An Overview of The Eldership
August 2nd, 2023
Amongst those who hold to a presbyterian form of church government, there are at least three different views on how to define and distinguish the ordinary offices of the church. This paper will briefly summarize the three main positions regarding the office of eldership and prepare the reader to engage with the arguments from each side.
One of the initial hurdles to answering this question of “How many offices are there in the church?” is that the New Testament does not use uniform terminology. This is further complicated by how translators of the Bible and theologians use and translate the relevant terms. Therefore, it is important that we familiarize ourselves with the original Greek terms and their English equivalents. For example, there are multiple Greek words (ἱερατεία, πρᾶξις, διακονία, διακονέω, ἐπισκοπή) that can be translated as office, and their usage is often synonymous with action or function. One of the primary points of dispute amongst Presbyterians is whether and how office and function should be distinguished. Is there just one office of elder that has diverse functions? Or are there multiple offices of elders with diverse functions? More importantly, what are the qualifications, requirements, duties, and expectations that match up with how one defines the eldership? These are just a few of the questions that make sorting through the various opinions a real challenge.
Preliminary Notes on Terminology
- All Presbyterians agree that ἐπίσκοπος and πρεσβύτερος are basically synonymous and used interchangeably in Scripture to refer to the same group of church leaders. In biblical terms, Bishops and Oversees are the same as Presbyters and Elders. The church father St. Jerome (died 420 AD) emphasized that the title presbyter/elder referred to the age and experience of the man, while the title bishop/overseer referred to his rank.
- There is also agreement that διάκονος can be used in either 1) the broad sense of being a minister or servant (which applies to apostles, governors, kings, etc.), or can be used in 2) the more specific sense of an official Deacon (1 Tim. 3:8).
- Likewise, there is agreement that whatever elder/presbyter refers to, it included apostles like John (2 John 1, 3 John 1) and Peter (1 Peter 5:1). In 1 Peter 5:1-2, those elders/presbyters are exhorted to do the work of shepherding (ποιμάνατε) and overseeing (ἐπισκοποῦντες).
- When one surveys the theological literature on church government, it is customary to use the English terms Pastor or Minister interchangeably to refer to the elder who preaches and administers the sacraments. Whether this is a distinction in function or office is where the dispute lies.
Greek and English Terminology
*Verses in parentheses are only a representative (not exhaustive) list of usages.
- ἐπίσκοπος: Bishop/Overseer (Acts 20:28, Phil. 1:1, 1 Tim. 3:1-2, Titus 1:7, 1 Pet. 2:25)
- πρεσβύτερος: Presbyter/Elder (Acts 11:30, Acts 14:23, Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23, Acts 16:4, Acts 20:17, Acts 21:18, 1 Tim. 5:1, 17, 19, Titus 1:5, James 5:14, 2 John 1, 3 John 1)
- ποιμήν: Pastor/Shepherd (Eph. 4:11)
- διδάσκαλος: Teacher/Doctor (Eph. 4:11, Acts 13:1, 2 Tim. 1:11)
- διάκονος: Minister/Servant/Deacon (Eph. 3:7, Eph. 6:21, Col. 1:7, Col. 1:23, 25, Col. 4:7, 1 Tim. 3:8, 1 Tim. 4:6)
- ἱερατεία: priestly office/service (Ex. 40:15 LXX, Luke 1:9, Heb. 7:5)
- πρᾶξις: office/action/function/work (Rom. 12:4, Matt. 16:27)
- διακονία: office/service (Rom. 11:13)
- ἐπισκοπή: office/position/act of overseeing (Acts 1:20, 1 Tim. 3:1)
Two Office View (Elder, Deacon)
The two-office view affirms that there are only two offices in the church: Elder and Deacon. Advocates for this view are concerned primarily with 1) guarding the equal authority and joint rule of the eldership, and 2) avoiding the wrong kinds of hierarchy in the church. There is diversity amongst those who hold to the two-office position on whether elders share equally in the duties of preaching, teaching, and administering the sacraments. Some acknowledge a real distinction of function/task between “Teaching Elders” and “Ruling Elders,” while others would reject this distinction. On this basis we should further subdivide the two-office view as follows:
Two Office View A. One Office of Elder with Two Functions (The “2.5 Office” View)
This view holds that the New Testament office of elder/presbyter is one office with two distinct groups or classes of men. These two classes are equal in rank and authority, but they are named by their distinctive function or task.
-Ruling Elders are those who govern and rule the church.
-Teaching Elders (sometimes called Ministers) are those who have the special task of preaching in addition to ruling and governing the church. These are typically the men who receive the “double honor” because they “labor in word and doctrine” (1 Tim. 5:17).
Two Office View B. One Office of Elder with One Function
This view holds that the New Testament office of elder/presbyter is one office with one function, and therefore all elders have the exact same basic duties to preach, teach, govern, rule, and administer the sacraments. There is no distinction in office or function, and any distinction in practice (who preaches more frequently, who gets paid, etc.) is only accidental and by mutual agreement. Any concept of “first among equals” is strictly de facto and not inherent to any one elder’s ministry. Churches who hold this view tend to avoid language or titles that might indicate hierarchy such as “Senior Pastor.”
Weaknesses of the Two Office View
According to its opponents, the great weakness of the two-office view is that it undermines the distinctive work of an individual Minister/Pastor to be wholly given unto the ministry of word, prayer, and sacrament. History and experience overwhelmingly testify that congregations prefer hearing the regular preaching of one pastor who is especially gifted, rather than hearing from a constant rotation of different preachers. While there may be some exceptions to this rule, the “One Office, One Function” view can almost be dismissed out of hand because of this sociological reality; it has been tried and found wanting. The “One Office, Two Function” view on the other hand is less hindered, since it at least allows for a distinction between Teaching and Ruling Elder. Some churches who are “One Office, Two Function” on paper, end up in practice looking almost exactly like those who hold to the three or four office view, the difference is only in nomenclature.
One of the other weaknesses (or strengths!?) of the two-office view is that it prevents men who are gifted to rule but who lack the ability to preach/teach, from ever attaining to the office of elder. The two-office position would respond that one cannot rule well without being able to teach, and that is true to some extent, however, if one elder is already assigned to do the bulk of the teaching, then this point becomes moot. The two-office view then seems to unintentionally create the very thing it wants to prevent, namely the alleged clericalism and hierarchalism of the three and four office views. If consistency requires a uniform standard for all elders, and if the bar to eldership involves years of specialized training in theology, original languages, homiletics and more, then almost no working man could ever attain to eldership without first entering seminary or receiving an equivalent education. Two-office churches then must either be very flexible with the meaning of “apt to teach” in 1 Timothy 3:2 or hold to it so consistently that only those who can pass an ordination exam in front of presbytery can enter the office. This makes finding and maintaining a plurality of elders extremely difficult.
Three Office View (Minister/Pastor, Governing Elder, Deacon)
The three-office view affirms that there are three distinct offices in the church: Minister, Elder, and Deacon. This was the position of the Westminster Assembly, which slightly modified the position of John Calvin (the four-office view). The terminology can get confusing here because the three-office view tends to use the titles Minister or Pastor to refer to the elders described in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, while at the same time calling those men Elders who are actually ruling governors in the church (Rom. 12:8, 1 Cor. 12:28, 1 Tim. 5:17). In other words, Elder can be used in its more biblical sense to refer to the Minister or Pastor, or it can be used in the more general sense to refer to the representative rulers of the church. For purposes of clarity, I will call this latter group Governing Elders.
Whereas the two-office view tends to promote itself as a uniquely “New Testament Polity,” the three and four office views promote a “Two Testament Polity,” that is a polity rooted in both Old and New Testaments. The exegetical basis for three distinct offices goes back to the Old Testament and has its roots in the Jewish synagogue system from which the apostolic church arose.
On this view, New Testament Ministers would be analogous to the Levitical Priests who were assigned to a specific region or synagogue with the task of preaching and administering the sacraments. Just as these priests shared with the elders the responsibility to rule and govern (Deut. 17:8-13; 21:5, Is. 66:21), so also New Testament Ministers share the responsibility of ruling and governing alongside Governing Elders. Ministers are uniquely called, equipped, and ordained to the work of Word and sacrament; they are the pastors and teachers of Eph. 4:11. These ministers typically have their ordination credentials held by Presbytery and are therefore accountable to Presbytery in a way that Governing Elders are not.
Unlike Ministers, who are examined and ordained by Presbytery, Governing Elders are the representative leaders of a local congregation. These Governing Elders do not need to meet the exact same qualifications as the Minister because they are not tasked with preaching. Governing Elders must possess the gift to rule and govern with diligence (Rom. 12:8, 1 Cor. 12:28, 1 Tim. 5:17), and in some circumstances, they may receive special license from Presbytery to preach and administer the sacraments.
Weaknesses of the Three Office View
According to its opponents, the great weakness of the three-office view, is that the office of Governing Elder seems to be of human institution and tradition, rather than by Divine warrant. Since the three-office view does not consider 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 as applicable to the Governing Elder, then where does one find a strong foundation for establishing biblical qualifications for such an office? Is Romans 12:8, 1 Corinthians 12:28, 1 Timothy 5:17, and the Jewish synagogue precedent, really talking about a distinct office in the New Testament church? For some, that remains to be seen.
Four Office View (Minister/Pastor, Doctor, Governor, Deacon)
The four-office view affirms that there are four distinct offices in the church: Minister/Pastor, Doctor, Governor, and Deacon. This was the position set forth by John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, and it is almost identical to the three-office view as described by the Westminster Assembly. The Westminster Assembly folded Calvin’s office of Doctor/Teacher into the office of Minister/Pastor. For both Calvin and the Westminster Divines, a Doctor was a man who had a special gift and calling to teach doctrine and train future ministers, especially in theological schools or universities. According to Calvin, the difference between Pastors and Teacher is, “that teachers preside not over discipline, or the administration of the sacraments, or admonitions, or exhortations, but the interpretation of Scripture only, in order that pure and sound doctrine may be maintained among believers. But all these are embraced in the pastoral office.”
Opponents of the three-office view will oppose the four-office view for the same reasons. The bigger and more paradigmatic question all sides must answer is: Where does Scripture give us freedom to order our polity according to the broader principles of Christian wisdom, and where are we not given that freedom? Is there a “regulative principle of government,” and if so, how strict must we be? To give one illustration, Scripture does not state whether a man must be ordained by unanimous vote, by simple majority, or by three-quarters of those assembled. And yet we must pick some ratio of yays to nays by which we ordain a man. The same could be said for many other details in our polity. May God grant us wisdom as we pursue the peace and purity of His church.
Suggested Readings On Church Government
- The Five Points of Presbyterianism by Thomas Witherspoon
- The Form of Presbyterial Church Government by The Westminster Assembly
- The Doctors and Ministers of the Church by John Calvin
- Is A Pastor An Elder? by Zach Garris
- Three Offices: Minister, Elder, Deacon by Robert Rayburn
- Chapters V-XIII from the OPC Form of Church Government (2020)