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.
Root of the Problem: Eph 4 says elders bring people to "the unity of the faith." But many see elders as a board of directors whose job is balancing a check-book, buying supplies, and managing property. Nothing to do with "faith" at all. If you had to work a full-time job and then run a business after-hours, you wouldn't have time to teach, study, pray or visit much either. This is why you hear so many complaints about preachers doing the work of elders. What a sad waste of the talents of many good men, and what a loss to a congregation.
The work of elders is much more important. They can make the difference between saints falling away or getting to heaven. They are too busy teaching, studying, praying, visiting, rebuking, encouraging, and counseling to privately decide all matters of judgment. The spiritual leaders (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers) in Eph 4:11 lead in "the faith." Do they "make decisions" as they lead? In some limited ways. Evangelists decide how to present a lesson to convert the sinner. Teachers decide what topics to present in class. Do evangelists and teachers privately decide matters of judgment for the church? No, leadership in the faith isn't private decision-making in collective judgment. Why can't we see the same for elders?
A Straw Man: Affirming that elders may "meet privately" is a straw man. Certainly elders can meet privately (James 5, Acts 20, Acts 21). But which of these is a decision in a collective judgment? None. The only example of elders leading a collective judgment is Acts 15:22, where they called "the whole church." The example of Acts 20:7 shows how to eat the Lord's Supper. Acts 15:22 shows how elders lead collective judgment. They stand or fall together.
Boys and Business Meetings. Tom loses all his objections about "women in leadership" by allowing a 13-year-old boy in a business meeting. A boy baptized yesterday is as disqualified from congregational leadership as any woman. A non-leader, under subjection to the head of the family, with no authority over the congregation, can scripturally attend and participate (submissively) in a business meeting to decide things. Think of the dangers! Boys still wet from baptism will try to be preachers and elders, they'll take over the church, reject their fathers' authority and lead all-out rebellion! No, I wouldn't ascribe that to Tom. But if he lets boys participate, he must allow women. And remember, "men do not prohibit women from doing any authorized activity" (TR, 1st Debate, 2N, ¶ 12). If boys can participate, women can too. And if women can participate, men are not authorized to exclude them. And if men cannot exclude women, then Tom's position is wrong.
Book, Chapter, and Verse: Where was the scripture showing any NT church having a men's business meeting? I already knew he believes they're authorized--that wasn't my question. I wanted 1 scripture showing all the males in a meeting deciding congregational judgments. But there is no men's business meeting on any page of the New Testament!
Judgments Become Law: Tom's most disturbing doctrine is that Heb 13:7,17 can be used by elders (and other leaders) to turn any matter of judgment into a matter of faith. In the OT, circumcision was a matter of faith (hence, "involuntary"). We agree it's a personal judgment in the NT. But Tom affirms elders may decide someone needs circumcision today, even though the Bible doesn't command it, and may bind it on him without his consent by Heb 13. God was (rightfully) exercising "lordship" in the most intimate aspects of life when he gave that command in the OT. No other word but "lordship" applies if elders give the same command today.
How Did We Get Here? From the mistaken idea that elders privately decide any personal judgment that might affect the congregation in any way. Tom authorizes forced circumcision, but people don't worry much because circumcision isn't affecting many congregations today. What about dating and marriage? That's a personal judgment (1 Cor 7:25) with many "congregational implications." If a saint judges poorly, he will weaken himself and harm his congregation. I've seen it happen. Can elders make marriage decisions for singles in the flock? If Heb 13 lets them cut your body against your will (because of "congregational implications"), you cannot stop them from choosing your date or mate. And who decides whether something has "congregational implications"? You guessed it the elders, before and without consulting anyone. They decide whether they can decide it, then they decide it, then they bind it on you, then you have to obey or you violate Heb 13. But that's not "lordship"? Please, open your eyes. No one can bind on you any opinion or practice that isn't in the Word (Mk 7:1-7). Heb 13 is about obeying spiritual teachings of hegeomai (leading men). Tom never has shown anything but matters of faith under consideration in the context of Heb 13.
"Look out, Tom!" "Where is the verse that says to the congregation: Exercise the oversight?" (TR, 3A, ¶ 6). It's Acts 6:3. "Look ye out (episkeptomai) among you seven men..." This is the root from which comes episkope, or overseer (Strong, p. 31), and was spoken to the congregation. The "looking out" done by elders is in matters of faith (Eph 4:11-12). The "looking out" done by the Apostles (episkopen, Acts 1:20) was to "visit (episkeptometha) our brethren in every city..." (Acts 15:36). Apostles led in prayer and the Word (Acts 6:4) matters of faith, as taught in Eph 4, just like elders. For collective judgments, they called the multitude (Acts 6:2)
A Moving Target: In 1A, Tom quotes Thayer to prove elders are head of any Christian church. In 2A, he likens elders' authority to fathers, the head of the family. But in 3A, Tom retracts Thayer on headship. It isn't what Tom's position "might lead to" that worries me. What he explicitly says (and then is forced to retract) betrays where he really intends to go with it.
In the first debate, Tom cited Vine to show that the word for "vote" means "general approbation". In 2N, I agreed cheirotoneo ("to create or appoint by vote," Thayer) means "general approbation" in 2 Cor 8:19. But in 3A, Tom says it doesn't mean general approbation. I believe churches make collective judgments by general approbation. Where does Tom stand?
We won't flood any orphans, but even if we did, Tom and I surely agree on how to help them. Tom can see the fallacy of arguing from emergencies when it's on another issue. Establishing authority by emergencies is evidence of the difficulty of sustaining his proposition from the Bible.
Deacons & Details. Yes, deacons handle details like how many loaves to buy but only after being authorized by the multitude to buy bread. Deacons don't just start spending funds "before and without" the congregation's knowledge and consent! Tom never quoted a passage to show they could. And weren't we supposed to be debating elders, not deacons?
Authority of Elders. Jesus expressly prohibited using government as a model for elders (Lk 22:25-26). Kings decide everything for the people (Ecc 8:4). Jesus said spiritual leaders can't act like kings. Worse, we're told elders get equal "application of authority" with other authoritative leaders (3A, ¶ 6). Equal to slave-owners and military officers too? Elders have authority to rebuke sinners. Governments have authority to execute them. Is their authority "equal"? The authority of governments, fathers, slave-owners, and centurions proves nothing about elders. But it does show the dangerous arguments needed to support this proposition.
Who's Running the Show? First debate, we agreed a small group of non-elders deciding things is an unauthorized "rump meeting." But now Tom says, "Yes," a few non-elders may decide things without the elders. But then he said "No" about a few elders deciding anything without the other elders. A few non-elders can decide, but a few elders can't. Confused yet? What if separate small groups make conflicting "decisions"? Who wins? God's way is better: Take action that "pleases the whole multitude" (Acts 6:5) after a congregational assembly.
GOT Shoots Tom in the Foot. Unfortunately, GOT printed an extra article with the first debate, voiding our written agreement about publication "without additional material." Did you notice the indictment of Tom's position in the article? A church got into Feminism when "the elders presented a statement" declaring women would have leading roles (GOT 8/18/94 p. 2). Elders privately decided to have women leaders (which Tom said was a judgment for men to make, 1st debate, 1N, ¶ 5). See the danger of elders privately deciding everything? Abuses don't prove anyone right or wrong. But radical feminism is a serious danger of Tom's position.
By What Authority? Has Tom shown positive Bible authority for his practice?
Command: The closest he came was the command to "oversee." But no lexicon defines episkopeo as "decide judgments for the church," nor could he explain Heb 12:15 with that meaning. He said the "oversight" of elders was just like the oversight of Jesus, but he couldn't explain what matters of judgment Jesus is deciding. There's no command for his practice.
Example: An example must show: 1) elders; 2) meeting privately; 3) making and binding a decision; 4) in collective judgments; 5) without a congregational meeting. Acts 4 doesn't mention elders, and he never responded to the prior agreement of the congregation before collective action (4:32). Acts 6 doesn't mention elders and has a congregational meeting. Acts 9 doesn't mention elders, and the pronouns and antecedents ("disciples," "apostles," "them") refer to action among the apostles, not collective action of the church (his use of pronouns gets 120 baptized in the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:1). In any case, Barnabas showed that Paul should be accepted on the basis of direct revelation (9:27), not human judgment. Acts 13 mentions no elders, and the men were sent by the Holy Spirit (13:4) not collective judgment. Acts 15:6-18 discusses the plan of salvation (not judgment) with the "multitude" (15:12). 15:19-29 contain matters of judgment and included "the whole church" (15:22). Gal 2 has Peter, James and John meeting with Paul to discuss "the gospel," not matters of judgment (Gal 2:2). Even if they had discussed collective judgments, they met without the other (11 or more) apostles and elders, and Tom said 3 out of 14 cannot decide anything. Acts 20 shows elders meeting privately but no collective action was decided. None of Tom's examples has the elements of his proposition.
Necessary Inference: In Acts 11:30, the elders must have privately received the money, must have privately decided its use, must have excluded all the members, must have ignored the Apostles' example of Acts 6. Is this absolutely the only possible inference? No, it's speculation. If it isn't the only possible conclusion, it isn't a necessary inference and can't authorize anything.
Summary. Without command, example, or inference, the proposition fails. And consider:
The Bible: "Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided..." (Acts 15:22)
Tom: "Before and without calling together the whole congregation."
Vance: " 'Head' and 'lord' ...are granted to fathers and forbidden to elders."
Tom: "Vance 'forbids to elders' what God authorizes."
Choose which you will believe, and may God help you make the right choice.