Church Polity

Early Christian Decision-Making: And Now for the Vote (Part 2)

Read Part 1.

The famous Twelve Articles which preceded the Peasants War of Luther’s day are very modest by today’s standards. In their own day they were conservative and presented no challenge to the feudal system. They began with the demand that “every municipality shall have the right to elect and remove a preacher if he behaves improperly. The preacher shall preach the gospel simply, straight and clearly without any human amendment, for, it is written, that we can only come to God by true belief.” Luther had written words quite similar, with the difference that he named the congregation as the deciding body. In those days, of course, there usually wasn’t much difference between congregation and municipality. Now if this type of congregational control had been standard practice in 1520, neither the Twelve Articles nor Luther’s tract would have ever been written. Indeed, most political and religious leaders in those days did not take well to it. It would take over three centuries before independent congregations which chose their ministers were generally tolerated in European nations.

But the whole idea of congregations choosing their ministers would have seemed anything but radical in Jesus’ day. As I have related in previous articles, the concept of towns, cities, organizations, or religious congregations voting for their leaders was a widespread practice. The common (but not only) word for voting in the Greek language was cheirotoneo. Its second occurrence in the New Testament is in 2 Corinthians 8:19:

And not that only, but who was also chosen of the churches to travel with us with this grace, which is administered by us to the glory of the same Lord, and declaration of your ready mind. (KJV)

In this verse cheirotoneo is translated “chosen” by the KJV, NIV and NKJV and “appointed” by the NASB, ESV, RSV, and NEB. The BDAG lexicon gives the translation in this passage “choose” (by election). The Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon (LSJ) gives the translation “appoint” (like the high priest of Judaea).

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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.

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Congregational Government: A Response to James McDonald

On June 9, 2011, James MacDonald posted a blog article under the title “Congregational Government is from Satan.”1 SharperIron provided a link to the article, thus I am replying through SharperIron.

MacDonald begins his message by saying:

NOTE: the tone of this post is intentionally aimed at engaging those who are engulfed in this system of church government that neither honors the Scriptures nor advances the gospel.

That’s right! It’s actually the title to a book I have had percolating in my mind for a long time. After almost 30 years in ministry I have come irreversibly to this conclusion: congregational government is an invention and tool of the enemy of our souls to destroy the church of Jesus Christ. So there, I have said the strongest part of the message first; now some commentary.

In his commentary MacDonald lists five arguments against congregational church government. They are:

1. Congregational meetings are forums for division. He says:

When church life is going well, the leaders of a church struggle to get a quorum for decision making. When things are going wrong, every carnal member lines up at a microphone to spew their venom and destroy the work of Christ in the church.

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Should Congregations Vote to Discipline?

Several weeks ago a pastor called, heartbroken and wondering what to do next. The church he pastored (Southern Baptist) had voted down a church discipline matter. The facts were plain: a man in the church had been privately confronted multiple times in accordance to Jesus’ words in Matthew 18, but had only become more rude and more arrogant toward those calling him to repentance. He interrupted the preaching, held secret meetings and slandered those in leadership. Yet, when the matter was brought to the congregation as instructed in Matthew 18:17, the majority of those present voted against calling on the man to repent.

The pastor, who had been at the church less than a year, resigned soon after the vote. The vote proved to him that the majority of church members distrusted the leaders and himself, and did not want to call the individual to repentance. In fact, the man who was exonerated by vote enjoyed a reputation in the church as a significant leader in his own right, thus explaining why they trusted him more than their new pastor. The pastor believed the majority did not want to follow him or the Bible, and now, along with a group of ex-members, has agreed to their request to plant a new church.

What went right

If the pastor was more politically-minded than shepherding-minded he might have encouraged others to simply ignore the rude behaviors and arrogance of the man than privately confront him. But the pastor knew that Jesus’ teaching requires private confrontation, and when a matter of sin is certain and an individual remains impenitent then the matter is to be brought to the church (Matthew 18:15-16). The facts of the situation show that he and others in the church were doing right by being faithful to the church member and the Lord.

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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.

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Early Christian Decision-Making: Wasn't Everybody Just Bowing to Kings Back Then?

“A democracy, Mr. Cromwell, was a Greek drollery based on the foolish notion that there are extraordinary possibilities in very ordinary people.” King Charles II of England, if he indeed said these words, believed what a good many educated people still hold to: that the Greek democracy was a brilliant, fleeting light in the panorama of history.

Classical scholars and professors of ancient history will tell you otherwise. When Alexander the Great set out to conquer the world in 334 B.C., Greek democracy was already over 200 years old. He took the idea with him in his heart and planted it everywhere. In prophetic vision, the prophet Daniel saw Alexander as a male goat speeding across the earth so fast that his feet seemed not to touch the ground. In ten years he conquered everything in the Near East from Asia Minor all the way to the Indus River. The Orientals were so amazed at Alexander’s success that the upper classes wanted above all to become Greeks. Their wish and its fulfillment persisted for centuries. When you read the term “Greeks” in the New Testament, that is the usual meaning: Orientals who had adopted the Greek way of life.

The Jews became as Hellenized as any other nation in the Near East. Even after the Maccabean Revolt, the Jews were a thoroughly Hellenized people. Jewish rabbis studied the Greek philosophy and Greek rhetoric to defeat Greek polytheism and establish Mosaic religion. The practice of rabbi-disciple was not original in Judaism, but came from the Greek practice of the philosopher and his pupil. Trade language was Greek, and major trade routes of the Near East passed directly through Galilee and Judea. Outside of Palestine, the Jews read the Old Testament Scriptures in Greek because most of them had quit speaking Aramaic. In Galilee, most funerary inscriptions were made in Greek. James, the brother of Jesus, grew up in Galilee and spent the last half of his life in Judea. He wrote in excellent Greek.

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Voting to Apostatize: Unitarianism

Several hundred years ago, a heresy sat poised, ready to ignite. All it needed was the right match, and 18th century Christianity would be engulfed in flames. The match was found in a young pastor and his congregation just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, USA. The heresy, now called Unitarianism, still simmers and burns today all over the world, but especially where I live in New England.

The match was struck in 1753. Pastor Lemuel Briant had been asked by several elders to quit his pastorate at the First Congregational Church of Braintree, MA. Their reasons were more than justified. In the past year his wife had left him, taking their children away. In departing she had also leveled against him several public accusations of impropriety. But in spite of the family situation, Briant refused to resign. In addition to all that, the church elders demanded he retract a catechism he had given to the children of the church, one written by a man who explicitly denied the deity of Christ. The church’s elders felt it best for Briant to care for his family. They also feared for the spiritual health of the church’s children.

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Early Christian Decision-Making, Part 1: 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).

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