A Sketch of Offices and Functions in the Church
What follows is a sketch of the various offices in the church. I gathered these details from looking at Scripture and pondering how the institutional church in her various locations and forms has implemented and developed her offices through history.
The most basic idea behind offices in the church is a recognition of qualified individuals being specially invested with authority and responsibility to carry out a function as their calling. Just how “official” that process becomes leaves some room for interpretation and implementation.
I offer one caveat about studying the offices of the church in Scripture. It’s true that God has given us all that we need for life and faith. Scripture is sufficient for us. But that’s a far cry from Scripture being an exhaustive “How To” manual about anything. What we know about church offices in Scripture comes to us as situational details in the context of stories and occasional letters. The raw data is messy. Christians can wrestle in good faith about how to more formally develop and apply the teachings and can come to differing conclusions.
The Threefold Work:
The scope of the work of church offices comes from the threefold office of Christ and the threefold marks of the Church. Christ, i.e. the Anointed One, occupies the three anointed offices seen in the Old Testament: the priest, the king, and the prophet. The three offices are all representatives and representations of God to the people and of the people to God. Each does so with respect to its core functions.
A priest is one who leads the worship and service of God. He tends to the Lord’s Table by bringing food from the people to God and from God to the people. He comforts the people and leads them through their alienation in weaknesses and failures to restoration.
A king is one who exercises judicial wisdom over the people and is accountable to God on behalf of the people. He is the agent of God’s justice among the people. He must lay down his life for the sake of the people. He is enthroned upon his suffering for the people.
A prophet is one who is called into the divine council and speaks for the divine council as a covenant lawyer on behalf of God. He calls the people of God to covenant faithfulness and reminds them of their covenant with God. He also advocates for the people to God.
The classic threefold marks of the church are the right teaching of the Word, the right administration of the Sacraments, and the right tending of the Flock. These display the prophetic, priestly, and kingly offices respectively. The establishment of these functions by Christ as marks of his Body the Church necessarily implies a fourth mark: the right appointment of the Officers.
The various church officers are oriented to these various functions and identity markers.
The Gifting Principle:
In Ephesians 4, Paul describes the unity of the people of God (vss. 1-6). There is one Body. It is filled with one Spirit. It is ruled by one Lord. It is expressed as one Faith. It is marked by one Baptism. It is birthed by one Father. But there is a great diversity of individuals in this unity of the people. And it sometimes leads to striving which calls for peace.
One cause of diversity is the grace of God given in different measures (vss. 7-10). Christ has given gifts to his people, and they are not all the same gifts distributed to all the same individuals. And some of the gifts he’s given to his people are the officers of the church for the purpose of edifying the Body (vss. 11-13).
Therefore, officers are those given their offices by Christ based on the different measures of grace given by God. Not all are qualified because not all have been given the same gifts.
The Servitude Principle:
In Philippians 2, Paul describes the humiliation of Christ and his subsequent exaltation by the Father (vss. 5-11). Although he was in the form of God, he did not cling to equality with God. He effaced himself. He took the form of a bondservant. The bondservant or slave is the lowliest of the various kinds of servants.
Christ taught that rising to greatness (i.e. status, agency, authority, and influence) in his kingdom is measured by sinking to servitude. Those individuals given greater positions and influence over his people must adopt a mindset and lifestyle of faithful servitude to the people. This is why the traditional clerical collar is a stylized shackle.
Therefore, officers should understand their offices as a calling to a heightened form of suffering, self-effacement, and burdened obligation to those whom they are bound.
Office of the Elder:
The elder is an old man. He ought to be elderly. The rationale behind that qualification is that wisdom rarely comes without age and experience (even if it sometimes doesn’t come with it). And there are general behavioral expectations for godly elderly men and women in Scripture (Titus 2:2-3).
The title of elder is functionally interchangeable with the titles of pastor/shepherd and of bishop/overseer. Those titles and the related functional terms are used interchangeably in Scripture (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4). They are spoken of as ruling and as those who have the rulership of congregations. They keep a guarding watch over the Flock of God.
As such, they are representatives and representations of Christ in his kingly rule. They are his undershepherds. He is their Arch Shepherd. When the sheep look at the elders, they are not to see oversheep (fellow congregants) but rather undershepherds. They are to be recognized as office-holders set apart from the flock.
Elders in the New Testament aren’t all that different from elders in the Old Testament (Exodus 18). They are men of qualifying character who can be trusted with exercising and enforcing judicial wisdom in the church (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-16).
Office of the Teacher:
The teacher is listed closely alongside the pastor in Ephesians 4. And in 1 Timothy 5:17, the elders are to be commended if they rule well and especially if they labor in the word and teaching. So, there is some measure of association and yet distinction between pastoring and teaching. Some elders focus their activities and giftings as ruling elders. But others labor in the word and doctrine in a way that ruling elders don’t. These are teaching elders or teachers. Traditionally, this has sometimes been recognized as a distinct office called the doctor of the church.
In James 3:1, teachers of the church are said to be subject to stricter judgment. Therefore, their skill and substance demand the highest quality as those whose teaching bears more weight in the church. As office-holders with authority and responsibility, they’re subject to the character qualifications just like their fellow officers of the church.
Office of the Minister:
A minister or liturgist is one who does the work of the people, i.e. a public servant. In the civil realm, the governor is called a minister of God who enforces justice (Romans 13:1-5). In the ecclesial realm, the minister is the governor of our gathered public service.
The work of the ministry or liturgy is mentioned a few times in Scripture. As an office, it’s never directly addressed. The office is deduced by necessity from various principles which govern and inform earthly gathered worship on the Lord’s Day. The Letter to the Hebrews has repeated warnings that we must learn the lessons of the Exodus Generation, because we are subject to something superior to what they had. Their worship was patterned after the things in heaven (8:5). How much more so should ours be? They came to a mountain to serve God and hold a feast to him. We come to the heavenly mountain by faith (12:18-24). The worship of the Israelites had a high priest called a minister just like our worship does with Christ in heaven (8:1-3).
Therefore, it’s fitting that our gathered public worship should be led by one who serves as a representative and representation of Christ in his priestly ministry.
Office of the Evangelist:
An evangelist is one who proclaims the Gospel of the Kingdom. He is a herald. The office of the evangelist is listed among those in Ephesians 4 and is distinguished from apostles, prophets, pastors, and teachers. Philip the deacon is also called an evangelist (Acts 21:8), and certainly, he did that work when he went to Samaria and when he met the Ethiopian Eunuch. Timothy is also called to do the work of an evangelist (1 Timothy 4:5). Evangelists appear to be or can be missionaries in practice. The work also seems to involve a degree of apologetics with outsiders as evidenced by the work of Stephen and Philip.
Office of the Deacon:
A deacon is an attendant or one who runs errands. The office first appears in Acts 6 as the size and needs of the church become unmanageable for the apostles alone. The apostles recognize they are to focus upon the ministry of the word and prayer. Seven deacons are appointed to attend to matters of mercy ministry in the church. But some of the deacons like Stephen and Philip go on to do evangelism and apologetics.
Like the elders or bishops, deacons have character qualifications (1 Timothy 3:8-13). And those qualification resemble the expectations for younger men and women (Titus 2:4-8).
In light of the diversity of what they do, the office of the deacon appear to be that of the assistant to the offices of the elder, the teacher, and the minister. Deacons are prospective elders, teachers, evangelists, and ministers in training. And some deacons simply remain as such. They assist and have a proven character to be appointed to a place of assistance.
Office of the Widow:
A widow is a woman who’s dependent upon the church for her life and who has devoted herself to the service of the church and the ministry of prayer. The office of the widow has character qualifications similar to those of elders and deacons and even involves official registration (1 Timothy 5:3-16). This is a distinctly female office whereas many of the other offices are prominently male offices. The widow is a counterpart of sorts to the elder.
One Last Thought:
As I said earlier, the raw biblical data is messy. It shows offices as less objectively formal than we often see now. Or a bit more fluid. There is a high degree of recognition of God’s giftings connected with functioning and office. Offices in Scripture have a certain degree of fluidity in their informality.
One outcome of that fluidity and the variability in God’s giving of different gifts is that some individuals can and do function in more than one office. Peter is an apostle, but he calls himself a fellow elder. Timothy is an elder, and Paul tells him to do the work of an evangelist. Paul says he’s been appointed as a preacher, apostle, and teacher.
And to a certain extent, simply exercising the function of God’s gift is a statement about the place and purpose of a member in the Body. And the Body has a vested interest and responsibility in encouraging and regulating that function for the sake of all.
A Note of Apostles and Prophets:
I do acknowledge the offices of the apostle and the prophet that are present in the New Testament. They’re named among the offices given by Christ in Ephesians 4. But for the purposes of this sketch, I omitting them from discussion. There’s much controversy as to whether they’re relevant in the present time or are essentially historical and presently defunct. Personally, when I read about “the household of God, having been built on a foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19-22), I get the sense there’s a significantly historical progressive aspect to the spiritual construction project.
A Note on Ecclesial Gender Roles:
A brief word on sexual distinctions in church offices. I didn’t focus on addressing it in my post, because it’s a fairly complex conversation to have. It’s one I certainly want to be having and think we need to be having. And Lord willing, I’ll manage to capture some of my thoughts on liturgical and ecclesial sexuality in writing one of these days.
My short(ish) answer is that if we were to operate in a far more natural cultural context (one in which our creationistic embodied teleologies were more immediately obvious to us), then we’d see a distinctly male ruling eldership emerge. At present, we live in an anti-creationistic cultural context that has thoroughly infected the church. The perceptions of church office have changed as significantly as the perceptions of man, woman, and marriage have. It’s an odd game to play, arguing about male-only leadership when the game is being played by incapacitated players on a misshapen field where the structure and function of ecclesiology and the pastorate have been revised and hollowed out.
I do think woman are naturally oriented to some sort of eldering and deaconal duty. It’s not a statement of office as much as it is one of natural function. If the elders are the spiritual fathers of the church (as they should be), then the church needs spiritual mothers as well. Fathers are not mothers, and mothers are not fathers. There needs to be an effective natural patriarchy forming the structure of the church. And there needs to be an effective natural matriarchy filling the substance of the church. Again, sexual distinctions would be obvious if we lived in a natural context that made sexually differentiation readily apparent.