In order for the local church to carry out its work, there must be some dependable, consistent method for making decisions. Many churches address this need by holding a business meeting in which the members can vote and thus the majority rules. Sound harmless? Aren’t we always hearing the positive side of living in a democracy from the news media? The serious Christian however, wants to know what Scripture has to say.
A look at the Acts
When we read the book of Acts we discover that the early Christians had larger concerns than simply solving a problem and getting on with the work at hand—concerns like discerning the mind of the Lord, and preserving the unity of the body. A classic passage for study reveals the handling of the doctrinal problem by the so-called Jerusalem council in Acts 15.
After much discussion and testimony on the question of the place of Moses’ law in the salvation of Gentile believers, the apostles and elders reached a conclusion and wrote letters to inform the churches. Two points in the letter written to the churches stand out.
- In verse 25, the literal wording is: “It seemed good to us, becoming of one mind…” (KJV) or we might render it: “having come to one accord…” By using the verb “to become” the writers acknowledged that something now existed that had not been there before; i.e. a unanimous conviction on the matter.
- Secondly, in framing a concluding application for the young churches to follow, we find in verse 28 the words: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…..” Placing the Holy Spirit first shows that this position to which all had come was God’s mind in the matter from the beginning and through some effort had now become the mind of the believers. What an uplifting perspective on problem solving! Christians working together to discover the mind of Christ.
Is it unrealistic for churches today to solve problems and decide issues this way? Not if every believer values God’s will in every decision above his own. Space does not allow us to survey passages like Phil. 1:27; 2:2; 3:15; 4:2 that appeal for oneness of mind among believers.
Consider the benefits of seeking unanimity. Elders may be wise, but they are finite in their wisdom. In depending on the Head of the church for guidance, they appeal to One who is omniscient to disclose His will in any matter. As the believers share in this process, and see it lived out in the life of the church, healthy discipleship training occurs.
Then patience is learned, even when our flesh finds waiting on the Lord distasteful. Speed is not the goal. Rich spiritual protection comes from knowing and embracing both the Lord’s will and His timing.
Objections to leading by unanimity
Two objections are common.
1. Church Voting
Some people refer to Acts 14:23 to justify congregational voting in the church. Doesn’t the Greek word there meaning “to lift the hand” support the idea of voting? Actually, it does not. The literal rendering is “And having appointed for them in every church elders…” Clearly, Paul and Barnabas are the subjects who did the appointing.
William Hoste writes: “There is indeed something grotesque in the idea of Paul and Barnabas ‘electing by a show of hands.’” The word used should bear its normal meaning of ‘pointing out.’ The apostles would recognize and be able to point out those who were qualified as this was a return visit to this area, time having elapsed in which evidence of suitability would now be manifest.
Proponents of church voting ought to ask themselves how often in scripture or society has the majority been right? The passion of personal desires and the influence of friends or family members make the objectivity of the crowd a poor choice for the basis of determining truth.
2. A hindering believer
The other objection to decision making by unanimity of the leadership is the charge that a dissenting brother can hold back the work of God. This can be a serious problem if not handled carefully. After faithfully following the process of investigation, discussion, study of the Word and prayer, elders ought to ask anyone who dissents from the proposed course of action if his objections are based on Biblical principle or personal scruple.
If the former, he should be able to produce relevant scriptures rightly applied. This will indicate that oneness has not been reached and further waiting on the Lord is necessary. If the latter, he should be asked to give his blessing to the rest who are convinced that the mind of the Lord has been discovered and who desire to move forward.
It is important in building any leadership team that every brother be agreed on some means of distinguishing between objections based on Biblical principle and objections that reflect personal preference. In this way, long stalemates and stagnation of the Lord’s work are avoided.
It isn’t easy to put aside the interests and viewpoints of self and earnestly seek together for God’s thoughts on any question. But there are rich rewards to both the process and the result for those who will accept the disciplines of seeking the mind of Christ.
Editorial note. This article was first posted in Elder’s Shopnotes in July 2003. It is re-posted with permission from the author.