The Congregation as a Community

By Dale Smels

“As indicated in the following articles, Mike Willis and I have been working together on this subject for well over a year. While this resulting exchange is ear- nest, we hope you will see two brothers struggling to convey a scriptural understanding of congregational function, and to understand one another. There is not the full agreement either of us would like. But it is our contribution to the discussion of a perennial problem among brethren, without aiming to be partisan. I am sure we can benefit from subsequent contributions from others exhibiting forbearance. I acknowledge that if they are accurate, we ought to profit whether they demonstrate for bearance or not, but seeing longsuffering toward a brother makes immediate consideration of his material easier. Longsuffering, not compromise.” Dale Smelser

From studying first Israel, and then the apostolic churches, it is evident that whatever is going on in the world is going to affect churches. Effective resistance is achieved through vigilance and faith. But vigilance must not be so paranoid as to spurn everything unaccustomed, or we may bring upon ourselves the judgment accorded the Pharisees who were unaccustomed to people neglecting their traditional washings. Thus cautioned, we note a feminist movement that would dis- regard divine order and gender roles which are beneficial to women, men, and children. When a whole culture seems bent on destruction of male- female roles, it will take a lot of faith for Christians to stay their course. But it now appears also possible for resistance to be so misguided as to keep congregations from being what they were in the Scriptures.

The New Testament congregation was a community, its members sharing want as circumstances required, and always sharing more labor, responsibility, and activity than is found in some congregations today. Have some earnest views forbidding the presence of women during discussion and resolution meetings changed the community nature of the New Testament congregation?

There is a lack of leadership among men today. That is another symptom of our times. Trying to offset this flaw rather than curing it, has done two unfortunate things. To avoid female usurpation some have decreed that a woman must never be present when congregational decisions are made. Next, the idea necessarily follows that assembled congregations can take no decisive action. This has reduced the assembled congregation to being an entity only for social worship, transferring virtually all other function to a “men’s business meeting,” or to the burden of elders. A meeting of men, or certain men, may have its place, but to dictate that every decision must be made therein in order to alleviate men’s weak leadership is unwarranted, unscriptural, and paradoxical.

I have seen two examples cited as authority for limiting all congregational decisions to meetings of only men. Both are inadequate. They are where Paul met privately in Jerusalem with those “who were of repute,” and where the apostles in Acts 6 decided upon the necessity of servants and how many. In the first instance Paul met with those he thought were influential and thus could help in the controversy about circumcision, but no congregational decision was made. That came after the whole congregation was involved. And what congregation do you know that allows only those reputed to be pillars (Gal. 2:9) to attend business meetings? And who would make the decision for the congregation about who is of repute? In the second circumstance the apostles after forming a plan, assigned a decision to the congregation. For elders to lead congregational action, similar planning and decisions are necessary. But apart from that, where is authority exclusively to employ any group of men-saints, separately and finally, to make every congregational decision by themselves? Not even the apostles did that (Acts 6).

The following is not to say that leadership does not belong to men. It is not to say that details of congregational decisions cannot be relegated to a group of men. It is not to say that women must be present where every plan is made. This primarily is not even about the participation of women in congregational affairs. It is about more congregational community and function. In your experience, apart from social worship, for what does the whole congregation, as the congregation, come together today?

It is not my aim to get women into a “business meeting” where a congregation has assigned men to accomplish something. But as for general men’s business meetings, some have become so authoritarian, exclusive, and institutionalized that they have no semblance to anything in the Scriptures. 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 com- munity of the assembly of saints in a locality, where there is congregational sharing in responsibility. The alternative is lordly hierarchy and dominated attenders. When the group shares responsibility and has the wise and mature leadership of scriptural elders, and is served by deacons “set over” specific tasks, the local community approaches that ideal description of the body, “fitly framed and knit together through that which every joint supplieth, according to the working in due measure of each several part.” I believe some places are falling short of “multitude” activity. Where that is true, New Testament example is being neglected and a detached “laity” may evolve. Compare that to the sense of community, congregational involvement, and responsibility sharing found in the examples following.

2 Corinthians 8:19

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. Could separated men in each group have discussed this and made a recommendation accepted by each respective congregation? Yes. Is that what happened? There is not a soul on earth who can establish that, or the necessity of that happening. The Holy Spirit said the churches appointed. The churches may have used various methods, but no one method can be bound in the absence of a statement, exclusive example, or inference. And if the text says congregations appointed, that authorizes congregational action. That authorizes the presence of the spiritual community in the making of this appointment, or acceptance of a recommendation, which itself is a decision. But the text says the congregations made that decision. In no way can this be used to bind the practice of a smaller group exclusively making all decisions for the congregation.

As in the selection of servants, the congregation likewise here is authorized to appoint its representatives, and no one method larger or smaller therefore can be bound. Thus an assembly of the community is authorized for the making of the appointment. Can anyone show a statement, implication, or example to prove otherwise? The answer is, no. Can elders, or other leaders where no elders exist, do the ground work and make persuasive and compel- ling recommendations? Yes, but the ultimate appointment lay with the congregations complying with good leadership. Could there have been a choice so apparent that the elders recommended it in the assembly and brought about agreement and a decision then and there? Obviously. That is authorized, whatever acceptable method may have been used.

But it has been argued that the implications of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12, giving leadership to men, prohibit the very presence of women when such decisions are made. Now please note this, and note it carefully. These passages in no way imply that women could not have been present when the decision to appoint the brother to travel with Paul was made. In fact, if these passages apply to decision making occasions, they imply the presence of women. In the first, they are present, not at home. In the second, their presence necessitates their relational quietness. How can passages regulating presence be used to decree absence? Understand that the primary purpose here is not to get women into decision making meetings, but to accept the sense of community seen in New Testament congregational function. It is to say that congregations, congregations, assembled, or could assemble, for action and certain decisions, and not just for “worship services” and receiving decisions.

1 Corinthians 5

“Ye being gathered together . . . deliver such a one unto Satan.” The congregation, the whole congregation, is authorized to assemble to effect congregational action. An action was taken. It was not done in a men’s business meeting, a meeting of those of repute, or of men recognized by the congregation to plan this, or by elders where existing. Any such leadership may initiate and lead to this, but they do not make the decision solely and only announce it. The congregation, the assembly, the community, was required and present to effect it. The man wasn’t “delivered” until the gathered assembly did it.

Acts 6

The apostles told the “multitude of the disciples” to look out seven men. In their leadership and seeing what was needed, had a decision been made about solving the need? Yes. This would be analogous to what elders do in leading the flock. But this initiating action required a subsequent congregational decision to be made. Choosing is a decision. And the whole multitude chose (v. 5). Could various methods of selection have been used by the multitude? Yes. Did they relegate it to a men’s business meeting? No one can prove that. Can we insist then that such meetings are the only way for every decision to be made? No. Since the assembled multitude was told to choose, “and they chose,” would that authorize doing such in that capacity, then and there, if feasible? Yes. Authorizing a congregation to do something authorizes the congregation to do it, not any specific method. They could therefore use the assembly method in selecting servants or other representatives.

But, the argument again arises, since men are given leadership, women inferentially must not be present. That assertion falls far short of an inference. And it proves too much. Are men given leadership in assemblies of liturgical worship? Yes. Since they are given leadership, does this then forbid the presence of women there? If men having leadership prohibits the presence of women, women must not be present for preaching or the Lord’s supper.

Relevantly, the assembling of the whole multitude was with reference to “this business” (v. 3).   It is therefore scriptural for the congregation to come together for the purpose of expediting by choices, decisions, certain matters of function, or “business.”

Again it is objected, if women are present, they might speak out, or try to dominate the procedure, which they must not do since men have the leadership. If that is a valid argument, then again it means, since men have leadership in liturgical service, women must not be there or else they might speak out or try to dominate the procedures. If the possibility does not prohibit their presence in the one circumstance, it does not in the other. And besides that, the fact is, the congregation was there to expedite business. It is extremely arbitrary to insist that the apostles went to the trouble of calling the whole multitude together for 15 seconds of instruction with no discussion or questions, and then required their dispersal so the men, isolated, could decide the procedures, make the plans, and effect how they would make the choice for the multitude. However spiritually sound that may seem to some, the Holy Spirit, by the words recording this example, requires and authorizes a choice, a decision, by the whole multitude.

Acts 15

“Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose. . . . and send” (v. 22). Something was concluded, decided, with whole church complicity. Was it a levied decision accepted distributively? The language does not say that. It states actual participation; a decision concluded, with the assembly involved. Concerning the meaning of the word rendered “it seemed good”: “The meaning to conclude (emph. added) is found especially in Acts (e.g. 15:22, 25, 28)” (NIDNTT); “Dokeo has the force of ‘decided’ in Acts 15:22” (Kittel). The whole church was in on the deciding. Thus as used in this context, “dokei ‘it seems good’. . . is the technical term of Gr. of all periods for ‘voting’ or ‘passing’ a measure in the assembly” (Lake & Cadbury in A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament). How? By voting, acclamation, lack of objection? No one knows the method by which the leadership involved the congregation, though popular vote tabulation can be eliminated. This, even though one may wonder at the example of the successor to Judas being selected by lot. That selection does not indicate ballot voting. Lots were put forth for Matthias and Barsabbas respectively, and by indicating one in some manner, the Lord showed who was his choice, as the apostles had prayed.

However, in the past many brethren such as T.B. Lari- more made a case for congregational voting. It kept a small minority from hobbling the rest of the congregation. On the other hand, allowing voting gives opportunity for lobbying the immature and outvoting the wiser and more spiritually inclined, devaluing the counsel of mature wisdom. And decision by ballot may inhibit love and wisdom wherein a majority may forgo some things for the sake of others’ conscience. Neither majority rule nor coercive minority was the basis for congregational decision making, as indicated in my booklet, The Rule of Elders:

In all this inclusive participation we must not conclude the congregation is to function as a pure democracy. Christ established function by leadership. There are, after all, those who are chief (Lk. 22:26), first (Matt. 20:27), and leaders (Heb. 13:7, 17). He did not intend for minimum knowledge and brash assertiveness to have equal influence with wisdom, proven service and spiritual maturity, as can happen in a democracy. So while Christ banishes personal authority and dominion, he has ordained a leadership by the mature, the exemplary, the spiritually experienced, and the knowledgeable. It was the job of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to perfect the rest (Eph. 4:11-12). Whether these were gifted or not is not the point. It was the truth and spiritual wisdom abiding in them that gave them leader- ship, however it resided there. This spiritual leadership finds continued residence in his shepherds, elders. While other good and knowledgeable disciples may exercise leadership, Paul demonstrated respect for the assigned leadership of elders by calling the elders at Ephesus to him at Troas for a final personal reminder of their responsibilities (Acts 20:17-38). Significantly, we are not told to follow the novice and the immature, or ones who covet influence without attaining the necessary qualifications of character, knowledge and experience (18).

Voting aside, a whole assembly is still specified as involved in what was “decided.” To find harmony here with insistence that separated men make all decisions alone, just cannot be done. Hence one must not bind this latter preference as an exclusive pattern for making all congregational decisions. To suppose that something didn’t necessarily happen in the assembly does not prove it did not and must not happen in the assembly, especially when the text states that the assembly did something. For in the absence of a specific example, inference, or statement otherwise, this authorizes the assembly, as the assembly, to do it.

Do I believe women publicly voiced individual opinions in the assembled congregation at Jerusalem? I do not. It is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly (1 Cor. 14:35). But may she make suggestions to leaders and then be present in the assembly when decisions are finalized, to observe and share in the informed consensus? This whole passage cries out in the affirmative. Assembly action does not require everyone’s speaking. It does not mean that all men, or all red-haired men, or all of any specific classification actually addressed the assembly. But the decisions were consummated, with the whole assembly. The whole assembly was involved in choosing and sending. The language here authorizes, even if, as some imagine, it does not delineate it, the presence of the entire assembly when some decisions are made and actions taken. This does not say they always must be present for the decision of every detail. Remember the plan the apostles set before the multitude in Acts 6. It pleased the multitude who accepted and acted upon it. And related to the assigned work the chosen deacons were “set over,” they must have made numerous decisions which require so many business meetings now. But to forbid congregational presence at some level, decreeing instead a “men’s business meeting” as the exclusive forum for every decision in the absence of elders, is to insist upon something we do not find specifically in any Scripture, while totally rejecting that for which we have both stated and exemplified authority. And note, even with elders, there was congregational participation. No doubt the faith of James, and the good judgment and respected leadership of the elders, and agreement of the apostles, provided the circumstances for the salutary actions taken.

And More

In the passages cited, congregations, assemblies, are authorized to choose messengers to carry money, to assemble to note a sinner, to select deacons, and to have part in sending a letter and choosing its carriers. Such congregational involvement can be seen also in Acts 13:1-3; 15:1-3; 15:4-6, 15:30-31; and 14:27, where assemblies are authorized to designate and send out preachers, appoint and arrange to send men on a designated mission, participate in settling controversy, assemble to receive a communication from elsewhere, and hear reports on evangelism. All this is to say that congregations met for more and were involved in more than some current opinions allow, limiting any action of the whole assembly to little other than “worship services.” To do that is to change the very nature and community of the New Testament congregation. That loses something of the nature and relationship of God’s people, however well and orthodoxly intentioned. That is my concern.

This contention for making all decisions apart from the congregation and thus away from the presence of women, is obliged by the unwelcome consequence of other beliefs. They are, that women need not remain silent in the assembly, but may speak as long as they do so with subjection, quietly (1 Tim. 2:11-12). Another is that the “silence” requirement at Corinth was only for the time of spiritual gifts, or for the wives of the prophets. Another is that the silence is only for liturgical assemblies, not for other assemblies. All these positions would allow women to speak today in such assembly discussions as that one in the Jerusalem church about circumcision, and publicly to join any “much questioning” as occurred there before the multitude fell silent. Yet people whose positions would allow that, think the advocacy of congregational involvement as there, is the rankest of dangerous heresy. It is too cosmetic to pretend Acts 15 was just a debate. But if it were, all the positions above would allow women joining it, if done “with subjection.” Thus to avoid in congregational function, what their positions justify, some decree that women must be kept out of decision making meetings. (Tradition will keep them from speaking in the “worship service.”)

Constraint of space inhibits making the case for the input of godly women and their good influence on a congregation, and expressing sufficient gratitude for it. But their participatory conduct in private counsel, in separated classes, and in work groups, will be within divine parameters (1 Tim. 2:11- 12), and in the assembly will be governed by non-speaking (1 Cor. 14:34-35). Some will ask, “Why then have ‘them’ there?” That sounds arrogant, and considering what the Holy Spirit recorded, is presumptuous. Why have women present for preaching? Let us activate and involve today’s congregations in all they were in the New Testament, and be blessed by the ensuing community.