Early Christian Decision-Making: Where Do We Start?

Also in this series: Part 1, Part 2.

Pick up a book or a magazine article on the subject of church government and most likely you will read a discussion beginning with pastors, elders, ordination, or authority. Others go directly to instances of church order in the New Testament. Since graduating from seminary, my view on where to begin the subject has changed, step by step. Why is it that when we really want to understand the nature of something in Christ’s church we do not first look at Christ Himself and His church? If “a picture is worth a thousand words,” then why can’t we look at pictures of Christ and His church in the New Testament and begin to get our answers? And why can’t we first ask what Jesus said?1 As we read the New Testament and begin to reflect, we will understand that we have a few volumes’ worth of ideas to tell us how the church should govern itself, including the one small element I have chosen to write about: early Christian decision-making. I will focus on two of those ideas.

1. Authority and equality

Christians are followers of Jesus the Messiah. From the very first days of the Jesus movement until today, Jesus is known as the head (kephale) of the church (Eph. 4:15, 5:23, Col. 1:18) and the Lord (kyrios) of His followers (Matt. 8:23; Luke 11:1; Acts 1:21, 5:14, 15:11; Rom. 1:3; 1 Cor. 1:2; etc.). The authority of Jesus in the church is regal, absolute, and unquestioned. And to a certain extent, His authority limits creativity in church government.

But the authority of Jesus is singular. He is the only King in His church. Jesus explained that His followers were to have no hierarchy outside of Himself: “But you do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ.” (Matt. 23:8-10). H.A.W. Meyer notes that Jesus’ prohibitions “have reference to the hierarchical meaning and usage which were at that time associated with the titles in question.”2 The Catechism of the Catholic Church on the contrary, says, “The very differences which the Lord has willed to put between the members of his body serve its unity and mission.”3 But the Catholic theologian Hans Küng counters that whatever differences there are among people in the church, “they are secondary by comparison with the idea of fundamental equality.”4 To simplify the argument, there are exactly two levels in Christ’s church: Jesus Christ on one level, everyone else on the second level.

There was more to authority in the early church than simply the authority of Jesus the Messiah. The church also had the presence of the Holy Spirit and the words of the Holy Scriptures. Little needs to be said for the readers here that the Bible is the authority for the individual Christian and for the local church. Whatever was apostolic writing had authority for the early followers of Christ. But the outcome of this truth for church government is that any concept contrary to the teaching of the New Testament is not worthy of consideration for church structure. Likewise the Holy Spirit was the guide of the early church (Rom. 8:14, Eph. 3:4-5). To experience unity, Christians had to obey the Spirit (Eph. 4:1-4). Resisting His direction was a serious sin (1 Cor. 3:16-17, Gal. 5:25, Eph. 4:30). As Christians in the church followed their Lord, His Word, and His Spirit, church government was sure take the right course. The New Testament envisions no other authorities, except within the local church itself.

Leadership among equals

Once while attending an ordination council of a dear and zealous young preacher, I heard him answer the question about how church authority should look by saying, “I tell people, the pastor is like the daddy, the deacons are like the mamma, and the rest of the church people are like the rest of the family!” This brought forth both gasps and chuckles. As one seasoned veteran of the pulpit asked him, “Is there a place in the Bible that you find this description?” He paused and agreed to re-think his explanation.

Some have the opposite view of church authority, namely, that there were no offices in the original church, only charismatically empowered people who had temporary ministries. This is argued in many volumes by various theologians and called, “The Protestant Consensus.” But it is also carried out today in groups like the House Church movement. Frank Viola, for instance, deliberately downplays the role of elders and says that the New Testament does the same. In fact, a balanced view, and I would say a mature view, which has for centuries been rather obvious to many writers and church leaders, is that the equal saints have been led in the church by competent, spirit-enabled men (Mark 3:14-15, John 21:15-19, Acts 6:1-6, 14:23; 20:20-28, 1 Tim. 3, Heb 13:17). Regardless of their principles, all groups throughout history have needed leaders. Without leaders any movement founders.

Equality and leadership are not mutually exclusive. Equality does not mean egalitarianism. Simply because a policeman wears a badge and uniform does not mean that he has more rights than the average citizen. He is given authority to make sure that the laws of the citizenry are obeyed. Be sure you obey him! Equality does not trump obedience to authority.

By the same token, leaders in a church may have better gifts of communication, people skills, and leadership than most others in the Christ’s body, but they are truly equals with everyone in the congregation, or the words of Christ mean nothing. Richard Clearwaters was my pastor for several years. He often said to his people, “All ground is level at the foot of the cross.” It was one of his best pictures of a Bible truth.

2. The Meaning of ekklesia

The Greek word for church, ekklesia, by itself helps give meaning to the biblical concept of the church. For the Christian, the meaning of ekklesia has three strands: the secular Greek usage of the word, the Septuagint’s usage, and the New Testament’s usage. One scholar, Kevin Giles, contends in his book, What on Earth is the Church?, that the secular usage of ekklesia has little or no impact on the biblical meaning of “church.” But he never explains why. So we will follow the three-stranded approach, because it makes the most sense linguistically.

If one had asked people living in the Roman Empire during the time of the Apostles, “What is an ekklesia?” most would have been able to answer quickly and directly: “an assembly” (of either citizens or members). Governments had them, cities had them, villages had them, and voluntary associations (of which there were thousands) had them. In theory, it was a gathering of equals where people learned public information and discussed and decided important issues.

But the Greek word could also mean “assembly” without any reference to political activities. When Jesus said, “upon this rock I will build my church (ekklesia)” and “Tell it to the church (ekklesia)” He gave no explanation of what the word meant. And unlike his statements about the Holy Spirit, Jesus did not say about the ekklesia, “You will understand later.” Apparently they had a very good idea what He meant as He spoke. That brings us to the second strand of meaning for the word.

The word ekklesia is found over 100 times in the Greek Old Testament (including the Apocrypha). Jewish believers were familiar with its meaning as “the assembly of Israel” (e.g. Deut. 31:30). Most exegetes believe that in the two Matthew passages that record Jesus’ statements about the church, He taught in Aramaic. Thus He used the word, kenishta for “church,” meaning, “the community of God,” or “the messianic community.” It is also possible that Jesus was speaking in Greek, and said ekklesia. In that case, the idea of the assembly would have been even better understood.

Finally, ekklesia takes on rich and full meanings in the New Testament, particularly in the letters of Paul and Peter, where it is likened to a body, a temple and a bride. The church is “the church of God,” “the church of Christ,” and “the church of the firstborn.” The church is made up of the spiritually reborn. It is holy. It is indwelt by God himself. Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians that the ekklesia exists to bring glory to God. But even in its heavenly existence, the ekklesia is still an assembly, for the author of Hebrews uses a second word, panegyrei (festal assembly), to help define the heavenly ekklesia (Heb. 12:22-23). Everett Ferguson notes, “The idea of assembly is not lost even in the extension of the word to the universal people of God, for in the background is the eschatological assembly of all the saved….”5 Thus, the basic idea of “an assembly” never fades in the usage of ekklesia in the New Testament. It is added to but not lost.

There were other valuable concepts involved in defining the early Church of Jesus Christ, that are likewise vital for determining what sort of group decision-making was to take place in a local church. These concepts include the priesthood of the believer, the direct ministry of the Holy Spirit in every believer, exclusion of party division, the body of Christ, the household of faith, the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the family relationship of every Christian to every other Christian.

An application

If we simply add the family relationship to the ideas of the equality of believers and the concept of the ekklesia, we are impressed with the idea that God’s people in the local setting quite naturally come together to talk about their problems, their conflicts, their aspirations, and their common goals. As brothers and sisters they respect and reverence one another. They seek to help one another. They often all pitch in together to accomplish things. The picture of the assembly then becomes anything but a political gathering, or a meeting where congregation and leaders try their best to outmaneuver one another. I happened once upon a holy assembly in a hospital room. An older lady in our church had a lower leg that would not heal and faced the awful decision of letting the doctor amputate it. All six of her adult children were gathered around her. In spite of the dysfunctional lives of some of them, they all loyally gathered to support their mother. The lady’s husband was too sick to be present, so the children had to help her through. Their message was, essentially, “Mom, ya gotta do it!” Direct, frank, loving, sensitive, supportive, loyal—the children and their mother remain for me a small picture, if a sad one, of how the decision-making church body functions. Not all decisions are that serious, but surely they should all express that spirit.


1 Some books on the subject of Church Order begin with Jesus himself, or with the church, e.g. Edward Schweizer’s Church Order in the New Testament (1961), begins with “Jesus’ view of the Church.” F.A.J. Hort’s The Christian Ecclesia (1901) begins with the discussion of the meaning of ekklesia. Kevin Giles’s What on Earth is the Church? begins with Jesus and the founding of the Church. Paige Patterson in his essay, “single-elder Congregationalism,” in Who Runs the church: Four Views on church Government (2004) says any discussion of church order has to begin with Jesus.

2 H.A.W. Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Handbook of the Gospel of Matthew, trans. Peter Christie (new York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1884), 391.

3 Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 251.

4 Hans Küng, The Church, trans. Ray and Rosaleen Ockenden (London: Search Press, 1968), 125.

5 Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 132.

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Bob T.'s picture

thank you for these two articles. This one especially emphasizes an approach to the nature of the church (assembly) and leadership that is needed. I look forward to other articles if they are to come. You appear to have spent a good deal of time in researching and thinking through this subject.

Jeff Brown's picture

I am glad that they have been helpful, Bob. Indeed, doing the research (primarily, but not only for my dissertation) was lots of hard work. Kevin Bauder is a real taskmaster as a faculty advisor. But the end product of all the work is something worthwhile both for yourself and for others.

Of all that I have written about this subject, this will likely be the least read. But it is, I believe the key to understanding what church decision-making should be like. A good deal of polity creation for churches neglects this principle of looking first at the nature of Christ and his church. Thus problems are added to church life, when there are already enough present from other sources.

I do not write about this subject to convert others to my polity, as some have done in the past. Rather, the whole concept of a church body meeting to decide important issues, though heralded since the Reformation, has been under attack from various evangelical writers (as you have noted) since the 1970s. When I did my dissertation, I wanted to try to accurately understand what the New Testament taught on the subject of decision-making. I really wasn't doing a theological defense of a position (including my own). The academic rigor (at least in my PhD program) required doing honest research about the subject. It also included giving thorough respect and interaction with those who opposed my position. As a result, I changed my view in some points, but overall, I found that the ideas about the church as a decision-making body, as heralded by Luther, Calvin, the Anabaptists, the Puritans, the Congregationalists, the Baptists, and the Disciples of Christ is precisely that of the New Testament.

I enjoy many of your comments, Bob, because of your firsthand experience.

Jeff Brown

Todd Wood's picture


Thanks Jeff.

Some churches are more of a crowd whereas I then wonder if they are really a local body. It would be a scary thing if they took a vote on a serious issue.

And then there are some churches that have quite the discussions (at times intense), where everybody puts something into the conversation, but it shows the voice of the family, the household of faith. And after their "family talks", they move as a family under the headship of Christ.

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