By Mike Willis
My good friend Dale Smelser has presented for our study the preceding article on how decisions are to be made in the local church. Brother Smelser is an honorable man whose knowledge of the Scriptures and moral character commend itself to us. He deserves to be heard and, therefore, his material is presented. Because there are some statements with which I have disagreement, this response is being offered for your consideration as well.
Brother Smelser does not wish to lend support to the women’s liberation movement and is definite in stating that when the whole church assembles, women are commanded by God to keep silent. We appreciate these statements.
Brother Smelser argues for some decisions being made by congregational, decision-making assemblies, with women present, in addition to some decisions being made by elders or men’s business meetings. Whereas brother Smelser admits that private meetings can be conducted by elders and men’s business meetings, in which some decisions binding on the whole church can be made, he argues that the Bible also authorizes congregational assemblies for the purpose of decision making.
Looking at the Scriptures on Leadership
Before looking at brother Smelser’s specific arguments, one needs to review what the Scriptures teach about leadership in the home and the church. The role of leadership, including decision making, has been given to the man. The man is the head of the home, just as Christ is the head of the church (Eph. 5:23). As the head of his home, he is to provide the same loving, nurturing, and cherishing leadership that Christ provides for his church (Eph. 5:25, 29). His is not to be a selfish, dominating leadership similar to a tyrant.
In the church, God placed leadership in the hands of men, giving specific qualifications for those who are appointed to serve (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-7). These men are overseers (Acts 20:28) who have the responsibility to “rule” (1 Tim. 5:17). They are the “government” that God has instituted for the church (1 Cor. 12:28). The church is obligated to be submissive to their rule (Heb. 13:17). Elders are cautioned about “lording” their will over the flock (1 Pet. 5:3). Consequently, their leadership and rule is not that of dictators who never consider the will of those whom they lead. Any charge that I am defending “lordly hierarchy and dominated attenders” would be inaccurate.
There is nothing inconsistent with overseeing the local work for the elders to receive input from and give information to the congregation. That is wise leadership. There are decisions that have to be made with reference to which others inside or outside the congregation are much more knowledgeable than the elders; elders frequently have made use of that technical knowledge to make wise decisions, even if that technical information must be gained from non-Christians (for example, an architect who works on building plans). There needs to be congregational involvement in many aspects of the local work, even though God has given to elders the role of oversight and ruling (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 5:17).
Brother Smelser wrote,
But as for general men’s business meetings, some have become so authoritarian, exclusive, and institutionalized that they have supplanted community. I do not believe Acts 6, Acts 15, or any of the other examples cited tell us anything about them. If one must categorize these conclusions, let it be with the community of the assembly of saints in a locality, where the whole group shares in congregational action. The alternative is lordly hierarchy and dominated attenders.
Brother Smelser creates a false dichotomy in arguing his position for decision making by the whole congregation. Anything less than decision making by the entire congregation is “lording it over the flock.” He said, “The alternative is lordly hierarchy and dominated attenders” (par. 6). This conclusion does not logically follow. Godly elders can oversee a congregation without relegating decision making to the “consensus” of the congregation and without “lording it over the flock.”
What Role Do Elders/Men’s Business Meetings Have in Decision Making?
Brother Smelser argues for some decisions being made by the congregational assembly in contrast to them being made by business meetings or elders.
To avoid female usurpation some believe a woman must never be present when congregational decisions are made. Next the idea necessarily follows that assembled congregations can take no decisive actions (par. 3).
But apart from that, where is authority exclusively to employ any group of men-saints, separately and finally, to make all congregational decisions (par. 4).
A brother was appointed by churches to travel with Paul. The churches had to make a decision. This doesn’t say men’s business meetings made decisions (para. 7).
Brother Smelser gave an example of how elders lead in making a decision. He wrote,
. . . The congregation here is authorized to appoint, and no one method larger or smaller can be bound. Thus an assembly of the community is authorized for making the appointment. Can anyone show a statement, implication, or example to prove otherwise? The answer is, no. Can elders, or in their absence others, do the ground work and make persuasive recommendations in their leadership? Yes, but the ultimate appointment lay with the congregations (par. 8).
This cited example emphasizes for us the issue before us. Brother Smelser is calling for a different kind of decision making (rule/oversight) for the congregation. Elders can take leadership and make recommendations (persuasive speeches), but the decision is made by the congregation. He also says that in the absence of elders others can do the same (take leadership and make recommendations). Could those “others” be women? Could they make persuasive recommendations to the congregation? Brother Smelser says “no,” women cannot speak when they attend business meetings, but others who call for women attending business meetings say “yes” they can speak and discuss the relative merits of the various alternatives. And, one may ask, could “others” take leadership and make persuasive recommendations when elders are present in the congregation?
The main point of the quotation cited above is to observe that some of the decisions are made by the congregation, not by elders! This effectively changes the government of the local church from a body overseen by elders to a body that is governed by what some have termed “consensus.”
Brother Smelser believes that “some places are falling short of ‘multitude’ involvement” by allowing all decisions to be made by elders alone or by men’s business meetings in the absence of elders. As a matter of fact, he goes further to charge that the church that has its decisions made solely by elders or men’s business meetings “loses something of the gospel of Christ.” He wrote: “That loses something of the gospel of Christ, however well and orthodoxally intentioned. That is my concern here” (par. 19).
Brother Smelser admits that elders and men’s business meetings have the right to make some decisions for the church, but not all. He needs to provide us a list of what decisions they have the right to make and what decisions they do not have the right to make. Then he needs to pro- vide us the criterion by which he makes this distinction so that we can evaluate it. I understand and concede that the church has the right to select its own officers (Acts 6:3). It also has the right to remove men who become unqualified to serve. However, the selection of elders is for the purpose of their taking the “oversight” (1 Pet. 5:2 — episkopeo — “to look upon, inspect, oversee, look after, care for: spoken of the care of the church which rested upon the presbyters,” Thayer 242), “ruling” (1 Tim. 5:17 — proistemi: “to be over, to superintend, preside over,” Thayer 539; this word is used to compare the husband’s rule in the home to the elder’s rule in the church, 1 Tim. 3:5), and to “rule” (Heb. 13:7, 17 — hegeomai: “to be a leader; to rule, command; to have authority over. . . so of the overseers or leaders of Christian churches,” Thayer 276). What is here given to the elders in their authority to oversee and rule is withdrawn to the degree that they are limited in the decisions they can make. This might be compared to the elections of the United States selecting men to be Congressmen. When they are just as biblically authorized as decisions made by the elders. If not, why not?
Brother Smelser here contends for “consensus,” whether that “consensus” be obtained by positive or negative form (lack of objection), as one autho- rized means for congregations to make decisions. If women and children do not participate in the “consensus” (decision making), then the decisions are made by some group less than the total church, although those decisions are made by the smaller group in the presence of the rest of the church.
Brother Smelser is contradicting himself when he appeals for decisions by the whole church (in contrast to those made by a group smaller than the whole corporate body) and women being silent in the assembly where that decision is made. What kind of “whole assembly” decision making can occur when over 50% (women and children) are not selected to be Congressmen, they have the right to make decisions for the American people. The American people have the right to put them in office and remove them from office. However, the decisions of raising taxes, the budget, and such like things belong to them. What would be the need for having Congressmen if matters had to be decided by general consensus of the citizens of the United States?
Brother Smelser speaks of “multitude involvement” and the “assembly method” of decision making. What is this method of decision making? These are non-biblical terms, although brother Smelser thinks the concept is found in the Bible. But, what is the “assembly method” of decision making? It is not a decision made by elders, because brother Smelser has argued for the assembly method in contrast to that. It is not a decision made by only the men of the congregation, because it is made by the whole congregation. If there is anything less than the total assembly making the decision, he has reduced decision making to that which he opposes — a group smaller than the whole church. He explained that whole church complicity was different from that done by elders or the men of the congregation saying, “To find harmony here with insistence that separated men make all decisions alone, just cannot be done” (par. 17). Hence, anything less than the total church — including women and baptized children — does not fit his mold.
He argues that no specific method of assembly decisions is legislated. “Authorizing a congregation to do something authorizes the congregation to do it, not any specific meth- od. They could therefore use the assembly method” (par. 11). If he is correct, they could use any other method as well because general authority does not restrict. The conclusion logically follows that decision making by “consensus” is permitted to speak? They cannot express what they think about the thing proposed. If they participate in the decision, they are a part of the “consensus”; if they do not participate in the decision, then a group smaller than the whole church has made the decision!
Brother Smelser is logically compelled to one of two choices: (a) accept that a group less than the whole church (elders or, in the absence of elders, the men of the congregation) always makes the decisions or (b) allow women and children full participation in the decision, thus reducing congregational decision making to “consensus.”
The Church Decided
Brother Smelser’s proofs all fall into one category, al- though several Scriptures are cited (Acts 6; 13:1-3; 15:1-3, 30-31; 2 Cor. 8:19; 1 Cor. 5). The point of these texts which he thinks support his conclusion is this: “the whole multitude chose. . . ,” “Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send. . .,” and “who was also chosen of the churches.” Brother Smelser concludes from these statements that the decisions were made by the whole congregation in its assembled body, not by its representatives. This is an inference from the text, the conclusions to which brother Smelser himself would reject (that is, men, women, and children making decisions through “consensus”); it is not a necessary inference.
Paul wrote, “The churches of Asia salute you” (1 Cor. 16:19). How did they do that? Did the whole congregation meet together in its corporate capacity in the various cities of Asia and send their greetings? No, they sent their greetings through their representative, in this case the letter of Paul to the Corinthians.
The church has just as certainly made its decision when that decision is made by its elders (or men in a business meeting) as when the whole congregation gets together and decides things by “consensus.” The question is this: which of these two methods of decision making is authorized in the Scriptures, “consensus” or decision making by elders?
The language of the cited texts (“the church chose”) is very common. A person reads in the newspaper that IBM decided to do something. How did IBM make that decision? Does anyone believe that IBM gathered all of its employees in a room and that the whole group participated in the decision? Everyone understands that IBM made a decision through its representatives appointed to make decisions (board, CEO, etc.). In a similar way, when we read that the church decided to do something, we make an unnecessary inference when we jump to the conclusion that the decision was made by someone other than its ap- pointed representatives (elders). We frequently read about decisions made by IBM that “please” the corporation. Does that mean that the corporation assembled all of its employees together and a poll was taken to see how many liked the decision? Obviously not! On what basis can we make a similar conclusion when we read about the church being pleased about something?
Answering Some Questions
Brother Smelser asked, “Where is authority exclusively to employ any group of men-saints, separately and finally, to make all congregational decisions?” In response, we see that elders are limited to “men-saints” (1 Tim. 3:1-7) and that they have the role of oversight (1 Pet. 5:1-4; Acts 20:28). If elders cannot make all decisions, brother Smelser needs to define for us what decisions they have authority to make. I respond by asking brother Smelser, “Do you believe that they have the right to make any decision that is binding on the whole church?” I know that he will answer “yes,” so we ask him to tell us what decisions they can and cannot make and what criterion he uses to made that distinction. If the answer were “no,” then elders would be reduced to vote counters for the congregation, because the decision-making authority resides solely in the congregation, not in the elders.
The Role of Women
Brother Smelser insists that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 forbids women speaking when all of the congregation is in one place (without regard to the kind of meeting that is conducted). He believes that stating that women can never be present when decisions are made is wrong (and I agree). But, he goes on to state the New Testament shows a pattern of “whole multitude choice” in contrast to decisions made by the men isolated from the rest of the congregation. The “whole multitude choice” logically implies women helping to make the decision. This raises a multitude of questions for brother Smelser: (a) When the women outnumber the men in reference to a particular decision, which choice is made? Does “whole multitude choice” mean that the decision supported by the women in the majority predominates over the choice preferred by the minority of men? (b) How do women express their part in the “whole multitude choice”? (c) If the children of a congregation have the majority vote in a congregation, should the “whole multitude choice” method of decision making follow the decision of the children?
The material submitted by brother Smelser, however well intentioned, undermines the role of elders in decision making and substitutes in its place decision making by the assembled congregation.
Let me close by saying again, that the alternative to what brother Smelser proposes is not tyrannical elders who have no regard to the will of those whom they lead. Just as the husband being head of the wife does not justify or defend autocratic and despotic husbands, neither does contending for the oversight of elders lead to the conclusion that elders are tyrants. Just as egalitarianism in the home (male and female with equal authority) undermines the authority of the husband in the home, so does whole congregation decision making undermine the authority of elders.