Biblical Church Office: Covenantal Rule, Covenantal Care

This article was originally a chapter in an unpublished manuscript entitled Reforming the Modern Church

How often have you seen it? The pastor likes this, or dislikes that, and therefore the whole church follows suit. Or, conversely, the leadership of the church is at the mercy of the whims of a vocal minority in the church, who shoot down almost anything productive.

Is it possible that such cases reflect a failure to follow the biblical pattern of church leadership? Admittedly, no system is going to remove all occasions for difficulty. But surely we must agree that the most biblical approach to the government of the church would be the one we are bound to follow - and indeed, the most effective one.

Churches must have leadership. There are those who pretend that the biblical way of doing things makes each member of the congregation equally ultimate in decision-making, at least in principle. Every issue ought to be decided by a congregational vote. The office-bearers (if there are any) ought to only have authority to implement the wishes of the congregation. Absolute democracy is seen to be the height of church government.

But this is absolutely not the biblical norm. God, the Ruler of His Church, has appointed rulers who are to be remembered and obeyed (Heb. 13:7, 17). They are certainly not to be "lords over God's flock" (1 Pet. 5:3), but they are commissioned to uphold the Word of God in the church.1

The covenant was instituted by God as the structure in which He relates to His people. This covenant is to be maintained through the means God has ordained, which includes human beings. In my article on church membership, I take note of the responsibility of the members of the body to mutually edify, encourage, and correct one another. The church is a community of believers whom God holds responsible for the welfare, spiritual and otherwise, of its various members. The maintenance of purity and vitality depends to a large degree upon the willing hearts of the people of God.

The office of elder

Yet this in no way diminishes the need for a special office. Paul instructed Titus to appoint elders in every city (Titus 1:5). He instructed Timothy at length concerning the requirements for office (1 Tim. 3:1-13); the younger man was to ordain elders, but not using hasty judgment (1 Tim. 5:22). Why the precision? Because the house of God "is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). If the Church is shaken off the truth, then the truth as it is known historically, the one faith of Christ, will suffer. The call of the Church is not to engage in social action, nor to entertain young people. No, it is to maintain the truth of God. It is to reveal Christ and uphold His Word. This is the nature of the most basic character of the true Church. All legitimate functions of the Church, whether evangelism or care for the needy, spring from this character.

But Paul's supposition is that the proper conduct in such a church (1 Tim. 3:15a) includes the ordination of spiritual men who will be able to rule and nurture it (vv. 1-13). Although all of the members of the church are responsible to maintain its health, yet there must be more concrete structure than this. There must be men who are officially charged with "holding fast the faithful word," proclaiming God's Word to the congregation and silencing the deceivers (Titus 1:9ff.). There must be men who will shepherd God's people as "examples to the flock" (1 Pet. 5:2, 3). This is the duty of elders.

How are these duties to be performed?

First, elders must provide for faithful preaching. There must be those who "labour in the Word and doctrine" (1 Tim. 5:17), who will "give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine" (1 Tim. 4:13), who will, in short, "preach the Word" (2 Tim. 4:2). The elders in general provide for such a ministry; they "oversee" the pulpit and the congregation (the word "bishop" simply means "overseer").2 Among the eldership there must be at least one man who will faithfully proclaim God's Word to the congregation in covenantal worship. Beyond that, the eldership is responsible to hold the preaching to the standard of the Word of truth. The elders are to safeguard the preaching ministry from error. After all, it is their task "by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict," stopping the mouths of those "who subvert whole households, teaching things which they ought not" (Titus 1:9, 11). Since they are to maintain purity of doctrine within the church, elders are certainly to ensure that this is upheld in the preaching of the Word.

Second, the eldership is called upon to exercise pastoral (shepherding) care of the flock of God in a way which goes beyond the pulpit. We have seen that those who contradict the truth are to be silenced; such a defense of the truth is an aspect of this shepherding work. But shepherding is much broader than this. There are other arenas for teaching the people of God. Examples readily come to mind: Bible studies or thematic seminars and conferences, for example. This is the particularly doctrinal aspect of shepherding.

But there is also the overseeing of the practice of the faith in the lives of the saints. The author of Hebrews exhorts his readers,

Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.

Hebrews 13:17

Elders are called to account for the manner in which they "watch out for the souls" of the congregation of Jesus Christ.3 They do not act as "lords," but through exhortation, example, and the discipline of the Word, they are to oversee God's people. "Being examples to the flock" (1 Pet. 5:3) carries a very helpful approach to the nature of the elders' rule. Some would reduce their rule by this statement to merely giving a good example to follow without engaging in actual oversight. But this cannot be. A shepherd's role is not simply to act like a good sheep. Nonetheless, there is a crucial element here that is important to see.

All Christians are responsible for their brethren. The congregation, as we have seen, is to be mutually involved in the edification of the various members, through encouragement, comfort, correction, and rebuke, as is appropriate. In all of these areas, the elders must demonstrate genuine leadership for the flock to follow. They are to pursue close enough contact with the various members that they may provide nurture and discipline.4 In doing so, they ought to encourage the individual members to likewise honour God by demonstrating similar care for their brothers and sisters. If the elders, who in particular have been assigned an exemplary task, are negligent in this duty, it is unlikely the church members will initiate their own spiritual callings within the church.

What we have considered thus far is largely centred around the picture of leadership contained in the titles "pastor" (shepherd) and "bishop" (overseer). The other term used is "elder." This is a carry-over from the Old Testament. In fact, the New Testament churches seem to have borrowed very extensively from the synagogue in their structure. They did not reinvent the wheel. Although there is a great deal of difference between the testaments (the redemptive shadow has become the reality), meaning that, for example, the law regarding the priesthood has become obsolete (Heb. 7:11,12), there is nonetheless also a vast area of continuity. Given the covenantal unity which we have seen expressed in the Scriptures, this should hardly be surprising.

The formal institution of elders dates back to the time of Moses. They were employed primarily for judicial purposes, at the advice of Moses' father-in-law, Jethro. Moses was hearing all the cases of complaint that arose within the covenant community; Jethro rightly observed that one person should not carry such a burden. Instead, an organization of district elders was instituted, with only the very difficult cases being appealed to Moses (Ex. 18). It would seem that this system of eldership was adopted in both the civil and ecclesiastical realms.5

In the New Testament Church, the need for such an authoritative body remains. In the disorderly Corinthian church, Paul chided them for engaging in lawsuits at the unbelieving courts, rather than looking to the church for judgment. "I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren?" Paul contends that bringing disputes between Christians before the ungodly is far worse than simply allowing others to take advantage of them. The household of faith is a cleansed community, and should not look to the "unwashed" for judgment (1 Cor. 6:1-11). This by itself does not prove, of course, that such judgment could not be made simply by some impartial brother; however, the introduction of the office of elder, which carries its own history, would indicate that much of the task required of office-bearers would be judicial in nature.6

Nonetheless, this judicial element does not mean that the eldership then infringes upon the domain of the criminal courts. Even in Israel, there were two sets of elders: one for the sociopolitical realm, and one for the ecclesiastical (church) realm.7 The church looks to deal with things on a spiritual level; the State executes justice. The aim of the church is to restore men to fellowship with God and reconcilation with their neighbours; in Scripture, the aim of the State is to bring retribution and arrange restitution.8

Because of this, we are given to understand what kind of men that elders must be: they need to be particularly fitted to drawing people to restoration of fellowship with God. This work includes the nurture of the members, and the government of the body, through the various means of oversight God has given.

The office of deacon

There is another office in the church which deserves at least brief attention. That office is the one of deacon. In modern practice, deacons are one of two things: elders with the wrong title,9 or the financial officers of the church. Neither of these is biblically correct.

When Paul instructed Timothy regarding the ordination of office-bearers, he gave, for the most part, the same qualifications for deacons as for elders, although he does not explicitly say that they rule the church (1 Tim. 3:8-13; cf. vv. 4, 5). The diaconate is a spiritual office, requiring spiritual qualifications; deacons must "hold the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience" (v. 9). The deacons ought to be more than collection-takers; they should act as the stewards of the church. They should have ability to counsel, even as the elders should. Deacons can be much more active in the life of the church than many churches have allowed them to be. Serving well as collection-takers does not "obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus" (v. 13). The diaconate must go broader and deeper, in the covenantal care and service of the congregation, acting in stewardship to help the members be more effective as Christians.10

Remember what we said regarding the variety of responsibilities members have toward one another? Deacons are stewards of the church, providing coordination, in very practical ways, to the assistance God's people ought to give one another. Perhaps we may say, in a sense, that all of God's people are deacons, while those in the office of deacon provide leadership, oversight, direction, and coordination to the people's diaconal work.

Who may serve in church office?

In the pastoral epistles, Paul pays close attention to what sort of people may serve in the offices of the church. We can see the spirituality of the offices by the nature of the apostle's list of qualifications.

Paul does not suggest that we seek out successful businessmen, or effective administrators. He is concerned with the character of the church and the character of its officebearers. Those called to office are expected both to know the Word of God, and live it out.

The officebearer must know the Word of God. In early church times, of course, there were no seminaries, as we know them today. Nonetheless, there was opportunity for in-depth teaching, coupled with the dynamics of practical ministry. We see this as early as the training of the disciples by Christ. They forsook their labours to "attend His school." Later, the apostles had helpers who accompanied them, and learned from them, during their missionary endeavours.

The bishop (elder) must be "able to teach" (1 Tim. 3:2). He must be able to "hold fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict," stopping the mouths of "idle talkers and deceivers" (Titus 1:9-11).

A solid grounding in God's Word, and an ability to recognize and refute error, is fundamental to such a task. Elders are shepherds (pastors); this means that they are called to feed the sheep of God. After faithfully teaching the Ephesian church the whole counsel of God, proclaiming it "publicly and from house to house," Paul called upon the Ephesian elders to walk in his steps, taking heed both to themselves and to the flock which God had put in their care (Acts 20:17-28). Ignorant elders simply cannot fulfil their calling in the church.

But knowledge and ability to teach are not enough. The officebearers of the church must also, in their lives, embody the Word of God. Paul, in his ordination instructions, spends more time on character issues than anything else. As Peter notes, elders are to be "examples to the flock" (1 Pet. 5:3). The elders and deacons must be blameless and above reproach. They must be hospitable, self-controlled, motivated by the sober truth, and unmoved by desires for reward. They must be characterized, not by quarrelsome behaviour, or violence, but by firm gentleness.

This character must be seen in their household affairs. An elder or deacon is to be the husband of one wife. While polygamy is no longer common, this qualification rules out men who divorce and remarry without a biblically valid reason.11

But this qualification goes deeper. Such a man is devoted to his wife (literally, he is to be a "one-woman man"), and "rules his own house well" (1 Tim. 3:4). He does not allow his children to run roughshod over his God-given authority as the household head. As Paul asks, how can a man take care of the church of God if he does not know how to rule his own house (1 Tim. 3:5)? If a man does not exercise the authority God has already given him, he is not qualified to receive more (see Luke 16:10).

Women in office?

In a time when much attention is given to sexual equality, it should be no surprise that such an issue should arise in the church. Many churches have ordained women as elders and ministers for many years, while others are now moving in that direction.

Does the Scripture speak to this issue? It certainly does. In fact, in the very epistle which is devoted to the care of the church, just prior to his list of qualifications for office, Paul gives attention to the roles of men and women in the church - and the difference.

Paul had committed the care for the Ephesian church to his delegate, the evangelist Timothy. He then wrote to Timothy to instruct him concerning the ordering of the life and structure of the church (1 Tim. 1:3; 3:14, 15). The apostle wanted the younger man to "wage the good warfare" in terms of the calling God had given him in the church (1 Tim. 1:18).

This good warfare included public prayer (2:1). "Therefore, I desire that the men pray everywhere,12 lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting" (2:8). Certain men are, therefore, to lead the church's official intercession. This is not the case with the women: "Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence" (2:11, 12).13

Paul is telling Timothy how the church is to be run. He tells him clearly that women may not occupy positions of church authority. They may not preach or teach the congregation, nor even lead the congregation in terms of prayer (congregational prayer is a representative act, and itself implies a certain level of authority).

The ensuing list of qualifications for office given by the apostle make it clear that it is not only women who may not serve as elders. Many men in the church, probably most, will not qualify either. Church office is not something to pass around, to give everyone a "piece of the action." It is a sacred trust which God gives to the church, and expects us to guard jealously.

Paul is very clear. Church authority, seen in terms of teaching and ruling the congregation, is not the woman's place. She is equal to man in terms of her value before God and her access to the inheritance of the saints (Gal. 3:28), but He calls her to function differently. This is analogous to the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are all equal - they are all equally God, almighty, everlasting. Yet, there is a functional taxis (order), to borrow the language of the Church Fathers. Jesus said, "I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me" (Jn. 5:30; cf. Jn. 8:16-18, 42, etc.). Value and function must be distinguished. Salvation and office are not the same thing.

Note that if equality between men and women is seen as a functional equality, rather than an equality of value, then true sexuality is lost. Indeed, no objection can remain against homosexuality. For if a woman may function as a man, or vice versa, this is also true sexually. The Bible, however, makes it plain that homosexuality is unnatural, against the created order (see, for example Rom. 1:26, 27). So too, the obliteration of the distinction in function between the sexes is also unnatural, against the created order. So Paul appeals, not only to the Fall, but also to creation: "For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression" (1 Tim. 2:13, 14).

(Note: It may be noted that I have been speaking explicitly regarding ministers and elders. I do not make the same claim regarding the diaconate; see the distinction made in 1 Tim 3.11, where what is often translated "their wives" is literally "the women." A good case can be made both historically and biblically that there is a legitimate serving office of deacon which is open to women. I am not presently dogmatic on the point.)

The source of the offices

God in His wisdom has elected to govern and nurture His churches through special offices. These offices were not invented through the wisdom of men. They were designed by God for our good. The calling of the office-bearers is a divine calling: "take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers . . . ." (Acts 20:28).

This mandate gives a fearful weight to the office. As James says, "be not many teachers, knowing that we will receive the stricter judgment" (James 3:1). Yet, although there is a giving of account for the discharge of His calling, faithfulness will bring true joy (cf. Heb. 13:17).

We need to believe in the wisdom of the Lord, Who gives us the called ministries for the good of His people. The beauty of His order in the area of these offices will provide a framework for healthy, covenantal, church life.

Further reading

Lawrence R. Eyres, The Elders of the Church (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1975).

John MacArthur Jr., The Master's Plan for the Church (Chicago: Moody, 1991). This is one of the best comprehensive works available, written in layman's terms.

John R. Sittema, With a Shepherd's Heart: Reclaiming the Pastoral Office of Elder (Grandville, MI: Reformed Fellowship, Inc., 1996). This is an excellent and refreshing book. Write: 2930 Chicago Dr. S.W., Grandville, MI USA 49418.


1 Note that it is the Word of God which elders are called to enforce. This is not a license for authoritarianism. The eldership, biblically, is not an elite group that is unanswerable to the congregation, making unilateral decisions. When it comes to upholding biblical norms, however, the eldership answers to God, not to congregational referendums.

2 Bishop (overseer), elder, and pastor (shepherd) are all terms used to denote the same office. The terms bishop and elder are used interchangeably in Titus 1:5, 7. In Acts 20, all three designations are used to refer to the same group: the men addressed are the elders of the Ephesian church (v. 17); they have been made overseers [bishops] to shepherd [pastor] the church of God (v. 28). The same holds true for 1 Peter 5: the apostle addresses the elders (v. 1), who are to shepherd the flock, serving as overseers (v. 2).

3 This echoes Ezekiel's role: "Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; therefore hear a word from My mouth, and give them warning from Me: when I say to the wicked, 'you shall surely die,' and you give him no warning ... his blood I will require at your hand" (Ez. 3:17, 18). Consider also chapter 33 of the same book.

4 One very helpful means that the Reformed churches have used to achieve this is "family visiting." The elders, working in pairs, meet with each family of the congregation regularly to discuss, in a very personal way, the family's faith and life as members of the church. This provides opportunity for private encouragement and admonition; it familiarizes the families with the leadership; and it also provides a legitimate means of feedback for the leadership of the church to hear the concerns of their people.

5 That is, the "political government" employed this system, as did the "church government" system.

6 It should be noted that this is one of the earliest epistles. The transition from extraordinary office (apostles, prophets, and evangelists) to ordinary offices (elders and deacons) was probably in its early stages in the Gentile churches (it is clear from Acts 11:30 and Acts 15 that the Jerusalem church, by a fairly early date, was governed by elders together with the apostles). Although Paul spent eighteen months in founding the church (Acts 18:11), there is little to indicate fully-developed office within the church in 1 Corinthians, unless the reference to "administrations" is relevant, which is questionable. Stephanas seemed to have been emerging into an official role; his entire household had devoted itself to ecclesiastical affairs, and Paul called upon the church to "submit to such" (1 Cor. 16:15,16).

7 See George Gillespie, Aaron's Rod Blossoming (Harrisonburg, PA: Sprinkle, 1985 [1646]), especially chapters two and three (pp. 3-19; related materials follow). This is seen in the distinction between "all matters of the Lord" and "all the king's matters" in 2 Chron. 19:11.

8 The call for restitution is also related to the duty of the church, of course. But for the church, this is considered a part of repentance. For the State, it is considered part of "paying a debt to society."

9 Some church groups do not ordain elders (other than the preaching pastor), only deacons. These function according to the essential lines of the eldership.

10 I acknowledge my debt to Dr. Nelson Kloosterman of Mid-America Reformed Seminary for his insight into the broad nature of stewardship involved in the work of the diaconate.

11 On this, see Jay Adams, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980).

12 "Everywhere" is literally, "all places," and probably refers back to Paul's preceding explanation of the coming of the Gospel to the Gentiles. Therefore, in this context, the idea is not personal daily prayer in the various mundane duties of life, but the prayer of Christ's churches throughout the world for peace and the salvation of others.

13 See also 1 Cor. 14:34: "Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says."

— Tim Gallant

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