Acts: The church discerns leadership and direction together

How do we pick our leaders?  The bible isn’t entirely explicit on the topic.  There are a few examples and indications scattered throughout scripture. 

The first example is Judas’ replacement chosen in Acts 1.  I’m thinking that was a pretty unique circumstance.  Although I’ve heard of some churches using lots to choose elders and it worked out pretty well.  The churches in question discerned who might be qualified for eldership by picking people who had strong character and in particular humble.  They through all their “names in a hat” and picked their next elder.

There are other examples in Acts involving Paul, his appointment to ministry and the appointment of elders in the churches.  Based on these examples I see pattern develop.  The church sought the direction of their ultimate authority and it was discerned mutually.  It was important for people with different strengths and different gifts to come together in the discernment process.  While there is nothing to indicate that the church voted to make decisions people depended on each other in the process.

In Acts 13 Paul is back on the scene.

Act 13:1  Now there were these prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius the Cyrenian, Manaen (a close friend of Herod the tetrarch from childhood ) and Saul.
Act 13:2  While they were serving the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them."
Act 13:3  Then, after they had fasted and prayed and placed their hands on them, they sent them off.

There are a couple things I noticed about this passage.

  • Luke starts out by mentioning the people involved in the process were prophets and teachers.  I found that interesting because a) there are no apostles b) prophets and teachers have traditionally been at odds with each other.  I have charismatic/prophetic leanings but I’m often dismayed by the lack of good foundational teaching among the people who have similar leanings.  Similarly I’ve been around teachers who couldn’t express an opinion without footnoting someone else let alone be led by faith.  Could it be that these giftings and strengths need to be properly held together in Christ to accurately discern God’s direction?
  • The people were not seeking an answer from the Lord or asking Him to bless their vision or project they were simply “serving the Lord.” 
  • They make it clear who was doing the appointing: The Holy Spirit
  • The implication is that was a group of peers seeking the Lord together, not the head of a hierarchy
  • Then they were sent.
  • In verse 13:2 “set apart” has been translated “appoint” (CEV) or “dedicate” (NLT)

At the end of Paul’s first journey we see this.

Act 14:21  After they had proclaimed the good news in that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, to Iconium, and to Antioch.
Act 14:22  They strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, "We must enter the kingdom of God through many persecutions."
Act 14:23  When they had appointed elders for them in the various churches, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the protection of the Lord in whom they had believed.

Those who favour a more hierarchical view of church leadership often point to the Paul’s practice of appointing elders.  He also instructed Titus to do so (Tit 1:5).  I believe the same process that the church used to appoint Paul and Barnabas was being used here.  If they relied on the Holy Spirit to guide them before I imagine they would do it again.

It is also interesting to note the word translated “appointed” is cheirotoneo?. 

Thayer’s Lexicon has the following

1) to vote by stretching out the hand
2) to create or appoint by vote: one to have charge of some office or duty
3) to elect, create, appoint

Vine’s has the following

primarily used of voting in the Athenian legislative assembly and meaning "to stretch forth the hands" (cheir, "the hand," teino, "to stretch"), is not to be taken in its literal sense; it could not be so taken in its compound procheirotoneo, "to choose before," since it is said of God, Act_10:41. Cheirotoneo is said of "the appointment" of elders by apostolic missionaries in the various churches which they revisited, Act_14:23, RV, "had appointed," i.e., by the recognition of those who had been manifesting themselves as gifted of God to discharge the functions of elders (see No. 2). It is also said of those who were "appointed" (not by voting, but with general approbation) by the churches in Greece to accompany the apostle in conveying their gifts to the poor saints in Judea,

There is nothing in the meaning of cheirotoneo? that conflicts with the kind of Spirit led discernment we observed with Paul and Barnabas in Antioch.  The assumption here is that Paul would have discerned with the church who had already emerged as elders in the church and confirmed it. 

This word is also used in 2Cor 8:19 to indicate a communal or community discernment.  The churches (plural) had chosen this particular brother as a travelling companion.

2Co 8:16  But thanks be to God who put in the heart of Titus the same devotion I have for you,
2Co 8:17  because he not only accepted our request, but since he was very eager, he is coming to you of his own accord.
2Co 8:18  And we are sending along with him the brother who is praised by all the churches for his work in spreading the gospel.
2Co 8:19  In addition, this brother has also been chosen by the churches as our traveling companion as we administer this generous gift to the glory of the Lord himself and to show our readiness to help.

We also see the church discerning together in Acts 15.  People had come up from Judea and were introducing some destructive teaching.  The issue was so important that the church appointed a delegation to go to Jerusalem to settle the matter.

Act 15:1  Now some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."
Act 15:2  When Paul and Barnabas had a major argument and debate with them, the church appointed Paul and Barnabas and some others from among them to go up to meet with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this point of disagreement.

At this point Paul is clearly an Apostle but it was the church in Antioch that appointed him to go to Jerusalem.  The pattern seems to indicate that God leads and directs through the whole church.  It is clear from Paul’s epistles that he had a lot of authority to establish proper teaching but even he could be appointed by a church to carry out a task.  The pattern I see is that ultimately the Holy Spirit is the authority but different people have different gifts and different roles to play in discerning God’s direction.  They all need to be working together to accurately hear God.  If someone appoints themselves as the one through whom all direction flows they are cutting out many necessary people from the discernment process.