Order in the Offices

A Book Review by Sherman Isbell

Order in the Offices. edited by Mark R. Brown, 1993, 304 pp., paperback. Classic Presbyterian Government Resources.

This book, edited by a minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is a collection of fifteen essays, intended to assert the uniqueness of the gospel minister, in the face of much contemporary doubt about the validity of structured church offices, and uncertainty about the distinction to be made between preaching elders and ruling elders. The book is a response to an egalitarian society, and is an attempt to forestall conflict within the eldership over the distribution of responsibilities. A consideration of these questions is timely.

As a collection of essays, the book has a serious weakness. While the book is presented as a clarification of distinctions among church offices, there is from one essay to the next a significant degree of inconsistency as to definition. What some contributors defend as biblical teaching is regarded by other contributors as the error which must be opposed in order to safeguard the uniqueness of the gospel minister. The central purpose in some chapters is to contravene the position that ruling elders are included with ministers in the class which the Bible calls presbyters. But their inclusion in that class is stoutly defended elsewhere in the book. This will certainly confuse a reader who is new to the subject.

A further difficulty is the historical error which underlies much of the book. It is mistaken to say that the classic Presbyterian view on church office is represented by those who deny that ruling elders are biblical presbyters. Such a denial, asserted in the essays by Charles Hodge, Thomas Smyth, Peter Campbell, and the editor, is contrary to the older view held by John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Thomas Cartwright, the Scottish Second Book of Discipline, David Calderwood, David Dickson, the four Scottish commissioners to the Westminster Assembly (Samuel Rutherfurd, George Gillespie, Alexander Henderson, and Robert Baillie), Samuel Miller, and John Murray.

The editor refers to an article by Iain Murray as the seminal discussion in recent years, and tells how the article introduced him to the writings of Smyth. Murray’s article is included in the book, having first appeared in 1983 in the Banner of Truth magazine. Murray expresses concern about the views of James H. Thornwell (1812-62) and Robert L. Dabney (1820-98), who taught that both preachers and ruling elders are biblical presbyters. Murray fears that the distinctiveness of the gospel ministry is being lost in our day, and writes against a background of troubles in contemporary English Independency, where ruling elders have attempted to take on the functions of the minister, with no presbytery oversight to provide guidance in the ensuing conflicts. He surveys the work of Charles Hodge (1797-1878) and Thomas Smyth (1808-1873), and adopts their view that only preachers are the biblical presbyters. Murray accepts the conclusion of Peter Campbell (1810-76) and Thomas Witherow (1824-90) that the meaning of I Timothy 5:17 is obscure, and that the verse is not paralleled by other passages teaching a distinction within the eldership. He also cites Witherow’s claim that the ground occupied by Hodge and Smyth does not provide a biblical warrant for ruling elders, despite the claim of Hodge and Smyth to the contrary. Murray seems doubtful about Hodge’s success in discovering any scriptural basis for the ruling eldership, and does not resolve the question himself. Murray regards ruling elders as a happy feature of Presbyterianism, but it is not clear what biblical warrant he would offer for the office.

The book also contains material excerpted from the writings of Hodge, Smyth, and Campbell, and a study of Smyth’s thought by the editor, all arguing that the biblical presbyter is always a preacher. Smyth and Campbell rely on the references to rule and government in Romans 12:8 and I Corinthians 12:28 as the primary biblical warrant for other church governors. Smyth’s position is opposed by other essays in the book, including those by Steven Miller and Edmund Clowney, and in Jeffrey Boer’s exposition of Calvin’s doctrine of the eldership. These men show that the Scriptures distinguish two kinds of presbyter, with a distinction in function and in prerogative. With the clashing views represented throughout the book, the collection has no consensus as to what constitutes the biblical warrant for the ruling elder. A primary thrust of the essays by Clowney and Boer is to demonstrate that ruling elders are presbyters, but the essays by Campbell and the editor are apparently included in order to controvert just this notion. What all the contributors agree upon is that preaching is the distinctive function of the gospel minister. The book’s introduction acknowledges that the contributors have differences, but the fact is that if a book is intended to present a solid case for the uniqueness of the gospel ministry, the writers need to reach agreement on the questions which engender much of the present confusion.

One of the areas of confusion in Presbyterian churches today is with respect to the use of the term “three office view.” Unhappily, there is no consistency from one essay to the next in the use of the term. In some essays, the term means that the ruling elder is not a biblical presbyter, but in others the expression is used of the view that minister and ruling elder have distinguishable roles and offices, though both belong to the order of presbyter. In this latter sense, Thornwell is said to hold to three offices (pp. 37-40), and of course this would be true of Dabney as well. Because the volume establishes no consistency in the use of the term, the term loses its usefulness for distinguishing positions.

Contemporary confusion calls for a fresh consideration of what might be called Reformation-era Presbyterianism. The editor is incorrect in claiming that Smyth’s views represent classic Presbyterianism, and that Dabney’s are “the modern view” or “the new theory.” The fact is that Dabney and Thornwell are faithful to the original Presbyterian model when they teach that both the gospel minister and the ruling elder are the biblical presbyter, and that these are distinguishable offices within one order. This was the position held by Calvin, Bullinger, Beza, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Zanchi, and Cartwright, in the sixteenth century, and was adopted in the Second Book of Discipline (1578). It was the standard view in the Scotland of the seventeenth-century Second Reformation, as indicated by the writings of Calderwood and Dickson, and in the books of the four Scottish ministers who were commissioners to the Westminster Assembly. It was taught by John Owen. It is found in Walter Steuart of Pardovan’s Collections and Observations Concerning the Worship, Discipline, and Government of the Church of Scotland (1709), which was long the authoritative manual in the Church of Scotland and in early American Presbyterianism. It was also the view of the two Princeton professors of church polity, Samuel Miller (1769-1850) and Alexander T. MacGill (1807-1889). Southern Presbyterians Robert J. Breckenridge (1800-1871), Thornwell and Dabney were simply following this cloud of witnesses. Smyth, Hodge and Campbell were undeniably departing from the orginal Presbyterian model when they alleged that the ruling elder is not a biblical presbyter. Smyth is highly selective in his citations from historical materials. Reformation-era Presbyterianism is reasserted by John Murray (in volume two of his Collected Writings) and by Edmund Clowney. Clowney’s “Brief for Church Governors,” first issued as a class syllabus at Westminster Seminary, and now printed in Order in the Offices, is an excellent exegetical study, insisting on the status of ruling elders as presbyters, but also the distinguishable gifts, function and commission of ministers of the word.

The fact is that both Hodge and Smyth on the one hand, and Breckenridge, Thornwell and Dabney on the other, departed from the Reformation-era model. The innovation on the part of the second party was their claim that the imposition of hands in ordination is merely an act of rule, and belongs to the ruling elder as well as to the minister of the word. The older position, represented, for example, by Gillespie’s Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland (1641), is that there is a biblical distinction between the rule committed to all presbyters, and certain executive functions carried out on behalf of the presbytery. The imposition of hands is an executive function, and such executive functions, like the administration of the sacraments, the preaching of God’s word to his people, and the pronouncement of admonition and censures on behalf of church courts, belong exclusively to the minister of the word, “for he is as messenger and herald between God and the people” (Second Book of Discipline). This division of functions was endorsed by Samuel Miller. After Miller, neither side in the nineteenth-century American debate remained altogether faithful to the Reformation-era pattern.

There were also new theories in Scotland and Ireland during the nineteenth century. Peter Campbell, Principal of Aberdeen University, and hailing from the Church of Scotland’s moderate wing (known for its aversion to the warm proclamation of evangelical truth), published a book in 1866 in which he took much the same position as Smyth and Hodge. Denying that I Timothy 5:17 indicated a distinction between preachers and ruling elders, Campbell concluded that only gospel ministers are referred to in the verse. Campbell condemned Miller’s The Ruling Elder as a “singularly illogical essay,” urging that one should not speak of ordination in connection with the admission of “lay church rulers,” because it would be inconsistent with their position as “the representatives of the unordained members of the church, as distinct from its professional functionaries.”

Witherow, writing from Belfast in 1873 and 1889, agreed that the New Testament represents all presbyters as preachers, but drew a conclusion opposite to that of Campbell. Witherow came to believe that all the functions of the gospel ministry should be equally open to ruling elders. At the same time, he suggested that in practice there must have been a division of labor among the presbyters in the apostolic church, and that some men called to the single office simply chose not to preach, because they were not well-gifted for that work. Witherow gives poorly-gifted men the prerogative to preach, but relieves them of the duty to preach. As Iain Murray rightly observes, Witherow destroys the biblical concept of a call to the gospel ministry (I Cor. 9:16-17, Acts 26:15-20, Rom. 10:15, Col. 4:17). Witherow fails to coordinate the three elements of a biblical office: gifts, functions, and an authoritative commission which makes the execution of functions both a prerogative and a duty. The theory that men are invested with office, but have no responsibility to discharge the functions of the office, was soundly critiqued by Gillespie, Owen, Dabney, McGill, Thomas E. Peck (1822-93), and by Witherow’s Irish contemporary, William D. Killen (1806-1902). Witherow’s position has apparently never been adopted by any Presbyterian church; it is quite another thing when churches following Gillespie’s doctrine allow ruling elders to supply the pulpit occasionally, as the church’s best resource when ministerial supply is altogether unavailable. Witherow contradicts the teaching of the Westminster Confession (XXVII.iv), by arguing that ruling elders should be allowed to administer the sacraments.

The inadequacies of Campbell’s and Witherow’s treatment of I Timothy 5:17 were well exposed by Gillespie in 1641. One has only to read Gillespie’s book, or the essay by Clowney, to see how pale is the claim by Campbell and Witherow that a case for distinction of gifts, functions, and commission within the eldership, is based only on one verse. Witherow seems unaware that his arguments had been addressed by Gillespie, and Campbell dismisses Gillespie by name without engaging his well-reasoned case. Gillespie’s Assertion was last printed in Edinburgh a century and a half ago, in The Presbyterian’s Armoury. Alongside his English Popish Ceremonies, recently reprinted, this is the book of Gillespie’s most requiring republication in our generation.

There is also valuable exegetical work in Robert Rayburn’s essay, which first appeared in 1986, in Covenant Seminary’s Presbyterion. Rayburn expounds the role of priests and Levites as an Old Testament precedent for the gospel ministry. The minister of the word, like the Old Testament priests, carries responsibility for the conduct of the ordinances of worship, and combines ruling and teaching in one office. This perspective was obviously important in the Westminster Assembly’s description of the pastor, found in the Form of Presbyterial Church Government (1644).

To assert the uniqueness of the gospel ministry, and the necessity of a call to preach, is highly appropriate. But this needs to be done on a firmer exegetical footing than the denial that the ruling elder is a biblical presbyter, and there should be a more accurate identification of historic Presbyterian teaching. The real value of this book is perhaps more incidental, in bringing into print the fine exegetical treatments by Clowney and Rayburn. There is a good essay by Gregory Reynolds about the denigration of church office in an egalitarian society.