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.