By Phil Andrews
One of the many advantages that a real “live” church meeting has over an assembly held via Zoom is that it enables real debate to take place without the inevitable acoustic issues which arise when more than one person tries to contribute at the same time. Anyone who has tried to actively participate in a Zoom discussion will know only too well the frustration of enduring the awkward silence which ensues when everyone holds back in anticipation of an intervention by someone else, only then to issue forth at precisely the same time as others who had felt similarly constrained.
With the opportunity to come together in person at last, this year we took the unusual step of holding a church meeting in August. Traditionally we take a break at this time but it was generally felt that we’d had a long enough break already, and so the required quorum made its way faithfully to a spacious and pleasantly ventilated church hall for the first real live group consideration of church affairs to take place for a year and a half.
One of the main items on the agenda concerned marriage, but as is sometimes the case the substantive issue seemed to drift almost seamlessly into one of procedure. More precisely, how does a member-led Congregational church reach the “right” decision when different members hold differing views – all of them with passion, sincerity and a desire to do what we each consider best for our church and, still more importantly, for God?
Our usual way of dealing with such an eventuality is to call for a simple show of hands. And indeed, if the matter in hand is whether we should ask Bill to come in and fix the boiler or whether we should ask Dave, most would agree such a process to be straightforward and relatively uncontentious. But what to do when the subject under discussion drifts closer to matters of theology, and to our understanding or interpretation of same?
Inevitably the question arises as to whether the simple majoritarian principle of the greater number always prevailing should apply, or whether we should seek to establish the will of God in all our decisions. Or as David Pawson puts it in his book Not As Bad As the Truth (Memoirs of an Unorthodox Evangelical): “…a true theocracy (government by God), when leaders and led together seek the mind of Christ, which requires being ‘in the Spirit’”. Put that way, simple democracy in preference to theocracy would appear to offer limited appeal to us as a church. After all the greater number can be wrong, and the smaller number right. Indeed everybody can be wrong. If it was proposed before church meeting that we should host a sex, drink and drugs party in the church hall and the proposal was carried by a majority vote would that make it the right thing for us as a church to be doing? Clearly it wouldn’t.
So far this would appear self-evident and fairly much incontestable. As a Christian church, our task and our duty is to perform the will of God at all times. But the problem arises when honest people genuinely disagree over how best to achieve that. I believe every member of our church to be honest, sincere and committed always to doing the right thing, by the church and by God. No matter whether we disagree over this issue or that, it is my view that each and every one of us is motivated in our decision-making by a sincerely-held belief that the thing we seek to do is the right thing. Our opinions may differ from time to time, but we are united in our integrity and in the goodness of our intentions.
This being the case who then gets to decide, when there exists a difference of opinion, wherein lies God’s will? Do the honestly-held opinions of one member hold more weight than the honestly-held opinions of another and, if so, on what basis and by which process should we measure this hierarchy of worth amongst our membership? Would it not be more honest, if we desire such a hierarchy, to simply dispense with church meetings altogether and bestow upon a singular individual whatever might be the Congregational equivalent of papal infallibility, so that he or she may presume unique insight into God’s will and issue proclamations for the rest of us to follow? And presuming this not to be anybody’s preferred option what, realistically, is the alternative?
The real conundrum
This is the real conundrum. Whilst it would be folly to imagine that every church member is blessed with an equally sound understanding of all the issues at hand, including the crucially important theological perspective, we surely recognise too that it is human to err. No one of us is perfect. No one of us never gets anything wrong. And this being the case it is my view that, in an imperfect world populated by imperfect people, the judgment of the larger number is, on balance, more likely to hold wisdom than the judgment of the smaller number. At least more of the time than not. Truth, as a “thing”, is absolute and certainly stands aloof from the fickle whims of the crowd. It’s just that the crowd, assuming its intentions to be honourable, is generally better at recognising the truth than any individual person who stands among it. Sir Winston Churchill once said that democracy was the worst system of government ever devised by man except for all the others. As a church of God, we are a theocracy as opposed to a democracy in that we seek to do the will of God as opposed to that which just happens to be popular. But God doesn’t have a vote of His own at church meeting, which is why He expresses His will through the raised hands of others after they have given careful, prayerful and, one hopes, inspired thought to the matters that they have been tasked to consider. This is my honestly-held view, just possibly I have got it wrong. But who decides whether I have got it wrong, and ought we not to put it to the vote?