The Rights of a Congregation

By Weldon E. Warnock

Far too little preaching, teaching, or writing has been done on the rights of a congregation. How long has it been since you heard or read anything along this line? It would be accurate, I surmise, that many churches think they have no God-given rights, no consideration or voice after they have elders. In fact, in some places a few men take it and run with it, never giving the church as a whole any input. Neither the elders nor the men should ignore or always bypass the consideration of the members.

Brethren, the local church has rights and it is duty bound to exercise them. Let us notice some of these rights.

To Choose Officers

Each congregation has the right to choose its own officers. Acts 6:1-7 shows this beyond any doubt. The apostles told the Jerusalem church, “Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men . . . whom we may appoint over this business” (v. 3). The church did the selecting and the apostles appointed them.

Robert Milligan wrote concerning this matter in Acts 6, “And there were the apostles who knew all the members well, and their respective qualifications, and in whose judgment and impartiality the whole congregation had entire confidence. Surely to the eye of sense and finite reason, the shortest and best way to settle the whole matter would seem to be that the apostles themselves should choose and appoint men to wait on the poor and needy. But no; under the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit, the apostles thought very differently . . .This one example, then when fairly and fully considered, should really be an end of the whole controversy touching the election of church officers” (The Scheme of Redemption 345-346). J.W. McGarvey said, “We conclude that all church officers were selected by the congregation at large . . . The only certain fact is that the people elected their officers” (The Eldership 73).

George W. DeHoff stated, “That forever (commenting on Acts 6:3, WW) sounds the death knell of any hope of any state headquarters of any presiding elders, or presiding preacher selecting any kind of officers in any congregation of the church but rather the New Testament teaches that the power to select officers is in the church itself . . . The church selects its own functionaries for any purpose whatsoever . . . It is not right for a preacher to come in and say, ‘I’11 select so and so for your officers and here they are’. . . It is not right for the elders of the church to get off in a huddle and say, `We’ll select so and so for an elder and put him in  there he is’ … It is not right for a handful of church members to get off in the corner and say, `We’ll pick out so and so and then tell the church’. . . The church must select its own officers” (Gospel Sermons 270-271).

In his excellent book on elders and deacons, H.E. Phillips wrote, “In some places it has been known that the elders in office took full charge of selecting and appointing those who were to serve with them, or in appointing themselves to the work. Many objections may be offered to this method. To begin with there is no Bible teaching that shows any elder had charge of his own appointment to the office, or he so acted to appoint another. This would prove to be an unwise procedure because it would tend to form a clique in the oversight. Elders may select some easily controlled .. . the only example we have places the duty of selecting on the number of disciples (Acts 6:3). Choosing other men to be elders or deacons does not fall in the class of elders’ duty. It is neither their duty to decide when men should be appointed as elders, nor who shall be appointed” (Scriptural Elders and Deacons 246). Yes, the church is to choose its own officers

To Remove Officers

The congregation that selects and appoints its elders and deacons, also has the right to remove them from office if they become disqualified. Men can become immoral, inactive in duty, or other circumstances while elders and need to removed if they will not step down on their own. If such becomes the case the church may remove them, yea, must remove them from office.

E.L. Flannery stated, “The church has the right, if reason or Scripture demands it, to remove elders from their appointment. If their judgment, when guided by the Bible, enables them to properly decide who of their membership shall serve as elders, why should it be considered improper for the very same people, with the very same Bible to be able to remove the eldership from any who neglect, or be-come disqualified for that work? No organization on earth fails to provide legal means for the removal from office those officials who disqualify themselves by inability or in other ways” (Let Brotherly Love Continue 7)that can select a man as an elder can remove him as an elder … There is just as much scripture for firing an elder as there is for firing a preacher and we do that every time we get ready . . . The next verse that says something about firing a preacher tells exactly how to fire an elder and I am amazed that anybody would run around talking about, `If you are once an elder, you are always an elder.’ That is not true” (Ibid., 272).

Of course, scriptural elders are to be esteemed and respected by the congregation (1 Thess. 5:13). The Bible also says, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account” (Heb. 13:17). Thank God for good elders.

To Be Informed

Every congregation has the right to know what is going on. Many times, the business meetings are conducted and the members that are not present are never informed of the transactions. Reports from preachers that the church is helping to support may be read by a few (elders, deacons, preacher), but the church is not told about it. The reports are not posted on the bulletin board. Some elders never let the church know the financial condition of the church. No report is ever given. It is kept secret. However, in recent years we are doing a lot better in this area. Anyway, the church has a right to know where the money is being spent.

Information that relates to the congregation or concerns the congregation should be disclosed to the congregation. Sometimes a congregation is never told who the preacher is going to be until it is time for him to move in. The pulse of the church should be felt when hiring a preacher. All are helping support him and all of them have to listen to him. The attitude “It’s none of the congregation’s business” is a sorry attitude.

The Bible teaches that the church was informed in New Testament days. When Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch after their first preaching tour, we read, “And when they were come, and had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27).

The church at Jerusalem was in attendance at the Jerusalem conference because it concerned all those disciples. When Paul, Barnabas, and other brethren came from Antioch to Jerusalem and “they were received of the church, and of the apostles, and of the elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them” (Acts 15:4, cf. verses 22-28).

Quoting George DeHoff again, “The same power that can make a man an elder can unmake him . . . The church Remember that the church is God’s heritage (1 Pet. 5:3). Although the elders have authority to oversee, the deacons the authority to serve, and the preacher the authority to preach the word, the church has its God-given rights, too.

Guardian of Truth XLI: 6 p. 1
March 20, 1997