I cannot think of another conversation topic that has been greeted with more silent sighs than the topic of church polity. Discussion of this matter is often cast aside as petty and fascinating only to the hypercritical theologian or irrelevant pastor. Such a tendency overlooks the fact that throughout Scripture, the church is intimately connected to the person and mission of Jesus. This means that the study of the church is relevant to all. Jesus continues to work in and through the institutional church to preach His gospel and to care for those for whom He died. Let us therefore never detach our Lord from His bride; we should allow our love for one to influence our affection for the other.
Jesus continues His work on earth today through the church. He does so by governing the church through offices and by bestowing spiritual gifts upon the church.
For the sake of the church and those in it, Jesus has ordained what we call church offices. There are two kinds of offices: extraordinary and ordinary. The extraordinary offices are those of prophet and Apostle, and the ordinary offices are those of elder and deacon. Each of these offices has its own tasks that flow out of its specific purposes and place in redemptive history.
The primary purpose of the extraordinary offices of prophet and Apostle was to lay down foundational normative truths for the church as superintended by God in the writing of the Old and New Testaments. Therefore, these offices, like the work of laying down a foundation for a house, need not be done repeatedly. These offices have ceased because the writing of Scripture has been completed, and nothing shall ever be added or taken away from it. Herman Ridderbos puts it like this:
When understood in terms of the history of redemption, the canon cannot be opened; in principle it must be closed. That follows directly from the unique and exclusive nature of the power the apostles received from Christ. . . . The result of this power and commission is the foundation of the Church and the creation of the canon, and therefore these are naturally unrepeatable and exclusive in character.
The cessation of the extraordinary offices is confirmed not only by the closed nature of the canon but also by the absence of any provision in the New Testament for their succession. We see, however, that throughout the New Testament there is clear ordination and succession of the ordinary offices of elder and deacon.
The office of elder is one of governing and ruling the church. Elders govern and rule by ministering the Word of God and providing leadership for the church. The office of deacon is one of sympathy and service. Deacons serve by attending to the physical needs of the members of the church, freeing the elders up to minister the Word of God. These offices are part of the ordinary operation of the church after its foundations have been laid.
Jesus does not love and care for His church only by giving instruction for her governance. He also gives its members gifts of the Spirit. As with the extraordinary offices, some of these gifts have ceased, namely, those that were meant to deliver and affirm revelation. Throughout Scripture, there are various instances where God worked miraculously through gifting individuals for the purpose of revelatory attestation. Yet, these gifts have now ceased for the same reason that the prophetic and Apostolic offices have ceased—the unique and exclusive nature of the Apostles as bearers of revelation. Revelation outside of and beyond that of the Bible is not only unnecessary for the edification and mission of the church, it is also forbidden by Scripture and can be very dangerous to Christian orthodoxy. However, gifts that pertain to building up the church, such as teaching, mercy, and leadership, still continue today.
Jesus cares deeply for His bride, the church. He has revealed Himself to her. He has organized and gifted her for the sake of her edification and mission. Christ has instituted the offices and spiritual gifts of the church as the instruments by which He has promised to govern His church. We must not underemphasize the weight of the ordinary offices and spiritual gifts, lest we annul and dishonor that which our King has instituted. May our submission to His revelation, governance, and service lead us to hold precious the church and the church’s only head, Jesus Christ, all our days.