Elders and Majority Rule

By R.L. Whiteside (1869-1951)

The evidence that elders were intended to be a permanent feature in churches of Christ seems so clear as to admit of no doubt. It is not my purpose to argue this point at length. However, I call attention to two considerations, which, to my mind, settle the matter without further argument.

1. In every group of men there must be leaders, some one or more, to take the oversight, or there can be no order or system. That has always been true, as all men of experience and discernment must admit. It is as true of the church as of any other group of men. Certainly they are as much needed now as in the days of the apostles. Then they were called “elders” or “overseers.” If men of age and experience now direct the affairs of a church, are they not elders and overseers? The whole contention on this point seems to me to be a war about words to no profit.

2. It is assumed by some that elders, or bishops, were made such by spiritual gifts, belonging, at least, to the class of inspired men. Is that so? God selected the men upon whom he bestowed spiritual gifts. “But all these worketh the one and the same Spirit, dividing to each one severally even as he will” (1 Cor. 12:11). For that reason it was not necessary for the Lord to tell the church, or any member of it, what qualifications men must have in order to the reception and use of these spiritual gifts. Men did not appoint miracle workers, prophets, unknown tongue speakers, etc. But men did select and appoint elders, and for that reason we needed to know what sort of men to select. And so God gave full directions as to the necessary qualifications for elders. Develop this argument; it completely refutes the idea that elders were spiritually gifted men and passed away with the passing of spiritual gifts.

“Take heed unto your selves, and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops, to feed the church of the Lord which he purchased with his own blood. I know that after my departure grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Wherefore watch ye” (Acts 20:28-31). The word from which we have “bishop” is defined by Liddell and Scott as “an overseer, watcher, guardian.” This definition harmonizes with the duties laid down by Paul in the foregoing quotation. As a guardian, the elder is to see that the flock is fed and cared for; as a watcher, he is to see that no enemy comes in and destroys the flock. The overseer is an inspector. Any one can see trouble after it develops. An elder, by close and constant inspection, should be able to detect the seeds of trouble without waiting till the ripened fruits appear. Not many people apostatize suddenly. A little watchfulness at the right time might save a soul. Neither does division in a church come suddenly. Complaints come that a preacher has run things over the elders and the more conservative members by majority rule. How did it happen? The elders employed a preacher and allowed him gradually to assume control. When he reaches a point where they can stand him no longer, they find that he is the ruler and they are the ruled. It is too late then to save the congregation from ruin.

The responsibility of the watchman is set forth in Ezekiel 33:1-6. If the watchman ~ does not sufficiently inform himself so as to be able to recognize an enemy, how is he to be of use as a watchman? The watchman on the walls must know the enemy when he sees him approaching. Any man who divides churches in an enemy. If we do not inform ourselves concerning such men, how can we obey Paul’s injunction? “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them that are causing the divisions and occasions of stumbling, contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and turn away from them” (Rom. 16:17, 18). Because we have not informed ourselves concerning such men so as to avoid them, much harm has come to many good churches. Sometimes the watchers, instead of giving the alarm when such enemies appear, go out and invite them in, and practically turn matters over to them. Then, before the elders realize it, the enemy has spiked their guns and is in full charge. In a recent letter from a .friend where the church was in trouble, I found a statement like this: “If we had investigated Brother Blank’s record, we never would have had him here.” Because of that failure, trouble has been stirred up that may never be settled. Instead of giving alarm at the approach of the enemy, they went out and hired him to come in, thinking he was a friend. The preacher who runs over the elders and divides a church is doubly a sinner, but the elders must share their part of the blame. They frequently wake up too late. But trouble may be expected when the command to watch is disregarded, and also when God’s order both in nature and the Bible is disregarded, as it is when mere boys are given practical charge of a church. Also, Absaloms are too much in demand for the welfare of the kingdom.

The Bible tells us to submit to those who have the rule over us, but gives no hint that we are to submit to majority rule. In majority rule Paul would count no more than Mr. Care Less, who cusses, gets drunk sometimes, and goes fishing on Sunday. Generally there is no such thing as real majority rule, even when it is claimed. That is especially true when the party spirit runs high. A group rallies around a leader, and he dictates every move. He votes his followers. Instead of going through the farce of calling for votes, the leader might as well say: “I control the votes, of my two hundred followers, and I cast their votes so and so.” When the preacher is the bone of contention, he naturally becomes the party leader. As he has more experience in public speaking and manipulating a body of people than the elders have, he has a decided advantage over them, even if they should care to resort to his tricks. And Paul says of such men that their god is their belly, and they will work all the harder for their bread and butter. As he votes all his followers, there is really only one voice raised on that side. All he needs to do is to tell how he stands and how many followers he has. That is all there is to such voting as that, and it is folly to call it “majority rule.” And we are told that the ballot is a safeguard against the unfair rulings of the elders!

It is readily conceded that God’s plan of church government is imperfectly carried out. The best men make mistakes. Elders have a heavy responsibility and a hard task. They are not infallible. They may, at times, deal unjustly with a preacher; but is better that the preacher suffer wrong than to divide a church. If the preacher thinks it unfair for them to put him out, how does he figure that it is fair for him to put them out?

Whereto shall this voting lead? Where will it stop? It is contended, of course, that only matters of opinion shall be voted on; but who shall decide what are matters of opinion? The Methodists and some others have decided that the form of baptism is a mere matter of opinion. If you believe in voting, and your congregation decides by popular vote that these things are matters of opinion, what can you do about it?

But it is contended that every expression of a preference is a vote. If that is so, some men, when a political campaign is on, vote several times a day for months before election day! If that is voting, most of the votes are cast prior to the election and are never counted. But the claim is too absurd for serious consideration. (Originally appeared in the Gospel Advocate, 1 Jan. 1932, p. 42, and reprinted in Whiteside’s Doctrinal Discourses [Denton, TX: Inys Whiteside, 1955, reprint 1977], pp. 90-94.)

Guardian of Truth XXVII: 12, pp. 367-368
June 16, 1983