dianoigo blog

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Taking a Gamble On Church Leadership: What We Learn From the Early Church

This is a guest post by Matthew Farrar.

To the modern reader, perhaps one of the strangest parts of the pre-Pentecost narrative in Acts 1 is the selection of Judas’ replacement, Matthias, a figure nowhere else mentioned in the New Testament. Having narrowed the decision for Judas’ replacement down to two (Joseph called “Barsabbas” and Matthias), the decision is made by a combination of prayer–which agrees well with most Christian sensibilities–and the more dubious practice of casting lots. Indeed, despite early precedent, I am aware of no current Christian tradition in which Church leadership is decided by the practice of coin flips or shooting dice. So why, when the Church was literally in its infancy, was this all-important decision decided by means of what we would consider gambling? And why does the author of Acts1 include this story at all, given that Matthias plays no further role in the Acts narrative?

Let Another Take His Office

Perhaps the first question for us to consider is what exactly was being replaced. From the immediate context, it seems clear that he is being inducted into “the Twelve”, which had temporarily become the unofficial “Eleven”. This point in itself is significant for a number of reasons.

First, we note that the Twelve were chosen by Christ Himself (John 6:70). By way of contrast, we here (Acts 1:15-22) see Peter lay out the case that the assembly has an imperative to replace Judas. We must therefore ask the question, “If the authority to appoint the Twelve rested with Christ Himself, on what authority did Peter presume to be able to appoint a new Apostle?” For Catholics, the answer is clear: Christ effectively made Peter His viceroy (Matt. 16:19). Thus, Peter–of himself and not by an electoral process–assumes the authority to appoint a new Apostle, though he does not reserve the process of selection to himself.

Second, in quoting Psalm 69 (“Let his homestead be made desolate, and let no one dwell in it” (NASB), Peter makes clear that the legacy of Judas himself is ended, but in quoting Psalm 109 (“Let another man take his office”) shows that Judas occupied an office that was to continue beyond the life of the office holder. By extension, the other Apostles occupied this same office. The question then must be asked, “Did the Apostles see their offices as continuing beyond their natural life?” While the Bible itself offers little in the way of answer to this question directly, the late-first-century First Epistle of Clement (1 Clement)2 answers this question definitively:
1 So too our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that strife would arise over the office of the bishop. 2 For this reason, since they understood perfectly well in advance what would happen, they appointed those we have already mentioned; and afterwards they added a codicil, to the effect that if these should die, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. (1 Clement 44.1-2)3
From this quotation, it is not clear whose office it is that would continue by succession. However, the quotation in Acts 1:20 is from the Septuagint, and the Greek word in the psalm rendered “office” is episkopÄ“, the same root word for the office of the New Testament overseer, or (traditionally) bishop, episkopos.4 Thus, the office of Judas–which was that of an Apostle–and the office of episkopos are at the very least, intricately linked.

However, what was the nature of the office of Judas? It is one thing to give the office a name, but that doesn’t tell us what the actual office entailed. As it happens, the method of selecting Matthias gives us a clue.
Decision By Lot

When the notion of decision by lot is floated out for consideration, my mind immediately goes to two places, both with negative connotations. The first is Jonah, who is identified by casting lots as the cause of a storm (Jonah 1:7-8). In this instance, pagan superstition appears to have been the instigating factor in the practice, since the text identifies the sailors as “each crying to his god” (Jonah 1:5). Not exactly a “go-to” reference for choosing Church leaders! The second place is at the crucifixion of the Lord, when the soldiers cast lots for ownership of his garments (Matt. 27:35, John 19:23-24). So example number two is an example of pagan Roman soldiers acting in an especially callous manner. Again, not a model to follow for guidance on Church leadership.

However, there is a third place where the casting of lots is used to make sacred decisions, and in fact, pertaining to an office. In 1 Chronicles 24, we find that the offices of the priesthood were decided by casting lots. We also see the use of lots in the assignment of particular priestly duties in the New Testament, where “according to the custom of the priestly office, he [Zacharias] was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense” (Luke 1:9). Thus, at the dawn of the early Church, it was common practice to cast lots as a means of making sacred decisions in the Jewish ministerial priesthood. Thus, the Apostles’ decision to use the casting of lots in the selection of Judas’ successor–which at first appears bizarre and arbitrary–suggests that the Apostles saw their office as that of a new order of ministerial priests, an office for which the casting of lots had significant precedent.


The narrative in Acts 1 give us insights into the early structure of the Church. In a definitive way, we see Peter exercising authority to appoint new Apostles, an authority that had previously rested only with Christ. Second, we see that the Twelve were particular persons who occupied offices that were not unique to their persons (i.e. Judas died; his office remained). Finally, the decision to choose Matthias over Barsabbas by the casting of lots is indicative of the priestly nature of the office being filled.

As a former Protestant, I can appreciate that the notion of the Pope–the successor of Peter–and the existence of a ministerial priesthood remain two significant barriers to Christian unity, with the paucity of Biblical support for these offices being cited as a reason for their rejection. My prayer is that this brief post might help close that gap, if only a little, so that we might all be one.


  • 1 Widely believed to be Luke.
  • 2 1 Clement is believed by many to have been written around the time of the persecution of Domitian (d. A.D. 96), and is thus possibly contemporary with Revelation. It thus represents a very early understanding of Church offices. The letter's content also has noticeable parallels with the canonical Epistle to the Hebrews, suggesting a similar date and setting.
  • 3 Trans. Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, 2 vols. (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 1:113).
  • 4 The word episkopÄ“ also occurs in 1 Clem. 44.1, where it is translated "bishop" above.