The Biblical Basis for Congregational Voting

Where in the Bible does it talk about church voting? Many Christians view the practice as an extra-biblical tradition created to reflect the democratic values of America rather than being derived from scriptural exegesis. But there is both explicit and implicit evidence from Scripture to support the practice in the local church. While not every decision in the church has to be decided by congregational voting (I’m not a fan of long business meetings and shepherds have an obligation to lead the sheep), major decisions involving church discipline must involve the decision of the entire congregation in order to be faithful to Scripture.

In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul urges the Corinthian church to excommunicate and remove from its membership a professing Christian who was having sexual relations with his father’s wife. In 2 Corinthians 2:6, we see that the church followed Paul’s instructions and now this person has repented of their sins: “For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough.” The phrase “punishment by the majority” is an allusion to the majority decision within the church to remove this sinning member from the membership. A majority decision presupposes a means by which to determine whether or not a majority of the Corinthian church is in agreement with Paul’s instructions. It is true that the church didn’t have much of a choice in the matter because Paul is an apostle, but a decision still had to be made. Even apostolic authority does not override the necessity of a congregational decision on whether or not to exercise church discipline. This is in keeping with the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 18:17: “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” The truth that the entire church is the last and final stage of church discipline makes necessary a means by which to determine whether or not the entire church is in agreement with the decision to remove the person from membership. Church voting provides the only means by which to assess the decisions of the members of the congregation. Because they are the ones who voted him in, they must be the ones to vote him out.

Church discipline at its terminal stage involves the decision to remove from church membership a professing Christian because of their unrepentant sin. The purpose of church discipline is to see people turn and repent of their sins. Church discipline is for their good, not to intentionally shame them. It is a loving act to confront professing Christians over their sin (Psa 141:5). If a person is unrepentant and gives no outward evidence of being a Christian, they must be removed from the church because the church is composed of only those who are regenerate (1 Cor 1:2). This is one reason why paedobaptistic churches have a hard time exercising church discipline because the membership of the church is composed of both believers and their unbelieving children, many of whom later reject the faith. Of course, the children of Baptist parents can also reject the faith, but no one should be admitted into membership who does not give clear evidence of conversion and testifies to Christ’s lordship over their life. In one case, every child is a member; while in the other, only children who profess faith in Christ can become members.

While Acts 15 is used to justify every structure of church government in existence, what we see here is a gathering of the Jerusalem church together with the apostles. Even though the apostles were present, verse 22 says that “the whole church” was involved in the decision to commission Judas and Silas to go with Paul and Barnabas. A decision by the whole church must have involved a vote of some sort. Another passage related to this question is Acts 6:3-6 which describes the appointment of the first deacons which is done by the entire church who choose for themselves those whom God has already chosen. The involvement of the church in choosing deacons also presupposes a means by which the entire congregation can agree on who should serve in this office. I can think of no other method but church voting that gives the entire congregation a say in who should serve as deacons. 2 Corinthians 8:19 is an interesting text because it describes the decisions of multiple churches to appoint a missionary to travel with Paul. The Greek term that is used is cheirotoneō which etymologically means to choose by a showing of hands. This word is used in Greek literature to describe the act of voting. While I would not base a case for church voting based on this single word, I don’t think Paul would have chosen to use this term if church voting was a foreign concept to him.

A strong historical argument can also be made for congregational voting. The practice is referred to in: Didache 15:1, Ignatius to the Philadelphians 10:1, and Cyprian’s 67th epistle. The historical events surrounding 1 Clement, a letter written around 95 A.D., would have been impossible without church voting. In 1 Clement, the elders of the church in Rome write to the church in Corinth because the Corinthian church had deposed their elders and appointed new ones to take their place. Paul warned about this in 2 Timothy 4:3: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” Such a situation assumes church voting and congregational rule (deacon rule is not the same as congregational rule despite what many Baptist churches think).

Congregationalism serves as a safeguard against false teachers so that the true sheep of Christ can remove false teachers and install those who speak the truth (John 10:27). The conservative resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention would not of happened without congregational church government and voting at the yearly Southern Baptist Convention. That is also why expecting a conservative resurgence in the PC(USA), Episcopal Church, and Methodist Church is next to impossible because the individual churches within the denomination do not choose the leaders of the denomination. Hence, Christ’s sheep have no other choice but to leave.

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