The History of the Office of Elder (5) Restored During the Reformation Era

Previous article in this series: January 1, 2013, p. 159.


We are currently examining the history of the office of elder after the time of the apostles in light of this question: how closely to God’s norm regarding the office of elder, which norm is given us in Scripture, did the church of Christ adhere after the time of the apostles?

In our last article we saw that the office disappeared in the New Testament church after the first few centu­ries A.D. Now we see that God used the sixteenth cen­tury reformers, and particularly those who advocated what is today known as the Reformed or Presbyterian system of church government, to restore the office to its rightful place in the church.

Early Efforts to Restore the Office

According to Samuel Miller, the office of elder was present among the “Waldenses” (Waldensians), as well as Bohemian Brethren and Hussites, already in the 1400s.1 Whether these restored the office earlier than the reformers, or whether among these groups the of­fice was never lost, is a subject for further study. The latter is very likely true.

Already in the 1520s, in Zurich, Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli laid the background for restoring the office of elder by asserting, over against the teaching of Rome, that Christ is the head of the church. This position was expressed creedally in “The Ten Theses of Bern” (1528), the first of which began: “The holy catholic church, whose sole head is Christ . . . .”2 He and other early reformers also taught that the church must be ruled by a plurality of men. In practice, this body of elders often consisted of several members of the civil government. Philip Schaff says that

Zwingli was the first among the Reformers who or­ganized a regular synodical Church government. He provided for a synod composed of all ministers of the city and canton, two lay delegates of every parish, four mem­bers of the small and four members of the great council. This mixed body represented alike Church and state, the clergy and the laity. It was to meet twice a year . . . . 3

In addition to Zwingli, such men as Johann Oeco­lampadius in Basel, Switzerland and Martin Bucer in Strassburg, Germany (both in the 1520s-1530s) laid groundwork for restoring the office of elder. Like Zwingli, these men taught that Christ is the only head of the church and that God requires the church to be governed by a body of elders. They also worked to establish a biblical form of church discipline.4

Significantly, these three men—Zwingli, Oecolampa­dius, and Bucer—lived and labored before John Calvin began his work in Geneva in 1536. In the area of the office of elder, as well as in other areas, Calvin was not the first reformer.

Calvin’s Efforts to Restore the Office

Although John Calvin was not the first to work at restoring the office of elder to its rightful place in the church, his contribution to this effort was monu­mental, and it set the pattern for Reformed churches elsewhere.

During Calvin’s first term in Geneva (1536 to 1538), he emphasized the spiritual authority of the ministers of the Word to preach the gospel and exercise Christian discipline. Both the Genevan Confession and Calvin’s Catechism, written during this first stay in Geneva, have articles devoted to excommunication. That Calvin taught that this authority belonged to “ministers” does not mean he overlooked the need for elders to supervise the preach­ing and administer discipline; rather, he was arguing that neither the pope, nor the Romish clergy, nor any civil authority, had the right to interfere with this work of the church of Jesus Christ. Calvin and others were expelled from Geneva in 1538 as a consequence of opposition to their teaching, “and especially to the purity of discipline which they struggled hard to establish.”5

On the 13th of September, 1541, Calvin returned to Geneva. On the 20th of November—just two months later—the General Council of Geneva adopted the Ecclesiastical Ordinances, which was essentially the Church Order and local regulations of the Reformed church in Geneva. This document begins by teaching the need for four offices in the church: pastor, teacher (theological professor), elder, and deacon. Then it states that which belongs to the office of elder:

Their office is to watch over the life of each person, to admonish in a friendly manner those whom they see to be at fault and leading a disorderly life, and when necessary to report them to the Company, who will be authorized to administer fraternal discipline and to do so in association with the elders.6

The “Company” to which this paragraph refers is the company of pastors, of which the church in Geneva had several. Evidently, then, the pastors were very involved in the work of discipline—but only after sinners were “reported” to them by the elders, and “in association with the elders.”

These elders did not act individually, but as a body. From 1541 on, the consistory—the body of elders—was prominent in the Genevan church.

Not only was Calvin instrumental in visibly restoring the office to the church, but he taught the people re­garding its rightful place, and helped the church develop in her understanding of the office.

Calvin taught that the terms “bishops” and “presby­ters” (elders) both refer to the office of the minister.7 Yet, in the early church there were “two kinds of el­ders . . . .  There were chosen from among the people men of worth and good character, who, united with the pas­tors in a common council and authority, administered the discipline of the Church, and were a kind of censors for the correction of morals.”8 Calvin also judged that I Corinthians 12:28 and Romans 12:8 refer to this lat­ter kind of elder—the ruling elder, as opposed to the teaching elder. He writes that the church had “elders chosen from among the people, who were charged with the censure of morals and the exercise of discipline along with the bishops.”9 That this work involved both spiritual oversight and the administration of discipline, he stressed throughout his life.

Regarding his view of the office of elder, Calvin’s influence on the thinking of the reformers who fol­lowed, and on all Reformed Christianity, cannot be overstated.

Not only the thought, but even the wording of the Form for Ordination of Elders and Deacons, which was adopted by the Synod of the Hague in 1586 and is still used by the Protestant Reformed Churches in America today, owes its debt to Calvin. Having quoted I Timothy 5:17, the Form says:

Hence it is evident that there were two sorts of elders in the apostolic church, the former whereof did labor in the Word and doctrine, and the latter did not. The first were the min­isters of the Word and pastors, . . . but the others . . . bore a par­ticular office, namely, they had the oversight of the church and ruled the same with the ministers of the Word.10

The Form then cites Romans 12:8c and I Corinthians 12:28 (“governments”) as referring to the office of elder.

Later Efforts to Restore the Office

Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Bucer, and Calvin all worked within about 200 miles of each other. Of course, 200 miles was quite a distance in their day. Still, the fact remains that the area in which they labored was a relatively small part of the European continent.

Over time, men in other countries came to share Calvin’s understanding of the place of the elder in the church, and they worked to restore the office to its rightful place in their own localities: “Peter Martyr, in Italy; [John] á Lasco, in Hungary; Junius, and oth­ers, in Holland; Knox, in Scotland”—with the effect that “all the Reformed Churches in France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Geneva, and Scotland, were thor­ough Presbyterians, not only by principle, but also in practice.”11 The reader must understand that the word “Presbyterians” refers here to church government, and so includes the Reformed system of church govern­ment.

John á Lasco did not stay in Hungary; he moved to London, where he pastored a congregation made up of Reformed believers who had moved from continental Europe to London. There too, surrounded by the Church of England with the episcopal system of church government, á Lasco and his congregation practiced the presbyterian form of church government.

Restoration in Reformed and Presbyterian Churches Particularly

The office of elder was not restored to its rightful place in every branch of churches that separated from the Romish papacy as a fruit of the great Protestant Reformation. Full restoration of this office took place in those churches that are specifically Reformed and Presbyterian in church government.

The Church of England retained Rome’s form of church government—a hierarchy—but appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury as the head of the church, in place of the pope. There is in Anglicanism no au­tonomous rule of each instituted church by a body of elders.

Other churches permitted themselves to be ruled by the civil government. This was particularly true of Lutheranism in Germany. But even in the Nether­lands, where Reformed churches did have their body of elders, the state tried to interfere with the work of the elders. Consequently, Reformed churches there either struggled to free themselves from the state’s intrusion into church government, or caved in to the pressure of the civil magistrates, so that the body of elders became redundant.

Some congregational and independent churches (including many Baptist churches) come closer to implementing the biblical form of church government, in that every congregation has its elder(s). However, in such churches the office of elder is usually found in the pastor only, while a board of deacons takes over much of the work that we believe a body of elders must per­form.

That the full restoration of the office of elder took place particularly in Reformed and Presbyterian churches is evident from several considerations. First, such churches require not only that each congregation have an elder, but a body of elders, chosen from within the congregation, to care for that particular congrega­tion. Second, such churches view this body of elders as those through whom God, in Christ, rules His church. These elders have the oversight of all the members of the congregation, as well as of the offices of pastor and deacon. And third, such churches permit these elders to carry out the work of church discipline, as prescribed by Christ.

May God give us to appreciate the gift of such elders in our churches.

1 Samuel Miller, An Essay on the Warrant, Nature, and Du­ties of the Office of the Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church (General Books [], 2009), 50-52. In their book Paradigms in Polity: Classic Readings in Reformed and Presbyterian Church Government (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1994), 83-85, David and Joseph Hall quote from another work of Samuel Miller in which he makes similar arguments.

2 “The Ten Theses of Bern (1528)”, Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, compiled by James T. Dennison, Jr (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heri­tage Books, 2008), vol. 1, 41.

3 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1989 reprint), vol. 8, 68.

4 See Miller, Essay, 58.

5 Miller, Essay, 55.

6 Philip E. Hughes, ed, The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), 35, 41.

7 See his commentary on I Timothy 3:1, and Institutes 4.3.8.

8 Commentary on I Timothy 5:17.

9 Institutes, 4.3.8.

10 The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005), 290. See also page 256 for the his­tory of the Form.

11 Miller, as quoted in Hall and Hall, 85.