One of the ideas infiltrating the church in North America (yes, Canada too!) is that the church is a democracy, where the people in the pew ‘cast the final ballot’ so-to-speak, on decisions that are made. This is completely false, and it is dangerous. And there is no biblical basis for it either. In fact the Bible points in a different direction all together.
In our Transitions sermon series, we’ve seen a few places where, if Israel had stopped to hold a vote on an issue, the people would have voted to ‘dump’ Moses as a leader and go back to Egypt. In the account of the report of the 12 spies that is most clear but it happens in some way almost every time there is a problem.
God had called and appointed a leader for Israel, as God did in many ways with prophets, Judges and other leaders in the Old Testament. God had a plan that the leader was called to fulfill. In an age when democracy was unheard of, having a King or other chief leader was the way of things. So that is how God operated as well.
God shows great concern in the days after the Judges when the people were clamoring (voting with their voice) for a King like the other nations had (see 1 Sam 8). Samuel was taking it personally, and God comforts Samuel in verses 7 and 8, saying, “they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you.”
Now, we are not in Old Testament times any more, we live in the time of Christ being our King. Churches of the Reformation believe that “all authority” belongs to Jesus Christ (Matt 28:18). In the current age, we believe Christ himself gives the church it’s leaders (Eph 4:11ff) who are given gifts to equip believers to serve him, to build up the body of Christ and to help all get to a mature unity in their relationship to God so they become more and more like Christ. Those leaders are accountable to Christ, not the congregation.
We get the idea of representation backwards when we very mistakenly talk as if elders or deacons represent the people to the council. The biblical truth is the other way around. Elders and Deacons represent Jesus to the congregation and the world. That is why the selection of office-bearers is an important spiritual process, not a democratic one. It is a matter of individual and communal spiritual discernment. Nominations are a life-and-death-for-the church serious thing. We are to consider people who are effective at representing Christ and God’s grace and wisdom when nominating, not their popularity, or success in life, or the whether or not they “see things as we do.” To consider and nominate people for any of the second set of reasons consistently contributes to the spiritual death of the church. Sure, the church might continue functioning, but heart change and making disciples and followers of Jesus will likely not be happening anymore.
For people nominated for office, that last paragraph will likely have been intimidating to read. Most people nominated have a gut sense and awareness that they are not ‘up to’ the job on their own ability (just like Moses), which is healthy, and helps them know they have to rely on God and the Holy Spirit’s leading to exercise their office. That’s the beauty of it! Wouldn’t you, like me, be afraid of someone who said “I can do this, I know exactly how to fix the church”? but on the other hand assured by someone in office who you trust to be consulting God with a servant’s heart on all that is done?
And healthy congregations know that office bearers are all fallen human beings just like them, and will allow for some shortcomings.
This is all the more reason for us to be cautious about conforming to the (democracy) patterns of this world, and for all of us to “be transformed by the renewing” that a relationship with God through Jesus our Savior brings us (Rom 12:2). The congregation needs to trust it’s leaders are in fact ‘tuned in’ to God’s will so they can support them and trust that God is at work through modern-day leaders, the Moses’, Joshuas, Pauls, Barnabases and others.
The council is wise to enlist the help of the congregation in fulfilling their offices, and in seeking nominations and affirmation of nominations from the congregation, and consulting them for their views on other matters, but they remain accountable to Christ and their own consciences before being accountable to the congregation.
Paying too much attention to the opinions of the congregation — whether it is to a quiet majority or a loud minority — can lead to poor choices, like going back to Egypt and away from God’s promises, however big the giants may seem.
All that I have said is reflected in the relevant part of our Church Order Article 37 (Underlining mine):
The council, besides seeking the cooperation of the congregation in the election of officebearers, shall also invite its judgment about other major matters, except those which pertain to the supervision and discipline of the congregation. For this purpose the council shall call a meeting at least annually of all members entitled to vote. Such a meeting shall be conducted by the council, and only those matters which it presents shall be considered. Although full consideration shall be given to the judgment expressed by the congregation, the authority for making and carrying out final decisions remains with the council as the governing body of the church, except in those matters stipulated otherwise in the articles of incorporation or by law.