Last week Sunday, our church gathered to choose elders for the next year. I was not chosen. Why is unknown, but in our church God has the last vote. Here's how that works.
Nearly 25 years ago, I was first elected an elder of my church. At that time, the congregation gathered to vote on elder nominations. But, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I was honored that I was both nominated by the elders and pastors and elected by the congregation. But something bothered me about the process.
It felt like a popularity contest.
I felt badly that there may have been men in the church more spiritually qualified than me. But because these other men weren’t as well known in the church or the community as I was, they were not elected. So, I voiced my concerns to the elders.
“That’s the way we’ve always done it. Almost all churches elect it’s leadership that way” or, “We believe God speaks through the people to vote for the leaders he wants,” were the reasons I most frequently heard. Still, the whole process felt more like a democracy, than biblical. There had to be a better way.
Voting by the Congregation
James M. Boice a respected reformed theologian and pastor had this somewhat cynical comment on popular voting in general: “One of the things Presbyterians especially do is to outvote the dissenters. We call a meeting. We ask people to speak. We make a motion, being careful to follow Robert’s Rules of Order. Then when we have our motion and our second, we vote to cut off debate, vote, and the majority prevails. Our will is done, and everything has been accomplished democratically. I have heard people say, ‘The Holy Spirit speaks through the fifty-one percent vote.’ But that is usually not the case, to judge by outcomes.” As I began searching scriptures on the subject, I couldn’t find a single case of the people voting for their leaders. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it’s simply not a method used by God, or by the people of God in the Bible, to choose their leaders.
By far, the most common method in the Old Testament was that a prophet was told by God who should lead his people, and he anointed him to lead. (David, Saul, etc.) The other method was God (often through an angel) chose them directly and called them to lead. (Moses, Sampson and most of the Judges of Israel)
New Testament Leaders
In the New Testament, the leaders of the church were either chosen by lot (Matthias, to replace Judas) or they were appointed by the Apostles.
“Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.” Acts 14:23
“The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” Titus 1:5
But, as I began thinking about this, I began to suspect a “form of voting” was involved even in this process. I’m sure Paul, Silas, or Timothy didn’t just roll into town, pray about it and appoint elders. Generally, the apostles stayed in a city for a long time – from months to years. In that time, it probably became apparent to the apostles, who the people considered to be the most godly and wise among them. It’s likely, that from these men “nominated by the general consent” of the people, that the elders were appointed. Other than knowing that the apostles prayed for God’s guidance in this process, the Bible is silent on how this process worked, other than listing the qualifications for the elders and deacons in Timothy and Titus.
So, how should churches select leaders today?
A number of years ago, our church changed how we chose our elders. They are selected by lot. (We use the same process for deacons as well.) Here’s a brief summary of the process:
The congregation and the leaders of various ministries in our church, are asked for the names of qualified – men, six to nine months before our annual meeting (our church has only male elders).
A nominating committee, made up of former elders and deacons and godly men and women in the congregation, gather the names and begin discussing and praying about each man. In some cases, potential nominees are met with to determine both their willingness to serve and their qualifications.
A list of fully qualified men is given to the current elders. Each elder takes 30 days to pray about the six-eight men, each elder believes God wants them to recommend for nomination.
After an extended prayer time each elder nominates 6-8 elders. Those receiving the most nominations are met with by our senior pastor and two elder officers and are asked if they will allow their names to be presented to the congregation. The question is actually framed this way. “Will you allow God to decide if he wants you to be an elder for the next three years?” With the “casting of lots” process, it’s no longer who the congregation likes or knows best, it’s about allowing God to make the final selection.
The names of all nominees are given to the congregation, they have 30 days to confidentially object to any nominee. If the objections are serious, they are investigated if found true and their names are withdrawn quietly.
At our annual congregational meeting all the names of every remaining qualified nominee are placed in a container. If we need only five new elders that year, the first five names drawn become our new elders.
Here’s what I like about this process:
It allows our church members to recommend men, who may not be well known to the current leadership, or to the congregation.
It allows a smaller group of church members to pray about and meet with potential nominees, to make sure all are qualified. (However, they don’t have to be equally qualified).
The congregation has an opportunity to speak into the process and eliminate anyone who has not lived up to the biblical qualifications for an elder. (This has actually happened at least twice that I’m aware of.)
But in the end, God has the last vote! “The lot is cast into the lap, but every decision is from the Lord.” Proverbs 16:33
The appointment of the elders
Although I prefer the “casting of lots” method, I’m equally comfortable with the method used both in the Bible and by many churches of the current elders (or deacons) appointing fully qualified godly men, or women. I’m also aware that some spiritual giants like John McArthur Jr. and John Piper, disagree with the casting of lots method.
Question: What are your thoughts? How does your church elect, or appoint its leaders?