Category Archives: Ecclesiology

Elders, Deacons, and Broader Assemblies

Christ is the Head of the church and the source of all its authority (Mt. 23:10, Jn. 13:13, 1 Cor. 12:5, Eph. 1:20–23; 4:11–12, 5:23–24). Therefore, the appointed officers of the church derive their own authority from Christ and in turn must be humble in submission to Him and His Word in all things. 

In the New Testament we find two ordinary offices of church government: elder and deacon. The non-regular, or “extraordinary offices” would be that of apostles, prophets, and evangelists. Because the extraordinary offices are believed to have ceased and are not held by officers today, we will only explore the offices of elder and deacon. 

It is important to note that while the basics of church governance can be clearly deduced from Scripture, some of the exact details are not. The Westminster Confession of Faith acknowledges this when it states that there are some circumstances concerning the government of the church “which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word…” (WCF 1.6). Therefore, some of what follows, such as the types of distinctions among elders or the ordering of broader assemblies, will differ in details in various Reformed churches.

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Marks of the Church

Traditionally the Reformed church has acknowledged there to be up to three marks or signs of the true church: the pure preaching of the Word, the right administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of discipline. With a disruption in the ecclesiastical unity of the Western church, it was vital to establish a way to distinguish between true churches and false churches in a landscape that included the Church of Rome, various new Protestant churches, and other sects. Over against the Church of Rome, the Reformers had to support the argument that their churches bore the marks of being a true church. While the Papists put forward up to fifteen marks defending the Roman tradition and hierarchy, such as its name and antiquity, (see Bellarmine’s Controversiis, III, 10), the Reformers “presupposed that the church was not trustworthy in and of itself, that [it] could stray and depart from the truth, and there was a higher authority to which it too had to submit.”[1] That authority being the Word of God.

Now we had noted that there were up to three marks of the true church. Some Reformers, like Calvin, did not include discipline as a separate mark, believing it to fall under Word and sacrament (see Institutes 4.1.9). Others went one step further and did not see a need to have any marks in addition to the Word, since the Word is that which is “variously administered and confessed in preaching, instruction, confession, sacrament, life, and so forth.”[2] It seems fitting and useful to maintain the three marks, for we would not think highly of a church that did not practice the basics of rightly administering the sacraments or exercising church discipline. That said, it is certainly true that all the marks can be summed up in the Word. In his Systematic Theology, Louis Berkhof wrote that, “The Word is truly the soul of the church. All ministry in the church is a ministry of the Word… In the one mark of the word the others are included as further applications.”[3]

But what do we mean by “pure preaching” and “right administration”? What if a preacher teaches error? What if the church uses grape juice instead of wine? Swiss Protestant theologian Johannes Wolleb explains that we do not need to become worked up over whether a certain church is a true church because some error is present, for “such purity is not required, whereby there is no error in a single article, or no abuse creeps into the administration of the sacraments.”[4]Perfection is not attainable in this life. So where is the line that delineates between a true church and a false church? Wolleb said that charity should be given to a church in error especially if the church does not retreat from “the pivot of salvation, namely the two tables of the law and faith in Christ.”[5] Berkhof wrote that there is a limit beyond which a church cannot go in its denial of the truth, such as publicly denying fundamental articles of faith, or when a church’s doctrine and life are no longer under the control of the Word.[6] Surely discerning whether a church is true or false takes wisdom. But if these marks are present, we ought to err on the side of charity, until being given a reason to believe otherwise.

Find other posts in this series here.

[1] Herman Bavinck. Reformed Dogmatics Vol. IV (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic), 311.
[2] Ibid. 312.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Heinrich Hoppe, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House), 671.
[5] Ibid., Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House), 671.
[6] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 577.

Attributes of the Church

Traditionally, there have been ascribed four attributes to the Church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. These attributes are supported by Scripture and derived from the Nicene Creed (AD 381) which reads, “I believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” It is important to note that these attributes are different than the marks of the church, which we will look at next. The attributes of the church make up the essence of the church, what the church always is by definition and believed to be in faith, whereas the marks of the church (which we will look at shortly) can be used to identify and discern a true church from a false church. 

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