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Volume 16, Issue 5: Presbyterion

The MInister\'s Office

Douglas Wilson

One of the great problems we have in studying issues of church government is that we too readily start with the New Testament, and try to build our doctrine there from scratch. But when the New Testament writers used the term elder, the readers knew what that word meant, and moreover, they had known this for several millennia. The people of God had been led by elders for a very long time. In a similar way, the people of God had always had ministers, and these ministers did not hold the same office as the elders. The elders were always taken from the people, and the priests were always taken from Levi.

The advent of the new covenant did not blur the boundary between elders and ministers, but rather meant that Levites could now be taken from among the Gentiles. "And I will also take of them for priests and for Levites, saith the Lord" (Is. 66:21). The ministers now had the same latitude as the elders on where they were taken from. This did not mean that the place they were taken to was somehow now identical.
There are many reasons we have a hard time seeing this, but the pervasive influence of egalitarianism is right at the center of it. And one of the reasons we think we are not really egalitarian is that we are pretty laid back on the whole subject—but this is similar to a bachelor living alone thinking that he has no problem with selfishness. He is permitted the luxury of thinking this because his selfishness is never challenged.
With that in mind, here are just a few assertions to poke our latent egalitarianism with a stick. There is such a thing as a biblical distinction between ministers and the laity. The ruling elders of a church are members of the laity, and they are not clerical ministers. The restoration of church government accomplished by the Reformers was not to broaden the government of the church into a big clerical committee (all of them elders), but rather to include laymen in the governing of the affairs of the church (called ministers on the one hand, and seniors on the other—what we call elders).
This inclusion of laymen in the government of the church went to its greatest extreme in the Anglican settlement, where the highest earthly rule in the church was held by laymen (the monarch and Parliament). The Roman church had been run by clerics entirely. The civil settlements after the Reformation sometimes ran to the opposite extreme, where civil "elders" were in effect the final elders of the church. This view, called Erastianism, demoted the minister's calling.
The settlement in Geneva was a demonstration of real balance, including lay elders in the rule of the church, but having the spiritual and theological leadership of the church remain with those who were called by God to this important task.
In contemporary Reformed circles, the combination of a strict "two-office" view (deacons and elders only) with the presbyterian view that a local church should be governed by a session has actually returned us to the mistake made by Rome, and has done so with a vengeance. We have a large band of elders (the rulers) and then we have the congregation (the ruled). But in the historic Reformed position, the ruled (the congregation) had their representatives at the table with the ministers (and these representatives were the ruling elders).
We know that this mistake of exclusive clericalism has been made when a church is grappling with the issue of how to "improve communication" between the session and the congregation—congregation here, session there. It is almost as if the session is management and the congregation is labor. But when this fundamental issue is understood, the ruling elders know themselves to be the congregation's representatives on the session. The rule of the church is therefore shared by ministers and elders—the office of ruling elder was the ecclesiastical manifestation of the principle of the "consent of the governed."
At the same time, while the whole session has become more corporately (and bureaucratically) clerical, the office of minister has been simultaneously marginalized. This is what has led to ministers becoming less distinctively ministerial, less distinctively clerical. Where they used to be responsible for Word and sacrament, they are now thought of as the CEO of the church—and we are back to management and labor again.
But a minister is called by God, and no man should take this honor on himself. He is called to preach and teach the Word, and to administer the sacraments. This is something that the ruling elders are not called to in the same way. They are responsible for the good order of the church, and for the maintenence of sound doctrine, but their role in this is largely through the decisions they make—in concert with their minister.

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