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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
From the book, The Church, 1879
We submit the following propositions:
1. The terms presbyter, bishop, pastor, are designations of one office. For,
(a.) These terms are used interchangeably in Scripture. The elders of Ephesus are called also overseers or bishops. Paul, in giving charge to Titus respecting the ordination of this class, terms them, interchange-ably, elders and bishops. And Peter exhorts elders to take the oversight, or act as bishops, of the flock (Acts 20:17-28; Tit. 1:5-7; I Pet. 5:1, 2).
(b.) The qualifications and duties required of these are identical (I Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5).
(c.) Ordination, which Episcopacy claims as a prerogative of bishops, was plainly conferred by elders; for Timothy was set apart to his work by the presbytery, or eldership (I Tim. 4:14). The New Testament gives no intimation of a distinction between bishops and elders, the term bishop being simply the Greek word for designating the person whom the Jews called elder; while pastor indicated the same person, as one to whom God had committed the oversight and guidance of the flock. This view has now the sanction of nearly all biblical scholars, English and German, Episcopal and non-Episcopal, and must be regarded as definitely settled.
2. The duties of pastors are the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the ordinances, and the government and spiritual oversight of the church.
(a.) Preaching the gospel. In Paul's address to the elders of Ephesus, he plainly implies that their work was substantially identical with his own teaching "publicly and from house to house;" for he proposed to them his own example of labor. "Apt to teach" is made an essential qualification in the pastor, and he is required to be "able by sound doctrine to exhort and convince the gainsayers." The highest work of the ministry, as presented in Scripture, is to act as "ambassadors for Christ" in proclaiming God's message to man.
(b.) The administration of the ordinances. In the commission Christ makes it the duty of the ministry not only to "teach," but also to baptize, thus including the administration of ordinances in their work. Philip the evangelist, acting under this commission, having made the Ethiopian eunuch a disciple, baptized him. No clear example is found of the administration of ordinances by any person not a minister of the gospel. Indeed, the ordinary discharge of this duty by the pastors may be inferred not only from its inclusion in the ministerial commission and from the example of Scripture, but also from the nature of the case.
For it was a constant and public duty, which must have been committed to some persons, and the officers of the church were the natural administrators. In the absence of precept, therefore, committing it to others, we should infer that it devolved on them. But as there is no express command, nor absolutely decisive example, restricting the administration of ordinances to the ministry, we may conceive that under exceptional circumstances, when an ordained minister cannot be obtained, this service might, under the direction of the church, be performed by others.
(c.) The government and spiritual oversight of the church. These functions are indicated in the designations of the office. Elder, derived from Jewish usage, denotes a spiritual ruler. Bishop, from the Greek, designates one who has the oversight of others. Pastor, or shepherd, signifies one who guides, feeds, and protects the flock. Nearly all allusions to pastors refer to them as leaders, guides, overseers of the church, presiding over it and administering its government.
Thus, they preside in the assemblies of the church: Paul exhorts the Thessalonians, "We beseech you to know them that labor among you and are over" (preside over) "you in the Lord and admonish you." They inspire and lead the action of th6 church, and administer its rebukes and discipline: the Hebrew Christians are exhorted, "Obey them that have the rule over you and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls as they that must give account" (Heb. 13:17).
They instruct the church by word and example, in doctrine and duty; as Peter, in his striking charge to the elders says, "Feed"—act as shepherds over—"the flock of God, which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly, not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away" (I Pet. 5:1-4).
Thus divinely appointed as the guides and overseers of the church, they are invested with authority as the executive officers, through whom the power of the body is exercised; and, while they teach and rule according to God's Word, the members are required to submit to them, as the flocks follow the voice of their shepherds.
The powers and duties of pastors, therefore, briefly stated, are as follows:
1. To direct and supervise the public religious instruction of the congregation in the pulpit and in all other departments of church work: they are the spiritual guides of the church, and may not permit the inculcation of false doctrine.
2. To administer the ordinances within the church.
3. To preside in all meetings of the church, whether for devotion or business.
4. To watch over the personal experience and life of the members, exhorting, admonishing, reproving, rebuking, as those entrusted with the care of souls and expecting to give account. These powers and duties belong to the pastoral office, and within this sphere pastors act with rightful authority, as exercising functions devolved on them by God, but this authority is not absolute and final; for, as they receive their office through the church, so, if these powers are abused, the church may take the office from them.
3. Pastors do not constitute a priesthood with mediating, sacrificial, and absolving powers.
Sacerdotalism, the offspring of clerical ambition, developed itself early in the third century and ultimately triumphed in the patristic church. The three orders of the clergy, then beginning to appear, assumed to be a priesthood, and the church was modeled after Judaism. The bishop became summus sacerdos, high priest; the presbyter was sacerdos, priest; and the deacon was Levita, a Levite. A hierarchy arose with the power of mediating between God and man, of offering sacrifice to God, and of pronouncing absolution from sin.
The significant and beautiful ordinances of the gospel were transmuted into sacraments, possessing, when ministered by priestly hands, a magical efficacy to remove sins and impart eternal life. The priesthood, in which were strangely-blended characteristics from both heathenism and Judaism, arrogated to itself the exclusive power of opening and closing the door of heaven. And sacerdotalism, alike in the Papal and the Episcopal Church, has in all ages since asserted these as the true characteristics and functions of the Christian ministry.
Two facts, however, suffice to destroy this assumption:
1. Ministers, in the New Testament, are never designated as priests. All believers are, indeed, "made kings and priests unto God," and constitute a "royal priesthood," since, through the blood of Christ; they all have access through the veil into the immediate presence of God to offer spiritual sacrifices to him. But the ministry are never called priests, nor in any way indicated as a priestly caste distinct from and above the people. On the contrary, all the titles given them utterly preclude the idea of a priesthood or of priestly functions; for these titles pertain to the synagogue, not to the temple.
2. Since the Patriarchal age only two orders of priesthood have existed—that of Melchizedek and that of Aaron. The latter, without question, has been done away. The former still exists. But of this Christ is the one and final Priest, and his priestly work is performed, not on earth, but in the holiest of all, even heaven itself, where, "appearing in the presence of God," "he ever liveth to make intercession for us." The sacrifice he offered of himself was "once for all" complete and final, never to be repeated (Heb. 9 and 10). And it is the completeness of this one, final sacrifice, as at once and for ever putting away sin, which constitutes the message of the Christian ministry. There is, therefore, and in the nature of things there can be, no mediating, sacrificing, and absolving priesthood in the church. Christ is the one ETERNAL PRIEST: the ministry simply point the people to him. The assumption of priestly functions by man, therefore, is an invasion of the prerogatives of Jesus Christ.
4. The number of pastors in each church is not fixed by Scripture, but it is probable, alike from apostolic example and from history, that in the Apostolic age there were ordinarily several who together constituted the presbytery of the church.
(a.) The testimony of Scripture. We read of "the elders of the church” at Jerusalem, at Ephesus, and at Philippi. Paul and Barnabas "ordained elders in every church." Titus was left in Crete that he might ordain "elders in every city." In the catholic Epistles, James enjoins, in the case of the sick, that they "call for the elders of the church," and Peter exhorts "the elders which are among you;" in both which, as these apostles were addressing a large body of churches, the inference seems a necessary one that, as a common fact, a plurality of elders existed in each church. No clear example is found of a church organized under a single pastor.
Our Lord, in addressing the "seven churches of Asia," directs each epistle to "the angel of the church;" and it has been hence inferred that each of these churches was organized under a single pastor, called "the angel of the church." But this expression is confessedly obscure; there is no certainty that it designates a pastor at all, and standing alone it is wholly inadequate to offset the otherwise uniform example of Scripture. And even were it certain that "the angel of the church" designated the pastor, it would by no means follow that there was no church presbytery; for, in that case, the only legitimate inference would be that in the latter part of the Apostolic age, when the book of Revelation was written, the presiding officer of the church presbytery had already assumed, as he naturally would, a certain degree of prominence, which made him the proper medium through which to address the church.
(b.) The testimony of history. This is equally explicit in regard to a plurality in the eldership. Neander, speaking of the apostolic churches, says: "The guidance of the communities was everywhere entrusted to a Council of elders." (History of the Christian Religion and Church, Am. ed., vol. i., p. 184)
The earlier Fathers uniformly speak of them in the plural. Clement of Rome (A.D. 96) speaks of the first-fruits of the apostles' labors as having been "appointed to be bishops and deacons." Polycarp (A.D. 140) exhorts the Philippian church to "subject themselves to their presbyters and deacons." Tertullian, speaking of the public worship of the church, says: "Certain approved elders preside." In no instance do the Fathers of the second century speak of a single bishop in a church, except when referring to the president of the church presbytery, who among his fellow-presbyters was only first among equals. The bishop of the second century was simply the presiding officer among the presbyters of a church, and was the pastor over a single congregation.
Jerome states that at Alexandria, "until the middle of the third century, the presbyters always chose one of their own number as president, and gave him the title of bishop." But an extended citation of authorities is needless, for the existence of a presbytery in each church, composed of elders equal in authority, is attested by all the reliable records of the Post-apostolic age.
The question whether such a presbytery remains a part of the permanent constitution of the church, obligatory in all ages, has received different answers. The earlier Baptist confessions of faith—those of 1643 and 1689—recognize the plural eldership. The discipline adopted by the Philadelphia Association in 1743 presents it in the modified form of a ruling eldership, in which form, also, it still exists in some of the English churches.
Among our churches the plural eldership is commonly regarded as a feature peculiar to the Apostolic age, rendered necessary by the absence of a class of men specially trained for the pastoral office, and by the special circumstances of the churches in that period of persecution, when they were often compelled to meet in small companies at separate houses, and their members were scattered in prisons and placed in positions of peril and suffering, thus requiring a larger number of instructors and far greater and more varied labors in the pastoral care.
It is also urged that most churches do not possess several men adapted to such an office, and that the leadership of a single man would be more efficient than that of several men. With this view, in which there is much weight, our churches are generally organized under a single pastor, and many of the duties of the ancient presbytery, in the spiritual watch-care of the church, are transferred to the deacon's office. It is supposed that, in the changed circumstances of our age, this arrangement is not only lawful, but more expedient, especially as under it the pastor and deacons practically constitute a presbytery, and, so far as concerns the spiritual oversight, are often effectively doing its work.
On the other hand, it is said: There is serious reason to doubt whether an institution which rests on what seems the uniform example of the apostles can rightfully be set aside; as also whether, in the absence of such a guiding and conserving body within it, our church organization is not essentially weakened, alike in the purity and power of its church-life and in the wisdom and steadiness of its evangelizing efforts.
Certainly, a permanent presbytery within the church, embodying its best experience and intelligence, and specially set apart to conserve its spiritual interests, would seem adapted both to give steadiness to its operations and maintain uninterrupted its worship and ordinances amidst pastoral changes, and to accomplish, far more perfectly than is possible under a single pastor, the spiritual oversight in visitation from house to house and the prompt, intelligent, and effective administration of discipline.
5. A ruling eldership, as it exists under the Presbyterian constitution, has neither precept nor example in Scripture.
The "ruling elders" in the Presbyterian Church are a body of laymen, presided over by the pastor, to whom are committed the admission and discipline of members and the spiritual oversight of the church. They have no authority to preach or administer ordinances.
Two passages are quoted as authority for this office, which, however, evidently do not refer to permanent offices in the church, but to the gifts exercised in the incipiency of Christianity, several of which might be exercised by the same person. Thus, "Having then gifts differing according to the grace given unto us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; or ministry, let us wait on our ministering; or he that teacheth, on teaching; or he that exhorteth, on exhortation;…he that ruleth, with diligence; he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness" (Rom. 12:6-8). And: "God bath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healing, helps, governments, diversities of tongue (I Cor. 12:28).
Now, in this enumeration of gifts and functions "he that ruleth" and "governments" are mentioned, and it is inferred that these designate the ruling eldership. But it is plain that the reasoning which would interpret these as designations of a permanent office in the church would require that "he that showeth mercy "and "help," and all the other functions mentioned, be also interpreted as each the designation of a distinct permanent office; and the result would be at least eight permanent officers in the church. Certainly, such an interpretation must be false.
Paul's direction to Timothy is also cited: "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor" (compensation), "especially they who labor in word and doctrine;" in which, it is alleged, a distinction is made between the "elders that rule" and the elders that "labor in word and doctrine." On this we remark: The apostolic churches, as already seen, had a plurality of elders; but all of these, though of equal authority and of like functions, did not possess in an equal degree the same gifts. While one would be eminent in preaching, another would excel in the pastoral care; and another still would be distinguished in both these departments, and, thus specially gifted, would devote his whole time to the office.
It is of this class Paul here speaks—those who not only rule well, but also excel in public instruction, and consequently devote themselves wholly to the office. These, he says, should receive, not the ordinary compensation given to elders, but a double compensation, proportioned to the greater time and labor devoted to the work. The passage does not furnish the slightest evidence of a difference of office between the elders; on the contrary, the Greek adverb, here rendered "especially," in all ordinary usage implies that the persons emphasized after it constitute a part of the class mentioned before it.
Besides, in Scripture an essential qualification for the eldership is that a man be "apt to teach"—a qualification certainly not necessary for ruling. In accordance with this, the Biblical language habitually implies that teaching was combined with ruling in the functions of the elders, as in the following words of Paul: "Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God" (Heb. 13:7, 17). Plainly, also, a ruling eldership, according to the Presbyterian conception, which assumes authority to admit and discipline and exclude members, is disproved by all those passages, heretofore cited, which show that these functions belong only to the church assembled as a congregation.