About Jesus Steve Sweetman
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
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
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
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
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
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.