Should Churches Select Elders by Casting Lots?

It is not uncommon to hear of churches that select their elders and deacons by casting lots. In fact, I’ve been a part of two congregations that voted to change their election process to incorporate lots. Usually this involves a double slate being chosen by some combination of the church leaders and a nominating committee and then a final selection by a “random” draw. In an effort to avoid a popularity contest and the hurt feelings that can result from winners and losers in a double slate, churches are deciding to choose their officers by pulling names out of hat.

It’s not hard to find biblical examples of decision-making by lots. The Holy Land was parceled out by sacred lots (Josh. 18:6). Saul was chosen to be king by lot (1 Sam. 10) and Jonah went overboard in the same way (Jon. 1). Most famously, Matthias was chosen by the casting of lots to replace Judas as the twelfth apostle (Acts 1:26). So there seems to be good wisdom in choosing our leaders by lots. After all, “the lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Prov. 16:33).

And yet, I want to answer the question of this post with an emphatic “no.” Churches should not select their elders by casting lots. Here’s why.

1. We must be cautious in making Old Testament patterns of decision making our methods. Without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and a completed Canon God guided his old covenant people in various ways. We no longer use Urim and Thummim drawn from Aaron’s breastpiece to make decisions. So it’s not safe to assume we should use lots either.

2. Fine, you say, that was the Old Testament. But didn’t the apostles use lots in Acts 1? True, but there is good reason to think Matthias was a special case. For starters, the apostolic band was a unique group that had to be chosen directly by the Lord (e.g., Jesus handpicking the Twelve and personally calling Paul). So when the apostles needed one and only one replacement for Judas, and they had two to choose from, it made sense that lots would determine the selection. But there is no other instance of lots ever being used again to determine church leadership. As Bruce Waltke remarks, “Indeed, there is never another recorded use of anyone in Christ’s church going before the Lord to cast lots. We have been given God’s Word, and His Holy Spirit resides in us, so we do not rely on merely rolling dice” (Finding the Will of God, 48).

3. By contrast, when the New Testament speaks of elder selection it is with the word “appoint.” Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church (Acts 14:23). Titus was to appoint elders in Crete (Titus 1:5). We don’t know exactly how elders were chosen. In these pioneering church contexts it seems like the church planter was key in establishing the first elders. But as a general rule I believe there is freedom for congregations to use nominating committees, have a congregational vote, or leave the selection up to the elders. What seems to be excluded by the word “appoint” is a passive process where we expect the Lord, by lots, to “show which one of these two you have chosen” (Acts 1:24).

4. If double slates are the problem, change your by-laws and get ride of double slates. If you are worried about hurt feelings or popularity contests maybe that’s an indication your current elders should do more to train, evaluate, and select future leaders, without the use of an awkward double slate.

5. God is sovereign over all things. He superintends the rolling of the Scattergories dice, the shake of the Magic 8-Ball, and the falling of sparrows and hairs. But this does not mean he intends for us to employ these means in making decisions, especially on the other side of Pentecost and with the completion of Sacred Scripture.

6. If these foregoing reasons are not convincing, consider this last one: you don’t really believe in the casting of lots. Sometimes we talk like it’s especially spiritual to make decisions by providentially-random draws. But would you choose your pastor this way? If God wants us to cast lots to determine his will, why not throw darts at a a list of pastoral candidates? Why don’t you narrow down your choice of a spouse to a couple of good choices and then when you propose explain, “I flipped a coin and you came up heads. Congratulations, want to get married?” We don’t really trust lots to make wise decisions for us in other areas, so why would we use it for one of the most crucial decisions in the life of your church?

Churches, and especially the existing leaders, should do the hard work of selecting new officers. Relying on the length of straws or a random number generator to choose elders is not super-spiritual. It is imprudent and without Scriptural precedence. God will guide your selection process, but he hopes to use training, evaluation, discernment, biblical qualifications, and human brains along the way.