By Bart Barber
I despise narrow votes. They frighten me, and they should frighten every pastor. With ghouls and goblins well behind us and the mid-term elections in the rear-view mirror, I want this article to give every pastor nightmares about proceeding to act upon the basis of a narrow margin, especially as many of you complete your upcoming budgets and ministry action plans for 2019.
The Narrow Vote…departs from the biblical norm
Be afraid of narrow votes because they represent a departure from the biblical pattern of church polity. Even troubled New Testament churches tended to achieve decision-making by consensus.
The plan in Acts 6 to select deacons “pleased the whole company.” The decision to ratify James’s opinion in Acts 15 and send it to the church in Antioch was by “the apostles and the elders, with the whole church.”
Even the principles of orderliness in corporate worship in 1 Corinthians 14 were those endorsed not only by the membership of a single congregation but also those in practice “in all the churches of the saints.”
Did they ever proceed by a narrow vote in the New Testament? Perhaps they did once—perhaps. In 2 Corinthians 2:6, we read about an action of church discipline described as “this punishment by the majority.” But a mere majority does not necessarily a consensus make.
The narrowness of the vote at Corinth, if it was narrow, was indicative of a church that Paul described before their disciplinary action as “boasting” and “arrogant” in their inability to achieve a consensus to act in concert with the Holy Spirit’s leadership. This example is hardly exemplary!
The Narrow Vote…reveals a lack of discipleship
Be afraid of narrow votes because they represent a failure in the church’s mission to make mature disciples. Alongside the spiritual maturity of each member of the congregation stands the collective maturity of the congregation.
When narrowly divided opinions about important church matters move into congregational consensus, the “unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son,” becomes an aspect and indicator of a church “growing into maturity” (Ephesians 4:13).
If you’re a leader in a local congregation, then building up the congregation toward that kind of unity and that kind of maturity is the reason for which your office of leadership exists (Ephesians 4:11-13). Coming out on top of contested votes is not your calling; building up a mature congregation is your calling.
I agree with James Leo Garrett, Jr. and Stan Norman that congregational church polity is the best way to build that sort of consensus and to make the unfolding story of the church (the stuff of church polity) an occasion for discipleship. However, that’s only true of a congregationalism that rests unsatisfied until it’s won consensus rather than a mere majority.
The Narrow Vote…falls short in reliability
Be afraid of narrow votes because they’re a less reliable indicator of the leadership of the Holy Spirit and the authority of Christ than the consensus of God’s children.
Twice in the Gospels, Jesus promised that the authority of heaven would stand behind human decisions. On the first such occasion, in Matthew 16, Jesus favored Simon Peter with a promise of heavenly authority.
On the second occasion, Jesus didn’t made His bold promise to an apostle or a church leader but rather to the gathered congregation. Gathering, however, is not enough. The binding and loosing in heaven are promised to the gathered congregation who can “agree about any matter that you pray for.”
It’s certainly possible for an entire congregation to be wrong about God’s will. A supermajority of any size within the congregation might also be wrong. Let’s not ascribe impeccability either to an individual believer or to any aggregation of believers.
However, the odds that the congregation is confused about or is missing God’s will increase in direct proportion to the number of devout saints who are on opposite sides of any question.
Finally, don’t be afraid of men. The least frightening thing about narrow votes is the fact some people are upset with the outcome. Rather, be afraid of narrow votes because it’s so much scarier to walk with God in a pre-Sinai way than it is to do so post-Pentecost.
Perhaps your congregation doesn’t practice congregational church polity. Even if that’s the case, I submit to you it’s nonetheless the duty of every leader in your church to build consensus among the membership and to seek God’s will together.
No matter how your constitution and bylaws or your statement of faith may read, church leaders are wise to proceed with caution whenever a slim majority of God’s people see His hand in the church’s decisions.
Keep working. Keep talking. Keep praying until you find consensus. God can bring His people together in ways that can amaze you.
BART BARBER (@bartbarber) is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Farmersville, Texas, the husband of Tracy, and the father of Jim and Sarah. He runs an exceptional blog at: PraiseGodBarebones.Blogspot.com.