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  • Writer's pictureDr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.

God's Commandment for Church Government and Ministry

This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work.

1 Timothy 3:1

Question 108 of the Larger Catechism asks, “What are the duties required in the Second Commandment?” It gives the answer, “The duties required in the Second Commandment are, the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his word; particularly prayer and thanksgiving in the name of Christ; the reading, preaching, and hearing of the word; the administration and receiving of the sacraments; church government and discipline; the ministry and maintenance thereof; religious fasting; swearing by the name of God, and vowing unto him: as also the disapproving, detesting, opposing, all false worship; and, according to each one's place and calling, removing it, and all monuments of idolatry.” Last week we considered the elements and circumstances of worship. This week we consider those duties required by this commandment that fall outside the realm of corporate worship.

Although idolatrous worship is the main focus of the Second Commandment, we must beware of creating idols in other ways. Thus, the Catechism mentions not only our duty in “keeping pure and entire” such religious worship, but also those religious ordinances found in the Word of God. Notice here that “church government and discipline” are declared to be among those religious ordinances that we have a duty to receive, observe, and keep pure and entire.

The Westminster divines believed that church government and discipline were not left to the wisdom of men but prescribed by the Word of God. Clearly Jesus appointed twelve apostles to have particular authority in organizing His Church after He departed from this earth. Equally apparent, the office of apostle was unmistakably a temporal position meant to serve as a foundation, which was not to be continued after their deaths (Eph. 2:20; 2 Cor. 12:12). Consequently, the apostles were to recognize, teach, train, and ordain those rulers and teachers who would come after them, whose call it would be to govern Christ’s Church until He returns. These men are variously called elders, bishops (overseers), rulers, leaders, teachers, pastors (shepherds), ministers, and preachers. In Scripture, we find the qualifications for this office in 1 Tim. 3, under the title of “bishop,” and in Tit. 1 under “elders.” Comparing the two lists confirms that they are talking about the same office. Moreover, the two titles help us to understand the function of the office: Elder does not refer to age but to authority (one who oversees). Thus, Timothy was an elder and a “youth” (1 Tim. 4:12), and Peter an apostle yet also an elder (1 Pet. 5:1).

Generally, three forms of church government exist today. Episcopal, which is hierarchical; Congregational, which is democratic; and Presbyterian which is representational. In Scripture particular churches were always governed by a plurality of elders (Tit. 1:5; Phi. 1:1; Jam. 5:14), who decided matters equally as a body (Act 15:6-29). This fact is why Presbyterians have multiple elders governing every church and why we have church discipline where members are held accountable for unrepentant sin (Matt. 18:15-17). We believe we have a duty to govern Christ’s church the way the Holy Spirit has recorded it for us in the Bible.

In addition to church government and discipline, the Catechism mentions “the ministry and the maintenance thereof” as duties enjoined by this commandment. In the New Testament, we find within the broader office of elder a specialized group or class given to preaching and to administering the sacraments (Eph. 4:11-12; 1 Cor. 4:1). Thus, following Scripture, all Reformed denominations have, in one way or another, recognized a particular order of preacher or minister, within the general office of elder, whose sole calling it is to preach the gospel in both Word and sacrament. Consequently, these ministers are commanded to earn their living by this calling (1 Cor. 9:14), with the churches being commanded to pay them (Gal. 6:6). Hence, we see how our Lord Jesus graciously provided for the ruling and teaching of His body, the Church, until He chooses to return. May God grant that we would seek to ever more keep these religious duties pure and entire, for the glory of Jesus Christ and for our own spiritual good!


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