Paul Is Not Just One Vote

Burtchaell summarizes a response of Olof Linton to Harnack regarding Acts 15:

As he reconstructs the Jerusalem assembly in Acts 15, the community resolved the issue of gentile membership in the church by taking ab allot on the proposal of elders. Harnack imagines that “yea” and “nay” were the two options. That would show convincingly that the community held final authority. But what if only “yea” were imaginable? In an assembly of equals a majority rules. In an assembly of unequals a minority of select people decides. The presbyteroi were not a college apart from the Jerusalem church; they were the dominating group within the assembly. Our Western understanding is that democratic institutions represent the people’s interests and stand against the claims of elite groups. Acts implies an oriental tradition wherein deliberative councils or assemblies bring rulers and people together, as a collectivity, to formulate and adopt a consensus. The methods for reaching the consensus may be informal, but they are well understood.

Paul judges a man. Then the community judges the man and reaches the same verdict. Is their concurrence a mere sham? No, says Linton, it is a collectivity at work, and its work is the work of Paul, and also of the church, and also of the Lord. The people are not the ultimate authority. And Paul is not just one vote. (118)

I basically agree with the points made here, with the extra qualification that the apostles would have outranked the elders at Jerusalem, and when Paul spoke to his churches. But the larger point is one that is often missed: it is assumed, contrary to the rest of the evidence we have about how apostles functioned vis a vis the churches, that Acts 15 was some kind of totally egalitarian communal discernment process. This is unlikely, to say the least.

At the same time, I don’t think it would be accurate to say that the church was simply not a democracy, when considering the relation of elders to laypeople. While elders clearly had (and have) an authority in the church greater than laypeople, it is a custom of the church as old as the apostles that the laypeople would consent to the ordination of elders, and that laypeople are ultimately responsible to discern if their elders have gone off the rails, so to speak, and separate or defrock if necessary. So while the ordinary operation of the church may not be democratic, extraordinary circumstances can bring to the fore democratic aspects of the church that are otherwise latent.