What We Believe

Democracy and the Denigration of Office

Gregory E. Reynolds

I do not intend to reflect on democracy as a political system, but rather as a popular ideal, a major strand in the fabric of the American mind, as that ideal impinges on the idea of church office. President Wilson encapsulated this American ideal in giving the rationale for entering World War I: “The world must be made safe for democracy.”

In the popular imagination, “democracy” is a cultural catchword that conjures up a series of narcissistic notions, such as “I have rights,” “My opinion is as important as anyone’s,” “I may believe and say what I like,” and “I may do what I like as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.” This egalitarian instinct—bringing everyone down to the same level—has denigrated the idea of office in the church. Furthermore, egalitarianism tends to elevate the authority of men over God. When it comes to the government of the church, we tamper with its God-given order at our own peril.

The Historical Roots of Egalitarianism

The fundamental spiritual and moral principle of egalitarianism is not equality, but autonomy. Thus, egalitarianism has its roots, not in the Enlightenment, but in Eden. Adam’s assertion of autonomy in God’s world is the ultimate cause of the democratic mentality in its contemporary expression. The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century is the proximate historical source, which gave egalitarianism its present form.

Man, created as imago dei, was given the office of a servant of God. Under God, Adam was called to be a prophet, a priest, and a king—a vicegerent over God’s creation to the glory of God. In challenging the sovereign authority of God to define man’s meaning and role in history, Adam forsook his office. He became the first egalitarian by declaring his equality with God.

At the beginning of our history as a nation, this spirit was clearly present. As a true child of the Enlightenment, Thomas Paine confidently declared, “My own mind is my own church.” Paine’s The Age of Reason was a virulent attack on the integrity and authority of Scripture.

Benjamin Franklin was the quintessential individualist of the founding era, who lived by the utilitarian interpretation of Christianity captured in his famous statement, “God helps those who help themselves.” The moral maxims of Poor Richard’s Almanac, such as “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” were rooted not in God’s Word, but in personal utility.[1] Man was the measure as well as the master of reality and history. God and his Word became the servant of man.

Nineteenth-century romanticism was more a child of the Enlightenment than a reaction to it. Autonomy was at the heart of both. Whitman’s “Song of Myself” says it all in the first line: “I celebrate myself.”[2] The romantic poet and the rationalist philosopher-statesman were singing different parts to the same tune.

As new technologies propelled by egalitarianism reshape our institutions, the individual is rapidly replacing the authority of God, his Word, his church, and the idea of office. Increasingly, the conviction that the church exists to “meet my needs” is held by ministers and people alike as they use the church as a vehicle for their own self-fulfillment.

The Effects of Egalitarianism on Church Office

The Great Awakening, despite the spiritual good it generated, has proved to be a major influence in kindling the egalitarian impulse. Revivalists within the Presbyterian Church became a “force batter­ing at the ecclesiastical structure.”[3] Egalitarianism spawned rampant anticlericalism and anti-intellectualism. In claiming the right to question and judge all, the extreme revivalists denied the idea of special office altogether. A genuine experience of God’s grace was, for them, the only prerequisite for preaching.

The egalitarian spirit, however, did not find Presbyterianism to be the happiest of hunting grounds, due to the latter’s strong and clear view of the importance of special office. Through the office of ruling elder, the laity already played a prominent role in the government of the church. Furthermore, the priesthood of all believers was taken seriously and insured each member a vital part in the worship and edification of the church without giving quarter to egalitarianism.

In the twentieth century, however, the power of the demo­cratic ideal in the American mind threatened to overwhelm all institutions that dared to stand in its way. Where office formally exists, it is often used more for personal aggrandizement than for service to God or man. The celebrity has replaced the servant as a major mentor in our culture. Everyone has the potential to be a star. In the church, this translates into the mistaken notion that participation in worship requires a spotlight on the individual. Why should the preacher own center stage? Thus, church office often degenerates into a stage for the display of one’s gifts, rather than a means of ministering God’s grace to God’s people.

If egalitarianism is in the business of leveling distinctions, particularly where authority and office are involved, the strict two-office view of church government[4] falls prey to this instinct by obliterating the distinction between ruler and pastor. Its tendency is to bring down, not to elevate. At its worst, the preacher is thought merely to be paid to do full-time what the elder does for free. Thus, whatever distinction remains, it is not qualitative and official, but quanti­tative and practical. And, ironically, egalitarianism ends up elevating the very people it sought to level.

Charles Hodge pointed out that as a consequence of the two-office view, “we are therefore shut up by this new doctrine to abolish the office of ruling elder; we are required to make them all preachers.”[5] The very people the two-office theory purports to help are deprived of their office. Hodge continues:

This doctrine is, therefore, completely revolutionary. It deprives the people of all substantive power. The legis­lative, judicial, and executive power according to our system, is in Church courts, and if these courts are to be composed entirely of clergymen, and are close, self-perpetuating bodies, then we have, or we should have, as complete a clerical domination as the world has ever seen.[6]

A further irony lies in the fact that where the two-office view prevails, the plurality of elders in a congregation tends to dimin­ish the importance and therefore the quality of the teaching office. The biblical system requires both as separate offices to preserve the full range of ministry mandated in the Scriptures. In fact, most two-office proponents in Presbyterian churches do hold to a distinction between teaching and ruling elders, as two species of one genus. Popularly referred to as the two-and-a-half-office view, it seems to be logically bound to do away with the distinction between pastor and ruling elder.

The Restoration of Church Office

The point at issue, Hodge maintained, is

the nature of the office of the ruling elder. Is he a clergyman, a bishop? or is he a layman? Does he hold the same office with the minister or a different one? According to the new theory the offices are identi­fied.... This new theory makes all elders, bishops, pastors, teachers, and rulers.... It therefore destroys all official distinctions between them. It reduces the two to one order, class, or office.[7]

The focus of the question from an exegetical perspective is clearly stated by Iain Murray:

The question which arises is how this Presbyterian distinction between “ministers” and “elders” is to be justified from the New Testament. Upon what grounds should such a title as “pastor” be restricted to one if the word in the New Testament is descriptive of all elders?[8]

If “presbyter” is used uniformly in the New Testament to refer to a single office, then the distinction between the ruling elder and the pastor cannot be maintained. But, as Edmund Clowney cautions,

In 1 Timothy 5:17, those who engage in rule are distinguished from those who also labor in the word and doctrine. Again, the fact that both groups can be called presbyteroi by no means demonstrates that their office is identical.[9]

Hodge makes a crucial exegetical point in recounting the essence of a debate he had with Thornwell:

If the apostles being deacons in the wide sense of the word, does not prove that they were officially deacons, then that elders were presbyters in the one sense, does not prove them to be presbyters in the other sense.[10]

Some defenders of the three-office view, such as Thomas Smyth, held that ruling elders were never referred to in the New Testament “under the term presbyter or elder, which always refers to the teacher or bishop solely.[11] Like Calvin, he found his warrant for the office of governor or ruling elder in passages such as 1 Corinthians 12:28 and Romans 12:8. He understood passages such as 1 Timothy 3; 5:17; Titus 1; Acts 20 as referring only to ministers of the Word. However, Samuel Miller, who held the three-office view, understood the above passages to refer to both offices together.[12] In fact, Hodge declared himself to be in complete agreement with Miller as to the nature of the ruling office, only differing with him in the method of establishing its biblical warrant.[13] Exegetical uniformity is not required in order to base the view clearly on Scripture.

Hodge summed up the three-office position robustly:

This is the old, healthful, conservative doctrine of the Presbyterian Church. Ministers of the word are clergymen, having special training, vocation, and ordination; ruling elders are laymen, chosen from the people as their representatives, having, by divine warrant, equal authority in all Church courts with the ministers.[14]

Ultimately, the centrality of preaching in the worship and life of the church is at stake. It is not the privilege of persons, but the dignity of God’s Word which is being upheld. Egalitarianism tends to see all official distinctions as tools of oppression. A biblical servant, however, will see such a distinction as a tool of ministry and himself as an instrument of grace.

But the three-office doctrine also preserves the ruling function of the eldership. As every faithful minister knows, the oversight of the flock is impossible to maintain alone. The three-office position allows ruling elders to focus on the application of what the minister teaches from God’s Word. The three-office position, rightly understood, alone preserves the true dignity and effectiveness of the ruling office.

The benefits of the three-office view are manifold. First, the parity of rule protects the church from tyranny. The minister does not rule alone. There is a balance of power—a system of checks and balances. The most reserved ruling elder has the same vote as the minister. The biblical view of office limits power, whereas egalitarianism allows power to fall into the hands of the domineering and gives voice to the loudest mouth.

Second, the three-office doctrine provides leadership. The minister, as a scribe of the Word, is a leader among the rulers. He is usually the moderator of the session, a first among equals. A ship cannot sail without a captain. Egalitarianism engenders lordship, not leadership.

Third, the three-office view allows the minister to focus on the ministry of the Word, unhindered by the multitude of con­cerns that only the group of elders can attend to with him. Jethro’s advice to Moses is pertinent today: “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone” (Ex. 18:17–18). Egalitarianism leads not only to tyranny but to burnout.

Fourth, this view allows for the proper and effective imple­mentation of discipline, which the minister could not appropri­ately or practically provide on his own. Egalitarianism leads to moral chaos.

Promoting a Biblical View of Office

There are several things that need to be done to promote a more biblical view of office in our churches. First, people need to be instructed about the nature and dangers of egalitarianism.

Second, pastors and elders need to encourage each other to fulfill the ministries to which God has called them. The strengths and weaknesses of each officer should be openly discussed in the privacy of the session.

Third, a good working relationship should be cultivated among elders and ministers. This means developing biblical communi­cation and conflict-resolution skills. The session must see itself as a team. This means that the individualist instinct must be suppressed. Matters under discussion must be kept confidential. When decisions are made, the dis­senter should keep his disagreement to himself unless it involves moral or doctrinal absolutes.

One of the greatest temptations presented by the democratic mentality is the idea that the ruling elder is a sounding board for congregational discontent or an agent for special interests. The pastor must be teachable and humble, never demanding his agenda. But the ruling elder must protect the pastor from the power of destructive criticism.

Finally, ministers and elders will serve the Lord and promote the godly government of his church best by being servants of God and his people. The three-office view, by itself, will not restore true ministry to the church. Only if those who fill the offices have the mind of their Master, the mind of a humble servant (Phil. 2:5–11), will egalitarianism be kept at bay and the king­dom of God built. The individualist will use the office for his own personal fulfillment and thus denigrate the office. The true servant will seek the glory of his Lord.


[1] Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), 32.

[2] Ibid., 34.

[3] Alan Heimart and Perry Miller, eds., The Great Awakening: Documents Illustrating the Crisis and Its Consequences (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), xxx.

[4] The two-office view is that there are only two continuing offices in the church: elder and deacon. The three-office view is that there are three offices: minister, elder, and deacon. The view sometimes referred to in the OPC as the two-and-a-half-office view is that of the nineteenth-century Southern Presbyterian theologian James Thornwell, who held that the office of elder had two orders, or divisions of labor, minister and elder.

[5] Charles Hodge, Discussions in Church Polity (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1878), 269.

[6] Ibid., 129.

[7] Ibid., 128.

[8] Iain Murray, “Ruling Elders—A Sketch of a Controversy,” The Banner of Truth Magazine, no. 235 (April 1983), 1.

[9] Edmund P. Clowney, “A Brief for Church Governors in Church Government” (unpublished paper, 1972), 15.

[10] Church Polity, 130.

[11] Thomas Smyth, Complete Works of the Reverend Thomas Smyth, D.D., ed. J. William Flinn (Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1908), IV, 26.

[12] Samuel Miller, An Essay on the Warrant, Nature, and Duties of the Office of the Ruling Elder, in the Presbyterian Church (New York: Jonathan Leavitt; Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1831), 28.

[13] Hodge, Church Polity, 129.

[14] Ibid., 130.

The author is the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church in Manchester, N.H. He quotes the ESV. This article is an updated and edited version of an essay in Order in the Offices, edited by Mark R. Brown. New Horizons, February 2014.

New Horizons: February 2014

The Church in America

Also in this issue

Evangelicals, Confessional Presbyterians, and the Church

We Will Not Serve Your Gods

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