The Offices and the Congregation
The Offices and the Congregation
There is a need for continued dialogue concerning the offices in the Church. With a view to the present situation in our churches it would seem evident that the last word in that dialogue has not yet been spoken. Our society looks with suspicion at various forms of authority. But this kind of attitude does not leave the Church and her members unaffected. And so it does not take long before even in the Church all kinds of questions arise about the authority of the office bearers. A few of these questions I would like to address in this article.
Is there a 'Value-added' speaking?⤒🔗
When an office bearer makes a statement, does it by virtue thereof have greater significance than that of some other member of the congregation? Is there a difference, and if so, how can this difference be defined? This is a question that regularly has the attention of people. In other words, does the office itself lend extra weight to what is being said? From a discussion on the topic of the offices of overseers, pastors, and deacons, held a while ago, I remember an instance when this very question was raised. The answer contained an example taken from civil affairs. As citizens we may remind one another about obeying the laws of our country. But when a police officer or a court judge explains a point of law to us, there will be a distinct difference. And this difference can next be applied to members of the congregation as well as to the office bearers mentioned above.
A preacher speaks while he is supported by the authority of his office. In the eyes of some people this condition will make for value-added speaking. To a certain degree I can appreciate this view. When I run a red light and a police officer lectures me about my traffic violation, he is in a position to write me a traffic ticket. But when my wife calls me to task about this incident, a traffic ticket will not be forthcoming. The distinction is clear, and I shall return to it later. Can it now properly be said that the police officer's was a value-added lecture? He is correct as much as my wife is, since both have the law on their side. Hence, the value of what they are saying lies not so much in their respective positions as in the very law itself. The words spoken by the mouth of my wife weigh just as much as those uttered by a police officer. So I should pay close attention to what both of them have to say.
But at this point let us compare life within the congregation. We have to recognize the fact, without any reservations, that the pastor (having been called to his office) has received a central place in the congregation. Both his work and what he says lie, so to speak, in the focal point of the congregation's consciousness. Yet we wonder whether the value of the gospel has, indeed, increased because it is communicated by the pastor.
I think that on this particular point certain conclusions are reached too hastily, for the value of the gospel's message is not embodied in the office but in the Word itself. It is the living Word of God, and in that Word it is God who works with the power of His Spirit. When a member of the congregation addresses an outsider on the basis of the gospel, he/she proclaims the gospel as a key of God's kingdom. And in this case it makes no difference whether a member of the congregation addresses the outsider or whether it is done by an elder or pastor. It is Christ Himself who opens the door by means of service rendered by man. In these circumstances the words uttered by one person have no greater value than someone else's. Of course, I do not imply that it really does not matter whether you listen to the pastor or someone else. On Sundays we do not just invite some church member at random to conduct the worship service. And it is not without good reason that we make the provision that our ministers will be specifically prepared for this purpose. Conducting worship services is, indeed, a most responsible task.
In the assembly of the congregation lies the focal point of the Holy Spirit's work. This is why we appoint people who have been endowed with aptitudes needed for preaching. The aim of theological instruction is to help develop those gifts. In those churches where little significance is attached to the offices, one can sense that the education of ministers receives scant attention, especially when it specifically concerns the development of their aptitudes. When we wish to pay close attention to what is proclaimed from the pulpit, we want to provide assurances that the Word will be administered wisely in all its purity. But this safeguard does not in itself turn the pastor into a man whose words have intrinsically greater value. It is God who invests his words with validity and power.
This applies not only to the man in the pulpit but also to the active evangelist. Though the pastor has a special task in the pulpit, this does not necessarily mean that, therefore, all his utterances carry greater weight.
The Authorization for the Ministry of Reconciliation←⤒🔗
One should take into consideration the background information that many people (in connection with speaking about God's Word) often use the phrase "the ministry of reconciliation." On a previous occasion I have pointed out that people speak at times rather too exclusively about this ministry. In such an event it would seem that only the pastor administers reconciliation. True, what he does from the pulpit is indeed the administration of Christ's reconciliation. The pastor presents in his sermon to the congregation the gospel of the cross; he also does this in his administration of the sacraments of baptism and Lord's Supper. But bringing the gospel also takes place in a number of different ways and locations in the congregation. It also takes place, for instance, when elders pay a home visit. It happens, too, at meetings where we assist one another in studying the Bible. It happens in the classroom when the teacher tells the children stories from the Bible. It happens in the home when parents instruct their children in the knowledge that God in heaven is their Father. In all these locations and on all those occasions the administration of reconciliation is taking place.
I do not think that any of us would deny this. The Word has been entrusted to the congregation, has it not? Here is, precisely, the mystery of the indwelling Spirit in the congregation. But sometimes people will assume that the congregation delegates the authority to the pastors. Here lies a field of tension that so often characterizes the numerous discussions about the offices. The thinking process goes then as follows: The Lord Christ bestowed the authority for the administration of the Word upon the congregation. Subsequently, the congregation transfers this authority to the minister. As a result, it is assumed, the authority is no longer vested in the congregation. But this brings about a certain distancing between the office (of preaching) and the congregation. Following this way of reasoning, one can no longer do justice to the fact that the Word has been entrusted to the congregation.
In this event the Word and the office (of preaching) will be too readily identified with each other. The minister has then, exclusively, become the bearer of the Word and proclaims it. Yet, how can this idea be reconciled with the anointing of the Holy Spirit which the congregation has received? And so a perceived disparity between office and congregation is strongly emphasized and may sound like: "Listen, the office is not a function of the congregation since the minister speaks on behalf of Christ, and in that capacity he stands before the congregation."
This can be said only when one recognizes at the same time that we as members of the congregation are in a position to address each other in the name of Christ. When the office "engages" us, it is the Word that is "engaging" us. It is not merely the office bearer who proclaims that Word. It dwells abundantly within the congregation itself. If we may call the passing along of the gospel the "administration of reconciliation," it must follow that this event is not defined only by the pulpit but extends to our homes as well. When we understand this, we will refrain from seeing the keys of the kingdom as though they function only in the proclamation of the Word. Granted, the kingdom of heaven is opened in the preaching. But long before I was able to follow a sermon in the church, the kingdom was opened for me since my father and mother introduced me to Jesus Christ. The keys of the kingdom of heaven are, therefore, not established in the office but in the Word, because ultimately it is not the office bearer who opens the door to the kingdom. It is Christ Himself who opens the entrance by having the Word proclaimed effectively by means of His Spirit.
Means of Grace←⤒🔗
The issue here is, finally, what are those means of grace which God uses? We customarily designate mainly the proclamation of the Word and the sacraments as the means of grace. But it is important to recognize that several other means of grace exist by which God wants to reach His goal with us. They are, for example, catechism instruction, raising our children, Christian education, Bible study sessions, et cetera. In most cases we do not use the expression "means of grace" to describe the foregoing. In fact, it is not all that important what we choose to call them. Still, it is important that we see all these things as being interrelated. We should not separate them and think we go to church because only there we can receive salvation by means of the proclamation of God's Word.
For is it not so, rather, that as for the matter of salvation our parents can help us as well as the deacons can? The distinctions we are considering here can readily cause tension in the functioning of the offices. But let it be said that this distinction is not real. It was by means of my parents that I learned to know God. They read to me from the Bible. They told me the meaning of my baptism in church where, later on, I was taken on a regular basis. On a previous occasion I quoted in this context Luther's saying: "In the voice of my mother I discerned the voice of the 'mother church.' And at the very moment we say that salvation is entrusted to the congregation, we will discover that salvation is not found only when we attend church and listen to a sermon. For it is also found while being brought up at home, at the Bible study group where we speak to each other about the Scriptures, at home visits when the office bearers of the church encourage and admonish us.
The Position of the Offices←⤒🔗
But time has arrived to say something about what makes the offices so special. So far I have strongly emphasized that we should not cause a rift between the office bearers and the congregation. It is the office bearers' distinct objective to equip the congregation for service. It is, therefore, not Scriptural to talk about the offices as though we were dealing here with a most exclusive task which places them specifically over against the congregation. On the contrary, their task will join them to the congregation. This is not to say, of course, that we might as well be without office bearers altogether. The Bible disarms this idea by speaking about office bearers with great emphasis. Christ provides them for His congregation.
When I read how the Bible represents the office bearers, it becomes clear that the typical feature of the office is the position of the office bearer, which has been assigned to him in the congregation. He becomes a forerunner. He is called upon to officiate, to be a leader, to equip people for service. But in doing so, his specific purpose is and remains to advance the wellbeing of the congregation. (This is a reasoning that originates in the body of Christ).
It is important, therefore, that this special position receive proper recognition. But this is an item that is frequently neglected in our discussions about the offices. It is quite possible that we are so keen on preventing or eliminating any distance between office and congregation that the existing difference is conveniently ignored. The difference is, nonetheless, that an office bearer has been appointed (on behalf of Christ) to render service in the congregation. This very appointment gives the office bearer the authority to ask that members of the congregation receive him for a visit. It also gives him the task to officiate in the congregation.
Thus it is important to recognize the special position that is inherent in the office. It could also be said that the test lies in a believer's willingness to listen. For quite often some form of plain disobedience will be at work when people regard the office and the office bearers with criticism. Belittling ideas about the offices readily result from an unwillingness to submit oneself to the Word. It is exactly for that reason that it is so important to give the function and the power of the Word the central place in the relationship between office and congregation.
What is characteristic of the office of preaching is, therefore, not that the preacher is the only person who has received the Word, or is the exclusive proclaimed of that Word. Yet, with his special gift he receives a central position. This can be clearly noticed when he proclaims the Word in the worship service. There you will find the focal point of the work performed by God the Holy Spirit. But in the area around that focal point we see how the entire life of the congregation starts to radiate a highly visible light in this world. All the activities of the office bearers remains an integral part of the life of Christ's congregation.
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