Over the last two millennia of church history there have been many ways in which churches have made their decisions. This rings true for individual congregations as well as for whole denominations. For example:
Do the decisions rest with congregation as a whole, a select group of individuals (such as the elders), or even a ‘lone pastor’?
Does the magnitude of the decision affect who will decide its outcome?
The question that we need to ask is; “What options, advice or guidance, if any, does the Bible gives us when it comes to making decisions in our churches?”
My aim in this essay is to look at a few Bible passages seeking to see if they give us detailed, prescriptive ways of decision-making or more broad brushstrokes of wisdom. (I also want to investigate if our structures have been influenced by the governmental structures of society more than the Bible’s ideas.)
I will aim to cover 3 strands in the essay, and they will be intertwined.
1. Definitions of structures currently operating in churches today.
2. Major Bible passages on decision-making in churches.
3. Conclusion (how I would seek to have a church make decisions if I was starting from scratch).
Let’s get one way of making a decisions off our list of options from the outset, that of drawing lots. It is true that some major decisions in the Bible are made this way; the public choosing of Saul as King in 1 Samuel 11, the choosing of the new twelfth disciple to replace Judas Iscariot. In the first of these two cases, Saul has already been anointed in secret by Samuel and this public confirmation is done in the presence of the LORD and what we see if God’s sovereign hand in the choosing of a human king over His people.
The choice of the twelfth disciple is not random either. There were certain criteria they both had to meet to ‘make the cut’ so to speak. Then the other disciples, trusting in the sovereignty of God again, drew lots to pick one of them.
The most important factor in why we do not do this today is that the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost in the very next section of Acts and He is now living in every believer to help them make wise and godly decisions.
The most widely used system for making decisions in church is the congregational approach. This is usually, in its simplest form, where the leaders of the church present an idea to the congregation, and the congregation vote. The outcome of the vote is final.
One of the most popular passages to promote the congregational decision-making process is Acts chapter 6. In Acts 6 there is a concern that not all widows are being cared for. The Twelve gather all the disciples together for a meeting to decide who should be responsible for the task of looking after the ministry to widows. The Twelve want to be able to focus on prayer and teaching the word. Interestingly, if all the disciples are gathered here, and that includes every believer then there must be thousands of people. More than likely this is just a group of those who have been around for a while. Maybe it’s the 120 mentioned in chapter 1. In many ways it does not matter. Why? Because I think what we see is the Twelve enlisting the help of others to help them choose 7 men who will oversee this task. It is likely that the Twelve do not know all of the believers and so need the wisdom of the whole congregation. It seems the Twelve make their confirmation based on the selections of the congregation.
But, even if it is the whole congregation gathered, and they have made the selection for the Twelve to confirm, this doesn’t give a prescriptive congregational decision-making process for us to use in every situation. You could also argue that the final decision rested with the Twelve meaning they had some kind of veto if those selected were not suitable in their eyes.
Acts 13:1-3 gives a different case entirely. There are prophets and teachers in the Antioch church. Five of them are named for us. They are meeting, worshipping the Lord and fasting, when the Holy Spirit speaks and tells them to set aside Saul and Barnabas for mission. We are not told the context of the meeting, or how big the church in Antioch is, but is numerically bigger than these five men. The decision they make is based on listening to the Holy Spirit speak and doing what he says. Notice that they are worshipping the Lord, praying and fasting. This is not some whim or feeling they have. It is abundantly clear that the Lord is speaking to them through the Spirit. They don’t take this to the whole congregation, they make the decision after seeking the Lord and listening.
Some argue that the “they” in verses 2 and 3 both probably refer to the whole congregation, as there is a gathering of worship. But, I am not sure that the context points this way. Surely the “they” could just as easily refer to the five who are gathered.
If that is the case, from this, you could argue for a team-lead ministry when it comes to church structure and decision making. These five men hear from the Spirit, continue to pray and fast, then act upon what they have heard. There is not hesitation, no committee to ratify or vote to confirm.
Later on in Acts (ch15) Paul and Barnabas, and a few others, head to Jerusalem to get a decision on whether Gentiles should be required to be circumcised when the come to trust in Jesus.
Verse 4 tells us that the welcome comes from “the church and the apostles and elders”. But then in verse 6 we see that the discussion and decision are made by the apostles and elders only. Now this could be the elders/apostles of one local congregation, but it could also represent a city-wide group covering multiple local congregations.
It seems quite clear that this was a matter of orthodoxy and so the decision was in the hands of those commissioned to lead.
Peter then makes the declaration that there is not need for circumcision of the Gentiles.
But, further on in the chapter, the decision to sent a letter to the church in Antioch and also to send a couple of members of the church in Jerusalem with Paul and Barnabas, seems to be made by “the apostles and the elders, with the whole church”.
Can we argue from this passage that doctrinal decisions and gospel orthodoxy are a matter for leaders only but decisions of sending people on ‘mission’ trips is a matter for the church? Is the doctrinal part of that only the case here because the Apostles are around?
I will return to this in the conclusion after considering some other passages on decision making in the New Testament.
If we consider Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5 we have another situation to analyze. First we have Paul and Barnabas appointing elders in every church, then we read that Paul sent Titus to Crete and instructed him to “appoint elders in every town”. Titus is making these decisions on his own, under the instruction of the Apostle Paul.
What can we draw from this?
This seems to be a something that was needed at the start of the life of these young churches. There was no-one there to direct or lead them so Titus comes to put that structure in place.
First of all, Titus isn’t just to random choose people, or pick people he has become mates with. There are strict criteria that any potential elder must meet. Most of these are character based, with the ability to “give instruction in sound doctrine” the only more skills-based quality.
Secondly, the rest of the church is not required to ratify Titus’ selections. He has the authority, as he is sent by Paul, to install the elders to lead and govern the church.
The question is: is this a unique situation only applicable at the inception of a church? Or, can this be applied more broadly and imply that a sort of lone-ranger can have the final say in a decision-making process?
Those are the to extremes that could be concluded from this passage, I believe, and although I wouldn’t want to base my church decision structure or process upon these verses alone, it does need to be taken into consideration.
At this point it is probably worth looking at elders and their role as it is portrayed in the NT. The reason for this is; it will give us a chance to see what kind of authority they had, enabling us to establish the extent to which elders in our churches should make decisions and direct the affairs of the church.
Elders are the ones who are called to teach and have authority in the church, this is clear in 1 Timothy 5:17 and also from the qualifications listed earlier in the same letter. If we link this in with Ephesians 4:11, we can see that elders are given by God for the building up and looking after of the flock of God. There is great responsibility in being an elder, the decision to appoint one is not to be taken lightly and those who desire to be elders desire a “noble task” scripture says. In Peter’s first letter he tells us that elders are to lead and oversee the church graciously (5:2-3).
It seems from these verses that elders have a key role in the church, something more than producing ideas that the whole church vote for or against.
Kevin De Young on his blog on the gospel coalition website says that Congregationalists and Presbyterians both agree that the “keys of the kingdom” in Matt 16:19 are to with teaching the gospel/doctrine and also church discipline. He then goes on to say this:
“It is, therefore, everywhere in keeping with a biblical theology of eldership to have the elders of the church exercising the authority of the keys through preaching and discipline. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how the elders are to shepherd, govern, and protect as the New Testament commands if the final authority rests with the congregation and not with the officers who represent Christ in their midst.”
So, what can we conclude?
There are many good, bible-believing, pastors teachers and theologians who fall on different sides of the argument as to decision making in churches.
I haven’t looked up or quoted many of them here, but the fact that denominations such as Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists and Anglicans, to name but a few, have such different authority structures and methods of making final decisions, it can’t be totally clear cut.
I am leaning towards, although not yet 100% convinced by, a church structure that allows the elders to make the decisions for the church. This may be because I grew up in a church where the decisions, such as appointing a new pastor, were congregational. But, I also think that it is due to the passages and verses I have looked at not being obvious one way or another.
I think in a structure where elders make the decisions, they should present ideas to the church and take feedback, making sure they have fostered an atmosphere where opinions are taken seriously, however controversial or different they might be. But, the final decision rests with the elders. This would include anything from hiring a pastor to appointing a deacon, to starting a new ministry to whether a projector was purchased.
The elders are there for a reason, and they are not chosen lightly, with scripture being very specific in their qualifications.
From there I think elders should appoint deacons to oversee church ministries and they should be responsible for planning and organizing those ministries. The deacons would be accountable to the elders but their roles would be truly delegated so that they could get on with it.
I wonder if a purely congregational method of decision-making belittles the role of elders as laid out in scripture. I wonder also if it is more vulnerable to church splits and indecision because it relies heavily on every individual being gospel-hearted (which obviously we want them to be) and not self-seeking. It can also leave decisions resting in the hands of very immature or new believers.
I haven’t really mentioned the lone-pastor model of decision making, but I think it has even more dangers as there is little accountability and little way of reigning in a maverick or halting false teaching.
Conclusion: Elder-Team Lead Churches are the way forward! (Probably)