Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Westminster Wednesday: G. I. Williamson on the Offices in the Church

After meticulous consideration, he favors the 3-office view.

I want to begin this article by frankly admitting that I've long hesitated on this issue. The fact that Paul only speaks of elders and deacons in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9 has always seemed to me to have some weight in favor of the two-office view. At the same time, however, I've always thought that 1 Timothy 5:17 clearly proves that—in the established churches of the Apostolic age—there was a marked division of labor among those who were called elders. All elders ruled, but there were some elders who, in addition to ruling, were especially marked out to "labor in word and doctrine" and this undeniable fact always seemed to me to lend some weight to the arguments of those in favor of the three-office view.

I've read just about everything that I could put my hands on to resolve my hesitation, but never seemed to quite get beyond a two and-a-half-office view. But then one day it 'hit' me. Now I wonder why I never thought of it before. I'm even more astonished that no one else seems to have thought of it either (at least I am not aware of any, and I've been looking into this issue for the past 40 years). So here I am tentatively setting forth what seems to me to be the amazingly simple solution to this difficulty.

I now see that it is not really correct to say that Paul only lists the qualifications for two offices: the elders and the deacons. No, it is more accurate to say that he lists the qualifications for three offices: (1) the deacons, (2) the elders who rule but do not labor in the word and in doctrine, and (3) the elders who not only rule but also labor in word and doctrine as their vocation. What I mean is that the qualifications for (1) and (2) are clearly set down in chapter three of First Timothy. and in the first chapter of Titus. But the qualifications for category (3) are not only to be found in the portion of these passages that speaks of the general qualifications for elders, but also in the entire content of First and Second Timothy and Titus.

It is very clear that Titus and Timothy were men who preached the gospel. And it is equally clear that the Apostle Paul—for this reason—gives many specific instructions to these men that pertain precisely to their "labor in word and doctrine?" In 1 Timothy Paul charges Timothy to be particularly vigilant to refute unsound doctrine (1:3-11). He gives a special charge to him (1:18). He urges him to "instruct the brethren in these things" as "a good minister of Jesus Christ" (4:6). He is urged to give himself "to reading, exhortation and doctrine" (4:13). He is exhorted to "preach the season and out of season" (2 Tim. 4:2). And other specifics could easily be added—things not required of those other elders who did not labor in word and doctrine. These specifics are such as to clearly mark out the teaching elder—the preaching elder—as a man charged with specific duties that are above and beyond the call of the ruling elders. I take this to be the reason why Paul speaks of such men (in 1 Tim. 5:17) as especially worthy of double honor if they are faithful.

Why, then—it might be asked—does he use one word (presbyter or elder) as a name for both in 1 Tim. 5:17? Why does he insist on speaking of both those who do and those who do not labor in word and in doctrine as elders? I think the reason is simply this: to avoid even the slightest tendency toward hierarchical thinking. The apostle John wrote of a certain man named Diotrephes who loved "to have the preeminence" (3 John 9). We also know from the New Testament account that the Apostles themselves were not immune to this temptation (Luke 22:24-26). One of the great principles clearly stated in the Dordt Church Order is that no office-bearer is to be allowed to Lord it over any other office-bearers (Art. 84). I suggest that it was because of this constant tendency in our sinful nature that Paul did not give any higher sounding title to the preaching elder than to the elders that only rule. And we do well to take this lesson to heart. Yet this should in no way diminish our ability to recognize that which is special in defining this office.

With respect to those who labor among us Paul says that we should "esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake" (1 Thess. 5:13). This is especially true of the minister of the word if he really does labor in the word and in doctrine. In my own ministry I've tried to discourage both ministers and so-called lay-people from too much concern about titles (Dominee, Reverend, Doctor etc.). It is also my observation that emphasis on such titles is counterproductive. God's people are usually quite willing to esteem those who do faithfully preach the gospel to them. So there is no need for some artificial status elevation for ministers, as if the mere possession of a title qualifies them to a position or status above others.

The need of the hour is not status, but a generation of men who can truly say "woe be unto me if I preach not the gospel." Ministers who lust after status and titles will do nothing for the advancement of the true church. Those who humbly labor in the word of God with diligence and perseverance, and then preach it with power will neither need nor desire these artificial things.

I'm not saying that labels have no importance at all. I am only saying that what really matters is what is under the labels. The apostle Paul put it like this: "If you instruct the brethren in these things, you will be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished in the words of faith and of the good doctrine which you have carefully followed." (1 Tim. 4:6).

It is enough to be—and to be called—a minister of the Word of God (that is, a faithful minister after the pattern of Timothy and Titus). For, as our Lord himself put it, that makes the minister the bottom man on the totem pole (to speak in colloquial terms), not the man on the top if it. "The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called 'benefactors.' But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves." (Luke 22:25.26)

Paul put the issue precisely when he wrote this to Timothy: "Let no one despise your youth"—but then immediately added—"but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in charity." So we have every right to defend the intrinsic importance of our office, but we should not try to do it by artificial demands based on mere titles. Rather must it arise from credible evidence of our own faithfulness as we labor in word and in doctrine.

So I am finally driven to the conclusion that the three-office view is really what the Scriptures teach. But I also see that recognition of this in no way implies—in the slightest degree—any hierarchical status for ministers. As John Murray points out in his Commentary on the Book of Romans, Paul "considered himself 'less than the least of all saints' (Eph. 3:8) but he did not allow this estimate of himself to keep him from asserting his high prerogatives as an apostle and minister of Christ. Among believers he is the noblest example of what he here (Rom. 12:10,11) commends and of the sobriety of judgment to be exercised 'according as God hath dealt to each a measure of faith.'" (p. 130).

Blessed indeed is the minister of the Word who can keep these two things in proper order and balance. (G. I. Williamson, The Two- and Three-Office Issue Reconsidered, Ordained Servant — Vol. 12, No. 1, 5-6, emphases original)

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