From the Archives – Did Americans Invent Church Voting?

There are legitimate questions for Christians to ask as they study their Bibles and become active in a church. Some questions are worth pursuing endlessly (questions about the character of Christ, for instance). Others have their limits, particularly when little or nothing is directly said in the Bible about them. As the discussion becomes long and drawn out, it also becomes, well, odd. We become either speculative or dogmatic without substance, since there is little in Scripture that substantiates our arguments. Whether Christians should vote, or did vote in the New Testament times is one of those types of questions. It is legitimate to ask, but limited in its worth. There is only one time in the Bible that Christians are directly said to have voted, where a proper Greek word for “vote” is used (2 Cor. 8:18-19).

Do not take me to mean that church order is unimportant. If you would look in my library at how many books I have on the subject, Church/Church Order, you would immediately understand that I do not take it lightly. There are several themes in the subject of Church Order which I am convinced are worthy of lengthy pursuit. One, for instance is church discipline. Another, the one I want to talk about, is group decision-making among Christians. Taking votes is one way of making a group decision. There are others. From a biblical perspective, the significant idea for churches is not vote-taking, but group decisions.

Group decision-making

In my study I have found that the New Testament directly refers to group decision-making by Christians after the resurrection of Christ 16 times (Acts 1:15-16; 6:1-6; 8:14-17; 11:22; 11:30; 13:1-3; 14:21-23; 15:1-3; 15:4-29; 15:22; 15:36-41; 16:9-11; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 / 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; 1 Corinthians 16:3-4; 2 Corinthians 8:18-19; 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5). No doubt I have overlooked a passage, which eventually someone will point out to me. If there are sixteen times in the Bible in which group decision-making is either described or instructed, it is an important biblical subject.

Of the sixteen, one is made by the core of the Jesus Movement as they awaited the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:15-16), one is made by the apostles (Acts 8:14-17), two are made by a missionary team (Acts 16:9-11; 1 Thess. 3:1-5), ten are made by a local church, one is described as a decision of the apostles, elders, and the church and finally, one is hard to specify by exegesis (Acts 13:1-3). I count it as a church example because the NT identifies the first line of accountability afterward as the sending church (Acts 14:26-27).

Strangely (for our thinking), the NT never once describes or instructs about how a group of elders or deacons makes its decisions (though no doubt they did make decisions as groups), not to mention how synods, councils, cardinals, make them. The biggest emphasis of the NT in the area of group decision-making is how the church made, or makes decisions. This fact isn’t hard to understand. The local church is the body of Christ in its locale. It is, as Paul says, “The temple of God” and “the pillar and ground of the truth.” So God put His emphasis there.

The American-invention myth

Church order has been a hot item in Christianity for centuries, motivating people (like yours truly) to write books, write constitutions and by-laws, hold seminars, end fellowship with one another, hatch plots, see visions, create hierarchies, remove authorities, kill, and create and disseminate myths. One myth peculiar to many American Christians is the notion that anything democratic in churches, including taking votes, started in the good old USA. After all, the US is the biggest democratic country to have existed in all of history. Saying that voting in churches began in America makes a great story line, but it is still just a myth.

Omitting for the moment the teaching of the NT about church order, there is a general consensus among church historians that Christian church organization was simple in its beginning. In time churches developed hierarchy and a clerical order. Still, the idea that the people of a church, or of a whole group of churches decided who would fill leadership roles did not die out until well into the middle ages.1

During the middle ages, the Roman Church especially adopted the doctrines of Pseudo-Dionysian writings. These taught that church hierarchy was patterned on the hierarchy of heavenly beings. By the 1300s, some began to raise their voices against Catholic hierarchy and called for congregational election of clergy.2

When the Reformation took place, most of its leaders, as they studied the Scriptures, were initially impressed with the congregational idea of church order, including the notion of electing pastors.3 Martin Luther, in fact, was the original “congregationalist” of the Reformation, and expounded that view in his tract, “The Right of a Christian Congregation.” In his Institutes (4.3.4-13; 4.4.10) Calvin states that the congregation is to elect the pastors. The Reformers had to modify their views of congregational authority on account of their political environments, but the Radical Reformers, otherwise known as Anabaptists, never changed their original idea of congregational decisions, including votes. Likewise, as the Reformation progressed in England, independent groups typically taught that the congregation had the right of electing its own officers and disciplining their members.4

So that I do not lose my audience, let me stop the history lesson with the fraction I have mentioned. But be aware of this: it all happened long before the Battle of Bunker Hill and the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Notes

1 See, for instance, Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol 1, Chapter 20; Edwin Hatch, The Organization of the Early Christian Churches; Fenton A.J. Hort, The Christian Ecclesia; Hans von Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power; Hans Küng, Christianity, 116-130; Everett Ferguson, “The ‘Congregationalism’ of the Early Church,” in D.H. Williams, ed. The Free Church and the Early Church, 129-140).

2 See, for instance, Marsilius of Padua, Defenson pacis, Trans. Alan Gewirth, New York: Columbia University, 1956.

3 E.g., James Tunstead Burtchaell, From Synagogue to Church, Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1994, 34-36.

4 See, for instance, William R. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, 18-142. Most confessions in this section of his book precede Baptist confessions).

Jeff Brown Bio


Jeff Brown was born in 1951 and received Christ as a child during an evening service in the First Baptist Church of Elkhart, IN. During his senior year in college, while studying Biology, God led him to change course and enter the ministry. He later attended seminary, and completed his theological education through the PhD in Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Seminary. Jeff and his wife, Linda, have four adult children.

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