by Steve Atkerson
Single pastor rule, government by elders, majority vote, or consensus governing? What do we find in the New Testament?
Why do you suppose that Jesus choose the word church to describe His followers? “Church” is the English translation of the original Greek term ekklesia. Outside the context of the New Testament, ekklesia was a secular word that carried strong political connotations. There were other Greek words Jesus could have used to describe His followers and their gatherings, words that carried religious and nonpolitical connotations. As we will see, one of the reasons He chose the word ekklesia to describe His followers is because He wanted them to make corporate decisions that affected all of them as a group. How did Jesus intend for the church to be governed? Let’s begin by looking more closely at how the true meaning of the modern word church has been all but lost.
The Modern Church And The Ancient Ekklesia
According to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, the word church can be used to refer, among other things, to either a meeting of God’s people or to the special building in which they meet. In contrast, the Greek word ekklesia never refers to a building or place of worship, and it can refer to much more than just a meeting, assembly, or gathering! Our understanding of God’s church will be much impoverished if we fail to factor in the dynamics of the original Greek word used by Jesus. In fact, there is so much emphasis today on the separation of church and state, that when people think of the word church, the last thought that comes to mind is one of a senate, parliament, politburo, or political government. And yet, such was the meaning of ekklesia.
During the time of Jesus, the word ekklesia was used almost without exception 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 ekklesia as an “assembly of a regularly summoned political body.” In Colin Brown’s New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ekklesia is said to have been “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 ekklesia, throughout the Greek and Hellenistic areas, always retained its reference to the assembly of the polis.” In the secular ekklesia, every male citizen had “the right to speak and to propose matters for discussion” (women were not allowed to speak at all in the secular Greek ekklesia).
This secular usage can be illustrated from within the Bible as well, in Acts 19:23-41. These Acts 19 occurrences of ekklesia (translated “assembly,” “legal assembly,” and “assembly” in 19:32, 39, 41) referred to a meeting of craftsmen who had been called together by Demetrius into the town theater to decide what to do about Paul, though there was so much confusion the majority did not know why they had been summoned. This is an example of ekklesia used to refer to a regularly summoned political body (in this case, silver craftsmen and those in related trades). They convened (as a sort of trade union) to decide what to do about a damaged reputation and lost business. As it turned out, they overstepped their jurisdiction in wanting to deal with Paul, so the city clerk suggested that the matter be settled by the “legal” ekklesia (rather than by the trade union ekklesia, Ac 19:37 -39).
Jesus’ Use Of Ekklesia
In light of all this, why did Jesus (in Mt 16:13 -20; 18:15 -20) choose such a politically “loaded” word as ekklesia to describe His people and their meetings? Evidently, in part because He intended for the meetings of Christians to be somewhat similar to the meetings of the citizens of the Greek city-states. Jesus designed that believers propose matters for discussion, decide things together, make joint decisions, and experience the consensus process. Had Jesus merely wanted to describe a gathering with no such political connotation, he could have used sunagoge, thiasos or eranos. Significantly, however, He chose ekklesia.
God’s people have a decision-making mandate. A church is fundamentally a body of Kingdom citizens who are authorized (and expected) to weigh issues, make decisions, and pass judgments. Though decision making will not occur at every meeting (there aren’t usually issues to resolve), an understanding that the church corporately has the authority and obligation to settle things is important. Churches whose meetings focus solely on praise music and teaching, never grappling corporately with problems and resolving issues, may be failing to fulfill their full purpose as an ekklesia.
There are many examples in the New Testament of God’s people making decisions as a body. That Jesus expected decision making from the ekklesia is seen in Matthew 16:13-20. After promising to build His ekklesia on the rock of Peter’s revealed confession, Jesus immediately spoke of the keys of the kingdom of heaven and of binding and loosing. 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. Then, in Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus said that the ekklesia ( 18:17 ) is obligated to render a verdict regarding a brother’s alleged sin, and once again, binding and loosing authority is conferred upon the ekklesia.
In Acts 1:15-26, Peter charged the Jerusalem church as a whole with finding a replacement for Judas.
In Acts 6:1-6, the apostles looked to the church corporately to pick men to administer the church’s welfare system.
Acts 14:23 (marginal translation) indicates that some churches elected their own elders.
In Acts 15:1-4, the church of Antioch decided to send to Jerusalem for arbitration, and then the whole church in Jerusalem was in on the resolution of the conflict (15:4, 12, 22).
Finally, Paul continued this idea in 1 Corinthians 14:29-30, where it was made clear that judgment was to be passed on prophetic revelation when “the whole ekklesia comes together” ( 14:23 ).
It is important to note that the church, in its decision making role, should be judicial rather than legislative. The church’s job is not to create law – only God can rightly do that. This is one point where the ekklesia of God’s people is different in function from the ekklesia of Greek city-states. Our responsibility as believers within Christ’s ekklesia is to correctly apply and enforce the law of Christ as contained in the New Covenant. Church members are to be like citizen-judiciaries who meet together to deliberate and decide issues, or to render judgments (when necessary). This form of government works tolerably well in a house church where people love each other enough to work through their disagreements. It is virtually impossible to operate this way in a larger institutional church setting.
Of course, not all occurrences of the word ekklesia in the New Testament involve decision making. In fact, the word ekklesia is actually used six different ways in the New Testament. Still, its most fundamental usage is that of a group of people gathered for the purpose of making decisions. In this sense, the ekklesia is not merely the coming together of God’s people. Rather, it is also what occurs when God’s people come together. The church is authorized by the Lord to make decisions about the correct application of Scripture, and it is expected to enforce the law of Christ (within the family of God) and to deal with issues as they arise. This is a part of what is to occur in open, participatory church meetings. Problems must not be swept under the rug. Questions of correct conduct must be resolved. Of course, there will not be issues to resolve every week (or even most weeks), but God’s people must ever bear in mind their obligation to function as an ekklesia when necessary.
In its human organization, the church is not supposed to be a pyramid with power concentrated at the top in either one man or a few. Decisions are not to be made behind closed doors and then handed down from on high for the church to follow. The church is rather like the senate or a congress that deliberates upon, and decides, issues as an assembly. The church’s leaders are to facilitate this process and to serve the church by providing needed teaching and advice, but they are not the church’s lords!
There are limits to what a local church, as a decision-making body, should decide. Certain topics are out of bounds, are off-limits, are category errors. For instance, no local church has license to redefine the historic Christian Faith. Some things are simply not open for debate. Ekklesia is to operate within the bounds of orthodoxy. The elders are to rule out of bounds 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 which writings make up the Bible, the Gospel message, the Trinity, the future bodily return of Jesus, etc.).
Consensus or Majority Rule?
Because the ekklesia is to deliberate as an assembly upon issues that arise, what if there is disagreement and the members split on an issue? Are decisions made by consensus or majority vote? Let’s first consider what is implied in those two options.
The word “consensus” means “general agreement, representative trend or opinion.” It is related to the word “consent” or “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).
“Consequently, you are . . . members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Ep 2:19 -22).
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit - just as you were called to one hope when you were called - one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ep 4:3-6).
“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (Php 2:1-2).
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, 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).
Most of the process of consensus building will not occur during a church meeting. Instead, it will go on during the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper, in midweek visits, over lunch, via casual phone conversations, by e-mail, etc. Of course sometimes various brothers, and especially leaders, may bring teachings during the interactive meeting that are relevant to the issue under consideration. The majority of the deliberation, however, will take place one on one, brother to brother. Bringing the church members into agreement with one another takes time, patience, humility and gentleness.
It is important to remember that the process a church goes through in achieving consensus is often just as important as the consensus that is finally achieved. Consensus governing takes time, commitment, mutual-edification, and a lot of brotherly love. It truly can work in a small, house-sized church. We must love each other enough to put up with each other! The concept behind consensus might be government by unity, oneness, harmony, or mutual agreement. Do we really trust in the Holy Spirit to work in our lives and churches?
Lest government by consensus seem too utopian, consider what the Lord has done to help His people achieve unity. First, our Lord Himself prayed for His church “that they may be one as we are one . . . My prayer is . . . 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 to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (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.” Evidently, properly partaking of the one loaf during the Lord’s Supper not only pictures unity, it can even create it!
Finally, as already mentioned above, Christ gave various ministry and leadership gifts to the church (such as apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers) for a purpose: “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ep 4:11-13). One reason Christ give the church such leaders is to help the church achieve consensus.
What About Elders?
Where and how do elders factor into church government by corporate consensus? As is pointed out in other chapters, elders are critical to the long-term survival of a church. Elders guide, persuade, teach, feed, council, protect, warn, advise, rebuke and correct.
The church as a whole may be compared to a senate, with the authority to make decisions and render judgments that are binding on its members. A church elder is just a fellow senator, but one who is on a special senate committee whose purpose is to study issues, make recommendations, teach, inform, or prompt. Normally, the elder is not to make decisions on behalf of the church. He does not usually preempt the consensus process. All elders are senator-servants to the whole senate (church). However, the senate will occasionally find itself in grid-lock, unable to resolve an issue. In such cases, the elders serve as predetermined arbitrators, or tie breakers, and in such unusual instances those in opposition are to “submit” to the elder’s leadership and wisdom (see Hebrews 13:17).
Thus, in the final analysis, churches are to be elder led more so than elder ruled. The times when a church must be temporarily elder-ruled is when one or a few within the church become self-willed, unreasonable, obstinate, divisive, enslaved to sin, or deceived into false doctrine.
What we have argued for in this chapter is church government parliamentary monarchy! Jesus is our Monarch, and the church is His consensus-based parliament (with elders as predetermined tie breakers).
Special thanks to Tim Wilson of Gig Harbor, Oregon, who first introduced me to the truth of the church as a decision making body.
Want help teaching this topic? To aid you in leading others to the truths of New Testament church life, teaching notes have been prepared for this subject. They will give you ideas on how to lead an interactive (Socratic) group discussion. The idea is to guide people to discover for themselves what the New Testament says about this topic. At the end of the guide there are study questions to pass (or e-mail) out in advance.
Just click here!
Steve resides in north Georgia with his wife, Sandra, and their three home-schooled children. Steve graduated from Georgia Tech and worked in industrial electronics before heading off to seminary. After receiving a Master of Divinity degree from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, served on the pastoral staff of a Southern Baptist Church. After seven years in the traditional pastorate, he resigned to begin working with churches that desire to follow apostolic traditions in their church practice. He travels and teach as the Lord opens doors of opportunity. Steve is an elder at the home church he helped start in 1990, is president of the NTRF, edited Toward A House Church Theology, is author of both The Practice of the Early Church: A Theological Workbook and The Equipping Manual, and is editor of and a contributing author to Ekklesia: To The Roots of Biblical House Church Life.