116. Selecting and Appointing Church Leaders (cheirotonein) in the New Testament (Acts 14:23)

Alexander Strauch in his book Biblical Eldership. An Urgent Call To Restore Biblical Church Leadership devotes an entire chapter to the issue of appointing elders (chapter 6). He focuses attention upon the use of the verb cheirotonein used by Luke in Acts 14:23 to describe the role of Paul and Barnabas in the appointment of elders “in every church.”  While acknowledging that the churches thus affected were newly created by their missionary activity, Strauch argues that this initial action was in fact typical of the identification and appointment of elders generally during Paul’s ministry. We never read of Paul appointing elders in his letters and in the letters directed to churches (not individuals, i.e. 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon), Paul never used the term elder. Acts14:23 is Luke’s description of what Paul did on his first missionary journey. It is descriptive and not necessarily prescriptive.  2 Corinthians 8:19 is the only other context in the New Testament where the verb is used.

The issue is this:  did Paul and Barnabas by themselves appoint these elders or was this appointment the end of a process in which they engaged congregational insight and perspective, in essence ratifying some of those qualified and presented to them by the congregations? And, should this text be considered determinative for the selection and appointment of elders today? What did Luke intend this verb to signify in this context?

Strauch appeals to the comment by F.F. Bruce that in Acts 14:23 “we are simply told that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the recently founded churches of South Galatia, but the verb tells us nothing about the method of appointment.”[1] Strauch interprets this then to mean that the congregations had little or no part in the process and Paul and Barnabas appointed the elders for the churches.[2] In his view “election of elders by the congregation cannot be proven from this single word” and he is correct in what he says – but not in what he omits to say, namely that the congregations could still have had some role and a very significant part in the selection of those whom Paul and Barnabas appointed.  In his view Luke’s use of this verb in Acts 14:23 (and other NT texts that he discusses) demonstrate that “the existing elders (or founding missionaries) are responsible to officially appoint elders who [sic] they and the congregation recognize for their labor, desire, and qualification.”[3] Surprisingly, Strauch seems to reverse his position on the same page when he affirms that “no one has special power to appoint elders. The truth is, Scripture gives little detail about the actual appointment of elders. Luke, for example, merely records that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders (Acts 14:23).”[4] It seems somewhat disingenuous then to argue that “existing elders…are responsible to officially appoint elders….” Perhaps Strauch considers the adverb “officially” here to signify the end of a process.

I would suggest that Strauch commits the error for which he criticizes those who argue for congregational involvement – he believes that Luke’s use in 14:23 of the verb cheirotonein defines method, i.e. appointment, when in fact it does not necessarily do that.[5] While the verb does mean “appoint,” it does not reveal exactly how the appointment was made, and so does not eliminate the possibility that people within those congregations had some and perhaps very substantial input into the decision. Luke’s use of this verb leaves the method of selection open, while asserting that Paul and Barnabas made sure that appropriately qualified people were appointed as elders.

The Hellenistic Jew, Philo, who wrote as a contemporary of Jesus, used the verb (cheirotonein) 33x, the cognate noun (cheirotonia) 9x and the cognate adjective (cheirotonētos) once. There seems little doubt that the noun in some contexts does describe selection by some voting process. For example, in On the Change of Names 151 Philo is commenting on the promise to Sarah in Genesis 17:16, whom he compares to Virtue. Regarding the phrase “and kings of nations shall be from her,” he says “for those whom she conceives and bears are all rulers, chosen not for a short time by the uncertainty of lot (ou klēroi, pragmati abebaioi) or by the votes of men (cheirotoniai) for the most part hirelings, but rulers appointed (katastathentes) for ever by Nature herself.” While Philo’s allegorizing commentary is hard for us to comprehend, the distinction between selection by lot and selection by vote is clear. These were common methods  used in Hellenistic and Jewish society for selecting a person who may be appointed leader.

Again in The Special Laws II.231 Philo used this noun as he discusses the authority that parents wield over their offspring. “That authority is not obtained by lot (kata klēron) nor voting (cheirotonian) as it is in the cities, where it may be alleged that the lot is due to a blunder of fortune in which reason has no place, and the voting to the impetuosity of the mob,…” Philo is not enamoured of either method of selection, but he does distinguish them and links voting particularly with the appointment of civic leaders.

We must also note that the noun can describe divine appointments as well. Moses, for instance, is said to have believed that Yahweh was affirming his initial call, but “he tried to refuse the appointment (cheirotonian).”[6]

In The Special Laws IV.157 Philo comments on the process Moses instituted in Deuternomy 17 for the selection and appointment of Israelite rulers. In the paragraphs preceding this section Philo noted the inadequacy of using lots as the means to select a person for public office. Then he turns his attention to Moses’ instructions and says “These things Moses, wise here as ever, considered in his soul and does not even mention appointment of rulers by lot, but determines to institute appointment by election (tas cheirotonētas)….hereby indicating that there should be free choice and an unimpeachable scrutiny of the ruler made by the whole people with the same mind.” God then adds his vote (Philo used the verb meaning” to cast a vote in addition”) to ratify the appointment. In his tract entitled On Rewards and Punishments 54 Philo comments on the appointment of Moses as Israel’s king, legislator, prophet and high priest. He says “It was God who appointed him (cheirotonētheis) him by the free judgment (hekousiōi gnōmēi)  of his subjects, God who created in them the willingness to choose (hekousion hairesin) him as their sovereign. “ Twice in this context Philo emphasizes that the people were willingly engaged in some fashion in Yahweh’s appointment of Moses as their leader.

The sense given to the verb in a particular context depends upon the authority inherent in the subject and whether the subject allows for the involvement of others in the selection and appointment. For example, Philo notes that Pharaoh selected and appointed Joseph as his viceroy (On  Joseph 248). Yahweh appointed Moses to be king in Israel (Moses  I.113,148,162,198) with verb either active or passive in form. Moses appoints Aaron’s sons to serve as priests (Moses II.142). In other contexts the appointment occurs with explicit involvement of others. For instance, in The Special Laws IV.55 Philo argues that Moses required Israelite judges whether appointed “by lot or election (cheirotonēthentas)” to possess exemplary character. In an illustrative comment (The Unchangeableness of God 112) Philo describes “magistrates chosen by lot, or it may be elected (cheirotonēthentōn) jurymen” who condemn guilty prisoners.

I have taken some time to outline some of the evidence regarding the usage of the verb cheirotonein in Philo because Strauch in footnote 4 offers extended comment upon Philo’s usage.[7]  He is correct in his comment that “Philo…uses the word without reference to voting.” He is also correct in his note that cheirotonēo  “was also used more generally to mean appoint or choose, without reference to the manner of choosing.” He concludes that “cheirotonēo can mean to elect or appoint. The context, not the etymology, determines its meaning.”[8] However, I did not find in Philo a precise parallel to the syntax that Luke used (i.e. verb + indirect object + direct object).

Let’s consider also a few contexts from the writings of Josephus, a contemporary of Luke, the author of Acts. Josephus used this verb 32 times in his extent writings, a similar proportion to what we find in Philo. There are clear instances in which the verb, followed by a double object (double accusative), expresses the action of diverse groups to select a person for a specific position. After the revolt of Absolam, some of the tribes of Israel confirm their selection of David to be king (Antiquities 7,260 “the other tribes had chosen (cheirotonēsai) David king before they did”). How exactly these tribes arrived at their selection is not specified. In Vita 341 Josephus claims that he was appointed (cheirotonēthēnai )  commander of Galiliee “by the general assembly at Jerusalem.” And then in Bellum 7,9 Titus, the Roman general, tells the Roman legions that in addition to winning the Jewish war, “a more glorious and splendid tribute to them than this was the fact that those [Vespasian, the emperor] whom they had themselves elected (cheirotonēsantōn) to be the governors and administrators of the Roman empire…were being hailed with universal satisfaction,…” However, the syntax of these examples does not match that of Acts 14:23, which has a direct and indirect object (cheirotonēsantes …autois…presbuterous) – “having appointed for them…elders.”

In Josephus, however, we do find two uses that are parallel to Acts 14:23. The first occurs in Antiquities 4,34. Josephus is recounting the story of Korah’s challenge of Aaron’s appointment to the position of high priest.  The candidate whose incense God regards as most acceptable, “this  person shall be appointed a priest [direct object] for you [indirect object] (houtos humin hiereus kecheirotonesetai).” God is the one who is involved in the appointment of Aaron as high priest. Yet, Josephus indicates just as clearly that people had to acquiesce in this divine selection (3,192). So Moses says that Aaron “holds it in virtue of your own decision (kiata tēn humeteran gnōmēn); for that which God gave, we were not wrong in supposing that he received with your goodwill also” (4,30).  “He whose sacrifice should be received with most favour by God should be declared appointed (kecheirotonēmenos)” (4,54). The passive voice indicates that the people were involved in this declaration. After Aaron’s rod produces a bud, the people “began to marvel at God’s sentence concerning them; and henceforth applauding the divine decrees they allowed Aaron to hold the priesthood with honour” (4,66).  Josephus describes Aaron’s instalment as “three times been appointed by God….” (4,66).  What I think is noteworthy here is the interplay between God’s selection of Aaron and the difficult process that eventually resulted in the willing endorsement of that appointment by the people. Josephus guards the sovereignty of God as well as gives a responsible role to the people in appointing their leaders.

The second context where this construction occurs describes the selection of a new king, the anointing of Saul. In a dream God directed Samuel to “appoint for them [indirect object] (cheirotonein autois hon) whomsoever I shall name as king [direct object]…” (Antiquities 6,39). Despite Samuel’s warnings as to the actions of such a king, the people “pressed him severely and determined to appoint (cheirotonein) now the king and take no thought for the future” (6,43). But Samuel as he anointed Saul said, “Know that you are king, appointed (kecheirotonēmenos) of God to combat the Philistines and to defend the Hebrews” (6,54). Yet Josephus describes the process in these words: “range yourselves all of you by tribes and families and cast lots” (6,61). The lot fell to the family of Saul. Once more the process is an interplay of God’s sovereignty with human activity. The people could consider, through the casting of lots, that they had selected Saul. The prior work of God was not thereby ignored, nor was the direct involvement of the people in the selection process devalued.

So we come back to Acts 14:23. Paul and Barnabas had a prominent role in determining who would fill the role of elders in these newly established Galatian congregations. Their wisdom is recognized by Luke. However, the term cheirotonein does not exclude involvement by some in the congregation in the selection process. Luke’s expression is quite constrained and condensed. The fact is that Luke is silent about the process of selection in this passage.

Are there any other passages that describe leadership selection and appointment processes in Acts that might give some indication about the process Paul and Barnabas may have used in appointing elders? In Acts 1:21-26 Peter leads the Christians in the selection of a replacement for Judas Iscariot. The apostles refrain from making the appointment themselves. Rather, Peter outlines the qualifications and the believers, gathered in the upper room select Barsabbas and Matthias as their candidates and present them to Peter. They then cast lots to determine which of these should fill Judas’ place among the apostles. All of the Christians present are involved in the selection and appointment process, even as they depend upon God for guidance.

In Acts 6:1-6, when a dispute arises over the practices of the church in assisting the Hellenistic and Hebrew widows, Peter leads the Jerusalem church in selecting and appointment seven men to oversee this important ministry. Qualifications are defined by Peter, but the search for and selection of the candidates is given to the congregation to accomplish. They chose them and presented them (6:6; cf. 1:23) to apostles. The church leaders oversaw the proceedings, but they trusted the wisdom of the church in selecting the candidates.

And then in Acts 13:1-3 Luke describes how Barnabas and Paul were selected and sent by the Antioch church on the first missionary journey. This is not a selection for eldership, because Barnabas and Paul were already teachers and prophets in the Antioch church. Presumably the people mentioned in 13:1 were those involved in the selection process. Note the integration of divine direction and human affirmation in this process.

So if these prior incidents give us any insight into the methods used by early church leaders in the selection and appointment of leaders, plainly the congregations were involved to a significant degree.

We have one example in Paul’s letters of a church selecting and appointing a person to a ministry leadership role. In 2 Corinthians 8:16-21 Paul commends the brother, “who is praised by all the churches for his service to the gospel,” to this church. He states that “he was selected (cheirotonetheis) by the churches to accompany us….” Leadership is selected again through the involvement of the congregations.

So what might we conclude from all of this as to Luke’s intended meaning in Acts 14:23 and what direction might we discern from this text for the selection of leaders within churches today?

  1. Paul and Barnabas appointed leaders as elders in each of the new churches (perhaps 6 – 12 months old) they established in Southern Galatia during their first missionary journey. We do not know whether they did this during other church planting missions, but the presumption would be that they did.
  2. Luke is silent in this context as the process used to select such leaders.
  3. Prior cases of leadership appointment in Acts involved the Christians as a community in the selection process, guided by mature, spiritual leaders. It would be reasonable to assume that Luke expects his readers to bear these prior cases in mind when reading 14:23.
  4. In his letters to the churches Paul is silent about the process used in selecting and appointing elders (cf. Internet Moments Article 104 for an evaluation of Titus 1:5). We have one example in 2 Corinthians 8:16-21 of the appointment of a Christian leader and this involved the congregations.
  5. This term is not used in the Pastoral Epistles where Paul gave instructions to Timothy and Titus about the character qualifications for various church leaders (e.g. no novices). He is quite silent on the process of selection, even though he expects Timothy and Titus to lead the church in affirming such leaders and making sure things are being done in an orderly fashion.
  6. I do not think Acts 14:23 gives justification for the idea that today elders must appoint elders. Paul and Barnabas were in an extraordinary situation, planting new churches. We do not know what process of selection they followed. We should not use this one incident as prescriptive of the appointment of church leaders. This places on this text a weight it cannot bear.
  7. This verb has nothing to do with “laying on hands.”
  8. What the New Testament does indicate is that there was prayerful collaboration among the church leaders and the people in the congregation in dependence upon the Holy Spirit in the selection and appointment of spiritual leaders in the congregation.

[1] F.F.Bruce, Answers to Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1972), 29-30.

[2] A.Strauch, Biblical Eldership (Littleton, COL: Lewis and Roth Publishers, 1988),73.

[3] Ibid., 77.

[4] Ibid.

[5] In footnote 4, page 82 Strauch says “the point is, cheirotoneo can mean to elect or appoint. The context, not the etymology, determines its meaning. The context [Acts 14:23] is perfectly clear that appoint is the only possible meaning here.”

[6] Philo, Moses  I.83. Cf. as well On the Creation 84; The Worse Attacks the Better 39; On the Special Laws 4:9; On the Virtues 64, 218.

[7] A.Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 82-83.

[8] Ibid.

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