By Vance E. Trefethen
Proposition: “The Scriptures teach that the pattern of decision-making in matters of congregational judgment must always include the whole church (including women) under male leadership in all local churches (both with and without elders).” I ask each reader to join me in affirming this proposition.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in my articles are my own and are net intended to represent in any way the views of the elders or members of my home congregation.
Definitions: “The Scriptures” the 66 books of the Bible. “Teach” instruct by command, example, or necessary inference. “Pattern” “anything proposed for or worthy of imitation” (Webster College Dictionary 5th Ed.). “Decision-making in matters of congregational judgment ” actions of a local church that involve (1) choosing between several scripturally authorized courses of collective action by selecting the one most advantageous under that congregation’s circumstances; or (2) making a determination in some matter affecting the congregation that God has left to human reasoning to figure out, while following whatever inspired principles may govern the matter in general; distinguished from “matters of faith,” which are doctrines and principles decided by Deity. “Include” “to take in or comprise as a part of the whole” (The Merriam-Webster Dictionary). “Whole church (including women)” all the male and female members of a local ekklesia, or congregation, of Christians. “Under male leadership” subject to the instruction, teaching, presiding or chairmanship over a group by one or more male Christians, as is commonly practiced by male adult Bible class teachers and male song-leaders. “All local churches (both with and without elders)” every congregation of Christians, regardless of whether they have pastors (or bishops, or presbyters, all of which are synonymous with elders).
What this debate is not about: (1) It is not about Feminism. We both oppose the evil influence of Feminism on the church and the family. (2) It is not about women serving as preachers or bishops. I object to such violations of God’s plan for women. (3) It is not about whether churches should have elders or whether elders have leadership, oversight, or responsibility in the local church. (4) It is not about whether elders or a few Christians may ever meet privately to discuss the work of the local church. I’ve met privately many times with fellow-Christians, elders, and family members to talk about the work of the local church, and the Bible contains approved examples of such private meetings.
What this debate is about: This debate is about what constitutes the Bible pattern for congregational decision-making in matters of judgment and whether private meetings have authority to make decisions in matters of judgment and bind them on the congregation at large. It will be accompanied by another debate, which I will publish along with this one in a single volume, in which Tom will affirm that matters of judgment may be decided privately without the whole congregation.
Some believe elders may, should, or must decide some or all congregational matters privately. (The qualifiers are supplied because all who believe in private decision-making don’t agree on all the particulars.) And some teach that churches without elders should have men only business meetings as a “substitute” for elders to privately make decisions in matters of judgment for the whole church. There are lots of other private methods of decision-making churches might want to use as well. But any system of decision-making proposed for any local church must stand or fall solely on the basis of whether it is authorized in the Bible. If the NT shows churches making decisions privately by elders or men’s business meetings or some other private method, then churches should follow that pattern, to the exclusion of all other methods. But if the NT shows that churches always decided matters of judgment by involving the whole church under male leadership, then that is the pattern churches today should follow to the exclusion of all others.
Arguments: 1. Acts 6:1-6. It is a matter of divinely revealed faith that males should lead congregational work, and a matter of faith as to their qualifications. It is a matter of judgment to select which particular males meet the qualification and should be appointed to do the work. The easiest way to handle this would have been for the apostles to hold a private meeting and decide everything for the congregation. Instead, they followed a more cumbersome course of action and “called the multitude of the disciples” together to handle the matter. The Apostles explicitly avoided the most “expedient” method in favor of involving the whole church. Anyone who would have prohibited women from attending this meeting would have been encouraging the women to violate the Apostles’ command. It is disturbing that some may prohibit women from doing what the Apostles command women to do (cf. Rom. 10:2).
“And the saying pleased the whole multitude” (6:5) shows the presence of the whole church. “. . . And they chose Stephen, a man full of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus. . .” (6:5). The antecedent of “they” is the whole multitude, which is synonymous with the “whole church” of my proposition. “They chose … [7 men]” meets the definition of decision-making among scripturally authorized alternatives. The inspired men gave the qualifications, while the whole church exercised judgment in choosing men who met the qualifications. The whole church was called together, the whole church agreed to appoint men, and the whole church chose the men, all under male leadership (the Apostles, with 7 other males selected as leaders over the benevolent work), in a congregation where no elders are mentioned. Acts 6:1-6 meets all the requirements of my proposition for a church without elders.
2. Acts 15:12-27. There are two types of “decisions” in this chapter. Peter said, “God made choice” (15:7) about the Gentiles hearing the Gospel. Acts 15:28-29 shows that the Holy Spirit revealed what doctrines were binding on the Gentiles. None of the deliberations or activities in Acts 15 could have changed God’s decision. None of our meetings or discussions today can change anything God has decided, either.
But Acts 15:12-27 shows a congregational decision made by the Jerusalem church about communicating a message to the church at Antioch. Acts 15:12 says “the multitude” was present for the discussion of the doctrinal matter of faith concerning Gentile salvation, and the con-text continues with the issue of communication with the Antioch church. “Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren” (15:22, KJV).
The Holy Spirit did not send or choose the men. The church handled it as a matter of judgment. “22. It seemed good (edoxee), `it was voted’ the Greek word being that regularly used for taking a decision in assembly” (The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 9, p. 205). “Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas” (NIV).
Acts 15 shows that “the multitude” (15:12), “the apostles and elders with the whole church” (15:22), “having assembled with one accord” (15:27), decided to send chosen men, and made the choice of Judas and Silas as the particular men (15:22). The process of decision-making included the whole church under male leadership (Apostles and elders, with two males selected as messengers/leaders), meeting all the requirements of my proposition for a church with elders.
3. 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, 11-13. This passage uses the second meaning of “matters of judgment” given earlier. God has decided that sexual immorality, covetousness, etc., are sinful and that Christians who practice them should be purged out of a local church. The decision we make is a judgment about whether someone is practicing these sins and has reached the point of needing to have this passage invoked upon them. A church must make judgments about erring members: “For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? Do not ye judge them that are within?” (1 Cor. 5:12) How does a church make this judgment?
“In the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan” (1 Cor. 5:4-5). Who gathers together? They are “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2), which was made up of male and female members (cf. 1 Cor. 7:15-16). We must infer that this takes place under male leadership from 1 Timothy 2:11,12, which would regulate the conduct of the men and women. Paul said the things he wrote were for “all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 12). Therefore, decision-making in a matter of judgment must include the whole church (1 Cor. 5:4), including women, under male leadership (1 Tim. 2:11-12) in all local churches (1 Cor. 1:2).
4. Matthew 18:15-17. This is similar to 1 Corinthians 5 because it requires a church to render judgment in the matter of a sinning member, but in this case one accused of sinning personally against a fellow-saint. Christians must follow the steps Jesus gave to resolve the matter privately. If the accused doesn’t hear the individual, or the witnesses, it becomes an issue for “the church.” We’ve all studied the meaning of ekklesia, “church,” for many years. Ekklesia refers to an assembly or congregation, and this passage teaches that decision-making in matters of congregational judgment involves the whole church (ekklesia) including women (because women are part of the ekklesia) under the male leadership (1 Tim. 2:11-12) in all local churches (because Jesus has authority to command all saints to observe this, cf. Matt. 28:16), with or without elders.
Questions for Tom: (1) Can a church ever decide a matter of judgment by including the whole church under male leadership? If so, what passage authorizes it? (2) Is there a pattern for decision-making in churches without elders? (3) Are elders limited by command, example, and necessary inference in the way they lead a church? (4) Is there any example of elders in a NT church deciding a matter of judgment without including the whole church? (5) Does ekklesia ever refer to a private meeting of elders or male-Christians-only in the NT? (6) Does any Scripture authorize any unqualified men to act as “substitutes” for elders?
Conclusions: I used to believe and practice private decision-making. I changed because of two facts: (1) The New Testament gives a clear pattern of decision-making in matters of judgment: the whole church under male leader-ship; (2) No command, example, or inference shows a church handling matters of congregational judgment any other way. Four cases command or exemplify the method of decision-making I affirm. No passage teaches anyone to make decisions without involving the whole church. Please join me in affirming that we must follow the inspired pattern in all that we do in service to God.
Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 16, p. 14-15
August 18, 1994