Three church offices or two? (June 28th study)

Throughout history, the church has had to fight against being unduly influenced by the world or popular culture.  The church is a counterculture institution with an otherworldly ethic.  (Remember that the bible paints Christians as exiles and pilgrims in this world (cf. 1-2 Peter).)  One way in which this is evident is in the way the bible sets forth its form of government.  Titus 1.5 is one place that gives us a window into how the church is supposed to be governed.  To appreciate Paul’s words here, we need to check at the door of the church things like democratic representation and equal rights, which have their valid place in broader society, but are not necessarily how we should view the government of Christ’s kingdom – his church – on earth.

In the first part of Titus 1.5, Paul admonishes Titus to bring a measure of order to the young churches that he helped establish on the island of Crete.  One of the marks of a true church is discipline (cf. Matt 16, 18; 1 Cor 14; BC 32).  An essential part of bringing discipline and order to these young churches is electing elders (Titus 1.5b).

The point I would like to highlight is that the office of elder referred to in Titus 1 and other places like 1 Tim 3, includes two classes: those who rule only and those who minister the Word of God and rule.  The NT sets forth three offices that God has given his church for its government: pastors, elders and deacons.  The office of elder is one that carries forward from the OT.  Elders were those who helped rule, judge and perform administrative tasks in the midst of the OT covenant community.  They, however, did not minister the Word of God.  This was reserved for the prophets and the priests (cf. Exodus and Deuteronomy).

When one comes forward to the NT, the term elder is expanded to also include those who minister the Word of God: first the prophets and Apostles during the extraordinary foundation-laying ministry of the church, and then ordained ministers during the (now) ordinary life of the church (cf. Matt 21.23; Acts 6.13; 15.2; 1 Peter 5.1).  In other words, the NT term elder – like that found in Titus 1.5 – includes two classes of ordained men: those who rule and those who preach/teach (cf. 1 Tim 5.17).

Why is this important?  Among other things, it is crucial for the church to affirm that it is only the man who has been called and ordained to the full-time office of pastor (teaching elder), one who has spent years preparing to be an expert in the Word, that is qualified to preach the Word of God and administer the sacraments; lead the public worship service on the Lord’s Day (cf. BC 30-31).

The distinction between the minister of the Word and the ruling elder is one important characteristic of the historic Reformed tradition.  It protects the ministry of the Word from those who are not called and not equipped for this holy vocation.  It is for the good of sinners and saints whom God has chosen to convert and sanctify through the means of the faithful ministry of his Word.  In addition to ministers, elders and deacons, God has called all members of the body of Christ to serve him and each other through various gifts he has poured out by his Spirit for the good of the whole church (1 Cor 12; Rom 12).  Also, and unlike the minister of the Word, we all have common and ordinary callings – like plumbers, housewives, accountants etc – outside of the religious life of the church.  What is more, all of us have the God-glorifying calling to love our neighbors as parents, children, fellow citizens etc.

The following are links to the confessions and catechisms that are mentioned above as well as others, which include Scripture references (please note that I do not necessarily endorse everything on the websites that host the confessions/catechisms listed):

Heidelberg Catechism (HC)

Belgic Confession (BC)

Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF)

Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC)

Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC)

Covenant and church (Bible study recap June 8 & 14)

The church today has various views on the relative importance of the church in the life of the Christian.

In Titus 1:1, Paul speaks about godly conduct that accords with the Word of God.  One question that naturally arises in this connection is: what kind of importance should be attached to the church in the Christian life?  More specifically, what kind of importance can we attach to corporate worship that takes place on the Lord’s Day (the NT Sabbath)?  Should corporate worship on a Sunday be given priority over other acts of Christian devotion during the rest of the week?

The simple answer to the last questions is “yes”.  The book of Titus – like the pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy) – helps instruct us in the importance that God has assigned to the church.  For example, in the book of Titus Paul writes about preaching and teaching, electing elders and baptism.  As for the central importance of corporate worship – where the Word is preached and the sacraments are administered – Titus is not explicit.  Nevertheless, the Reformed tradition has historically made a strong case from other parts of Scripture for placing corporate worship on Sunday front and center in the Christian life.  Below are a few of the arguments the tradition has made.  I provide you with references to some of the Reformed confessions, which in turn cite various parts of Scripture.  Please study them for yourself by clicking on the links that follow.

  • If the church is the institutional expression of the God’s kingdom on earth (no other institution on earth possesses the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Matt 16.18-19) and no other institution possesses a heavenly ethic (cf. Math 5; 18)) and the penultimate fulfillment of the covenant of grace, then corporate worship called by the church is that time when God serves his people from heaven with Christ and all his benefits (see WCF 25);
  • If the Sunday is the Lord’s Day, which is set apart as holy like no other day of the week, then is follows that corporate worship on the Lord’s Day is holy activity unlike any other day during the week (see HC Lord’s Day 38; WCF 21);
  • If the church, and specifically the minister of the gospel (the pastor), has been entrusted with the keys to the kingdom of heaven, then that time when he ministers the Word through preaching and the administration of the sacraments is when heaven is opened and closed (see HC Lord’s Day 31);
  • If preaching, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are sacramental (they give us the grace of Christ and all his benefits by the power of the Spirit), then these activities that take place during corporate worship service are God’s ordinary means of convincing and converting sinners, and building up Christians in holiness and comfort (see HC Lord’s Days 25-30; WCF 27-29; WSC 89, 96).

Corporate worship on the Lord’s Day is an oasis for Christian pilgrims who wander in the wilderness of this world (1-2 Peter).  Here is where sinners who have been made into citizens of heaven taste of the powers of the age to come (cf. Heb 6.4-6; 1 Cor 11).

The following are links to the confessions and catechisms that are mentioned above as well as others, which include Scripture references (please note that I do not necessarily endorse everything on the websites that host the confessions/catechisms listed):

Heidelberg Catechism (HC)

Belgic Confession (BC)

Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF)

Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC)

Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC)

One important foundational doctrine that helps in beginning to grasp some of the arguments from Scripture made above, is the doctrine of covenant.  The following is a nice summary of God’s covenant with man (from WCF 21):

I. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant.[1]

II. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works,[2] wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity,[3] upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.[4]

III. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second,[5] commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved,[6] and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.[7]

IV. This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed.[8]

V. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the Gospel:[9] under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come;[10] which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah,[11] by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament.[12]

VI. Under the Gospel, when Christ, the substance,[13] was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper:[14] which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy,[15] to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles;[16] and is called the New Testament.[17] There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.[18]