Roberts-Trefethen Debate On the Role of Elders: Second Affirmative

By Tom Roberts

My first affirmative showed that the definitions of scriptural terms (bishops, elders, etc.) permitted elders to “exercise the oversight” (1 Pet. 5:3), thereby empowering them to make private decisions on behalf of the congregation. Now we will prove in a Scripture study that elders actually did make decisions “before and without” calling together the whole congregation.


1. Acts 4:34-37. From the beginning, decisions were made privately (not secretly, as Vance charges): this is not “new” doctrine. Disciples brought gifts to the apostles “and they distributed to each as anyone had need.” This “apostolic example” showed male leadership making private decisions about who the needy were, how much each received and how long they were to receive it, without congregational meetings. Vance says they sinned!

2. Acts 6:1-6. Vance labels all private decisions by males as “lording it over” (Ibid. 15-16; Matt. 20:25-27). The disciples had been arguing about who was “greatest” in the kingdom. “Overlording,” not decision-making, was

c.sinful and Jesus rebuked them. The apostles made decisions later and were not guilty of abusing authority (1 Cor. 7:6,25,40; 2 Cor. 1:23-2:1) like Diotrephes (3 John 9). In Acts 6, before and without calling the congregation together, the apostles privately (not secretly) decided to stop serving tables, and privately (not secretly) decided on seven men (both judgment matters). This is the “tradition of the apostles” (2 Thess. 2:15) which authorizes private decision-making. Vance says they sinned!

3. Acts 9:26-28. The apostles sat in private judgment on behalf of the church at Jerusalem concerning Paul’s membership, making a private decision to receive a brother without the whole church, including the women, being present. Vance says they sinned!

4. Acts 11:27-30. The elders acted on behalf of the needy churches as they received the benevolent funds to relieve the needy. Inherent in “oversight” is the ability to “see over” a work (Bishop: “An overseer, a man charged with the duty of seeing that things to be done by others are done rightly,” Thayer, 243). (Note: Judgments may be done “rightly” [expediently] or “wrongly” [inexpediently] without sin being charged.) Oversight is not innately overbearing but can be benevolent. Authorized private meetings are not meetings of individuals when they act as an agency for the local church. Elders acted as authorized agents for the church, being duly appointed by the Holy Spirit and the local church for this very purpose. Vance says they sinned!

5. Acts 13:1-3. Prophets and teachers were “in the church” but were not “the church.” Yet these men privately, before and without calling the entire congregation together, and without the women, fasted, prayed and laid hands on Barnabas and Saul and sent them away. Their private functions as males were directly ordered by the Holy Spirit and clearly shows that males may act on behalf of the congregation, as do elders. Vance says they sinned!

6. Acts 15:1-31; Gal. 2:1-10. Paul, Barnabas, Titus and the apostles and elders at Jerusalem made private (not secret) decisions on behalf of the church concerning the Gentiles (Gal. 2:2; Acts 15:6). Vance admits it to be judgmental since he wants to make it congregational, but prohibits all private meetings where decisions are made. The whole church enjoyed the benefits of the private meetings and were included in sending the letter to Antioch. It is poor exegesis to deny private meetings on behalf of, before and without calling the congregation together. It is specifically stated that, even when the congregation was included (as in ch. 15), the “decrees” (letters) “were determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem” (16:4). James also confirmed this (Acts 21:25) by stating “. . . we have written and decided . . .” Private (not secret) decision-making by authorized men was a New Testament practice. Vance says they sinned!

7. Acts 21:15-26. Even after Acts 15, concerning Gen-tiles in the church, Paul’s presence in Jerusalem threatened to disturb the church. He therefore “went in” (v. 18), a private (not secret) meeting with “James and all the elders” to discuss how the church would be affected, for “the assembly must certainly meet, for they will hear that you have come” (v. 20, 22). The elders “took heed” and “watched” (Acts 20:28, 31) on behalf of “the assembly,” being concerned for the unity and peace of the church. In this eldership capacity, they “assembled privately to make decisions in matters of judgment for the local church before and without calling together the whole congregation” and advised Paul what to do so that “all may know” (v. 24). This was not “individual action” (Ibid., 97). The elders’ advice was binding on Paul as a judgment (v. 23) as they represented and shepherded the flock through a perilous time. Vance says they sinned! Remember Miriam who was not afraid to speak against ordained authority (Num. 12:1-8).

Response to Negative: The Problem: Strong spiritual work by elders does not conflict with judgment decisions by the same men. It is not either/or, but both. An abuse (the Boston Movement) does not nullify either the spiritual or judgmental work of elders.

Definitions: Vance challenged my definition of “to assemble” as an eldership. But Acts 15:2; 20:17; and 21:17 show elders meeting as an eldership and not as individuals. Such men represent the church as authorized by appointment and function and this sustains the definition.

Feed: Ezekiel 34:2-3 describes a shepherd’s work but even spiritual functions require judgments (who, what, when, where and how). Can elders frame a letter to a weak member, decide the need for discipline or its form, or plan a class without calling a congregational meeting? It is absurd to appoint shepherds and restrict them from shepherding!

What the debate is not about: He needs to learn the difference between the “decision-making process” (receiving input, advice, info), which includes the whole church, and “decision making” which is a part of eldership oversight. Definitions and Scripture study confirm it.

What the debate is about: Vance’s book is at the heart of this debate. (1) He affirms a pattern that accuses his brethren of sin, (2) states that he will no longer participate in the practice and, (3) will encourage others to give it up (Ibid., 109), thus causing discord.

Word Study: Vance accused me of dishonesty by willfully omitting part of Vine’s definition on “rule.” He knows that complete citations of Vine, Thayer, etc. are impossible. No deliberate omission occurred and he ought to repent of the suggestion. He has not dealt with the citations given, much less with the entire works. Vine, etc. are available for our readers and I rely on them to check our use. Vance confuses etymology with definitions and ignores contextual usage.

His use of word studies is peculiar, making much over episkopeo (oversight) but applying it to hegeomai (chief men). Influence of “those who speak the word” is considerable, but they are nowhere told to “oversee” as elders do (1 Pet. 5:3). Can we agree that Hebrews 13:7, 17 includes elders, to whom we are to “submit” and “obey”? Qualified, appointed men (Tit. 1; 1 Tim. 3; Acts 14:23) are bishops over the church and not (unappointed) “chief men.” “Unappointed men” are often self-appointed men who want to rule. Vance’s use of “chief men” smacks of evangelistic oversight. Whose reasoning is circular?

Fathers/Elders: I did not suggest that elders are heads of the church. But Vance ignored the obvious: fathers/ husbands, even as head of a house, are not dictatorial when making decisions (after discussion); God demands it by scriptural definition (Eph. 5:22-23; 6:1). Neither are over-seers dictatorial when they make decisions (after discussions); God demands it by scriptural definition (l Pet. 5:3; et al). Vance “forbids to elders” what God authorizes. If Christians are to “be subject to the higher powers” which are “ordained of God” (Rom. 13:1-2), would this include ordained elders (Acts 14:23) who oversee rightly? Remember Miriam!

Woman’s subjection, 1 Tim. 2:11-12: Participation in classes, etc. is not the same as voting. Vance is silent as the tomb on this issue for it is deadly. Giving women the vote to decide matters of judgment effectively destroys woman’s “subjection.” A vote is total equality and Vance advocates women voting in church assemblies. It is impossible for women to be in subjection while having a vote equal to that of men. Vance demands it; the Bible forbids it.

His Answers: (1) He didn’t answer, so I’ll rephrase. “Do parents, husbands and magistrates have the right to make decisions relating to their province (Eph. 6:4:1-4; 5:22-23; Rom. 13:1-2)?” (2) He didn’t answer, again. He has a dislike for people in authority making decisions. Fathers/parents make decisions relating to their headship; civil authorities make decisions relating to their province; bishops make decisions relating to their oversight. Other-wise, words have no meaning. (3) If elders sin in decisions for the church involving judgment, then the Jerusalem elders sinned (Acts 15; Gal. 2; Acts 21, etc.). (4) Yes, the women in Vance’s proposition sin when they vote because they do exercise “authority over a man.” A majority of women overrule minority men in voting and there is no “general approbation” in the ballot box. (5) By your answer, you agree that your elders are wrong and should do differently. But if an eldership refuses to change to your position after studying, can you continue being in subjection to them? Either you must charge them with sin and ask them to step down or be inconsistent and accept their decisions even when you think they sin. My friend, you are on the horns of a dilemma.

Answers to his questions: (1) I have shown that “to oversee” and “rule” al-low private decision-making by elders and apostles. (2) No, what you describe is dictatorial. Wise elders ask for ad-vice, etc., so that the final decision, which is the elders’, reflects counsel (Prov. 11:14). (3) I have never taught hegeomai to be elders-only. It may include apostles. Can it include elders at all? (4) Obeying the hegeomai of Hebrews 13 could apply both to individuals and collectives; include matters of faith and judgment. Why is it so intolerable to you to apply it to elders and matters of judgment? (5) The kings of the Gentiles (Matt. 20:25; Lk. 22:26) lorded it over, not because of place (private decisions), but through an abuse of function (legitimate authority, Rom. 13:1 f). Jesus condemned overlording, but authorized privacy (Lk. 9:10).

Questions: (1) When the apostles (males, without the entire congregation) chose “seven” (a judgment decision) men to serve tables, did they sin in this private decision? (2) Do elders sin today when they make judgment decisions on behalf of the congregation before and without calling the church together? (3) Do you believe your elders sin when they make judgmental decisions for the congregation where you worship? (4) How do you reconcile your fellowship in a congregation where this is done when you stated you would no longer do so (Ibid., 109)? (5) In an emergency situation Sunday at midnight, can elders or deacons decide to give financial aid to a needy saint without calling the church together and do they sin when they do so?

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII, No. 22, p. 14-17
November 17, 1994