April 8, 2008

Who Appoints Leaders in the Church?

Posted in Church Leadership, Ecclesiology at 8:12 pm by Dan Lowe


In Sunday morning’s sermon on Acts 11:19-30, it was pointed out that Barnabas was set apart by the Jerusalem church to provide oversight and teach the church in Antioch.

I made the argument that the New Testament model for appointing leaders (overseers/elders/pastors) was for leaders to train faithful men who aspire to the role (I Tim 3:1), equipping them for ministry, then appointing them to positions of leadership within in the church.  I based this statement on the following passages of Scripture:

2 Timothy 2:1-2 (ESV) – 1 You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, 2 and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

Titus 1:5 (ESV) – 5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—

Acts 14:21-23 (ESV) – 21 When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. 23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.

Many within Baptist circles believe that it is the role of the congregation to select their leaders, rather than the responsibility of those in church leadership.  Those who hold this view often refer to Acts 6:1-7 to support their view. 

Acts 6:1-7 (ESV) – 1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

I would tend to disagree with this understanding.  In Acts 6, the apostles (functioning as overseers/elders/pastors) instruct the people to pick out seven men among them for this task (it is an imperative in the Greek.)  After the congregation has selected these men, they bring them before the apostles who appoint these men to a position of ministry among the body.

I would tend to interpret this as implying that authority for appointing leaders rests in the elders of the church (in this case the apostles.) The congregation was involved in the process, but the ultimate authority for appointing leaders in the church rested on the elders (i.e. the apostles), not the congregation.

Dr. John MacArthur (pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California), commenting on Acts 14:23, has the following to say about the appointment of elders (or pastors) in the local church:

Biblically, the laying on of hands was done by the recognized leaders of a church.  In this way they identified themselves with those who were becoming leaders.  But the process of identifying leaders may also have involved the people.  Acts 14:23 says, “When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”  The word for “appointed” in that verse is cheirotoneo, which literally means “to choose by raising hands.”  It is the same word used to describe how votes were taken in the Athenian legislature.  It came to mean “to appoint.”

Some feel that the use of cheirotoneo implies that a congregational vote by show of hands was taken.  That is forcing the word.  The context of Acts 14:23 indicates that only Barnabas and Paul (the antecedents of the pronoun they) were involved in the choosing.

Second Corinthians 8:19 uses cheirotoneo to describe the appointment of an unnamed brother “appointed by the churches” to travel with Paul.  There the plural “churches” indicates that he was selected not by a single congregational vote, but rather by the consensus of the churches of Macedonia–probably as represented by their leaders.

So using the term cheirotoneo in an exaggerated, literal way is not sufficient to support the idea of the election of elders by congregational vote, although the assent of the congregation may be implied.

Acts 6:5 is often submitted as proof for congregational selection:  “The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch.”  Note, however, that those chosen were not called elders.  They were servers whose task was to free the apostles for spiritual leadership.  And the people brought them to the apostles for approval–not the reverse (v. 6).  The congregation recognized those men as godly and qualified men, but the apostles appointed them to their task.

The New Testament church is seen in transition.  Patterns of church leadership developed as the first-century church matured.  We can trace three steps in the process of ordaining leaders.  Initially, it was the apostles who selected and ordained elders (Acts 14:23).  After that, elders were appointed by those who were close to the apostles and involved in their ministry.  For example, Paul specifically charged Titus with the ordaining of elders (Titus 1:5).  In the third phrase, the elders themselves ordained other elders (1 Timothy 4:14).  Always the ultimate responsibility for appointing elders was a part of the function of church leadership.

Today there are no apostles or men who have been closely associated with apostles, but the biblical pattern still holds.  Church leaders–whether they be called elder, bishop, pastor, missionary, evangelist, apostolic representative, or whatever–should have the responsibility of identifying and ordaining other elders.” (excerpted from a booklet entitled “Answering the Key Questions About Elders”, located on the Grace to You website.  The whole article can be found here http://www.gty.org/Resources/positions/2164 )

Given all this data… it seems the New Testament model is for men who aspire to the role of an overseer/elder/pastor to be trained and equipped by other leaders and appointed to positions of leadership… and the congregation recognizes these men as leaders and affirms them in this role.



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