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Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The Power of Two

How do we make decisions in the church? What is the teaching of the New Testament?

In his book Reimagining Church, Frank Viola contends that the normal method of making major decisions in the church is by consensus, not just of leadership but of every believer in a local church. (You can find my review here.)

He uses the council at Jerusalem in Acts 15 as his sole scriptural evidence.

Metaphors and Principles

Perhaps that’s unfair: metaphors and principles come from scripture too, though they do not carry the same weight as more explicit teaching or direct commands in guiding us as to the specifics of NT decision-making. Viola uses plenty of both.

As to metaphors, Mr. Viola has established that the church is an organism, not an organization, and as such he references the New Testament “body” metaphor to confirm that there is no hierarchical authority in the church other than the Head himself, Jesus Christ. There are merely undershepherds among sheep. With this we would certainly agree. But it seems untenable to me to infer too many specific conclusions about church practice merely from imagery, however scriptural such imagery may be.

As to principles, Viola makes much of the fact that the authority vested in elders / overseers / leaders in the first century church was not of the hierarchical sort. This too is a thoroughly scriptural principle, as we see from Peter’s instruction to overseers not to “[domineer] over those in your charge, but [to be] examples to the flock”. 

Where the Battle is Waged

Mr. Viola takes issue with the institutional church’s single-pastor, hierarchical, often-domineering model, and with good reason: such a model cannot be extrapolated from or even plausibly grafted into the New Testament. The early church knew no such men, and certainly did not intentionally cultivate the sort of top-down authority structure evident in institutional Christendom today. Viola is fighting the idea of human authority structures in the church that are (i) extra-scriptural, (ii) derived from paganism, Judaism or military command, (iii) autocratic and often tyrannical, and (iv) inconsistent with the “body” metaphor and the organic nature of the church.

So, yes, in the form of imagery and principle, there is plenty of scripture behind his idea. Unfortunately, he cannot point to a single command from an apostle or from the Lord to make decisions by consensus of the entire church. Neither can he point to any legitimate first century example that sets a precedent for such consensus in the local church. As I demonstrated yesterday, Acts 15 will not suffice, for a whole raft of reasons .

With that established, we may be in a position to consider other, more scriptural possibilities for decision-making. But first, I mentioned in yesterday’s post (which dealt with my scriptural concerns about Mr. Viola’s use of the text of Acts 15) that I’d address a few practical concerns about whole-church consensus.

2.  Practical Concerns

I’m addressing these second because any cavils I might have about how to put into practice the truth of God are — at least in comparison to my concerns about whether or not it actually IS the truth of God — wholly irrelevant. If Mr. Viola can establish from scripture, either by command or adequate precedent, that whole-church consensus is the consistent pattern of the early believers, our concern ought to be not whether we should follow it, but how best we may do so.

Still, practical issues arise when we consider how such a thing might be achieved. Among them:

Defining “major”. Problem One is determining what sort of question would merit the consideration of the whole church in any given location. After reading a book-and-a-half of Frank Viola on the church, I can find no qualification on the sort of decision he has in view other than the adjective “major”, which I think he uses in Pagan Christianity? It’s possible he has written further on the question elsewhere, but I have yet to encounter it.

It is apparent that much of the decision-making in New Testament churches was not done by the spiritual leadership — at least that is how the apostles in the first days of the church in Jerusalem handled things: they considered it of crucial importance to devote themselves to “prayer and to the ministry of the word”, not the ordinary day-to-day details of caring for the needy and “waiting tables”. That emphasis on spiritual matters is consistent with the role of elders. “They are keeping watch over your souls”, says the writer to the Hebrews.

The teaching of the apostle Paul in the epistles would seem to bear this out. Administrative decision-making in practical matters of church life is the legitimate territory of a second group of church servants often referred to in English as deacons. Decision-making about such comparatively “minor” matters is neither the business of the elders nor of the entire church at large. We know this because the deacons in the first century were not chosen by drawing straws: certain spiritual qualities are necessary in order to do non-spiritual work in a spiritual way. Even the making of lesser decisions in the church requires one to stand out from the crowd spiritually.

If the practical decisions related to a local church are the province of deacons, it is already clear that a great number of decisions in a local church do not require whole-church consensus.

To make the consensus method imaginable (not to mention useful), those who espouse it as a principle need to find a scriptural indication of the sorts of decisions that would merit consideration by the whole church.

Defining “the church”. Problem Two is more serious and involves determining what constitutes “a member of the church”, not from God’s infinitely knowledgeable perspective, of course, but from our own limited data set, since the church itself would have to determine who ought to weigh in on any particular decision.

The organic nature of the “reimagined” church described by Mr. Viola tends to argue against the notion of compiling membership lists or signing on to statements of faith. We cannot use baptism as a metric, except indirectly, since in scripture baptism has nothing to do with entry into the church. We would affirm that everyone who has believed in his or her heart that God raised the Lord Jesus from the dead and has publicly confessed him as Lord is a member of the body of Christ, indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God. But what is the best way to recognize that?

To get around the problem, some would-be nondenominational churches engage in a less formal recognition of who is “in fellowship” at any given time. But that too is an extra-scriptural practice, though it may be less obvious than asking Christians to sign a statement of faith.

In an “organic” house church where twenty-five or thirty people meet together at most and evangelism is not considered a function of the gathered church but rather of its members in their daily lives, keeping track of who is “in” and who is not may be easy. It is surely this relatively manageable scenario that Mr. Viola has in mind. Viola envisions an ideal in which every member of a local representation of the body of Christ participates in making decisions. But in any gathering larger than a few dozen, we run into a problem: how do we know who’s in and who isn’t? A show of hands from all those present? Surely not. Simply showing up cannot be our criterion.

And that begs the question of whether all SHOULD participate in making major decisions, even if we could be completely sure who belongs to the Lord in our gatherings. Immature believers? Believers who are failing to grow in Christ but have not committed any known gross immorality? Insubordinate, empty talkers? Christians who are muddled in their understanding of scripture and inconsistent in their walk? There is plenty of evidence that the early church had many such in their meetings. A quick glance at our own gatherings confirms nothing has changed in two thousand years. Should uncommitted, undeveloped, confused or carnal believers really be consulted on major decisions?

Can we be confident such a thing is the mind of the Lord?

In order to make their method useful at all, anyone putting forward the principle of whole-church consensus would need to come up with a scriptural way of identifying and involving in the decision-making process those with skin in the game, so to speak.

This is currently lacking.

Testimony of Two Witnesses

I established yesterday that while the Acts 15 council at Jerusalem cannot reasonably be cited as a precedent for whole-church consensus, it does serve as legitimate precedent for the principle that elders (or at very least the functioning oversight, fully qualified or otherwise) ought to agree before deciding upon questions with which they are faced.

A second incident in the book of Acts may cement this principle (you know, “testimony of two men” and all). Frank Viola has already established rather convincingly that elders are not forced upon a church or parachuted in from outside it. Rather, they develop organically within it as the Holy Spirit gradually equips men to serve the local church over the course of its growth. This seems to be what happened in Antioch, if we read a little bit between the lines:
“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”
So here we have five gifted, mature brothers meeting together and seeking the Lord, urgent enough in their prayers to be both fasting and worshiping. If they are not exactly elders, they are the closest the church in Antioch has produced at this stage of its development. Note that it is not to the whole church that the Holy Spirit speaks, but to this smaller group of mature, leading men who are already doing the work of God and are intent upon finding the will of the church’s Head and being subject to it.

I think Frank Viola has something in the principle of consensus. I just don’t think that consensus in the New Testament church extends to an entire local expression of the body, and this passage would seem to reinforce that idea.

In this he IS certainly corrent: if an entire assembly were to agree together in the Holy Spirit, God would assuredly work. But I think that’s an unlikely scenario in a larger gathering of God’s people, and in any case it’s not required.

Where the Holy Spirit, the name of Christ and obedient servants are involved, two is enough.

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