For most of us, the three-office ministry has been the normal, accepted, and traditional practice of church government. In our congregations, bishop, ministers and deacons, work together in their distinctive roles to lead and guide the church. This arrangement has been a blessing to the church collectively and individually as we face the various issues of our day.
Has the church always been governed by a three-office ministry? Do we have a biblical and historical precedent for this practice? We want to consider the subject from several angles.
A Shadow of Heavenly Things (Heb. 8:5)
Obviously, we have the pattern of the heavenly administration: God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, each with distinctive roles, yet working together in perfect harmony. We notice further, that when God established the Levitical system, it included a three-fold ministry: namely, the High Priest, Priests, and the Levites. Each was given specific responsibilities and boundaries in their calling. Later on, in the Old Covenant, we have another tri-fold arrangement: Prophet, Priest and King. These forms of administration seem to be a pattern of the arrangement in the heavens. In revelation we notice an end time counterfeit trinity used by the forces of evil to deceive the nations.
The Early Church
In the early church, the three-fold office consisted of apostles, elders or bishops, and deacons. In Acts 15 at the Jerusalem Conference, we find the term “apostles and elders” four times. It seems apparent that in the early days of the Church, the apostles served as overseers, many times moving from church to church, as seen in the life of the Apostle Paul. We also notice the establishing of local pastors for each congregation. The third office of deacon was clearly established in Acts 6.
Obviously, as the apostles passed off the scene, there needed to be a change in administration and terminology. Emerging from early church writers, such as Ignatius and Clement of Alexandria, we find the terms bishop, presbyters, and deacons. Early church writers state that the apostles appointed overseers and bishops to take up this work in their absence, continuing the three-office arrangement. It is believed that two of the men who received this overseeing charge were Titus and Timothy. We notice an appointment in Titus 1:5, “For this cause I left thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee.” This appointment may well represent a call to an overseeing role in the church. In II Timothy, as Paul was “ready to be offered” (4:6), he refers to the calling given to Timothy by the “putting on of my hands” (1:6). This may represent an additional calling to an overseeing role after his first calling in I Timothy 4:14, which was given by the “hands of the presbytery”. Consider this excerpt from Ignatius (A.D. 105): “There is one bishop, along with the presbyters and deacons, my fellow servants.”
The Anabaptists had a unique situation in that they began as a group of believers without ordained leadership. Who was authorized to preach, baptize, and administrate in the church? Yet, God honored their intense faith, and a church was born with a strong commitment to follow the Scriptures completely at any cost. The Schleitheim Confession of Faith (1527), Article V, refers to “pastors” in the church. It appears there was mostly a one-office ministry in the early days of the Anabaptists. By the end of the century, however, we find a three-fold pattern for leadership reestablished. The Martyr’s Mirror refers to bishop, minister and deacon. The Mennonite Encyclopedia, in the article “bishop”, explains how in 1530, four leaders, one of which was Menno Simons, agreed to oversee geographical territories. Each of these districts contained a number of congregations.
Mennonite History in America
The three-office ministry consisting of bishop, minister, and deacon was established very early in America. The first Mennonite congregation in Germantown, PA, was established in 1683 and had a bishop ordination by 1708. In 1848, Christian Herr, a Mennonite leader in Lancaster Conference, wrote an article in which he spoke of bishops, ministers and deacons.
A list of the ordained men of the Ontario Mennonite Conference, printed in 1853, listed bishops, ministers and deacons. The Mennonite Church in America in 1953 consisted of about 570 congregations, 71,500 members, with about 180 bishops, 800 ministers and 155 deacons. In this time era, conferences like Franconia, Lancaster, Franklin, and Virginia all held to this form of church government.
The last 50 years in the Mennonite Church has brought many changes. Pastors with training and salaries began to be practiced in many congregations. In 1950, forty percent of Mennonite ministers were ordained without the use of the lot. From 1950 to 1970, there was a reconsideration of the bishop office, and a shift away from the distinctive roles of the three-office ministry.
As a conference, we want to keep the biblical, historical, and traditional practice of the three-office ministry. This arrangement has been a blessing to us in many areas, such as the accountability to each other, the safety of a plural ministry, and our congregations united in common goals and applications through these leadership teams.
May we continue to pray for our leaders who have been called to their various responsibilities in our congregations.
~ Ripley, NY