In the New Testament, the method for ordaining of leaders is not always clear cut, nor is any specific way of doing it commanded. Anabaptists through the past centuries have used the process of election, the laying of hands by leaders, and the use of the lot for choosing leaders.1 In most Anabaptist churches in America today, especially the more conservative ones, the lot is the prescribed method, with many believing it is the only way.
Most Anabaptists have been using the lot as the chosen method for ordaining men to leadership positions for centuries. Some groups have been using it longer than others-the Mennonites apparently practicing it much longer the Amish. The Amish in America used election, as those in Europe did, and only began using the lot since the 19th century. Its use in Europe was not common, so some theorize that they began to eventually use the lot because the Mennonites in America did. 2
There is no documented evidence that the earliest Anabaptists used the lot to ordain their leaders. There is also no reference made of it in any of the earliest Mennonite Confessions of Faith. However, there is mention made in some early documents of the Swiss Mennonites that infer that the lot may have been used throughout the 17th through 19th centuries.
Some Anabaptist groups, such as the Dutch, North and East German, and Russian Mennonite groups in Europe, never used the lot at all. Neither did any of their descendant groups elsewhere in the world. 3
Staying in Control
While it is certainly true that we have been using the lot for a long time, I have come to question whether very many of us truly believe that God reveals His will through the lot? It seems to me that many churches either do not really believe in it or else they don’t trust God entirely to be able choose the right man.
We say we believe God works through the lot, but we do whatever we can to keep control over the lot. For example, we like to “stack the odds” by putting a requirement on the amount of votes a man must have to be in the lot. We then argue that God will make sure the right man is put in by putting the name on enough people’s hearts. But couldn’t the same be said about election? Why not just use a popular vote?
If we really believe in the lot, all elements of human interference should be eliminated.
What if the men we have chosen are not who God desires to have in there? Maybe we should be willing to have an extra book that means “none of these at this time”? We don’t like that idea because it might make us start all over with the process. We are usually pretty sure that the names we have in there are the right ones.
Besides, we want to stay in control.
But people don’t always get it right. Even when Samuel went to the house of Jesse to anoint the next king, the one whom he was sure was the right man was not who God had chosen. God’s response to Samuel’s choice was,”…the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1Sam. 16:7b)
Why Only for Ordaining?
Why are we so determined that the use of the lot is the best– if not the only way– to ordain ministers? We are not willing to use it in any other areas of life. In the Old Testament it was used to decide where the tribes’s land boundaries should be. How many of us would we also be alright with using the lot to decide how much land we could own and where at?
In Joshua 7, the lot was used to determine that Achan was guilty of stealing. Jonah was also found to be the cause of the storm by lot. Would we also be willing to use the lot to determine guilt or innocence in a man?
Would you be willing to have your marriage partner chosen for you by the lot? There were some adherents of the lot that used it for that purpose. Some used it for this purpose still in the 19th century.4
Using a lot for these purposes today seems a bit over the top. Most of us would not be willing to use it for these.
I once heard a joke told about a man who was in anguish because of things in his life being so hard. So he turned to the Bible for direction. He let the Bible fall open and put his finger down, hoping God would show him some direction. He found his finger on Mat. 27:5 with the story of Judas hanging himself.
He decided to try it again. This time his finger landed on Luke 10:37 and he read, “Go, and do likewise. In trepidation he tried it for the third time and he opened to John 13:27. This time he read, “That thou doest, do quickly.”
We may laugh at this, but most of us would think it’s dangerous to use this “random procedure” as a discernment tool. Yet it carries with it the same idea as the lot. Hebrews 5:14 speaks of those who have “their powers of discernment trained by constant practice”. Using random procedures do not train our “powers of discernment”.
Is the reason we use the lot because we are too lazy, or not willing, to train our powers of discernment? Is the reason that we can’t trust God to direct us by the Holy Ghost because we don’t even know His voice?
The Only Way?
Still many insist the lot must be used as the only way we can truly know who God wants put in as a minister. Some people complain about ministers who have not been ordained by lot. They feel that ministers can’t be considered truly ordained in God’s eyes if their name is unanimously given by the church and the lot is not used. They claim those that are ordained by lot have been “chosen by God”, but others have only been “chosen by men”
How can anyone feel so strongly that this is the only prescribed way when Scripture does not command it? Have we added to Scripture and taught it thus?
The New Testament lists three different ways leaders were chosen.
– The lot (Acts1:20-26)
– men chosen by the congregation (Acts 6:1-6 ) This would sound more like the process of election
– leaders appointing other leaders (Acts 14:21-23, Titus 1:5-7)
If men are following God’s will, seeking to hear the Holy Ghost, and are truly open to whatever His direction is, God will show His will. However, when self-seeking men take things into their own hands, God may give them what they want, but it may not be what His perfect will is.
An example of this would be when Israel demanded a king. God gave them what they wanted, but it was not what His perfect desire for them was. When their king turned away from God, it did not negate his authority. They were left with the consequences of the insisting on their own way.
All three of these methods have the potential of self-seeking men abusing the method and forcing their own way. The lot is not any more “foolproof” than the other two.
We tend to avoid the other two methods because we don’t trust that the Holy Spirit could lead the church directly or through the leaders to directly appoint another leader. There have been times when congregations have appointed men to leadership without the lot simply because only one name was given. But I personally don’t know of any conservative Anabaptist churches that allow the ministry team or elders to just appoint another leader. Yet, that is a New Testament method that is mentioned twice.
Are we afraid that our leaders are not full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom?
Maybe we are afraid that it would get misused because we have seen abuse in our “strong hierarchical power structure” too often in other ways. But even the lot is not entirely safe from this. All three methods are open to abuse if power-hungry men are left unchecked. But if a church has leaders that are led by the Holy Ghost and meet the criteria of leaders, then why could they not discern God’s will to know which leaders to appoint?
When the Lot is Used
If we don’t believe that God can guide us directly through the Holy Ghost, then that does leave us with only the lot. But even with the lot, we often question and doubt the names that are given and pick apart even those that the lot has fallen on. Do we actually believe in that method? Is our problem just wanting to stay in control as much as possible?
God does not condemn the use of the lot and I won’t either, but if we are going to claim God is directing us through it, then let Him direct.
1. Margory Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Historical View, pg.64, 65
2. Paton Yoder, Tradition and Transition: Amish Mennonites and Old Order Amish, 1800-1900, pg. 64
3. Bender, Harold S. “Lot.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1955. Web. 16 Sep 2016
I am planning to write one more post on the lot. I will be sharing the experiences of some that have been in the lot. Names will not be used. If you wish to share your experience (positive or negative), please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org