Democracy, Division and Consensus

One of the great privileges of growing up is having the right to vote. It is the cornerstone of every free society. It allows the right to free speech: the right to express opinions whether they are valid or not. Of course, the ability to express some opinions can lead to misinformation or oppression and so we have laws to restrict freedoms for the cause of justice and safety. Okay so far? As Christians, belonging to that kind of society, even with its imperfections and limitations, we should be grateful.

Let’s examine the system a little further. It’s called democracy. Christians in a democracy are just as much a part of the system as unbelievers. We have the same rights and responsibilities and are subject to the same laws (unless, of course, God’s laws supersede them and that’s where it can get difficult). Now here’s where it gets really difficult. We are so much a part of society; we are governed by its rules and influenced by its culture and values. Most of us would vote for democracy every time but what is good in the world at large isn‘t necessarily good in the Church. We have come to believe that democracy almost equals Christianity, that it is a foundation stone of belief and practice. However, democracy is, by practice, adversarial. In other words, in order for a democracy to work, there has to be disagreement, there has to be opposition. Opposition is seen to be good and is built into the process of government. Not so in the Church. This is what Paul has to say,

I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” (1 Cor.1:10).

The seeds of division at Corinth found fertile soil in the climate of the ancient Greek democracy that had set the environment in the Church. When we take our church government model from the world, the world gives us the permission to oppose each other and division becomes the acceptable norm. In that kind of environment, division is promoted as diversity and is seen to be positive (this has nothing at all to do with the benefits that come from cultural and personal style). Differences in belief and practice are celebrated in the name of freedom but truth and unity suffer.

In the Church, which is a part of God’s kingdom on earth, different rules apply. God is absolute ruler and He rules through grace.

But to each one of us grace is given as Christ apportioned it.” (Eph.4:7).

This is given in the context of the whole of God’s people working together and with particular reference to the relationship of gifted leadership to the body. Of course, the question arises, how is God’s rule recognized in the Church? It is by Spirit-led consensus. Consensus is the absence of conflict in which general agreement is attained among the members of a group. Let’s have a look at a Biblical example that helps us to see how this was achieved in the Early Church. There was an issue in the early Church; it concerned the place of Judaism in relation to salvation and how that affected Gentile believers. Discussion took place among the apostles and elders, a decision was made and the whole church was invited to join the consensus,

“Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church…” (Acts 15:22),

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us…” (Acts 15:28).

The decision was made and gifted leaders were sent out to deliver the message, which was received with gladness. We must be careful not to create an absolute rule but rather lay down principles by which we should operate in all circumstances:

i) God is acknowledged and the presence of His Holy Spirit recognized.

The Church is theocratic. In other words, we are to determine what He is doing and conform to Him. This is precisely the way that Jesus conducted His mission. He only did what He saw the Father doing. The method is a proactive submission to the purposes of God. In this case, God demonstrated the acceptance of the Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit. Clearly, this was some outward show of the presence and power of God, perhaps similar to the Day of Pentecost. It was a baptism in the Holy Spirit, as Jesus promised before ascending to the Father. In the present day, “baptism in the Holy Spirit” has become a contentious issue, often being redefined to such an extent that we are left without a power encounter with God that is obvious and clear. I’m not talking about some bizarre manifestation but an authentic experience leading to a life demonstrating the power of God. How can we be satisfied with anything less than every good gift that comes from above, so that we can honestly say that we are overcomers in this fallen world? God acts sovereignly through the principle of grace, which was seen through His gift-men Paul and Barnabas. Having reported back to the apostles in Jerusalem, God’s work was acknowledged. The presence and power of the Holy Spirit vindicated the cause.

ii) The facts are examined by the leaders.

A serious disagreement arose and so Paul and Barnabas were appointed to seek a decision regarding the dispute. This is of great significance. There was clearly an understanding and willingness to abide by the conclusion. There was no sense that a divergence of doctrine and practice would be acceptable. The facts and the issue were reported in full and the matter was subjected to the test of Scripture, which in this case was Old Testament prophecy. Grace triumphed and foundations were laid for the future. This is all the more remarkable; as one Jewish Christian lady once said to me, “Put two Jews in a room and you will get three opinions”.

The early Church apostles and elders have given us a workable model to deal with disputes in the area of doctrine and practice. They were willing to put behind them their heritage and cultural investment in their Jewish Messiah for the sake of the truth. From that time on they were completely redefined as God’s chosen people.

iii) The conclusion is made and communicated by gifted leaders

Theology is applied. What they believed is converted into action. A decision is made. In this case, James had both the freedom and authority to make a judgment. This James was the half-brother of Jesus, the same James who wrote the letter that we have in the New Testament. Significantly, this letter was written just prior to the Council of Jerusalem. It was addressed to a Jewish Church and contained aspects of Jewish practice. For example, it speaks of the practice of anointing with oil when praying for the sick. The literalist would take that instruction and make it a mandatory practice. However, The Council of Jerusalem was the point of disconnection with the particular Jewish way. In itself, it is a small point. Anointing with oil when praying for the sick is not essentially wrong, by all means do it but realize that Jewish custom does not carry over into the Church and become dogma. The fact that it was James who wrote this letter and it was James who made the judgment, shows how enormous the principle of disconnection with legalistic Judaism was in the Early Church. Paul demonstrated the same principle when he said,

Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus”. (Phil.3:13-14).

What was behind for Paul was his confidence in the Law. If men like James and Paul can put aside the influence of their heritage and culture for the sake of truth, so can we.

Notice what James didn’t do. He did not set up a working party to determine what would be an acceptable solution. The Church is not an organization and we are not here to make policy. James, in the environment of consensus, made a judgment on the basis of truth. The truth changed everything. What had gone on before was irrelevant to the process. So was the possibility of it not being received well. Unfortunately, Judaism raised its head again and continued to be a contentious issue in the Early Church. The decision was made and accepted and the next step was to communicate it to the Gentile Church. A letter was sent in the hands of Paul and Barnabas along with the prophets Judas and Silas, who would act as confirmation. Wherever possible, matters of doctrine and practice were communicated by gifted leaders. The present day Church is a far cry from this way of doing things. Unless one is within the organization, words of truth are easily dismissed as the individual is regarded as an outsider, having no right to bring instruction. Early Church government was through relationship and unity in the faith was maintained through the work of apostles. It’s not so difficult really if we are prepared to act outside of our own vested interest.

iv ) The whole body is invited into the consensus.

The council of Jerusalem presents to us a workable church model with strong, directive but non-coercive leadership. This is both honouring to God and freeing to His people. Having come to a decision, the whole body is invited into the consensus so that together they could own the truth. There is a phrase in Acts that captures the whole process so well,

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us —” (Acts 15:28).

With the democratic model, the logical outcome of the Council of Jerusalem would have been the first Church split. The adversarial way of doing things would have led to two parties with one gaining the ascendancy. Division would have been inevitable but what we see is a process in which vested interest is laid down, the will of God acknowledged and agreement being achieved. Harmony not discord.

v) Unity.

So here we have a dynamic process in which God is honoured, good decisions are made and the unity of the body is promoted. Unity means the willingness to lay aside previous beliefs and practices to come to common understanding. Unity will not be achieved by setting up organizations to promote it. Unity is not agreeing to disagree but agreeing to agree. It can be done but are we willing? Why is unity so important? It’s definitely not about us all getting along; that’s superficial. In fact, true unity can accommodate personal disagreement without harming the principle of oneness. Let me give you an example. Paul was in Caesarea, staying with some believers, determined to make his way to Rome. Agabus, a prophet from Judea, warned Paul through a prophetic symbol that if he went to Jerusalem, he would be taken by the Jews, bound and handed over to the Gentiles. There was a disagreement. Paul would not budge from his decision, while the church as a whole opposed the idea. It was tense situation but, finally, Paul had his way. I can’t tell you who was right but, in the end, there was a willingness to put personal feelings aside in order to affirm Paul in his desire to follow the will of God. Unity is important because it reflects the oneness of the Godhead. That unity is worked out in the Church through the incarnation principle? Jesus, as God incarnate, remained in complete unity with the Father. Now, the Church as His representative here on earth, ought to display that very same unity. Did not Jesus pray for that? There’s more. Not only is unity for the sake of a true reflection of the Godhead but also it is for the sake of the world. Unity in the Church witnesses to the truth of Christ and to the love that God has for the Church. Evangelism is a high priority for most evangelical churches. Every time we seek to advance the Kingdom of God, while maintaining distinctives, we act as a kingdom divided against itself. The result is that the advance of the Gospel is compromised like the casualties of friendly fire.