Elder Led Congregational Consensus


The Premise

In addition to roles traditionally assigned to church leaders (teaching, management, counseling, disciple making, evangelism visiting the sick, etc.), an essential function of first century pastors/elders/overseers was to build congregational consensus.


The Purpose

The mind of Christ is more likely found when the leaders guide the whole congregation to wrestle corporately with major decisions. Church members are encouraged and fulfilled as they realize that everyone’s thoughts and input are important. Unity is strengthened. The Spirit is given free rein to guide the church. The leadership’s role in this process includes helping build consensus by teaching what Scripture says on various issues, privately talking with each church member about decisions, appealing to those who differ and — after much persuasion — calling on any dissenting minority to yield to the elders and the rest of the congregation.


The Proof

In Hebrews 13:17, believers are encouraged to “obey” church leaders.  The common Greek word for obey is used with reference to children obeying their parents and slaves their masters (Ep 6:1, 5).[1] Significantly, the Greek behind obey in Hebrews 13:17 is not the usual word. Instead, peitho is used, which the lexicon fundamentally defines as persuade or convince.[2] Paul McReynolds’ literal interlinear renders peitho in Hebrews 13:17 as “persuade.”[3] Used in Hebrews 13:17 in the middle/passive form, it carried the idea of “let yourselves be persuaded by” your leaders. The expositor Vine notes that peitho means “to persuade, to win over to, to listen to, to obey. The obedience suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion.”[4] The point to be observed is that mindless obedience is not what is pictured in Hebrews 13:17.


This same verse also instructs believers to “submit” to their church leaders. However, the common Greek word for “submit” is not found here.  Instead, hupeiko was chosen by the author, a word that does indeed mean to give in or to yield, but after a fight. It was used of combatants.[5]  The nuance of hupeiko is not a structure to which one automatically submits (like submission to civil government). Rather, it is submission after a process, struggle or even battle has occurred. Submission does occur, but the picture is one of serious discussion and dialog prior to one party giving way.


Mindless slave-like obedience is not the relationship presented in the New Testament between leaders and those led. God’s flock is to be open to being persuaded by (peitho) its shepherds.  In the course of on-going discussion and teaching the church is to be open to being convinced by its leaders. However, there will be those times when someone, or some few, in the fellowship can’t be persuaded of something.  An impasse will arise. After much persuasion and prayer, dissenters are called upon to give in to, to yield to (hupeiko), the wisdom of the church’s leaders. Even this submission, however, is to come after dialogue, discussion and reasoning. Thus, in the final analysis, churches are to be elder led more so than elder ruled. Elder led congregational consensus would seem to be the New Testament ideal.


Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary states that the English word church can be used to refer to either the meeting of God’s people or to the special building in which they meet.[6] In contrast, the Greek word ekklésia never refers to a building or place of worship, and it can refer to much more than just a meeting, assembly, or gathering.  Our understanding of Christ’s church will be much impoverished if we fail to factor in the dynamics of the original Greek word. With so much emphasis today on the separation of church and state, the last thing people associate church with is government. Yet, this was exactly the original meaning of ekklésia.


During the time of Jesus, ekklésia was used outside the New Testament to refer to a political assembly that was regularly convened for the purpose of making decisions.[7]According to Thayer it was “an assembly of the people convened at the public place of council for the purpose of deliberation.”[8] Bauer’s lexicon defines ekklésia as an “assembly of a regularly summoned political body.”[9] Lothan Coenen, writing for The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, noted that ekklésia was “clearly characterized as a political phenomenon, repeated according to certain rules and within a certain framework.  It was the assembly of full citizens, functionally rooted in the constitution of the democracy, an assembly in which fundamental political and judicial decisions were taken . . . the word ekklésia, throughout the Greek and Hellenistic areas, always retained its reference to the assembly of the polis.”  In the secular ekklésia, every citizen had “the right to speak and to propose matters for discussion.”[10]


Why did Jesus choose such a politically loaded word (ekklésia) to describe His people and their meetings?[11] Had Jesus merely wanted to describe a gathering with political connotations, he could have used sunagogé, thiasos or eranos. Perhaps Jesus intended His people, the Church, to function together with a purpose somehow parallel to that of the political government. If so, believers have the responsibility to propose matters for discussion, decide things together, make joint decisions and experience the consensus process.


God’s people have a decision-making mandate. A church is fundamentally a body of Kingdom citizens who are authorized (and expected) to weigh major issues, make decisions, and pass judgments on major issues. Though decision making will not occur at most church meetings (there aren’t usually issues to resolve), an understanding that the church corporately has the authority and obligation to settle things is important.


There are many examples in the New Testament of God’s people making decisions as a body. For instance, after promising to build His ekklésia on the rock of Peter’s revealed confession, Jesus immediately spoke of the keys of the kingdom of heaven and of binding and loosing (Mt 16:13-20). Keys represent the ability to open and to close something, kingdom is a political term, and binding and loosing involves the authority to make decisions. Then, in Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus said that the ekklésia (18:17) is obligated to render a verdict regarding a brother’s alleged sin, and once again, binding and loosing authority is conferred upon the whole ekklésia.. The same obligation was expressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5.


In Acts 1:15-26, Peter charged the Jerusalem church as a whole with finding a replacement for Judas. Later, the apostles looked to the church corporately to pick men to administer the church’s food program (Ac 6:1-6). Acts 14:23 allows for the possibility that churches, under the oversight of the apostles, elected their own elders.[12] During the circumcision controversy, the church of Antioch decided to send to Jerusalem for arbitration, and amazingly the whole church in Jerusalem was in on the resolution of the conflict (Ac 15:4, 12, 22).


Our responsibility as believers within Christ’s ekklésia is to correctly apply and enforce the law of Christ as contained in the New Covenant (Mt 18:15-20). Church members are to be like citizen-judiciaries who meet together when necessary to deliberate and decide issues or to render judgments. This form of government works tolerably well in a smaller church where people love each other enough to work through their disagreements.[13] It is virtually impossible to operate this way in a large church setting.


The Provision

It is important to remember that the process a church goes through in achieving consensus may be just as important as the consensus that is finally achieved. Consensus governing takes time, commitment, mutual-edification, and lots of brotherly love. It truly can work in smaller churches, such as were found in the New Testament era.  We must love each other enough to put up with each other. The concept behind consensus might be called government by unity, oneness, harmony, or mutual agreement. Do we really trust in the Holy Spirit to work in our lives and churches?


Lest achieving consensus seem too utopian, consider what the Lord has done to help His people. First, our Lord Himself prayed for His church “that they may be one as we are one . . . My prayer is . . . that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you . . . May they be brought into complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn 17:11, 20-23). Since Jesus prayed this for us, unity is certainly achievable.


Another provision God made for our unity lies in the Lord’s Supper. According to 1 Corinthians 10:17, “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”  Partaking of the Lord’s Supper not only pictures unity, it can even create it.


Finally, Christ gave leaders to the church (such as pastor-teachers) for a purpose: “until we all reach unity in the faith” (Ep 4:11-13).  One reason Christ give the church such leaders is to help the church achieve unity in the faith.


The Proposition

The church as a whole may be compared to a senate, with the authority to make decisions and render judgments that are binding on its members. A church leader is a senator also, but one who is on a special committee whose purpose is to study issues, make recommendations, teach, inform, or prompt. All leaders are senator-servants to the whole senate (church). Normally, a leader is not to make decisions on behalf of the church, preempting the consensus process. However, when the senate finds itself in grid-lock, unable to resolve an issue, the elders serve as predetermined arbitrators, or tie breakers. In these instances, those in opposition are called upon to “submit” to the elders’ leadership and wisdom (Heb 13:17). The general idea is church polity by elder-led congregational consensus. 


—    Steve Atkerson

Revised 04/22/14

[1] hupakouo

[2] Bauer, 639.

[3] Paul McReynolds, Word Study Greek-English New Testament (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale Publishers, 1999), p. 819.

[4] W.E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Iowa Falls, IA: Riverside Book and Bible House, 1952), 124.

[5] Joseph Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Radips, MI:  Baker Book House, 1981), p. 638.

[6] Henry Woolf, ed., Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriman, 1973), p. 200.

[7] Within the Scriptures, ekklésia was also used to simply refer a gathering (of Israel or the church), to the church as the totality of Christians living in one place and to the universal church to which all believers belong.

[8] Joseph Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977), 196.

[9] Baurer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 240.

[10] Lothan Coenen, “Church,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 1, Colin Brown, General Editor (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1971), 291.

[11] Matthew 16:13-20 & 18:15-20.

[12] “Paul and Barnabas had elders elected” (footnoted alternative translation, NIV).

[13]  Since the early church met in the private homes of its wealthier members, each congregation was necessarily smaller rather than larger (scores of people rather than hundreds or thousands).