II. Offices and Supervision of Doctrine
The offices are those of the minister of the Word, of the elder, and of the deacon.
When discussing Article 1, we already quoted from our Belgic Confession, where we mention these three offices as having a rightful and necessary place in the church of Christ.
There is no controversy among us regarding the question whether there are three or more separate offices.
Some would wish to speak of two offices, the one being that of the elder — to be distinguished as follows: teaching elders, who are the preachers, and ruling elders — and the other being that of the deacon, but in our Confession as well as in our Church Order we maintain that these are three separate offices.
Not too long ago the question was raised whether not the office of evangelist should be recognized as a still existing, separate office. This office of evangelist is then thought to be the office of a missionary, of the man charged especially with proclaiming the Gospel to those outside, whether they are living around us or far away, but particularly the latter. It was argued that a missionary has a specific charge, namely to proclaim the Gospel and to “plant the church among the heathen and to lead it towards existing as an autonomous body under its own office-bearers.” His office is therefore, so it was argued, different from, though in no way inferior to, that of a minister of the Word.
The churches have not followed this line of thought, although they did adopt a separate form for the ordination (or installation) of missionaries. By adopting such a separate form they did not express that the office of a missionary is different from that of a minister in our midst. They only recognize thereby that a missionary has an — only partly — different task. However, from the fact that the task is partly different one must not draw the conclusion that therefore the office is different.
The general consensus is that the office of evangelist ceased to exist as a separate office when those who are called by this name in the New Testament had passed away. Only three offices are recognized by and in the churches.
In earlier days this was different. One who consults older versions of our Church Order will discover that Art. 2 also mentions the office of doctor,
teacher. In those older versions Art. 18 speaks of the task of the doctors or professors of theology. From this it is clear that by these doctors or teachers — for that is the basic meaning of the word “doctors” — the professors of theology were meant.
Where does this idea come from? It originates with John Calvin who understood the expression “pastors and teachers” in Eph. 4: 11 as referring to two different offices, that of the minister of the Word (“pastors”) and that of the doctors (“teachers”) who, in Calvin’s opinion, had a task towards the whole church in teaching and instructing men with a view to the ministry. Although Calvin later on changed his concept somewhat, his idea of the office of doctor as a special position and task remained and also influenced the thinking of the Reformed Churches.
Theodorus Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva, was of the same opinion. He wrote in a commentary on Eph. 4: 11 that he would rather follow Ambrose, who also considered the office of doctor to be a separate and special office. It is the task of the doctors, Beza wrote, faithfully to explain the Word of God and as it were to conduct an ecclesiastical school to the end that the pure doctrine of confession as well as the true explanations (of the Scriptures) be retained in the church.
In his confession of faith he wrote about the difference between pastors and doctors. The first point of difference, he stated, consists in this that the doctors must simply explain the Scriptures to understand their true meaning, and specifically that they teach the catechumens, that is, those who are still to be taught the principles of the Christian religion, but the pastors go much further, for by means of their sermons, they apply the doctrine to the needs of the church, for teaching, for admonishing, for comforting, and for exhorting in public as well as in private, according to need; they also offer the public prayers. Briefly, they watch day and night over their flock and feed it publicly and privately with the Word of God.
Nowadays this distinction is generally considered to be a wrong conclusion from Eph. 4: 11. Without going into a detailed exegesis of this text, we remark that the apostle does not repeat the word “some” before “teachers,” a fact which strongly supports the understanding of "pastors and teachers" as mentioning two aspects of just one office, that of the minister of the Word. It would therefore be just as incorrect to refer to the minister of the Word almost exclusively as the “teacher” as it is to call him almost exclusively the “pastor.” There is no more beautiful title than that of minister, that is “servant” of the Word.
We recognize three offices: that of the minister of the Word, of the elder, and of the deacon. In due time we shall say more about these three offices. Here they are just mentioned.
These three offices have not proceeded from the needs of the congregation or from an urge to have a solid organization under the leadership and government of capable men. These three offices are there by divine ordinance.
From Eph. 4: 11 we already learned that ministers of the Word who take care of the flock with the staff of the Word are a gift from the exalted Christ.
The apostle Paul stated clearly at his farewell from the overseers of the church at Ephesus that the Holy Spirit had made them overseers over the flock of Christ, Acts 20: 28. We also read that Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders for them in every church,” Acts 14: 23. From his letters to Timothy and Titus it is clear that the apostle treats the offices of elder and of deacon as not something originating from human thinking or need but as the fruit of divine will and care for the churches.
In our Church Order we do not speak about various functions within the church by which the task of the office-bearers is rendered somewhat lighter. We mention here only the offices, not various positions or helpers.
When discussing the articles which deal with the offices separately, we shall pay attention to this point as well.