1 Timothy 3:1 This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.
In 1 Timothy 3, the Apostle Paul begins his instruction on the special offices in the church, that is, the offices of Elder, Deacon, and Minister of the Word. This instruction is in keeping with Paul’s purpose for writing to Timothy, Paul’s former “seminary student” and currently the Pastor of the church in Ephesus. According to 1 Timothy 3:15, the Holy Spirit’s theme in this inspired letter is: “Proper behaviour in the Church of God”. Essential to this proper behaviour is the work of the office-bearers.
It is understandable that the Spirit gives this instruction, for the special offices are the means Christ uses to maintain and bless His church. This being the case, it is vitally important that these offices function properly. Eventually all three offices are discussed: Elders in chapter 3 with some additional instruction in chapter 5; Deacons in chapters 3, and in chapter 5, the women who assist the Deacons; and Ministers of the Word in chapter 4.
In chapter three verse one, Paul turns to the office of Elder, called here a “Bishop.” The office of Elder has lost much of its vigour and value in the church since the time of the Reformation. Even in many Reformed churches the office is not always appreciated. The duties of the office are neglected and the office itself continues to fade away, even ceasing to function in some churches.
The causes for this lamentable decline are many. Regrettably, much of the cause is encroachment on the office by Ministers who have broadened the scope of their duties, and taken some of the authority from the Elders. In many instances, perhaps, Elders have allowed this to happen by failing to perform the duties of the office, and they are accountable before God for their failure. But all too often, Ministers have grabbed for more and more, and robbed the Elders’ seat of its function and authority.
But there are other causes for the decline. Some of it is simply the spirit of the age—independentism and the anti-authority attitude. The thinking is: “I can do as I please. No Elder in church will tell me what I must do or may not do. Mind your own business.” I recall, many years ago, the reaction of someone from a church not Reformed to my description of family visitation. The man was simply astonished that Elders and Ministers could come into our home, ask questions, and admonish us if they believed we were doing wrong!
Over the years, some of the decline is the result of men being elected into office who lack the qualifications, that is, men who are spiritually unfit to be Elders. Such men cannot, or will not perform the duties that the office requires. And finally, it also happens that Elders do not know what the duties of the Elder are. Much of what Scripture requires has been lost. Obviously if the men in the office do not know what their duties are, they will not be able to perform them.
This is terribly serious for the church. From a practical point of view, some of these trends affect us. To the extent that they do, the congregation suffers spiritually. The strength of the congregation can truly be measured by the strength of the Elders. For this reason, it is good that we consider and take to heart the instruction of 1 Timothy 3:1 on the office of Elder.
The goal of these articles is to draw out an important point of the Apostle— desiring the office of an Elder is a good desire. Obviously, it is important to understand what kind of desire this is, and why a believing man should desire to be an Elder. With our natural sinfulness, it is easy to desire the office wrongfully, and to have evil motives and expectations. But God’s Word tells us that Elder’s work is a good work and something to be desired. That being the case, if men have that desire, they will prepare themselves for the office so that they are spiritually equipped in the event that God calls them to serve in the office.
The plan is to examine the office of Elder first of all. We need to understand the place and purpose of the office. Then we will consider why the Spirit calls it a good work. That in turn will make plain what makes the office a desirable thing. In the process we will discuss what preparations a man should seek who has the proper, biblical desire for the office of Elder, and really, any office in the church of God.
A Special Office
Notice that we speak of a special office in the church. We do that to distinguish these offices from the office of all believers. The great Reformation of the 1500s re-established this office of believer in the church. The Reformers emphasised the teaching of Scripture that every Christian has the Spirit of Christ and is a prophet, priest and king. The Heidelberg Catechism teaches this in Lord’s Day 12, Q. & A. 32: But why art thou called a Christian? Thus while every Christian holds this office of believer, some in the congregation also hold the particular office of Elder, Minister, or Deacon.
That raises the question: What is an office in the church? First, it is a position to which one is appointed. No one takes an office to himself. This is true even of offices in the governments of the nations. In America and Singapore, a man does not take an office by force; he runs for an office, seeking it and asking the voters to put him into office. But he must be voted in, or in some offices, be appointed by the President or some government official.
Likewise, with the offices in the church, men are appointed to them. But the unique thing here is, their appointment comes from God, through Christ. God must appoint because the church office is a position in which the office-bearer represents God Himself. God has a work that He determines to do through the office-bearer. The office-bearer stands as a representative of God with the authority to speak and act in His Name.
Church office cannot be understood separate from Christ, for He is the chief office-bearer of God. Christ is ordained by God from eternity to be the representative of God. While God is spirit, and thus cannot be seen, His chosen representative is visible and, in the office of Mediator of the Covenant, He represents God. Again, the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 12, Q. & A. 31) explains that the Mediator is called Christ, which means Anointed, because He has been ordained of God and anointed by the Spirit to be our chief prophet or teacher, our only high priest, and our eternal king. Christ’s one office (Mediator) has those three aspects.
Christ was eternally chosen by God to fill this three-fold office of Mediator, officially appointed to this position, and qualified by the Spirit. The same is true of the men in the church who are selected to these offices. Recall that in these articles we focus especially on the office of Elder because 1 Timothy 3:1 speaks particularly of this office. That Elders are appointed by God is evident from history. First, in the Old Testament, Elders were found in Israel from the beginning of her history as a nation. These Elders were older men, who, because of their age and position, became leaders in their respective families and tribes. Already at the time of Israel’s bondage in Egypt, God instructed Moses to “gather the Elders of Israel together” to tell them the Word God had spoken to him. And those Elders were to accompany Moses to the presence of Pharaoh (Exodus 3:16, 18).
In the wilderness, some of these men received an official appointment to the office of Elder. This came at the advice of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who witnessed Moses judging daily from morning to night, as the people came to him with matters requiring adjudication. At that time Moses selected the necessary men to assist in this work (Exodus 18). God called Moses and seventy of the Elders of Israel to draw near to Him at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19). And still later, God told Moses to choose seventy men to whom God gave the Spirit, that they might share Moses’ burden of governing the people (Numbers 11).
Notice that the very term “Elder” points to one who is qualified by a certain amount of experience in the life of the church. Think of the kind of men that Moses would have sought to assist him as Elders—men of experience, men respected for their spirituality and wisdom. There is continuity between the Old and New Testament. That need for experience and wisdom is one reason why the Apostle later instructs Timothy not to place in the office a novice—someone who is a recent convert to the faith or has recently joined a Reformed church.
The office of ruling was distinct from the other two offices. In the Old Testament the position of king was clearly distinct from the position of prophet and of priest. King David ruled in the Name of God and for His glory. He was commanded to maintain God’s law and truth. As king, he also fought the Lord’s battles, defended the land and the people, which was God’s heritage. The New Testament office of Elder would one day replace the position of king.
Christ was pictured in these Old Testament types and therefore He is the fulfilment. The Old Testament prophecy pointed to Christ as ruler. Matthew (2:6) quotes the prophet Micah (5:2) that the Messiah will be “Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.” Gabriel announced to Mary about her son that “the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:32, 33). After Jesus fought the powers of Satan to the death, and won, God exalted Jesus to be the head over all things to the church (Ephesians 1:21, 22). Jesus Christ is king of His Church!
However, Christ—God’s visible representative—is now physically in heaven. Christ determined to have visible representatives of Him, men who will perform the work of Christ as prophet, priest and king. He wills that there be Elders in the church who will perform the work of king. The Elder will be a clearer manifestation of Christ’s kingly office than the Old Testament types.
The office of Elder developed naturally in the New Testament church. It was evident that the Apostles had authority to rule in the church. Yet their office was temporary. The history of the church recorded in Acts indicates that the office of Elder was found very early. When the church in Antioch heard of a great famine coming upon Jerusalem, “the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea: Which also they did, and sent it to the Elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:29, 30). In harmony with this is the fact that in their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas did not return to Antioch until “they had ordained them Elders in every church” (Acts 14:23).
The point is that the history of the church clearly shows that God ordained the office of Elder. This history is important because it is the means by which God reveals His will for the church. We must remember that Christ did not give His church a finished church order. Nor does the Bible contain a verse that states: “In the church of Jesus Christ are to be three offices, namely, Elder, Deacon, and Minister.” Rather, just as with doctrines, so with church government, the church must search the Scriptures and draw out the will of Christ and the principles of church government.
One could demonstrate that the offices of Deacon and Minister replaced the OT priest and king, respectively, but we limit our discussion to the office of Elder. Still, since all three are part of the once office of Jesus Christ, all three offices involve a “good work.”
This introduction to the office is needed to see why it is a good work, which we plan to consider in the next article, the Lord willing. It should be clear from what we have said thus far, that the “good” character of the work is due to the fact that the office is from God. It is His work.
Written by: Prof. Russell Dykstra | Issue 38