By Dale Smelser
I appreciate Mike’s offer to reply to his response. We have been working at this for over a year. Charges of in- consistency, which may be only in the mind of one who misconstrues what is being discussed, and the iterance of things that seem problems, do not mitigate scriptural prescriptions. Apart from a few observations I am happy to leave it to the reader to judge the applicability of Mike’s objections.
His first statement shows what colored his response. He thought my article was about how decisions are to be made in the local church and that it advocated egalitarianism, which I explicitly rejected. My article is about congregations being involved in things beyond just liturgical worship. It was critical of a view that decrees that all decisions be made by elders or men’s business meetings. That is lordly, and destroys community (sharing). On that limited theme, his third paragraph is a better description of what I believe, if elders’ decisions being “binding on the church” means such as, “We need some servants to take over a certain work and we need seven of them. Choose.” He would have done well to answer what he there said I believed, and which is a pretty good summary of what happened in the New Testament.
That congregations in Scripture made some decisions has long been recognized among brethren. There was a recent article here by Weldon Warnock which said: “Each congregation has the right to choose its own officers. Acts 6:1-7 shows this . . . The church did the selecting and the apostles appointed.” He quoted McGarvey: “We conclude that all church officers were selected by the congregation at large.” He quoted DeHoff: “The New Testament teaches that the power to select officers is in the church itself . . . The church selects its own functionaries for any purpose what- soever (emph. DS) . . . It is not right for a handful of chosen members to get off in a corner and say, ‘We’ll pick out so and so and tell the church.’” If all this is accurate, neither men’s business meetings nor elders’ meetings are the forum of all decisions. What I am saying is not “different.” Noting my article, which Mike had before he had Weldon’s, it is especially in the area of functionaries, representatives, and messengers that I gave scriptural examples.
Mike’s objections to my use of a church appointing its messenger (2 Cor. 8:19) is defused by the quotations from Warnock’s article. If those quotations state truth, some decisions were made by the congregation. Choosing is a decision. The whole multitude chose in Acts 6. Therefore the whole multitude made a decision. The congregation made a decision about “business” (Acts 6:3). He opines that “whole multitude choice” must somehow inappropriately involve women and baptized young people, then concludes that such consequence must nullify the possibility of “whole multitude choice.” Well try this: “The saying pleased the whole multitude . . . and they chose” (Acts 6:4).
Mike graciously notes that I do not insist on all decisions of every nature being made by the congregation, but then argues as if I did. This is why he sees “false dichotomy.” Without some congregational sharing in responsibility, I say, “The alternative is lordly hierarchy and dominated at- tenders.” Yes, elders or business meetings that so operate are guilty. Mike says elders “can oversee a congregation without relegating decision making.” Well, yes. But Scripturally? In fact, they cannot be leaders and shepherds and abdicate all decision making. But if they oversee as elders in the New Testament, there are decisions they will make in conjunction with the congregation. And Weldon’s article well shows that actual choices were made by the congregation at large in some instances. Was that false dichotomy?
About generic authority for men meeting for business. Okay. My point was that there is specific authority for some congregational involvement. Why exclusively bind the former and prohibit the latter? Now, where is specific or generic authority for men’s meetings to make all decisions for the congregation? Mike says that “oversight and leadership given to elders is withdrawn to the degree that there are limits in the decisions they can make.” No, limits on decisions they can make does not withdraw their leader- ship. It does say something about what oversight is. It is not totalitarian. Can elders acceptably impose decisions to use instrumental music? Can they make every decision for the congregation? Who the servants shall be? Are there then limits on their permitted decisions? Relegating some decisions defines the kind of rule they have. They don’t have the kind of “rulers of the gentiles” have (Matt. 20:25-26). Though Mike recognizes that elders are not lords, his arguments tend otherwise.
Elders are not equivalent to the IBM board of directors. Elders are shepherds and watchmen, concerned with people’s souls instead of running a business. The kind of rule they have is effected through the leadership the Holy Spirit insists they have proven themselves capable of, and then assigns to them. And even the IBM board is limited in power. Shareholders can bring issues before annual meetings and out vote the board, and they regularly vote on various issues. Nor does Congress illustrate Mike’s contention. There are citizens initiatives for which California is famous, and the people decide on all sorts of issues including Constitutional Amendments. Mike’s contentions make elders more lordly than Boards and Congress.
Elders as “government” (1 Cor. 12:28) does not tell us how elders operate. There are different ways of governing. There are kings, dictators, tyrants, and chairmen, anarchies, democracies, and republics. Perhaps the footnote to “governments” in the ASV is helpful when it says “wise counsels.” All this passage proves about their government is that it is implemented by counsel. Others passages tell the flock to respect it. And couple that with the fact that elders are not to be self-willed. This tells us some kinds of government they must not employ. And Mike assumes that in this “government” the word translated “rule” applies only to elders. That is incorrect. Check the word rendered rule, first, and chief (Heb. 13:17; Lk. 22:26: Acts 15:22). It is the same word. Elders share this distinction with others in the congregation. “Rule” is not speaking of government by decree, or else elders must share the decree making.
Mike’s arguments here do not let the church make any decisions. He is saying the church acts in the action of elders and men’s business meetings. But when the apostles made their decision, the church’s decision had not yet been made (Acts 6). Amazingly, what Mike is arguing is, if the apostles had chosen, it could be said that the multitude chose. Furthermore, a representative doing something may involve, but not exhaust, church action. Or it may not. The elders of Ephesus met Paul at Miletus. The church didn’t. Using the example of the churches sending greeting to Corinth (1 Cor. 16:19), the churches acted before Paul. There had to be some church action for Paul to represent.
Mike would like a list of things the church decided in the New Testament. He has a list from me in private correspondence, and there is a list in my article under, “And More.” If it would please him I will be glad to submit a future article expanding on the points made.
You can re-read his paragraph rejecting “assembly method.” All that refers to is an action taken when all the congregation is together; for instance, to meet and deliver one to Satan. That was done by “assembly method” (1
Cor. 5:4). Assemblies acted at times in things beyond social worship. Must I reply to “assembly method” being un-biblical? If what is described is in the Bible, it is biblical. Now, while we are requiring an exact quote from an English translation in order to be biblical, let’s find “Men’s Business Meeting.”
Note this faulty dilemma: Would “whole multitude choice” follow the decision of children who might be in the majority? Just apply his hypothetical at Jerusalem: “the whole multitude. . . chose.” Does his dilemma undermine that fact? And my article has specific comments about the unscripturalness of the immature leading and majority rule. If it is argued that choosing servants was not done in assembly, how does one know that? And if the whole multitude may act and no way is specified, is not acting in assembly an authorized option where feasible? Stating that the congregation acted authorizes the congregation to act, not an exclusive method. While Mike’s arguments seem to prohibit the congregation from making any decisions, if they do share in them his arguments would bind doing so exclusively by the “unassembled method.” He asks incredulously: “May others take leadership and make persuasive recommendations when elders are present in the congregation?” The Pharisees did, others were involved in much questioning, and Peter, Paul, and Barnabas did, as well as James (Acts 15:5, 7, 12). And the appointed lead- ership with the help of other chief brethren brought what Mike objects to, decisions involving assembly consensus: “Then it seemed good to the apostles, and the elders, with the whole church (assembly), to choose men. . . and send” (Acts 15:22). I rest my case.
I do not call for democracy or for elders being only vote counters. I shudder at the thought. But like apostles, elders have a spiritual work that should not be neglected for all the mundane operations of a congregation. Their leadership, and decisions relative to leading, will determine course, and their watching will correct anything amiss. God bless us with such men. For more study I mention my booklet, The Rule of Elders. I also recommend the volume of Truth Commentaries by Clinton Hamilton on 1 Peter, both in the comments on 1 Peter 5:1-3, and the appendix on Elders, Bishops, or Pastors.