Early Christian Decision-Making: And Now for the Vote

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.

Acts 14:23

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.

[node:bio/jeff-brown body]

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There are 12 Comments

Ted Bigelow's picture

Thanks for another wonderful article, Jeff

From my own study I found that women didn't start voting in church history until around the mid-1950s. This doesn't include some aberrant groups in church history or Pentecostalism. For me that always threw some question on how democratic church democracy has really been. Have you discovered any info on women voting in the early church? How about slaves, or children? Who voted in churches in say, the 4th C? Am I incorrect for assuming that church voting practices have followed the world's view of democracy?

Jeff Brown's picture

Your question is a legitimate one. Very few historians (perhaps no academic historians) question whether there was genuine democracy in the world before 1920, when women were given the right to vote in the US.

In the ancient world, citizens were allowed to vote. The Romans at times extended sufferage to non-citizens in local decision-making (I do not recall if this ever extended to election of magistrates). Voluntary associations (of which there were thousands in the Roman empire) were typically democratic. They often included slaves as well as free in their memberships. Members were all considered equals. It needs to be remembered that slaves in antiquity were sometimes well-educated people who were made slaves either through war or through misfortune. They could earn money and could at times purchase their own freedom. There was a third division in society in those days. Free did not necessarily mean Roman citizen. So there were three gradations of people in the early churches: Roman citizens, Free, Slaves. Paul answers the answer of their equality in Galatians 3:28. Perhaps 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 touches on women not participating in discussions. But perhaps it has nothing to do with it. There certainly is no command for slaves to keep quiet in churches. Thus, in some respects church group decision-making followed practices of the rest of the world (Just as Israel's monarchy did), in other respects it did not. But in fact, for nearly every aspect of governance in churches, a group could be found in antiquity which practiced one or more of them.

Jeff Brown

Dan Miller's picture

1. Early English Bibles:
Translators rendered χειροτονέω in Acts 14:23 as an election.

Tyndale Bible, 1534: "And when they had ordened them elders by election..." Cramner Bible, 1539: "And when they had ordened them elders by election..." Geneva Bible, 1557: "And when they had ordeined them Elders by election..."

Of course, this could be anti-Angilican/Roman bias.

2. Section 15 of the Didache discusses the selection of elders:

“You must, then, elect (Χειροτονήσατε) for yourselves bishops and deacons who are a credit to the Lord, men who are gentle, generous, faithful, and well tried. For their ministry to you is identical with that of the prophets and teachers. You must not, therefore, despise them, for along with the prophets and teachers they enjoy a place of honor among you.”

The writer is clearly writing to the saints of the church instead of elders (“For their [elders’ ] ministry to you,” “You must not... despise [elders ],” “they enjoy a place of honor among you.”). It is the saints of the church that the Didache says “must elect” for themselves church leaders.

Grammatically, it adds to our understanding of χειροτονέω, the same word used of the selection of elders in Acts 14:23. In the Didache, it clearly was used for a choice of an elder by the saints of the church. "You must elect for yourselves." Second, historically, it put the choice of elders in the hands of the congregation.

I think the most likely view of Acts 14:23 is an election, but it doesn't seem to be a slam-dunk.

Ted Bigelow's picture

Dan Miller wrote:
1. Early English Bibles:
Translators rendered χειροτονέω in Acts 14:23 as an election.

Tyndale Bible, 1534: "And when they had ordened them elders by election..." Cramner Bible, 1539: "And when they had ordened them elders by election..." Geneva Bible, 1557: "And when they had ordeined them Elders by election..."

Of course, this could be anti-Angilican/Roman bias.

2. Section 15 of the Didache discusses the selection of elders:

“You must, then, elect (Χειροτονήσατε) for yourselves bishops and deacons who are a credit to the Lord, men who are gentle, generous, faithful, and well tried. For their ministry to you is identical with that of the prophets and teachers. You must not, therefore, despise them, for along with the prophets and teachers they enjoy a place of honor among you.”

The writer is clearly writing to the saints of the church instead of elders (“For their [elders’ ] ministry to you,” “You must not... despise [elders ],” “they enjoy a place of honor among you.”). It is the saints of the church that the Didache says “must elect” for themselves church leaders.

Grammatically, it adds to our understanding of χειροτονέω, the same word used of the selection of elders in Acts 14:23. In the Didache, it clearly was used for a choice of an elder by the saints of the church. "You must elect for yourselves." Second, historically, it put the choice of elders in the hands of the congregation.

I think the most likely view of Acts 14:23 is an election, but it doesn't seem to be a slam-dunk.

Dan (or anyone), what would you counsel a church that is 70% women and elects leadership - and they believe like you - that all in the church should have an equal vote, but is struggling with that matter that if more women than men vote on who does go into leadership and who does not, then they are violating the Lord's word on women not exerting authority?

JDitlev's picture

I just got around to jumping on and read through the article. Thanks for walking through the greek in these passages. I'm looking forward to your next post.

Jeff Brown's picture

Good grief! the Bible translators back then couldn't even spell. Sure is a lot harder to get to be a scholar these days! Wink

Thanks for the translation quotes, Dan. I really couldn't comment on the history of the translations, except to note that "ordained" or "ordened" probably was the result of influence by the Vulgate translation. The translation "ordain by election" may reflect bias, but on the other hand it may simply reflect the translators' expertise in Greek literature. A shift in emphasis to translating cheirotoneo as "select" came three centuries later, if I have my history correct. But the translation of all three is quite interesting. Basically, all the reformers, including Luther had the idea that the three translations reflect (though Luther's translation is quite different).

You have correctly pointed out the use of cheirotoneo in the Didache. I will bring it in, in the second half of this article. I used Clement's comment this time because he directly states how elder selection took place, from the days of Paul until his own day.

Jeff Brown

Dan Miller's picture

Ted Bigelow wrote:
...Dan (or anyone), what would you counsel a church that is 70% women and elects leadership - and they believe like you - that all in the church should have an equal vote, ...
Did I say that all in the church should have equal vote? I have argued that there were votes. But the character of the vote, that I have not argued.

Your question about the 70% female church is interesting. Off topic, but interesting. More study is necessary before I arrive at an understanding.

Ted Bigelow's picture

Dan Miller wrote:
Ted Bigelow wrote:
...Dan (or anyone), what would you counsel a church that is 70% women and elects leadership - and they believe like you - that all in the church should have an equal vote, ...
Did I say that all in the church should have equal vote? I have argued that there were votes. But the character of the vote, that I have not argued.

Your question about the 70% female church is interesting. Off topic, but interesting. More study is necessary before I arrive at an understanding.

Great! I look forward to your response, and anyone else's. Its not unusual for a church to have more females than males. Some studies I've read say it is the norm.

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Something I cam across in Clement's letter to Corinth (Bold Mine).

Chapter 44. The Ordinances of the Apostles, that There Might Be No Contention Respecting the Priestly Office.

Quote:
Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers ] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ, in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry. For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure [from this world ]; for they have no fear lest any one deprive them of the place now appointed them. But we see that you have removed some men of excellent behaviour from the ministry, which they fulfilled blamelessly and with honour.

Ted Bigelow's picture

Alex Guggenheim wrote:
Something I cam across in Clement's letter to Corinth (Bold Mine).

Chapter 44. The Ordinances of the Apostles, that There Might Be No Contention Respecting the Priestly Office.

Quote:
Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers ] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ, in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry. For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure [from this world ]; for they have no fear lest any one deprive them of the place now appointed them. But we see that you have removed some men of excellent behaviour from the ministry, which they fulfilled blamelessly and with honour.

Thanks Alex - I discuss this Clement quote for several pages in the apologetic section of my book as a proof of eldership v. congregationalism. Eldership relies upon the consent of the whole church as vital to testing and proving a man fit for eldership as all in the church judge prospective elders by the same 26 qualifications in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1. If even one person rightly identifies one area a man does not meet any single qualification the man is not to be placed in eldership by the existing elders. This alone, IMO, meet's Clements rule for the "whole congregation."

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Thanks Ted. This begs a question for me on church discipline (though off topic it presents an implication concerning what I am asking). When Matt. speaks of "tell it to the church" may it be (I support this as an acceptable view myself but not necessarily the only valid view) understood that "the church" does not have to be the entire congregation but those Elders who represent the church?

Ted Bigelow's picture

Alex Guggenheim wrote:
Thanks Ted. This begs a question for me on church discipline (though off topic it presents an implication concerning what I am asking). When Matt. speaks of "tell it to the church" may it be (I support this as an acceptable view myself but not necessarily the only valid view) understood that "the church" does not have to be the entire congregation but those Elders who represent the church?

I don't take it that way - but I recently read one pastor who does, and I recently read a congregational pastor who now reads it as any valid sub-group in the church, i.e., home Bible study. In eldership, the elders don't "represent" the congregation. That's reformed theology, where elders are also elected by the people to represent them to the presbytery and the G.A. (or Synod). In eldership their position and authority comes not from the people but from their conformity to Scripture - they are "stewards of God" among the church (Titus 1:7).

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