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Consensus among the church… just wishful thinking?

Posted by on Sep 21, 2012 in church life, discipleship, elders, office | 18 comments

Consensus among the church… just wishful thinking?

A couple of year ago, I wrote a series on the topic of Church Polity. You can see the links to the posts in that series above.

In almost every instance, the question of polity arises in the context of making decisions as a church. Occasionally, the concept of polity is also seen as overlapping the issue of authority among the church. In that series, I first stepped through the definitions, scriptural evidences, and scriptural problems with the concepts of Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Congregational polities (governments).

I suggested that when turning to Scripture to support any of these polities, there are problems:

So far, in order to support any type of church polity, we must ignore the fact that there is no direct evidence, ignore passages that indicate indirectly other forms of church polity, and ignore the fact that polity is not important in any of the writings of the New Testament.

But, there is one more thing that we must ignore exegetically. We must ignore what Scripture says about all believers; things like the fact that all believers are indwelled by the Holy Spirit or all believers have the mind of Christ. We must ignore the fact that believers are to submit to one another. (I would assume this includes leaders? Even bishops? Even the presbyters?) We must ignore that believers are to consider others (and the opinions and desires of others) as more important than themselves. (I would assume this would include the majority versus the minority.)

Then, I suggested that there is another way forward, a way that does not include episcopal, presbyterian, or congregational polity: consensus. I admitted that seeking consensus among a group of believers can be impractical and often time consuming. But, still, I believe that consensus – the entire church working together to come to a decision – best describes what we read about the church in Scripture.

Recently, I noticed that the series above gets quite a few hits (through various search engines). People reach that series by searching for “episcopal church polity,” or “presbyterian church polity,” or “congregational church polity.” Sometimes, combined search strings such as “episcopal presbyterian congregational” hit that series.

But, you know what I haven’t noticed? Very few people are searching for information about consensus. I thought there may be a few reasons for this:

1) People are using a different term other than “consensus.”
2) People interested in consensus are not searching for information.
3) People don’t think consensus is a viable option.

(Perhaps there are other reasons as well…)

But, I wonder, what do you think about consensus? Is it possible that a group of Christians can come together and make decisions by consensus? Or, is this just wishful thinking… idealism… too impractical?


18 Comments

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  1. 9-21-2012

    Good case for the revival of small, intimate church. Obviously consensus in a large hierarchical group presents a huge challenge and more temptation to support and enforce movement without consensus, whereas, in a smaller group there is an easier road to unity and consensus. Also a Christ centered group (rather than a project centered or program centered) has fewer decisions to make – it seems to me, regarding polity. Boundaries and responsibilities become simpler and clearer it seems to me. Parents…mind and train your children. Children, serve and respect…husbands love your wives and vice versa…where do we meet this week, what is God saying to us…so many of life’s problems and dilemmas become simply…is there anything we can do to help or do we just offer support and long suffer as we watch God change lives, build lives, restore, teach and heal…the problems of achieving unity/consensus in large congregations seems like so many unnecessary burdens to bear (my yoke is easy, my burden is light)…while keeping our eyes on Jesus and seeking His presence to bring us our needed sustenance, be it spiritual or otherwise, is such a more achievable goal…it seems to me and I am experiencing that kind of church now in my life after many many years in a hierarchical church. Church co-operation within a community can afford many benefits to a community, but so many overworked folks can get bitter when faced with continual demand for their time and energies… expected for endless traditional and new projects that lack the passion that comes from letting Christ lead in everything. Well, a little soapbox action here…but that is what I think…this morning after reading this post! LOL.

  2. 9-21-2012

    Rita,

    I agree that consensus (like many other instructions and examples that we find in Scripture) is impossible for larger groups. The question we must ask ourselves then is this: Do we move away from larger groups, or do we set aside the instructions and examples in Scripture? Most have opted for the second choice.

    -Alan

  3. 9-21-2012

    Alan, I think you’re right that consensus is the Scriptural model and is therefore the model we should strive for. But most people just seem to take the hierarchical, someone has to have the final say, model (the corporate chief exec model) completely for granted as the only way to get things done. And getting things done is perhaps the goal, rather than being the body of Christ…

  4. 9-21-2012

    Alan.Im not sure if u have read the first few posts, or any, of my recently started
    blog, but if u had you would have read that the fellowship we were with for 30 yrs enjoyed consensus for the first 20 or so. Knowing what we now do about how consensus can be achieved could possibly have allowed us to keep it when Satan came in thru the back door &tripped us up. Paul wrote that we are not ignorant of Satans devices but he was talking to the first century believers who were in fact more spiritually minded, as our divisions & myopia prove we are not. Consensus is not contingent on group size, & neither is it in danger of large numbers.
    Consensus is a choice to prefer one another, suffer long with one another, to listen humbly to one another & all the other one anothers listed in scripture.
    And all of them can & should be taught, discussed, modeled & trained, especially by older, wiser men & women.Re-organizing corporate life, & even family to fit into adopting a lifestyle of one anothering is the missing secret ingredient to the painful but tangibly rewarding benefit of achieving consensus.
    We did this.
    Keeping it is another story, that requires the unity & wisdom of multiple churches being in consensus, as well as the emergence of Apostles, Prophets & Teachers who are trained & able to provide under girding to the saints.
    We can all have consensus but will need to decide the price to get it is worth giving up everything if necessary.
    And it may be.

  5. 9-21-2012

    Kevin,

    Yes, it’s easy to fall into the mindset of “getting things done.” I’m glad that God has surrounded me with people who constantly remind each other to seek to live in Christ in every moment and not to jump ahead of him.

    Greg,

    You called it (consensus) “painful but tangibly rewarding”… I think that’s a great way to put it.

    -Alan

  6. 9-22-2012

    Alan-

    Definitely agree with you that we most often move away from consensus because it is slow. It also requires that each and every one of us is seeking God in the decision/action. Most of us don’t have much (any) experience with that :P It’s difficult enough for me to ask God what I should do in a particular situation. Its more complicated when WE do that – are you putting aside your agenda, am I? Furthermore, we come from such an individualistic society that the notion of being part of a group decision where we will hear one another, trust one another, defer to one another, agree with one another, affirm one another, allow dissenting voices to be heard, etc. is difficult.

    There is also something to be said about the role of “leaders” of various sorts in the story. I suppose because most of us grow up in some sort of representative democracy, we elect someone to act on our behalf. This fits very nicely with people’s fear of God which makes us want a mediator between us and God. Voila – a priest to hear from God for us! All very good, of course, until they say something we don’t like! I am not saying there are not different roles of leadership, not am I saying that we don’t give people the ability to make decisions and act on our behalf. However, I do believe that we together must decide these things so that we collectively hold accountable and support people and decisions.

    I grew up in the Friends (Quaker) church where this (to some degree or another) is how we make major decisions. There are problems and we didn’t always follow a strict pattern of coming to decisions this way. But I believe that it is the best way to allow all the gifts to function collectively and a group to agree. Even knowing all the potential difficulties, I would rather stick to what in principle seems right, even if not most expedient. I would also add that if you want to make decisions seeking consensus, it is imperative to begin with worship. Repentance, praise, listening to God’s voice all help put our hearts in the right place. It is only from that place that we can hear together. None of this works without Jesus in our midst…

  7. 9-22-2012

    Arthur,

    Great comment! I love how you worked through the various issues involved and brought it back to focusing on and following Jesus together.

    You mention growing up in a “representative democracy.” Interestingly, if you look at the rise of the various forms of polity among the church, they typically follow the rise (or popularity) of the same type of national polity.

    I think this statement that you made is very important: “I would rather stick to what in principle seems right, even if not most expedient.” Thanks!

    -Alan

  8. 9-22-2012

    I have been reading this post for a little while now. I think I would like to add a couple of thoughts to this topic. I don’t really have a complete conviction one way or another, but I think there is a different way to view Alan’s idea about consensus. When I think of Bible verses talking about submitting to one another, I think first of all of Ephesians 5:21.

    Interestingly, this is followed immediately by “Wives, submit to your own husbands” and “For the husband is the head of the wife”. Then, Husband, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

    I tend to hear two ways of looking at the juxtaposition of 5:21 with the husband/wife verses. One says that the husband/wife passages are explaining 5:21 by showing who is to submit to whom. The other says (in reality) that 5:21 really trumps the husband/wife passages.

    I think that the wife is to submit to her husband, and the husband is to have the final decision, but that is not at all incompatible with the husband submitting to the wife. I have the final say in our marriage, and my wife will honor, and go out of her way to support and adopt my decisions. But, I also try to go out of my way to understand her positions and desires and preferences, and make my decisions in ways that honor her but also are responsible to what God has called me. I think it looks alot like consensus, but it isn’t.

    I guess my point is that you can still have leadership or “majority rule” and still honor the passages regarding submitting to each other and regarding the other as more important than yourself.

  9. 9-22-2012

    Gunnar,

    I really appreciate your comment. I agree that in Ephesians (and 1 Corinthians) Paul says that the husband is the head of the wife. Is this same relationship ever made concerning any church leaders and other believers (i.e., a headship relationship)?

    I do agree (if I understand what you’re saying) that we can and should submit to those leaders who are mature followers of Jesus, but I’m not convinced this means that leaders are supposed to make decisions for others.

    -Alan

  10. 9-22-2012

    In my experience, 70 years of it…the larger the group, the harder it is to be as flexible as a smaller group, the more complications when God is wanting to move in lives. Jesus had His 12 disciples. Not saying that is the only pattern for His church. We have watched folks want to come to our meetings and then just slip away to other settings…and as we contemplated this we realized that what God was doing in our midst was so specific that we decided that when someone asks to come, we now invite them to gather a few friends in their own home and some of us will come to them and offer any help we can, rather than change the dynamics and constitution of those of us that were so sovereignly fitted together…with the exception of one couple who we agreed to include without reservation and have fitted in very graciously and their struggles fit into what God is doing in our midst. That kind of unity, focus, sense of what God is doing during this season for us all, affords us a gentle process of finding consensus and enables us to function in a very peaceful consensus. We all realize that what we have is not necessarily a permanent situation and we treasure each other and value this season together. We realize things could change at any time. The little missionary family could return to the field in Eastern Europe, the large family is building a house farther away from the 20 or so mile radius where we live, etc. Our time together is precious and valuable and cannot be taken for granted. That eliminates a lot of the threats from the enemy to bring divisiveness…making the instructions and examples in Scripture seem very natural and hardly a choice…just a natural by product.

  11. 9-22-2012

    Alan — To answer your question (rhetorical, perhaps) regarding whether or not the Bible ever has a “headship” type responsibility. I don’t know about “headship”, but, I think that you can make the argument that you can have positions of authority in the church. I think you can justify almost any form of church government (from episcopalian/apostolic succession to pure consensus government) from the Bible. I do think some forms are better (and more consistently Biblical) than others, but I respect other opinions on this matter.

    My main point in my post was that, whatever type you choose, it doesn’t need to be inconsistent with the principal of submitting to/preferring others (although, in our pride, most types of church government — even by consensus, are often not characterized by mutual submission). Even in a consensus type situation, strong personalities can easily dominate the others. Hopefully a consensus type situation would be most resistent to one person lording it over others, but it isn’t always.

  12. 9-22-2012

    Rita,

    Thanks for sharing part of your story especially as it relates to consensus. We’ve witnessed God move people in and out of our community as well. Some “visit,” but others stay for a while and become part of the community. It’s always painful to see people move, but somehow we’ve found that it’s possible to maintain these relationships even after they leave the area.

    Gunnar,

    I sincerely agree with you that believers who find themselves part of any kind of polity should seek to work together for the good of all and should seek to submit to one another. I disagree about positions of authority, as I think authority among the church is only found in God, not in positions. Thus, anyone who speaks or acts according to God’s will is speaking or acting in God’s authority (even if that person does not have a “position”). Also, if one person is lording it over others, I would not consider that a consensus.

    -Alan

  13. 9-22-2012

    Alan — I have followed your site enough to think that you would probably say that you don’t agree with positions of authority. I, on the other hand, think that in a church of more than a small number of families, it would be best to have a group of elders, which I would say is a position of authority.

    I wouldn’t say that the other forms of leadership — senior pastors, bishops, etc, are clearly wrong, but I do think that they are not the best, and it is my opinion that they inhibit the healthy functioning of the church.

    I would say that in a 6-8 household house church, it would probably be unnecessary — and probably detrimental — to insist on ruling elders or something like that. Consensus is probably best for the smaller groups.

    I don’t hold my positions necessarily because I think that the Bible is clear about them — to the contrary, I tend to think that God is pretty relaxed about how a church is governed. But, practically speaking, I think I see multiple elder leadership in the Bible, it makes sense to me, and it seems consistent to me with the rest of the Bible. Likewise, in small groups, the need for that type of leadership just isn’t there. I don’t view either type of leadership as inherently better, nor do I view either size of church (small or large) as inherently better (although the bigger the church is, the harder it is for it to stay focused on Jesus and each other and not get distracted by programs and business).

  14. 9-22-2012

    Gunnar,

    I agree with everything that you said except two things. While I agree that even a church of a few small families should recognize/select elders from among the mature believers, I do not believe that Scripture indicates that elders are positions of authority.

    And, I am concerned about churches made up of a large number of people, because it’s impossible for the people to live with one another as described in the New Testament. (The only way this happens is if the larger group divides into smaller groups, but then the smaller groups are the church also. And, it is in that smaller groups that the people actually live as the church.)

    -Alan

  15. 9-22-2012

    I agree about the need for larger churches to have smaller groups where people actually can relate to each other and get to know each other. And I also agree that it is only in the smaller group that the people (“the church”) can really function as a church.

    I appreciate your emphasis in your blog on living out our call to be a church — living out real relationship and commitments to each other and through our relationships reaching out to the world — and not just doing programs that make us feel like we are doing “church”.

    I’m going to bed soon! I have enjoyed going back and forth with you. Thank you.

    Gunnar

  16. 9-23-2012

    When I accepted Christ in the early 70’s, there was already a natural, yet unspoken “leadership” in our small community…BUT, we didn’t recognize it fitted into the Biblical pattern and we followed our programmed instincts to look for a “leader” who of course would know more than we did. Now, nearly 40 years later, in a small organic type group…including some of whom were also in the initial community together and suffered together some of the errors incumbent in a hierarchical group, we are very cautious about anyone “taking” a leadership role. There is quite a variety of personalities and many youngsters. We all take great pains to make a way for the children to function in the meetings and keep the atmosphere free of “leadership” other than the Holy Spirit. While I find this very joyful and liberating, I do not despise entirely the journey. God still has the right unreservedly to operate in His mysterious ways and the motley crew that we were coming out of the 60’s subculture, perhaps could only be corralled and managed under some form of leadership. The happy outcome being that we have a greater understanding and appreciation for the leadership of the Spirit and Jesus and can work together to support and nourish that amongst our young. A thought regarding Gunnar’s topic of husband/wife submission…watching so many couples struggle through every possible interpretation of that, from sweet to downright nasty…if we expand that thought out a little to include the example of Jesus and His bride…the church, which we have discussed here as working in consensus, I think it might be important to remember how utterly respectful the Lord is of His bride, collectively and each of us as individuals also (as in the Trinity). Respect for each other as individuals creates so much more consensus, the willingness for consensus, than the “right” of submission.

  17. 9-24-2012

    Gunnar,

    I enjoyed the push back and the interaction as well. Please keep coming back and commenting.

    Rita,

    I’m guessing that your current group does have leaders. But, those leaders probably do not look or act like the “leaders” of modern culture.

    -Alan

  18. 9-24-2012

    Yes, that could be said. I am the second oldest…so we have elders. LOL. We have heads of household, fathers, grandfathers and mothers, even great grandfathers and mothers. But yes, definitely there are no special clothes or anything else that would designate one as a leader and our meetings seldom have any repeated format that would require “leading”…except maybe that we always have a meal together first and we often play together afterward outside weather permitting.