About Jesus     Steve Sweetman

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Is Church A Democracy?


From time to time I’ve heard that the church is not a democracy. Church decisions are made solely by church leadership.  This is especially so among certain apostolic orientated churches in recent years.


One pastor I know arbitrarily submitted his church under the authority of a certain apostle, something his people knew little or nothing about until it happened.  People in the church asked why they weren’t confided in over this matter. The answer was simple.  “Church isn’t a democracy”.  So what does the Bible say about this? 


If you simply do a word study for certain words like apostle, authority, submission and other related words, I can see how you might conclude that church is an authoritarian system run by leadership. Word studies have their place but they’re limited because they miss much of what is written in between the words you’re looking up.  Therefore an exegetical (verse by verse) approach to Bible study is important because it fills in the details you miss with word studies.  You’re not jumping all over the place looking up words void of their context.  


One thing you learn from a verse by verse study is that the apostle Paul seldom thought in terms of exercising apostolic authority “over” people.  Instead, he viewed himself as a servant “under” God’s people, and a co-worker with the rest of the body of Christ. If the great apostle Paul viewed himself as one of the rest, or as their servant, then he must have valued the rest of the body’s input when making decisions, don’t you think?   


This can be seen in Acts 14:24 where Paul and Barnabas returned to certain cities to “appoint” elders to care for God’s people.  The Greek word “cheirotoneo” is translated as “appointed” or “ordained” here, depending on what translation you’re reading.  “Cheirotoneo” is made up of two Greek words, one meaning “hand”, and the other meaning “to stretch”.  Thus the meaning of “cheirotonea” is “to stretch out one’s hand”.  One example of the use of this word was found in the Athenian legislative assembly in Paul’s day in respect to assembly members “raising their hands to vote”.  Thus voting is associated with “cheirotonea”.   


Now that’s interesting. Paul and Barnabas didn’t arrive in town and pick elders of their own choosing.  All the believers had input into this matter.  The text doesn’t say they voted but based on the meaning of “cheiritoneo” we can safely say that they had input into this matter.  Therefore I conclude that these churches were acting “somewhat democratically” in this instance. 


One reason why the believers assisted Paul and Barnabas in this situation is because the men they appointed were already functioning as elders.  The body of believers would have made this known to Paul and Barnabas.  So everyone had a say in affirming these men who were already functioning as elders.      


To be fair the word “appoint” is also translated from  the Greek word “histemi” in the New Testament as well. This word means “to make stand”, thus “to appoint, or to set forth”.  There’s no hint of voting in this definition.  Paul used “histemi” when he asked  Titus to “appoint” elders in Titus 1:5.  We can’t assume that Paul was thinking democratically here based solely on his use of “histemi” because “histemi” has nothing to do with voting.  Yet based on Paul’s practice as seen in Acts 14:24 I think we can say that he had a democratic process in mind when he asked Titus to appoint elders.     


The Greek word “cheirotonea” is also used in 2 Cor. 8:19 where the believers in various cities appointed certain men to go with Paul as he traveled from place to place collecting money for the poor Christians in Jerusalem .  The use of  “cheirotones” suggests that these men were chosen democratically, something the text seems to suggest as well in my opinion.   


You might also want to consider the 7 men chosen in Acts 6 to distribute food to the poor.  It’s clear that there was a democratic element in this instance because leadership asked the believers to choose these men.     


All this tells me that the New Testament views church somewhat democratically, but not as we understand democracy  in the western world today.  Our secular understanding of democracy is all about “individual  rights”, as in, “I have my rights, and my rights must be exercised”.


New Testament thinking concerning democracy is all about my brother being more important than me, so what my brother thinks is valuable. It’s not about “my rights”, but “my brother’s rights”.


Some churches are authoritarian as in my example above.  Others are democratic in nature in many respects, but for the most part it’s not Biblical democracy.  It’s worldly democracy.  Paul esteemed his brothers better than himself. (Phil. 2: 3)  This is why he worked with the rest of the body in choosing leaders in each city. He expected these leaders to act in like fashion as they cared for God’s people. (Phil. 3:17)


So is church a democracy?  Well, it’s not a democracy according to western style democracy, but it is a democracy according to New Testament thinking based on the idea that we should esteem others over ourselves by allowing them the privilege to be heard.              


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