Adams on the “men’s business meeting”

As you all know from some of the discussions in the past regarding polity in non-institutional congregations, I’m not a big fan of the “men’s business meeting.”  I’ve known of churches that have existed for decades without elders, living under the business meeting arrangement for decades.

All that to say that I ran across this passage from James W. Adams’ Words Fitly Spoken (Bowling Green, KY: Truth Foundation, 1988), pages 20-21, and thought it worth sharing:

At various times through the years, a considerable number of brethren have sought to circumvent the oversight of New Testament elders, bishops, or pastors of local congregations of the Lord’s disciples.  Inasmuch as there must be a directing element in all group activity, such brethren have been forced to conceive and set up some form of government for the discharge of “local church” business.  Due to the onus that is associated with congregational rule by a majority vote of the total membership, they ordinarily seek to avoid that arrangement.  In most cases, they have instituted instead the rule of the congregation by a majority vote of a “business meeting” composed of the adult, male members of the congregation.  In so doing, they have literally “met themselves coming back.”  Instead of getting rid of their problems, they have increased and compounded them.

When authority over congregational affairs is vested in the voice of the majority of a “business meeting,” an opportunity is created for any capable, personable, designing individual with a Diotrephes complex (3 John 9) to dominate a congregation.  Through psychological influence and pressure (and sometimes not so psychological), he can exercise political control by bloc-voting his satellites in the business meeting while maintaining a public image of self-effacing humility.

The whole article, titled “Hung on His Own Gallows,” goes into somewhat more detail.

What are your thoughts?  Why do we allow the patently extra-scriptural business meeting arrangement to stand?

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18 responses to “Adams on the “men’s business meeting”

  1. I’m not a member of NI-CoC anymore so maybe it is not my place to comment, but…

    I think the men’s business meetings concept hides the real problem, lack of pastoral oversight. I wouldn’t be suprised if the majority of congregations lack elders. A fellowship with many small congregations, strict rules as to who can be elders, a requirement for a plurality of elders and no actual training or support programs for elders seems bound to have this problem.

    This problem is a tragedy as there are thousands of people without pastoral care.

  2. I thought I posted something but maybe it got lost.

    It wouldn’t suprise me if the majority of NI congregations lack pastoral care (i.e. elders). Part of it may be the “Diotrophes problem” but I think the larger issue is the set up and circumstances of NI polity. You have strict requirements on who may be an elder, a requirement for a plurality of elders, small congregations that lack enough eligible men, and total lack of training and support for elders on a fellowship wide basis.

  3. My guess would be no clear alternatives. At my current congregation before we had elders we wouldn’t vote. All decisions had to be unanimous.

  4. Hey Ken,

    Thanks for your comments. For some reason, your posts keep getting tripped up in my spam filter. I haven’t yet figured out how to permanently approve you, but hopefully that will come soon.

    I think you’re right, though. A perfect storm of all of the elements you mentioned would seem to inevitably yield the current situation.

  5. I wonder how many congregations, out of a desire to be faithful to Christ, lack elders due to a very narrow interpretation of the requirements?

    • Probably a lot. My grandparents’ congregation comes to mind. They existed for decades without elders due to the influence of one powerful and vocal family. It was a long time before a particular preacher was able to muster the force (and the congregational backing) to challenge them and change the situation.

      I’ve been in other congregations, on the other hand, where preachers worked actively to prevent elders from being appointed. A men’s business meeting they could control; an eldership they perhaps felt they couldn’t.

      Thinking back on it I’ve only been a member of one congregation where the eldership was functioning in a healthy and scriptural way. I get the sense that that situation was more the exception than the rule.

  6. “Why do we allow the patently extra-scriptural business meeting arrangement to stand?”

    You might say something similar about located preachers… but I’m not sure if that’s as big an issue in NI circles.

  7. I’ve seen the church politicking up close in the appointment of elders.

    There was a strong desire to do away with the men’s business meeting model and appoint elders. The congregation certainly had a number of men, about 6, that met the qualifications (believing children, good report, etc.). One of the men didn’t want to be an elder for whatever reason. The other 5 had varying degree of “desire” for the office. Two of the men were elders previously when the last eldership was dissolved upon their resignations.

    Apparently, at least one of the former elders didn’t want the other three for elders because a sixth man was brought in under consideration even though he didn’t meet the believing children qualification as understood by the majority of the congregation. Also his temperment isn’t very good (i.e. sometimes sarcastic towards brethren). I firmly believe that this man was put forward to even out any voting block in the eldership so that the three new men wouldn’t win when it came down to the direction of the eldership.

    It ends up we had a months long congregational study on the “believing children” qualification, a visiting preacher was even brought in. Even after this there was no consensus but the majority still held to “believing” as in “baptized believers”.

    Then there were side meetings, mainly between the potential elders, to discuss the issue. These meetings became very contentious. Eventually, all three of the potential new elders left the congregation along with several other families. Then the two previous elders were appointed as well as the other man.

    The other man ended up retiring a year or so later and resigned his eldership to move closer to his children. The two other elders resigned obstensively because of the danger of only have two men being elders. However, I believe one of the elders decided to resign due to family problems that cropped up a short while later.

    So the congregation ended up being without elders again. The only explanation I can find is that one of the elders didn’t want other people to run his church. Otherwise why start a row about having a sixth man be an elder when there were legitimate questions about his qualifications and five men are available to be elders. This elder was there at the founding of the congregation and contributes a lot of money to the offering (given his obvious wealth). I suspect he was concerned about the direction the church would take.

  8. Ken’s scenario is all too common. I have no answers.

    I work with a number of Hispanic congregations and most do not have a plurality of men who would meet even the loosest interpretations of 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1. So, what do we do? The two I work closest with have men’s meetings every month and occasional congregational meetings. I’m willing to consider any alternatives. However, I still believe that the only thing worse than no elders, is having unqualified ones.

  9. Does anyone know if any of ‘our’ journals are talking about this issue?

    It would seem like a dearth of elder-led congregations would be a much bigger (and more damaging long-term) issue than “collectivities” or any other such thing.

    Along with this, I suppose, would be our collective conception of what elders are and do: are they spiritual leaders and teachers or are they the men who make sure that the grass out in front of the building gets mowed and the power bill gets paid?

    To another point made earlier: how do we train men to become elders? Have we ever sat down and thought through what that preparation process would look like and how we would vet suitable and unsuitable young men?

    Thanks to everyone for chiming in on this issue.

  10. It unfortunate that there is no data related to number of elderships. Somebody could probably go to Goodfight.com and get some data for churches with websites. Or call churches.

  11. Well, at least for all of the churches that self-report on websites like that. Although I guess if you put that together with findthechurch.com and the directories published by Truth Magazine you could get a pretty good sample.

    Any takers?

  12. Looks like I missed a good discussion on one of my “hobby horses.”

    It’s always seemed shameful to me that most congregations I know of have viewed a located preacher as a necessity and qualified elders as optional.

    I saw it especially in my life. Back when I was a failed preacher trainee in the making, there were no number of older men who couldn’t wait to help train, teach, and encourage me. However, when later on in life I decided I wanted to work toward being an elder some day, the response I typically received was along the lines of “Come back when you’re 50 or so, and we’ll see if you’re qualified.” You grow that which you plant and water; it’s no wonder that many plants don’t grow and fruit when they’re not tended to.

  13. Wow, you nailed it, Jeff:

    “…most congregations I know of have viewed a located preacher as a necessity and qualified elders as optional.”

    I wonder if this was a problem in the nineteenth century, before the widespread advent of the located preacher in the churches in the 1930s and 40s?

  14. There were certainly located preachers before the 1930s. Granted, they might be shared between a couple of congregations, but they were “located.”

    In my view, it gets back to the last sentence of my first post. You have a system where it’s easier and more immediately rewarding to be A, and where it’s more difficult and less immediately rewarding to be B.

    When we work hard to train up preachers and neglect edification of men who would be elders, well, we reap what we sow. Now add in that we’ve made preaching a paid profession (often complete with benefits, housing, etc.); when was the last time you heard of a paid, “full-time” elder even though it’s a scriptural concept? Now, consider it’s a great deal harder to become an elder than to become a preacher, the scriptural work is harder, and it’s perhaps even less thankless.

    (This is not meant to slight the work of preachers by any means. We need men to proclaim God’s word and evangelize. But both the work to become and the work of an elder are both more difficult, IMO, with fewer physical rewards as we stand right now.)

    • You’re right. They did exist (and any number of Texas preachers were lining up in the papers in the 1880s and 1890s to criticize the located preacher as an innovation along with the organ and the missionary society). But I would still argue that they only became widespread or universal among the churches after the 1930s.

      To your other, more pressing point:

      I’m not sure that we even have any concept of what elder training and preparation would look like. What are our standards for the training and preparation of preachers? That itself has been a moving target over the years, it would seem.

      None of the books on the eldership in wide circulation among our brethren really speak to this topic (McGarvey’s The Eldership and H.E. Phillips’ Scriptural Elders and Deacons are the ones I’m thinking of).

      If you were to put a program of elder training in place, what would it look like? (“Program” is not a great word, I know. Can you think of a better one?)

      A few things come to mind when I ask myself that question. (All of what I would suggest is apart from the qualifications found in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 2, most of which should apply to all Christians anyway.) But that’s for later today or tomorrow…

  15. I wouldn’t think of it as a “program,” either (“This month, we’re going to work on not having much wine; next month, hospitality” 🙂 ). I’d see it as more of a mentoring relationship. We see the principle of the older teaching the younger time and again throughout the Bible. That would seem to me to be the cornerstone.

    Of course, that raises the question of how to do that in churches that are often without elders. And how to do it in churches with dozens of potential elders, but only 2-4 current elders.

    Perhaps we should ask someone older and wiser than ourselves for their thoughts? 🙂

  16. I agree that a mentoring approach would be good.

    In a few days (I’m nearing the end of my semester at the moment), I’m going to try to put up a full-length post on the subject of preparation of elders. I want to put this discussion in a more up front place on the blog, so that it’s not getting hidden in a comment thread. Hopefully, we can get some more people involved. I’m convinced that this is one of the most important issues that NI churches are facing as a group.

    Not that anybody with any clout actually reads this blog…

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