THE PROBLEM OF THE ‘ELDERSHIP’ AND ITS WIDER IMPLICATIONS1
Iain H. Murray
I have often put off taking up this subject and I do so now with considerable hesitation.2 The reason why I have this feeling is that I would much prefer to speak on a subject upon which I have more confidence and certainty. The truth is that I once had a good deal of confidence about it but that ended some twenty years ago when, on a summer’s day in St Andrews, I purchased a second-hand book entitled, The Theory of Ruling Eldership, by Peter Cohn Campbell, Principal of the University of Aberdeen.3 The reading of that book gave me a considerable shock. While it did not lead me to exchange one view for another, it created in me an uncertainty and convinced me that my former confidence had been largely the result of ignorance. As someone has said: ‘The wider the reading, the greater will be the modesty’. Although I have thought and read much on the subject since that time I am still uncertain.
Hearing such introductory words you might ask, ‘Why take up the subject at all unless one can be positive and definite about it? Why not leave the eldership question alone and put the time we have to better use?’ That is a reasonable question. Let me try to answer it.
The Christian Ministry In Question
There are factors in the current situation which make our subject compelling. We cannot keep putting it off.
1. We who gather here are all deeply concerned for the continuance and the strengthening of the Christian ministry. We believe that in the structure of the church the office of the preacher is of vital importance and our prayer for the future is that God will raise up and appoint many men to that office.
Our attitude in this regard goes back a long way. Calvin, for instance, says of gospel ministers: ‘Whoever, therefore, either trying to abolish this order of which we speak and this kind of government, or discounts it as not necessary, is striving for the undoing or rather the ruin and destruction of the church’.4
I need hardly remind you that today the traditional view of the minister of the Word is questioned very widely among professing evangelicals. All round the world a chorus of voices have repeated the words of such authors as Paul Benjamin who writes:
Or, to give you another example, in a work entitled Biblical Eldership, An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership, Alexander Strauch, says:
Now taken on their own, such quotations might be given a perfectly justifiable sense and it would be folly for us to believe that we are called to defend everything connected with traditional views of the Christian ministry. We agree that ‘ministries’ exercised by all Christians represent a New Testament picture of church life. J. C. Ryle asserted that as strongly as anyone has ever done over a hundred years ago,7 and C. H. Spurgeon could say, ‘Ministers do not pretend to be a class of sacred beings, like the Brahmins of India.’8 But these modern quotations come in a context which is far more original and which leaves little need for Christian ministers at all. It is the office of the preacher which is discounted today, sometimes even condemned as ‘clericalism’, and this attitude is frequently defended by what are claimed to be more scriptural assertions about the ‘eldership’. In some words of testimony which could have been written by many contemporary ministers, Mark R. Brown of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, has said this of opposition which he once encountered from elders in his congregation:
So the eldership issue has become increasingly relevant and if we offer no answers to the claims now commonly heard there is real danger that the work traditionally done by men called to a full-time preaching ministry will be further undermined.9
2. As a second reason for taking up the subject let me suggest that a measure of uncertainty, such as I have personally experienced, may not be altogether a bad thing. It is written of Dr. George Matheson, the last-century Scottish preacher and hymn-writer, that when he was young, ‘He was confident that he could establish the intellectual coherence of religious and scientific truth . . . But as time went on he seemed to lose his confidence’10 The consequence, we trust, was that the author of ‘O Love that wilt not let me go’ became a humbler Christian. Similarly, some of us were once too ready to think that we could resolve all questions of church order and government. Uncertainty, with humility of mind, is better for us than a wrong dogmatism. For anyone to be hesitant when Scripture is definite is a sin. But we have also to recognize the danger that we may be definite when Scripture itself allows a greater latitude of opinion or practice than we are prepared to do.
Turning then directly to our subject, I want first to state three different understandings of New Testament eldership. I take these three because they are the only views known to me which can make any real claim to be biblical.
View 1: One Office, two Functions
This is the view which believes the New Testament office of elder (Gk: presbuteros) is one office, but that it contains within it two distinct groups or classes of men: those in one group both preach and participate in the government and oversight of the people; those in the other only rule and govern. In rank and authority the two groups are equal, they differ only in function: some are teaching elders (traditionally called ‘ministers’), while the remainder (often simply called ‘elders’) are only sharers in the government of the church.
View 2: Two Separate Offices
This second view argues that there is not one office, sub-divided as above, but rather two distinct offices. The first office is that of the eldership proper, and in this office all elders are preachers and pastors. According to this position, the traditional Protestant minister, and he only, does the work of the New Testament elder for, it is claimed, in strict New Testament usage no one should be designated an elder/presbyter who is not called to preach. So the call to the eldership is identical with the call to the ministry
But this second understanding, held by many Presbyterians, allows for a second office, made up of men who happen to be called ‘elders’ although the actual term does not belong to them in the usage of the New Testament churches. How then is the work of such men in the government of the church to be justified if the New Testament title does not strictly belong to them? The divines of the Westminster Assembly answer that question in these words:
So this view accepts two groups of men called to the spiritual oversight of the church but it says they do not hold the same office. Hence the refusal of the Westminster divines to allow any of the proof-texts relating to elders/presbyters to be used to support the work of those whom they preferred to call, ‘other church governors’. The difference here is more than a difference in function. The presbyters/elders are the principal leaders of the church in spiritual things. Others may assist them in the oversight and the title ‘elder’ is allowed to them chiefly on the grounds of sixteenth-century usage.12
According to this view Presbyterians have accepted the use of the term ‘elder’ for non-ministers, while believing that if we are to be strictly governed by the New Testament ‘there is no evidence that can stand up to objective criticism for the title "elder" used in our way’13
View 3: One Office, One Function
This view agrees with the first in arguing that there is only one office, but it disagrees that functions are to be distinguished and separated. We should not, its upholders say, speak of ‘teaching elders’ and ‘ruling elders’, because, it is argued, all elders have the same basic duties: all may teach and preach. If they do not do so regularly in the congregation it is by their voluntary choice; they choose to give way to others who are better trained or who have more popular gifts. Thomas Witherow held this view and drew the conclusion: ‘So a member of the eldership ought not to have his tongue tied by legislation. It should be left to his own good sense when to speak and when to be silent. Even if he were sometimes to speak weakly and out of season, greater calamities might happen’.14
It would appear that this third view is akin to that held by the Christian Brethren. There may be many teachers and preachers in one church and it can be left to local circumstances to determine how the work is divided among them.
These, then, are the three best-known views. As we review them, there is one thing which can be said with certainty, we will never resolve which is right simply by reading the theological authorities and taking our side with the majority or the most orthodox. The truth is that some of the best-known names in the reformed churches — to go no further — will be found on opposing sides. There is no consensus. Even William Cunningham, commonly regarded as one of the clearest champions of ‘divine right’ Presbyterianism, could write to Charles Hodge:
If men of Cunningham’s calibre were uncertain, it can surely only mean that each of the three views I have outlined has its own point of weakness. Let us go over them again to note where the weaknesses lie.
Lack of Scriptural Evidence
In the case of the first, the view which says that the one office of the eldership is made up of two distinct groups of men, its most serious weakness lies in its ability to offer only one proof-text to support a division in function. The text is 1 Timothy 5:17, ‘Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine’. The NIV translation of that verse reads: ‘The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.’
According to the NIV the meaning is plain. All elders ‘direct the affairs of the church’, or rule, but of that number it is only some ‘whose work is preaching’. But the original is by no means so clear and the NIV translators are doing here what they appear to do too often, namely, interpret rather than translate. The words ‘whose work’ does not accord with the original. Other versions stay close to the KJV’s ‘especially they who labour in the word and doctrine’. On the latter wording, which stays closer to the original, the meaning can well be, ‘All elders who do well as leaders are worthy of double honour, especially those who are painstaking in preaching, who "toil" (kopiao) unweariedly "in the word and in teaching".’ On this understanding, the difference is not between elders who only rule and others who preach, it simply urges special commendation and support for those who are outstanding in their efforts in the preacher’s calling. The text gives no leave to some elders not to preach at all.
The fact is that there is no unanimity among the exegetes on 1 Timothy 5:17 and it has to be hazardous to use it as a proof-text for divided functions in the absence of supporting evidence. The NIV translation represents the same minority view that was rejected by the Westminster Assembly. In this connection it is noteworthy that some who once claimed 1 Timothy 5:17 as a proof text for two classes of elder came to abandon this opinion. Thomas Witherow, for instance, wrote an ardent little defence of divine-right Presbyterianism in 1856 entitled, The Apostolic Church, Which Is It?. In that book he said:
But in 1873, the same, shall we say wiser, Thomas Witherow, wrote of the ‘distinction between two classes of elder’:
The case that 1 Timothy 5:17 does not speak of two classes of elders would appear to be strengthened by what we read in chapter 3 of the same epistle. There is no hint at all in the third chapter that Paul envisages two classes of elder, on the contrary, aptness or ability to teach (1 Tim. 3:2) is set out as a qualification for the office. The inference has to be that men with no such ability are not to be made elders at all.
The great weakness, then, of this first view is that the one text which it offers for proof of a distinction between teaching and ruling is far from being a certain support for that interpretation, while not only 1 Timothy 3 but all the other Pauline references to the work of elders join teaching with ruling. The elders at Ephesus are to counter the threat of ‘grievous wolves’ by feeding the church of God with the truth (Acts 20:28). Elders in Crete are to ‘hold fast the faithful word’ and ‘be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers’ (Titus 1:9). In deciding on the meaning of ‘ruling’ we need to beware that we do not carry the ideas of modern parlance into the New Testament. The New Testament elder rules not by making his decisions for others but rather by teaching Christians from Scripture how they should act. Teaching is therefore a part of ruling and Scripture itself is the only authoritative instrument of government.
My personal opinion is that the one office, two classes, theory of eldership has often found acceptance among us because we assumed it was the position biblically established by the Westminster Assembly. The truth is that the assumption is wrong. As I have said, the documents coming from the Assembly support not this first view but the second to which we must now turn.
What Happens to Plurality and to Scriptural Warrant?
What is the weakness of the second theory — the theory which justifies not one office, subdivided, but two distinct offices: one, that of presbyters, and the second of ‘church governors’ (mistakenly called ‘elders)?
1. One weakness is that if the apostolic churches knew no elders other than preachers then there would appear to be a strangely large number of preachers in New Testament congregations. Certainly there is no church of which we read that it only had one presbyter/elder. As Witherow points out, plurality in the eldership ‘shews itself often undesignedly in the apostolic admonitions — "Remember them which have the rule over you" — "Obey them that have the rule over you" — "Salute all them that have rule over you" — "Know them which labour among you and are over you in the Lord".18
In reply to this it may be said that those who regard all New Testament elders as preachers (as those who hold the first view) have no objection, in principle, to more than one preacher. Calvin attributed to the ‘ignorant’ and the ‘godless’, a remark that three preachers were enough for Geneva.19 Two preachers in a congregation were to be found in cities in Puritan times, and William Guthrie believed that it was simply ‘want of maintainance’ which prevented that practice from being more common.20 Whether two preachers can be taken as the equivalent of the plurality to be found in New Testament churches remains, however, open to question. Yet it has also to be borne in mind that ‘the church’ in such places as Ephesus (where we read of a plurality of elders) was not necessarily comprised only of one congregation, any more than the congregation at St. Peter’s, Geneva, comprised all the churches of that city.
In passing it is interesting to note how John Glass, the eighteenth century Scottish preacher and theologian, understood the plurality of elders who were all (in his view) preachers in the New Testament churches. Teaching, he says, has several parts and no one teacher ‘can excel in every part’. Some can best instruct the mind. Others with a greater gift in exhortation can deal better with the wills and affections of their hearers. The ‘rule well’ of I Timothy 5:17 he takes to be a reference to excelling in the application of the Word to the lives of the people. So preaching, Glass argues, has three necessary parts — instruction, exhortation and ruling: ‘Growing in knowledge, without the other two, would make monstrous Christians.’21
2. A second weakness in the second view is perhaps more serious. This view accepts that in the New Testament there were men who assisted in rule and government yet were not presbyters. The justification for such non-presbyter ‘rulers’ was found (as we have noted in the case of the Westminster divines) in Romans 12:8, where he says, ‘he that ruleth with diligence’. But Romans 12:8 and the parallel reference to the gift of ‘governments’ in 1 Corinthians 12:28, scarcely demonstrates the existence of an office distinct from the eldership. The silence of the New Testament in this respect surely constitutes a problem and it was this which led the well-known opponent of this second view, James Henley Thornwell, to charge that if the existence of the non-preaching ruler was justified on such a flimsy basis, then Presbyterianism was guilty of accepting an office which had no clear New Testament authority: ‘To say that a Ruling Elder [in Presbyterian churches] is not entitled to the appellation of Presbyter . . . is just to say that the fundamental principle of our polity is a human institution.’22
Furthermore, it may be asked, if there were in the apostolic age a class of men who functioned as ‘rulers’, alongside elders, how is it that we hear nothing of any such class existing in the immediate post-apostolic age? We know of ‘presbyters’ and ‘deacons’ in the second century, and we know that the rank of ‘bishop’ early became separate from that of presbyter as an hierarchical structure had its unhappy beginnings, but no records show the existence of any other office-bearers.
What appears to have happened at the time of the Reformation was that leaders in the reformed churches, conscious of the evils of the clerical ambition and domination which had long existed, were convinced that spiritual men who were not ministers would be involved in the oversight and discipline of the churches. They saw the need for other helpers; they noted the place which the Old Testament Church gave to representatives of the people; and they considered that in the New Testament gifts of rule were not necessarily the possession of presbyters alone. One of such general considerations, and conscious that without such ‘lay’ leaders the churches would be threatened by prelacy on the one hand, or by the anarchy of popular democracy on the other, they encouraged the creation of these ‘other church-governors’, who, in distinction from ministers/presbyters, they began to call ‘elders’. Expressing this view of the origin of ‘elders’ in the churches of the Reformation, G. D. Henderson writes: ‘The demand for Elders sprang from the necessities of discipline, and Scripture foundation was then discovered for the office.’23
In line with this thinking, Cotton Mather, the New England Puritan leader, argued that the most conclusive argument for ruling elders was their usefulness. ‘There are some’, he wrote, ‘who cannot see any such officer as what we call a ruling elder directed and appointed in the word of God’. But whatever theoretical arguments might be raised in objection to ‘eldership’, he concluded: ‘I think none can be made against the usefulness of such a thing. Truly, for my part, if the fifth chapter of the first epistle to Timothy would not bear me out, when conscience, both of my duty and my weakness, made me desire such assistance, I would see whether the first chapter of Deuteronomy would not’.24
I have digressed somewhat from the main theme. To repeat, the second theory of the eldership maintains preacher and elder are one in the New Testament, but that spiritual assistants who are not strictly elders at all may be justified on general grounds both by Scripture and by expediency. This was the position argued in the nineteenth century by Charles Hodge.25
A Team of Preachers?
Let us turn, then, to think of the principal weakness to be urged against the third view. As already said, this view says that ability to teach is a qualification for all elders. It disagrees with the first view by arguing that no elders should be excluded, in principle, from the pulpit; and it disagrees with the second view in denying the lawfulness of any spiritual assistants who are not elders in the New Testament sense of the word. Each church is to have a plurality of elders who are all authorised to preach, and who actually takes the main part of the work is to be determined by local circumstances. Upholding this view, Witherow writes:
What is the weakness here? It is surely that because Witherow does not want a multiplicity of preachers in every congregation he draws this strange distinction between the ‘ordinary elder’ and the professionally trained preacher. But does the call to the public ministry of the Word really depend on educational training? Does it not rather depend essentially on a divine call? This call, in Thornwell’s words, ‘must impart a peculiar fitness, an unction of the Holy Ghost, which alone can adequately qualify for the duties of the office . . . The characteristic qualification for the ministry, the unction from on high, is the immediate gift of the Holy Ghost, and cannot be imparted by any agency of man. Human learning is necessary — the more, the better; but human learning cannot, of itself, make a preacher.27
Witherow’s view entails the view that while Christ raises up and sends preachers, and that all elders are officially preachers, nevertheless there may be some elders who rarely, if ever, preach at all. The commendation given to those who ‘labour in the word and doctrine’ can never be theirs.
But supposing we forget Witherow and the language of Victorian Presbyterianism, does any weakness remain if we state this third theory simply as it is held by the Brethren, namely, all elders should share in the preaching? I believe there is indeed a serious weakness:
1. According to 1 Timothy 5:17 those who excel in teaching and preaching are especially worthy of ‘double honour’. Few exegetes doubt that the ‘honour’ includes financial support, maintenance in temporal things. The very next verse says, ‘The labourer is worthy of his reward,’ and other scriptures say, ‘the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel’ (1 Cor. 9:14. See also Gal. 6:6). Now if a congregation were to treat equally a whole team of preachers how could they possibly fulfil this obligation? Is it better to have a whole group of preachers, none of whom is adequately supported by the church, if supported at all, or to have one or two preachers who can give themselves wholly to the work of the gospel because their temporal needs are provided for?
It is not required of the pastor, says Owen, ‘only that he preach now and then at his leisure, but that he lay aside all other employments, though lawful, all other duties in the church, as unto such a constant attention on them as would divert him from this work, that he give himself unto it, — that he be in these things labouring to the utmost of his ability.’28 How can such an ideal be fulfilled other than by the tradition which has been most common in the Protestant churches?
2. The testimony of church history is against the theory that a team of men, all of equal rank, can work harmoniously together, without an appointed leader. Theoretically it may be argued that a group of Christian preachers should be able to settle among themselves who preaches, and how often, but ‘the best of men are men at best’ and this theory has never worked long in practice. It seems to be a mistaken view of the New Testament which supposes the leadership of one individual in a congregation is unlawful. Calvin did not think so. Commenting on the reference to ‘bishops and deacons’ in Philippians 1:1, he says:
Similarly John Owen writes of the New Testament situation:
Owen did not regard the ‘one pastor’ as necessarily unscriptural.31 He conceded that ‘in each particular church there may be many pastors with an equality of power, if the edification of the church do require it,’ but added the significant caution, ‘the absolute equality of many pastors in one and the same church is liable unto many inconveniences if not diligently watched against.32 He believed in ‘the necessity of precedence for the observation of order.33
Relevant at this point is the question why ‘the ruling elder’ disappeared in all the churches of the Puritan tradition in England and New England except among the Presbyterians. The Puritans who were Congregationalists were, initially, as committed to a ruling eldership as the Presbyterians, yet by the end of the seventeenth century they had nearly all given it up and entrusted the major spiritual control to one pastor assisted by deacons.34 Different reasons probably entered into this change but one reason was that an equality of authority in the leadership of congregations had not proved conducive to peace. Cotton Mather believed ‘the inconveniences whereunto many churches have been plunged by elders not of such a number or not of such a wisdom as were desirable, have much increased a prejudice against the office.35
At times independent churches have attempted to restore eldership as happened in the congregations gathered around the Haldane brothers in Scotland at the beginning of the nineteenth century. James Haldane, pastor of the Edinburgh Tabernacle, argued in 1805 that ‘the elders are all equal in office, but an equality of gifts among them is not to be expected. Where the elders and the church are of a proper temper, there will be no disputing on this head.’ Yet disputes there evidently were. It was not necessary, James Haldane believed, that several elders ‘should, in their turn, conduct the public service’. Where that system had been allowed to operate there had been ‘great injury to the power of religion, even in the members of the church.’36 He was speaking from unhappy experience and observation.37 The attempt to secure a plurality of elders at Haldane’s Tabernacle ‘did not succeed’ and Robert Haldane was to say in 1821 that ‘the system did not work’38
After the seventeenth century, however, Congregationalism, in general, moved decisively away from the idea of two classes of elders and came to hold only the offices of pastor and deacon. The reason why Presbyterianism did not make the same change was that it had evolved a system of checks and balances which made it impossible for the eldership in any congregation to act over the head of the minister. In theory the minister and elder might be considered to occupy the same office, in practice the minister, as the permanent member of the local presbytery, had very distinct privileges.
In the last thirty years, as is well known, a number of Calvinistic independent and Baptist congregations have admired Presbyterian order and re-introduced elders. For a number of churches this change may have proved beneficial but there has also been cause for misgivings and the old doubt has re-surfaced whether an order can work which gives elders an equality with pastors, and leaves pastors without the greater security built into the Presbyterian system. In saying this I am not arguing here for Presbyterianism but simply making an observation.
Apart from the danger of disharmony, there is another lesson from history which I believe can be urged against the third view It is that congregations do not want a team of preachers. They have found great edification in the ministry of one or two pastors. Even assemblies of Brethren have found reason to move away from their original position. The consecutive teaching of a man, anointed of God and enabled to give himself wholly to the needs of a congregation, is commonly throughout Christian history vastly preferable to a number of preachers whose time for gospel ministry is necessarily far more limited. It is all very well for modern innovators to decry the ‘one-man ministry’ as they do but let any congregation which has known the blessing of God be asked whether they would have preferred their pastor to share the pulpit constantly with a number of others and the answer would not be in doubt.
It is far too simple to claim, as the modern upholders of ‘body ministry’ have done, that the move away from regular, appointed ministers of the Word is the result of a new spiritual understanding and liberty. The claim might not be made with such confidence if its promoters knew a little more church history. As long ago as 1862, Spurgeon said, ‘The outcry against the "one man ministry" cometh not of God, but of proud self-conceit, of men who are not content to learn although they have no power to teach.39
1. We have covered enough ground to establish at least one thing clearly: the question of the eldership is by no means straightforward. The subject has been handled by a number of the most eminent teachers of the Church including Calvin, Owen, Thornwell, Hodge — to name a few — and none is decisive in establishing a clear scriptural case. They are all unconvincing at certain points and sometimes they are inconsistent in the very views they advance. Witherow goes so far as making the following admission:
As we have seen, Witherow offered yet another solution to put the situation right. But is it not more important that we should deduce from this absence of certainty that the New Testament itself contains obscurities which no one can readily resolve? Even the number of permanent officers in the apostolic churches has never been unanimously agreed. Two we are certain about, presbyters and deacons. Calvin, however, believed that there were four: pastor, doctor, elder and deacon. The Westminster divines agreed, though substituting ‘other church-governors’ for ‘elders’! The very nature of ‘office’ remains a subject of discussion.
Then there is ambiguity in the very usage of the word ‘presbyter’ in the New Testament. Sometimes it may simply refer to older, senior men, not to office-bearers at all. Sometimes, of course, the reference is to office-bearers in the synagogue. Some writers make much of the claim that the Christian elder is taken over from the Jewish elder and that his primary role was ruling. Therefore, they argue, that the first eldership in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 11:30) constituted a group of rulers, with the actual teaching being done by the apostles, prophets and teachers endowed with special gifts.
That may possibly be true of the Jerusalem eldership at the early date of Acts 11 but, even if it was so, it does not mean that it should be regarded as the permanent pattern. There is transition, change and development within the New Testament itself. Just what that change was is another thing not entirely clear. We can see that the diaconate of Acts 6 is not identical with the later diaconate of 1 Timothy 3. Similarly, supposing elders were not, at first, preachers and teachers, it is quite understandable that a change was required by the time the Pastoral Epistles were written. On this point E. A. Litton wrote:
2. The uncertainties surrounding ‘office’ in the New Testament lead some to emphasise that what is important, after all, is not the name of an office but the gifts which Christ bestows and which are to be used. The titles we give to men are less significant than the gift. So if men clearly have gifts of leadership and rule, although they are not preachers, does it matter if we call them ‘elders’? Most Presbyterian churches have concluded that, in practice at least, it does not matter. Yet the fact is that any serious reader of the New Testament can see that the word ‘elder’ is the only word which designates the work of gospel ministers and so all modern churches who sanction non-preaching ‘elders’ leave their pastors open to the charge that they are arrogating to themselves a work which ought to belong to all elders. As Charles Hodge says, ‘Much confusion has arisen from the use of the word elder [i.e., in the sense of ruling elder] and presbyter as synonymous.42
This confusion would have been avoided if the Westminster Assembly’s preference for the term ‘Church Governors’ had displaced the loose use of the term ‘elder’. The main objection to this, as we have noted, is that it would give men a title and position which has no clear existence as an office in the New Testament. Rather than do that, some have argued, it would be better to embrace the functions of our present ruling elders within the diaconate. Thus T F Torrance writes:
In this connection it can probably be added that, in point of fact, in healthy gospel churches of independent persuasion, the actual work done by deacons in assisting pastors is the equivalent to the work done by elders in Presbyterian congregations. One Presbyterian writer, taking a ‘comparative view of English and Scottish dissenters’ actually asserts this. Dr. Thomson of Coldstream writes: ‘Two sorts of officers are recognized by both: — and what are deacons in the one are just elders in the other. Names are nothing.’44
3. If the train of thought we have followed is not seriously awry then the difficulties attached to theories of the ruling eldership must raise the larger question whether there is any unvarying, ‘divine-right’ model of church order, set down for all time in Scripture. Many of the most distinguished of the Puritans believed that there was indeed a definite pattern, and that principle binds us to it, but their failure to be able to clarify or agree on this definite pattern shows that no one had enough light or evidence to convince others. Differences over church order were argued to the point of exhaustion and when it was all done an author such as T. M. Lindsay in his book The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries could say, perhaps with some justice, ‘The organization of the Primitive Christian Church . . . has no resemblance to any modern ecclesiastical organization, and yet contains within it the roots of all whether congregational, presbyterian (conciliar) or episcopal.’45
This issue of one definite scriptural order lies at the heart of the debate which took place between Thornwell and Charles Hodge over ruler elders. Thornwell was shocked that Princeton could defend elders on grounds other than proof-texts to which clear-cut obedience is required: a class of men was being recognized concerning whom the New Testament says nothing about their appointment. Hodge freely admits this:
4. It has to be remembered that a great deal of the zeal manifested in the seventeenth century to establish uniformity in church government was driven by the belief that without it churches would be in a state of schism. But if Christ has imposed no one, unvarying form of government, and if schism is not a matter of external conformity, then that belief was a noble mistake. As A. A. Hodge writes:
This does not mean that matters of church government can be treated as unimportant. But it does warn us that all over-vigorous dogmatism, and all ‘ultraism’ for one ‘orthodox’ position on points of order, are more likely to distract churches with controversy than to do lasting good. In the winning of souls to Christ Scripture commends a higher duty to us. The supreme need is to see men and women belonging by faith to Christ himself and thus being united to the church which is ‘the heavenly Jerusalem’. Apart from this, as Owen says, ‘All contests about church-order . . . are vain, empty, fruitless.’ ‘If this only true notion of the catholic church were received, as it ought to be, it would cast contempt on all those contests about the church, or churches, which at this day so perplex the world. He who is first instated, by faith on the person and mediation of the Lord Jesus Christ, in this heavenly society, will be guided by the light and privileges of it into such ways of divine worship in churches here below as shall cause him to improve and grow in his interest in that above.’48
In different words, James Haldane was to profess similar sentiments in his last illness. ‘It was his conviction that the Spirit was given as the Lord saw good to all Churches — that it was the preaching of sound doctrine which the Lord blessed, and not particular systems of church-government. "Great good," he said, "was done by itinerating, but we were permitted for a time to attach too much importance to some things connected with Church order; and whether it was that we were not worthy, or whatever was the cause, our efforts to restore apostolic Churches and primitive Christianity were unsuccessful."’49
We should not deduce from this that it is not worth struggling about questions of church order — neither Owen nor the Haldanes believed that — but our endeavours should ever be moderated by the consciousness that much imperfection and some uncertainties belong to the order of all churches. So Calvin, while preaching on the eldership, could say: ‘There is yet a great distance between us, and the order that was practised in the apostles time. And therefore let us pray God to confirm us, that he bring things to a better pass . . . seeing we are not only not in the middest way, but to speak truth have scarce begun.’50
It may surely be that one reason why God has permitted difficulties with the subject we have discussed, as with other subjects, is that we might have further cause to learn humility. ‘While we wrangle here in the dark,’ writes Baxter, ‘we are dying and passing to the world that will decide all our controversies; and the safest passage thither is by peaceable holiness’.51
1. No one modern form of church government can be said to be prescribed in all its features by ‘proof-texts’.
2. If insistence upon precise biblical evidence is believed to be required for true church order, then non-preaching ‘elders’ cannot form a part of that order.
3. If the two-offices view of the eldership can be defended from general biblical considerations, so also can some other forms of government in which the same functions operate under different names.
4. We have left the New Testament when we show more concern for establishing forms of church government than we do for seeing men and women joined to the church universal and in possession of eternal life
Iain Murray born in Lancashire, England, in 1931, was educated in the Isle of Man and at the University of Durham, and entered the Christian ministry in 1955. He served as assistant to Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel (1956-59) and subsequently at Grove Chapel, London (1961-69) and St. Giles Presbyterian Church, Sydney (1981-84). Although remaining a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, he currently lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, where the Banner of Truth Trust (of which he is a founding trustee) has its main office. His other books are:
Australian Christian Life From 1788
This article appeared in the Banner of Truth Magazine, Issue 395-396, August-September 1996.
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