This debate initially appeared in Guardian of Truth magazine in 1994. It is reprinted here with the permission of the authors.
Proposition 2: The Scriptures teach that the elders of a local church are authorized to assemble privately to make decisions in matters of judgment for the local church before and without calling together the whole congregation.
With this affirmative, my part of the debate comes to a close and judgment is passed to the readers. Please consider all the material carefully in the light of the scriptures and render a verdict on the evidence. The full debate, without additional material, is to be printed in book form as per our agreement. No new material should be introduced in the final negative.
My Third Affirmative will establish from Generic Authority that the scriptures permit elders to make decisions in the realm of unstated options (judgments), arising from specific commands.
Generic Authority: Non-class brethren confuse generic authority for specific when they demand specific authority for Bible classes, disallowing generic authority. They, like Vance, do not understand authority. It is axiomatic that every specific command of God to do a thing carries with it the generic authority to perform that command by choosing unstated options: when, how, how much, etc. Generic authority is no less authoritative, deriving its force from God's specifics. Specifics are stated; generics are unstated; both are authorized. Examples abound: 1) Noah used gopher wood (specific) but the tools he used were unstated options (Gen. 4:14-22). Tools, essential to obey the command, were authorized as private judgments. 2) "Sing," is God's specific choice; unstated options (private judgments) are song books, etc. A song leader decides privately which songs to sing, how many, etc. by generic authority. 3) Deacons "serve tables" (specific function), but are allowed unstated options concerning the care of tables: how much, how often, etc. 4) Elders are specifically commanded to "feed," "exercise the oversight," "superintend," and "rule," but generically authorized to make decisions between unstated options: who, how much, how often, etc. Examples: elders have the right to decide when to discipline a member, how much time longsuffering requires, how often gospel meetings should be held, what subjects are needed, how long should the meeting last, etc. Wise elders ask for advice (Prov. 11:14), but they make the final decision. Notice carefully: private decisions by elders in matters of judgment are authorized by both specific, stated authority (affirmatives one and two) and generic, unstated authority. When Vance demands specific authority for each and every unstated option that elders decide (1000's of details), he demands that which cannot be supplied even for congregational decision-making: specific authority for generic options! Deacons could not decide how many loaves of bread to take to a needy family; song leaders could not choose their songs, parents could not decide how raise their children, and elders could not make any decisions about tending the flock. Generic authority gives elders, deacons, husbands, wives, parents, etc. these options!
Answers to Vance's 2nd Negative: The Problem Grows: Eldership oversight no more promotes Boston/Crossroads than it does popery, but women's equal voting (which he has avowed) surely promotes feminism. Vance's indelicate language re: circumcision ("involuntary genital surgery") belittles the Law and accuses Paul and the elders of mutilation (Acts 16:3; Gal. 2:3). But note that a private judgment decision was made! The proposition stands.
An Interesting Debate: Vance accuses that I contradict myself or ignore his arguments. He has been answered but it is needless to respond to quibbles. Space prohibits repetition of my arguments. Please refer to previous affirmatives as well as complete citations of scholars (Thayer, etc.) for accuracy.
The Debate is About: I do not use "head" and "overseer" interchanageably, though some reference works do (i.e., Thayer). Smokescreens will not hide efforts to promote democracy and women's equality instead of eldership oversight.
Authority: Context: Fathers, magistrates and elders have authority in their sphere (Eph. 5:23; Rom. 13:1f; 1 Pet. 5:1-3). Vance allows fathers and magistrates to make decisions but denies it to elders, thus unequal in his application of authority. Scope: Jesus and Authority: Human authority is limited as far, but no farther, than God intended. Wives cannot reject husband's authority; citizens cannot reject government's authority; churches cannot reject elders' authority (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1-3). However tired of it he may be, Vance is branded as denying authority to elders when he gives women equal voting and gives to the congregation the authority that God gives to the elders. It is not congregational oversight (democracy, voting) but eldership oversight! Where is the verse that says to the congregation: "Exercise the oversight?"
Word Study: Presbuteros, Episkopos, Pastor: These words were studied in my first affirmative adequately. Can "overseers" oversee? Evangelists have "authority," but not eldership authority. Non-elders (even bachelors) can watch on behalf of souls (Heb. 12:14-15), but not with the qualifications and appointment of elders. Feed: Can pastors decide matters about feeding the flock? If not, they are figureheads and not pastors. Appoint: Different people are appointed to different tasks (deacons, for example), but elders are appointed to do the work of overseeing. Rule (proistemi): When people learn to "maintain" good works, can they choose unstated options about which good works they maintain (Tit. 3:14-15)? "Rule" allows choice!
"Silent as the tomb" on 1 Tim. 2:11-12: "General approbation" is not "voting." Vance has dodged voting and it's implication to oversight and equality. One person, one vote denies 1 Tim. 2:11-12 and destroys subjection. It proves how far in principle his theory will go.
Hegeomai (leaders, chief men): Heb. 13:7, 17: I responded clearly to his use of "hegeomai" but deny that "men who speak the word" (evangelists) have oversight, as do elders.
Scriptures: (Please compare my 2nd affirmative.) Acts 4:34-37: Verse 35 states, "and laid them at the apostles' feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need" (NKJV). The apostles (males) made decisions about the distribution. Acts 6:1-6: The judgment decision that it would be seven (not six or eight) was made by the apostles before and without the congregation. Only one example is needed to prove my proposition. Acts 9:26-28: Paul assayed to join himself to the "disciples" in Jerusalem and the apostles decided to receive him (apostolic example of deciding for the church). The apostles (12 men) decided not only for 5000 but for disciples of all ages (Phil. 4:9). Acts 11:27-30: I did not attribute "expediently" or "inexpediently" to Thayer, but to the word "rightly." Context decides whether things "done rightly" implies judgment or doctrine. I have cited Acts 11:30 three times where the funds went to the elders (not the congregation) for distribution (judgment decisions). Vance implies they sin if they distribute the funds. Acts 13:1-3: A matter of judgment, not doctrine (when Saul and Barnabas would depart); the Holy Spirit himself used the prophets and teachers (males) as agents for the church in sending them out. Vance ignores that the church acts through agency, contending that the whole church must always be involved 100% of the time. Acts 15:6; 16:4; 21:25; Gal. 2:1-10: Vance has trouble with textual exegesis. There were private meetings in which decisions were made about matters of judgment before and without calling the congregation together. Titus' circumcision was a matter of judgment (1 Cor. 7:19) having the potential of affecting the whole church (Gal. 2:4) in a matter of "liberty." Acts 21:15-26: The elders met with Paul in a private meeting about an explosive judgmental matter that was about to consume the church and Vance says that it has no bearing on the proposition. This meeting was before the congregation met (v. 20, 22), arriving at a decision of private judgment (re: customs, v. 21) to keep the entire church at peace. It describes my proposition.
"Private (not secret)": Vance's use of "secret" regarding elders' meetings implied something sinister or clandestine (other synonyms for secret). They are private in the sense of agency, the part acting for the whole (Acts 11:30). The Ephesian elders' meeting with Paul was private but not "clandestine" (Acts 20:17f). "Vance says they sinned." If sin is not charged, why this debate? His book states my position to be "without divine authority," in violation of "the pattern," etc. Are you agitating brethren about a personal opinion (Rom. 14:13, 22)?
Answers to Clarified 1A Questions: This is imporant. Vance admitted that elders have a right to meet privately, hold secret deliberations, and make decisions before and without calling together the whole congregation, including the women, in matters of faith. A deeper study of the passages in Acts and Galatians will convince him that they also made private decisions in matters of judgment. He has yielded most of his objections, with only one left to be resolved: judgment decisions. These affirmatives prove it: NT elders made choice in judgment matters.
Answers to 2A Questions: 1) The apostles chose 7 men "without" and "before" the assembly and informed the assembly after their judgment decision. 2) Fellowship can be limited in the universal church: 2 John 9-11. If elders sin (1 Tim. 5:19-20) when they make private judgment decisions for the local church, charges should be made against them. That certainly creates a test of fellowship. 3) and 4). He refused to answer! These questions were asked to show inconsistency between doctrine and practice. Paul did that (Rom. 2:1f). Vance is feeling the heat or he would have answered. The consequence of his doctrine demands that he charge elders with sin who practice what he condemns; a divisive doctrine. He has taught others not to participate in that which he practices. 5) If elders must have permission from the congregation every time they make a decision, the congregation is the overseer; they don't need elders. Your threat about emergencies, 100 orphans and the dry church building makes me wonder if you believe the Lord is cruel because he put the care of orphans upon individuals (Ja. 1:27) and not the congregations. The liberals talked about 1 "poor little orphan" on the door step of the building and you talk about 100. Faithful Christians wouldn't have to practice institutionalism to take care of 1 or 100 orphans. How would you handle them?
Questions: 1) Yes. Yes, but with deference to the mature men. 2) Yes, deacons can decide matters of their province (Acts 6:3). 3) No, the eldership should act as a body. 4) The church in Jerusalem had meetings and made decisions under male leadership without the whole church being together (see scripture study, aff. 2). 5) It is not scriptural to vote in the Lord's church. A survey is not a vote, else "polls" might elect the next president instead of the ballot box. No, it is not settled by a survey.
Conclusion: I commend Brother Trefethen for his willingness to debate this issue and a conscientious effort has been made to answer every argument. But a divisive and dangerous doctrine is disturbing the peace and harmony of the Lord's people and should be rejected. Godly women do not seek equality with men. Faithful churches submit to the Lord's plan for eldership oversight. There is little doubt that Vance, because of training and sentiment, will embrace the extremes to which his principle will ultimately lead, but others will do so. He has opened a gate that cannot be closed. May God help us not to reflect the rebellion of our age.