Is the Lot the Only Biblical Way to Ordain?
If you grew up in an Anabaptist setting, ordinations were the height of suspense and anticipation. Every church in the surrounding area for miles knew whose names were in the lot and when the ordination would be. Churches were packed with visitors who came to watch the proceedings whenever there was an ordination.
As a curious child, ordinations were an entertaining event to attend. It was rather like a Mennonite version of the TV show Survivor and we got to see “who will make it” and “who will get picked off”– all in live studio. The air crackled with suspenseful solemnity. Adults cried and children stared.
In adulthood, that entertainment factor ended. Men that I knew well and respected were affected deeply by the outcome of the lot. Sometimes the things that happened during and after the lot were deeply painful for those whose names were in it.
There are aspects of the lot that I really don’t like. Some of it is because of those close friends who have shared some of their painful experiences, and some of it is because I have begun to question if it is really the prescribed New Testament practice.
Using the lot to choose our leaders is one of those things that is not questioned by most because just like many of our other practices, it’s “the way we have always done it”. But what is the most common way leaders were chosen in the New Testament?
Anabaptists base their practice of using the lot from the account found in Acts 1:20-26.
20 For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick let another take. 21 Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 Beginning from the baptism of John, unto the same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of His resurrection. 23 And they appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. 24 And they prayed, and said, Thou Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen. 25 That he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place. 26. And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.
The only other account we have of the lot being used in the New Testament is found when soldiers cast lots for Jesus’s clothes. In all the other instances when leaders were ordained, there is no mention of a lot being used. I realize that is not necessarily evidence that the lot was not used, but it is also not pointed to as being the method, nor are we commanded at any point to use the lot.
Since the New Testament does not give a clear directive regarding the method for electing leaders, we can only look at the examples given in Scripture and draw our own conclusions for what is the best way from those examples and from experience.
The first thing that stood out to me in looking at the appointment of leaders is that when the lot was used to choose Matthias, it was done to fulfill an Old Testament prophesy and the method used to find God’s will was a method that we find spoken of frequently in the Old Testament. The second thing that stands out is that it occurred before Pentecost and before the Holy Ghost had fallen upon the church. After the Holy Ghost came, there is no specific mention of the lot being used again.
The first instance that we have of men being appointed to leadership positions after Pentecost is found in Acts 6:1-6.
1 And in those days, when the number of disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. 2 Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. 3 Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. 4 But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. 5 And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch: 6 Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.
In this account, the multitude simply chose seven men that they knew to be honest and full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom. The apostles then prayed and laid their hands on them. Nothing is mentioned about lots.
In Acts 14:21-23, we see Paul and Barnabas ordaining elders in every church they planted.
21. And when they (Paul and Barnabas) had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra and to Iconium, and Antioch, 22. Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God 23. And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.
Again, nothing is really mentioned of the method used here except that it was done with prayer and fasting. It is also evident that the church planters were part of the process. In my Strong’s Concordance, this word “ordained”(5500) is defined this way: 1. To vote by stretching out the hand 2. To create or appoint by vote: one to have charge of some office or duty 3. To elect, create, appoint
This doesn’t seem like the process of a lot.
In Titus 1:5, Paul gives Titus instructions to ordain elders in every city.
5. For this cause I left thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee:
This word “ordain” is not the same word that is used in Acts 14. This word (2525) means “to set, place, put”. Again, there is no evidence of the lot being used. There is only instruction from Paul to Titus to ordain leaders in the same way that Paul had “appointed” him.
The last verse that I want to point out yet is found in Acts 20:28
“Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.”
In this verse we see the Holy Ghost as being involved it the establishing of overseers. Anabaptist tend to view the work of the Holy Spirit as being a subtle, not really noticed, influence in the lives of mankind. Regardless of how you view the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of man today, this is not an accurate description of how the Holy Spirit worked in lives of the apostles, disciples, or the early church.
Throughout the New Testament, when mention is made of the Holy Ghost revealing anything to the apostles or disciples, it’s not ever through a lot. The Holy Ghost revealed things to them in a very direct manner with words, pictures, visions, and dreams. In other words, they did not need a lot to show them what God wanted them to do. The Holy Spirit was a real Person to them and led them clearly.
I don’t believe it is wrong to use the practice of the lot to ordain a minister. That may be the only way for churches who do not hear the voice of God through the Holy Ghost to have the will of God revealed. However, I do not believe it is the method that men that are “filled with Holy Ghost and power” use to appoint leaders.
The Way We’ve Always Done It?
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
The Imperfect Process
The current method of Anabaptists in ordaining ministers by the use of the lot is not without flaws. Is there a flawless method that we could use instead that would fix all the problems that come with the use of the lot? I doubt it.
Anytime you work with non-perfect humans in a non-perfect world, you will have problems. So if I criticize things and share about painful things that people have experienced during the use of the lot, it’s not that I think some other method will erase all problems in ordaining men to leadership. But I do think we need to be made aware of issues that men and their families face because of the lot. That said, I do believe there are other biblical methods and that we should recognize that we don’t hold the on candle on the only or the best way of doing things.
It does seem that we use a method that many don’t really believe in– though we claim to.
When a church announces that they will soon be ordaining a new minister, people begin to discuss who they think will make a good leader. Rarely are men asked if they feel called to the ministry. But in our culture, even if a man feels called, to tell someone would be equated with being proud. So even when a man feels a calling, he will try to “humbly” deny that he does because to admit that you have a desire and feel called is viewed as being proud. So it is hard to know who actually feels any kind of calling.
Herein lies the first problem. Sometimes men’s names are put into the lot who feel no calling and are perfectly content being a lay person. Other men who do feel a calling, but are not the charismatic, outgoing, popular type are often overlooked. I have heard from both types. For those who do not feel called, it is hard to refuse the lot because people say things like, “How do know for sure this is not God’s will for you?” Or, “Maybe you are supposed to be in this lot to affirm God’s will in affirming the other brother”.
It seems to me that a man should be able to tell whether he has a calling to preach or not. There should also be some way of acknowledging that calling, or lack of calling, honestly. And for those men that do feel a calling, why could we not encourage them to begin to take some steps in training and developing that calling? We have no problem when those of other callings take steps to prepare themselves for the job God gives them.
After the names are given for the lot, within a short amount of time the church makes a new minister. Often the time is from Friday night to Sunday night. In two days time, the life of several men can take a complete turnaround. For someone who does not feel a calling, it can feel like the longest weekend ever experienced– filled with dread.
For another who feels called, it can also be dread. How do you completely prepare your heart to possibly step into a leadership role that is only a few days away, but at the same time also completely prepare your heart that the lot may not fall on you?
One brother described his time in the lot like this, “We don’t believe in crucifixion, but we come pretty close when we take a contented lay brother and within a couple days make a preacher out of him. It is extremely hard on the mental and emotional well-being of the individual.”
Some churches have attempted to put a longer time frame on the process of the lot. They have a time of waiting for a week or more after the names are announced. But this only brings more problems.
During the waiting period, if anyone has concerns or questions for those whose names are in the lot, they can bring them to the individual. This can also be an emotionally trying time.
You will never find a perfect preacher with a perfect family, but there is a tendency to put more expectation on a preachers than on others. Then for those in the lot, we take those same expectations and inspect every element of their life– maybe even more than we do for those already in the ministry. Every past sin (whether five or twenty years prior) is brought up to make sure it’s been completely taken care of. Their children are brought up and any wrong deeds or mischief done– past or present– is mentioned and discussed. Things that didn’t matter as a member suddenly become a huge deal. Splinters now seem like planks as their lives are looked at with magnifying glasses. One wife described it like this, “It seemed like our family was knifed open, inspected, then left bleeding and then we were still expected to carry on as though nothing had happened.”
The Night of and Months After..
Families who have been in the lot tell me that the lot had such an impact that their lives were changed forever. That’s a pretty huge statement. Several have said it was the hardest thing they ever faced. And yet this is not something you hear spoken of much. Too many of us come to watch the proceedings out of curiosity without even considering that these lives have been impacted and will continue to be impacted by things that are often very painful.
When a man feels called and the lot falls on him, the struggle that happens after the lot is not something he will ever face. Because of this, leaders cannot identify with those struggling and rarely address the issues that follow.
When a man does not feel called and the lot does not fall on him, there is a sense of relief. But still in the days and weeks that follow, he may still question some of the same things that men who felt a strong calling do.
When a man feels called and the lot does not fall on him, he questions why God put him in there to begin with. He questions why he was not chosen. He wonders if there is something in his life that is lacking. Was he not fervent enough in serving God? What does God see in him that is deficient? He wonders what God saw in him that disqualified him. He begins to take a second look at his life and even at his wife and children. Is there some area of sin in their lives that he missed? Are they the reason God “rejected” him? What is it that God saw that made Him reject his service? He begins to question his calling and wonders if he misunderstood altogether.
Not Good Enough
Attending church feels different than before. People watch his family through a much more critical eye. All mistakes and negative traits in him, his wife, and his children are magnified and every fault is pointed out. Remarks are made such as, “No wonder the lot didn’t fall on him.”
His family may not look or act any differently from anyone else at church, but people want something to blame for why God rejected this man’s leadership, so every fault is pointed out.
To my shame, I have been guilty of this. Who of us have never taken a second look at the one who didn’t “get the lot”? It’s easy to see other people’s glaring mistakes and when you are looking for something negative to blame the “disfavor of God” on, you will find it. We become like Job’s friends and point accusingly rather than just walking alongside to be a friend in a much needed time.
“I felt completely alone, like all my friends did not want to associate with us anymore.”
Why do we withdraw during the times in people’s lives that they need support the most? I think sometimes it is mostly because we feel awkward and don’t know what to say. This is also how we feel when there is a death in the family of people we care about. But yet we still try because we know that to withdraw from someone in pain could be devastating. Could we not do the same when someone we care about experiences the death of a vision they had?
I have a strong sense of justice. Admittedly, it may be too strong at times. When someone shares an injustice with me, something in me wants to come to their defense and make it right. I mentioned in a previous post that I have seen men and their families hurt by the lot. This is not usually shared publically by these families or talked about much because to do so could cause them to be viewed as sulking about the outcome of the lot.
Most men in the ministry have not faced what these families face simply because most have not ever been on that side of the lot. Most of the time these issues are overlooked and not addressed at all. So I write because I have never heard anyone address this problem.
I have also been told of several men who ended up leaving congregations they stood ready to lead just a few years prior. While the lot may not have been the only factor in it, it was a large part of the reason.
I realize that no method of ordaining leaders is entirely free from causing rejection and pain. I have also heard a similar story from a man regarding election. I write about the lot because that is the method I am familiar with. My reason for writing is simply to point out to something that is not often addressed and ask that we as Anabaptist people consider those brothers and their families and begin to care about them.
And in all fairness, not every single person that is put into the lot will identify with this. In one of my previous posts regarding the lot, a man commented that he had been in the lot four times and it was not a negative experience. He did not elaborate, but apparently he has not faced what a majority of others have.
Personally, I would rather see our method of ordaining change than just bringing reformation to our current method. I think our reasons for thinking we must use the lot are not a good argument. However, Anabaptists are not known for accepting change well. We like our methods that we have been doing for a long time and we tend to view change as being a threat to our existence.
So for those churches who will not even consider changing the method of ordaining, it is time we repent of those areas that are not right. It is not right to treat our method like a ouija board and ask, “Who will God favor, and who will God reject?” and then wait for the ax to fall. Let’s not forget there are real people involved.
Make sure the men that are put in the lot actually feel a calling to the ministry. Find a way to prepare those who do feel called. Some churches do classes on spiritual gifts. That can help determine which men feel called without making them feel they must deny a calling out of false humility.
And most of all, don’t expect that those men who didn’t “get the lot”, to be able to just go on as if nothing ever happened. They have just faced one of the hardest things they will ever face. Acknowledge their pain and questions. Minister to their needs. Don’t stand back with judgment and blame– adding to their burden.
And maybe, just maybe, could we consider that the reason we are even having this issue is because this was not how God intended for men to be chosen for the ministry?