Question 26 May a person be called to, or be employed in, a part only of the office or work of the ministry; or may he hold the relation and exercise the duty of an elder or minister unto more churches than one at the same time? 

Answer Neither of these has either warrant or precedent in the Scripture; nor is the first of them consistent with the authority of the ministry, nor the latter with the duty thereof, nor either of them with the nature of that relation which is between the elders and the church.

Acts 14:23; 1 Pet. 5:2; Acts 20:28.

Explication — There are two parts of this question and answer, to be spoken unto severally. The first is concerning a person to be called or employed in any church in a part only of the office or work of the ministry; — as suppose a man should be called or chosen by the church to administer the sacraments, but not to attend to the work of preaching, or unto the rule or guidance of the church; or, in like manner, unto any other part or parcel of the work of the ministry, with an exemption of other duties from his charge or care. If this be done by consent and agreement, for any time or season, it is unwarrantable and disorderly (what may be done occasionally upon an emergency, or in case of weakness or disability befalling any elder as to the discharge of any part of his duty, is not here inquired after); for, —

First, If the person so called or employed have received gifts fitting him for the whole work of the ministry, the exercise of them is not to be restrained by any consent or agreement, seeing they are given for the edification of the church to be traded withal: 1 Cor. 12:7, “The manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal;” and this he who hath received such gifts is bound to attend unto and pursue.

Secondly, If he have not received such gifts as completely to enable him unto the discharge of the whole work of the ministry in the church wherein he is to administer, it is not lawful for the church to call him unto that work wherein the Lord Christ hath not gone before them in qualifying him for it; yea, to do so would be most irregular, for the whole power of the church consists in its attendance unto the rule given unto it: and therefore the office and work of the ministry being constituted by the law of Christ, it is not in the power of the church to enlarge or straiten the power or duty of any one that is called unto the office thereof. Neither can or ought any person that is called unto the work of the ministry to give his consent to the restraint of the exercise of that gift that he hath received, in a due and orderly manner, nor to the abridgment of the authority which the Lord Christ hath committed unto the ministers of the gospel.

As it is incumbent upon them to take care to preserve their whole authority, and to discharge their whole duty, so it follows that arbitrary constitutions of this nature are irregular, and would bring in confusion into churches.

The second part of the question is concerning the relation of the same person to more churches than one at the same time, and his undertaking to discharge the duty of his relation unto them, as elder or minister.  And this also is irregular and unwarrantable. Now, a man may hold the relation of an elder, pastor, or minister unto more churches than one, two ways: —

1. Formally and directly, by an equal formal interest in them, undertaking the pastoral charge equally and alike of them, being called alike to them, and accepting of such a relation.

2. Virtually, when, by virtue of his relation unto one church, he puts forth his power or authority in ministerial acts in or towards another.

The first way is unlawful, and destructive both of the office and duty of a pastor; for as elders are ordained in and unto the churches respectively that they are to take care of, Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5, and their office-power consists in a relation unto the church that they are set over, so they are commanded to attend unto the service of the churches wherein and whereunto they are so ordained, Acts 20:28, 1 Pet. 5:2, and that with all diligence, care, and watchfulness, as those that must give an account, Heb. 13:17, which no man is able to do towards more churches than one, the same duty being at all times to be performed towards all.  And because the whole authority of the elders, pastors, or bishops of churches, is ministerial, 1 Cor. 4:1, consisting in a power of acting upon the command of Christ, they are bound in their own persons to the discharge of their duty and office, without the least pretence of authority to delegate another, or others, to act their part or to do their duty; which would be an effect of autocratical authority, and not of obedience or ministry.

The latter way, also, of relation unto many churches is unwarrantable: for, —

1. It hath no warrant in the Scripture; no law or constitution of Christ or his apostles can be produced to give it countenance; but elders were ordained to their own churches, and commanded to attend unto them.

2. No rule is given unto any elders how they should behave themselves in reference unto more churches than one, in the exercise of their misterial power, as there are rules given unto every one for the discharge of that duty in the church whereunto he is related.

3. There is no example to give it countenance recorded in the Scripture.

4. The authority to be put forth hath no foundation.

(1.) Not in the gifts they have received; for the ministerial power is not an absolute ability or faculty of doing what a man is able, but a right, whereby a man hath power to do that rightly and lawfully which before he could not do. This, gifts will not give to any; for if they did, they would do it to all that have received them.

(2.) Not in their election; for they are chosen in and by that church whereunto they stand in especial relation, whose choice cannot give ministerial power over any but themselves.

(3.) Not in their setting apart by fasting, prayer, and imposition of hands; for this is only unto that office-work and power whereunto they are chosen. They are not chosen for one end, and set apart for another.

(4.) Not from the communion of churches; for that gives no new power, but only a due exercise of that which was before received.

The Life and Works of John Owen Vol.15