On Congregational Elections

A HB reader writes to ask about to think about and vote in a congregational election for elders when one does not know the nominees.

This is a difficult question for a couple of reasons. First, we have little to no evidence of congregational elections in Scripture. One possible exception is Acts 14:23. Calvin argued that the verb (χειροτονήσαντες) translated “to appoint” in the ESV can signify “to elect.” The nouns for elders occur more than 100 times in the Old and New Testament. In the Old Testament they are said to have been “gathered.” Numbers 11:16 is the classic place: “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you” (ESV). The assumption is that it is self-evident who the elders are. The sense of the places where this language is used is that the elders are like wheat. The farmer can see when the field is ready (the heads are mature) and then he harvests them. It is not a democratic process. In the New Testament, Acts 1:26, we read that Matthias was selected to replace Judas by casting lots.

Second, perhaps especially in American congregations, the sanctity of congregational election is assumed. In part this is so because it is a long-standing practice and, in the church, repeated practices become de facto principles (“We have always done it this way”). Here is another reminder to pastors and elders to be careful about instituting practices, to be careful to follow sola Scriptura rather than good intentions because once a practice is instituted, it must, like a giant downtown skyscraper, be imploded to be removed. This is exactly how the Roman communion came to add five false sacraments to the two instituted by our Lord. In the late Patristic/early medieval period, congregations began to elaborate on the two divinely instituted sacraments with what were called “sacramentals.” Over time, these elaborations took on a life of their own so that by the 12th century Peter Lombard could list them as sacraments in his Sentences, the standard medieval theology textbook. In the 13th century, the medieval church began the process of ratifying them formally as sacraments. It was against the backdrop of this history that the Reformed re-articulated the biblical and ancient Christian “rule of faith” and what Calvin called the “rule of worship” (we do only in worship what God has commanded).

Americans particularly assume the sanctity of elections because of our political history. In politics we speak of the “sanctity of the voting booth.” In fact, the voting booth is not holy. It is common, secular. That is not to say that it is dirty or evil but only to say that the Lord has not “sanctified” it or made it holy. In the American civil religion, however, we have confused the secular for the sacred and, it seems, transported that confusion into the church.

This is not to say that congregational elections are morally wrong or sinful but only to say that they are not explicitly prescribed in Scripture and we have no details about whether they were done or how. Yet, they have a long history in the church. The pastors (bishops) in the ancient church were typically elected until the creation of the college of cardinals (an electoral college) in the high medieval period. Calvin complained (Institutes 4.5.2) that the medieval church had unjustly deprived the people of their right to elect their pastors.

Congregational elections are, thus, a cherished practice. In my federation of churches, the United Reformed Churches in North America, our church order (the working constitution of the federation) speaks of the council (elders, ministers, and deacons) electing a candidate for pastoral ministry (art. 6), and the election of elders and deacons (art. 13). That process typically involves nominations by the congregation and a congregational vote. In some cases, that vote is said to be advisory rather than determinative.

Let us, then, think a bit about the particular problem before us. The council has solicited from the congregation nominations for the offices of elders and deacons. The consistory (elders and ministers) considers that list to find those candidates who most closely meet the qualifications set forth in Scripture (e.g., 1 Timothy 3:1–13). That winnowed list is then presented to the congregation for their advice.

In preparation for an election it is incumbent upon the elders to make sure that the congregation has enough information to vote. Most P&R congregations in North America are about 100 members or fewer. That may tend to create the presumption that, as in a small town, everyone knows everyone else and therefore there is no need formally to introduce the candidates to the congregation or produce a sort of voter’s guide. Nevertheless, it would well for the consistory to find a way to do just that, introduce the candidates to the congregation. Consider the plight of the voting member of a congregation who does not know the candidates. How is he or she to vote wisely?

If you are a member in a congregation and you do not have enough information to vote well you should approach the elders graciously, patiently (with the twice-monthly meetings, home visitations, discipline cases, and the burden of leadership they carry a lot of responsibility and things sometimes slip through the cracks) to ask for more information so that you can vote thoughtfully and prayerfully.

I have sometimes wondered why we do not imitate Acts 1:26 more often? The OT speaks of casting lots 25 times. When the apostles sought to replace Judas that was the process they chose. One might object that they did so before Pentecost, before they were properly “apostles.” Perhaps but Luke says that Matthias was “numbered among the apostles.” Luke narrates the process in some detail. After Judas committed suicide (Acts 1:15–20) they sought a replacement. In the second part of v. 20 Luke quotes Psalm 109:8 as justification for the election by lot of a replacement:

So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” (Acts 1:21–22; ESV).

Verse 23 says that the disciples “put forward” (nominated) two men. In Dutch Reformed churches, the practice of calling a minister often involves the nomination of a “duo” or a “trio” of ministers to be presented to the congregation as candidates. This was the original NT “duo.” One was Justus and the other was Matthias. Both met the test set forth and, we assume, the tests that Paul articulates in 1 Timothy 3. They prayed: “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place” (Acts 1:24–25; ESV). So it was after a process of testing, nomination, and prayer that the election by lot was held and Matthias was chosen. He is never mentioned again in Scripture so we are left to assume that he was properly in officer as an apostle.

Calvin argues:

For there was this difference between the apostles and the pastors, that the pastors were chosen simply by the Church, the apostles were called of God. In which respect Paul, in the preface of his Epistle to the Galatians, (Gal. 1:2,) doth profess himself to be an apostle, “neither of men, neither made by man.” Therefore, like as the dignity of this function was excellent, so was it meet that in the choosing of Matthias, the chief judgment should be left unto God, howsoever men did their duty. Christ by his own mouth did appoint the rest; therefore, if Matthias had been chosen only by man to be one of them, he should have had less authority than they. This was very orderly done, that the disciples should present unto God those whom they thought to be the best; and he should choose to himself whom he knew to be most fit, so that God, by the fall of the lot, doth pronounce that he did allow of the apostleship of Matthias. But the apostles might seem to have dealt very rashly and disorderly, which laid so great and weighty a matter upon a lot; for what certainty could they gather thereby? I answer, that they did it only as they were moved thereunto by the Holy Spirit; for although Luke doth not express this, yet, because he will not accuse the disciples of rashness, but rather doth show that this election was lawful and approved of God; I say, therefore, that they went this way to work, being moved by the Spirit, like as they were directed in all the action by the same Spirit. But why do they not pray that God would choose whom he would out of the whole multitude? Why do they restrain his judgment unto two? Is not this to rob God of his liberty, when as they tie him, and, as it were, make him subject unto their voices and consents? But whosoever shall quietly ponder the matter shall plainly perceive, by the drift of Luke, that the disciples durst do nothing but that which they knew was their duty to do, and was commanded them by the Lord. As for the contentious, let them go shake their ears (Commentary on Acts).

Calvin was right. Pastors are not apostles and perhaps that difference is enough to justify voting for pastors rather than choosing them by lot but we might disagree with him that the whole process was inspired by God. Luke’s account is inspired but, as we noted above, the process of casting lots was well established in the Old Testament. Luke does not present it as anything other than an orderly, wise, and judicious process. There seems to be nothing supernatural about it. Calvin may be right but his distinction seems more a matter of assumption than necessary inference.

Were a congregation to choose officers by lot, they ought still to follow the apostolic pattern of vetting and prayer. The biblical qualifications for special office remain. There would be no reason why the congregation should not vote as part of the nomination and vetting process. Whatever process a congregation follows it ought to be done carefully, prayerfully, graciously, and patiently.

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  1. Calvin on Act.14:23
    “23. And when by voices [suffrages] they had ordained them elders through all churches, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, in whom they had believed.”

    “Had ordained by election. The Greek word cheirotonein doth signify to decree, or ordain a thing, by lifting up the hands, as they used to do in the assemblies of the people. Notwithstanding, the ecclesiastical writers do often use the word cheirotoneia, in another sense; to wit, for their [the] solemn rite of ordaining, which is called in Scripture laying on of hands. Furthermore, by this manner of speech is very excellently expressed the right way to ordain pastors. Paul and Barnabas are said to choose [56] elders. Do they this alone by their private office? [57] Nay, rather they suffer the matter to be decided by the consent of them all. [58] Therefore, in ordaining pastors the people had their free election, but lest there should any tumult arise, Paul and Barnabas sit as chief moderators. Thus must the decree of the council of Laodicea be understood, which forbiddeth that the people have liberty granted them to elect. [59]”

  2. The Dutch Reformed perspective is likely a little different on this matter from the Scots Presbyterians, given the history. The right of congregations to choose their own pastor was a huge issue in the 18th and 19th centuries in Scotland and became a factor in the splits that produced the Associate Presbytery and the Free Church of Scotland. The reason is that the alternative was a system of patronage, whereby local landowners had the right to present the “living” (along with its associated tithes and glebes) to whoever they wanted. That could easily mean that an evangelical church might have an unbelieving minister foisted upon them, hardly a desirable state of affairs. The system of patronage still exists in the Church of England: my sister’s church suggests nominations to their patrons, but could in theory have anyone imposed on them. In Scotland, it withered away because of the strong opposition by evangelicals (including those splits). As a result, the right of a congregation to vote on their minister is a deeply cherished principle among Scottish Presbyterians.

    • In the 1920’s, when my grandfather was inducted into the parish church of Mortlach in Dufftown, Aberdeenshire (“the city built on seven distilleries like Rome was built on seven hills”), the first thing he did was to rent out the glebe rather than work it himself like his predecessor. This surprised some of the locals, given that they had heard “he kennt aboot agriculture” (he had a B.Sc. in agriculture, having started out as a farm servant). In response, he said it was because he “kennt aboot agriculture” that he rented it out, having come to Mortlach for soul culture, not soil culture.

    • “kennt aboot” = “knew about”

      Having left home at 14, he started working on a farm as the “orra loon” (“other boy”). He was wounded in the Somme and discharged from the army in 1916 as unlikely ever to work again. He went back to school and got his B.Sc. and later B.D., served in three parishes and then ran the Church of Scotland Social Services department for twenty six years. He was a character and a half, with a big heart for the last, the least and the lost.

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