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[7th General Assembly, 1979,7-23, p. 77]



Ministers of the Word

by Rev. Donald A. Dunkerley

It is the universal conviction of all Reformed churches since the time of the Reformation that there is within the church, and indeed among the officers of the church, a distinct group, class or order of men who have been specially called and anointed by God for the work of preaching the gospel and administering the Sacraments. These men are to be given special training, recognized by the church for their gift and calling, and set apart by the church for the work of preaching. Since preaching is a distinct work for a distinct class of persons, it requires a distinct ordination by the church. The men who receive this ordination are most commonly called Ministers of the Word. They, and they alone, should be permitted to preach the Word of God in the churches.

The ministry of the Word of God is often referred to as an office. There has been difference of opinion and terminology within Reformed churches as to the relationship of the office of Minister of the Word with other officers, particularly the officers of Elder and Bishop. There have been differences regarding the relationship of the officer of Minister of the Word of God with the offices of Pastor and Teacher. Pastor and Teacher are often regarded as separate offices within the office of Minister of the Word, and Ministers of the Word are often regarded as having a separate office within the office of Elder. Clearly the word "office" is used in a variety of senses in the Reformed tradition.

But, amidst all the differences of terminology and all of the different viewpoints, there is one fact that receives universal agreement: the office or order or class of Ministers of the Word is a distinct body of men, especially called by God and especially ordained by the church, to whom alone belongs the prerogatives of preaching the gospel and administering the Sacraments.

In this paper I intend first to look at the order of Ministers of the Word in the Reformed tradition; second, to examine the scriptural basis for the conviction that such an order exists; and third, to draw certain conclusions for the present time.


Many of the Reformed confessions of faith have given specific attention to the Minister of the Word. The Tetrapolitan Confession, 1530, written by Martin Bucer, says, "What constitutes fit and properly consecrated ministers of the Church, bishops, teachers and pastors, is that they have been divinely sent ('for how will they preach unless they be sent?') - i.e., that they have received the power and mind to preach the Gospel and to feed the flock of Christ, and also the Holy Ghost who cooperates - i.e., persuades hearts."[1] It is to be noted that Ministers of the Church are a specially sent and consecrated group of men who have received a certain power and mind and gift of the Holy Ghost. It is also to be noted that Ministers of the Church are to be seen as embracing three sub-offices: bishops, teachers and pastors.

The first Helvetic Confession of 1536, also known as the Second Confession of Basel, was drawn up by Bullinger and others and was very much influenced by Bucer and Capito. It says, "We hold that the sacred assemblies and meetings of believers should be conducted in such a way that above all else God's Word be placed before the people at a common place and reserved for that purpose alone; that the mysteries of Scripture be daily expounded and explained by qualified ministers ... "[2] It is to be noted that the exposition and explanation of God's Word is to be central to Reformed worship and that this must be done only by qualified Ministers.

The Lausanne Articles of 1536, written by William Farel, say, "The said Church acknowledges no ministry except that which preaches the Word of God and administers the Sacraments."[3]

The Geneva Confession of 1536 was written by John Calvin, or at least was written under his strong influence, and follows the same pattern as the first edition of his Institutes, which appeared in the same year. The confession contains the following article, headed "Ministers of the Word:"

We recognize no other pastors in the Church than faithful pastors of the Word of God, feeding the sheep of Jesus Christ on the one hand with instruction, admonition, consolation, exhortation, deprecation; and on the other resisting all false doctrines and deceptions of the devil, without mixing with the pure doctrine of the Scriptures their dreams or their foolish imaginings. To these we accord no other power or authority but to conduct, rule, and govern the people of God committed to them by the same Word, in which they have power to command, defend, promise, and warn, and without which they neither can nor ought to attempt anything. As we receive the true ministers of the Word of God as messengers and ambassadors of God, it is necessary to listen to them as to Him Himself, and we hold their ministry to be a commission from God necessary in the church. On the other hand, we hold that all seductive and false prophets, who abandon the purity of the Gospel and deviate to their own inventions, ought not at all to be suffered or maintained, who are not the pastors they pretend, but rather, like ravening wolves, ought to be hunted and ejected from the people of God.[4]

The French Confession of Faith, 1559, says, "Now as we enjoy Christ only through the gospel, we believe that the order of the Church, established by his authority, ought to be sacred and inviolable, and that, therefore, the Church can not exist without pastors for instruction, whom we should respect and reverently listen to, when they are properly called and exercise their office faithfully."[5]

The principal confession of faith of Dutch Reformed Churches and of other churches from the Low Countries is the Belgic Confession of Faith, 1561, written by Guido de Bres. Of particular interest to us are articles 30 and 31:

Concerning the government of, and Offices in, the Church
We believe that this true Church must be governed by the spiritual policy which our Lord has taught us in his Word - namely, that there must be Ministers or Pastors to preach the Word of God, and to administer the Sacraments; also elders and deacons, who, together with the pastors, form the council of the Church; that by these means the true religion may be preserved, and the true doctrine everywhere propagated, likewise transgressors punished and restrained by spiritual means; also that the poor and distressed may be relieved and comforted, according to their necessities. By these means everything will be carried on in the Church with good order and decency, when faithful men are chosen, according to the rule prescribed by St. Paul to Timothy.[6]
Of the Ministers, Elders, and Deacons
We believe that the Ministers of God's Word, and the Elders and Deacons, ought to be chosen to their respective offices by a lawful election of the Church, with calling upon the name of the Lord, and in that order which the Word of God teacheth. Therefore every one must take heed not to intrude himself by indecent means, but is bound to wait till it shall please God to call him; that he may have testimony of his calling, and be certain and assured that it is of the Lord. As for the Ministers of God's Word, they have equally the same power and authority wheresoever they are, as they are all Ministers of Christ, the only universal Bishop, and the only Head of the Church. Moreover, that this holy ordinance of God may not be violated or slighted, we say that every one ought to esteem the Ministers of God's Word and the Elders of the Church very highly for their work's sake, and be at peace with them without murmuring, strife, or contention, as much as possible.[7]

It is to be noted in the above that it is taught that there are three offices of the church - Ministers, Elders and Deacons, and that the Ministers or Pastors have the distinctive work of preaching and administering the Sacraments.

The most comprehensive treatment of the subject of Ministers is to be found in the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566. The entirety of chapter 18 is, "Of the Ministers of the Church, Their Institution and Duties." This chapter is spread out over most of ten pages in the 1966 publication of Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century.

The chapter indicates that the Ministers of the New Testament can be found in several different capacities or offices:

Ministers of the New Testament. Furthermore, the ministers of the new people are called by various names. For they are called apostles, prophets, evangelists, bishops, elders, pastors, and teachers (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11). The Apostles. The apostles did not stay in any particular place, but throughout the world gathered together different churches. When they were once established, there ceased to be apostles, and pastors took their place, each in his church. Prophets. In former times, the prophets were seers, knowing the future; but they also interpreted the Scriptures. Such men are also found still today. Evangelists. The writers of the history of the Gospel were called Evangelists; but they also were heralds of the Gospel of Christ; as Paul also commended Timothy: "Do the work of an evangelist" (2 Tim. 4:5). Bishops. Bishops are the overseers and watchmen of the Church, who administer the food and needs of the life of the Church. Presbyters. The presbyters are the elders and, as it were, senators and fathers of the Church, governing it with wholesome counsel. Pastors. The pastors both keep the Lord's sheepfold, and also provide for its needs. Teachers. The teachers instruct and teach the true faith and godliness. Therefore, the ministers of the church may now be called bishops, elders, pastors, and teachers.[8]

The confession makes an interesting contrast between the Priesthood and the Ministry. It says, "The priesthood and the ministry are very different from one another. For the priesthood, as we have just said, is common to all Christians; not so is the ministry."[9] The doctrine of the priesthood of believers emphatically does not teach that all believers are Ministers of the Word.

The confession indicates, "The duties of ministers are various; yet for the most part they are restricted to two, in which all the rest are comprehended: to the teaching of the Gospel of Christ, and to the proper administration of the Sacraments.[10]

It should be clear from the above that the Reformed confessions of the sixteenth century were unanimous in their agreement that there was a distinct order of Ministers who alone had the right to preach and to administer Sacraments.


The preaching of the Word of God has a distinctive role in the salvation of the individual, according to Reformed theology, and especially according to the understanding of the Westminster Assembly of Divines. In their answer to Larger Catechism question 155, they say, "The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing and humbling sinners . . . "[11]

Their answer to question 158 indicates that this work of preaching must be reserved only to the Ministers of the Word: "The Word of God is to be preached only by such as are sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office."[12]

The Westminster Assembly continues the emphasis that we have seen in earlier Reformed confessions, that not only is the Minister of the Word the only one who may preach the Word, but he is also the only one who may administer the sacraments. This is because of the Reformation emphasis that the sacraments are a visible form of preaching. The same message preached from the pulpit is set forth in the sacraments. If the sacraments are separated from the preaching, then they become mere meaningless rituals and soon become perverted into objects of Romish superstition. The same covenant of grace which is taught in the Word is symbolized and sealed in the sacraments.

Larger Catechism answer 176 says of the Sacraments: ". . . both are seals of the same covenant, are to be dispensed by ministers of the gospel, and by none other. .."[13] The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 27, "Of the Sacraments," says in article IV: "There be only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord; neither of which may be dispensed by any but by a minister of the word, lawfully ordained."[14]

The Westminster Assembly also restricts reading the Scripture in public. Larger Catechism, answer 156, says, "Although all are not to be permitted to read the word publickly to the congregation, yet all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves ..."15 This is further clarified by a statement in their Directory for the Publick Worship of God: "Reading of the word in the congregation, being part of the publick worship of God, (wherein we acknowledge our dependence upon him, and subjection to him,) and one mean sanctified by him for the edifying of his people, is to be performed by the pastors and teachers. Howbeit, such as intend the ministry, may occasionally both read the word, and exercise their gift in preaching in the congregation, if allowed by the presbytery thereunto."16 One notes that both the reading and the preaching of the Word is reserved exclusively for Ministers or for those intending the Ministry and already gifted in preaching, and given permission by the Presbytery, who would correspond to our licentiates.

If the exception is made that an unordained ministerial candidate may preach, may he not also administer the sacraments? Their language on who may administer sacraments seems more restrictive than the language used on preaching. While an unordained ministerial candidate is clearly excluded from administering the sacraments, especially since the Westminster Confession even specifically says "lawfully ordained," he could, as a ministerial candidate approved for preaching by the presbytery, fit in the language of Larger Catechism, answer 158, "sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office." It would appear that the Westminster divines, in writing the Larger Catechism, framed their answer on who may preach in such a way as to allow for the possibility of preaching by not-yet-ordained candidates who are gifted and called and approved, but also deliberately wrote on who may administer the sacraments so as to exclude them.

Why should this be? Are the Sacraments so much more holy than preaching that the not-yet-ordained may perform the latter but not the former? The Westminster Assembly would certainly reject such a Romish position! The reason for the distinction is most likely that the administration of the sacraments requires an exercise of judgment beyond that which is involved in preaching. We may preach to all indiscriminately, but only certain persons are qualified to receive baptism and the Lord's Supper. Discipline is to be exercised in the church regarding these sacraments, and disciplinary judgments on sacramental occasions often fall upon the administrator of the sacrament. In the century leading up to the writing of the Westminster Standards, conflicts over the sacraments were common, and courage in the face of opposition was required. A not-yet-ordained ministerial candidate may have the gifts and calling to preach, but may not yet have the wisdom and the courage to make the disciplinary judgments necessary in administering the sacraments. Moreover, in administering the sacraments, a man is exercising discipline on behalf of the whole church, and should not exercise this authority until it has been given him by ordination.

The Directory reiterates the teaching that the preaching of the Word has particular significance for salvation and that it is the exclusive prerogative of the Ministry by saying, "Preaching of the Word, being the power of God unto salvation, and one of the greatest and most excellent works belonging to the ministry of the gospel, should be so performed, that the workman need not be ashamed, but may save himself, and those that hear him."[17]

We have already seen that the Larger Catechism, in its reference to preaching, refers to "that office." We might well inquire as to the extent to which preaching is a distinctive office in the conception of the Westminster Assembly. Does this mean that it is utterly separate from other offices, such as the office of Elder? The Form of Presbyterial Church-Goverment by the Westminster Assembly gives us further insight into their understanding of church offices.

They say, "The officers which Christ hath appointed for the edification of his church, and the perfecting of the saints, are, some extraordinary, as apostles, evangelists, and prophets, which are ceased. Others ordinary and perpetual, as pastors, teachers, and other church-governors, and deacons."[18]

It would appear from the above that there are many offices in the church. Minister of the Word is not named as a specific office here. The office of Pastor is mentioned, and it is obvious from their description that the Pastor is a Minister of the Word. However, they hold to a separate office of Teacher or Doctor, and he is also a Minister of the Word. The Form of Church-Government says, "The scripture doth hold out the name and title of teacher, as well as of the pastor. Who is also a minister of the word, as well as the pastor, and hath power of administration of the Sacraments.[19] So we see that the office of Minister of the Word is divided into the two sub-offices of Pastor and Teacher.

The Directory recognizes that the Pastor also holds the office of Elder. It says, "The office of the elder (that is, the pastor) is to pray for the sick, even in private, to which a blessing is especially promised; much more therefore ought he to perform this in the publick execution of his office, as a part thereof."[20]

It might appear from above that the Westminster Divines believed that the office of Pastor and Elder were exactly the same office, but we see that this is not the case when we read the following in The Form of Church-Government:

As there were in the Jewish church elders of the people joined with the priests and Levites in the government of the church, so Christ, who hath instituted government, and governors ecclesiastical in the church, hath furnished some in his church beside the ministers of the word, with gifts for government, and with commission to execute the same when called thereunto, who are to join with the minister in the government of the church. Which officers reformed churches commonly called Elders.[21]

We see from the above that every Pastor, by virtue of being pastor, is an Elder. We also see that there are Elders in the church "beside the ministers of the word" which have gifts for government but, since they are not Ministers of the Word, therefore, may not preach. The Form of Church-Government does not indicate whether Teachers are also Elders. Teachers are connected with schools rather than with congregations, so they have no flock to govern. It is very likely the view of the Westminster Assembly that the office of Minister of the Word is divided into the offices of Pastor and Teacher and that all Pastors are Elders but Teachers are not necessarily Elders. The office of Elder is further divided into those Elders who are also Pastors and those Elders who are not Pastors.

The Form of Church-Government
says regarding Deacons: "The scripture doth hold out deacons as distinct officers in the church."[22] The use of the word "distinct" of Deacons may indicate that the Westminster Assembly recognizes that there is no sharp distinction between Ministers and Elders, but the kind of overlapping that we have mentioned above.

The Form of Church Government
describes officers of a particular congregation in this way: "For officers in a single congregation, there ought to be at the least, both to labour in the word and doctrine, and to rule. It is also requisite that there should be others to join in the government. And likewise it is requisite that there be others to take special care for the relief of the poor."[23] We then see that the officers of a particular church are Ministers, other Elders, and Deacons.

The Form of Church-Government
does not give any specific information on the ordination of Deacons and of Elders, other than of Ministers of the Word. It does say that in the congregation, "Some must be set apart to bear office."[24] However, this setting apart to bear office is not called ordination, except in the case of Ministers. Ordination seems to be specifically for the setting apart of Ministers. We read, "Under the head of 'Ordination of Ministers' is to be considered, either the doctrine of ordination, or the power of it."[25] The doctrine of ordination is thus treated exclusively under the subject of the ordination of Ministers.

There are long sections on ordination in The Form of Church-Government, and they all pertain exclusively to the ordination of Ministers.

We conclude that, in the view of the Westminster Assembly, there was a special class or order of men called Ministers of the Word who are specially called by God, and they alone are entitled to preach, to administer the sacraments, and to read the Scriptures publicly, with the exception that candidates for the Ministry of the Word may be permitted or licensed by Presbytery to read and preach on a trial basis.

The Ministry of the Word is a distinct office in the sense that only for the Ministry of the Word is one actually ordained, although other officers are set apart. It is not a distinct office in the sense that there are two offices, Pastor and Teacher, within the office of Minister of the Word. It is also not a distinct office in the sense that some Ministers, those who are Pastors, are also Elders; and some Elders, but not all Elders, are Ministers of the Word. There is thus not the same distinctiveness to the Ministry as an office as there is to the Diaconate as an office, but while there is certain overlapping among Ministers, Pastors, Teachers, and Elders, there is at the same time a distinct order of Ministers of the Word that receives an exclusive ordination.


We have seen the universal conviction of the early Reformed confessions and the Westminster Divines that there is a special order of men called by God as Ministers of the Word, and to them alone belongs the prerogative of preaching in the church. This conviction continued in the Reformed churches well into the last century and has remained wherever churches remained true to their Reformed heritage. This conviction was strongly present in the Presbyterian Church in the United States when that denomination, commonly known as the Southern Presbyterian Church, was faithful to the Scriptures and the Reformed faith. Robert L. Dabney, who is best known for his work as Professor of Theology at Union Theological Seminary of Richmond, Virginia, from 1869 to 1883, is representative of the best of Southern Presbyterian thought. We see the Reformed conviction on the Ministry of the Word clearly stated in his writings.

"The church has always held that none should preach the gospel but those who are called of God,"[26] is the statement with which Dabney opens his article, "What is a Call to the Ministry?" This categorical statement indicates not only Dabney's convictions but his understanding of the conviction of the whole of the Reformed Church.

Further on in the same paper, he says, "A call to preach is not complete until the Holy-Spirit has uttered it, not only in the Christian judgment of the candidate himself, but in that of his brethren also."[27] So the call, which is universally recognized as necessary for one to preach, is a call that must culminate in public recognition and ordination by the church.

Dabney recognizes that lay preaching is inimical to Presbyterianism. He says, "Let all Presbyterians, then, bear in mind, as one 'fixed fact,' that the recognition of laypreaching means broad-churchism."[28]

But what of laymen who seem gifted and called to preach? There were two prominent lay evangelists at the time that Dabney was writing. One was D.L. Moody, a man not of Reformed convictions, and the other was Brownlow North, a Scotsman of definitely Reformed convictions.[29] Dabney writes: "If, for instance, such laymen as the late Mr. Brownlow North and Mr. Moody have the qualifications and the seal of the divine blessing which their friends claim for them, this is, to our mind, a demonstration that God calls them into the regular ministry, and they should seek a regular ordination like other ministers, each in that branch of the church which has his conscientious preference."[30]

What is Dabney's view of the relationship between the Ministry of the Word and the office of Elder or Presbyter? This is clearly answered in an article, "Theories of the Eldership," which originally appeared in the "North Carolina Presbyterian," September, 1860. His position is stated thus: "There is one class of presbyters embracing two orders, the preaching elder and the ruling elder. "[31]

This indicates that Dabney held to a two-office view of the Church; that is, the only offices are Elder and Deacon. Within the one office of Elder, however, there are two separate orders; and the office of the Teaching Elder, or the Minister of the Word, is a separate order within the office of Elder or Presbyter, and that only those who are Ministers of the Word are permitted to preach.

Dabney defends his distinction between the two orders in the one office as follows:

Again, it is objected, that the Scriptures indicate no such distinction of work and title as we make between the preaching presbyter and the ruling presbyter; that as their qualifications are required to be the same, so no difference seems to be held forth in the work assigned them. This we positively deny. In Rom. 12:8, and 1 Cor. 12:28, we found the "governing" mentioned as a gift, a charism, bestowed on others than those who had the gifts of preaching. In. 1 Tim. 5:17, a clear distinction is implied between those who rule well, and those who also 'labor in word and doctrine.' And in Revelation, the closing book of the canon, where we would naturally expect to see the apostolic institutions in their matured form, we hear each church representatively addressed by its 'angel.' After all the thorny discussions as to the interpretation of this term, there is none so natural and tenable as that which makes the angel, in imitation of the well-known order and use of titles in the synagogue, the preaching presbyter, who presided over his brethren the presbyters, and was the public mouth-piece, or messenger, of the church to God, and of God to the church. So that we do assert, the distinction between the titles and tasks of the preaching and ruling presbyters, while yet both are proper presbyters, is as plain in the New Testament as could be expected.[32]

Dabney's view that the two orders compose one office leads him to believe that both should have what he calls a "presbyterial ordination." This would distinguish him from the Westminster Assembly which would appear to recognize no ordination for those set apart as Ruling Elders. However, Dabney teaches a different Presbyterial ordination for the Minister of the Word. He says, "The ruling elder should be ordained in the parochial presbytery, the session.... while the preacher is ordained in the district presbytery. "[33]

Dabney also argues vigorously for special theological training for the Minister of the Word. He recognizes that special academic training was not required in the early church, but points out that in the early church the Elders were able to read the New Testament in the original language. He says, "Then the language of the New Testament was their living vernacular; now it is a dead and a difficult language, only partially understood by the learned. . . . All this modern training does not put the preacher back where every educated Christian stood in apostolic days, and repair the thefts of biblical knowledge made by time and change."[34] Of special interest is his article, "A Thoroughly Educated Ministry," which appeared in "The Southern Presbyterian Review" for April, 1883.[35]

The conviction that there is a special order of Elders uniquely called of God to be Ministers of the Word, to be specially trained and ordained by the church, and to whom alone belongs the prerogative of preaching, is a conviction that runs right from the early stages of the Reformation to the Southern Presbyterian Church in the last ' century.


It has been axiomatic to Reformed Christians for centuries that there is in the church an order of men especially called and gifted of God for preaching the gospel who are to be recognized and ordained by the church for this prerogative. At least until the time of Dabney, one could confidently assert, as we have seen that Dabney did, "The church has always held that none should preach the gospel but those who are called of God."

Evidence of the truth of the Reformed doctrine of preaching seemed through the centuries to be running right through the Bible. It was incontestable.

There are in the Scriptures specific statements about the power of the preached Word through the Lord's appointed Ministers. Among such statements are the following: "

- So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also, for I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek" (Rom. 1:15, 16).
- "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?" (Rom. 10:14).
- "For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel. ... For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish, foolishness; but unto us which are saved, it is the power of God. . . . It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe" (1 Cor. 1:17, 18, 21).
- "For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance" (1 Thess. 1:5).

There are many other lines of evidence that run through the Scriptures, such as the following:

- Many narratives in the book of Acts and throughout the Bible of persons being convicted and converted through preaching by the Lord's Ministers.
- The unique call of the Apostles by the Lord Jesus Christ at the beginning of His earthly ministry, their subsequent three-year training in what might be considered His itinerant seminary, and their subsequent empowerment and effectiveness in preaching.
- The unique call by the Holy Spirit of Barnabas and Saul, and their ordination by the church in Acts 13:2,3.
- Other accounts of persons being called to preaching or to the prophetic office. Prophets in biblical times exercised their gifts in a unique way by giving new revelation, but it has often been understood in Reformed churches that preaching in the present day is a form of prophesying, although in the lesser sense of interpreting in the power of the Spirit that which has already been given. If Paul and the apostles, who gave new revelation, can be considered examples of persons called to preach, so also may Old Testaments prophets.
- Passages that speak about different spiritual gifts. It is noted that some have gifts for preaching, but many others have quite different gifts. Particular interest is focused on Romans 12:4-8, 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 and 27:31, and Ephesians 4:11-12.
- Special instructions that are given to Timothy and Titus in the pastoral epistles. These men are Ministers of the Word and receive instructions about preaching which are not given in epistles to believers generally. Timothy's particular gift of preaching is mentioned in connection with his ordination "with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery" in 1 Timothy 4:14.
- Specific passages in which the Apostle Paul speaks of having a special ministry. One verse, often cited in Reformed confessions, is 1 Corinthians 4:1, "Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God."

The Apostle John refers to himself as an Elder in 2 John 1 and 3 John 1 and the Apostle Peter calls himself an Elder in 1 Peter 5:1, thus indicating that Apostles are Elders and leading us to believe that all those who are Ministers of the Word are Elders of the church. That there is a distinction in the eldership between those who are Ministers of the Word laboring in word and doctrine and those who are not so called, but exercise gifts of government, is clear from 1 Timothy 5:17, "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine."


That which may have been self-evidently obvious and incontestable from the Scriptures in the minds of Reformed Christians in previous centuries is not so today. The writer of this present paper has had a particular struggle personally in accepting the doctrines which now are being set forth in this paper. The evangelical world as a whole seems to reject these same doctrines at the present time, and this rejection is very much seen in the life and the practice of the Presbyterian Church in America and forms part of the background for the formation of the Ad-Interim Committee on the Number of Offices in the Church.

The reason for the present writer's difficulty is that the first few years of my Christian experience, after being born again, were spent in the sect of the Plymouth Brethren, which denies that there is a special order in the church of men called and ordained to preach the Word, and teaches that all believers are Ministers of the Word. For a number of years I held to their doctrine. From 1 Timothy 5:17, the Lord convinced me that there are those in the church who give themselves full-time to the Ministry of the Word and received honorarium, as well as honor, for their work. And through such an understanding, the Lord was able to call me into the Ministry of the Word. However, for quite a number of years, even after being ordained in the Ministry and serving as a pastor, I experienced confusion in this area. I was not sufficiently aware that I had received a distinctive calling and gift, but suspected instead that I was simply led to practice, on a full-time and paid basis, gifts which all Christians have and which all Christians ought to exercise at least part-time.

The teaching of the Plymouth Brethren has leavened the whole of modern evangelicalism, especially in this country. Pentecostalism has exercised a similar confusion, although Pentecostalism recognizes a diversity of gifts and callings and does not teach, in quite the same manner as the Plymouth Brethren, that all believers are gifted and called to be Ministers of the Word. The struggle that I have gone through personally is thus a microcosm of the struggle that modem evangelicalism is going through. The doubts and the difficulties that I had are the doubts and the difficulties that modem evangelicalism still has. It is still significant, therefore, to give particular attention to this problem in this paper, and especially in the manner in which it has worked out in my own mind and experience.

At the heart of the problem is the distinctive Plymouth Brethren interpretation of Ephesians 4:11-12, which reads as follows in the King James version:

11. And he gave some, apostles; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12. For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:

The Plymouth Brethren insist that the King James version errs in placing a comma after the word 'saints' in verse 12. The perfecting of the saints and the work of the ministry are not two separate functions of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Rather, these gifted men have the one function of perfecting the saints, who in turn do the work of the ministry. They perfect the saints "unto" the work of the ministry, which is, in turn, "unto" the edifying of the body. The way that the church is to be built up is that apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers perfect the saints to minister to one another, and in this way the whole body is built up. Up to this point, the Plymouth Brethren argument is a sound one. It has been accepted by evangelicalism generally, and has had the happy consequence that believers do understand that they are to minister to one another and, as such, do participate in various forms of ministry.

However, the Plymouth Brethren form of this argument goes further, and here it departs from the truth and becomes dangerous. They reason that since all the saints are being equipped for the work of the ministry, then all the saints are Ministers, every believer is a Minister of the Word. It is wrong for an individual to refer to himself as a "Minister," as if he had some distinctive office or right to preach. As a believer, he is a Minister, but so is every believer, and he has no right to arrogate to himself prerogatives that belong to every believer. It would be acceptable for an individual to refer to himself as "evangelist" or "pastor" or "teacher," but never as "Minister." And even though he may have one of the gifts mentioned in verse 11, he should realize that that does not make him in any special sense a Minister of the Word more that other believers. Rather he is to recognize that the Ministry of the Word belongs to all believers, and his task is to equip others to minister the Word.

The Plymouth Brethren goes further in that it denies that the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers in verse 11 are in any sense to be office bearers in the church. They are simply unobtrusive members of the body exercising unique gifts for the benefit of the rest. However, that particular argument is more artificial, is not generally adhered to by modern evangelicals, and is not the problem in modern evangelicalism that is the position of the previous paragraph.

What shall we say to this? It should be noted first of all that Ephesians 4:12 indicates that the saints are engaged in the work of the ministry, but it does not say specifically the Ministry of the Word. There are various ministries. The word used here is diakonia and may refer to any type of service. It is the word which is used for the office of a Deacon who serves, but his service is aid and help of a more material sort. The word has the more specific meaning of "the service necessary for preparation of a meal,"[36] and also has the meaning of "aid, support, distribution, especially of alms and charitable giving."[36]

It has been argued that Philip was a Deacon and Philip preached, so all Deacons, and really all those who are servants of Christ, should preach. However, he is also called "Philip the evangelist" (Acts 21:8), indicating that he was distinctly called and ordained into the office of Evangelist, which is an office of a Minister of the Word and one of the offices specifically named in Ephesians 4:11.[37]

There is not a shred of evidence that the ministry to be exercised by the saints in Ephesians 4:12 is the Ministry of the Word. Since the New Testament passages on gifts, particularly Roman 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, indicate that there are a variety of gifts given to different individuals, it would follow that the ministry of the saints would be the ministry of all the various gifts given for us to serve one another and edify the church.

It should also be noted that the gifts named in Ephesians 4:11 are all preaching and teaching gifts. The various functions of Ministers of the Word are spelled out in verse 11, and therefore separated from the common ministries of the saints in verse 12. It would then follow that the ministry of verse 12 includes all ministries that can be performed by the saints, with the exception of the specific gifts of Ministry of the Word, which have already been enumerated. God gives Ministers of the Word to equip all other believers to engage in all of the other ministries and gifts to complete the upbuilding of the church.

The word for ministry and service may refer to all ministries and service generally or may refer to specific ministries, with the context defining the specific ministry intended. In some cases, the word refers specifically to the ministry of the. Deacon. Romans 13:4 indicates that the civil magistrate is "the minister of God," not that he is a Minister of the Word, but a minister of the sword.

In addition to the word diakonia, which we have mentioned, there is also the: word huperetis. It means "servant, helper, assistant ... a synagogue attendant .. , a king's retinue ... the apostles as servants of Christ."[38] It is the word used when Paul says, "Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, the stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Cor. 4:1).

In Luke 1:2, it is used specifically of "ministers of the word." In Luke 4:20, when Jesus preached at the synagogue, the word is used when it says, "And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down." It is used in Acts 13:5, which says that John was "their minister," speaking of the synagogues of the Jews at Salamis. So we see that the apostles use the word huperetis for their function as Ministers of the Word based on the use of that word of the Minister in the synagogue. Huperetis was also used by the Lord Jesus Christ when he called Paul and said, "I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness ... delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom I now send thee, to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them that are sanctified by faith that is in me" (Acts 26:16-18).

There are other words used in the New Testament of the Ministry of the Word. Two different ones are used by Paul in Romans 15:16: "That I should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God." The word that he uses for "minister" is leitourgos, and the word which he uses for "ministering" is hierourgeo. Both of these words refer to the work of the Old Testament priests, and indicate that the Ministry of the gospel is the New Testament equivalent of the work of the specially-called and ordained priests of the Old Testament.

This connection between the ordained priesthood and the gospel ministry is further exemplified in 1 Corinthians 9:13,14: "Do ye not know that they which minister about holy things live of the things of the temple? and they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar? Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel."

These explicit connections between the Gospel Ministry and the Old Testament priesthood cause us to go back and take yet another look at Ephesians 4:11-12. The context of that passage is a quotation from Psalm 68:18, which is quoted in Ephesians 4:8 and expounded in 4:9-10. Psalms 68:18 says, "Thou has ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the Lord God might dwell among them." Ephesians 4:8-10 refers this to Christ's ascension to receive gifts, which he has given to men. These gifts are those enumerated in verse 11; in other words, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. It is not simply that he gives some men the gifts to function as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. The thought is more that the men who are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors are given to the church to minister the Word and to equip the saints for other forms of ministry. Different men get different gifted Ministers of the Word to work among them. Some need evangelists, and to them evangelists are given. Some need pastors and teachers, and to them pastors and teachers are given.

What light is shed on Ephesians 4:8-12 by studying the meaning of Psalm 68:18? If one studies Psalm 68:18 in the light of such scriptures as Isaiah 66:20-21 and Numbers 8:6-19, one may conclude that the gifts referred to in Psalm 68:18 are the Levitical priests. The Levites were taken from among the tribes of Israel by the Lord, and those who were taken as captives by the Lord were given back to Israel to minister to them as priests. In the same way, God shall bring Israelites "out of all nations" (Isa. 66:20) and give them back "for priests and for Levites" (Isa. 66:21). Psalm 68:18 speaks of the ascended Christ taking men as captives and then giving them back as "gifts for men." These gifts, according to Ephesians 4:11-12 are the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers that Christ gives to His church.[39]

We have seen that the word huperetis has been borrowed from the Old Testament synagogue, and the words leitourgos and hierourgeo have been borrowed from the Old Testament priesthood, to refer to the Ministers of the New Testament gospel, whom the ascended Christ has given as gifts to His church, even as the Levites were given in the Old Testament.

The most common words for "minister" and "ministry" in the New Testament were the words diakonis and diakonia, the very general words for servant and service which can be used of other kinds of service, including, as we have seen, the civil magistrate as "a minister of God," but also used in a very specific sense for the Minister and Ministry of the Word. Here are some examples of these words used in this specialized sense:

"That he may take part of this ministry and apostleship" (Acts 1:25, see also Acts 1:17).
"But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:4 Notice the specific use of the phrase "the ministry of the word.").
"And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry" (Acts 12:25).
"But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God" (Acts 20:24).
"And when he has saluted them, he declared particularly what things God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry" (Acts 21:19).
"Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man?" (1 Cor. 3:5).
"Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament" (2 Cor. 3:6).
"Therefore, seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not" (2 Cor. 4:1). "God ... Hath given to us the ministry to reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18).
"Giving no offense in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed: But in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God" (2 Cor. 6:3, 4).
"Whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power" (Eph. 3:7).
" .. Epaphras our dear fellow servant, who is for you a faithful minister of Christ" (Col. 1:7).
"... the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister; . , Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God . which is given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God" (Col. 1:23-25). "Timotheus, our brother, and minister of God, and our fellow laborer in the gospel of Christ" (1 Thess. 3:2).
"And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry" (1 Tim. 1:12).
"If thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things, thou shalt be a good minister of Jesus Christ" (1 Tim. 4:6).
"But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry" (2 Tim. 4:5).
"Take Mark and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry" (2 Tim. 4:11).

It is evident from these studies that the Bible teaches clearly that there is a distinct order of men in the New Testament church who are Ministers of the Word. Just as the Lord chose the Levites out of all the tribes of Israel and gave them back to Israel as priests, so the ascended Christ has taken certain men out of his church and given them back to the church as His gifts to the church, Ministers of the Word. They are as distinct an order in the church as was the Old Testament priesthood and have as much right to make their living off of their Ministry as did the Old Testament priests. Their office and work is referred to in the New Testament with certain words that have been borrowed from the Old Testament priesthood and from the Minister in the synagogue. In addition, the word which means "servant" or "service" in the most general sense is frequently used in the New Testament in the very specialized sense of referring to these Ministers and their Ministry of the Word. Every believer has certain gifts from the Holy Spirit, and different individuals have different gifts, but these individuals are given particular gifts for the Ministry of the Word. They are called to the Ministry of the Word by Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, even as the original disciples and the Apostle Paul were called. Their call is to be recognized by the church, which should set them apart and ordain them for the Ministry of the Word by the laying on of the hands of the Presbytery. Since the Ministry of the Word is closely related to the government of the church, all those who are Ministers of the Word are also Elders of the church. However, there are also Elders in the church that are not Ministers of the Word and do not preach. Ministers of the Word are thus a special order within the general class of Elders. All Ministers of the Word do not have exactly the same ministry. Christ gives some as pastors to settled churches. He gives some as evangelists to have an itinerant ministry and to go to places where there is no settled church. He gives some as teachers, whose ministry might be the same as pastors or might be yet a different kind of ministry, complementing the pastors. Ministers of the Word equip lay Christians to minister to one another in various other ways and with various gifts so that the whole church may be built up. Lay Christians may teach one another in an informal fashion and may exhort one another, but the work of preaching is reserved exclusively by God for those whom He has called and appointed as Ministers of the Word.


I heartily agree with Dabney when he says, as cited above: "There is one class of presbyters embracing two orders, the preaching elder and the ruling elder." This statement expresses concisely the biblical teaching on the subject. It is true to our Reformed heritage, while at the same time cutting through the confusion that has existed with many different confessions and writers giving different lists of the offices in the church, and even separate offices within the Ministry. Dabney's understanding of one class or one office of Elder with two orders also helps us with several practical problems presently before the Presbyterian Church in America.

One of these problems is the need to raise our comprehension of the order of Ruling Elder. In many of our churches Ruling Elders have been elected and ordained when neither those elected nor the congregations which have chosen them has a biblical understanding of what it means to be Elders. They are thought of as nothing more than members of a church board entitled to make policy decisions. Ruling Elders should recognize that they are of the same class of office bearers as Teaching Elders, with the pastoral responsibilities of shepherding, nurturing and disciplining the flock. Only as they understand these responsibilities will they seek, by God's grace, to fulfill them. We also need congregations which will adequately understand the office of Elder so that they will elect men who are divinely qualified to fulfill the functions.

The second practical problem confronting our church is the need for people to understand the distinctiveness of the order of the Ministry of the Word. One can no longer confidently assert, as was confidently asserted by Dabney a century ago, and was cited above, "The church has always held that none should preach the gospel but those who are called of God." Because of the influence of Plymouth Brethrenism and Pentecostalism, many in the church in our own day believe that every Christian is called to be a Minister of the Word.

The devil delights in pendulum thinking. In a previous age, many Reformed Christians seemed to feel that they had no responsibility for the evangelization of their unconverted neighbors, except to invite them to come to church to hear a gospel sermon. It was the Minister alone who had the responsibility to evangelize the lost. Now it is properly recognized that every Christian is to be a witness. Many are evangelizing their neighbors through informal conversations and neighborhood Bible classes. Many are reaching their neighbors through para-church organizations with specialized ministries to reach special groups of persons, servicemen or university students, for example, and reach many who might not otherwise ever enter a church. Many have benefited from special training in particular methods and techniques of presenting the gospel. Much good has come from the active witnessing of Christian laymen.

However, the pendulum appears to have swung too far in the other direction. Many feel that it is as good or even better to go to a home Bible study than to go to church on a Sunday evening, and maybe even on a Sunday morning, to hear a Minister of the Word preach the Word. There is a tendency to look upon what is called "the institutional church" as being little more than an outmoded relic of the past, and to believe that God will use para-church organizations of witnessing laymen as effectively, or more effectively, than he uses the church. Some are much more concerned to invite their friends to informal Bible studies or even formal meetings of their para-church organizations, than they are to invite their unsaved neighbors to come to church to hear the Minister of the Word proclaim the Word. Some who are effectively-witnessing laymen see no difference between themselves and the Minister, except that they support themselves in their own ministry with a secular occupation, while the Minister is involved in full-time ecclesiastical employment.

Even as there is a tendency of Ruling Elders to think of themselves as simply members of the church Board of Directors, so there is the tendency to look upon the Minister as being little more that the church administrative secretary and their hired employee. This may be particularly the case when the Ruling Elder teaches a Men's Bible Class or has some other teaching ministry, perhaps in a para-church organization. He may not consider that there is any difference between the Minister of the Word and himself, except that he supports himself in a secular employment and the Minister does not.

We need to assert anew that the preaching of the gospel is a God-called and God-anointed work, and to insist that none be permitted to preach except those whose gifts and calling have been recognized and who have been ordained by the church. We may also permit licentiates who, after the teaching of the Westminster Assembly, as cited above, are candidates for the ministry and have been given permission to preach by the Presbytery and have thus received, in effect, a trial ordination. This would agree with Paul's teaching to Timothy, "Lay hands suddenly on no man" (I Tim. 5:22). Paul has said that a Bishop must be "not a novice" (I Tim. 3:6), and this would certainly apply to a Bishop who is a Minister of the Word. Of the Deacons, Paul has written, "And let these also first be proved, and then let them use the office of a Deacon" (I Tim. 3:10). The "also" would indicate that Elders must be proved as well as Deacons, and so a period of trial for a man whom God has possibly called as a Minister of the Word, and who is seeking a permanent ordination to that office, is very much in order.

There are among us many Ruling Elders and others who feel gifted and called to preach. Many presently vacant pulpits would be without any Ministry if it were not for these lay preachers. But the past century has well proven the truth of Mr. Dabney's above-cited prophecy, "Lay preaching means broad churchism." It also means much confused and faulty doctrinal teaching by untrained, undisciplined, and unlicensed speakers. Let us exhort lay preachers, as Dabney exhorted Moody and North, that they become licensed by their Presbyteries and begin work toward regular ordination in the church.

The administration of the sacraments must be closely joined with the preaching of the Word. There should be no administration of the sacraments when there is not at the same time the preaching of the Word. We have noted that the Reformed standards give to the Ministers of the Word the exclusive prerogatives both of preaching and of administering the sacraments. We should adhere to this rule: none may preach but those who have been ordained or licensed, and none may administer the sacraments who are not ordained to preach.

It is apparent that we may not permit any to preach except Ministers and approved ministerial candidates, unless we first revise the Westminster Standards. We may not permit Ruling Elders to preach, unless they are simultaneously candidates for the ministry, without revising the Westminster Standards, and we may not permit any unordained person, even a licentiate, to administer the sacraments, without revising the Westminster Standards. Indeed, such practices appear not only to depart from the Westminster Standards and the universal practice of the Reformed Churches, but from the Word of God itself.

We must resist the pressures of the weak evangelicalism of our times and boldly assert the Reformed faith with all of its implications. We need to encourage the witnessing of every Christian, but steadfastly maintain that the public preaching of the Word of God has a distinctive efficacy, and emphasize that the preaching of the Word is something which can only truly be done by those who are called by God and licensed or ordained by His Church.


1. Cochrane, Arthur C., editor, Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966, 336 pp., paper), p. 70.
2. Ibid., p. 109.
3. Ibid., p. 116.
4. Ibid., pp. 125-26.
5. Ibid., p. 153.
6. Ibid., p. 211.
7. Ibid., p. 212.
8. Ibid., p. 270.
9. Ibid., p. 271.
10. Ibid., p. 275.
11. The Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms with the Scripture Proofs at Large Together with The Sum of Saving Knowledge (Contained in the Holy Scriptures, and Held Forth in the Said Confession and Catechisms,) and Practical Use Thereof; Covenants, National and Solemn League; Acknowledgment of Sins, and Engagement to Duties; Directories for Publick and Family Worship; Form of Church Government, Etc.; Of Publick Authority in the Church of Scotland; With Acts of Assembly and Parliament, Relative to, and Approbative of, the Same, issued by the Publications Committee of The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (Inverness, 1933, 422 pp.), p. 247.
12. Ibid., p. 251.
13. Ibid., pp. 266-7.
14. Ibid., p. 113.
15. Ibid., pp. 248-9.
16. Ibid., p. 375.
17. Ibid., p. 379.
18. Ibid., p. 398.
19. Ibid., p. 401.
20. Ibid., p. 399.
21. Ibid., p. 402.
22. Ibid., p. 403.
23. Ibid., p. 404.
24. Ibid., p. 404.
25. Ibid., p. 409.
26. Dabney, Robert L., Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, Volume 2 (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967, 677pp.), First published: 1891. p. 26.
27. Ibid., p. 27.
28. Ibid., p. 80.
29. North has been honored in this century by The Banner of Truth Trust, which has published a volume of his sermons, Wilt Thou Go With This Man? (London, 1966, 128pp., paper), and a biography by K. Moody Stuart, Brownlow North: His Life and Work (London, 1961, 221 pp., paper).
30. Dabney, op. cit., p. 84.
31. Ibid., p. 133.
32. Ibid., p. 146.
33. Ibid., p. 147.
34. Ibid., pp. 147-8.
35. Ibid., pp. 651-677.
36. Arndt, William F., and Gingrich, F. Wilbur, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Fourth Revised and Augmented Edition, 1952. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, fifth impression, 1960, 909 pp.), p. 183.
37. Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones makes a significant comment on Philip's preaching in Acts 8 in his book, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971, 325 pp.) pp. 102-3. In the midst of a very valuable discussion on the distinction between the preaching of the gospel by ordained Ministers and the witness of laymen, he says:

This distinction is brought out in a most interesting way in Acts 8 in verses 4 and 5. There we are told in the first verse that a great persecution of the Church arose in Jerusalem, and that all the members of the Church were scattered abroad except the Apostles. Then we are told in verses 4 and 5, 'therefore they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the Word. Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them.' That is the King James Version translation, and in both cases you have the word 'preached'. But in the original the same word was not used in the two verses; and this is the vital distinction. What 'the people' who went everywhere did was, as someone has suggested it might be translated, 'to gossip' the Word, to talk about it in conversation. Philip on the other hand did something different: he was 'heralding' the Gospel. This is, strictly speaking, what is meant by preaching in the sense that I have been using it. It is not accidental that such a distinction should be drawn there in the actual text. That is the position then, that every Christian should be capable of doing what is indicated in the fourth verse, but that only some are called upon to do what is indicated in the fifth verse. In the New Testament this distinction is drawn very clearly; certain people only are set apart and called upon to deliver the message, as it were, on behalf of the Church in an official manner. That act is confined to the elders, and only to some of them - the teaching elders, the elder who has received the gift of teaching, the pastors and the teachers. It is clear that the preaching in the New Testament was confined to the Apostles and the prophets and the evangelists and these others.

[38] Arndt and Gingrich, op. cit., p. 850.
39. This interpretation is developed in an article, "Paul's Use of Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8," by Gary V. Smith, in "Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society," Vol. 18, No. 3, Summer, 1975, pp. 181-9. Mr. Smith, a graduate of Wheaton College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has a Ph.D. from Dropsie University and is on the faculty of Winnipeg Theological Seminary, Otterburne, Manitoba.