by Steven Chan
1 March 2009
How does God intend for his people to make decisions in the church as regards non-doctrinal matters. In congregations where there are elders, it would appear that they are entrusted with that obligation to lead the brethren in such matters (Acts 20:28; I Pet 5:1-5; Heb 13:17). However, in the absence of eldership, as a matter of practice decisions are often made in the context of “men’s business meetings”. From the scriptures, it appears that when there are significant decisions to be made, the apostles and elders and the multitude of brethren come together to agree on a course of action as described in Act 6:2-7 and Acts 15:
“And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and
Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”
Who chose the seven? “Brothers, pick out from among you”… and it pleased the whole gathering, and they chose…” Of course, the contention pertains to who comprised these “brothers” or “the whole gathering”? Only men or, also women and youths, or excluding young converts or babes in Christ?
The next relevant account is found in Act 15. At verse 6, it says, “the apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter”. Act 15:22 “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.”
In the case of Acts 6, the suggestion by the apostles were followed by the brethren and they chose seven men from among themselves – and the apostles agreed with their choice by the brethren – and they (the apostles) prayed and laid their hands upon them. The ultimate decision or seal of approval came from the apostles or the elders but the recommendation came from the brethren.
Similarly, in the case of Acts 15, it would appear that the decisions of apostles and elders were respected by the entire church and they chose men from among them to Antioch.
In each instance, the question is who comprised “the brethren and/or the church” who chose the seven men or those who would go to Antioch?
The immediate context does not make clear specifically whether only men were there and all others such as women and youths were excluded from the choosing of selected men to serve. But in every instance, respect seems to be accorded to the decisions of the apostles or elders such that the final decision lies with them.
However, in the absence of apostles and elders, what would be the right thing to do? Do the men have the authority to make the decisions for the church? Or should that be made by only “godly or faithful men” excluding new or recent male converts (babes in Christ), male youths, or women of all ages? Even if it is to be made by “godly men” – should it be by majority vote (50% +1, or 75%) or by consensus among them?
Another passage that may be relevant for our consideration is found in 1Co 6:1-7: “Dare any of you, having a matter against his neighbor, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? Or know ye not that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world is judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more, things that pertain to this life? If then ye have to judge things pertaining to this life, do ye set them to judge who are of no account in the church? I say this to move you to shame. What, cannot there be found among you one wise man who shall be able to decide between his brethren, but brother goeth to law with brother, and that before unbelievers? Nay, already it is altogether a defect in you, that ye have lawsuits one with another. Why not rather take wrong? why not rather be defrauded? “
The passage refers to “men of standing in the church” as well as “one who is wise enough to settle dispute between brothers”. This may refer to elders but not necessarily so.
According to Eph 5:21 we are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”.
This is respect that each one needs to give to another as fellow brethren in Christ – I Peter 5:5: “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
Later on in Eph 5:22, it talks about wife having to submit to their husbands as the husband is the head of the wife.
Men are designated by God to lead: 1Co 11:3 – “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” Women have their God-given role in playing the very important supportive role as God intended it all the way from the beginning in Gen 2:18, “then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Women was made for men to be his help meet; not men for women. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. Hence, in 1Ti 2:12,13, the Bible says: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve”. This is the over-riding principle that one can find in the Bible as regards the relationship between men and women.
However, the key to the controversy often pertains to how this headship or leadership by men is exercised. In some families, the wives have rebelled against their husbands because of what they perceive to be authoritarian or dictatorial leadership with no love or consideration being evident. Eph 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” 1Pe 3:7: “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered”.
“Exercising leadership with love and understanding or consideration or honor for the women” and even for children (Eph 6:4: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger”) is what is required. It appears that oftentimes, the trouble starts when such kind of leadership is not exercised and therefore gives rise to discontent and then open rebellion or demands to be heard!
While the elders have the God-given responsibility and authority to lead the congregation, it would make good sense for them to consciously involve the entire church in their decision-making process so that all may be heard – both men, women and youths – but the final decision as recognized by the brethren would of course have to be determined by the elders after taking into consideration all the inputs from everyone – such that the decision would in effect be reflective of that of the congregation. If elders make the decisions without regard to the church (i.e. without love, understanding or due consideration or honor for the brethren), then how many will continue to follow their leadership?
According to I Pet 5:2,3, the Bible exhorts elders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” The problem is what is often perceived as “domineering” leadership by either the men or the ladies or from both!!! – even elders are not permitted to have such “domineering” approach! If there are brethren with strong opposing views to certain matters, then it is incumbent upon the leadership to demonstrate “love, understanding, due consideration and honor” towards them – perhaps by speaking with them and trying their best to clarify and explain what is good for the brethren for the cause of Christ – without being domineering. Leaders can only lead if there are followers; if there are no followers then there will be no leaders! So, if leaders do not care for the feelings and preferences of the flock (but always within the boundaries of permitted matters as adduced from the Scriptures) then they ought not to be surprised that one day they will have no followers – brethren can always give the excuse that they want to start a new work somewhere else – and they move there! – leaving behind leaders without followers! This writer is not encouraging brethren to divide the congregation in this manner but merely noting a practical issue. This does not mean that the leaders should compromise doctrinal teachings to appease the members. It has to do with “permitted or expedient” matters; not pertaining to “required or forbidden matters”. “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”( Eph 4:1-3).
I pray that brethren everywhere will have wisdom to handle such matters – which should only be a storm in a teacup – but unfortunately can become so threatening as to become a full fledged storm that may overwhelm entirely if it is not handled prayerfully out of reverence for Christ or deference to brethren of good repute and deemed wise in the congregation. The devil is cunning indeed! We should “give no opportunity to the devil” (Eph 4:27).
As we note, the men’s business meeting is not what God intended for how the church is to be overseen – it is merely an expedient matter – God intends for elders to be appointed. But until such time, brethren need to make consensual decision with “due respect given to brethren who have standing in the congregation and who are wise” ( I Cor 6:4,5) and as exemplified in Acts 6 and Acts 15 – always heeding the instruction of our Lord to be “submissive to one another out of reverence to Christ” (Eph 5:21) – the latter means that Christ is the final authority and one should not do or cause anything to be done that may be offensive to Christ – example, dividing the brethren over such matters as may be inexpedient. I Cor 8:11,12: “And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” Rom 14:15: “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat (or do), you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat (or do), do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.”
Many churches have operated for years without eldership and there have not been such problems – why is this a problem for some?
Could the problem be similar to that faced by Israel towards the end of Samuel’s life: 1Sa 8:1-5: “When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice. Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.”
Some leaders may not be guilty of the kind of deeds that the sons of Samuel were accused of. But could it be that some brethren are not happy with the way decisions have been made on behalf of the congregation – for example without love or due consideration or understanding for the needs and desires of the brethren, or honor to the others? The root cause may not be doctrinal but personal issues – just like the Israelites during the time of Samuel. They wanted a king not because they studied the scriptures and decided that they should or could have a king. They were not pleased with the new leadership; so they opted for a different leadership which they hoped would be better for them. Of course, then it becomes a doctrinal issue – but if the sons of Samuel had not committed those sinful acts – such a matter would not have come up. Could there be a similar situation with congregations having such issues? If only Samuel had not appointed his wayward sons to be his successors; if only he had been more careful with the decision that he made as regards appointing his sons to be judges – the problem may not have come up. Similarly if leaders or brethren in the congregations have been making decisions in the realm of “permitted, optional or expedient matters”, in the spirit of love, with due consideration for others in the congregation, with understanding for the needs of the congregation and always giving due honor to all brethren, then God’s principles of leadership would have been followed and all brethren should respect such decisions and the decision-making process. But it in the unfortunate event that such controversy should come up, then the matter has to be resolved in a manner that would bring peace to the congregation and glory to God. Not being domineering – by either side – but by exercising love, due consideration and understanding – always with a desire to please God – not willing to cause offense to Christ, by stumbling anyone, or causing a division in the congregation, by our inexpedient ways of doing things.
May God grant us wisdom to resolve such issues and bring glory to God.