One of the more significant happenings in the life of a church is the selection of godly men to serve as elders. Elders are an essential part of the local Christian church; it is an apostolic command to appoint men to serve as elders in every local church (Titus 1:5; cf. Acts 14:23). Sometimes this process isn’t difficult, because the congregation and the current elders (consistory/session) fully agree that a certain man has the gifts to serve and meets the biblical qualifications to be an elder (see 1 Tim. 3; Titus 1).
But quite often the process is a bit more complicated. For example, there might be several qualified men to serve as elder, but some of them do not wish to serve. Alternatively, one man may want to serve though some are skeptical of his gifts or qualifications. What complicates the selection of elders even more is when the current cultural mindset affects these decisions. Occasionally men are selected because they are successful in the corporate world, because they are popular, because of strong family ties, or because they are the highest financial contributors to the church. In other words, sometimes the selection of elders is twisted by a democratic, capitalistic mindset. The church ends up running more like a small business than a body of believers.
Because of these complications in the selection of elders, some churches cast lots (or utilize something like lots) to select their leaders (on the basis of Acts 1:15ff.). Until recently, I wasn’t aware that churches in the Reformed tradition have practiced this method of selecting elders. What are we to make of it? Is it wise or unwise to select elders by lots? Based on some biblical and Reformed principles, I believe it is unwise for churches today to use lots to select their elders. While I’m primarily speaking of elders, these points also apply to the selection of deacons (which is why I use the term leaders, which means both elder and deacon).
First, it is important to remember that Acts 1:15–26 depicts a unique time period in redemptive history. In fact, it is a period that is completely unrepeatable: the risen and ascended Christ was on His heavenly throne, but He had not yet sent His Spirit to His church. The casting of lots for the twelfth apostle (Acts 1) takes place in the ten days between Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost. The casting of lots for Matthias was a post-ascension but pre-Pentecost occurrence. The apostles didn’t have the New Testament writings to guide them, nor did they have the Spirit in the measure that they did on Pentecost and following. Therefore, they used an Old Covenant practice for letting the Lord direct them in their selection. The church today should be hesitant to follow a practice that happened in a unique time period.
One more thing to think about under this first point is that the office of apostle is much more important than that of elder. Out of divine necessity, based on Psalm 109:8 and Acts 1:20–22, there had to be twelve apostles. There was little freedom or human wisdom involved in the selection of the twelfth apostle, so the apostles didn’t go by a list of requirements besides the one that the man had to have been with Jesus during His entire ministry (Acts 1:22). In a local church today, there is no divine requirement concerning the number of elders, though plurality is important. Also, selecting elders today involves more freedom and God-given wisdom, which will be discussed below.
Second, and related to the first point, casting lots is an Old Covenant practice. The Israelites living under the Mosaic (or Sinai) covenant utilized the casting of lots for different reasons. The priests cast lots to select a goat for sacrifice (Lev. 16:8). Joshua cast lots to divide the conquered Promised Land (Josh. 18:6–10). The temple musicians cast lots to determine their duties (1 Chron. 25:8), and the gatekeepers did the same (1 Chron. 26:13). Israelites in Nehemiah’s day cast lots for different reasons (Neh. 10:34; 11:1). Though the details are unclear, Israelites would even cast lots to settle arguments (Prov. 18:18). In the Old Testament, casting lots involved something like throwing stones or dice in the context where the Lord would use them to guide his people. It probably had something to do with another Old Testament practice we don’t know much about: Urim and Thummim (Exod. 28:30; Lev. 8:8; 1 Sam. 28.6). Before the Pentecost ministry of the Spirit—the writing of the law on the hearts of people and guiding them in the truth—God at times directed His people with means that can be quite difficult for us to understand. Casting lots in the Old Covenant wasn’t a kind of democratic tiebreaker but a means God used to lead His people. Casting lots was not something people did as a last resort when making a tough decision. The way the stones or dice landed was guided by God to lead the people in their decisions. (As a side note, it is an interesting curiosity to hear of churches drawing straws or names out of a hat to select leaders when these practices are not even the same as casting stones or dice!)
What is important for our discussion is the fact that casting lots is never again mentioned after Acts 1. It is clearly an Old Covenant practice. Paul never tells the New Covenant believers to cast lots when making decisions. For these reasons, we should be hesitant to adopt an Old Covenant practice today unless there is clear New Covenant warrant for doing so (see Belgic Confession article 25 and Westminster Confession chapter 19, sections 3–4). Just as it isn’t wise to require Christian men to grow beards today (based on Lev. 19:27), neither is it wise to go back to an Old Covenant method to select leaders.
Finally, and this has to do with the first two points, the post-Pentecost (New Covenant) church has the gift of the Holy Spirit as well as the gift of God’s completed, written Word. The church today lives in an age where the resurrected and ascended Christ has sent His Spirit in fulfillment of so many Old Covenant prophecies and promises (Num. 11:29; Isa. 44:3; 59:21; Ezek. 36:27). The same Spirit also leads the church into the truth of the Word (John 16:13). By the illumination of the Spirit, the church today is called to discern God’s will (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 5:10, 17), which has to do with the Word, wisdom, and prayer. The apostles in Acts 1 didn’t have these things as the New Covenant church does after Pentecost.
What is more, Jesus by His Spirit inspired Paul to give the church specific directions about selecting leaders. Elders should be humble, knowledgeable, godly men who have one wife (if they are married; see 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1 for more elder qualifications as well as those for deacons). Paul didn’t tell Timothy or Titus to roll stones but to use their Scripture-filled Christian minds and appoint solid men to lead God’s people. The church today should stick closely to these instructions of Paul when selecting leaders in the church rather than overlook them and go back to the Old Covenant practice of casting dice or lots.
If I may be blunt, I’m afraid that one reason some churches cast lots today is because it is a cop-out. Casting lots saves time, study, and the need to apply wisdom to a tough situation where someone might be upset over the decision. The church that casts lots as a sort of cop-out needs a rebuke as well as a reminder that man’s opinions or feelings should not sway biblical decisions (this also applies to church discipline). Applying the New Testament principles of leadership selection is sometimes difficult; it does take time, patience, discussion, Bible study, and Christian wisdom, but it is the church’s job to select leaders following Paul’s instructions.
There are a few more things to consider when discussing the selection of church leaders and the casting of lots (perhaps we could call it practical application).
Prayer. One thing that we do find the apostles doing before and after Pentecost is gathering to pray (e.g., Acts 1:24; 2:42). Paul always reminded the church to pray all the time (1 Thess. 5:17; 1 Tim. 2:8). When churches today face a difficulty in selecting leaders, the church should spend much time in prayer. I think most churches do not pray enough when it comes to selecting leaders. Do we spend a good part of our meetings humbling ourselves in prayer, asking the Lord for wisdom and guidance? Do we meet simply to pray when we face a tough church decision? Do the leaders and members of the church wrestle in private prayer over these things? While casting lots might not be wise when selecting leaders, certainly prayer is! What should we do if we lack wisdom? Pray (James 1:5)! In fact, we should even add fasting to prayer. The New Covenant church fasted in the context of selecting elders (Acts 14:23; cf. Matt. 6:16–17). Application: Rather than picking up the dice or grabbing at straws, the church should engage in frequent prayer and even fasting when making those difficult leadership decisions.
Instruction. I’m glad that some churches do not want the selecting of leaders to turn into a popularity contest. Certainly we should do everything we can to steer the church away from the American Idol mindset. I would submit that this problem can be addressed with proper teaching from the pulpit, small group study, or individually. No matter the different ways churches go about selecting elders or deacons, there should be clear and sustained biblical teaching on the qualifications, functions, and duties of an elder and a deacon. Perhaps a short sermon series and Bible study would be helpful. When we’ve selected leaders at the church I serve as pastor, I’ve read the texts before several services, preached on this topic, and reminded the people to pray about this and think in biblical terms, rather than worldly ones, when considering the selection of leaders.
Proper instruction also helps those men who are being considered for the office of elder or deacon (yes, I’m an advocate of officer training!). If a man knows the biblical basics and basis of church leadership, he might find out he is not cut out to be a leader in the church. Also, he will, one hopes, be submissive and humble if he is not selected based on a biblical principle. A study of Scripture in this area might also help churches tweak their traditions that are not clearly rooted in Scripture. For example, there is no biblical warrant that requires selecting elders every year; nor is there a biblical requirement that more than one man should be put forward for an office in the church. Application: Instead of tossing the dice or picking a name from a hat, the church should be well taught and guided by Paul’s instructions when it comes to the offices of elder and deacon. Christian wisdom is the prayerful application of Paul’s instruction to a specific situation.
I realize that selecting church leaders will not always be an easy thing. Serving as a church planter and pastor, I’ve learned that there are a lot of hard choices to make concerning leadership—it seems like there is a huge gray area! And I know it is even tougher to select leaders in a large church. At the same time, I believe if we study the Word, pray without ceasing, and use biblical wisdom rather than the methods of democracy, the gray area becomes much smaller. My prayer is that churches do not try to take the easy way out of selecting leaders but follow the biblical route of study, prayer, and wisdom, especially when it comes to those tough decisions.
I’ll conclude with some comforting reminders. Ultimately our great comfort is that church leaders are neither the foundation nor cornerstone of the church—the apostles and Christ are! We know that the Lord is with the church that submits to His Word. We also know that He gives His Spirit of wisdom to those who ask in faith. We know that God uses imperfect men to lead the church. Though we must do our Christian best when we select leaders, we realize that God will forgive us and restore us if we repent after messing up. Finally, we remember the gospel truth: Because Christ is alive, loving, and powerful, the gates of hell will never prevail against the church.
Rev. Shane Lems (MDiv, Westminster Seminary California) is the former pastor and church planter of the United Reformed Church in Sunnyside, WA. He currently is the pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Hammond, WI.