How should we make decisions in church life? This is important when decision making is done by the group not by an individual. At Bearwood Chapel, we believe in plural leadership. We have a team of elders, whilst I’m paid as a full time pastor, I am not above the other elders in a kind of hierarchy but part of that team. We ask the church members to be involved in many of our decisions too.
In Acts 15, the leaders of the church gather in Jerusalem to make some decisions in response to the challenges that were coming with the Gospel crossing over to the Gentiles. They then write to the churches saying:
28 “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements…”
That phrase “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” gives us a good feel for what decision making in leaders meeting and church members’ meetings is all about. Our aim is to discern together what we should be doing. The aim is to seek and to do God’s will.
Note that this is not about majority voting. The church is not set up as a democracy. A majority vote can give the wrong answer. I would sometimes take a show of hands, secret ballot or go round a room and ask for verbal assent from each person as one way for getting a sense of the corporate view. However, that is not always necessary and a majority vote even by a pre-determined percentage does not necessarily mean you should go ahead. However, nor does this mean that there must be a unanimous vote and that small groups of people can have a veto. The risk with making things about voting is that the vote becomes another way of me expressing my personal preferences as an individual. I’ve sometimes found that when gracious and godly people vote no to a proposal and you ask them afterwards if they are happy to go ahead with the decision they say “Yes, I’m ready to give this a go.”
Secondly, this is not about consensus. You see we often associate that word with “compromise.” What this tends to mean is that we find a middle ground that everyone can agree upon. However, the final solution in such situations often ends up watering down the original intention. You end up with something that no-one is particularly happy about and no-one is really excited about.
Rather, when we seek to discern the will of the Spirit together, something else should happen. First of all, we will all be praying together. Secondly, we will be taking time to listen to God, submitting to Scripture. Thirdly, we will be helped in our discernment by General Revelation. This will include listening to the expertise of others (we might even suggest that these will be examples of words of knowledge and words of wisdom), we will also listen to the insights and intuition of people. We will give more time to think and to pray. We won’t try to rush the decision.
When we are seeking to reach a body decision together, then rather than fighting for a compromise that gets as much of my preferences in as possible, I will stop and listen. I will be challenged. If I find myself in the minority -maybe even a minority of one then I will want to take time to think about why this is. Have I misheard something? Have I got it wrong? Is it a question of timing? Are there things that the others are seeing that I’ve not grasped yet. Do you see that in this case the difference is that I become willing to change my mind, to modify my opinion so that we can reach the right decision?
Because it is not a democracy, this means that it is not just for the minority to listen. It may be that only one person in the room is arguing for a particular approach but we still need to listen to them and consider the possibility that this is the right way forward.
At times this may feel very similar to consensus because we often will modify our approach and take on board different ideas. However, the goal is different. We are not looking to find the lowest common denominator that all can agree to but to reach the right decision that gives us the best way forward and most importantly is obedient to Christ.
Oh … and don’t forget that churches are not infallible. Our corporate decisions do not count as Special Revelation. So, we will sometimes get things wrong. This corporate decision making needs to come with a willingness not to take ourselves too seriously, to try things, to be ready to go back and revisit a decision later, to have forgiving hearts.