular church, which hath its rule in itself, other elders for rule being unnecessary. This is a novel opinion, contradictory to the sense and practice of the church in all ages.
Parity in the Eldership
Our chief area of disagreement with Dr. Poh centers around the subject of parity in the eldership. The word parity means “equality”. When it is applied to the elders in a church, it means that they have equal power or authority when it comes to governing the church. “Parity” is therefore verbal shorthand for “parity of authority”.
Poh cannot affirm that there is parity of authority among the elders in a church. He believes in a hierarchy of authority among elders, and he bases it upon the distinction John Owen drew between elders who labor in the ministry of the Word and those who do not.
John Owen believed that there is a distinction between teaching elders and ruling elders. To him, the teaching elders are the pastors. All pastors are elders, but not all elders are pastors. The pastors have the priority over the ruling elders. The pastor (or one of them, if there are more than one pastors [sic]) should act as the leading elder.
Poh is right in his assertion that Owen made a distinction between pastors and ruling elders. Owen also asserted that there is a genuine primacy inherent in the calling of the ministry of the Word. However we will see that Poh is incorrect to maintain that Owen grants a greater authority to the pastor than to the ruling elder when it comes to the government of the church.
Poh further argues that other Reformed Baptists are wrong to maintain that parity ought to exist among all the elders in a church. He writes:
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, for the different functions they perform. To them, all elders are pastors.
This is a fair representation of the doctrine of parity held by a number of Reformed Baptists. However, Poh does not regard this difference from his own view as either minor or innocent. He writes, “[S]ome…[churches] believe in the ‘equality of elders’ and carry this to an extreme, calling every elder ‘pastor’ . He also caricatures their view of parity by calling it the “Absolute Equality View”, and asserting that those who hold to parity believe “that all the elders are equal in authority in every way”. One might be led to think that those who hold to parity teach that the elders in a church must wear the same shoe size and part their hair in the same way. At best, Poh gives a poor caricature of the views of such Reformed Baptists as Sam Waldron and A. N. Martin based, we presume, on ignorance of their actual teaching and practice.
Church Polity and Church History
It is the concern of the other chapters of this book to assess the scripturalness of the views of both Poh Boon Sing and John Owen regarding the eldership, and to articulate our view of plurality and parity in the eldership. It is our present concern however to evaluate Poh’s professed reliance upon and adherence to John Owen, the great exponent of Puritan Congregationalism. As we will see, Poh follows Owen to a point, but when it comes to authority to rule in the church, he makes a significant departure from the Puritan.
As we begin this consideration from the standpoint of historical theology, we must remember that our first and final authority is the Word of God. It is one thing to recognize the significant place of John Owen in our own stream of church polity and our great indebtedness to him; it is another to rigidly adhere to him despite the teaching of the Scriptures. Poh himself explicitly recognizes the supremacy of Scripture in determining our own convictions and practice. The Independent ministers of the Westminster Assembly expressed this dependence upon the Word of God as well in a seminal document in the history of Congregationalism:
First, the supreame rule without us, was the Primitive patterne and example of the churches erected by the Apostles. Our consciences were possessed with that reverence and adoration of fulnesse of the Scriptures, that there is therein a compleat sufficiencie, as to make the man of God perfect, so also to make the Churches of God perfect, (meere circumstances we except, or what rules the law of nature doth in common dictate) if the directions and examples therein delivered were fully known and followed…. A second Principle we carryed along with us in all our resolutions, was, Not to make our present judgement and practice a binding law unto our selves for the future, which we in like manner made continuall profession of upon all occasions. We had too great an instance of our own frailty in the former way of our conformity; and therefore in a jealousie of our selves, we kept this reserve, (which we made open and constant professions of) to alter and retract (though not lightly) what ever should be discovered to be taken up out of a mis-understanding of the rule: Which Principle wee wish were (next to that most supreame, namely, to be in all things guided by the perfect wil of God) enacted as the most sacred law of all other, in the midst of all other Laws and Canons Ecclesiastical in Christian States and Churches throughout the world.
We are grateful for the Puritans’—and Poh’s—conviction that the matter must be resolved exegetically and for the Congregationalists’ explicit recognition that progress in doctrine did not end with them.
Another vital consideration is the plain reality that there is not homogeneity in “Independent” church polity, particularly when it comes to the subjects of plurality and parity in the eldership. For instance, as we saw above, John Owen insisted that the scriptural norm is to have a plurality of elders in each church. He emphasized the scriptural validity of the office of ruling elder. Contrast Owen’s convictions with these words of Benjamin Keach, the seventeenth century Particular Baptist:
Query, Are there no ruling elders besides the pastor?
Answer. There might be such in the primitive apostolical church, but we see no ground to believe it an abiding office to continue in the church, but was only temporary.
1. Because we have none of the qualifications of such elders mentioned, or how to be chosen.
2. Because we read not particularly what their work and business is, or how distinct from preaching elders; though we see not but the church may (if she sees meet) choose some able and discreet brethren to be helps in government; We have the qualifications of bishops and deacons directly laid down, and how to be chosen, and their work declared, but of no other office or officers in the church, but these only.
This is a fairly radical departure from Owen when it comes to the subject at hand, and it comes from one of the signers of the 1689 Confession. However we are not compelled to follow Keach in his departure from Owen precisely because we are not bound to follow either one of them whenever we find them at variance with the Word of God.
There were Particular Baptists in this country who held to the view of church officers defended in this anthology—i.e. that the titles pastor, bishop, and elder all refer to all the rulers in the church. The Baptist Association of Charlestown, South Carolina wrote in their Summary of Church-Discipline in 1774:
The ordinary officers of the church, and the only ones now existing, are ministers and deacons (Phil 1:1)…. Ministers of the gospel, who are frequently called elders, bishops, pastors, and teachers, are appointed by Christ to the highest office in the church and therefore need peculiar qualifications such as are pointed out (1 Tim. 3:2-7 and Titus 1:5-10).
Here is the view we advocate, held by Baptists directly upstream from us in the current of ecclesiastical development and tradition. These Baptists had adopted the Philadelphia Confession of Faith and were undoubtedly aware of their indebtedness to the Puritan Congregationalists, Owen included. Nevertheless, they did not consider themselves bound to follow Owen in this point of church polity, based on their clearer light from the Word of God.
As did our Baptist predecessors, we do well to remember that church history helps us to see Scriptural light, but it is not that light itself and therefore not authoritative for us. We are greatly indebted to our forefathers in the faith, most notably to the Particular Baptists and the Puritan Congregationalists on whose ecclesiastical shoulders the Baptists stood. We neglect the light they furnish us at our peril. Our first commitment however is to the Word of God, not to John Owen, not even to the 1689 Confession.
Poh Boon Sing and John Owen on Parity
It remains for us to consider in greater detail what John Owen taught regarding the eldership generally, and regarding parity in particular. What did the great Puritan say about the matters of office, plurality, function, and parity? Who are his legitimate ecclesiological descendents?
Offices in the church
Owen held to the view that there are two distinct offices in the church, elder and deacon. Though he distinguished between teaching elders (the pastor is a teaching elder) and ruling elders, he asserted that they held the same office. That is, Owen recognized a distinction within the one office of elder between two distinct types or classes of elders.
The bishops or elders are of two sorts: 1. Such as have authority to teach and administer the sacraments, which is commonly called the power of order; and also of ruling, which is called a power of jurisdiction, corruptly: and, 2. Some have only power for rule; of which sort there are some in all the churches in the world.’
He emphasizes that though there is a distinction when it comes to function within the office of the eldership, there is nevertheless one office only. Whereas deacons hold an entirely distinct office from elders, yet pastors and ruling elders, though they possess different functions in the church, occupy the same office. Owen wrote:
The distinction between the elders themselves is not like that between elders and deacons, which is as unto the whole kind or nature of the office, but only with respect unto work and order, whereof we shall treat distinctly.
There is no uniformity in Independency on this subject of offices, even among the Puritan Congregationalists themselves. The Congregationalists in New England held, contrary to Owen, that pastors and teachers held one office, ruling elders another. The Baptists of the Philadelphia Baptist Association did not follow Owen on this point either, asserting that the office of ruling elder was “wholly a distinct office” from that of the office of minister. As noted above, Benjamin Keach argued that a ruling elder does not occupy any office, properly speaking. Thus, it is meaningless, if not misleading, to speak of “the Independent position” or “the Particular Baptist position” on this point.
Reformed Baptists today are generally in agreement with Owen regarding the number of offices in the church, holding that all elders occupy the same office in the church, whether they labor in the Word and doctrine or not. Poh agrees with Owen at this point, and such is the position advocated in this book.
Diversity of gift and junction among elders.
Owen, Poh, and the writers of these articles agree that there is a vast and legitimate degree of diversity of gifts possessed and tasks performed by men who are elders in the church of Christ. All recognize the peculiar calling and work of some elders to “labor in word and doctrine” (1 Tim. 5:17). This is a scriptural distinction. Whether an elder labors in Word and doctrine or not depends on a number of factors, including his level of gift, the peculiar needs of the church, the opportunities available, the recognition of the church and eldership, and his corresponding assignment or commission to that task.
To one side of Owen at this point are the Congregationalists and Baptists who made a sharper distinction between pastors and ruling elders than Owen himself did and assigned to them separate and distinct offices. In their minds, this functional diversity could not be exercised within the same office. The Philadelphia Association’s Short Treatise says:
Their [ruling elders’] office only relateth to rule and order, in the church of God, and doth not include teaching; yet if the church findeth they have gifts and abilities to be useful in teaching, they may be put upon trial, and if approved, they may be called and solemnly set apart by ordination, it being wholly a distinct office from the former, which was only to rule well, and not to labor in Word and doctrine.
To the other side of Owen are those who insist that all the elders share equally in every task and thus artificially divide the pastoral labors with strict uniformity among all the elders. Such a view is based on a superficial understanding and a perversion of the biblical notion of “parity” among elders.
Here, we agree with Owen in substance, but not in form. That is, we recognize the diversity of function legitimate within an eldership without adopting rigid categories which are foreign to the Scriptures, John Owen notwithstanding. For some, those categories take the form of assigning separate offices to pastors and ruling elders. For Owen, they take the form of assigning separate titles to pastors and ruling elders. For him, only an elder who labors in Word and doctrine may be called pastor. Poh, for his part, faithfully follows Owen at this point. We have seen, however, that the New Testament designations pastor, bishop, and elder all refer to all the elders without distinction (Chapter 4). Therefore; we regard our primary difference with Owen to be essentially one of terminology, not of substance, as the next consideration will especially make clear.
Poh criticizes those who hold what he calls the “Absolute Equality View” of the eldership: “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 [sic] occurred in Brethren circles!” Note that 1) there is nothing improper about elders preaching in rotation if they are all gifted to preach and this is recognized by the church; 2) Poh wrongly implies that those who hold our view do not admit the distinction made in 1 Tim. 5:17 between those elders who labor in the Word and those who do not—we agree with Owen on this point; we depart from Owen in our terminology, in that he differentiates the preacher from non-preaching elders by calling him “pastor”, whereas we call him “pastor-teacher”, “teaching elder”, or “pastor who labors in Word and doctrine”; 3) not even Owen disputes the truth that others besides teaching elders may teach publicly. He identifies the ruling elders as “Elders not called to teach ordinarily…” Why does Owen make so much of the titles “pastor” and “teacher” and restrict them—in particular the title “pastor”—to only those elders who regularly teach publicly? The first answer is because of his flawed exegesis of Ephesians 4:11. Owen believed that the last two words in this text, “pastor” and “teacher”, referred to two distinct ministers of the word, and that was his basis for reserving the title “pastor” for only a teaching elder. However, the best interpretation of Eph. 4:11 sees these words as the description of one man, not two. Thus “pastor-teacher” refers to a pastor who is a teacher, or to put it as Paul does elsewhere, an “elder … who labor[s] in the word and doctrine” (1 Tim. 5:17). Secondly, the historical context in which Owen and the rest of the Puritans labored helps to explain the sharp distinction they drew between teaching and ruling elders. They were departing from the Anglican prelatical system, in which a person who held an office of authority in the church, but was not a minister of the Word, was basically unheard of. It was unthinkable for many Anglicans that anyone other than a minister of the Word should have such a place of prominence & authority. (There was heated debate in the Westminster Assembly over this issue. Arguing against the introduction of ruling elders, Henry Wilkinson protested, “I have informed myselfe concerning those churches in which the discipline is exercised [i.e. churches with ruling elders]… in some of them 12 lay elders & but one minister & he hath but a single voyce[!]” Thus did the pressure to justify elders who were not preachers and the intense scrutiny they came under pave the way for the imprecise application of one biblical term “pastor” and the development of another term that is extrabiblical “ruling elder”.
Parity of authority.
Parity is the key area of difference between us and Poh Boon Sing. It is also the key area of difference between Poh and John Owen. Parity means equality. With reference to local church elderships, parity refers to parity of authority and means that all the elders, whether they are preachers or not, have the same degree of authority when it comes to the rule of the church. Their authority is not of a lower grade; they are not second in rank to the preaching elder(s).
Poh does not agree that there should be such parity of authority among the elders in a church. He believes that elders who labor in the Word have a higher degree of authority than elders who do not labor in the word. He writes:
The ministry of the word should have primacy (that is, the supreme place, the pre-eminence) in the life of the church. It should have priority (that is, being earlier, occupying the position of greater importance) over other important matters. Of the two types of elders, the teaching elders have the priority over the ruling elders.
The first two sentences in this quotation reflect the conviction of all Reformed Baptists, being no more than assertions of the doctrine of the primacy of the Word of God or the primacy of preaching. The greatest exponents of the primacy of preaching were the Puritans, whose heirs we cannot be without affirming that doctrine and emulating their application of it. Owen certainly upheld the doctrine of the primacy of preaching. He would even have agreed that, because of the importance of the ministry of the Word, those who are continuously engaged in it warrant a degree of honor commensurate with their calling. This is a legitimate application of Paul’s exhortation in 1 Thess. 5:13, to “esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake.” A pastor who labors in the Word and doctrine is employed in the most noble occupation to which a man can be called, and he ought to be esteemed accordingly.
It is a very simple step to proceed from this conviction of the primacy of preaching and the corresponding importance of the preaching office and the value of the men who occupy it to the assertion that the elder who teaches possesses a higher level of authority in the church than the elder who does not. This is the assertion Poh makes in the last sentence in the above quotation: “Of the two types of elders, the teaching elders have the priority over the ruling elders.” But Poh walks alone when he takes that step. He is no longer following Owen, because that is a direction in which the Puritan will by no means go. Owen never argues that, on the basis of the “superiority” of the teaching function, the one who labors in Word and doctrine has greater governing authority. Poh evidently senses this when he attempts to enlist support for his assertion from Owen. He appears to realize that he has no explicit support from Owen here and that the strongest statement he can make is that there “are some indications that Owen did believe in the priority of the ministry” in the sense in which he (Poh) understands it. In fact, there are no such indications in Owen whatsoever.
Owen does indeed address the subject of the relative power or authority of the several elders in the church explicitly and directly. Here is what he says:
The qualification of these [ruling] elders, with the way of their call and setting apart unto their office, being the same with those of the teaching elders before insisted on, need not be here again repeated. 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. Yea, the business of rule being peculiarly committed unto them, and they required to attend thereunto with diligence in an especial manner, the work thereof is principally theirs, as that of labouring in the word and doctrine doth especially belong unto the pastors and teachers of the churches. 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.
Arguing against episcopacy, he writes:
… I shall briefly, as in a diversion, add the arguments which undeniably prove that in the whole New Testament bishops and presbyters, or elders, are every way the same persons, in the same office, have the same function, without distinction in order or degree…
They [ruling elders] are joined unto the teaching elders in all acts and duties of church-power for the rule and government of the church;…. Both sorts of elders are joined and do concur in the same rule and all the acts of it, one sort of them labouring also in the Word and doctrine. Of both sorts is the presbytery or eldership composed, wherein resides all church-authority. And in this conjunction, those of both sorts are every way equal, determining all acts of rule by their common suffrage.
We cannot but conclude that, if anyone is “guilty” of teaching the “absolute equality” of elders when it comes to authority in the church, John Owen is. Moreover, Owen is unmistakably clear and emphatic regarding this point. It is almost as if he were saying, “Read my lips.” Why would he have seen it necessary to be so dogmatic? Three reasons suggest themselves. First, it was difficult for those sympathetic to the prelatical Anglican system to even see the validity of the ruling elder, let alone to admit that one who was not a “minister of the Word” could possess governing authority equal to that of a “minister”. Second, Owen may have anticipated that the sharp distinction he drew between pastor and ruling elder, together with the recognition of the primacy of preaching, might lead some to conclude that the pastor is superior in rule. (Evidently such anticipation was well founded.) He wanted to make it crystal clear that he was in no way implying any such thing. Third, Owen was emphatic regarding parity because he was so vigorously opposed to anything but a parity of power among elders. Since he saw the grave danger of building a niche for a Diotrephes right into the authority structure of the church, he adamantly opposed it and warned against it. Insisting that elders are “the highest officers in the Christian church”, he wrote:
The pope would now scarce take it well to be esteemed only an elder of the church of Rome, unless it be in the sense wherein the Turkish monarch is called the Grand Seignior. But those who would be in the church above elders have no office in it, whatever usurpation they may make over it.
So, John Owen.
One further consideration warrants discussion. Dr. Poh addresses the subject of the manner in which “the priority of the ministry” is applied practically in the governing of the church. He writes:
In all such meetings [of church officers], 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. This is to be so by virtue of the principle of “the priority of the ministry”.
All pastors are elders, but not all elders are pastors. The pastors have the priority over the ruling elders. The pastor (or one of them, if there are more than one pastors) should act as the leading elder.
Owen also addresses this concept of leading elder or chairman of the elders. But once again, when we compare Poh with Owen, we find that he follows the Puritan to a degree-but only to a degree. Poh conflicts with Owen based on the same misunderstanding noted above. Because Poh insists that the pastor, or teaching elder, has de jure authority above that of the non-teaching elder(s), he reasons that when there is even the smallest plurality in an eldership consisting of at least one teaching elder and one non-teaching elder, the teaching elder presides as chairman in their meetings. Owen likewise recognizes the need for one elder to preside in meetings, but he only calls for this “where a church is greatly increased, so as that there is a necessity of many elders in it for its instruction and rule”. Furthermore, whereas Poh grounds the “pastor’s” chairmanship in “the primacy of the ministry”, Owen cites other factors in the determination of this presider, determinants which may be found in any of the elders in the church, regardless of whether he is a teaching elder or not. Owen says that the elders may “take turns” at this duty.
Whether the person that is so to preside be directed unto by being 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 unto the general rules of reason and order, with respect unto the edification of the church.
Note what Owen maintains regarding this presiding function: 1) it is only necessary when a church has “many elders”; 2) determination of who performs it is not based on any superior office which he holds; 3) it does not superadd any additional authority to the one who serves in it; 4) its use neither constitutes nor creates any new or separate office in the church; 5) it is in no way a departure from parity of authority—Owen states this most explicitly in the midst of his discussion of this subject:
[A]mong 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 power or 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. But there is not any intimation in theScripture of the least imparity or inequality, in order, degree, or authority, among officers of the same sort, whether extraordinary or ordinary.
(Owen is so careful to avoid any pitfall that he refrains even from giving a title to the position he describes here.)
Poh Boon Sing’s interpretation of John Owen’s church polity is inaccurate, especially on the key matter of parity in the eldership. His portrayal of the views of other Reformed Baptists is also flawed. Regrettably, he has evidently studied neither well. The Reformed Baptists who have published this volume hold to Owen’s views on the eldership essentially, differing from him basically in terminology. Poh disagrees with Owen on a most vital matter—that of the division of authority among elders in the church.
Owen’s influence is evident in A. N. Martin’s summary statement regarding plurality and parity in the eldership: “The normal framework for the administration of the task of oversight is that of a plurality of scripturally qualified overseers functioning with genuine parity, but with realistic, harmonious, functional diversity.” This is Owen’s view in substance. May we ever guard the deposit handed to us by our godly predecessors, always testing all things by the Scriptures, and holding fast what is good.
A presentation of the parity or equality of elders in the New Testament
Careful Exposition of 1 Timothy 5:17
Pastor Sam Waldron
In any examination and application to our circumstances of a biblical text we must be careful to allow the text to speak for itself first and ask first what its natural sense is. There is a place to re-examine our interpretation of a biblical text on the basis of our practical concerns with regard to the way in which it raises questions or seems to contradict other parts of biblical revelation. Yet we must not allow such concerns too quickly to mold or influence our interpretation of a text lest we read our own systematic theology into every text of the Bible and never learn anything which expands or refines our views.
All this is especially true with regard to 1 Tim. 5:17. We must allow it to speak for itself in its native context. We must not manipulate it early in the interpretive process so as make sure that it raises no questions about deeply held convictions. For this reason I intend to open up this text under two headings:
I. Its Historical and Grammatical Interpretation
II. Its Practical and Ecclesiastical Implications
I. Its Historical and Grammatical Interpretation
The theme of 1 Tim. 5:17 clearly revolves around two unusual phrases used in it by Paul and used nowhere else in the New Testament. Those unusual phrases are double honor and the elders who rule well. We may summarize its theme in the following statement. The theme of 1 Tim. 5:17 is Paul’s direction to Timothy that well-ruling elders should be considered worthy of double honor. Double honor and well-ruling elders are the twin difficulties which must be explained in order to understand the text. The interpretation of this text is properly structured around an examination of the meaning of these phrases. We will, therefore seek to ask and answer two questions about this phrase.
What is double honor?
Who are the well-ruling elders to be considered worthy of double honor?
What is double honor?
The answer to this question must begin by answering the more basic question, What does honor mean in this text? My conviction is that honor here designates giving something of material value to someone as a mark of the value we attach to them and the esteem and respect in which we hold them. In this case the thing of material value is the regular, financial support of the church. This conclusion is supported by both the usage of this word in the New Testament and its usage in 1 Tim. 5:17.
Honor, in the New Testament, often has its usual meaning to us, esteem or respect, but it frequently designates something of material value (Matt. 27:6-9; Acts 4:34; 5:2, 3; 7:16; 19:19). Thayer’s defines the word as follows: 1) a valuing by which the price is fixed 1a) of the price itself 1b) of the price paid or received for a person or thing bought or sold 2) honour which belongs or is shown to one 2a) of the honour which one has by reason of rank and state of office which he holds 2b) deference, reverence. The English word, honorarium, may illustrate how the idea of honor may cross over into the idea of something of material value.
Which of these meanings we should select for the word as it is used in 1 Tim. 5:17 must be determined, of course by the context of its usage there. In this case there is very significant and even determinative data found in the context of 1 Tim. 5:17.
The whole of 1 Timothy has for its theme and purpose the giving of directions to Timothy as to how his ministry in the church at Ephesus should be ordered. This theme is found in 1 Tim. 3:14 and 15, “I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write so that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.” The contents of this epistle may be arranged in terms of this key verse and the purpose it states for this letter. In 2:1-15 Paul’s concern is to give directions about the meetings of the church. In 3:1-13 Paul gives directions concerning the officers of the church. In 4:1-16 Paul addresses Timothy personally and gives him directions concerning himself and his ministry to the church. Chapter 5 continues this theme. With the beginning of chapter 5 Paul begins to give particular directions to Timothy as to how he should order his ministry to certain classes of people in the church. Verses 1 and 2 instruct Timothy as to his ministry to older and younger men and women. 6:1 and 2 gives directions with regard to slaves in the church. 6:3-15 addresses the subject of those advocating a different doctrine. 1 Tim. 6:17-19 tells Timothy how to deal with those in the church who are rich. The following outline may help to make this structure clear.
The Theme of 1 Timothy-Instructions to Timothy about His Ministry to the Church at Ephesus (1 Tim. 3:14-15)
I. Instructions about His Ministry regarding the Overall Organization of the Church (1 Tim. 2:1-3:13)
A. The Services of the Church (1 Tim. 2:1-15)
B. The Offices of the Church (1 Tim. 3:1-13)
II. Instruction about His Ministry to Various Classes in the Church (1 Tim. 4:1-6:19)
A. To Himself (4:1-16)
B. To Different Age Groups (5:1-2)
C. To Widows (5:3-16)
D. To Elders (5:17-25)
E. To Slaves (6:1-2)
F. To Erring Teachers (6:3-5)
G. To Those Who Want To Be Or Are Rich (6:6-19)
In the midst of this treatment of Timothy’s ministry to different classes in the church, Paul deals with the classes of the widows and the elders of the church. These two sections are closely related in two different ways. First, they occur successively. 5:3-16 addresses the subject of widows. 5:17-22 addresses the subject of elders. Second, they both are concerned with the subject of those whom the church financially supports. This is no doubt why they are treated in immediate succession.
What is of great interest to us for our study of honor in 1 Tim. 5:17 is that the subject of financial support is addressed by means of the same root word in 1 Tim. 5:3. Paul begins his treatment of the financial support of widows by using the verbal form of the word translated, honor, in verse 17. He commands, “Honor widows who are widows indeed.” The meaning of this command need not be a matter of any real debate. Paul is commanding that certain widows should be financially supported by the church as a token of the respect and esteem of the church for them.
In particular it is crucial to note that the matter of financial support is inextricably and inseparably bound up with the command to honor the widows. This is put beyond doubt by the succeeding context. In verse 4 Paul proceeds immediately to qualify his command. It is probably that here one of his particular concerns about the situation in Ephesus emerges. Throughout verse 4-16 Paul’s intent is to restrict the practice of financially supporting widows only to widows indeed. That is to say, he restricts support to needy widows-those who are truly destitute of anyone who is able to financially provide for them-and to worthy widows—those who have lived an exemplary and godly life. In all of this it is plain that honoring widows means financially supporting them. Paul restricts this honor to widows indeed—those who do not have families or others who may provide for them (v. 4 and 16). Clearly, simple respect and esteem may be due to many widows who have children who can provide for them. Paul’s point is, however, that the church should not feel an obligation to honor them by way of financial support. Financial support is clearly key to and inseparable from the idea of honor. Furthermore, the idea of financial support is patent in several of the verses which serve to explain and qualify verse 3. It is the idea of making some returnto their parents in verse 4. It is the idea of providing for one’s own in verse 8. It is the idea of assisting them in verse 16.
When with this preceding context Paul speaks of double honor in verse 17 using the same root, it is impossible to extract from the meaning of this word the idea of financial support. All of this is made even more plain by the succeeding context of verse 17. Verse 18 explains and confirms verse 17. Note the conjunction, for. The language of verse 18, however, makes perfectly plain that financial support is essentially involved in the idea of honor in verse 17. Paul cites the words of Deut. 25:4 (“You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.”) also in 1 Cor. 9:9. There the theme is plainly the financial support of ministers of the Word. The phrase “The worker is worthy of his wages”, is cited in all likelihood from the words of Jesus in Luke 10:7 and is used there also of the material support of those who preach the gospel. If language is capable of conveying meaning, then we may be sure that the term, honor, as it is used in this context essentially, inseparably, and inextricably includes financial support. Its meaning is financial support given as a mark of the value and esteem of the church.
This understanding of the meaning of the word, honor, in this context enables us now to address our original question, What is double honor? Two clues unlock the meaning of this unusual phrase. The first is the use of double in the New Testament. The second is the use of honor in 1 Tim. 5:3.
The first clue is the use of double in the New Testament. This word is used only two other times in the New Testament.
Matthew 23:15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel about on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.
Revelation 18:6 Pay her back even as she has paid, and give back to her double according to her deeds; in the cup which she has mixed, mix twice as much for her.
The only occurrence of the verb meaning to double also occurs in Revelation 18:6. Double in these passages is clearly used figuratively. This does not mean, of course, that the word could not be used in a literal fashion, but it does show that it is not at all far-fetched to understand it here in 1 Tim. 5:17 in a figurative way. What is the figurative meaning of double? It is clearly used figuratively to indicate amplitude or great extent. Double honor is, then, ample material or financial support.
The second clue is the use of honor in verse 3. The connection between verse 3 and verse 17 must be underscored at this point. As we have seen earlier, there is the most intimate connection between the preceding section on the financial support or honoring of widows and verses 17 and 18 which also deal with the issue of financial support, the church financially supporting elders. As we have also seen, the thrust of Paul’s comments in verses 3-16 is to the effect that, while really needy widows are to be supported, the church is not to be unnecessarily burdened. This suggests that the church was indeed being unduly burdened with the support of widows in Ephesus. At least, it suggests that there were sentiments at work in the church there that could easily lead in that direction. There is the most natural relationship between this thrust and the thrust of verses 17 and 18. If the church was tending on the one hand to be unduly concerned about the support of widows, it was also exhibiting a tendency to neglect the support of the work of the gospel. Hence, on the one hand Paul warns against unduly burdening the church with the honoring of widows in verses 3-16. Then, immediately after this he directs that double honor should be given to the well-ruling elders. The contrast is, I think, obvious. The problem was evidently a tendency either to neglect supporting such elders at all, or to inadequately support them. Perhaps both of these things were problems. To defeat such a tendency Paul directs that well-ruling elders should be considered worthy of double honor.
We can easily see how such a tendency would arise if we examine some instructions Paul had given to the church at Ephesus in previous years. Remember it is the church in Ephesus in which Timothy is exercising his ministry and about which Paul is instructing him (1 Tim. 1:3). To this church’s leaders Paul had addressed some very powerful words of exhortation which could have had the effect (if taken to an extreme) of producing the very tendencies we see implied in 1 Tim. 5:17. Acts 20:17-38 is one of the classic and most instructive passages in the New Testament on the subject of biblical eldership. Coincidentally, it also provides the historical backdrop which explains the problems Paul addresses in 1 Tim. 5:17.
17 And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church. 18 And when they had come to him, he said to them, “You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house, 21 solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, bound in spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that I may finish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God. 25 And now, behold, I know that all of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will see my face no more. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day, that I am innocent of the blood of all men. 27 For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. 28 Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. 29 I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. 32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes. 34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me. 35 In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.”‘ 36 And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. 37 And they began to weep aloud and embraced Paul, and repeatedly kissed him, 38 grieving especially over the word which he had spoken, that they should see his face no more. And they were accompanying him to the ship.
Let me point out to you a number of basic truths about the eldership implied in this passage which lay the foundation for understanding the backdrop of 1 Tim. 5:17. In Acts 20:
(1) There was a single church in Ephesus which had a plurality of elders (v. 17).
(2) These elders were also called overseers (bishops in Old English) and shepherds (pastors in Old English) (v. 18). No distinction is made between some who were elders and others who were bishops or pastors.
(3) Most (if not all) of these elders worked at ordinary professions and vocations and were not financially supported by the church (v. 33-35). Probably all of these men were originally called to be elders of the church while continuing their labors in the secular vocations in which they had been laboring. Thus, Paul calls upon them to follow his example of tent-making and be examples of working hard with their own hands and giving to the weak.
Now you can see from these instructions how the very situation implied in 1 Tim. 5 could have developed. With Paul’s powerful words on this emotional occasion ringing in their ears, the elders would have been loathe to take any money from the church and careful to the point of excess to care for the weak, the widows being the prime example of this category. Hence, it could easily come to pass that the widow’s benevolence would be taken to the point of excess and ministerial support be minimal or non-existent in the church in Ephesus.
All of this makes abundantly clear that the contrast intended in the text is between honoring widows and double-honoring well-ruling elders. Widows are to be honored (financially). Elders are to be doubly-honored financially. In contrast to widows with their comparatively small needs, well-ruling elders (who as men would have much heavier responsibilities to their families etc.) are to be the objects of a generous and ample material support from the church. Paul’s point is not to be taken with strict literality. As we have seen, the word double is intended figuratively. Yet, the use of the word, double, does make plain that the well-ruling elders are to be supported in a way that greatly exceeds the support given to widows. This, by the way, is the interpretation of Calvin. Here is what he says:
… I think it is more probable that a comparison is here drawn between widows and elders. Paul had formerly enjoined that honour should be paid to widows; but elders are more worthy of being honoured than widows, and, with respect to them, ought to receive double honour. (p. 138)
One of the implications of this exegesis must now be pointed out. The contrast in the text is not between honoring all (the rest of) the elders and double honoring well-ruling elders. The contrast is between honoring widows and double-honoring well-ruling elders. It may be natural for us to assume that Paul is contrasting honoring elders and double-honoring well-ruling elders. But this is a contrast about which the text is simply silent. It is serious exegetical mistake to exegete 1 Tim. 5:17 in terms of a contrast about which the text is completely silent, while ignoring the clear and patent contrast instituted by Paul himself between honoring widows and double-honoring well-ruling elders.
Now having dealt with the question, What is double honor?, we must now address the issue of…
Who are the well-ruling elders to be considered worthy of double honor?
The answer which Paul gives to this question is in itself clear. Those to be doubly-honored are clearly well-ruling elders. At this point, however, two issues raised by this apparently clear answer must be addressed. On the one side, we must ask the question, What does he mean to imply about the rest of the elders who are not included in the phrase, well-ruling elders? On the other side, we must ask the question, How are “those who work hard at preaching and teaching” related to the class called well-ruling elders?
What does Paul mean to imply about the rest of the elders who are not included in the phrase, well-ruling elders? The difficulty here is that there is a possible contrast between the elders who rule well and the elders who rule badly. Does Paul mean to say that the rest of the elders rule badly and are not therefore to be financially supported? Possible support for this opinion might be gleaned from the succeeding context which speaks of elders who “continue in sin” (vv. 19, 20).
While elders “who continue in sin” certainly would be included among the general class of the elders who do not rule well, it is wrong and unnecessary to think that the contrast here is between well-ruling elders and badly-ruling elders.
In the first place, it seems quite unlikely that Paul would set up a situation by such language (if it is intended to contrast well and badly) in which every non-supported elder would be viewed as ruling badly. But this is exactly what anyone who assumes such a contrast would be asserting that Paul is doing. If in response to this letter an elder was not considered worthy of double-honor, then the implication would be that he was ruling ineptly or badly.
In the second place, the meaning of the word, well, clearly allows a different interpretation. Thayer’s gives this definition of the word, well: 1) beautifully, finely, excellently, well la) rightly, so that there shall be no room for blame, well, truly lb) excellently, nobly, commendably 1c) honourably, in honour 1c1) in a good place, comfortable 1d) to speak well of one, to do good le) to be well (of those recovering health). Clearly, this definition shows that the word is susceptible of conveying a superlative force. The well-ruling elder is, then, the excellently ruling elder. The contrast, then, would be on this translation between excellently ruling elders and other good and qualified elders. In the following usages of this word in the New Testament it appears to have this force. The Greek word, well, used in 1 Tim. 5:17 is in bold type in each text.
Matthew 15:7 You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying,
Mark 7:6 And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME.’
Mark 7:9 He was also saying to them, “You nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.”
Mark 7:37 And they were utterly astonished, saying, “He has done all things well; He makes even the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak.”
Mark 12:28 And one of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?”
Mark 12:32 And the scribe said to Him, “Right, Teacher, You have truly stated that HE IS ONE; AND THERE IS NO ONE ELSE BESIDES HIM;
Luke 20:39 And some of the scribes answered and said, “Teacher, You have spoken well.”
Acts 28:25 And when they did not agree with one another, they began leaving after Paul had spoken one parting word, “The Holy Spirit rightly spoke through Isaiah the prophet to your fathers,”
Romans 11:20Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear;
1 Corinthians 7:37 But he who stands firm in his heart, being under no constraint, but has authority over his own will, and has decided this in his own heart, to keep his own virgin daughter, he will do well.
2 Corinthians 11:4 For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully.
1 Tim. 3:1 It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.
1 Tim. 3:13 For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
James 2:3 and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,”
Furthermore, the emphasis of Paul in this verse is not upon grace, but gift. He speaks generally of ruling and especially of teaching. The Bible makes clear teaching and ruling are gifts that are given in greatly varying degrees to different men (Rom. 12:7, 8; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11). The lack of a high degree of such gifts does not disparage the character or disqualify the person of an elder who does not possess them. Furthermore, it is unlikely in the extreme given the economic situation of the early church that Paul means to direct that every qualified elder should be considered worthy of generous financial support by the church. The church at Ephesus had many elders (Acts 20:17; 1 Tim. 5:17-22) all of whom (apparently) at one point in its life were working to support themselves (Acts 20:34, 35). It is better, then, to recognize in the adverb, well, a superlative or comparative sense which is intended to contrast not good and bad, but good, better, and best.
What things, then, might keep a man from being a well-ruling elder? Many things that do not disparage his character and general qualifications for the office at all. Such things might include the lack of strong gifts of leading and teaching, the lack of a good education to refine such natural gifts, circumstances like age or ill-health, distractions like an unusual family or work situation, or inexperience due to comparative youthfulness and immaturity. None of these things disqualify a man from the eldership, but they may hinder his being described as an excellently ruling elder.
In conclusion we may say that implicit in Paul’s reference to well-ruling elders is the idea that the well-ruling elders are an inner circle in a larger circle of good and qualified elders.
Paul’s reference to well-ruling elders is not only implicitly contrasted with a larger circle of qualified elders, but it is also explicitly contrasted with a smaller circle within the circle of well-ruling elders. Paul’s language conveys this: “especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” Especially those well-ruling elders who labor in the Word and teaching, the public ministry of the Word, are to be supported. Paul’s thought may be illustrated by means of two concentric circles. The outer circle encompasses all well-ruling elders. The inner circle encompasses those elders who (are gifted to) “work hard at preaching and teaching.” Financial support (double honor) must be focused in the inner circle and radiate outward as the necessity and ability of the church makes this appropriate.
A question has been raised occasionally about the meaning of the word, especially, which Paul uses here. Some have thought it might mean specifically. If this were the case, it would result in the possible identification of all well-ruling elders as “those who work hard at preaching and teaching”. The fact is that there is no lexical evidence for this meaning. Neither is it required in any of its usages in either the LXX or the New Testament. With one voice the lexicons attribute a superlative force to the word and ascribe to it the meaning, especially, in this context.
II. Its Practical and Ecclesiastical Implications
A. Questions to be Answered
1. Doesn’t this imply that all the rest of the qualified elders besides those who are described as well-ruling elders should be singly honored, that is financially supported to some extent?
I have two comments on this question. First, if the text did imply this, it would not be such an horrendous thing. Let me explain what I mean. If all elders were remunerated in a basic way for their labors for the church, it might be just and would not need to be an undue burden on the church if handled properly. If a non-vocational elder consistently spends 15 hours per week on eldership duties, there would be nothing wrong or impossible about remunerating him on a part-time basis. Second, the fact is, however, that the text does not imply that all elders should be honored. Let me repeat what I said about this in the earlier exposition.
I have argued that the meaning of double honor in verse 17 is inseparably related to the meaning of honor in 1 Tim. 5:3. As we have also seen, the thrust of Paul’s comments in verses 3-16 is to the effect that, while really needy widows are to be supported, the church is not to be unnecessarily burdened with the financial support of other widows. This suggests that the church was indeed being unduly burdened with the support of widows in Ephesus. There is the most natural relationship between this thrust and the thrust of verses 17 and 18. If the church was tending on the one hand to be unduly concerned about the support of widows, it was also exhibiting a tendency to neglect the support of the work of the gospel. Hence, on the one hand Paul warns against unduly burdening the church with the honoring of widows in verses 3-16. Then, immediately after this he directs that double honor should be given to the well-ruling elders. The contrast is, I think, obvious. The problem was evidently a tendency either to neglect supporting such elders at all, or to inadequately support them. Perhaps both of these things were problems. To defeat such a tendency Paul directs that well-ruling elders should be considered worthy of double honor.
All of this makes abundantly clear that the contrast intended in the text is between honoring widows and double-honoring well-ruling elders. Widows are to be honored (financially). Elders are to be doubly-honored financially. In contrast to widows with their comparatively small needs, well-ruling elders are to be the objects of a generous and ample material support from the church. This is the interpretation of Calvin.
… I think it is more probable that a comparison is here drawn between widows and elders. Paul had formerly enjoined that honour should be paid to widows; but elders are more worthy of being honoured than widows, and, with respect to them, ought to receive double honour. (p. 138)
The contrast in the text is not between honoring all (the rest of) the elders and double honoring well-ruling elders. The contrast is between honoring widows and double-honoring well-ruling elders. It may be natural for us to assume that Paul is contrasting honoring elders and double-honoring well-ruling elders. But this is a contrast about which the text is simply silent. It is serious exegetical mistake to exegete 1 Tim. 5:17 in terms of a contrast about which the text is completely silent, while ignoring the clear and patent contrast instituted by Paul himself between honoring widows and double-honoring well-ruling elders. If this is appreciated, then there is no need to struggle to avoid the implication that Paul would have all elders honored by way of financial support.
It seems to me that the source of a lot of misunderstanding of this passage is the failure to keep distinct two different issues in the text. Those two issues are the issue of financial honor and the issue of diverse elders.
2. Doesn’t this imply that the supported elders of the church should be drawn only from those who are elders and already ruling well?
Here someone has latched on to the fact that Paul says that double honor is for those who are already ruling well. Does this mean, then, that it is wrong to give double honor to anyone who does not have some experience already as an elder? Does it mean that it is wrong for a church to call and immediately support a man right out of seminary who has never been an elder? I have several comments on this.
First, it is certainly a valuable thing for any man who would labor fulltime as an elder to grow into that responsible position by working, if possible, as a part-time elder first. If the text did, indeed, imply that this was necessary it would not be so awful an implication. It might save the church of Christ a lot of grief.
Second, in fact, however, the text does not imply any such thing. The text makes a positive statement. It commands that well-ruling elders be considered worthy of double honor. The text does not make a negative statement. It does not say that only well-ruling elders may be remunerated by the church. He does not say that the church may not support widows, church secretaries, or even men who are not elders. He does not even say that no one else is worthy of generous financial support. The positive statement does not necessarily infer the negative prohibition. Double honor well-ruling elders does not itself logically imply double honor no one else. Thus, the text does not teach that others may not be worthy of generous, financial support.
Third, Paul is in all likelihood addressing a situation which was to some extent wrong and in need of correction. Remember that he had to correct a tendency in the previous verses too broadly to support widows. Now it is likely in our text that he is correcting a tendency too inadequately to support well-ruling elders. It is very possible that well-ruling elders were, in effect, working two jobs in order to serve the church and also feed their families. It is also possible that well-ruling elders were being supported inadequately—at a rate which was more akin to widow’s support than double honor. Thus, Paul may be correcting neglect on the part of the church in Ephesus. If this is the case, it is possible that he would have said that such men should have been supported so soon as they became elders because their excellent gifts and graces and usefulness were already manifest. Thus, there is absolutely no reason to think that Paul is requiring a man to work as a non-supported elder before he is supported.
3. Does this passage imply a three office view of the church with pastors or ministers, elders, and deacons?
I ask this question because this passage comes the closest of any passage in the New Testament to justifying a distinction between elders and pastors. It does distinguish between all the elders, the well-ruling elders, and those who labor in the Word. It would be easy to see this last group as the so-called pastors or ministers.
Still this passage clearly does not teach the so-called three-office view of the church. The only official designation found in it is “elder”. When Paul comes to speak of those who are potentially or actually vocational pastors, that is to say, supported ministers of the Word, he gives no special title to that privilege or function. He speaks only of “elders who rule well” and “those who work hard at preaching and teaching”. The implication of this is that there is no official distinction between elders and vocational pastors or ministers of the Word.
4. Doesn’t this passage imply a distinction between ruling and teaching elders?
This passage allows at best ambivalence about the terminology which distinguishes ruling and teaching elders. Sometimes we name and distinguish things by means of their dominant characteristics without intending to draw a hard and fast distinction. If this is all that someone means by this terminology there is no difficulty with what they mean by it. Clearly, there are in this text elders that are distinguished by being excellently ruling elders. Clearly, there are elders whose dominant characteristic is that they labor diligently in preaching and teaching. If we remember that despite these dominant characteristics, all elders must both rule and teach I have no problem.
On the other hand, this passage does not (strictly speaking) teach a distinction between ruling and teaching elders. Paul does not say some elders do not teach at all. If he had said this, he would have contradicted what he said in I Tim. 3:2 about all elders having to be “able to teach”. If the implication of the ruling/teaching elder distinction is that some elders only rule and do not teach, then this distinction is not taught in the passage. Furthermore, Paul does not say that some elders only teach, but do not rule. This would flatly contradict the whole thrust of the passage which is to the effect that those who work hard at preaching and teaching are found in the circle of those who rule well. We can only use the ruling elder/teaching elder distinction if we remind ourselves constantly that all elders both teach and rule, or they are not true elders.
Finally, this terminology is somewhat deficient because it does not adequately account for the diversity found in the passage. There is not a two-fold, but actually a threefold distinction found in this passage. The passage provides for what some would call a ruling elder to be a full-time or vocational pastor. The ruling/teaching elder distinction does not adequately account for the diversity of Paul’s conception.
B. Lessons to be Applied
All of the lessons mentioned here are built on one fundamental insight which is brought out clearly by this passage. That insight is that there is such an officer in the church which may be called a non-supported or non-vocational pastor. In other words, not all pastors of the church need to be either actually or potentially supported, full-time preachers. Some pastors are “ruling elders” (if the phrase is properly defined). We have seen this reality in a number of ways. First, we have seen that Acts 20:33-35 clearly implies that most or all of the numerous elders at Ephesus originally worked with their own hands and were not supported (certainly not on a full-time basis) by the church. Second, we have seen that the phrase, well or excellently ruling elders in 1 Tim. 5:17 contains an implicit contrast not with badly ruling elders, but with the rest of the qualified elders. 1 Tim. 5:17 is silent about the subject of such elders being honored or supported, and it clearly restricts double honor to excellently ruling elders. Third, by use of the word especially (in the phrase, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching) Paul focuses the financial support of the church upon those elders especially gifted at the public ministry of the Word. Practically, this would have the effect that some excellently ruling elders–though considered worthy of double honor—would not actually be supported by the church. The priority for the financial support of elders which Paul states here has the effect by itself of creating a class of elders frequently not supported by the church. Fourth, if such excellently ruling elders were supported it would not be because they are professional or vocational preachers. In itself this proves that an eldership need not be composed only of vocational or professional ministers of the Word.
This implies that great diversity of gift, function, and support is permissible and even normal among the qualified pastors of a church. The eldership Paul conceives in 1 Tim. 5:17 consists of three concentric circles of men: all elders, all well-ruling elders, and all the well-ruling elders who work hard at preaching and teaching.
This implies that elderships should not be restricted by the church to supported preachers. It implies that ability to function as a supported preacher is not a biblical qualification for the eldership. It requires that a church repent of requiring such a qualification if indeed it make such demands on potential elders. If a mature church has only supported preachers as elders, it could be an indication of wrong attitudes and/or understanding in the church.
This implies that a larger church may occasionally support an elder who does not “work hard at preaching and teaching”, but exercises a valuable and excellent ministry in other respects.
This implies that the elders which a church views as worthy of double honor and commits itself actually to support should be supported amply or generously and be given much more than (double) the basic financial sustenance given to a widow.
This implies that there is a distinction found in our text between vocational pastor and a non-vocational pastor. Some elders rule well as compared to other qualified elders. These elders are to be viewed as worthy of double honor. According to the church’s ability they are to be amply financially supported so that they can work at their ministry full-time. This makes them vocational pastors. A man’s vocation should be determined (ideally) on the basis of what gifts and skills and opportunities God has given him. A man who rules well manifests that God has given him sufficient gift to pursue the pastorate as a vocation. So all well-ruling elders are potentially vocational pastors and all such who are actually given double honor are actually vocational pastors.
Clearly, then, there is a distinction in the eldership between those who are qualified pastors, and even well-ruling elders, and those who are vocational pastors-supported by the church to pursue the pastoral ministry full-time. Again, the implication is plain. A church and eldership which has only vocational pastors is a very unusual and abnormal church and eldership in New Testament. Potential to be a vocational pastor must not be made a qualification for the eldership.
Appendix: THE USE OF HONOR IN 1 TIM. 6:1 AND 2 AND ITS IMPACT ON THE MEANING OF HONOR IN 1 TIM. 5:17
Having read the foregoing treatment of the meaning of honor in 1 Tim. 5:17, a discerning person might well ask this question: What about the use of honor in 1 Tim. 6:1 and 2?
1 Let all who are under the yoke as slaves regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine may not be spoken against. 2 And let those who have believers as their masters not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but let them serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these principles.
You can see the concern of this question. It seems clear that in this text-especially verse 2honor means respect. I argued on the basis of the context that honor does mean respect or esteem, but something of material value given as a token of esteem or respect. But here is a close contextual use of honor which seems to have the meaning respect. Does that not raise doubts about my explanation of honor in 1 Tim. 5:17? That is a good question, and to that good question I have four responses.
First, I want simply to remind you that we saw clear and conclusive evidence from both 1 Tim. 5:3-16 and 1 Tim. 5:18 that honor clearly means something of financial value.
Second, it must be remembered that 1 Tim. 5:3 is more closely related to 1 Tim. 5:17 than 1 Tim. 6:1. Both 5:3 and 5:17 are talking about those who are worthy of being honored by the church. 6:1 is talking about slaves honoring their masters, a much different subject.
Third, it is not true that honor in 1 Tim. 6:1 has nothing to do with something of material value. The service or labor which a slave renders to his master is of great, financial value to the master. Rendering such service which is of benefit to the master is one thing that Paul intends by saying that slaves should regard their own masters as worthy of all honor. Notice the words of verse 2: “let them serve them all the more because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved.”
Fourth, there is a relationship between these three uses of honor in this context, but it is one which proves that honor in the first two occurrences means something of financial value. Notice the progression in 5:3, 5:17; and 6:1: honor, double honor, all honor. The phrase, all honor, in 1 Tim. 6:1 is used because Paul intends to broaden the meaning of honor in 1 Tim. 6:1 and 2. Previously, honor had meant something of material value. Now Paul adds to that meaning of honor, respect (v. 2). To the material honor, financial support, Paul adds the immaterial honor, respect. Hence, he speaks of “all honor.”
Does this contextual usage of honor, then, raise doubt about the explanation that honor means something of material value? No, far from it! Properly understood the use of honor in 1 Tim. 6:1 and 2 actually further confirms the idea that in the preceding context honor has essential and primary reference to something of material value given as a token of esteem or respect. The phrase, all honor, deliberately broadens the idea from something of material value to include the idea of respect.
A presentation of the parity or equality of elders in the New Testament
An Exegetical Defense of the Parity of the Eldership in the New Testament
Pastor Sam Waldron
As we have seen, Poh Boon Sing teaches that there is a distinction between pastors and elders. To be specific, Poh teaches that all pastors are elders, but that not all elders are pastors. To put this yet another way Poh teaches that there are two types or classes of elders: teaching elders (also called pastors or ministers) and ruling elders. This might appear to mean that he is teaching the three-office view of church government. But to be scrupulously fair, Poh’s view is not that simple. He would say rather that in one sense there are two offices and in another sense there are three offices.
He is not alone in holding or assuming this distinction. This distinction is held or at least assumed by many in their views of church government. It was, however, Poh’s assertions that moved me to re-study the whole issue of whether any distinction exists in the Scriptures between pastors and elders. In this study I re-examined every occurrence of the roots of pastor and teacher in the New Testament. The results of this re-examination are presented in this chapter. The question which this paper addresses, then, is simply this: Is there a distinction made in the New Testament between the pastor-teacher and the other elders? To put the same question in other words, Are there two types or classes of elders: teaching and ruling elders?
The key text on this subject is Eph. 4:11. It is the only text in the New Testament where the noun, pastor or shepherd, is used of an office in the church. I do not disagree with Poh about the fact that there are four not five classes of ministry mentioned here. This is clear from the fact that the Greek leaves out the word some before the fifth description, teacher. There are only four classes distinguished here. The pastor and teacher are the same person or office. The correct translation to bring this out would be “pastors even teachers” or better yet “pastor-teachers.” The Greek allows and even suggests such a translation.
Where we disagree about this text is with regard to the relation of these pastor-teachers to the elders of the church. Do these words describe a special class of elders in the church or are they simply a description of what are in other words, the elders of the church? Are these the teaching elders as opposed to the ruling elders? Or are they simply the elders of the church described here as pastor-teachers?
Before we attempt to display the New Testament answer to this question, there is a matter of clarification which must be addressed. There are three major Greek words related to this study:
Ποιμην, επισκοπος, πρεσβυτερος
The View defended here is that each of these three terms refer to the same office in the church. The confusing thing is that each of these three terms can be and have been translated in two distinct ways. Note the following diagram:
ENGLISH TRANSLATION: THE SAME GREEK WORDS FOR CHURCH OFFICERS ARE OFTEN TRANSLATED DIFFERENTLY IN TRANSLATIONS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT.
OLDER ENGLISH = Pastor………………..MODERN TRANSLATION = Shepherd
OLDER ENGLISH = Bishop………………..MODERN TRANSLATION = Overseer
OLDER ENGLISH = Presbyter……………..MODERN TRANSLATION = Elder
OFFICIAL DISTINCTION: ALL SIX OF THESE ENGLISH TERMS DESIGNATE ONE AND THE SAME OFFICE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
The Pastors=The Bishops=The Presbyters
The Shepherds=The Overseers=The Elders
The outline of our study is suggested by Eph. 4:11 itself. The meaning of two Greek words are disputed in Eph. 4:11: the word translated pastor and the word translated teacher. The most disputed and important is, of course, pastor, but we will double-check our study of this word by examining the relation of the office of teacher to the office of elder. We will examine the New Testament to see whether either one of them are used in such a way as to justify a distinction between pastors and elders or whether they are used in such a way as to indicate that elders and pastors hold one and the same office.
Section 1: The Ecclesiastical Significance of Ποιμην and Its Relatives in the New Testament
I. The Use of the Noun Meaning Shepherd
In Luke 2:8, 15, 18, 20 there are references to the literal shepherds who visited the baby Jesus the night He was born. In Matt. 9:36 and Mark 6:34 there are references to the multitudes who are like ‘sheep having no shepherd’. This is probably a veiled reference to the Lord Jesus. All the other uses in the New Testament except one are references to the Lord Jesus as the Shepherd of His sheep (Matt. 25:32; 26:31; Luke 14:27; John 10:2,11, 12, 14, 16; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25).
The only use of the term, shepherd, in the new Testament to refer to an ecclesiastical function or office is found in Eph. 4:11. In that passage pastor-teachers (the best way to translate the Greek here, since teachers is epexegetical of pastors) are mentioned in a series with other positions of authority in the early church: apostles, prophets, and evangelists. Since these other positions were temporary, pastor-teachers are the only permanent office in the church referred to in the passage. There is clearly no explicit contrast instituted here between pastor-teachers and ‘ruling elders’ in this passage. This passage provides no evidence by itself for a distinction between pastor-teachers and other elders in the church. It cannot, therefore, be a proof-text for that position which posits such a distinction. Such a distinction must be justified or rejected from the teaching of the rest of the New Testament.
As we have seen, 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. Thus, he wants us to assume that there is a clear and important distinction between the use of the noun and the verb in the New Testament. This is his defense against (the apparently obvious conclusion to be drawn from these passages) that in them elders and overseers are identified as pastors. When Poh makes such an important distinction between the noun and the verb meaning shepherd, the unwary might think that there are many uses of both the noun and the verb in the New Testament an examination of which would justify this crucial distinction of Poh’s. The fact is that the only ecclesiastical use of the noun shepherd in the New Testament is found in Eph. 4:11. There are no other ecclesiastical uses of the noun from which to discern the meaning of the word or to justify a distinction between pastors and elders. We are not, therefore, wrong to inquire as to the ecclesiastical use or meaning of the verb meaning to shepherd in the New Testament. The meaning and use of the verb is, in fact, a critical part of the New Testament data relative to whether there is a distinction between pastors and elders.
II. The Use of the Verb Meaning To Shepherd
Matt. 2:6; Rev. 2:27; 7:17; 12:5; 19:15 are Messianic and refer to Jesus shepherding His people or the nations. John 21:16 is the admonition to Peter to shepherd Christ’s sheep. The verb, shepherd, is used in parallel here with a verb (Βοσκω) which means to tend or feed (notice John 21:15, 17). Jude 12 speaks of false teachers in the church who “shepherd themselves”.
There are three uses of this verb in the New Testament of more direct ecclesiastical relevance and which may shed light on a distinction between pastors and elders in the New Testament: Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 9:7; 1 Pet. 5:2.
Acts 20:28 occurs in Paul’s address to the leaders of the church in Ephesus. These leaders are described in Acts 20:17 as elders (or presbyters) and in Acts 20:28 as overseers (or bishops). Paul commands these elder-overseers to “shepherd” the church of God. Their position as shepherds in the midst of the church of God is emphasized by the twofold use of the related word (It is derived from the same root as shepherd.), flock, in vv. 28 and 29. According to verse 28 they are to be on guard for themselves and for all the flock among which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers. According to verse 29 they are to do this wary of the danger of savage wolves coming and not sparing the flock. Though Paul has not explicitly used the noun, shepherd, here to refer to the elderoverseers of this passage, it is patent that he would have had no difficulty in doing so. He tells all the elder-overseers to shepherd and to shepherd that which bears to them the relation of the flock which they are to guard. Clearly, this passage is completely opposed to any distinction between elders and pastors.
1 Cor. 9:7 is Paul’s defense of his rights as one who labors in the ministry of the gospel to be remunerated for his labors. He uses the verb, to shepherd, once in this defense and the noun, flock, twice. The implication would appear to be that the work of shepherding is worthy of financial remuneration. We must remind ourselves, however, that in this context Paul is clearly thinking only of those who have been set aside to shepherd God’s flock full-time (cf. 9:1-14). At any rate this passage says nothing about a supposed distinction between pastors and elders.
1 Pet. 5:2 contains an exhortation to the elders of the churches to which Peter the Apostle is writing. Peter identifies himself also as an elder thus intimating that he is not using the term, elder, to refer merely to an older and respected man, but to an office of the church. The elders are here commanded to do two things. They are, first, to oversee the church. The verb used is derived from the same root used in the New Testament to refer to the office of overseer or bishop. Thus, the plain implication of a number of other New Testament passages that elders are bishops (overseers) is confirmed.
The second command issued to these elders is that they are to shepherd the church. We must observe that the church is described twice here by means of the figurative use of the word, flock, (1 Pet. 5:2, 3). As before in Acts 20 both the verb related to shepherd and the noun related to shepherd meaning flock are used. Clearly, elders who are to oversee and shepherd that which is to be considered by them as the flock of God must here be regarded as shepherds or pastors. 1 Pet. 5:2 is also, therefore, utterly opposed to any distinction between elders and pastors or shepherds.
Section 2: The Ecclesiastical Significance of Διδασκαλος and Its Relatives in the New Testament
We found in the study of shepherd in the New Testament that in only one place was it used in its noun form to describe an office in the church. That place was Eph. 4:11. In Eph. 4:11 another noun is used (epexegetically) to further define the work of a pastor. It is the word, teacher. It is important, therefore, to examine this word as well.
We have found that there is no reason to distinguish in any way officially between elders, overseers, and pastors in the New Testament. Indeed, there is every reason simply to identify the office of elder (presbyter) with the office of overseer (bishop) with the office of shepherd (pastor). In itself this implies very clearly that no official distinction is to be made between an office of teacher in the church and the office of elder. Yet in order further to vindicate and clarify the biblical equation of the offices of pastor, bishop, and presbyter it will be well to look at the ecclesiastical significance of ‘teacher’ in the New Testament.
I. The Use of the Noun Meaning Teacher
Διδασκαλος is used approximately 58 times in the New Testament. The vast majority of these uses occur in the gospels (48 times) and are a title of the Lord Jesus Christ (38 times) or a reference to Him (4 times). The other uses in the gospels refer to the Jewish teachers of the law (Luke 2:46; John 3:10) or occur in the saying found in Matt. 10:24, 25 and Luke 6:40: “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become as his teacher, and the slave as his master…”
None of the uses in the gospels are references to an ecclesiastical office in the church, but they are instructive in some other respects. Again-as with shepherd, overseer, and elder-the term, teacher, is first of all and preeminently a title of the Lord Jesus. There is then a sense in which the teacher in the church represents or stands in the place of Christ. The use of the term, teacher, to refer to the Jewish doctors of the law is also instructive. It tells us that inseparable from being a teacher is thorough knowledge of the teaching of the Scriptures. The uses in Matt. 10:24, 25 and Luke 6:40 indicate that a teacher occupies a position of authority over against his students (who are called his disciples). The use of teacher and disciples is suggestive when applied to the church.
The other ten references in the New Testament are more instructive. Rom. 2:20 refers to a Jew who regards himself as a teacher of the law. In 1 Tim. 2:7 and 2 Tim. 1:11 Paul describes himself as a teacher in his apostolate to the Gentiles. 2 Tim. 4:3 speaks of professing Christians who will heap to themselves teachers. Heb. 5:12 is the rebuke of those addressed in the epistle that “by this time you ought to be teachers”. Yet instead of being capable of instructing others in the faith, they are still immature. This is clearly not a reference to an office in the church or a special gift to teach, since it is the generality of Christians (including women) who are addressed.
This last point is particularly plain when we come to the first of the passages which make more particular reference to what may be an office or special function in the church which we should try to imitate today. James 3:1 warns, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment.” James is clearly thinking of a limited class of men within the church (of the gatherings of which he has just been speaking). This is clear from the fact that he identifies himself as a teacher, warns against many becoming teachers, and announces a stricter judgment for this class of men. It must be noticed that there is no distinction in this passage between teachers and other elders. The assumption, in fact, probably runs in the other direction.
Acts 13:1 speaks of the leadership of the church in Antioch as consisting of “prophets and teachers”. The term, prophets, refers (as it does without exception in the New Testament) to those who are (or claim to be) the recipients of direct or supernatural revelation from God. In other words, it refers to those who have the extraordinary gift of prophecy and were resident in the church at Antioch. The term, teachers, then, refers to those who possessed the ordinary gift of teaching the Word of God and labored officially in the ministry for the church at Antioch. Each of the leaders of the church at Antioch, then, was one who proclaimed the Word of God as a matter of gift and office. The only difference is that some were prophets, and others were teachers. It must be noticed that there is no distinction in this passage between teachers and other elders. These prophets and teachers may have constituted the whole leadership of the church in Antioch.
1 Cor. 12:28, 29 also mentions prophets in conjunction with teachers. Again the distinction is clearly between those with the extraordinary gift of prophecy and those with the ordinary gift of teaching. Here, however, the emphasis is not upon offices, but upon gifts or functions in the body of Christ. Many of the other gifts mentioned in these verses clearly do not refer to offices in the church. The body imagery of the context (1 Cor. 12:12-27) in which each member of the body is said to have a special function also makes this clear. Since the functions of all the members of the body are under discussion, the subject of offices in the church cannot be Paul’s subject.
It is for this reason that nothing certain with regard to ecclesiastical offices can be deduced from the separate mention of the gift of “administrations” in v. 28. This is the only occurrence of the word in the New Testament. Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich give the translation “administrations” and says that the plural “indicates proofs of ability to hold a leading position in the church”. A related word used twice in the New Testament (Acts 27:11; Rev. 18:17) means ‘pilot’ or ‘shipmaster’. Thus, the idea of leadership is clearly contained in the word. It is clear from verse 28 that teaching and administration are two distinct gifts. It is certainly not clear that they represent two distinct offices or even two classes within one office. In fact, since both 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 mention both leadership and teaching ability as necessary for the office of overseer or elder, the assumption should rather be that some measure of both gifts is necessary to be an elder-overseer in the church. There is no indication, therefore, in this passage that any distinction exists between the office of teacher and the office of elder.
This discussion has included all the uses of the word translated, teacher, in Eph. 4:11. We must conclude from it that there is no reason in any of these passages to deduce a distinction between the offices of teacher and elder in the church. There are, in fact, good reasons to infer exactly the opposite.
II. The Use of Related Words Having to Do with Teaching in the New Testament
Of the many uses of relative words to Διδασκαλος in the New Testament the following have some relevance to the subject at hand.
A. Romans 12:7
Like 1 Cor. 12:28, 29, Rom. 12:7 is dealing with spiritual gifts and not directly with the subject of office in the church (Rom. 12:3, 6). The Apostle’s exhortation is that the one with a teaching gift (ο διδασκων – a relative of the word we are considering) should be “in the teaching”, that is to say, he should give himself to his teaching. Later in verse 8 the Apostle mentions the gift of leading (οπροισταμενος) and exhorts the one with this gift to lead with diligence.
The fact that Paul regards these two gifts as distinct is undeniable. This distinction has seemed to not a few to justify the idea of a distinction between a ruling elder and a teaching elder. Yet again we must insist on the fact that the distinction of the gifts does not require a distinction in the office. Office and gift as everyone must recognize-are two different things.
The conclusion that there is some sort of official or qualitative distinction between a pastor and an elder or a teaching elder and a ruling elder is, however, not simply unnecessary. It is in light of 1 Tim. 3:1-7 downright wrong. For the fact is that in the qualifications for the office of elder-overseer in that passage the elder as a part of the qualifications for the office is required to be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2–the same root used in Rom. 12:7) and able to rule (1 Tim. 3:4, 5 -the same root as is used in Rom. 12:8). Clearly, all elders must possess both the gifts of teaching and ruling. The only difference allowable is one of degree. A difference in degree of gift does not and cannot justify an official distinction between teaching and ruling elders.
B. 1 Tim. 3:2 (cf. 2 Tim. 2:24; Titus 1:9)
Amidst the qualifications for the overseership (or eldership) found in 1 Tim. 3:1-7 is found the qualification, able to teach (the translation of the NASB of the Greek word, διδακτικος. This word is used only twice in the New Testament: here and in 2 Tim. 2:24. It is, of course, derived from the same root as the word for teacher in Eph. 4:11. Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich defines it as ‘skillful in teaching’. Louw and Nida define it as ‘pertaining to being able to teach’. The parallel use in 2 Tim. 2:24 seems to emphasize that “the servant of the Lord” must have the proper spirit of a teacher and be full of patience and gentleness and not quarrelsome even when wronged and opposed. Also associated with being able to teach are two other traits. The first is the refusal to engage in the kind of speculations which only produce quarrels and divisions (v. 23). The true teacher has a sense of orthodoxy and priority. The other is the realization that God must be the great teacher or else human instruction will do no good (vv. 25, 26). The true teacher is a man of humility before God.
The description of “the servant of the Lord” as one who is able to teach is significant for our study. We suppose that it will be admitted on all hands that the servant of the Lord describes someone who, whatever in addition he may be, is certainly a pastor. The use of διδακτικος to describe such a one strengthens our conclusion that no distinction is to be made between the ordinary elder or overseer of 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and the pastor-teacher.
Also important in the interpretation of 1 Tim. 3 is the parallel listing of the qualifications of the eldership given in Titus 1:5-9. Three terms are used in parallel to describe the office under discussion in Titus 1: elder (v. 5), overseer (v. 7), steward (v. 7). The qualification ‘able to teach’ is not given explicitly in this list of the qualifications. Yet the idea or concept is clearly present in verses 9-11 where Paul insists that an elder must hold sound doctrine (a word with the same root as the Greek word, teacher) in such a way as to be able to use it both positively and polemically — “to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict”. Clearly, the elder-overseer-steward of Titus 1 is and must be a teacher. Confirming this conclusion is the use of the term, steward. This term as it is elsewhere used in the New Testament clearly describes one who is charged to feed the people of God with instruction in the Word of God (Luke 12:42; 1 Cor. 4:1, 2; 1 Pet. 4:10).
C. 1 Tim. 5:17
This is perhaps the most important passage in the debate about teaching and ruling elders or the pastor/elder distinction. It deserves the expanded discussion that it will be given in the next chapter. Yet its major instruction is clear with regard to the issue at hand.
First, it clearly does not make a distinction between the office of pastor and other elders. This terminological distinction is absent from the passage. True, we may be used to calling the elder of the church who works hard at preaching and teaching a pastor and calling the other overseers just elders. Yes, we may easily read that understanding into this passage, but there is utterly no justification for that in this passage itself. Two obvious facts about the passage should wake us out of our dogmatic slumbers and into the realization that this passage does not teach the pastor/elder distinction to which we are accustomed. First, it is clear that more than one financially supported elder who labors in the Word and in doctrine is contemplated. Second, it is clear that other elders who do not labor full-time in the Word and in doctrine may also be financially supported.
Second, it does not make a distinction between two types of elders: teaching elders and ruling elders. Its distinction is between elders who rule well and those who additionally labor in the Word and doctrine. This is not the simplistic distinction between teaching elders and ruling elders. The passage does not assert that some of “the elders who rule well” do not teach. The fact is that 1 Tim. 3:2 and Titus 1:9 Paul makes abundantly clear that all elders must teach and do teach. Laboring in the Word and doctrine clearly denotes something more than merely being able to teach. It refers to an abundance of labor in the work of teaching— a degree of toil in the work of proclaiming the word—which surpasses that of even other well-ruling elders. The contrast is not between no teaching and teaching. It is between some teaching and a great degree of teaching. The teaching elder/ruling elder distinction so often deduced from this passage may be misleading in important respects.
Third, the passage does not say that all elders must work hard at preaching and teaching. It allows for elders who may work full-time at something else. This disallows the interpretation which would make all elders full-time preachers.
Fourth, the passage does say that the priority of the church in terms of supporting elders must be on “those who work hard at preaching and teaching”. This certainly teaches the primacy of the proclamation of the Word in the leadership of the church.
Fifth, the passage does assume that there are different degrees of the gifts of leading and teaching within the eldership and that these different degrees of gift may lead to differences of functions or roles within the eldership and to differences in regard to financial support.
The inevitable conclusion which must be reached on the basis of our study of the New Testament is this: There is no warrant for a distinction between the office of pastor and the office of elder in the New Testament. There is nothing in the New Testament or in 1 Tim. 5:17 which even remotely suggests such a distinction.
We must also conclude that the terminology which distinguishes teaching and ruling elders is liable to serious misunderstanding and often is not a good way of describing what the New Testament teaches with regard to the eldership. All elders are pastor-teachers. All elders must have the gifts of leadership and teaching. Because of these things the teaching elder/ruling elder distinction potentially misrepresents the teaching of the New Testament and leads to cloudy and even false understandings of biblical church government. It seems to impose a rigidity on church government and steal an element of holy flexibility from the church of Christ by fitting the potential variations of the New Testament eldership into the rigid forms of evangelical or Reformed or Baptist tradition.
Let me, however, qualify these comments about the teaching elder—ruling elder distinction and terminology. Though this terminology tends to obscure certain important facets of the New Testament’s teaching about the eldership, it must be admitted that if this distinction and terminology is well qualified, it may be acceptable occasionally to use it. As I have said, there is no absolute distinction between teaching and ruling elders. It is true, however, that such terminology is often intended not to stress absolute contrasts, but merely to emphasize prominent characteristics. If this is how it is intended and understood, then it may be said in defense of this terminology that it is true that some elders in terms of their overall ministry are prominently characterized as teachers, while other elders in terms of their overall ministry are prominently characterized as rulers. In this sense the teaching elder terminology is not intended to deny that teaching elders rule, and the ruling elder terminology is not intended to deny that ruling elders teach. The stress is simply on what prominently characterizes their public profile and ministry.
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.