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October 1976 · Vol. 5 No. 4 · pp. 26–28 

Hearing the Word

“Democracy,” “Brotherhood,” and Leadership

John Regehr

Bible study and preaching have largely become the speaking of religious things which we are expected to say and which we expect to hear. And we expect to hear what we already “know.” Thus we “know” that all members should come to church “business” meetings, and so we urge attendance. We “know” that “brotherhood” means “democracy,” and so we expect to hear that a majority vote equals the “will of God.”

But is what we “know” really true? Often it is not. In such cases our knowledge is our greatest hindrance to hearing the Word! Then we must allow the Holy Spirit to smash our “programmed” listening mechanisms so that we hear again as though we had never heard.

For example, what does Scripture say about leadership and decision-making in the church?

STARTING TEXT: Acts 13:1-3

The Antioch church had experienced healthy growth, and the question came: Where do we go from here? Who is asking the questions? Who is fasting and praying? Who seeks the Spirit’s guiding? Who makes the decision? The text says it clearly: The five spiritual leaders in the church. They hear God’s order; they make the decision; they commission the two. Strange that we have read this text for so long and always heard it saying that the entire church fasted, prayed, decided, and commissioned!

ANOTHER TEXT: Acts 6:1-7

We have simply assumed that the entire church was involved in the decision-making process. Now that we are ready to hear it, this text says that the larger membership was involved at three points:

1. A large segment grumbled and drew the problem to the attention of the apostles.

2. The larger body endorsed the decision when it had been made.

3. They were involved in the selection of the leadership team.

The rest of the decision-making was done by the apostles, who decided that the apostles would relinquish a portion of their responsibility, that seven men with specific qualities were to be selected, that in the division of labor the apostles would do the Word ministries and the seven would do the personal caring.

Only after they had mapped out the procedure did they call the “body of {27} the disciples” together. Strange how our “democratic grid” has conditioned our reading of the text so that we could find endorsement for our practice. We have tried to translate the brotherhood of the small believers’ groups (house church) into the larger congregation, and the best we could coax into growth was a kind of hybrid democracy. But we retained the term “brotherhood” and thought we were biblical.


Over the years I have heard “democracy” references made to this text. It was said that the Antioch church sent “representatives” to Jerusalem, and that in Jerusalem the entire church was assembled to discuss the issue. The event, it was said, was a prime example of “brotherhood” at work—brotherhood understood in terms of our churches’ business meetings or conferences. Again, our pre-set grid has filtered out key factors of the text.

What was it that the larger membership of Antioch and Jerusalem did? In Antioch the church body was becoming confused by the divergent preachers from Jerusalem, so they complained and told the leadership to get this thing clarified. They did not want to be the victims of ambivalence among the leaders. Not the entire church membership, but Paul and Barnabas, the key shepherds, took up the debate with the divergent Jerusalem teachers. It was they, together with a few others, who were appointed and sent to Jerusalem. It is not clear if the appointment was by the leadership as in chapter 13:1-3 or by the entire congregation. But that it was the leaders who were sent can certainly be assumed.

In Jerusalem it was the apostles and elders who met to discuss the questions (vv. 3, 6), although the guests from Antioch were permitted to greet the entire church and share with them the work of God in their city (v. 4). The Jerusalem church then endorsed the arrangement of their leaders. They may have been involved in the selection of the two men who were to accompany those from Antioch (v. 22).

This Conference in Jerusalem was not set up as are ours. It was not representatives of the church who met, but the spiritual leadership. They had the authority to make decisions, not merely to make recommendations which the church body was then free to accept or reject. And when the issue had been settled, the church in Antioch as a body heard the report and the letter and they gave full and joyful agreement to what the leadership had done (vv. 30-31)!


In two specific areas, it seems to me, we will have to make corrective moves if we wish to bring our church policy into harmony with the Scriptures.

1. The local congregations will need to re-discover that “brotherhood” is the carrying of one another’s burdens, being members to each other in matters of gifts and needs. Brotherhood is not to be understood as the democratic process at work in the church.

The spiritual leadership of the local congregations will need to be clarified and established (see also Eph. 4:11-12). There is such a thing as a gift of {28} administration to be sure (see 1 Cor. 12:28 and Rom. 12:8, where “giving aid” may mean “being out in front”). But the leadership of the church is tied tightly to the ministries of teaching and personal caring. It is this leadership group which is in touch with truth and people and is responsible for direction and nurture.

The danger, of course, will be that we simply carry the democratic principle into this leadership body. The way of the Spirit is not majority rule. He works toward a unity of mind. In such a leadership group an issue can be talked through until each person has been taken seriously and the group finds one way together. If one member is stubborn and closed, it is he who becomes an agenda item before the other issue can be resumed and completed.

2. Our conference structure must be rethought. If it is representatives we send, then they are responsible to us, and they must seek to move the decisions in the direction we want. This already violates the Spirit of Christ. On the other hand, if we send those spiritual leaders who can be entrusted to make decisions, then we must allow them to make decisions. Of course, the group will have to be of such a size that the issues can be “talked through” until there is unity of mind.

The end to which democracy has gone with us in our churches and at the conference level shows up when crucial issues are referred back to the church or churches to make sure we have a total majority vote. Of course, on really large issues, we insist on 75 percent, but raising the percentage does not guarantee the correctness of the procedure.

Dr. John Regehr is Associate Professor of Practical Theology at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and is Consulting Editor for Direction.

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