By Parnell McCarter



Rev. Sherman Isbell helpfully explains the three-office view of Biblical church government as follows:


“…Dabney and Thornwell are faithful to the original Presbyterian model when they teach that both the gospel minister and the ruling elder are the biblical presbyter, and that these are distinguishable offices within one order. This was the position held by Calvin, Bullinger, Beza, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Zanchi, and Cartwright, in the sixteenth century, and was adopted in the Second Book of Discipline (1578). It was the standard view in the Scotland of the seventeenth-century Second Reformation, as indicated by the writings of Calderwood and Dickson, and in the books of the four Scottish ministers who were commissioners to the Westminster Assembly. It was taught by John Owen. It is found in Walter Steuart of Pardovan's Collections and Observations Concerning the Worship, Discipline, and Government of the Church of Scotland (1709), which was long the authoritative manual in the Church of Scotland and in early American Presbyterianism. It was also the view of the two Princeton professors of church polity, Samuel Miller (1769-1850) and Alexander T. MacGill (1807-1889). Southern Presbyterians Robert J. Breckenridge (1800-1871), Thornwell and Dabney were simply following this cloud of witnesses…Witherow came to believe that all the functions of the gospel ministry should be equally open to ruling elders. [This is the so called Two-Office View.- PM]At the same time, he suggested that in practice there must have been a division of labor among the presbyters in the apostolic church, and that some men called to the single office simply chose not to preach, because they were not well-gifted for that work. Witherow gives poorly-gifted men the prerogative to preach, but relieves them of the duty to preach. As Iain Murray rightly observes, Witherow destroys the biblical concept of a call to the gospel ministry (I Cor. 9:16-17, Acts 26:15-20, Rom. 10:15, Col. 4:17). Witherow fails to coordinate the three elements of a biblical office: gifts, functions, and an authoritative commission which makes the execution of functions both a prerogative and a duty. The theory that men are invested with office, but have no responsibility to discharge the functions of the office, was soundly critiqued by Gillespie, Owen, Dabney, McGill, Thomas E. Peck (1822-93), and by Witherow's Irish contemporary, William D. Killen (1806-1902). Witherow's position has apparently never been adopted by any Presbyterian church; it is quite another thing when churches following Gillespie's doctrine allow ruling elders to supply the pulpit occasionally, as the church's best resource when ministerial supply is altogether unavailable. Witherow contradicts the teaching of the Westminster Confession (XXVII.iv), by arguing that ruling elders should be allowed to administer the sacraments…The inadequacies of Campbell's and Witherow's treatment of I Timothy 5:17 were well exposed by Gillespie in 1641. One has only to read Gillespie's book, or the essay by Clowney, to see how pale is the claim by Campbell and Witherow that a case for distinction of gifts, functions, and commission within the eldership, is based only on one verse. Witherow seems unaware that his arguments had been addressed by Gillespie, and Campbell dismisses Gillespie by name without engaging his well-reasoned case. Gillespie's Assertion was last printed in Edinburgh a century and a half ago, in The Presbyterian's Armoury. Alongside his English Popish Ceremonies, recently reprinted, this is the book of Gillespie's most requiring republication in our generation…” (see http://members.aol.com/RSISBELL/order.html )


Rev. Brian Schwertley helpfully comments thus at http://www.entrewave.com/view/reformedonline/Spiritual%20Gifts,%20part%204.htm :


The New Testament office of pastor-teacher has its roots in the Old Testament Levitical office. This point is important to keep in mind because among many Presbyterians today the biblical distinction between pastor-teacher and ruling elder has been blurred and even theoretically lost in some denominations.113 In the Old Covenant administration there were elders who ruled in a civil and religious manner among the people (Ex. 4:29; 18:12; 24:1; Num. 11:16, 17, 25; Dt. 19:12; 22: 13:ff.; 25:1; Josh. 20:4, 6; etc.) and there were priests and Levites who ruled but also had special responsibilities separate from the eldership. They were the teachers of Israel and were responsible for the special ordinances of worship. Note how Moses describes their ministry. “They shall teach Jacob Your judgments, And Israel Your law. They shall put incense before You, and a whole burnt sacrifice on Your altar” (Dt. 33:10). The priests and Levites had “special responsibilities for difficult cases which required their expertise in the Scriptures (Deut. 17:18-13; 21:5; 1 Chron. 23:4), but this was adjunct to their primary calling as ministers of the Word in both its forms–Scripture and sacrament–and as superintendents of Israel’s worship (Lev. 1:5ff.; Ezek. 7:26; Ezra 7:10-11; Neh. 8:7-9; 15:11ff.; 16:4ff.; 1 Chron. 15:11ff.; 16:4ff.; 23:4-5; 13, 28-32; 24:19; 2 Chron. 15:3; 17:8-9; Mal. 2:4-9). Drawn from the tribe of Levi, a tribe set apart to the Lord (Num. 3:5-13), and thus a separate and distinct membership, the Levitical office did not share the characteristically representative character of the eldership and was organized according to a set of regulations which pertained to itself alone. It does not go beyond the Old Testament evidence to say that the elders were of the people in a way that was not for priests and Levites, who were claimed by God as his own ministers in Israel and who were granted a direct ministerial authority not assigned to elders (e.g., Num. 6:22-27; Deut. 18:2, 5).”114


Historic Presbyterianism has rightly upheld the Three Office View of church office.