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The Three-Office Ministry in Church Organization

The Three-Office Ministry in Church Organization

In recent years, there has been a trend in the church at large toward the single office ministry, rather than the plural-office ministry, as well as a trend toward a single minister for a given congregation. From a purely human reason and convenience stance, these practices may seem to have some advantages.

The greater the trend toward "a salary for the preacher," the greater will be the likelihood that the congregation will need (?) only one ordained person involved their leadership. The stress factors frequently involved in leadership working together would constitute another advantage (?) in the single-ministry — practice. In many church groups, the acceptance of state welfare and worldly

insurance provisions has taken the place of brotherhood assistance which in turn is rendered at least some phases of the deacon work unnecessary. Trends toward individualism and congregational independence has led some ministers and congregations to believe that the bishop office is obsolete and should be discarded.

However, the New Testament in particular gives no example of leadership, nor any teaching on leadership, that would justify the single-office ministry or the single minister for a given congregation. The apostles ordained "elders (plural) in every church." There were seven ordained

at one time in Acts 6. There was a plurality leadership at Philippi. Our Lord always provided more than one person for a given responsibility or errand. He even employed more than one person to get a colt for His use and more than one person to prepare a room for the Passover and communion service with His disciples.

The very first ordinations in the New Testament involved the apostolic office. This was provided by ordinations conducted by Jesus Christ Himself (Mark 14). The apostles were the initial agents

of authority for planting and spreading the gospel in the world in the New Testament era. They were the sole ordained ministers for the spiritual leadership of the early church immediately following the birth of the church on the day of Pentecost.

The calling of the apostles was unique in that they received their charge direct from Jesus Christ. In their responsibility related to the birth of the church and in their initiating the faith of Christ in the world, they did not have the authority of the New Testament Scriptures to confirm their work. Hence, God confirmed them and bore them witness "with signs and wonders, and with diverse miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost" (Hebrews 2:4). Paul, "as one born out of due time" who also, as well as the other apostles, saw Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 15:8) and received revelation direct from Him (Galatians 1:11,12), was included with the apostles and functioned in the apostolic office. His apostolic office and authority was also confirmed by the "signs of an apostle" (II Corinthians 12:12) which were wrought in him. Also, in his inspired epistles, he frequently introduced himself as "an apostle of Jesus Christ."

Inasmuch as the apostolic office involved those who saw the Lord and received direct revelation from Him, we believe that the apostolic office could not be perpetuated throughout the church era because succeeding generations could not qualify as the apostles did. Therefore, the apostolic office passed with the passing of the apostles. In our day, we have the Holy New Testament Scriptures for our confirmation in church work, and therefore need no confirmation by miraculous demonstrations. Today we might well paraphrase Abraham's message to the rich man and say "if we hear not the gospels and the epistles, neither will we be persuaded though one rose from the dead."

The second office of the New Testament church to be provided by ordination is recorded in Acts 6 where seven persons were ordained (Acts 6:6) at one time. While these seven persons are not called deacons in the immediate context, their calling and the nature of their responsibility, without doubt, involved "the office of a deacon." The term "deacon" means "helper." These men were ordained as helpers to the apostles to take care of murmurings that arose due to physical needs in the growing church. The subsequent activities of at least several of these "deacons" indicates that they were also champions and helpers in spiritual ministries as well. That the deacon office was to be a perpetual part of the ordained leadership of the church is proven in references and teaching on "the deacons" in the epistles (Philippians 1:1; I Timothy 3:8-13).

The third New Testament office by ordination comes into focus first in Acts 14:23 when the Apostle Paul was returning to Antioch after his first missionary journey. Enroute to Antioch he visited the cities where congregations had developed and "ordained them elders in every church."

With the apostles ordained by our Lord and the ordination of deacons and elders by the apostles, there was established a three-office ministry pattern for the apostolic church era—apostles, elders, and deacons.

As the apostolic era drew to a close and the apostolic office was also about finished, the Apostle Paul—the apostle who labored more abundantly than they all did—gave special charges to both Titus and Timothy. It is not specifically stated in Scripture that Timothy received a second ordination, but it is strongly implied in Paul's two references to Timothy's calling. In I Timothy 4:4, he speaks of the "laying on of the hands of the presbytery" and in II Timothy 1:6, he refers merely to the "laying on of my hands." In II Timothy 4:1-8, Paul gives his final appeal to Timothy to faithfully fill the vacancy that would be caused by his departure which was at hand. Here Paul was virtually saying, "Timothy, I want you to replace me." In Titus 1:5, Paul enjoins upon Titus faithfulness in keeping things in order in the churches and to "ordain elders in very city." In this verse, he also reminds him that he had given him a special appointment for these special responsibilities. In so far as the Scripture record goes, Timothy and Titus were the only two ordained men who were given an apostolic charge and authority to ordain other men to the ministry.

Neither Timothy nor Titus became apostles in their overseer-ship office and responsibility authorized by the Apostle Paul, but they did fill an apostolic administrative vacancy in the church caused by Paul's departure. By filling this vacancy, the three-office pattern leadership, now in the form of bishop (overseers), ministers, and deacons, was kept alive in the church. It is unlikely that these special responsibilities to Titus and Timothy were temporary rather than lifelong. Lifelong callings are found in many examples in the Scriptures, such Moses, the high priest, the priests, the prophets, the kings, and the apostles.

The Scripture is replete with illustrations of the three-fold office leadership. In the priesthood, there was one high priest, a number of priests, and then the whole tribe of Levi as helpers. In the overall life of Israel, there was the prophet, priest, and king. In the early church, it was the apostles, elders, an deacons. Foremost and outstanding above  all other examples is the Divine Trinity God is the Eternal Chairman of the Trinity. Christ is the Eternal Redeemer and the Third Person is the Eternal Spirit. These three Administrators of eternity are perfectly organized filling their individual places, and yet working together perfectly that they are One in Three.

This, of course, is not in any way suggest that any one of the earthly office in the three-office pattern is like any one the Triune Officers of eternity, but it is emphasize the fact that the three-office pattern is of divine origin. Human functioning officially within this perfect pattern may be ever so imperfect and inadequate or even inconsistent. In fact there is no doubt that in certain religious groups the order has been seriously misused, abused, and even corrupted. But this no way discredits the three-office pattern and in no way says that when the pattern is used properly, it is not a consistent an Scriptural approach to the organization and administrative needs of the church.

One argument that is sometimes used against the bishop office is in I Peter 5 where Peter did not speak of himself as bishop or apostle over them, but rather referred to himself as an elder exhorting other elders. In answer to this, it should be noted that Peter did identify his apostolic office in the introduction of both of his epistles. He also was functioning in a special authentic over-seership responsibility when he wrote his epistles.

Furthermore, if the statement of being an elder among elders destroys Peter's distinctive apostolic position, then his statement in the same context "yea, all of you be subject one to another" would destroy the distinct office and authority of an ordained person.

We believe that bishops should humbly serve as elders among elders as well as brothers among brethren. When such a relationship is maintained amongst the leadership and the brotherhood, the respect and effectiveness of the three-office , ministry will also be maintained to the blessing of the church, to the glory of God, to the glory of Christ the Chief Shepherd and Heavenly Head of the Church

Aaron M. Shank

February 1981