Some people believe that church government, and particularly church decisions, ought to be in the hands of one or more elders rather than the congregation. One of the principal arguments that they use to justify their theory is that the Lord’s people are compared to sheep, and sheep (they claim) are rather stupid. Sheep cannot choose for themselves, but require a shepherd. Consequently, congregations filled with sheep must be directed by shepherds, and elders are the shepherds.
When I reply to these people, I usually remind them that the New Testament depicts congregations making all sorts of decisions. They choose administrative leaders (Acts 6:3). They send messengers (Acts 15:2-3). They receive messengers from other churches (Acts 15:4). They define doctrine and offer counsel (Acts 15:22-23). They discipline members (1 Cor. 5), evidently by majority vote (2 Cor. 2:6). They receive repentant members (2 Cor. 2:7-11). They hold their servants accountable (2 Cor. 8:18-19). If congregations were as incompetent as advocates of elder government seem to think, it becomes difficult to explain how they could be entrusted with so many decisions in the text of Scripture.
When I make this argument, it is common for advocates of elder government to select one text, Acts 6:3, out of the whole list. They point out that this passage does not prove congregational polity because the apostles actually told the congregation to make a choice. In other words, the church members were given a choice only because the church’s leadership permitted it.
This objection rather misses the point. The point is that the apostles would not have allowed the congregation to choose if the congregation had not been competent. If ordinary Christians were the kind of imbecilic sheep that advocates of elder government think, then the apostles would have been derelict in their duty to allow the congregation any choice at all. The point is not that the congregational choice of Acts 6 presents a universal and invariable pattern of church decision making. The point is that it demonstrates the competence of ordinary Christians within the assembled congregation to make spiritual decisions that affect the church.
For advocates of elder government, Acts 6 is a hazardous passage. It certainly does not provide a pattern for their polity, for a reason that is glaringly obvious. Elders made no decisions and provided no instruction in Acts 6. The apostles did. All parties acknowledge that apostles really did exercise fiat authority from Jesus Christ. They could and did tell people what to do, and they had the power to back up their commands.
Elders are not apostles. There are no apostles today. The only manner in which apostolic authority reaches the church today is through their written words: the apostolic tradition is the New Testament. If an elder were to assert apostolic authority today, he would be guilty of a grave mishandling of God’s word. He would also be guilty of almost unimaginable hubris. Such arrogance ought to lead all churches everywhere to reject his claims and to denounce his pretensions to authority. No parity exists between apostolic authority and presbyterial authority.
Acts 6 also presents hazards for elder government for another reason. This episode was the first great conflict in the church. It was the first time that any congregation faced an internal division that had to be mediated. The question would naturally have been, Whose job is it to solve this problem?
In other words, the narrative of Acts 6 must be considered at two levels. The immediate problem was what to do about the neglected widows and the resulting conflict. The larger problem was how the church was supposed to address situations of this sort in the future. Interestingly, the apostles did not offer a solution to the immediate situation. They did not lay down a principle for apportioning the distribution to widows. They did not develop an administrative mechanism for ensuring the equity of that distribution. They only addressed the more general problem, and they did that by telling the church to choose the problem solvers.
The apostles knew that their ministries would be temporary. They knew that someday, churches would have to function without direct apostolic authority to straighten out the difficult situations. They knew that they would have to prepare churches to deal with the tough questions for themselves. In Acts 6, they gave the Jerusalem church its first lesson in dealing with conflict. The lesson was that ultimately, the decision rests with the congregation.
The church selected its seven problem solvers and the apostles set them to their task. If there is a pattern here, it is not that apostles must make decisions in every new situation—if that were the lesson, then we would need apostles at all times. If there is a pattern here, it is that the church (i.e., the assembly or congregation) has the authority to select its own problem solvers, i.e., its own administrative leaders.
Nowhere in the New Testament is this pattern reversed. Indeed, it is everywhere supported. It shows up over and again. The church at Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem. The church at Jerusalem received them. The church heard the debate and, after counsel from James, the church made the final decision. The churches appointed one or more messengers to travel with Paul and to oversee the funds that he was carrying. The church at Corinth was instructed to dismiss a member, and they did it by majority vote. When that member repented, the church was instructed to restore him to fellowship. When the apostles exerted their authority in problem situations, it was to get the church itself to make the right decision.
In the New Testament, the most important decisions are always made by congregations. These decisions are not made in the absence of pastoral leadership, but in the end the church and not the elder decides. Never does the New Testament depict any authoritative person or body of people—including elders—imposing a decision upon a congregation without its consent.
Elders do hold authority, and they have a duty to exercise their authority rightly. But theirs is not the authority to impose decisions. That authority is reserved for congregations.
One other objection might be raised, however. In 1 Timothy 3 and in Titus 1, the leadership of the bishop or elder in the church is analogized to his leadership over his household. Clearly, fathers do make important decisions and impose those decisions upon their small children. Might not the analogy imply that pastor-bishop-elders should make certain decisions for the congregations that they serve? That question is worth considering.
Editor’s note: On February 11, Kevin Bauder delivered the annual MacDonald Lectures at Central Seminary. His series title is “Standing Firm: A History of Early Baptist Fundamentalism.” The audio and slides from these presentations are available now on Central Seminary’s website.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
My God, I Love Thee
Attr. to Francis Xavier (1506–1552)
Trans. by Edward Caswall (1814–1878)
My God, I love Thee; not because
I hope for Heav’n thereby,
Nor yet for fear that loving not
I might forever die;
But for that thou didst all mankind
Upon the cross embrace;
For us didst bear the nails and spear,
And manifold disgrace;
And griefs and torments numberless,
And sweat of agony;
E’en death itself, and all for man,
Who was thine enemy.
Then why, most loving Jesus Christ,
Should I not love thee well?
Not for the sake of winning heav’n,
Nor any fear of hell;
Not with the hope of gaining aught,
Not seeking a reward,
But as thyself has loved me,
O ever loving Lord!
E’en so I love thee, and will love,
And in thy praise will sing,
Solely because thou art my God
And my eternal King!