Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Seems Good to Me

Elders haven’t got the easiest job in the world.

The average local church requires answers to a hundred different questions in the course of a year. Some are of an obvious and urgent spiritual nature. Others appear innocuous and procedural, though even these may be chock-a-block with hidden spiritual landmines.

Sure, deacons handle many of the day-to-day administrative details in gatherings where New Testament principles of operation are given priority, but that still leaves an awful lot of territory to be talked over, prayed through and hashed out between busy men just trying to do the best possible job of shepherding the people of God, often while caring for their own families and leading busy lives.

The most careful, prayerful, diligent and confident leader must still occasionally ask himself “Are we getting this right?” Or if he doesn’t, he should.

The Mechanics of Decision-Making

We don’t have a lot of scripture devoted to the mechanics of decision-making in first century churches, either in terms of “how to” or by way of example.

There is, of course, the church in Antioch’s decision to send out Paul and Barnabas to preach the gospel, but: (1) it seems to predate the recognition of elders in Antioch (it was a gathering of prophets and teachers); and (2) it sounds a little more mystical — or perhaps the better term is miraculous — than the average elder’s meeting today.

Let me put it this way: I think I know what “the Holy Spirit said” looks like when he is addressing a moral or doctrinal question: he speaks to us through the text of scripture, and we have merely to apply his words to our circumstances honestly and faithfully. But I have no idea what it looks like when he directs a room full of church leaders to send out a specific pair of missionaries and names them. I presume he spoke through one of the prophets in the room, something we don’t see a lot of today for reasons I have addressed previously.

That “signs and wonders” component makes using Antioch as a model for arriving at our understanding of the will of God a little more difficult than it might first appear.

In the Seat of the Magisterium

A more obvious example might be the elders and apostles in Jerusalem who came together to address the circumcision question, an issue with implications that would ripple down through the centuries and the answer to which remains relevant today.

We would be unwise to speculate about the dynamics of decision-making in Jerusalem beyond what we may observe in the text itself, but given the Lord’s upper room teaching about what leadership entails (“I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet”) and Peter’s later exhortation to elders about how to do their jobs (“not domineering ... but being examples”), I rather suspect leadership in the church at Jerusalem was organic and cooperative rather than rigidly hierarchical, even with a fair number of apostles in attendance.

I did, however, come across a dissenting opinion online, full of amusing ecclesiastical buzzwords — things like “seat of the magisterium”, “Peter’s episcopy”, “presbyters”, vox Petros and my absolute favorite, In Persona Christi Capitas. It purports to address the perplexing question, “If Peter had primacy, why did James make the decision on circumcision?” The poor, naive reader unexposed to years of high-church dogma may be forgiven for asking the obvious: “Um ... maybe Peter didn’t have primacy?” But if you’re looking for a fascinating, bizarre and wildly speculative interpretation of Acts 15, that one’s a classic read.

Back in the Real World

The actual events of the chapter bear no resemblance to the aforementioned fussy, excessively elaborate reconstruction. What happens when the elders and apostles have gathered is simply this: Peter first appeals to the authority of God in having sent him to the Gentiles, and to the miraculous signs that accompanied his visit to the household of Cornelius, then challenges the circumcision gang to consider Israel’s established inability to keep the law and asserts that grace, not law, is now the order of the day. James then weighs in with a quote from Amos to establish that the calling of the Gentiles by the Lord’s name was an expected part of God’s work in the world, and not inconsistent with the Law of Moses. He then gives his judgment on the matter — “We should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood” — and, finally, the gathered apostles and elders find this an agreeable way to proceed.

So we have a simple, non-hierarchical, open discussion that that appeals to: (i) the authority of an apostolic vision; (ii) a miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s power confirmed by multiple independent witnesses; (iii) the evidence of history; and (iv) the teaching of the prophets. This leads to the gathered apostles and elders coming “to one accord”. There is no record of dissent, and no indication what might have happened if some of the elders and apostles present had disagreed with James’ assessment.

Three Brief Statements

Moreover, the walls do not shake. The whole decision-making exercise may be summed up in three brief statements: (1) “my judgment is”, (2) “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit”, and finally (3) “and to us”. The second statement probably reflects the impression of the gathered elders and apostles after hearing James quote the words of the Spirit recorded in the book of Amos.

It’s also not impossible that James’ use of Amos had a little extra clout behind it that day. The spiritual gifts of prophecy and the discerning of spirits were a standard feature of first century church life, and one or both may have upped the level of conviction of some in the room, given that the issue at stake was a major one indeed. But unlike in Antioch, we are not told that the Holy Spirit “said” anything at all. Notwithstanding, all present seemed convinced that they had successfully discerned his will in the matter.

I believe all elders may make at least two of these three statements today — confidently, honestly and without exaggeration. Further, I have little difficulty declaring what “seems good to the Holy Spirit”, provided we understand that phrase to mean nothing more mystical than that we are taking our stand on what scripture declares, honestly and accurately handled. (Some may prefer formulations like “We had peace about this or that decision”, and that’s fine.)

A Question of Authority

The advantage of such a process is that a church relies on the unanimous agreement of mature, recognized leaders about what seems good in their judgment, rather than crossing its collective fingers and hoping for a consistent display of spiritual instincts from a single, dominant leading man.

That said, some may find this sort of leadership insufficiently authoritative for their tastes.

But it seems to me that the only alternative to acknowledging that we are relying on our spiritual judgment and seeking to discern what “seems good” via examination of the scriptures, prayer and a careful consideration of the facts on the ground is to risk investing our decision-making with some kind of phony gravity; to dare to stamp the considered opinions of mere men with God’s imprimatur. That’s probably not the wisest possible course of action.

The Children of Wisdom

And as the Lord himself said, “Wisdom is justified by all her children.” Today’s decisions shape tomorrow’s churches. The condition of those churches — not in your opinion or mine, but in the opinion of the risen Head of the Church, whose eyes are like a flame of fire — will either testify against or confirm the faithfulness of today’s decision-makers.

Which is to say this: an elder who finds himself unsure that a particular move is the best possible course of action is wise to hold off making it.

If the spiritual direction of a local church is to be determined by a series of “seems good to me” decisions, we had best make sure we always say those words in the confidence of a good conscience before God.

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