Excerpt from chapter 21 of the book, The Glorious Body of Christ, by Dr. R. B. Kuiper.
Every member of the Christian church is an officer. In fact, every member holds three offices. He is at once a prophet, a priest and a king. However, it does not follow that every member is a minister, a deacon and a ruling elder in the technical sense of those terms. The great majority of church members do not hold so much as one of these offices. And because these offices are held by only a few they are properly designated special offices.
Warranted in Scripture
The universal office of believers was strongly emphasized over against Roman Catholicism by the Protestants of the Reformation age. That was most commendable. But there were certain extremists among the Protestants who stressed the universal office to the detriment of the special offices in the church. They took the position that the universal office renders special offices superfluous.
The history of Protestantism cannot be understood unless it be remembered that practically all Protestant churches down to the present day have been influenced more or less by that extremism, and that very few of them, if indeed any, have ever succeeded in purging out that leaven completely. And so it is not at all strange that disrespect of the special offices in the church has been a frequent phenomenon in Protestantism. One specific instance must be named.
John Nelson Darby, who had taken orders in the Church of Ireland, broke with that communion in 1827. His most important reason was that, under the influence of a strong reaction from high church ecclesiasticism, he had come to doubt the Scriptural authority for church establishments in general and for an ordained ministry in particular. In 1830 Darby visited Cambridge and Oxford in England, and soon thereafter his followers began to hold regular meetings at Plymouth, a fact which gave rise to the name Plymouth Brethren. Their most distinctive peculiarity is their refusal to recognize any form of church government or any office of the ministry. They insist on the equal right of all male members of the church to prophesy or preach. Today the Brethren are numerous on this continent as well as in Europe. And, although Darby died in 1882, his soul goes marching on, and Darbyism is in evidence in many denominations.
While it is not difficult to sympathize with Darby in his protest against certain evils prevalent in the established church of his day and land, neither is it difficult to show that the view that the universal office in the church rules out special offices is erroneous. Special offices have plain Scriptural warrant. The Word of God tells us that Christ "gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the edifying of the body of Christ" (Ephesians 4:11, 12).
Paul and Barnabas, on their first missionary journey, "ordained...elders in every church" (Acts 14:23). The apostle Paul exhorted: "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine" (1 Timothy 5:17). The same apostle enjoined the elders of the church at Ephesus: "Take heed unto yourselves and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood" (Acts 20:28). The apostles instructed the believers at Jerusalem to choose deacons for the care of the poor. This was done, and they set them "before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them" (Acts 6:6).
How clear that the apostles recognized special offices in the church! Granted that, because of conditions peculiar to the apostolic church, some functionaries were intended only for that day and age, it is evident that through the apostles God ordained certain permanent ecclesiastical offices. They are those offices by which Christ as prophet, priest and king continues to govern His church.
Rooted in the Universal Office
Quite naturally the question arises how the special offices in the church are related to the universal office.
That the two are closely related to each other is self-evident. Christ means "anointeda'. He was anointed with the Holy Spirit to the threefold office of prophet, priest, and king. Every Christian, too, is anointed with the Holy Spirit to the selfsame threefold office. But it is also true that the special offices in the church represent Christ as prophet, priest and king. The minister or teaching elder represents Him as prophet, the deacon represents Him as priest, and the ruling elder represents Him as king. It follows that the universal office and the special offices are inseparable. Precisely expressed, the special offices are rooted in the universal office.
For that reason the members of the church choose, or ought to choose, their own officers. In such churches as the Roman Catholic and the Greek Catholic the officers are not ordinarily chosen from below but are appointed from above. The simple explanation is that these churches deny to all intents and purposes the universal office of the believers. A church which gives full recognition to the universal office of believers will insist that its members choose their own officers.
For the same reason the membership of the church is governed by its officers, or should be, with its own consent. No human being or group of human beings has the right to force rule upon the membership of the church against its will. No bishop, no archbishop, no metropolitan, no patriarch, no church council, no college of cardinals, no pope may do that. When it is done, that amounts to a denial of the universal office of believers.
Again, for the same reason, the members of the church choose their officers, or ought to choose them, from their own number. A particular church will elect its elders and deacons from its own membership. Ordinarily a particular church will choose its pastor from the pastors of its denomination. And if occasionally it calls a pastor from another denomination, it ought not to be possible for him to become the pastor of that church without his previously becoming affiliated with the denomination of which it is a constituent part.
That the members of the church choose their own special officers, that they are governed with their own consent by these officers, and they choose their officers from their own number -- all this exemplifies the truth that the special offices in the church are rooted in the universal office.
Responsible to Christ
In the sense and to the extent just indicated the Christian church may be said to be a democracy. In another sense, however, it is not at all a democracy. Although the special officers of the church govern with the consent of the membership and are chosen by the membership from its own number, yet their ultimate responsibility is not to the congregation but to Christ, the divine Head of the church. That makes the church a monarchy.
A great many Protestant churches fail to get this point. They regard the people as the final source of authority. That is the underlying error of Congregationalism. Nor is Congregationalism confined to the churches that go by that name. Another name for it is Independency, and this type of church government is in vogue in several denominations. Sometimes one meets with this error even in a Presbyterian or Reformed church. A sharp difference of opinion arises within the session, perhaps between the minister and the ruling elders or between two groups of elders. A congregational meeting is called, and it is agreed that whatever the congregation, as the ultimate court of appeal, decides will stand. Or, let us say, the session lacks the courage to make an important decision. So it calls a congregational meeting and asks the congregation to make up its mind for it. In such ways the session is in great danger of becoming the servant of the congregation and of ceasing to be the servant of Christ.
In a limited sense the church is, to be sure, a democracy. It is a democracy in the sense of not being a hierarchy. Ultimately, however, it is a monarchy. Christ is its one sovereign Head. Christ's law is its only law. Its special officers are not to please men but Christ. After all it was Christ who, through the instrumentality of the universal office of believers, appointed them to their several offices. It was Christ who clothed them with authority. It is Christ as prophet, priest and king whom they represent. And their ultimate responsibility is to Christ alone.
It follows that the special offices in the church are truly glorious. Far from being subservient to men, they function in Christ's name.