This debate initially appeared in Guardian of Truth magazine in 1994. It is reprinted here with the permission of the authors.
Proposition 1: The Scriptures teach that the pattern of decision-making in matters of congregational judgment must always include the whole church (including women) under male leadership in all local churches (both with and without elders).
This debate is important because Vance suggests a radical departure from the practice of the NT and makes his unscriptural "pattern" a test of fellowship. As one who serves as an evangelist and an elder in a local church, I deny his affirmative as both unscriptural and impractical. Our difference is not personal nor is his honesty or sincerity impugned.
Definitions: I commend Vance in appealing to the scriptures. However "pattern" should reflect a binding quality beyond that of his dictionary (2 Tim. 1:13; 1 Tim. 1:16; Heb. 8:5). Since Vance is advocating a pattern that requires "congregational decision-making in matters of judgment" and requires "an increased role for women in the decision-making processes of local churches" (Vance Trefethen, Confusion or Consensus, New Horizon Books, Montgomery, Al, 1993, p. 3), his obligation is to show that pattern. He brands private decision-making by elders as "without authority" (ibid, p. 6), thus sinful. Since a pattern allows no deviations, if it can be shown that a single exception to his pattern exists, he has no pattern. However, Vance is confused about what makes a pattern. He states "Acts 15 is the only Bible pattern there is on the matter" (ibid, p. 32), but attempts to add Acts 6 and 1 Cor. 5, etc., to that pattern. Either Acts 15 is the "sole" (only) pattern or it is not. When defining "decision-making in matters of congregational judgment" Vance emphasized that this addressed matters of judgment and not matters of faith. Agreed, but we differ on "decision-making" itself! His pattern calls for every decision to be made by the whole congregation (including women), under male leadership. This would be required in every congregation, whether or not there were elders. I suggest that this makes elders mere figureheads, with no scriptural authority to decide any matter. Though he affirms that he believes elders have "authoritative work to do in overseeing and leading a local church," he also requires a "consensus" (ibid, p. 22, 24, 25, et al): a contradiction of terms. Consensus is "a collective opinion, general agreement" (Funk & Wagnalls Std. Dict.) in which women carry the same force as men in "decision-making" or there is no true consensus. "Consensus" is not found in the scriptures! It fits well in a democracy, but the church is a theocracy where elders are specifically mandated (Acts 14:23; 1 Pt. 5:2, etc.). It is exceedingly strange that his entire pattern is built upon a word that is not found in the scriptures (either specifically or in principle).
What this debate is not about: 1) "Not about feminism"? Though his disclaimer is appreciated, it is futile. I respect that he rejects feminism as such, but his position opens the door to the very evil he denounces. "Consensus" puts women on a par with men in decision-making. If a consensus of women in the majority disagrees with the consensus of men in the minority (which is true in many churches), he has placed the decision of the women over the men. The women may be humble and discreet, but either they have decision-making authority or they do not! If the minority of the men over-ride the decisions of the majority of the women, consensus would be destroyed. But when he allows the decisions of the women to prevail, he has violated 1 Tim. 2:11-15. His pattern has put him on the horns of a dilemma. 2) "It is not about women serving as preachers and bishops?" Again, I respect his disclaimer and join with him in denouncing such as a violation. But as a practical matter, once he opens the gate to decision-making women, it is foolish to think that all will be content with this "increased role" and nothing more. Already, congregations exist where women are leading in public worship. Some allow women to teach mixed classes of men and women "under male leadership" or as "co-teachers." His position, however unwitting, advances women in that direction and cannot logically prohibit it. 3). "Not about whether elders have leadership, oversight, or responsibility in the local church?" But of course it is. His definition of "decision-making" and "consensus" eviscerates Biblical elders. Elders have no oversight in a consensus. Responsibility adheres to those making decisions and since the consensus decision is the congregation's, the responsibility is theirs and not the elders. 4) Addressed in #2 above. 5) No disagreement here.
What this debate is about: The role of elders. Does the scriptural pattern require congregational meetings (including women) every single time there are decisions of judgment to be made? or: Do elders have authority from God to meet privately and make judgment decisions that bind the whole church?
Arguments: 1) Acts 6:1-6. According to Vance it is a sin for private meetings of males to make decisions for the whole church. But look at the text. The apostles 1) privately decided to change previous practices, 2) privately decided to stop serving tables, 3) privately decided to have others serve tables, 4) privately decided that these would be men and not women, 5) privately decided there would be seven of these men, 6) privately decided the qualifications of these seven and 7) privately decided that they would appoint the men and not allow the church to do so. Yes, what the apostles privately decided pleased the whole multitude and they had a role in choosing the men who would serve. The whole church can be, even should be, involved in some congregational actions. Clearly his "pattern" denies the very thing found in Acts 6: private decisions by males that are bound upon the whole congregation. His pattern is not found in Acts 6. It violates the "traditions of the apostles" (2 Thes. 2:15; 3:16).
2) Acts 15:12-27. His "pattern" calls for a congregational decision with no private meetings. Though the action "pleased the whole church" there were private meetings and his pattern fails in the very place he affirms as his "sole pattern." Relating Gal. 2:1-10 to the meeting in Acts 15 will reveal the flaw in his exegesis. Gal. 2 shows that when Paul went to Jerusalem, he met privately (2:2) with "those of repute." Acts 15:2 shows this private meeting to be with "the apostles and elders" who made the decision to give the right hand of fellowship to Paul and Barnabas. After this, they met with the whole church (15:4), then had another private meeting with the apostles and elders (15:6). Again, there is no disagreement with involving the church in the process but his pattern denies the truth of these private meetings where decisions were made. These multiple exceptions to his "sole pattern" show that he has no pattern.
3). 1 Cor. 5:1-5, 11-13. There has never been a problem with involving the whole church in various processes, including discipline, as in this text. The problem is his assertion that no private decisions can be made that bind the whole church to the decision of the few. Read just a few verses beyond ch. 5, into ch. 6:1-5, and we see the very thing he denies. In the matter of brother going to court against brother, Paul admonishes that brethren ought not go to court before the unrighteous, but that there should be a "court of the saints" (vs. 1). He advises that we ought to be able to "judge" by finding at least "one wise man who shall be able to decide between brethren" (vs. 5). Here are "wise men" (would elders qualify?) who make decisions for the whole church in disputes between brethren. Vance's pattern is in tatters!
4) Matt. 18:15-17. He recognizes that discipline is a congregational matter and that it should be done under "male leadership!" Could these males be elders? If Vance could see the contradiction between "male leadership" and "decision-making women," this debate would be over. When the church at Antioch sent relief to the needy brethren in Judea (Acts 11:27-30), they sent it to the "elders" (vs. 30). (What decision did the women make?) When the relief went to the elders, did it not go to the churches? In this case, the elders represented the churches which received the benevolence. If discipline began individually and continued until it came before the church, would it not be before the church under the leadership of the elders? Vance will learn that there are scandalous actions of brethren that do not need to be aired before the "whole church" lest they cause weak brethren and babes to stumble. Yes, the whole church can be involved in discipline but under the leadership of the elders. Your pattern is not supported by Matt. 18.
Questions: 1) Yes, Acts 6, Acts 15, etc., but this does not prohibit private decisions by male leaders. 2). Elders are authorized to make decisions for the church as the passages above prove. If elders cannot make such private decisions, no other group could. But if elders are authorized to do so, in the absence of elders, male leadership prevails, as you yourself propose (1 Tim. 2). 3) Yes. 4) Yes, as seen above. Additionally, in Acts 11:27-30 it is inferred that the elders decided who, how long and how much, etc. 5) No, but this does not rule out an "ekklesia" acting through agency. Examples: 1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 8:23 (messengers of the churches acted on behalf of the church); Acts 11:27-30 (elders received the funds on behalf of the receiving church). 6). No, an unqualified man cannot act as or substitute for an elder. But in the absence of elders, male leadership is authorized (1 Tim. 2:11-15) as you admit. Congregations existed for a time without elders (Acts 13:1ff-Acts 14:23). Male leadership is necessarily inferred.
Questions for Vance: 1) Do you believe Acts 15:22 authorizes voting? 2) Can an "ekklesia" be represented by agency, and if so, is it the same as the ekklesia acting? 3) If the majority of a congregation is women and the women disagree with the minority men concerning a matter of judgment, can the majority rule? 4) How can women be involved in "decision making," remain in subjection, yet overturn the decision of men? 5) Must the entire church be gathered to decide the multitudes of decisions about buying supplies, caring for the needy (including sensitive financial information), hearing complaints between members, investigating scandalous moral actions of members and make every decision about every matter? 6) Is an eldership bound by a consensus even though the entire eldership disagrees with it?
I urge brother Trefethen to abandon his faulty pattern which will only generate strife and stumbling among brethren and to turn his considerable talents to edifying (Eph. 4:29).