What We Believe
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Chapter VII
Evangelists

1. Jesus Christ, to whom is given all power in heaven and in earth, has commanded his church to make disciples of all the nations. From the throne of his glory he sent forth the Holy Spirit, the promise of the Father, to empower the witness of the church to the gospel. While it is the calling of every believer to confess Christ before men, and while God gives particular gifts and calling to some to minister the Word, and while every minister of the Word must evangelize in the fulfillment of his calling, there are some who are particularly called by Christ and his church as evangelists. Ordinarily such men shall preach the Word free of pastoral charge in a particular flock in order that they may labor to bring in other sheep. And to those sheep whom Christ has brought in, evangelists shall administer the sacraments until a congregation shall have been regularly organized. Since the gifts and functions of evangelists are necessary until the end of the age, this ministry is permanent and not confined to the apostolic period.

Comment: The last sentence in this paragraph is particularly important because in the history of church polity, even within the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, not a few have believed that the office denominated “evangelist” was particular to the apostolic period and that there are no longer “evangelists” (as an office) as such. It is the conviction of this church order, however, that evangelist is not limited to the apostolic period and thus is a permanent ministry of the church, necessary until the end of the age. The gifting in the ministerial office of some men seems warranted to draw such a conclusion: some men possess gifts that are particularly suited, if in a settled congregation, to focus on outreach, on the ingathering of the saints; or to act as missionaries, either home or foreign, if not in a settled congregation. These men have a particular focus on gospel outreach, whether seeking to bring more into a settled congregation or to gather a mission work with a view to it particularizing at the appropriate time.

As the first sentence so wonderfully notes, Christ, to whom all is given, has commanded the church to go into all the world and preach the gospel. He has sent forth the Holy Spirit to enable the church to do just that. While it is the task of the church as a whole to evangelize, and thus everyone in the general office of believer may share the gospel with his fellow, some are not only particularly appointed to preach the gospel, as is a pastor in a local church, but gifted to act as evangelists in a variety of settings and circumstances. Evangelists may be especially peripatetic, traveling about, sharing the gospel in chaplain settings (in health care facilities, institutions of higher education, prisons, the military, etc.) and in other ways, being free of a pastoral calling and responsibility for a settled flock, preaching the gospel in a more widespread way to gather in Christ’s sheep. In a church planting or mission-field situation, the minister, serving as an evangelist, both preaches the Word and administers the sacraments, often referred to as the organizing pastor with a view to congregational particularlization and the new congregation calling a pastor.

2. The evangelist, in common with other ministers, is ordained to perform all the functions that belong to the sacred office of the minister. Yet distinctive to the function of the evangelist in his ministry of the gospel are the labors of (a) a missionary in a home or foreign mission field; (b) a stated supply or special preacher in churches to which he does not sustain a pastoral relation; (c) a chaplain in institutions or in military forces; (d) an administrator of an agency for preaching the gospel; and (e) an editor or similar ministry through the press and other means of communication.

Comment: The evangelist, as conceived by this church order (unlike that same office in some Reformed church orders), is fully a minister, competent to do all that any other minister can do. In fact, in the context of the foreign mission field, without other settled churches nearby, the evangelist, or missionary, has had to act as a judicatory, both in examining candidates for baptism and profession of faith as well as in ordaining and installing elders and deacons. This should not be thought odd: a missionary may have a dozen people that he has baptized and admitted to the Lord’s Table. He can proceed with the Lord’s Supper even without elders and deacons and place those men in office when the time comes. If he can enlist other ministers or elders to assist in these tasks that is preferable though it is not infrequently unavoidable that the missionary must proceed on his own to gather that initial flock.

This section of the FG enumerates the particular fields of service envisioned for the evangelist: a missionary serving domestically as a church planter or on the foreign mission field; serving a local particularized church in which he is not the pastor, thus serving as stated supply (in churches without a pastor) or as a minister who has a particular remit for outreach; a chaplain in various venues; an administrator of an agency for preaching the gospel (whether ecclesiastical or extra-ecclesiastical); and an editor (in an agency like Great Commission Publications). It should be noted here that though we retain the distinction between home and foreign missions, and there are some important reasons for doing so, the nature of some church plants even in this country, due to our highly heterogeneous culture, can take on some of the cross-cultural dimensions of the foreign mission. Many urban centers in the United States are so variegated that one can minister to Russians, for example, almost as if one has gone to that land.

Chapter VIII
Pastors

Christ's undershepherd in a local congregation of God's people, who joins with the ruling elders in governing the congregation, is called a pastor. It is his charge to feed and tend the flock as Christ's minister and with the other elders to lead them in all the service of Christ. It is his task to conduct the public worship of God; to pray for and with Christ's flock as the mouth of the people unto God; to feed the flock by the public reading and preaching of the Word of God, according to which he is to teach, convince, reprove, exhort, comfort, and evangelize, expounding and applying the truth of Scripture with ministerial authority, as a diligent workman approved by God; to administer the sacraments; to bless the people from God; to shepherd the flock and minister the Word according to the particular needs of groups, families, and individuals in the congregation, catechizing by teaching plainly the first principles of the oracles of God to the baptized youth and to adults who are yet babes in Christ, visiting in the homes of the people, instructing and counseling individuals, and training them to be faithful servants of Christ; to minister to the poor, the sick, the afflicted, and the dying; and to make known the gospel to the lost.

Comment: This is the most common and commonly encountered expression of the ministerial office: the pastor (the Latin word for “shepherd”) in a particular local organized congregation, who joins with the ruling elders on the session in the government and discipline of the church. We have here a rather full description of the duties incumbent upon the office of pastor: shepherd, preach, pray, administer, teach, administer sacraments, visit, disciple, counsel, etc. It does not seem that these qualities, as rather fully and clearly spelled out here, require further exposition.

It should be noted here that, unlike the PCA BOCO (for instance), the OPC FG makes provision only for the office of pastor and does not enumerate or elucidate “associate pastor” or “assistant pastor.” This does not mean that a church may not call someone that it chooses to designate as an associate pastor. It does mean that any one designated “pastor” by title in a particular local church—whether senior pastor, pastor, or associate pastor—must be called by the local congregation and is a member of and serves on the local session. Someone, such as a retired or bi-vocational minister, may serve in a ministerial role (say, minister of visitation or counseling) in a local congregation that is not designated as pastoral and for which he has no call from the congregation. He would be serving in that or like cases as a minister in the employ of the session without a call by the congregation. In all cases a minister retains his membership in the regional church.

Chapter IX
Teachers

1. A teacher is a minister of the Word who has received particular gifts from Christ for expounding the Scripture, teaching sound doctrine, and convincing gainsayers, and is called to this ministry.

Comment: We come now to the third and last expression of the ministerial office found in our FG: that of teacher, or doctor (Latin for “teacher”). The teacher is especially gifted in scriptural and doctrinal exposition. He is by such biblical and theological skill to persuade those who oppose the Bible and its teaching: this would include anti-theists who deny God as well as professed religionists who do not openly deny God but who do so truly by false teaching and resisting the truth. The teacher needs special skills in the art of apologetics and elenctics, especially in his task of “convincing gainsayers” (those particularly in opposition to the doctrines of the Christian faith).

2. A minister may serve a local congregation as a teacher if there is at least one other minister serving as pastor. The teacher may also give instruction in a theological seminary; or teach the Word in a school, college, or university; or discharge this ministry in some other specific way, such as writing or editing in the field of Christian religious education. He shall take a pastoral oversight of those committed to his charge as teacher, and be diligent in sowing the seed of the Word and gathering the harvest, as one who watches for souls.

Comment: The gifts of the teacher suit him for certain roles and this section addresses the roles that one called as teacher ordinarily fulfills. A congregation may call someone and designate him as teacher if there is at least one other minister serving as pastor in such a congregation. The teacher in a local congregation may head up the Christian Education program, be in charge of outreach, or any other number of roles most suitable to his gifts. Many OPC churches, frankly, call someone as teacher to serve functionally as a sort of “associate pastor,” though “associate” or other qualifiers to “pastor” receive no official recognition in this FG.

Outside the local congregation the teacher may serve as a professor in a theological seminary or in a college or university, Christian or otherwise. If the teacher is in an institution of higher education that is not distinctly Christian, he must be free to teach from the perspective of the Reformed Christian faith to which his ministerial vows commit him. Institutions of primary or secondary learning (grade schools) that are not Christian do not ordinarily permit unhindered presentations of the Christian faith such as the teacher is called to give. Teachers may also serve as religious editors or writers. In any case, because he is a minister, teachers (in the sense that the FG gives to this function within the ministerial office) must act pastorally in evangelizing and discipling those under his care, keeping watch over the flock that is his charge.

Chapter X
Ruling Elders

1. Christ who has instituted government in his church has furnished some men, beside the ministers of the Word, with gifts for government, and with commission to execute the same when called thereto. Such officers, chosen by the people from among their number, are to join with the ministers in the government of the church, and are properly called ruling elders.

Comment: Ministers, as we have noted, have not only gifts for teaching (as the gifts that particularly mark them fit for the ministerial office) but also have gifts for rule, or government. These gifts they share with ruling elders, for whom government is their primary gift. Ruling elders, then, are men gifted for government, emerging from among the people as leaders, and recognized by the people and the session as such.[1] This office finds its origin in the Old Testament: the elder in the gate was a layman (that is to say, not a Levite or priest), a recognized leader in Israel (among the tribes, clans, and families) who, together with the priestly class, formed a body especially fit for ecclesiastical judgment.[2] In the interim era the Apostles replaced the Old Testament Levitical priesthood, though the eldership continued. In Acts 15 for instance, we find the Apostles joining the eldership in governance and judicial determination at the Jerusalem Council.

After the closing of the canon and the expiration of the apostolic era, the church entered the common era in which we now live (and will prevail until the coming of Christ) in which the ministerium is the ordinary successor to the apostolate. They continue to join together with the eldership in the governance of the church.[3] The second sentence of this section is quite important: ruling elders are chosen by the people (the laity—simply the Greek word for “people”) and so serve as representatives of the people, not in the sense that they poll the people and vote in accordance with majority wishes, but in the sense that when they sit with the ministerium (“session” is from the Latin, meaning to sit in rule or judgment), the ruling elders do not become “clergymen” but remain lay leaders, providing that when the office-bearers rule they do so not only as the trained-for-ministry clerical class but also as the living-ordinary-Christian-lives-in-a-variety-of-occupations lay class.[4] If all members of the session are of the same class or order, it is not presumed in Presbyterianism that they are all laymen but that they are all clergyman, and if all the governors of the church are clerical, this is not historic Presbyterianism but episcopacy.[5]

2. Those who fill this office should be sound in the faith and of exemplary Christian life, men of wisdom and discretion, worthy of the esteem of the congregation as spiritual fathers.

Comment: Note that the requirements for the office of ruling elder focus on solid life and doctrine, practical application of such to cases requiring good judgment, a good reputation in the congregation as one able to give leadership, and being worthy of the respect of God’s people. Ruling elders are not required to have gifts for teaching as they do not hold the teaching office. Rather, they need the kinds of virtues and gifts required for governance, which is what this section describes.

3. Ruling elders, individually and jointly with the pastor in the session, are to lead the church in the service of Christ. They are to watch diligently over the people committed to their charge to prevent corruption of doctrine or morals. Evils which they cannot correct by private admonition they should bring to the notice of the session. They should visit the people, especially the sick, instruct the ignorant, comfort the mourning, and nourish and guard the children of the covenant. They should pray with and for the people. They should have particular concern for the doctrine and conduct of the minister of the Word and help him in his labors.

Comment: This section lays out beautifully the duties of the ruling elder(s). Some have averred that one of the differences between ruling elders and ministers is that ruling elders must always act only collegially (corporately, in session) while ministers may act individually in the exercise of their ministerial office. This is incorrect: both ruling elders and minsters in the execution of their respective offices ought to act both individually and jointly. Ruling elders are to be watchmen on behalf of the congregation of which they are a part, serving to prevent errors in teaching and ethics among the flock. They are personally and privately to admonish people regarding sin and to bring to the session, to the body of elders and minister(s), those evils not amenable to their private corrections.

Then follows the list of pastoral duties in which not only ministers but ruling elders should also engage: visiting (the sick, in particular), discipling personally those who do not know or misunderstand the faith, bringing solace to those grieving personal losses, and readily engaging the youth of the church, guiding and guarding them in the way of life. Finally, the ruling elders need to pay particular attention to the teaching(s) and the deportment of the minister, to ensure orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and to help him in his labors, particularly his governmental (administrative) work, like Aaron and Hur upholding Moses’ arms (Exod. 17: 8ff).

Chapter XI
Deacons

1. The Scriptures designate the office of deacon as distinct and perpetual in the church. Deacons are called to show forth the compassion of Christ in a manifold ministry of mercy toward the saints and strangers on behalf of the church. To this end they exercise, in the fellowship of the church, a recognized stewardship of care and of gifts for those in need or distress. This service is distinct from that of rule in the church.

Comment: Deacons are a distinct New Testament office (Acts 6; I Tim. 3:8–13). The office of the care of the poor and needy belonged to the people as a whole in the OT and to the Levites in the land, who collected the tax for the relief of the poor. Other provisions for those in the land included gleaning laws and Jubilee years. With the worldwide spread of the gospel message, what had belonged to a now-defunct office (the Levite) at a time in which the faith was largely restricted to a particular ethnicity in a defined land (the Jews in Canaan), now threatened, with the globalization of the gospel, to fall into desuetude. The church in Jerusalem, apparently chiefly Hebraic, responded to the complaint among Greek Christians that their widows were neglected in poor relief by appointing Greek brothers to serve as deacons to meet the needs of the whole church (Hebrew and Greek). This furnishes a pattern that should be, but has not always, sadly, been imitated, a pattern of fair and equitable distribution to the needy among us.[6]

2. Those chosen to this office should be of great faith, exemplary lives, honest repute, brotherly love, warm sympathies, and sound judgment.

Comment: Here in this section we have the spiritual qualities that must mark the one who would be a deacon. He must be committedly orthodox, live a life worthy of imitation, have a reputation of honesty, given to love of the brethren, have a heart for those in need, and be wise and discerning in engaging those who would appear to be in need, whether in or outside of the church.

3. In order to facilitate the performance of the duties of their office the deacons of each particular church shall be constituted a board of deacons. The board shall choose its own officers from its membership.

Comment: Deacons, while able and responsible to act individually, also, like ministers and elders working together on the session, act corporately on the board of deacons. Even as the session meets with some regularity, so should the board of deacons for the purpose of coordinating and carrying out its work. Such deacon boards typically have a chairman, secretary, and treasurer, the latter often serving as congregational treasurer, though these matters are all left to the discretion of local churches.

4. The board shall oversee the ministry of mercy in the church and shall collect and disburse funds for the relief of the needy. Other forms of service for the church may also be committed to the deacons

Comment: The primary duty of the diaconate is the ministry of mercy, which includes chiefly, but is not limited to, gathering and distributing monies to those in need. Other appropriate diaconal work includes yard and house work for seniors (sometimes done in conjunction with and training of the youth), food for families mourning or with sick/recovering members (often done in conjunction with the women of the church), financial counseling and help with budgeting, etc. Women have an important diaconal role to play in the church; the diaconate does well to work with them in its ministry of mercy.[7]

5. In the discharge of their duties the deacons shall be under the supervision and authority of the session. Accordingly, the board shall keep a record of its proceedings and of all funds and their distribution, and shall submit its records to the session once every three months, and at other times upon request of the session. If it seems to be for the best interest of the church, the session may require the board of deacons to reconsider any action, or may, if necessary, overrule it.

Comment: The diaconate is not an office of rule but of service, though bearing authority proper to its calling in Christ’s church. The diaconate serves under the guidance and authority of the elders. As a part of accountability to the elders, it is fitting and required that the board of deacons takes minutes, including a record of all monies gathered and disbursed, and that such be submitted to the session quarterly for sessional review (or anytime in addition that the session requests such). The session ordinarily permits the deacons to proceed according to their own lights insofar as it deems their actions wise and prudent. The session may ask the deacons to reconsider an action that it has taken and may, if the session believes that circumstances warrant it, overrule any decision made by the deacons, if the session considers such necessary for the maximal welfare of the church.

6. It is desirable that the session and the board of deacons meet together at regular intervals to confer on matters of common responsibility.

Comment: In addition to the quarterly review of the minutes, it is also preferable (though not required) for the session and the board of deacons to meet together at some regular interval to talk about matters of mutual concern and responsibility. Historically, Presbyterians have been weaker on this account than the Reformed, who have elders and deacons regularly meeting together (often monthly) in what they call “the council.” Among Presbyterians such meetings are not customarily deemed necessary more than from 2-4 times a year.

7. In a church in which there are no deacons, the duties of the office shall devolve upon the session.

Comment: This section highlights that diaconal work must be carried on even if a particular local church lacks deacons. A church may not particularize without at least two elders or an elder and a pastor. It may do so without deacons, though diaconal work is always to be taken up by the session if there are no deacons to carry it out.

Endnotes

[1] This FG takes a generally three-office approach. This author, and his guiding light on the subject, Charles Hodge, takes such an approach. There are other approaches reflected within historic Presbyterianism, which are reflected in many fine works on the eldership. A classic American Presbyterian work is Samuel Miller, An Essay on the Warrant, Nature and Duties of the Office of the Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church (1832; repr., Dallas, TX: Presbyterian Heritage, 1987). More recent works are John R. Sittema, With a Shepherd’s Heart: Reclaiming the Pastoral Office of Elder (Grandville, MI: Reformed Fellowship, 1996), Timothy Z. Witmer, The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010) and, by a Reformed polity teacher, Cornelis Van Dam, The Elder: Today’s Ministry Rooted in All of Scripture (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009).

[2] Lee Irons, Theories of Eldership (private paper formerly published but no longer available on the Internet). Citations omitted.

[3] Alan D. Strange, “Do the Minister and the Elder Hold the Same Office?” in Ordained Servant: A Journal for Church Officers 22 (2013): 25–32, see especially the diagram on page 28.

[4] Charles Hodge, “Warrant and Theory of Ruling Eldership,” in Discussions in Church Polity (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1878), 262–71.

[5] Hodge, Discussions in Church Polity, 270–71.

[6] For a good recent general treatment of the diaconate (from a Reformed perspective, which tends to be on the office of deacon a bit richer than the Presbyterian), see Cornelius Van Dam, The Deacon: Biblical Foundations for Today’s Ministry of Mercy (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2016).

[7] In the GA “Report of the Committee on Women in Church Office,” the members all recognize a proper role for women in diaconal service; Robert Strimple, taking a minority position, argues that women should actually be ordained to special office, while other members are content to conceive the diaconal service of women as part of that which pertains to their labors in the general office of believer.

Alan D. Strange is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and is associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Joliet, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, December 2020. A list of available installments in this series may be seen here.

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Ordained Servant: December 2020

A Faithful Elder

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