What is the advantage of following the early church approach to decision making? No matter who has authority to make decisions in your small church, following the early church approach can make the process both edifying and unifying. An essential role of first century church leaders was to build congregational consensus. Consensus is possible in a smaller church where people know and love each other enough to work through their agreements and disagreements. It is virtually impossible to operate this way in a large church setting.
The mind of Christ is more likely found when the leaders guide the whole congregation to wrestle corporately with major decisions. Unity is strengthened. The Spirit is given free rein to guide the church. Leadership’s role in this process includes helping build consensus by teaching what Scripture says on various issues, privately talking with church members about decisions, appealing to those who differ and — after much persuasion — calling on any dissenting minority to yield to the elders and the rest of the congregation. Church members are encouraged and fulfilled as they realize that everyone’s thoughts and inputs are respectfully weighed in accordance with the Scriptures.
Proof #1 — Persuade & Yield
Hebrews 13:17 encourages believers to obey church leaders. However, mindless obedience is not what is pictured in Hebrews 13:17. The common Greek word for obey (hupakouo) was used with reference to such situations as children obeying their parents and slaves their masters. It is significantly that the usual word for obey is not found in Hebrews 13:17. Instead the word is peitho, which fundamentally means persuade or convince. The expositor Vine notes that with peitho, “the obedience suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion.” Thus McReynolds’ literal interlinear actually translates it as “persuade” in Hebrews 13:17. Further, it is in the middle/passive form, which carries the idea of “let yourselves be persuaded by” your leaders. The author’s use of peitho assumes dialog will take place, teachings will be given, and arguments will be made. When someone is persuaded of something he will act on it and in that sense obey it with joyful conviction.
One of the qualifications of an elder is that he be able to teach. Church leaders have to be eminently good at persuading with the truth. Dwight Eisenhower captured the idea behind Hebrews 13:17 when he said, “I would rather try to persuade a man to go along, because once I have persuaded him he will stick. If I scare him, he will stay just as long as he is scared, and then he is gone.” Elders are not to simply pronounce decisions from on high like Popes do ex cathedra. The obedience of Hebrews 13:17 occurs after being persuaded.
Hebrews 13:17 further instructs believers to submit to their church leaders. However, as with obey, it is exegetically significant that the common Greek word for submit is not found here. Instead, hupeiko was chosen by the author, a synonym that does indeed mean to give in or to yield, but after a fight. It was used of combatants. The idea behind hupeiko is seen in Southern General Robert E. Lee’s letter to his troops concerning their surrender at Appomattox: “After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources” (italics mine). The nuance of hupeiko is not a structure to which one automatically submits (like submission to civil government). Rather, it is submission after a process, struggle or contest has occurred. The picture is one of serious discussion and dialog prior to one party giving way.
In summary, mindless slave-like obedience is not the relationship presented in the New Testament between leaders and those led. For their part, God’s flock must be open to being persuaded (peitho) by its shepherds. Leaders, in turn, must be committed to on-going discussion and teaching. However, there will be those times when someone, or some few, in the fellowship can’t be persuaded. Since congregations are made up of both mature and immature Christians, of those who walk in the Spirit and those who do not, of those with the gift of discernment and those without it, impasses will arise. After much persuasion and prayer, Hebrews 13:17 calls upon dissenters to give in to, to yield to (hupeiko), the wisdom of church leaders. This submission, however, is to come only after dialogue, discussion and reasoning. Thus a critical aspect of elder rule must include a commitment to building Spirit filled congregational consensus.
Proof #2 — Church As Congress
Our understanding of Christ’s church will be impoverished if we fail to factor in the dynamics of the original Greek word for church, ekklésia. With so much emphasis today on the separation of church and state, the last thing people associate church with is government. Yet this was exactly the original meaning of ekklésia. During the time of Jesus, ekklésia was used outside the New Testament to refer to a political assembly that was regularly convened for the purpose of making decisions. According to Thayer’s lexicon it was “an assembly of the people convened at the public place of council for the purpose of deliberation.” Bauer’s lexicon defines ekklésia as an “assembly of a regularly summoned political body.” Lothan Coenen, writing for The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, noted that ekklésia was “clearly characterized as a political phenomenon, repeated according to certain rules and within a certain framework. It was the assembly of full citizens, functionally rooted in the constitution of the democracy, an assembly in which fundamental political and judicial decisions were taken . . . the word ekklésia, throughout the Greek and Hellenistic areas, always retained its reference to the assembly of the polis.”
The secular meaning of ekklésia can be seen in Acts 19 where it is translated as legal assembly or assembly rather than church. Two of the occurrences refer to a meeting of silversmiths convened by Demetrius because of the apostle Paul. Trade union rank and file rushed into the theater (where civic decisions were made) to decide what to do about a damaged reputation and lost business. However, they overstepped their jurisdiction, so the town clerk counseled that the matter be settled by the “legal” ekklésia (rather than by the trade union ekklésia, Acts 19:37-39).
Why did Jesus choose such a politically loaded word (ekklésia) to describe His people and their meetings? Had He merely wanted to describe a gathering with no political connotations, Jesus could have used sunagogé, thiasos or eranos. Perhaps Jesus intended His followers to function together with a purpose somehow parallel to that of the political government. If so, believers have the responsibility to decide things together and experience the consensus process.
God’s people have a decision-making mandate. A church is a body of Kingdom citizens authorized to weigh major issues, make decisions, and pass judgments on various issues. According to the Baptist Faith and Message of 2000, “Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes.”
There are many examples in the New Testament of God’s people making decisions as a body. After promising to build His ekklésia on the rock of Peter’s revealed confession, Jesus immediately spoke of the keys of the kingdom of heaven and of binding and loosing (Mt 16:13-20). Keys represent the ability to open and to close something, kingdom is a political term, and binding and loosing involves the authority to make decisions. Was this authority given to Peter only? In Matthew 18:15-20, binding and loosing authority was conferred by Jesus upon the whole ekklésia. In Acts 1:15-26, Peter charged the Jerusalem church as a whole with finding a replacement for Judas. Later, the apostles looked to the church corporately to pick men to administer the church’s food program (Acts 6:1-6). Acts 14:23 indicated the apostles appointed elders with the consensus and cooperation of the local congregation.
If ever there were a proper time and place for the Apostles to make a decision alone, apart from the church, it was at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). The original Apostles were the standard for doctrine and practice. The very nature of the Gospel had been called into question. Yet even here, the amazing fact is that the Apostles not only included the local Jerusalem elders, but also the whole church! Colin Brown observed that “in the council’s decision-making they are accorded no special preeminence . . . It is consistent with the non-authoritarian, collegiate character of church leadership which Acts consistently depicts (1:13-26; 6:2ff; 8:14ff; 11:1ff; 13:1-4).” Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 5 also reveals the church corporately has the authority to lovingly discipline unrepentant members and even church elders for their possible future restoration and the holiness of the church.
Church government is one area of early church practice where there is little scholarly agreement. G.W. Kirby, lecturer in practical theology at London Bible College, wrote that “The NT does not lay down precise rules either as to the form of ministry or of government of the Church. Over the centuries several different theories of church government have emerged, each of which claims some scriptural basis.” However, commenting on the general nature of congregational involvement, Donald Guthrie observed, “These early communities displayed a remarkable virility, which was a particular characteristic of that age. The churches were living organisms rather than organizations. The promptings of the Spirit were more important than ecclesiastical edicts or Episcopal pronouncements. When decisions were made, they were made by the whole company of believers, not simply by the officials . . . It would be a mistake, nevertheless, to suppose because of this that the church was run on democratic lines. The Acts record makes unmistakably clear that the dominating factor was the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
Regardless of your church’s process of government, the New Testament approach would be for leaders to involve the whole church in big decisions, depending on the Holy Spirit and seeking to build congregational consensus in matters of importance. Examples include church discipline, deciding on a new location, changing a doctrine stance based on Scripture, appointing the elders and deacons, deciding which mission activities to support, altering how church meetings are done, etc. We argue that early church government was a combination of plural elder rule and congregational consensus as Christ is followed as Head.
It is important to remember that the process a church goes through in achieving consensus may be just as important as the consensus that is finally achieved. Consensus governing takes time, commitment, mutual edification, and lots of brotherly love. It truly can work in smaller churches, such as were found in the New Testament era. We must love each other enough to put up with each other. The concept behind consensus might be called government by unity, oneness, harmony, or mutual agreement. Do we really trust in the Holy Spirit to work in our lives and churches?
Lest achieving consensus seem too utopian, consider what the Lord has done to help His people. First, our Lord Himself prayed “that they may be one as we are one . . . that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you . . . May they be brought into complete unity” (Jn 17:11, 20-23). Since Jesus prayed this for us, unity is certainly achievable.
Another provision God made for our unity lies in the Lord’s Supper. According to 1 Corinthians 10:17, “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” Examine the prepositions in 1 Corinthians 10:17 (“because” and “for”); partaking of the Lord’s Supper not only pictures unity, it may even create it.
Finally, Christ gave the church various leadership gifts (such as pastor-teacher) for a purpose: “until we all reach unity in the faith” (Ep 4:11-13). Leaders play a critical role in building consensus. Aristotle astutely realized that “we believe good men more fully and more readily than others. This is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided . . . his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.”
Are decisions to be made by consensus or simple majority? Consider what is implied in those two options. The word consensus means general agreement, representative trend or opinion. It is related to the words consent and consensual. In contrast, majority rule can be a 51% dictatorship for the 49% who didn’t agree, and this certainly works against unity. Consensus, however, seeks to build unity. Would God have His church make decisions based on consensus or majority rule? Consider the following biblical texts as you and I reach a consensus on this issue:
“How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity” (Ps 133:1).
“I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1Co 1:10).
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ep 4:3).
“. . . make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (Php 2:2).
“. . . clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col 3:12-15).
Systematic, thoroughly thought out, well presented teaching which is soaked in fervent prayer on any given matter under discussion will facilitate mature discussion. Even though leaders will bring teachings during church meetings that are relevant to the issue under consideration, much of the consensus building process will occur apart from a church service through building strong trustworthy friendships with each other. It will happen one on one, brother to brother, during the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper, in midweek social visits, via phone conversations, by e-mail, etc. To bring church members into agreement with one another takes time, patience, humility, gentleness and the ministry of elders.
There are limits to what a local church, as a decision-making body, should decide. Certain topics are out of bounds, off-limits, category errors. For instance, no local church has license to redefine the historic Christian faith. Some doctrines are simply not open for debate. Each ekklésia is to operate within the bounds of orthodoxy. The elders are to rule off-limits the consideration of harmful and heretical ideas (1Ti 1:3).This is because the church at large today, and throughout time past, already has consensus on certain fundamental interpretations of Scripture (such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the Gospel message, the Trinity, the future bodily return of Jesus, etc.). The Holy Spirit has not failed in His mission of guiding the church into all truth (Jn 16:13). As G. K. Chesterton said, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
The church as a whole may be compared to a congress, with authority to make decisions and render judgments that are binding on its members. A church leader is a congressman also, but one who is on a special committee whose purpose is to study issues, make recommendations, teach, inform, or prompt. Normally, a leader would not make decisions on behalf of the church, preempting the consensus process. However, when the church finds itself in grid-lock, unable to resolve an issue, the elders serve as predetermined arbitrators, or tie breakers. In these instances, those in opposition are called upon to submit in the Lord to the elders’ leadership and wisdom (Heb 13:17). Spirit filled elder led congregational consensus in major decisions gives free reign to the Holy Spirit and puts the church in a better position to discern the mind of Christ and walk in the Light of God’s Word.
For practical ideas on building congregational consensus, click here.
- What can be learned about a church leader’s authority from Luke 22:24-27?
- To what did the Greek word ekklésia originally refer?
- Why do you suppose that Jesus chose a political word like ekklésia to describe His followers?
- What are some examples in the New Testament of God’s people making decisions as a body?
- What is the difference between majority rule and congregational consensus?
- What is the difference between consensus and unanimity?
- What provisions has God made to help a church achieve consensus?
- How do elders build congregational consensus?
- In Hebrews 13:17, believers are encouraged to obey and submit to their leaders. How does this coincide and compare with congregational rule?
- How should both local congregational consensus and universal church consensus apply to interpreting the Bible?
 Since the early church met in the private homes of its wealthier members, each congregation was necessarily smaller rather than larger (scores of people rather than hundreds or thousands).
 The New Testament usually refers to church leaders in the plural. The idea of a single pastor over a congregation was foreign to the early church.
 Ephesians 6:1, 5.
 Baurer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 639. Other examples of peitho are found in Luke 16:31, Acts 17:4 and 21:14.
 W.E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Iowa Falls, IA: Riverside Book and Bible House, 1952), p. 124.
 Paul McReynolds, Word Study Greek-English New Testament (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale Publishers, 1999), p. 819.
 Peitho is so used in Romans 2:8, Galatians 5:7 and James 3:3.
 1 Timothy 3:2.
 QuotationsPage.com, #2662, accessed September 30, 2016.
 Hupotasso. Used for instance in Romans 13:1, Colossians 3:18, Ephesians 5:21, and 1 Peter 2:13.
 Joseph Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1981), p. 638.
 Within the Scriptures, ekklésia was also used to simply refer a gathering (of Israel or the church), to the church as the totality of Christians living in one place and to the universal church to which all believers belong.
 Joseph Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977), p. 196.
 Baurer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 240.
 Lothan Coenen, “Church,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 1, Colin Brown, General Editor (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1971), p. 291.
 Acts 19:32, 39, 41 (NIV).
 There was so much confusion the majority did not know why they had been summoned.
 Matthew 16:13-20 & 18:15-20.
 Article VI, “The Church.”
 “Paul and Barnabas had elders elected” (footnoted alternative translation, NIV).
 Acts 15:4, 12, 22.
 Colin Brown, Vol. 1, Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), p. 135.
 G.W. Kirby, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), p. 854.
 Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), p. 741.
 Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Book I, chapter 2.