Building Congregational Consensus
by Steve Atkerson
In addition to roles traditionally assigned to church leaders (teaching, management, counseling, evangelism visiting the sick, etc.), an essential function of first century pastors/elders/overseers was to build congregational consensus.
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.
Church government is one area of early church practice where there is no scholarly agreement. For instance, G.W. Kirby, lecturer in practical theology at London Bible College, opined that “The NT does not lay down precise rules either as to the form of ministry or of government of the Church. Over the centuries several different theories of church government have emerged each of which claims some scriptural basis.”
Yale church historian Williston Walker concluded, “No question in church history has been more darkened by controversy than that of the origin and development of church officers, and none is more difficult, owing to the scantiness of the evidence that has survived.”
There are, however, some general conclusions that have been reached. For instance, many agree with John Calvin’s statement, “In giving the name bishops, presbyters, and pastors, indiscriminately to those who govern churches, I have done it on the authority of Scripture, which uses the words as synonymous.”
Commenting on the general nature of early church polity, Donald Guthrie observed, “These early communities displayed a remarkable virility, which was a particular characteristic of that age. The churches were living organisms rather than organizations. The promptings of the Spirit were more important than ecclesiastical edicts or Episcopal pronouncements. When decisions were made, they were made by the whole company of believers, not simply by the officials . . . It would be a mistake, nevertheless, to suppose because of this that the church was run on democratic lines. The Acts record makes unmistakably clear that the dominating factor was the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
Guthrie further said that “Any examination of Paul’s view of the leadership within the Christian community must begin from his basic idea that the church is a body of which Christ is the head. No authority structure is possible without the supreme authority being vested in Christ Himself. Moreover, even here the authority must be understood as organic and not organizational . . . it is the most intimate kind of authority . . . Any officials who are mentioned must be regarded as exercising their various functions under the direction of the head . . . . Although the Christian church is not a democracy, neither is it an autocracy. Indeed the one instance mentioned in the NT where one man sought to lord it over the community is regarded with strong disfavor (3 John 9-10). The NT idea of the church is a community in which Christ, not man, is the head (Col. 1:18; Eph. 1:22). It is theocratic, not democratic. Its sense of law and order is dominated by God’s will (cf. 1 Cor. 5:3-5) . . .”
Regardless of which type of church polity the New Testament actually teaches, a critical function of leaders is to build congregational consensus in matters of importance. We argue that early church polity was a combination of elder rule and congregational consensus following Christ as the Head.
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). 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. (Other examples of peitho can be found in Luke 16:31, Acts 17:4 and 21:14). Paul McReynolds’ literal interlinear renders peitho in Hebrews 13:17 as “persuade.” Used in Hebrews 13:17 in the middle/passive form, it carries the idea of “let yourselves be persuaded by” your leaders. Certainly, when someone is persuaded of something, he will act on it, or “obey” it (Ro 2:8, Ga 5:7, Ja 3:3). 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.” 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 still does mean to give in or to yield, but after a fight. It was used of combatants. The idea behind hupeiko is seen in Southern General Robert E. Lee’s letter to his troops concerning their surrender at Appomadox: “After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources” (italics mine). 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 a meeting of God’s people or to the special building in which they meet. 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. According to Thayer’s lexicon it was “an assembly of the people convened at the public place of council for the purpose of deliberation.” Bauer’s lexicon defines ekklésia as an “assembly of a regularly summoned political body.” 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.”
This secular usage can be illustrated from within the Bible as well. The Acts 19 occurrences of ekklésia are translated “assembly,” “legal assembly,” and “assembly” rather than “church”. Two of the occurrences refer to a meeting of craftsmen convened by Demetrius to discuss how to stop the apostle Paul. Luke chose ekklésia to describe this gathering of silver craftsmen and those in related trades). The trade union rushed into the theater (where Ephesian civic decisions were made) to decide what to do about a damaged reputation and lost business. As it turned out, they overstepped their jurisdiction, so the town clerk counseled that the matter be settled by the “legal” ekklésia (rather than by the trade union ekklésia, Ac 19:37-39).
Why did Jesus choose such a politically loaded word (ekklésia) to describe His people and their meetings? 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. Churches where the congregation never grapples corporately with problems or resolves issues may be failing to fulfill their full purpose as an ekklésia.
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. Leaders were not even mentioned in the process. The same obligation was expressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 and again no leaders were mentioned in the process.
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. 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).
An important caveat is that the church, in its decision making role, should be judicial rather than legislative. Christians are subject to the Law of Christ. The church’s job is not to create law – only God can rightly do that. This is one point where the ekklésia of God’s people would differ in function from the ekklésia of the Greek city-states. 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. It is virtually impossible to operate this way in a large church setting.
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.” Evidently, properly partaking of the one loaf during the Lord’s Supper not only pictures unity, it can even create it.
Finally, as already mentioned above, Christ gave various ministry and leadership gifts to the church (such as pastor-teachers) for a purpose: “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ep 4:11-13). One reason Christ give the church such leaders is to help the church achieve the unity of consensus.
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).
What we have argued for might also be compared to government by a parliamentary monarchy. King Jesus is our Monarch. The church is His consensus-based Parliament. Every church member is a Member of Parliament (in the House of Commons). The elders are also Members of Parliament, but serve as party whips with policing roles. (Remember, of course, that any analogy breaks down if pressed too far!) The general idea is church polity by elder-led congregational consensus. This consensus building process works best in a smaller church. It is not suited to a large congregation.
Are decisions to be made by consensus or majority vote? Let’s first consider what is implied in those two options. The word “consensus” means general agreement, representative trend or opinion. It is related to the word “consent” or “consensual.” In contrast, majority rule can be a 51% dictatorship for the 49% who didn’t agree, and this certainly works against unity. Consensus, however, seeks to build unity. Would God have His church make decisions based on consensus or majority rule? Consider the following biblical texts as you and I reach a consensus on this issue:
“How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity” (Ps 133:1).
“I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1Co 1:10).
“Consequently, you are . . . members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Ep 2:19-22).
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit - just as you were called to one hope when you were called - one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ep 4:3-6).
“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (Php 2:1-2).
“. . . clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col 3:12-15).
Most of the process of building consensus will not occur during a church meeting. Instead, it will go on during the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper, in midweek visits, over lunch, via casual phone conversations, by e-mail, etc. Of course the leaders will bring teachings that are relevant to the issue under consideration. The majority of the deliberation, however, will take place one on one, brother to brother. To bring church members into agreement with one another takes time, patience, humility and gentleness.
Not all occurrences of the word ekklésia in the New Testament involve a decision making body. The word ekklésia is actually used several different ways in the New Testament. Yet its most fundamental usage remains that of a group of people gathered for the purpose of making decisions. In this sense, the ekklésia is not merely the coming together of God’s people. It is also what occurs when God’s people come together. The church is authorized by the Lord to make decisions about the correct application of Scripture. It is expected to enforce the law of Christ (within the family of God) and to deal with issues as they arise. There will not always be issues to resolve, but God’s people must ever bear in mind their obligation to function as an ekklésia when necessary.
In its human organization, the church is not supposed to be a pyramid with power concentrated at the top in either one man or a few. Decisions are not to be made behind closed doors and then handed down from on high for the church to follow. The church is rather like the senate or a congress that deliberates upon, and decides, issues as an assembly. The church’s leaders are to facilitate this process and to serve the church by providing needed teaching and advice, but they are not the church’s lords.
There are limits to what a local church, as a decision-making body, should decide. Certain topics are out of bounds, off-limits, category errors. For instance, no local church has license to redefine the historic Christian faith. Some things are simply not open for debate. Each ekklésia is to operate within the bounds of orthodoxy. The elders are to rule out of bounds the consideration of harmful and heretical ideas (1Ti 1:3).This is because the church at large today, and throughout time past, already has consensus on certain fundamental interpretations of Scripture (such as the inspiration of Scripture, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the Gospel message, the Trinity, the future bodily return of Jesus, etc.). The Holy Spirit has not failed in His mission of guiding the church into all truth (Jn 16:13).
 G.W. Kirby, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), p. 854.
 Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1970), p. 39.
 Henry Theissen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963), p. 419. Arguably, the New Testament uses the terms elder and overseer (or bishop) interchangeably and without any hierarchical ranking (Ac 20:17, 28, Titus 1:5-7, 1Pe 5:1-3). Today’s more commonly used title of pastor is infrequent in New Testament writings, but does appear in verb form several times in description of the ministry of elders/overseers.
 Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), p. 741.
 Guthrie, p. 760 & 946.
 Bauer, 639.
 Paul McReynolds, Word Study Greek-English New Testament (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale Publishers, 1999), p. 819.
 W.E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Iowa Falls, IA: Riverside Book and Bible House, 1952), 124.
 Joseph Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Radips, MI: Baker Book House, 1981), p. 638.
 Henry Woolf, ed., Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriman, 1973), p. 200.
 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.
 Joseph Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977), 196.
 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.
 Lothan Coenen, “Church,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 1, Colin Brown, General Editor (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1971), 291.
 Acts 19:32, 39, 41 in the NIV.
 Though there was so much confusion the majority did not know why they had been summoned.
 Matthew 16:13-20 & 18:15-20.
 “Paul and Barnabas had elders elected” (footnoted alternative translation, NIV).
 1 Corinthians 9:21 & Galatians 6:2.
 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).
Consensus Group Discussion Notes
Married since 1983, Steve Atkerson and his wife Sandra have three children, two in college and one married, and two grandchilren. A graduate of Georgia Tech, Steve worked for several years in electronics before enrolling in seminary. While there he served on the part-time staff of a 14,000 member Baptist church. After receiving an M. Div. from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, he ministered on the pastoral staff of a Southern Baptist Church in Atlanta with a membership of around 1000. Then in 1990, after seven years in the traditional pastorate, he resigned to begin working with churches that desire to follow apostolic traditions in their church practice. He thus has transitioned all the way from mega churches to much smaller churches. He travels and teaches about the practice of the early church as the Lord opens doors of opportunity. Steve is an elder at a local house church, is president of NTRF, edited Toward A House Church Theology, authored both The Practice of the Early Church: A Theological Workbook and The Equipping Manual, and is editor of and a contributing author to both Ekklesia and House Church: Simple, Strategic, Scriptural.