We Wish for…Pastors, Elders, and Deacons Who Understand and Faithfully Execute Their Offices

Michael S. Horton
Thursday, July 5th 2007
Jan/Feb 2000

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this magazine that my "wish list" revolves around the subject of ministry. If reformation occurs everywhere else, but not in the way we "do church," then it will not be genuine reformation. Jesus didn't found a renewal center, a small group model, a reformation coalition, or a political action committee. He founded a church. And he did so with eleven lackluster followers (well, sometimes they followed) on whose weakness he founded the Ministry of Word and Sacrament.

For most American Protestants (including many of us), "ministry" has become a catch-all for nearly any God-glorifying activity. It is apparently not enough that one helps a neighbor fix her roof just because she's a neighbor; one has to belong to a roof ministry, justifying what doesn't need to be justified by referring it ultimately to an evangelistic yield. This mentality tends to distort both the goodness of the secular and the distinctiveness of the sacred. To play off of a Pauline phrase, "All things are helpful, but not all things are 'ministry.'" Roofing is not a means of grace.

Our Reformed and Lutheran forebears knew this distinction and it is found in the confessional and dogmatic heritage of these communions, especially as alternative theologies of ministry were propounded by both Rome and the "enthusiasts." It is not the minister, but the ministry, that is a means of grace. And the ministry that is a means of grace is that which administers the Word and the Sacraments. At least as the Reformed have interpreted it, the threefold office of Christ is mediated through the Church and its officers. The "priesthood of all believers" does not entail the "ministryhood of all believers." The officers serve as Christ-bearers-"stewards of the mysteries," as Paul calls them. They serve the people just as Christ did and continues to do through them. In the following, I would like to apply some of these assumptions in a "daydream" of how this might look on the ground. I'll divide it according to office, although terms may vary according to ecclesiastical polity. The article focuses on the pastor, but also considers the elder and the deacon.

The Pastor's Job: Word and Sacrament

While team-building may be important for success in business, it is not ministry teams, but ministers, to whom God has entrusted the tasks of faithfully preaching his Word and administering his Sacraments. If ministry becomes anything and everything, then it stands to reason that the minister cannot possibly administer it all. My dream is to see pastors, who have sometimes adopted an erroneous every-member-a-minister approach, take responsibility again for the service of worship on the Lord's Day. The pastor, after all, is God's appointed worship leader, not merely the best speaker of the day. It would be great to see pastors learning more about church music (especially the Psalter!) and church musicians learning more about theology, and then to see them plan the services together.

At the same time, the minister must not confuse his ministerial authority with personal authority, for he is constrained by his office to preach not himself, but Christ. In that office (not in his person), he is Christ to us. When he stands in the pulpit and speaks to us, Christ is addressing us through him. That means it is extremely arrogant for ministers to use the pulpit as a forum to share their personal insights about life and their worldview, or to display their technical grasp of the languages and theology. We did not come to hear the minister in his person, but to hear our Lord and Savior through the minister in his office. We can "share" at the pub.

Many teaching and edification ministries have sprouted up across the country in a vacuum of genuine preaching and teaching in the church. And too often some pastors, heavy-laden with expectations for involvement with myriad "ministries" that are not ministry, allow these groups to flourish in their midst precisely to avoid having to study and prepare in order to be pastors to their flock. Imagine what would happen if your local church excised many of the "ministries" and the pastor had all this free time? (I know, I know, a lot of people would be upset if they had to miss a week or two of the children's sermon, but they do not seem to care that they do not regularly receive communion. And this even though the former is an element of worship chosen by us, while the latter is an element of worship commanded by God.)

But imagine: What would happen if pastors were given time to be pastors-maybe even some paid leave to engage in continuing theological education or to prepare sermons and catechetical material? It's amazing to read the books of church order (including even those of this century) that define the minister's responsibilities as the preaching of the Word, the administration of the Sacraments, the oversight of discipline, and the catechizing of the youth. (Hmmm, what about the youth pastor and youth ministry? Another time.)

Time to Be a Thoughtful Pastor-Scholar

Then there's the "vision" thing. Conservatives are notorious for myopia, and vision is sometimes mistaken for encroaching liberalism. Such thinking just has to stop, in my humble opinion. There is a knee-jerk, lazy conservatism afoot in our circles that is just as inimical to the hard work of genuine orthodoxy and passionate orthopraxy as its nemesis. We have to stop viewing orthodoxy as a perch from which to criticize "those below" and begin to see it as a means to the end of serving God and our neighbor.

While many efforts at church growth are consumer-driven, we must provide real-life examples of church communities that are obsessed with working their theology out in practical mission. Being concerned with getting the Gospel out at the expense of getting the Gospel right is bad, but getting the Gospel right with little concern about getting it out is probably worse. Con-servative-minded folks have to get beyond the "hold the fort" mentality and the sort of infighting that inhibited the success of Abraham Kuyper's labors in turn-of-the-century Holland. If a lazy liberalism goes with the flow of modernity, a lazy conservatism is content to simply reject the present as if it didn't exist, usually retreating to a nostalgic spot in the recent past that was in truth just as problem-ridden in its own way. Let's stop waiting for creative "progressives" to do all the thinking, imagining, constructing, and then sustain our meager existence on our daily criticism.

Pastors need support for their "vision" thing. But there is vision and there is vision. While a vision of leadership or a vision of reaching the community is important, it's not foremost in importance. A theological vision brings clarity and focus to one's ministry: What do I preach?, is of greater importance than the question, How do I preach? If we are clear about the former, the other visionary horizons will eventually merge with it.

At a recent conference for ministers at Westminster Seminary in California, Tim Keller, pastor of New York City's Redeemer Presbyterian Church, noted that many churches push "friendship evangelism" or door-to-door, or "invite-your-neighbor-Sunday." But this is rarely effective in attracting newcomers to church. Rather, he said, when pastors preach Christ clearly in a way that connects with the regular congregation, the people feel comfortable inviting their friends to church. The problem is that many in our churches are simply afraid to invite their co-worker or family members to church. It's more than a fear of personal embarrassment-it's too great a risk in terms of turning visitors off to further discussion. The layperson doesn't know what tangent the pastor may end up pursuing this week; he or she is unsure that an unbelieving friend will clearly hear the Gospel in the service.

Keller's point suggests that if more pastors could devote themselves to understanding the Scriptures, theology, and secular books and periodicals that might help gain an appreciation for the factors shaping their people, there might be greater growth. Most ministers know how easy it is to get sidetracked in pastoral ministry, and to lose the steam necessary for remaining a scholar-pastor. But that is what ministers are called to be, even if everything else has to go.

Good Preaching, Frequent Celebration of the Lord's Supper

Some conservative churches are shrinking because they are faithful both to properly governing/limiting "ministry" and to ensuring that the pastor can be a serious student. (Church splits over philosophies of ministry and worship, as well as theology, are not always avoidable-nor are they always wrong.) But not all conservative churches that are shrinking are shrinking for these reasons. Some of these, I'm convinced, are ineffective because although "ministry" is properly limited to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, the preaching is simply quite terrible (for a variety of reasons) and the Supper is administered infrequently. Increasingly, I hear the frustration of a growing chorus of folks who are weary of hearing the pastor preach himself rather than Christ. Using the Scriptures to underwrite one's pet peeves-viz., brow-beating the people for not being involved in programs, finding a way of leaping from a given text to discourses on America's moral decline or one's personal political views, offering cultural analysis (often that is as out of touch with the culture as it is the text), etc.-is not just a liberal temptation. I don't know what I'm going to receive from a conservative preacher any more than from any other minister these days.

Furthermore, when the Supper is administered (at least in Reformed and Presbyterian circles), it is often with a certain degree of didactic overkill that tries to "correct" the liturgical forms that are apparently not sufficiently Zwinglian for American Protestantism. In Calvin's liturgy, it was the service of Word and Sacrament, and although the city council repeatedly rejected his demand for weekly communion, his regular service continued to be a Word-and-Sacrament liturgy. Thus, even when the Supper was omitted, there was a "place-holder" marking what Calvin had hoped to see in the future.

Today, when we celebrate the Supper of our Lord, it is often "tacked on" to the service, even where our communion forms integrate the celebration with the rest of the service leading up to it. Frankly, I long for the day when Reformed pastors spend more time discovering the meaning and centrality of the Sacraments alongside the preached Word. Some signs of this have been appearing. In a growing number of Reformed and Presbyterian churches now, weekly communion is the norm. Pastors of these churches note how even their preaching has changed as a result, forcing them to be more Christ-centered and cross-centered in the light of the Sacrament. (Of course, the Gospel alone should force us to think this way, whether there is a communion service or not, but we can always use props to support our weakness.)

Part of the problem, of course, is the dearth of contemporary literature on the subject, but still there are our dogmatics-and that is usually a good place to start in order to dig more deeply into the Scriptures on this subject. We give lip service to "the Word rightly preached and the Sacraments rightly administered" as the means of grace, but often-in conservative and more "contemporary" circles alike-we have not given much attention to these matters of liturgy, preaching, ministry, and the Sacraments. Some of us who have come from mainstream Evangelicalism have simply attached Calvinistic or Lutheran distinctives to a basically nonconfessional stem, imitating the evangelical mainstream and picking up our practical views from Nashville, Wheaton, and Pasadena. But there is an organic unity to theory and practice and we need to talk more about how to bring those two together. Baptism is not only a doctrine, it is an action. And it is not only an action in the church, but an action in the world as well. We need to end the separation of doctrine and practice that prevails in much of confessional and pietistic Protestantism alike.

Neither "Traditional" Nor "Contemporary"

On occasion I've been called "high church" by friends simply for defending views that were well within the mainstream consensus of Reformed Christianity until revivalism and its more recent manifestations cut off communications with the past. But "high church" has traditionally identified a wing of Anglicanism that tends toward Roman (viz., sacerdotal) elements, aspects that are often regulated by human creativity rather than by the Word of God. I have no more interest in seeing the Reformed churches imitate Rome than in seeing them imitate Willow Creek. Much of the imitation, however, tends toward the latter these days.

I can't resist an anecdote at this point. A Yale theologian with whom I met sporadically for tutorials a couple of years ago told me about his visit to a megachurch while visiting friends who attended there. Belonging to a mainline denomination, this professor was uneasy about what he would find at an evangelical megachurch. But at least there would be a bit of "Gospel" in there somewhere, he figured. He and his friends entered the expansive building as chatter slowly surrendered to the soothing sounds of the praise band. As the service progressed, this professor became convinced that he was not going to get any "Gospel" in the liturgy, so he waited for the sermon. He thought to himself, "Well, they probably cram everything into some evangelistic spiel-at least there will be some Gospel there." But the sermon came and went without the Gospel, the pastor sharing his life experiences about following biblical principles instead. At this point in telling the story, this professor looked up at me and said with some indignation, "I've been a theologian of a major mainline denomination all these decades. I've endured terrible sermons that exchanged the Gospel of Christ for trendy moralism and sentimentalism. But I have never been in a church that was so utterly devoid of Christ or the Gospel before or since."

Our old categories for thinking about the American church scene are becoming useless. I used to think that mainstream, "contemporary" evangelical churches had given in too much to the culture, but at least they hadn't gone as far as mainline churches. I no longer believe that. I am convinced that the effects of latter-day revivalism-the legacy of Charles Finney in myriad forms, in its lethal combination with modernity (entertainment, consumerism, therapeutic remedies, a passion for novelty, etc.)-is more of a threat to serious Christianity and genuine discipleship than mainline Protestantism.

Ironically, there is often more "Gospel" still clinging for dear life to the formal structure of some traditional mainline churches than one finds in some evangelical and, dare I say, Reformed/Presbyterian churches where everything serious and Christ-related has been marginalized. This isn't to think too highly of the current mainline churches. It is rather to say that the liturgies put in place in better days in those communions continue to proclaim some Gospel today, even if much of the clergy is more interested in other things. (Lutheran theologian Rod Rosenbladt often refers-quite wisely-to good formal liturgies as ways of protecting the laity from whatever idiosyncrasies the clergy of future generations will develop.)

I don't want to see us go "traditional" or "contemporary," but rather to think deeply again about the nature, purpose, criteria, and effects of ecclesiastical life, especially the service. As a rule, I think, traditional folks are no more aware of why we should do x and not y than those they criticize. In fact, those they criticize often were raised in this sort of reactionary environment. So conservatives tend to live off of the memory of the recent past, while progressives indicate little interest in anything but the near future. This is a narcissistic way to live. It's as if the only really important things to know or to be obligated to, are those things that happen within one's own life span. Genuine reformation, if God chooses to give it, will involve what Gadamer calls a "fusion of horizons." We should not try to return to some ostensible "golden age" that never was golden anyway, but we also should not exchange blind nostalgia for the past for blind confidence in the present and the future. Let's stop being conservative or progressive, traditional or contemporary, and start being Reformed! We do have the scriptural, confessional, dogmatic, and practical resources in our inheritance for this position, as we honestly and charitably work through faithfulness both to truth and to applying truth in our time and place, not in somebody else's.

Our Good Shepherd brought his new covenant community through the persecutions, heresy, and schism, and the Enlightenment. He will also bring her through whatever "postmodernism" turns out to be, which is undoubtedly many things. The point is, let us be critical of all times "in this present age," and be just as daring in facing our challenges with confidence in God's grace, using "the age to come" as the criterion. And let us not doubt the sovereignty, wisdom, and graciousness of our God in leading us by faithful proclamation of the law and the Gospel each week, even through brittle jars of clay.

The writer to the Hebrews tells us that through baptism, preaching, and the Lord's Supper, believers "taste of the powers of the age to come." Further, he tells us that since we are already eschatologically seated with Christ in heavenly places, we run the race here below not only in company with our generation as the collective runner, but surrounded by the cloud of witnesses, as they help us to fix our eyes on Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith.

Parting company with the Enlightenment, we will have to join "one holy, catholic and apostolic church" once more, eschewing the individualism and hostility toward tradition that marks sectarian American Protestantism far more than confessional varieties in various places around the world. Not only are there more Reformed believers in Nigeria than in the United States, the Reformed churches there are far more aware of their connection to the Reformed tradition specifically and to the whole church-not just in Nigeria, and not even just here and now, but to the whole church spread throughout time as well as place. Many of our American brothers and sisters would call them "high church," too. But their reference point is deeper and wider than one typically experiences in American Evangelicalism.

This sense of connection not only gives people a richer sense of belonging to a particular ecclesial tradition; it also, ironically, generates an ecumenical vision. We need both desperately in our circles today. Not joining the parade of novelties may endanger our membership in the evangelical club, but it is to the communion of our confession and of those who have confessed it before us and will do so after us that our loyalties must ultimately lie under God. Seeking genuine unity with those of like confession through the ages and around the world may actually appear sectarian and narrow to those for whom "this present age" is relatively normative. But it is a wider, deeper, and ultimately more enduring ecumenism.

That's why it is so ironic that some Reformed and Presbyterian folks today suggest that having a set liturgy or set elements in every service represents the imposition of white, northern European religion on people in the two-thirds world. The same is said about theology: it's linear, western thinking. Then why was it that at the recent Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, England, the two-thirds world bishops of the Anglican communion threatened division if the Europeans and Americans didn't stop trying to impose liberalism on them? The outspoken critic of Christianity, Bishop John Spong, even had to apologize to these bishops for having, earlier in the conference, blamed their orthodoxy on the suggestion that they were but one generation removed from animism, after all.

The same is true about liturgy and church music, much of the best of both originating in the near east. Africans are also among the earliest composers of services, prayers, and Psalters. While the reformers insisted on simply purging the unscriptural novelties that had been added during the Middle Ages, many of their successors today resemble more the radical "enthusiasts," who, having the Spirit, wanted to start from scratch. Very different from this, Calvin was fond of saying, "… according to the Scriptures and the ancient custom of the Church," in offering his liturgical criteria. It's rather difficult to imagine us saying that today in some of our circles.

No, this isn't a "high church" dream at all. It is Reformed. And it is evangelical and catholic in the best sense of those terms, which is what being Reformed used to entail. If we know what we believe and why we believe it, why should we feel defensive and reactionary in the presence of those with whom we differ?


Again, this article is neither an exegetical nor historical treatment of the offices, but an exercise in application. In Reformed polity, the minister holds a distinct office from that of the elders, while in Presbyterian polity, the minister is a teaching elder. Other subtle differences may exist across the landscape represented in this magazine. Regardless, I think that most of us would agree that elders are entrusted with the supervision of the ministry along with the minister. In Reformed churches this is still often represented by having the elders file out of the consistory room to line up in front of the pulpit, shaking hands with the minister as he followed them. In Presbyterian churches, it was visually represented by the elders seated either to the sides or behind the pulpit. And I have heard of cases in recent decades in which the elders agreed to interrupt the minister mid-sentence, concluding the service or at least the sermon due to seriously deficient preaching.

Growing up in Evangelicalism, we attended many large churches. I would never have known what elders were, but I did not even really know who the leaders were, or to whom I could go. The pastor, of course, everybody knew. But nobody could talk to him, since he was so busy with those "ministries" we talked about earlier.

We need to recover the high view of office in general, but of the elder in particular. Too often, the elders (collectively called a "consistory," "session," or in some circles, "board of elders") are selected not for the criteria that Paul lays out, but according to worldly status and skill. I once served on the pastoral staff of a church that, I was convinced, had selected its elders by lottery at the country club and various Republican Party dinners. Although this church had "Presbyterian" in its name, was traditional in its service, and competed with the Trooping of the Colour for pageantry on Reformation Sunday, the elders were at best indifferent, at worst hostile, to theology in general and Reformed theology in particular. Another friend, a pastor of a large and well-established church, complained that his elders, being executives of major corporations, ran the church like a company, and that he felt pressure to compromise at every turn. "It used to be called the pastor's study," he confided, "but now it's the pastor's office."

Imagine a body of elders committed to the task that elders are called to perform: namely, to visit every home of every church family at least annually, for the spiritual care and discipline of the membership. Imagine a consistory or session that was selected for being spiritually mature, theologically well-informed, and dedicated to the ministry of reconciliation. The group may be comprised of more plumbers and carpenters than businesspeople, but the different priorities would stand in sharp contrast to the worldliness that surrounds us, even in our churches, even in ourselves.


After challenging the concept of "ministries" beyond the ministry of Word and Sacrament, I now need to make room for one major exception. The office of deacon is a ministry in Christ's church. It is a ministry not to the spiritual needs of the congregation, but to their physical needs. The fact that Christ has founded this office and has, in the Book of Acts, shown us examples of how it is to operate, underscores the full extent to which our Shepherd cares for his flock, in body and in soul.

In recent years, several books have been published related to the restoration of the diaconate in Geneva and, largely through its influence, in the wider Reformed world. Because space is limited here, I'll offer just a few examples. Add the plague to the stress of being overwhelmed by especially French and Italian refugees fleeing persecution, and then you have some sense of the daunting challenges that Calvin and his church council faced. They saw that the office of deacon had been diverted from its original purpose of helping the needy to being servants of the priest in the mass as well as in daily labors. Calvin and his fellow ministers thus put theory into practice. Combination hotel/hospital buildings were built, entirely administered by the deacons. Refugees, often arriving in Geneva with little more than their clothes, were nursed back to health, then interviewed, and then either taught a necessary discipline (such as French, if they were not French-speaking) or made apprentices to skilled workers. Only in recent decades have Genevan hospitals been secularized, a testament to the enduring legacy of concern for the suffering that issued from the reformation of the diaconate.

Geneva, a backwater town with a reputation for a lazy, immoral, and undisciplined populace, thus became one of the major sources of industry and highly skilled craftsmanship. Low-interest loans were now allowed for those who had arrived and had received no-interest loans as poor. It's no surprise that banking flourished in Zurich and Geneva. In fact, Geneva, Strasbourg, Amsterdam, and London became centers for refugees, Jewish as well as Protestant. It is also no surprise that the formative human rights thinkers and institutions are to this day located in these cities. Again, the diaconate of the Reformation must be given a great deal of the credit for this success under God.

Imagine a restored diaconate-not in the whole Christian church, not even in your denomination. Imagine a restored diaconate in your local parish. Here is where the people with not only theological depth but business experience are needed. Even today, in many Christian Reformed and United Reformed churches, an unemployed church member can go to the head deacon (or a secretary) and ask for a list of job opportunities offered by employers within the church. I have seen this in operation and it is a wonder to behold. Here the difference between difficulty and disaster is covered and people can go on with their lives, providing for their families.

The more the churches follow entertainment and consumer models of church growth, the less they will actually be churches. This is true not only for the ministry of Word and Sacrament, and for the work of spiritual oversight, but for the ministry of assistance. Experiencing genuine community depends not only on good preaching, regular celebration of the Lord's Supper, and accountability to the people of God through their elders; it also requires actual embodiments of Christian care in tangible, institutional, systematic ways. Imagine a diaconate that is more than a glorified custodial service. Thinking about practical needs in our own communities, our minds reel with the possibilities. And because it is the ministry of assistance, not of reconciliation, it is not confusing either to us or to those we serve. The diaconate does not exist to evangelize, to extend the kingdom, or to preach and teach. Rather, it exists to look out for the temporal needs of God's people. Rather than being overwhelmed with the great crises in our troubled world, we need to take active steps in our own churches for the restoration and reformation of the diaconate once more.

There is a lot of talk these days about "transforming culture." But isn't it a bit arrogant for us to talk this way when we look so much like the world that we're supposedly going to transform? We can't live differently if we don't think differently. And theology is the renewing of the mind by the Word of God. But that mind-renewal takes place not only for our own personal health. It occurs because the Spirit is forming a community around a triumphant Lamb who was slain. It is not vague "enthusiasm"-revival, renewal, or even reformation, that will create this community. Rather, God has promised to do this by his Spirit through the ordinary means of grace. We need to set aside the alleys that we have constructed as means of conveying God's grace to the world and return to the highway that has been leveled before us by the prophets and apostles. A transformed church, faithfully executing the offices established by our Lord, will be blessed by the Holy Spirit with flourishing leaves in this age, followed by the full harvest in the age to come. Imagine that!

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Thursday, July 5th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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