A Matter of Submission
Life is filled with myriad decisions: Where should I go to college? Whom should I marry? What job offer should I accept?
Where should I live? Each involving a constellation of practical and emotional parameters that must be considered and weighed.
For the Christian trying to tease out God’s will, decision-making can be a dizzying experience—especially when, as often happens, the “signposts” do not point to one, unambiguous path.
For a church, things can be more blurry. Choosing a pastor, liturgy, style of music, or whether to embark on a building program involves multiple signposts that must be evaluated by members of the decision-making group. When the inevitable disagreements arise, the question becomes, “What signposts are overriding and whose interpretation is right?”
Bible professor Dr. Garry Friesen describes the tension in his acclaimed volume, Decision Making and the Will of God. Concerning a congregational meeting Dr. Friesen attended involving a high-tension decision, he writes:
In the course of that meeting, one lady stood up and said, “We can’t vote now.” When asked why, she replied in total sincerity: “I have talked with several others here who are earnestly seeking God’s perfect will in this matter. Apparently, the Holy Spirit has told some of us to vote ‘yes’ and some of us to vote ‘no.’ How can we resolve the question when the Holy Spirit is telling us two different things.”
Dr. Friesen rightly noted that desire for unity undercut this lady’s trust in the protocol established in her church constitution.
Unity is trumps
A while back, I was a leader in a church deliberating over the location of a new church home. A member, who was concerned over the spirited divisions in the pews, approached a pastor from another church for advice.
The pastor’s counsel? Don’t make any decision that is not supported by 85 to 90 percent of the congregation. Crouching low, in those words, is the hidden dragon of riftophobia—fear that, without near unanimous support, a chosen course of action will lead to division.
For both the “congregational” lady and the pastor, unity trumps all else in the decision-making process. While neither instance involves a matter governed by explicit scriptural commands, they follow a troubling trend of those that do.
By elevating unity over all else, the U.S. Episcopal Church began a descent down a moral vortex until heterodox practices, like same-sex blessings and gay clergy ordinations, were no longer heterodoxical. Yet, despite the goal of unity, the Episcopal Church has been splintering at a precipitous rate over the last decade.
Concern for unity is also behind much of the discontent with Catholic clergy for withholding communion from pro-choice politicians.
I do not mean to suggest that unity in the Body is not important, and significantly so. Rather, the goal of unity needs to be given its rightful emphasis as warranted by scripture.
In the divine balance
Unity is at the heart of our Lord’s most passionate recorded prayer: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” And nearly all of Paul’s letters address some issue that threatened the unity the church: Gnosticism, Judaizers, cultural influences, spiritual immaturity, and immoral behavior.
Paul wrote of “the body”—a powerful word picture, conveying the importance of each member to the well-being of the whole. Yet nowhere in scripture, Jesus’ teachings and Paul’s letters notwithstanding, do we find the unity of God’s people the foremost aim of God.
The Jews were God’s chosen people, yet the Old Testament repeatedly refers to the “remnant”: that came out of Egypt; that escaped the sword of their enemies; that returned to Israel from Babylon and Assyria; and, that will one day return to the Lord. Yes, as much as God desires all men to be saved, Isaiah wailed that salvation will be experienced only by a remnant of Israel.
Then there are the words of Jesus: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” That doesn’t sound like a God for whom unity is the paramount concern.
More tellingly, Jesus, in one of his most off-putting teachings, jolted His disciples with this:
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
In the divine balance, faithful obedience outweighs harmony even within God’s household. It goes against common sense and everything we hold dear—but so did God’s instruction to Noah to build an ark; to Abraham to sacrifice his son; as well as Jesus’ revelation to His disciples that He must suffer and die.
But to do God’s will, we must know God’s will. Which brings us back to the questions of how, and by whom, His will is discerned? Garry Friesen begins by distinguishing between God’s sovereign will and his moral will.
How and whom
God’s sovereign will is his comprehensive plan for the universe which is certain and hidden. God’s moral will is the corpus of His commands, contained in the revealed Word, regarding the beliefs, attitudes and behaviors of humankind.
Whereas the completion of God’s sovereign will is independent of man or man’s actions, the accomplishment of his moral will is not. For example, although God’s moral will is for all men to be saved, their salvation hinges on their acceptance of the Savior.
In the area where God’s moral will overlaps his sovereign will, believers are free to choose a course of action based on “spiritual expediency”; that is, selecting the action that will best serve to honor and glorify God.
While many church decisions (a building project, for instance) do not have a biblical directive (“Thou shalt build a worship center in Broken Window Heights”), they are, or should be, tied to biblical principles—in particular, the Great Commission and Great Commandment—which are, or should be, reflected in the church mission statement.
For churches with strong, biblically measured mission statements, the most “spiritually expedient” course of action will be the one that best aligns with their stated mission and responsible stewardship, giving due consideration to common sense, sound business principles, wise counsel, and any unusual circumstances—like a confluence of either favorable or unfavorable conditions.
In congregational churches, decisions are made by members, normally by a simple majority or two-thirds vote. In representative churches, members elect lay leaders who serve as ruling elders on a church board or vestry.
Regardless of church polity, the responsibility for spiritual direction belongs to the pastor. Because of the pastor’s scriptural role as “undershepherd” of God’s flock, decisions made against his spiritual guidance should occur only in very rare and exceptional cases.
Whether resolutions are reached congregationally or by elected leaders, they are often not unanimous, even when bathed in prayer. That is why the goal of unity is not accomplished by undivided agreement, but by submission. Dr. Friesen explains:
Once a matter has been thoroughly discussed and the decision made, each member is obliged to put away his personal preferences and join in a wholehearted effort to support the plan selected...That unity which Christ so desired for His Church, is not the product of uniformity of thought...[rather] it comes through the submission of each member to the authority of the local church by accepting and supporting the wisdom of the group.
Stated differently, discerning God’s will is not a matter of unanimous (or even consensus) opinion, but of the faithful application of wisdom by the church governing authority—with unity a consequence of trust in, and submission to, that authority.
Since God’s perfect will is never fully disclosed, such a decision can still end up being less-than-ideal. Nevertheless, if it is made in faith, even an imperfect decision will result in good, giving honor and glory to God. For we know “all things God works for the good of those who love God, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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