Should business matters of the church be settled by the elders?

Does the procedure followed in Acts 15 throw light on the question, whether business and oversight matters of an assembly?

Should be settled solely by its elders, or whether they should for final decision, come before the entire meeting?

Verses 2 and 6, with Acts 16:4, appear to favour the former view, but verses 4,22, and 23, the latter.

Acts 15:6-29 should certainly prove helpful in this connection; but before we thus use it, let us clear our minds of any thought that the gathering which is described at length in verses 6-29 was an ordinary business or oversight meeting of a local Assembly. It was a conference presided over by apostles, the decisions of which were intended to be binding upon saints and gospel workers everywhere. Paul and Barnabas did NOT come all the way from Antioch to Jerusalem to obtain the views of the Jerusalem church on the questions which had been a cause of disturbance, but to consult with “THE APOSTLES AND ELDERS” (v. 2) regarding them.

And they did this NOT because they had any doubt as to the correctness of what they had been teaching (see Galatians 2:5), but to prevent a schism arising among the churches, which might become the means of rendering much of their work’ in vain” (Galatians 2:2).

Yet widely different though this meeting was from any to which we are accustomed, there is much to be learnt from the wisdom with which the apostles and elders acted in order to bring harmony out of what in verses 2 and 5 seemed to be hopeless discord. Let us note first that there was a manifest desire on the part of all those who were the real leaders to do everything they could to promote the unity of the saints, as well as to maintain “the truth of the gospel.” There was nothing to be seen of the spirit of “I-must-have-it-my-way” amongst them. And let us note further that these leaders were after all, in substantial agreement as to what “the truth of the gospel” was, though each might express it in his own particular fashion.

Moreover, it seems clear from the first clause of verse 7 that the lesser men, among whom were those who thought that circumcision should be imposed on the Gentile converts, were first permitted to say all they had got to say in furtherance of their point of view. Not until then did Peter speak, and remind them of how this work of God among Gentiles had begun; so providing an opening for Paul and Barnabas to relate the story of how it had gone on and increased, and of how the Lord had set His seal upon it. Finally James, the one of all their leaders in whom the saints with Jewish tendencies seem to have had most confidence, signified his agreement with the others, that the Gentile converts should not be brought into bondage, but at the same time suggested that they should go as far as they reasonably could to meet the prejudices of their Hebrew brethren, by abstaining from eating of blood, etc. With this all were in agreement; and from its wording, James appears to have been the one chosen to draft the letter, in which their decision was to be made known to the churches.
With regard to the specific point referred to in the above question, it will be helpful to notice who are the parties named in each of the verses mentioned, and what is there said about them. In verse 2, as already remarked, it was to “the apostles and elders” that the mission
of Paul and Barnabas was directed. In verse 4 a meeting of “the church” was held to welcome them, at which, of course, “the apostles and elders” were present, and at which Paul and Barnabas gave a report of their work among the Gentiles. This account stirred up the Jewish extremists present to protest that converts who were uncircumcised must submit to the rite, so raising the very point that had caused trouble at Anticoh. When verses 5 and 6 are read together, it will be clear that the matter was not allowed to develop or be dealt with at this open meeting; but that “the apostles and elders” came together later, to discuss it more privately; and what took place at that gathering has already been described.

Having come to a decision, verse 22 suggests that they made it known to the rank and file of the saints in Jerusalem, and that these heartily acquiesced in it. For we are told that it pleased “the apostles and elders with the whole church” to send to Antioch the letter and the men that are mentioned in it. As for the superscription of the letter as given in verse 23, the A.V. has it, “The apostles and elders and brethren,” but the R.V. follows the most ancient MSS. in reading, “The apostles and the elder brethren.” The latter is also in keeping with the purpose of the visit of Paul and Barnabas, as stated in verse 2, and with the expression afterwards used about the matter in ch. 16:4.

Thus the order indicated is that questions of importance, or of difficulty, should first be considered by the leaders, and a united decision come to, which should then be communicated to the assembly as a whole. Where things are in a normal or healthy condition, the judgment of the leaders will be assented to by all, and will thus become that of the entire body. And if, as was the case in Ezra 10:15 R.V., one or two “stand up against” their brethren, they will have as little power to hinder as the men there mentioned had. Generally speaking, however, action should not be taken in any matter, until there is substantial agreement among the saints regarding it; and when this is lacking, the Lord should be sought in prayer that it may be brought about. Above all, there should be no thought of settling the affair in the world’s way, by putting it to the vote, in which the young person, brought into the meeting but a few weeks before, would have the same weight as the oldest or wisest present. That would be a complete negation of all godly rule, as set forth mi Timothy and elsewhere.

W.R.