The Pope’s Resignation and the Meaning of Office

Faith Matters
If you don’t yet evidence the gifts for an office, even in seed form, the church should not call you to that office.

You might be surprised to learn that at the moment Pope Benedict XVI resigned as pope earlier this year, his official pronouncements were no longer considered “infallible”—without error—as Catholic dogma teaches.

A late-night comedian used the occasion to joke about it: “One minute the pope is infallible. The next, he’s not.” Ha!

What’s going on?

The explanation lies in the high value the Roman Catholic Church places on church office, which ultimately trumps personal qualifications. If the church says its highest office can speak infallibly, it can—regardless of the person who’s holding the office. What the pope declares ex cathedra is considered absolute truth—for example, the dogma of the Assumption of Mary.

No wonder morality and competence have been relentless problems for Roman Catholic clergy (and, for that matter, clergy everywhere). From inebriated priests in the Middle Ages performing the mass to the scandals that plague the church today, the idea persists that the office qualifies the person who holds it, personal shortcomings aside. Unless, of course, a public relations nuisance arises.

In strong reaction to the Roman Catholic Church, some sectors of Protestantism developed an opposite approach: a low view of office and a high view of the qualifications of the person holding the office. In fact, anyone with the right gifts could hang out a sign and create a church. It is no wonder that some rogue pastors with no official sanction or oversight have been able to fleece the flock unchecked.

The Reformed view seeks a balance between office as conferred by the church (1 Tim. 5:22; 2 Tim. 2:2) and the qualifications of the office-holder (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1:5-9). Though imperfect, both are needed for a biblical view of office to come into full bloom in Christ’s church. Related is the importance of an external, ecclesiastical and an internal, personal calling from God.

However, even in these circles there is sometimes confusion.

I once heard a Reformed minister say from the pulpit that if the church calls you to an office (such as that of elder or deacon), God will equip you with the gifts you need to perform the duties of that office. Wrong! If you don’t yet evidence the gifts for an office, even in seed form, the church should not call you to that office.

In my ecclesiastical neighborhood, I’ve also heard that if you already have the gifts and feel called to an office, you have the right to hold that office. Wrong again. You have no right to plant yourself in an office without the church's calling.

In these two tendencies we can feel the tension between office and gifting. And as the pope leaves his office behind, forfeiting an infallibility he never really had, it’s a good time to remind ourselves of the nature of biblical office.

Yes, all Christians hold the office of every believer. And thankfully, God can and does work in churches with misinformed views of the special leadership offices. However, we should not resort to ecclesiastical fiction.

Without the biblical balance that keeps imperfect churches like mine and flawed officebearers like me on track, the church and its mission are sadly weakened.

And that's no joke.

About the Author

Rev. H. David Schuringa is a Christian Reformed minister serving as President of Crossroad Bible Institute, Grand Rapids, MI.

See comments (1)


This is a very good article, thanks.   It's important to remember that the qualifications of elders and deacons are highlighted in the books of Timothy and Titus.  Ignoring those qualifications will cause spiritual problems for the church as a whole.  On the other hand, there is a difference between the qualifications of an office, the calling and occupation of an office, and the tasks associated with that office.  The qualifications for office of elder include the ability to teach, and the gift of hospitality for example.   But that does not mean that others cannot teach or be hospitable.  In the same way, a preacher's calling is to share the gospel.  But others should also share the gospel.  A pastor is a shepherd, and elders are shepherds.  But others should also practice shepherding activities within their own sphere of influence, such as within their families or circle of friends or bible study group. 

Stephen who was stoned and killed for his faith, gave as good a sermon as any preacher, though we usually think of him as a deacon (an assistant to apostles), not an apostle or preacher or elder.   Timothy was likely brought to faith through his mother, who no doubt did her share of preaching to Timothy and to others even though she was not an elder or preacher.   It is important for us to realize and remember that the the gifts and some of the tasks are not limited to those who have been specifically designated to special offices, even though some offices are required for special callings and responsibilities and decision making.  It is also important to realize that sometimes the biggest gifts we receive from God are the opportunities he provides to us to share the gospel in whatever way we can.   Preachers and elders and deacons are given additional opportunities, but that doesn't mean that everyone else does not also have some opportunites (gifts).