The Case for Congregational Appointment of Leadership

I was asked a while back why I believe that a congregation should ultimately choose the elders and deacons of the local church rather than having the existing elders making such appointments.

It’s an understandable question because, on the surface, it seems from the New Testament that existing leaders appointed new leaders. Paul commanded Titus to “appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). Paul and Barnabas circled back to the churches they had planted in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch and “appointed elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23). In both of these instances, we see an existing leader deciding who will be the new leaders.

Baptists who support self-perpetuating elder bodies do not typically believe the congregation should be entirely shut out of the process. Sometimes they receive nominations from the congregation and always allow the congregation to voice concerns about potential leaders. Usually at some point in the process the congregation affirms the new elders or deacons. But, according to advocates of this view, final say belongs to the existing leadership.

I disagree. The situations reflected in Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5 are not normative for existing, established churches. In both of those cases, the congregations were brand new, therefore greater authority on the part of Paul was necessary. When we consider more mature congregations in the New Testament, we find a different pattern.

In Acts 6, the apostles proposed a plan to select men for what would become the office of deacon: “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty” (6:3). Who exactly the “we” who appointed these men refers to is unclear. It could be either the apostles or a corporate “we” that included the whole church. Regardless, it was left to the congregation to do the selecting.

We also see in the same passage that even the plan of the apostles was in some sense left to the will of the congregation. Verse 5 notes, “And what they said pleased the whole gathering…”

In Acts 13:1-3, the whole congregation is involved in setting apart Paul and Barnabas as missionaries. When they returned, they presented their report to the whole church (Acts 14:27).

When Paul gives instruction to Timothy on disciplining elders, he teaches: “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Timothy 5:19-20). The final step in the discipline of an elder, just like any member, is a congregation-wide matter and not left just to the body of elders.

In my mind, the most convincing evidence that established congregations should choose their own leaders is found in how the New Testament holds congregations, not teachers/elders, ultimately responsible for protecting doctrine. Certainly pastors must know, teach, and defend sound doctrine against false teachers, but if a pastor does not step forward to protect and defend the faith then the congregation must answer that call.

Consider 2 Timothy 4:3: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions…” Paul faults the people, not Timothy, for the coming apostasy. The church is responsible for gathering these teachers. They have chosen the false teachers. Timothy is to provide a contrast by fulfilling his charge to “preach the word” (4:2).

Or consider Paul’s fiery message to the church of Galatia:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6-9 ESV)

The problem in Galatia was that teachers were contorting the truth into a false gospel. Paul holds responsible not the elders of Galatia, not the deacons of Galatia, but “the churches of Galatia” (1:2). They–the whole of these congregations–are responsible for what is being taught. Paul urges them throughout the letter to recall the true gospel and realize that they are allowing false teaching to continue:

You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:7-12 ESV)

Paul never commands the church of Galatia to fire their elders, to remove their false teachers. Instead, he pleads with them to see the damage being done by those who are imposing Jewish legalism on the Christian gospel. Obviously, the solution is to get rid of those teaching these things, and Paul leaves it to the church to do this.

Church history provides a bit of an expanded illustration of this situation. Theological liberalism most easily comes within those churches that remove the word and authority from the congregation. When stewardship of the gospel is understood to pass through some mystical form of succession or when existing leaders chose their own successors apart from congregational input and affirmation, we see hierarchies develop that over time drift away from biblical orthodoxy.

But when authority and the responsibility of stewardship are left closer to the whole congregation, theological course corrections are much more likely to take place when drifts occurs. For example, the Conservative Resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention was possible because the final authority for the denomination is vested in the individual local church congregations. We’ll never see that kind of theological resurgence among, say, the Episcopalian Church (USA) because of their self-perpetuating leadership.

Because the responsibility to steward the gospel is ultimately given to the church (1 Timothy 3:15), and because elders are especially responsible for teaching the gospel from God’s word, I believe that the individual church congregation is responsible for choosing those leaders who will fulfill this task among them.

One thought on “The Case for Congregational Appointment of Leadership

  1. tbbrents says:

    Thank you for taking the time to share your convictions on congregationalism. I am, as you know (hopefully), so grateful for your labors to teach and make simple the deep truths of Scripture. You’re an incredibly gifted teacher and a careful expositor, so I count myself blessed to be one of your sheep.

    Introduction

    That being said, I am confused by some of the things you’ve written above. To be clear, I am not settled on one particular position (other than that I believe the Bible models an ideal polity consisting of a plurality of elders and deacons). I am torn between what I am familiar with and what feels comfortable (congregationalism) and what I think the Bible seems to teach (loving elder governance). At the same time though, I realize that what I’m comfortable with is not necessary Biblical and I must be extra-careful to guard myself from eisegesis. I hope after hearing my thoughts you will either correct my misunderstandings or reconsider your position.

    One other quick note: I am going to be as thorough to refute you as possible. At the risk of nit-picking, I want this response to not just be a challenge for you, but for me as well. I have attempted to think hard about this and hope I don’t come across as arguing just for the sake of arguing. Please accept my response as a loving attempt to reach deep.

    The Authority of Deacons

    I’d like to first ask you to clarify your own view of the role of deacon. Do you believe the office of deacon is bestowed spiritual authority in the church? If yes, which Scripture supports this? Obviously, deacons possess leadership qualities and could be spiritual leaders, but in regards to the office itself, I see no Scriptural support for the notion that they, like elders, possess authority. If no, then I think you muddy the water to parallel the two in an argument for congregationalism.

    The Acts 6 Argument

    Nonetheless, since you do parallel the appointment of elders/deacons, I’d like to consider your Scriptural support. You begin this by using the example of deacon selection in Acts 6. If I understand your explanation of this text, you propose that the elders offered an idea to the congregation (a new office–the role of deacon) and then left acceptance of this idea up to the congregation. This, though, seems to be an incomplete reflection of what the text says.

    Let us look at how the matter unfolds:

    Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.

    Event 1 – Some in the church (the Hellenists) grow concerned that their widows are being neglected. Naturally, they take this argument to the authorities (the apostles) as we see next.

    And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.

    Event 2 – The authorities summon the entire congregation to make them aware of this complaint and inform them of a solution. This is what we see next.

    Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

    Event 3 – Here we see that the apostles inform the congregation of their solution to the problem, and tell them to select seven men to serve in this new role. The congregation is told to select seven men and the apostles and the apostles will then appoint them.

    You indicate that the “we” is unknown, but it seems to me the only consistent way to read the passage is to recognize the “we” is referring to the apostles. If you are to be consistent in your questioning, you must also question the “we” in verses 2 and 4, which would drastically alter the text. It is no small matter to dismiss this “we”, as it makes clear that while the congregation is tasked with selecting the candidates, the apostles themselves will appoint them to the duty.

    And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch.

    Event 4 – The resolution to the Hellenists complaint, to establish the role of deacons in order to alleviate the apostles of the work to serve tables, pleases the congregation and they select men to fill the new roles, as they were told to do by the apostles.

    It is important that we don’t merely end here, because all we’ve seen up until this point from the congregation is submission to the elders in bringing a complaint, and now in complying with the elders in resolving the complaint. If the text said, “And the congregation appointed..” then congregationalism would be the clear law of the NT land. But Scripture does not stop here. We have the next verse to contend with.

    These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

    Event 5 – The congregation fulfills their task, having selected the men, and set them before the apostles. The apostles lay hands on and prayed for the men, commissioning them in their new role.

    One might argue here that the “they” in verse 6 could be the congregation, but this too would seem inconsistent. Also, would I be wrong in asserting that the “laying on of hands” was consistently carried out by the elders/authorities in conferring certain rights/privileges? (Num. 27:18-23; Deut. 34:9; 1 Tim. 4:14; 1 Tim. 5:22; 2 Tim. 1:6)

    One exception to this pattern of laying on of hands would of course be Numbers 8 where the Levites are offered as a wave offering, and similar passages where the laying on of hands is used to confer the sin of the people onto a sacrificial animal. The difference, obviously, is that in those situations the laying on of hands is not a part of conveying authority to another individual.

    In conclusion, while I would argue first that the commissioning of deacons should not even be paralleled with the commissioning of elders due to the vast differences in the roles, I would also argue that Acts 6 supports elder governance rather than congregationalism, even in the commissioning of deacons. I must also concede that there is a pattern for congregational involvement in deacon selection, but this seems to be more of a privilege offered by the elders rather than an authoritative right.

    Paul & Barnabas Set Apart as Missionaries

    Next, you turn to the argument of Acts 13 to support your view of congregationalism. You argue that in Acts 13:1-3, the entire congregation is involved in setting the two men apart. Again however, I don’t believe that this is the reality conveyed by the text.

    Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”

    Here, the prophets and teachers are worshipping and fasting. We apparently disagree here, as you seem to understand this text as recording the entire church worshipping and fasting, but I wonder why the text would just not say that if it were the case? Once again, we must let Scripture interpret itself and look to verse 3 to define “they”.

    Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

    Again, if Scripture teaches that those who “lay hands on” and commission men to possess some authority or distinct privilege in serving the church, we must accept that the “they” in verse 2 refers to the prophets and teachers, not the entire congregation.

    So in these first few verses of Acts 13, these spiritual authorities in the church are told by the Holy Spirit to set apart Paul and Barnabas. This is exactly what they do, and the passage concludes by them doing what elders do, laying hands on them and sending them off. This seems more like insight into the intimate dealings of church leaders rather than an example of congregationalism.

    You support this argument by pointing to Paul and Barnabas giving a report about the Lord’s works through them to the entire church. I do not contest this point, other than to say I don’t see how it conveys congregationalism. It would seem perfectly fitting that they would make known these things in order to teach and encourage the brethren.

    Disciplining Elders

    Next, you support your view of congregationalism by pointing to the congregation’s responsibility to discipline elders who teach false doctrine. Let’s look at that passage:

    [19] Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. [20] As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t these rules for Timothy on how he is to govern the church? Specifically, when I read this, I see the command to rebuke elders belonging to Timothy (to the other elders of the church). The text does not say that the church is to rebuke the elder who is in sin, but the other elders. The text says this is to be done, ultimately (if repentance does not occur) in the presence of the whole church. The text does not indicate that this is done to gain their approval, but “so that the rest may stand in fear.” I think at best, what we see here is reason for a plurality of elders, rather than congregationalism.

    Congregationalism in Doctrinal Purity

    You conclude with what, in your mind, you consider the strongest evidence for congregational involvement in selecting leaders–that is in the congregations charge to protect the purity of the doctrine. First, you cite the congregation’s irresponsibility in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, as evidence that the congregation, not the elder, is responsible for maintaining doctrinal purity. Again, I have trouble seeing this in the text, and it doesn’t make logical sense to me that this is suggesting congregations are hiring bad teachers.

    In fact, what I do see in the text in verse 4 is clear, they will turn away from the truth and wander off into myths. This would seem to be consistent with what we see in our day and time. Good churches don’t hire bad teachers (intentionally), but bad believers do leave good churches for bad churches who do hire bad teachers.

    Next, you consider 2 Timothy 4:3, and assert the church’s authority in selecting false teachers because of what they do during the apostasy. I would submit this apostate model is not a good argument for congregationalism. A similar argument could be made for female pastors using the example of Deborah, but consistently we believe and teach that this only occurred as a sign of the times.

    You also cite Paul’s “fiery message to the Galatians” in making this same point. But I still think the opposite is being said. It does not appear that Paul is rebuking the church for appointing false teachers to teach them (which would be the case if appointed by the congregation), but they are turning away and believing another gospel. They’re being rebuked for their beliefs, not their appointment of teachers.

    Furthermore, you cite Galatians 5:7-12, but we don’t find common ground here, either. It looks to me, in these verses that Paul is still talking about their beliefs. He does not say, “I have confidence in the Lord that you will rid yourself of these false teachers” but that they will “take no other view.”

    Closing Thoughts

    I have endeavored in this response to argue against your assertions that NT scripture teaches congregationalism and have at the same time, I think, argued for the view of loving elder-rule. I feel obligated to acknowledge that this is not a first-order/salvation issue, and there is room for loving disagreement. I hope I have presented my thoughts in a loving way, and this can serve as a springboard for us (and anyone else who is interested) to consider this matter.

    I began this response by stating that congregationalism feels more comfortable to me, and I continue to feel that way. There is a fear in me (and all of us I’m sure) of tyrannical church leadership. It is why I have been careful to argue for loving elder-rule, and I believe every Biblical example of Godly leadership is carried out in a loving way, in a spirit of involvement and unity among God’s people. My prayer is that I am able to understand how this balance is met in an elder-rule model.

    Thank you for allowing me to offer my thoughts and pose my concerns here. May the Lord be glorified and His church be encouraged by anything that results from this conversation.

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