Monday, June 08, 2015

Reimagining Decision-Making

How does your church go about making decisions?

Perhaps you don’t actually know. In very large churches, the process of deciding what is going to be done may be quite opaque to those who meet there. Where there is a very distinct hierarchy in place, perhaps decisions are made unilaterally, or maybe they are initiated by a ‘head pastor’ or equivalent and signed off on by a board or council of elders. Then again, maybe they are arrived at by discussion among elders and presented fait accompli to the congregation. Or perhaps opinions are solicited and discussed, and a decision is later made with the promise that “all voices have been heard and all opinions considered”.

Maybe there are lots of ugly politics involved that nobody really wants to talk about. I don’t know your church, so I won’t presume.

Rave Reviews

Earlier this week I reviewed a book by Frank Viola entitled Reimagining Church. In it, Viola measures the institutional church against the standard of the New Testament church and finds it sadly deficient. It is a testimony to Mr. Viola’s careful attention to the relevant passages in Acts and the epistles that I find almost nothing in Reimagining arguable. The church is a mess. We have adopted the structures of the world. We are very far from what God intended, and very far from where we should be.

If I wrote regular book reviews and gave actual ratings, Reimagining would get five stars. That’s my starting point. I say this because I’m going to voice a disagreement / concern or two here, but I’d like them to be seen in context, which is one of almost unadulterated approval, bows and applause for a courageous and accurate assessment of both the teaching of scripture and the current condition of many (if not most) of our churches. I recommend every serious Christian engage with the ideas laid out in this book.

Two Areas of Concern

That said, there are two areas in which I’d like to voice concerns. The first is the glaring absence of any attempt to deal with the New Testament role of women. There is no chapter on “Reimagining the Woman’s Role” to direct us back to Paul’s instructions regarding silence, attire or the headcovering and analyze these verses in context for us. Mr. Viola refers anecdotally to organic churches in which women participate audibly, but does not unequivocally approve or disapprove. He simply tells us what he observed. Thus we are left to wonder where he stands on a fairly significant aspect of church life. If we are to begin to rebuild the church according to the New Testament pattern to whatever extent we are able as the Lord gives opportunity, this is an area of discussion that definitely needs fleshing out.

The second area is decision-making. Chapter 10 of Reimagining Church deals with the process of how decisions in the church are arrived at. Viola starts the chapter as he does many others, with the Godhead. His thesis is that the church ought to model for the world the character of God and the relationship within the Trinity. It’s a good place to begin.

In previous chapters he has demonstrated over and over again that:

“... the New Testament promotes no other form of leadership than a shared form. The Lord has chosen to lead His church through a many-membered community. Elders emerge over time. They model pastoral care for the rest of the church, and they provide oversight. In addition, elders are always plural in a church.”

But in chapter 10, Viola goes further, taking the position that because “the overseers of the early church oversaw by example — not by coercion or manipulation” and because “their authority was rooted in their spiritual maturity rather than in a sacerdotal position”, they didn’t operate as an oligarchy or as a dictatorship. Neither did they operate as a democracy. Rather, Viola says, the New Testament pattern for decision-making is “by consensus”. By this he means that not just the elders but the entire church was involved in the making of decisions. He says:

“Majority rule, dictatorial rule, and a Robert’s Rules of Order mentality do violence to the body image of the church. And they dilute the unvarnished testimony that Jesus Christ is the Head of one unified body ... When the church is in sympathetic harmony, God will act.”

And again:

“The elders of the early church bore the bulk of spiritual oversight and pastoral care for the assembly. But they didn’t make decisions on behalf of the church. Nor were they solely responsible for the church’s direction.”

This is interesting, if somewhat difficult to imagine how it might work in the real world. And though I don’t find myself instantly in agreement, given Mr. Viola’s fine work in the rest of his book, I’m willing to be persuaded with a little more scriptural evidence. (I do not find his arguments from the “body image” terribly compelling. Metaphors in scripture have been notoriously over-mined for meaning and I am convinced that most imagery in the word of God is not intended to be scrutinized much beyond its obvious meaning.)

Unfortunately, further scriptural evidence on this subject is not to be found within the pages of Reimagining Church.

There are two reasonable lines of objection to a scenario in which all members of a local church participate in its decision-making process:

1.  Scriptural Concerns

The first and most significant objection is textual. Viola has set the stage for this rather difficult area by firmly establishing from scripture that the role of elders is not dictatorial, and I do not dispute that. Elders “barking out orders” is neither what the apostles envisaged nor what the Lord desires. That said, his scriptural evidence is extremely thin for an assertion that, if implemented, will have sweeping consequences.

To prove his thesis of whole-church consensus, Viola points to exactly one early church scenario, and it is not a command or even a request from an apostle or from the Lord, but rather a historical example. In Acts 15, because of an unusual and potentially disastrous situation in which men from the church in Jerusalem have come to Antioch and begun to teach Gentiles that without undergoing circumcision they cannot be saved, Paul and Barnabas and others are sent from Antioch to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders there. Presumably they are going to determine if this group of false teachers has the sanction of the church in Jerusalem, and what the church has to say about it.

But there are a number of factors that make this solitary incidence of “whole-church consensus” not precisely what Mr. Viola thinks it is, and therefore not truly a precedent for local church decision-making:

The Watershed Factor. To say that the question of putting the Gentiles under law is a watershed and a landmark in church history is not to overstate things. The question really is: are we saved by works, faith or maybe both? (Of course in reality, any combination of works and faith is effectively salvation by works.) This was perhaps the single most important issue in church history to date. One wrong move and Christianity becomes nothing more than just another Jewish sect under the Old Testament law. On that basis alone, I question the wisdom of using Acts 15 as normative for decision-making in local churches: the situation in which it arises is truly exceptional.

The Apostolic Factor. Further, the situation revolved around a group of men (in the apostles) functioning in a role that no longer exists and who wielded exceptional and irreplaceable authority in the early church. It is not all that surprising to me that “the whole church” agreed with a decision that had the input of Peter, Paul and James, along with the agreement of the other apostles and the elders of the church in Jerusalem. I’m pretty sure this situation (total, unified agreement) could not be replicated in a local church today, especially a large one. To truly repeat this unprecedented unity, I suspect we’d need the apostles along to allay the concerns of many who might otherwise be on the fence.

The Non-Local Factor. Also, we ought to note that to the best of my knowledge, this is the first and only time that any local church gave instructions to another about how they should proceed going forward (“it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements ...”). I would suggest the unique authority of the apostles was a factor here. As such, it does not represent an example of decision-making within the local church at all, but rather it was a decision with implications for the entire body of Christ. Again, not repeatable and not a model.

Analyzing the Mechanics. The apostles and elders gathered together to address the matter. It was not argued out before the entire church in Jerusalem. Practicality would surely have played a role here. Even if there was any inclination on the part of the elders and apostles to have the discussion in a public forum, in a church the size of Jerusalem this would likely have been impossible at this juncture in church history.

Three thousand were saved at Pentecost, and the Lord added daily to these in the early chapters of Acts. Early on, the church met in Solomon’s Colonnade in the temple courts, which appears to have been big enough for thousands. But the honeymoon period only lasted five years. Persecution hit, and by Acts 7, Stephen was stoned and Saul began to persecute the church. Many believers dispersed, to be sure, but the church in Jerusalem was doubtless still among the largest in the world twenty years later when we come to Acts 15 and the council in Jerusalem. Jewish animosity toward “The Way” had not ceased, and it is highly unlikely that a church the size of that in Jerusalem could meet publicly anymore.

In any case, in this instance they didn’t. The decision was made by the apostles and elders, not the gathered body of believers. That is plainly stated in verse 6. There is no record of anything like a vote taken. It is impossible that every member of the church in Jerusalem was consulted or had input. While we may infer general agreement about the content of the decision from what follows, it is inconceivable that the specifics of the council’s deliberations were exhaustively understood by all believers in Jerusalem. It seems to me the most likely scenario is that the decision was announced and the believers trusted their leadership enough to buy in. It was agreement after the fact.

What Did They Agree About? One more thing: a careful reading of the text of Acts 15 strongly suggests that the universal agreement was not about the substance of the issue being debated at all. That is to say, the opinions of average believers (new, mature or even carnal) on the subject of the Gentiles and the Law are not addressed in Acts 15, and it is reading into the text to suggest they were even solicited. It is debatable whether all the believers in the church in Jerusalem would have been up to the task of dealing with such an issue. Rather, it was about the mechanism of conveying the apostles’ and elders’ decision to Antioch that all believers found themselves in agreement. Both verses 22 and 25 bear this out. All agreed that Paul, Barnabas, Judas and Silas would make a good representative delegation to send to the Gentiles. It seems a huge stretch to me to read backward from this universal agreement about a relatively small issue of communication protocol to create a general rule about how church decisions should be made today.

The Inside Address in the Letter. Finally, it is by no means certain that the greeting line in the letter to the Gentiles explicitly includes the whole church in Jerusalem. It reads: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders ...” in the ESV, and suggests that it is the elders and the apostles (who are brothers in Christ to those in Antioch) that are addressing the Gentile believers. Most modern translators take this view. Translations that follow the KJV text tradition, however, read something like “the apostles and elders and brethren”. The “us” in verse 25, which reads “having come to one accord”, refers back to verse 23. If the modern versions are correct, this simply restates the fact that the elders and apostles have agreed together. It does not suggest that other believers were consulted about doctrine.

What Can We Conclude?

In summary, (i) given the above information, it seems highly dubious to interpret this unique, historic situation precisely the way Mr. Viola does, as some sort of general consensus achieved among all believers in the church in Jerusalem, (ii) in any case it is a single instance, not one of a number of instances in scripture, and (iii) it is neither a command of the Lord nor of the apostles, but rather a historical example of something one church did. Once.

Thus, it seems to me the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 is exceptional, not normative.

Again, full credit to Mr. Viola for his diligent work in researching and expounding other areas of church life in the first century. In every other instance, chapter after chapter, he cites numerous scriptures and supports his theses from Old and New Testaments. On this point, however, his evidence is uncharacteristically thin, and it seems to me that even he must acknowledge that.

Consensus Among Leadership

That said, the principle of consensus seems to me very important within the leadership, and the council of Jerusalem certainly bears this out. Acts 15 may quite reasonably be cited as evidence that leadership in a local church ought to be in agreement before acting. Such consensus, symphonic harmony and speaking together with one voice unquestionably gives a church confidence in moving forward that the Holy Spirit has been active in the decision-making process.

But extending that consensus to the entire church body seems to be without adequate scriptural warrant.

In addition to the scriptural concerns, making decisions by consensus of the entire church body also raises practical concerns, which I hope to address in a second post on the subject.

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