Like putting toothpaste back into the tube, recovering from poor decisions in leadership can be very difficult. It’s far better to get it right the first time! The early church leaders had to learn quickly how to make wise decisions.
In a matter of one day, the number of followers of Christ grew phenomenally from about 120 (Acts 1:15) to 3000 (Acts 2:41), and shortly after, further increased to 5000 (Acts 4:4). For the fledgling leaders of the early church, the learning curve for decision making was quite steep. But, guided by the Holy Spirit, their initial decisions were wise and we can learn much from their example.
Two incidents in particular faced the young church. One was a practical issue, the other doctrinal. First, there was inequity of food distribution among the needy widows among them (Acts 6:1-7). There had been a movement of the Spirit among the new believers to share their resources.
As it turns out, the distribution of these resources was somewhat skewed along cultural and ethnic lines. Those Jewish widows (now believers) from a Hellenistic background were being overlooked, while those believing widows with a more culturally Hebraic background were being well taken care of.
The second incident involved doctrinal controversy—whether circumcision and adherence to Mosaic law were required for believers. This led to what has become known as the Jerusalem council. A few principles for wise decision making can be seen in these two incidents.
1. Good decision making can remove hindrances to the spread of the Word of God.
Notice, in Acts 6:7, after the practical problem was solved, “the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased …” (NIV). The fact that this verse follows immediately after the problem solving incident is not incidental. Had the early church been unwise in their decision, clearly the expansion of the gospel would have been limited.
Unwise decisions by elders create confusion and discouragement. Instead of resolving issues, poor decisions create more tension and problems. Instead of the church expending energy in reaching the lost for Christ, much time and effort is wasted with internal struggles. Wise decision-making frees up the believers to spend more time in reaching the lost and building up other believers.
2. Wise decisions cause God’s people to be encouraged.
Following the Jerusalem counsel, a statement was drafted containing the decision made. When the Christians were informed of this they “… were glad for its encouraging message” (Acts 15:30). God’s people are built up and encouraged by the wise deliberations of godly leaders. It sets an example of firm, decisive leadership—and a sense that the shepherds are really looking after the sheep.
3. A problem cannot be solved unless the issues are clearly identified.
In both incidents, the leaders heard and listened to the viewpoints of the people involved. They apparently understood the warnings of Proverbs 18:13, “He who answers before listening—that is his folly and his shame” and Proverbs 18:17, “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.”
It is so easy to jump to quick conclusions about the merit of someone’s concern. We must resist the urge to superficially conclude that someone has oversensitive feelings or is “nitpicking” about doctrine. Good leaders show respect by carefully listening to the concerns of the people.
4. Problems that are public should involve the congregation in the solution.
While the level of congregational involvement depends on the situation, being too secretive can be detrimental. In the first instance in Acts concerning the feeding of the widows, the spiritual leaders invited the congregation to “nominate” men according to a defined criteria (full of the Spirit and wisdom Acts 6:3, 5). These men were to work out the details.
In the Jerusalem council (Acts 15), at least some of the deliberations took place in the gathering of the whole church (Acts 15:12 compare with 15:22). It must have been tremendously educational for the believers to see the spiritual leadership working through this doctrinal issue. In the end, they could whole-heartedly endorse the decision (“Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided …” Acts 15:22).
Clearly, some decisions that elders make may involve sensitive information about people, and these, of course, must be handled with godly discretion and confidentiality.
5. Keep to your priorities.
In the case of the widows, the apostles did not want to take too much time from their primary ministry: the Word and prayer. Rather, they delegated the problem solving to capable men (while maintaining ultimate responsibility through the laying on of hands Acts 6:6).
In the doctrinal issue, their priorities required them to be directly involved in the deliberations. Wise elders are those who know when to delegate and when to involve themselves. They should never delegate doctrinal issues. Elders are to protect the church from error. This cannot be passed off to others.
6. Some elders are more gifted in articulating a decision than others.
In Acts 15:13-21, James seemed to bring the discussions into focus, summarizing well the consensus. Discussions can often drag on and on. This doesn’t mean that one person has a greater say in the decision making. But, happy is the group of elders who have one that can reduce all the discussions to a concise summary.
7. Take careful notes when dealing with serious issues.
The council, upon reaching a consensus, put their conclusion in writing (Acts 15: 23). This served to provide a clear, unambiguous response to the serious doctrinal issue at hand. To only communicate orally opens up greater possibilities for misinterpretations, verbal nuances and poorly chosen words that mislead. If the decision is written down, then much ambiguity is removed. The process of writing out the decision forces people to select their wording carefully.
Editorial Note: This article was first published in Elder’s Shop Notes in November 2000. It is used here with permission of the author.