Speakers and writers like words. Sometimes they are utterly fascinated by them, as they are with the words “freedom,” “change” or “networking” in our day. Sometimes when a group of people is talking about a particular subject, one person’s name comes up again and again. Since most of what is said about the person is from sources second or third hand, you have the choice of adopting the views of others or you can find out about the person for yourself. Consider a word “vote” as the person. Consider the subject to be church authority, and you have the idea. People concerned about church order often talk about the word “vote,” then look for it in the Bible (or for it not to be in the Bible, as the case may be).
You will not find the word “vote” itself in the English Bible. You will, however, find its synonym, “elect,” many times over. A direct usage of this word in a passage on church order is found in Acts 6:5. The congregation of Christians in Jerusalem chose or “elected” seven men for a new ministry. The Greek word used is eklego, the same word used to depict God’s election of the redeemed. But eklego was not the standard word for voting used in the Greek-speaking world of the New Testament times. The standard word was cheirotoneo, a word that was full of political overtones (and a really clumsy word today, to those who don’t know Greek!). Cheirotoneo is used exactly two times in the New Testament: in Acts 14:23 and in 2 Corinthians 8:19. Perhaps this should tell us something about church order and church decision-making in pages of the New Testament. Evidently it wasn’t all that important for the New Testament writers or for God what method believers used to make group decisions. The Bible does not codify procedure for the meetings of missionaries, elders, deacons, deaconesses, cell-groups, funeral crews, or congregations. To the delight of everyone except those of us writing about church order, the Bible is blissfully un-byzantine.
But that observation won’t satisfy all of us. And thus we have to deal with this odd-looking, odd-sounding word, cheirotoneo. Now, there is a good side to our examination, if we can bear with it. Just like the geologist who finds a curious stone, and after much examination discovers there is a precious gem inside, so any word in the New Testament is worthy of study. After all, for those of us who believe the New Testament is God’s Word, God placed that odd-looking word cheirotoneo in the pages of the New Testament on purpose: even if only twice. So let’s have a look.
And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed. (KJV)
The Greek word for “ordained” in this verse is our word cheirotoneo. The King James translators were perhaps influenced by the Vulgate’s translation ordinassent. Since that time exegetes have pointed out that cheirotoneo’s basic meaning is “to stretch out the hand, to vote by raising the hand.” Thus, they have seen Acts 14:23 as an instance of electing church elders.
There is a problem with this view. Even though there is no subject in the Greek sentence of Acts 14:23, the persons doing the action are named all the way back in verse 20. They are Paul and Barnabas. Before Paul and Barnabas “committed them (the believers) to the Lord” they “appointed elders in every church” (ESV). To make 14:23 say that there were elections by congregations in every church because of the word cheirotoneo requires a clumsy translation.
Many writers who recognize this point also state that cheirotoneo had another meaning besides “vote”, which was “select,” or “appoint.” This is correct, as BDAG in its entry of the word states, “here the word means appoint, install.” Several exegetes see Acts 14:23 as solely the action of Paul and Barnabas, including Jackson and Lake, Daryl Bock, John MacArtuhr (in their commentaries) and Eduard Lohse (TDNT). That is not, however, the end of the story. Other exegetes assert that Acts 14:23 indeed refers to congregational choice, including John Calvin, who said the action was “by the consent of all.” Henry Alford, David Brown, R.C.H. Lenski, Simon Kistemaker, and C.K. Barrett (in their commentaries) agree. So do Alexander Strauch (in Biblical Eldership) and Herman Ridderbos (in Paul, an Outline of His Theology).
Calvin argues that the actions of Paul and Barnabas were obviously similar to the actions of two officials, called douviri in municipal elections in the Graeco-Roman world. The people cast the actual vote. The douviri, who were in charge confirmed the election, but were said to have “elected” the officers. Calvin understood Greek and Roman literature very well. He had a good idea of what he was talking about (Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.3.15). Over 300 years later, Edwin Hatch, a classical expert, gave the mode of choosing officers the same explanation. The standard procedure was that the people elected; the presiding officers appointed the elected person to office (Edwin Hatch, The Organization of the Early Christian Churches. London: Rivingtons, 1881,127). This explanation is confirmed by a modern classical authority: “The douviri convened … the popular assembly, conducted the election of other officials and functionaries … and represented the city before the emperor” (Christian Gizewski, “Douviri, Duumviri,” In Brill’s New Pauly: Encyclopaedia of the Ancient World, ed. Hubert Cancik and Helmuth Schneider. Leiden: Brill, 2004, 4.739).
The new converts in Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe would have been familiar with the confirmation practice, since democratic government was well in place, particularly in that region in the days of Paul and Barnabas. So the meaning would be, “Paul and Barnabas appointed” in the same way that city officials in those days affirmed the election of the people.
Most New Testament scholars who calculate the time of the first missionary trip of Paul and Barnabas say it took about 18 months from start to finish. In addition to the time of the three voyages of the expedition, the missionaries traversed 181 km in Cyprus (most likely on foot), preaching in many cities. In southern Galatia, they traveled 1250 km. If they walked, the travel time alone in that region would have taken 50-60 days. Paul and Barnabas did not spend many months in the cities where they ministered. It is hard to imagine that they would have made selections of elders without consulting the people in those churches about who were the best candidates. The local believers, not Paul and Barnabas had been watching leadership and listening to preaching and teaching of local spokesmen while the apostles were absent.
Personally, I find this passage does not say exactly how the elders were chosen. It is hard to determine from the sentence itself, whether Paul and Barnabas acted alone or whether they confirmed the choice of the church people. The answer requires consideration of other factors. Luke’s writing is very concise in these verses. “And they appointed,” is not even the main idea he is discussing. “They committed them to the Lord,” is. When we begin to talk about who decides how the elders of an established church are chosen, Acts 14:23 has nothing to say, more than giving a general idea. After a church is established, the missionaries, who might select leaders, are gone (or if one wants to be more literal, the apostles have been gone for centuries). We can really only say from Acts 14:23, that elders are important for churches, and if we want to follow the apostolic pattern in choosing elders, someone needs to be in charge.
There is, however, a very interesting report from outside the Bible about how elders were chosen in the early days of Christianity, from the pen of Clement of Rome in AD 95. According to the early church fathers Clement had known Paul personally. His letter was apparently written about 30 years after Paul’s death. He says,
Our apostles likewise knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife over the bishop’s office. For this reason, therefore, having received complete foreknowledge, they appointed the officials mentioned earlier and afterwards they gave the offices a permanent character; that is, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry. Those, therefore, who were appointed by them or later on by other reputable men with the consent of the whole church … .” (Letter to the Corinthians, 44).
As Clement saw it, choice of new elders is the activity of both existing leaders and the whole congregation.
I hope that you have the interest to continue with me on this expedition of finding out a word. We are half way through.