When May a Congregation Vote Against its Elders?


For some readers, the question posed by the title of this article is an absurdity or impossibility. Their congregation either never votes or only votes against the elders if it intends to remove them, per Paul’s guidelines in 1 Timothy 5:19–21.

However, if you are in an elder-led, congregationally-governed church, then the question posed by the title really matters. And answering it requires us to think about what a congregational vote really means.

Below is the substance of a memo I wrote on behalf of our church’s elders to answer this question. The memo was intended to help us reach agreement so we could lead the congregation. I hope and pray it is of use to you as well.

Mining Scripture

Let me begin with three assumptions:

First, the job of the church is to protect the integrity of the good news. From the beginning of Jesus’s teaching on the church in Matthew 16, this job of protecting has always involved both the “what” and “who” of the gospel—defining the gospel we profess and identifying who credibly makes a gospel profession.[1]

Second, it is the job of the church to preserve the integrity of the good news so it can be passed on to future believers (2 Tim. 2:2, 1 Tim. 3:15, Eph. 4:12–14).

Third, there are overlapping jurisdictions in the church: the authority of the congregation (Gal. 1:6–8, 1 Cor. 5:1–13, Matt. 18:15–20) and the authority of the elders (Heb. 13:17). All three passages concerning congregational authority pertain to situations when the “what” and “who” of the gospel was threatened; Hebrews 13:17 appears to pertain to normal church life.

Jonathan Leeman has made the following suggestions for reconciling congregational and elder authority:

  1. The congregation should generally trust the elders to recommend a course of action.
  2. The more a form or circumstance impinges on the teaching ministry of the church, the more the elders should feel responsible to make decisions; the less it does, the more they should delegate.
  3. The more a form impacts church unity, the more elders should incline toward involving the whole congregation in the decision.[2]

A significant responsibility of elder authority is guiding the congregation in exercising its authority. In that sense, the authority of elders exists inside the authority of the congregation. Normally, the congregation follows the lead of the elders. But Galatians 1, 1 Corinthians 5, and Matthew 18 show that ultimate responsibility under Christ for biblical fidelity in protecting and preserving the “what” and “who” of the gospel rests with the congregation.

How Then Should We Vote?

I would propose the following principle to summarize these strands of biblical teaching: the congregation should assert its authority when the who/what of the gospel is threatened and when the church’s ability to preserve the who/what of the gospel is threatened.

For example, if the elders propose removing the article from our statement of faith that declares we believe the Scriptures to be the inerrant Word of God, though the gospel itself is not being denied, the congregation should rise up and act because the church’s ability to preserve that gospel is now being seriously threatened.

Losing biblical clarity on the who/what of the good news is the cliff we never want to go over. That means the closer an issue gets to that cliff, then the more responsibility a congregation has to act. The nearer one is to this cliff, the more a member should vote against the elders if they seem to be leading in a bad direction.

So . . . how far from the cliff is the magic line between trusting oneself and trusting the elders? That’s a tough question. It’s important we leave that to the conscience of each individual member. To the extent elders become heavy-handed in instructing the congregation to vote with them, the elders eviscerate the congregation’s ability to exercise the authority God has given them.

Elders then should only bring votes to the membership that are close to the cliff. Asking for a vote when clearly the elders should be trusted confuses members on why they’re being asked to vote. This decision does not pertain so much to the specific case in hand (e.g. whether or not we should vote in Jane as a member) as it does to the category at hand (e.g. whether or not we should vote on new members).


Church Budget

In relation to the topic at hand, the budget is significant for two reasons. First, it embodies our spiritual priorities. Second, if we mismanage our financial resources, our church could cease to exist.

If you apply the principle above to the church budget, it means that some reasons warrant a vote against the elders while others do not. For example, if someone feels we are spending too much money on missions and not enough on youth ministry, that would not be close enough to the cliff to warrant a “no” vote. Someone else looking at the same budget might fear, with a looming recession, we are spending too much overall. With concern for the future viability of our church, that person may rightly vote “no.”

Elder Election

Based on the principle I laid out, one would vote against an elder candidate if they felt he threatened the church’s ability to protect the what/who of the gospel or the church’s ability to preserve that into the future. Certainly, a man who is biblically unqualified would do that.

Yet some qualifications are more objective than others. I would generally encourage members to trust the elders on more subjective qualifications (e.g. “manages his household well”) and vote based on more objective qualifications (e.g. “not a drunkard”). Additionally, the elders are responsible for the teaching of the church. That means that if a member doesn’t trust a man’s teaching, he or she would generally have good reason to vote against his nomination.

Deacon Election

I would see the same questions at play with a deacon election as with an elder election, except that able to teach is not part of a deacon’s qualifications, and so one is farther back from the cliff. Members should lean more toward trusting the elders’ recommendation.

Reasons to Vote Against the Elders

Communication to the Congregation

Our church began teaching the following in our new members class:

For many of you, members meetings will be a new thing in your Christian life. They are an important aspect of being part of our church. Sometimes they are wonderful; sometimes I’m afraid we must address very difficult matters. But they are always important. Meetings are when we hear what’s going on at the heart of our church and we make decisions together as a congregation. Let me preemptively answer questions you might have once you start going to these meetings as a member:

If All the Votes Are Unanimous, Why Am I Here?

You’ll notice pretty quickly that our votes are nearly always unanimous. Unity and trust are precious commodities and, for right now, God in his kindness seems to have given those gifts to our church. But that might lead you to wonder why we bother to take the time to vote on these issues if the congregation is just going to follow the elders’ recommendation. I have three answers to that question:

First, not all votes are unanimous. Sometimes we have hard decisions to make as a congregation, and we need to steward that authority well.

Second, every vote is like a fire drill—rehearsing in case someday the congregation needs to seize the wheel from the elders.

Third, you’ll find that a vote in a church is different than, say, a national election. In a democracy, your vote is merely a decision-making tool. You vote to get your candidate into office.

But the church is not a democracy; it is a monarchy. In a church, the elders lead the members in making decisions to serve our King—Jesus Christ. That means your vote is not just about decision-making; it’s a commitment to participate in that decision. When you vote to bring Jane into membership, you’re voting that way because you trust the elders have done their job in determining that Jane is a Christian. But your vote is also a way of saying, “Yes, as I have opportunity, I will fold her into our church family as our church covenant says.” Your vote is a decision, and it is also a commitment.

Second Question: When Should I Trust the Elders with My Vote, and When Should I Vote Against the Elders?

The answer is, “it depends.” The job of our church is to safeguard the gospel for the next generation. According to Scripture, that happens when our teaching is biblical and our members are really Christians. In other words, our job is to protect and preserve the “what” and the “who” of the gospel. Scripture tells us that it is both the congregation’s job to do this (e.g. Gal. 1, 1 Cor. 5) and that we should obey the elders (Heb. 13:17).

How do those fit together? The closer an issue is to damaging our ability to maintain a biblically faithful what and who of the gospel, the less we should simply trust our elders, and the more we should vote as our consciences are compelled by Scripture—like if a budget would bankrupt the church or an elder candidate who doesn’t teach sound doctrine.

On the other hand, the further an issue is from damaging our ability to protect and preserve the who and what of the gospel, the more we should trust our elders.

* * * * *

[1] For a deeper dive into this idea, see: Jonathan Leeman’s Don’t Fire Your Church Members or the shorter Understanding the Congregation’s Authority.

[2] Ibid.

Jamie Dunlop

Jamie Dunlop is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC.

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