Call To Die

Then [Jesus] said to them all, "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24, HCSB)

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Follower of Christ, husband of Abby, member of Kosmosdale Baptist Church, and tutor/staff member at Sayers Classical Academy.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Suffrage Within the Church in Electing Elders

[I originally posted the following in April of this year. This week, Denny Burk published a blogpost on the same topic: "Does the congregation have a role in 'appointing' elders?" Dr. Burk reaches similar conclusions to what I post below, though he may be more 'congregational rule' than 'elder led' in his view of church government. Wanting to be a part of the current conversation on this topic, I offer this again.]
3 points about the above video:

1. Yes, it may have been made with sexist intention, and sexism is wrong.
2. It is, however, genuinely ironic and funny.
3. The real point is that most people have not been educated or prompted to consider their right to vote, and that definitions matter. (This is why I used to show this video when teaching Political Science; I think that someone could have just as easily gotten a bunch of guys to thoughtlessly sign a petition against men's suffrage.)

With that goofy introduction out of the way: this post is not about women's suffrage, or suffrage in general. This post is about suffrage within the church, specifically in regard to the election of elders. I believe that, just as people in society at large have not adequately thought through issues related to voting, we within the church have not adequately thought through the role that voting plays in our congregations.

Concerning suffrage within the church, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 declares: "Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes." In line with this statement, I was brought up under a tradition of regular church business meetings, wherein the congregation would vote on various issues facing the church. Though, at times, the business meetings were viewed as alternately either boring or contentious, no one questioned whether they should be occurring.

In college, I lived in a different town, and I became involved in an independent church, the pastor of which was very strong on the elder-rule model of church government. He basically believed that the congregation did not need to vote on anything. Whereas I remained convinced that the New Testament gives warrant for the congregation electing deacons, I followed my then-pastor's conviction that elders should be appointed by other elders, and that the elders should make virtually all of the decisions for the congregation as a whole; I did not see that the need for any church vote regarding the installation of elders. I believed that my conclusions on this matter were warranted from Titus 1:5, in which Paul instructed Titus (who was a pastor), "For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city, as I directed you." This passage seemed to indicate the Titus himself, and not the various congregations, was in charge of installing elders for the congregations.

When I became a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, my thinking on elders unilaterally appointing other elders was challenged. Surprisingly, the decisive challenge (moving me back into a more historically Baptist direction) did not come from a Baptist, but from a Presbyterian. For a Missions class, I was required to read Robert Reymond's Paul, Missionary Theologian. In discussing aspects of church government seen in Paul's missionary activity, with specific reference to Acts 14:23, Reymond notes:

The verb xειροτονέw literally means ‘choose, elect by raising hands’. The action described here probably means that Paul as an apostle simply appointed elders when he first planted a church, just as missionaries often do today when they first plant a church. This ‘appointing’ did not preclude, however, his seeking the church’s will in the matter by asking the congregation for a show of hands. (502n10)

The idea seems to be that elders will initiate the choosing of other elders, but that the congregation will play an important role in confirming the calling of those elders. Practically speaking, this makes sense in at least two ways:

1. Men who may be considered for the role of elder might tend to put on more of a pious manner when around the already-appointed elders than when around others.  Members of the congregation who are not elders may have insight into ways that a man's character does not line up with the qualifications of an elder.

2. In general, if the congregation does not respect a certain man (perhaps not through specific moral fault in the man, but rather through his not having labored among them for an adequate time), then-if that man is installed as an elder with no formal congregational input-it might be hard for the congregation to accept the new elder's pastoral authority.

John Calvin made a similar point as Reymond, in an even more expansive way, when he considered the question, 'Should a minister be chosen by the whole church, or only by colleagues and elders, or by the authority of a single pastor?' Calvin answered:

Those who attribute this right to one individual quote the words of Paul to Titus “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city” (Tit. 1:5); and also to Timothy, “Lay hands suddenly on no man” (l Tim. 5:22). But they are mistaken if they suppose that Timothy so reigned at Ephesus, and Titus in Crete, as to dispose of all things at their own pleasure. They only presided by previously giving good and salutary counsels to the people, not by doing alone whatever pleased them, while all others were excluded. Lest this should seem to be a fiction of mine, I will make it plain by a similar example. Luke relates that Barnabas and Paul ordained elders throughout the churches, but he at the same time marks the plan or mode when he says that it was done by suffrage. The words are, Χειροτονήσαντες πρεσβυτέρους κατ εκκλησίαν (Acts 14:23). They therefore selected (creabant) two; but the whole body, as was the custom of the Greeks in elections, declared by a show of hands which of the two they wished to have. Thus it is not uncommon for Roman historians to say, that the consul who held the comitia elected the new magistrates, for no other reason but because he received the suffrages, and presided over the people at the election. Certainly it is not credible that Paul conceded more to Timothy and Titus than he assumed to himself. Now we see that his custom was to appoint bishops by the suffrages of the people. We must therefore interpret the above passages, so as not to infringe on the common right and liberty of the Church. Rightly, therefore, does Cyprian contend for it as of divine authority, that the priest be chosen in presence of the people, before the eyes of all, and be approved as worthy and fit by public judgment and testimony, (Cyprian, Lib. 1 Ep. 3). Indeed, we see that by the command of the Lord, the practice in electing the Levitical priests was to bring them forward in view of the people before consecration. Nor is Matthias enrolled among the number of the apostles, nor are the seven deacons elected in any other way, than at the sight and approval of the people (Acts 6:2). “Those examples,” says Cyprian, “show that the ordination of a priest behoved not to take place, unless under the consciousness of the people assisting, so that ordination was just and legitimate which was vouched by the testimony of all.” We see, then, that ministers are legitimately called according to the word of God, when those who may have seemed fit are elected on the consent and approbation of the people. (Institutes 4.3.15)

After the above statement on suffrage within the church in electing elders, Calvin then gives the following important word: Other pastors, however, ought to preside over the election, lest any error should be committed by the general body either through levity, or bad passion, or tumult. (Ibid.)

With all of this in mind, I  believe that when it comes to electing elders, the already-appointed elders should take a lead role in both bringing new candidates for eldership before the congregation and in presiding over the election of new elders. HOWEVER, candidates for eldership must be confirmed by the whole congregation. The biblical warrant for the congregation both electing officers and exercising church discipline (Matt 18:17) means that there is definitely a congregational aspect to church government.

I will say that I am still a bit uncomfortable with the Baptist Faith and Message declaration about "democratic processes," simply because the term "democratic" has such philosophical and historic baggage. HOWEVER, I fully concur with the statement in the Reformed Baptist Confession (1689):

The way appointed by Christ for the calling of any person, fitted and gifted by the Holy Spirit, unto the office of bishop or elder in a church, is, that he be chosen thereunto by the common suffrage of the church itself; and solemnly set apart by fasting and prayer, with imposition of hands of the eldership of the church, if there be any before constituted therein; and of a deacon that he be chosen by the like suffrage, and set apart by prayer, and the like imposition of hands. 
( Acts 14:23; 1 Timothy 4:14; Acts 6:3, 5, 6 )
 (26.9, emphasis added)