Wednesday, June 28, 2023

The Whole Gathering

Pick out from among you seven men of good repute …”

When was the last time your local church “read out” or excommunicated someone?

I know some churches that have never done it. Even in churches that have, for most it’s been a very long time, to almost nobody’s regret. In these litigious days, telling a brother or sister they are no longer welcome in the fellowship of the saints is not an action in which anybody is particularly enthusiastic about participating. Nor should it be: there is plenty of financial risk involved, as well as the potential risk to testimony if a person so excluded elects to push back in a public way and the church’s version of the excommunication narrative is called into question by people incapable of understanding its purpose.

Who jumps at handling a hot potato like that? Nobody with a keen sense of self-preservation, that’s for sure.

Church Discipline Way Back When

Thirty or forty years ago, such an event was not terribly common either. In the rare cases when it did occur, my recollection is that the elders made an announcement to the effect that so-and-so was guilty of such-and-such an offense and had refused to repent of it. For the sake of the corporate testimony and, above all, for his/her own good, the believers were asked not to associate with such a person until they changed their mind and conduct. Usually this was accomplished by writing and reading a letter to the congregation. Actual details were sparse, and there was usually a caution about gossip. “Love covers over a multitude of sins” and all that.

For many in the congregation, the Sunday morning the announcement was made was the first they’d heard about it. Sometimes (though rarely) it was the last thing too. If the person had been caught in an extramarital affair, they often made themselves scarce voluntarily; you couldn’t have gotten them back to church with a shotgun. But my main point is this: it was the elders who had all the inside info on the situation, and the elders who did the actual “reading out”. Informing the congregation was pretty much an afterthought.

Choosing Deacons and Dealing with Personal Offenses

Likewise, the selection of deacons has never been, in my recollection, an act delegated to the congregation. Deacons were asked to perform certain services for the church by the elders (where they were formally recognized at all), who made an announcement about their appointment after it was all agreed to behind the scenes.

One more situation to consider: think back to when the Lord Jesus told his disciples how they were to deal with an erring brother who was obdurate about his sin. The third step in the process is “tell it to the church”. To be fair, I do not believe the Lord was talking about Christian churches in that passage, which has a very Jewish tone to it. I believe he was talking about the local believing Jewish community as a whole, the Jewish congregation. Be that as it may, in the rare cases where Christians attempt to apply these principles in our own gatherings, we characteristically read the Lord as saying not “tell it to the church”, but “tell it to the elders”.

But he didn’t. He said, “Tell it to the ekklÄ“sia.” In our application of the passage to the present day, that would be the entire gathered church. Does that ever happen? Never, in my experience.

The Full Number

The first line in today’s post comes from Acts 6. You probably remember the story. The early church in Jerusalem experienced a dispute between the Hellenists and the Hebrews over the care of widows, and resolved it with the recognition of seven men chosen to administrate the daily distribution more fairly. But how did they resolve it? The apostles took the matter to the entire local congregation and gave the congregation the responsibility of dealing with it. “The twelve summoned the full number of the disciples.” They told this entire group, “Pick out from among you seven men.” Luke writes that what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they — that is the congregation — selected the men from among them to do the work on their behalf.

Not the apostles themselves, who in those early days played a role similar to modern elders in the church at Jerusalem, among many other things they did. Those elder-equivalents may have come up with the solution more generally, but they put the specifics of the choosing squarely in the hands of the entire local gathering. Nobody in the church at Jerusalem could say, “I had nothing to do with that” if by chance it happened to go wrong somehow. All were invited to be part of the process.

Likewise, when Paul writes to the Corinthians concerning the sexually immoral man in their midst and requires them to “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” and the salvation of his spirit, he does not address his command to the elders in Corinth, as if it is their job alone to do the dirty work of writing letters and giving instruction to the congregation, let alone delivering people to Satan. Rather, he says to all those receiving his letter (the church of God that is in Corinth), “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus … deliver this man.”

An Important Question

So then, how is it that in modern times elders have become not just the spokesmen for our congregations, but the only decision-making body where important matters are concerned? This was not the pattern established by the early church in Jerusalem, nor is it consistent with the commands of the apostles to early churches in the Gentile world. The only role the average modern congregant plays in the decision of such matters is to obey the expressed will of the elders. He gets no real say at all.

It’s easy to see how such practices could evolve. Congregations are unwieldy beasts. Today’s local churches are full of all sorts of people: immature saints, untaught believers and those too young to understand what’s going on or make a reasonable judgment about it. In “seeker sensitive” congregations, there are often non-trivial numbers of the unsaved filling the pews.

How do we ask such a mixed multitude to make godly decisions about the delegation of responsibility, let alone deal with touchy matters like individuals who have fallen into sin? It is a legitimate concern, and the easy answer is to just keep the question in the hands of those the congregation has already recognized as responsible individuals.

The Problem

Still, we must acknowledge that when we empower elders (or pastors) to make all such decisions for a congregation, we are not acting consistently with either the spirit or the letter of the New Testament. We are creating a situation in which it is all too easy to blame our leadership when they make choices we do not agree with, and all too easy to absolve ourselves from what the New Testament writers really made our responsibility. Further, when information is held back from the congregation and its involvement in decision-making is unsought prior to important choices being made, how can a local church responsibly say “amen” to the decisions made on its behalf? Moreover, the “mixed multitude” objection is really a red herring; the early church had its immature believers, fakes and questionable adherents just like we do.

Let me suggest we have inadvertently adopted the methods of the world in this regard, where voters empower men to represent them, then have nothing further to do with decision making until the next election cycle. Except that it’s worse in the church: there is no “next election cycle”. In most cases, existing elders will do the appointing and recognizing of the next elders, and few in the congregation will have any say about the composition of the body of elders, let alone concerning the decisions they make.

To the extent that elders share information with their spouses, the average elder’s wife has more influence and input into the major decisions of the local church than the average congregant.

Examining Alternatives

Sure, there are certain risks involved in consulting the local congregation about important matters of procedure, or about church discipline. The process might very well go sideways if there are not sufficient numbers of spiritual men and women participating, or if some insist on participating when they really should not.

But what would happen if the next time the conduct of one of our fellow believers became a genuine problem, instead of writing a letter, the elders took the issue to their congregation and charged them in the presence of the Lord with the responsibility of passing righteous judgment on the evidence they had before them? What would happen if the next time a practical problem came up in an elders’ meeting that called for the dedicated attention of a servant or servants of the church, they took the matter to the congregation instead of simply appointing somebody themselves (or doing it themselves)? What would happen if the elders laid these matters out before the gathered saints, talking over the biblical principles involved, and citing the scriptures they believed to be applicable, allowing opportunity for questions to be asked, potential problems raised and answers given, then taking the temperature of the congregation once they had time to think and pray about it? And how much more sway would that act of excommunication carry if the elders could go back to the offending party and tell him, “All your brothers and sisters in Christ have agreed together that ...” rather than “Three elders decided”, which, if we are honest, is usually how it went.

I’m not suggesting such matters ought to be put to a vote. The church is not a democracy, and there is no hint of democratic solutions being sought in the New Testament. Still, we find statements like these: “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church”, and “What they said pleased the whole gathering.”

Even without a show of hands or formal voting process, a spirit of general agreement may be discerned when one exists. And when it doesn’t, should a church really be moving forward?

No comments :

Post a Comment