Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Leadership in the Church: Consensus & How It Works: An Excerpt from Reimagining Church

Ilustration by Judith Clingan
"The Trinity understood in human terms as a communion of Persons lays the foundation for a society of brothers and sisters, of equals, in which dialogue and consensus are the basic constituents of living together... in the church." --Leo Boff

"It would serve us well to ask why the NT gives so little airplay to elders. The oft ignored reason may be surprising to institutional ears: the bulk of responsibility for pastoral care, teaching, and ministry in the ekklesia rests squarely upon the shoulders of all the brothers and sisters." --F. Viola

I made a notation of the date and time when I read chapter ten of Reimagining Church for the first time back on "5-29-2010, 9:11 a.m." I didn't realize it had been three years...Wow. I thought an excerpt from Frank Viola's book would be a good follow up to my article My Arguments for Elder-led Consensus. What exactly is consensus and will it work?

The two most important suggestions that I can make to anyone reading this is to view Christianity as non-institutional as possible. And by that I mean to look at your work, daily-family life, relationships with others, etc. as "spiritual." And not to look at going to church as separate from the rest of life, and preachers and elders as in positions of authority over you. The second is to recognize the "matters of expediency" [pragmatism, convenience] hermeneutic. Where does God say that He wants us to live Christianity "expediently?" The NT teaches unity, love, agreement, etc. but these are not "expedient" matters. They are difficult, but they are worth it.


Frank Viola writes:

"Ministerial responsibility is never to be closeted among the few. This explains why the word adelphoi, translated 'brethren,' appears 346 times in the New Testament. It appears 134 times in Paul's epistles alone. In most places, this word is Paul's shorthand way of referring to all the believers in the church--both women and men. By contrast, the word 'elders' appears only five times in Paul's letters. 'Overseers' appears only four times. And 'pastors' appears only once."

"The stress of the NT then is upon corporate responsibility. It's the believing community that is called to carry out pastoral functions. To be more specific, all the Christians in a local assembly are called to: 'be devoted to one another' (Rom. 12:10); 'honor one another' (12:10); 'live in harmony with one another' (12:16); 'love one another' (13:8); 'edify one another' (1 Thess. 5:11b); 'accept one another' (Rom. 15:7); 'instruct one another' (15:14); 'greet one another' (16:16); 'discipline fallen members' (1 Cor. 5:3-5; 6:1-6); 'organize the church's affairs' (1 Cor. 14:29-34); 'care for one another' (1 Cor. 12:25); 'abound in the work of the Lord' (1 Cor 15:58); 'serve one another' (Gal. 5:13); 'bear one another's burdens' (6:2); 'be kind and compassionate to one another' (Eph. 4:32); 'speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs' (5:19); 'submit to one another' (5:21); 'teach one another' (Col. 3:16); 'admonish one another' (3:16); 'encourage one another' (1 Thes. 5:11); 'warn the unruly' (5:14); 'comfort the feeble and support the weak' (5:14); 'incite one another to love and good works' (Heb. 10:24); 'pray for one another' (Jas. 5:16); 'confess sins to one another' (1 Pet. 4:9); 'be humble toward one another' (1 Pet. 5:5); 'fellowhip with one another' (1 John 1:7)..."

"With dramatic clarity, all of these 'one another' exhortations incarnate the fact that every member of the church is to share the responsibility of pastoral care. Leadership is a corporate affair, not a solo one. It's to be shouldered by the entire body. Consequently, the idea that elders direct the affairs of the church, make decisions in all corporate matters, handle all of its problems, and supply all of its teaching is alien to NT thinking. Such an idea is pure fantasy and bereft of Biblical support. It's no wonder that...spiritual maturity atrophies and members grow passive and indolent..."

"The Lord has chosen to lead His church through a many-membered community. Elders emerge over time. They model pastoral care for the rest of the church, and they provide oversight. In addition, elders are always plural in a church. Yet the mere presence of a plurality of elders doesn't ensure that a church will be healthy. If elders don't oversee according to the life and grace of Christ, they can do more damage than a single leader...While these men never perceive themselves to be spiritual oppressors, the rest of the church [does]."

"It is for this reason that the question of decision-making in the church becomes crucial. Unlike the modern clergy system, first century elders were never regarded as the prominent figures in the church...the Biblical model of leadership militates against the poisons of forced submission, top-heavy authority structures, and hierarchical relationships (Matt. 23:11; Mark 10:42-45; Luke 22:26-27). The NT model of leadership serves as a safeguard to the real and living headship of Christ. It's also a check against authoritarianism...It's never based on position."

"The overseers of the early church oversaw by example--not by coercion or manipulation. The respect they received from the other members was in direct proportion to their sacrificial service (1 Tim. 5:17). Their authority was rooted in their spiritual maturity rather than a sacerdotal position. In the words of Peter, they didn't oversee by "being lords over God's heritage, but by being examples to the flock" (1 Pet. 5:3, KJV)...If we push the shepherd-sheep metaphor beyond its intended meaning, we'll readily see its foolishness... Shepherds are incapable of breeding sheep. They also steal their wool and eat them for dinner! Simply put, oversight in the NT was not a slavish obligation, nor a grim necessity. Instead, it was a valuable family resource marked by humility, relatedness, and servanthood."

"Institutional Christianity has baptized secular leadership patterns and passed them off as being Biblically valid. The result: Our modern notion of church leadership is culturally captive to the spirit of this age. Seeing that the great weight of Biblical teaching on leadership has been lost to the prevailing notions of our culture, the Scriptural ground needs to be reclaimed."

"Leadership in the early church was non-hierarchical, non-aristocratic, non-authoritarian, non-institutional, and non-clerical. God's idea of leadership is functional, relational, organic, and communal--just as it is in the Godhead. To have leadership in the church function according to the same principles as that of a corporate executive in a business or an aristocrat in an imperial caste system was never our Lord's thought. It is for this reason that the NT authors never chose to use hierarchical and imperial metaphors to describe spiritual leadership."

"The NT authors deliberately depict leadership with images of slaves and children rather than lords and masters (Luke 22:25-26). While such thinking comes in direct conflict with today's popular practice of 'spiritual authority,' it meshes perfectly with the Biblical teaching of the kingdom of God--the realm in which the weak are strong, the poor are rich, the humble are exalted, and the last are first (Luke 6:20-26)."

"Since the elders of the early church knew that the church didn't belong to them, they didn't have their own agendas to push. Nor did they roadblock or muscle others into mindless submission by an appeal to their 'authority.' While many elders do not operate this way, many unfortunately do. The elders of the early church didn't operate as an oligarchy (absolute rule by a few) nor as a dictatorship (monarchial rule by one person). They were simply older men whom the church organically and naturally looked to in times of crisis."

"By the same token, the early church didn't operate like our contemporary democracy. Many mistakenly think that our American democratic system is rooted in Biblical theology. But there isn't a single example in the entire NT where church decisions were made by a show of hands...The church is not a pure democracy. "So what was the NT pattern for decision-making in the early church?"


"It was simply by consensus. "Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church," and "it seemed good to us, having become of one mind" was the divine model for making corporate decisions (Acts 15:22, 25 NASB). In other words, the decision making of the early church was not in the hands of the elders. It was in the hands of all the brothers and sisters. Because the church is a body, all the members should agree before it moves forward in obeying the Head. In fact, a lack of unity and cooperation among the members reveals a failure to embrace the Head (Christ)."

"Majority rule, dictatorial rule, and a Robert's Rules of Order mentality do violence to the body image of the church. And they dilute the unvarnished testimony that Jesus Christ is the Head of the unified body. For this reason, Paul's epistles to the churches are saturated with exhortations to be of one mind... In this connection, consensus mirrors the decision-making activity within the triune God, whose nature we are created to reflect. God acts when Father, Son and Spirit agree. Decision making in the Godhead is communal and marked by mutual submission. In other words, it's consensual."

"Again, the elders of the early church bore the bulk of the responsibility for the assembly. But they didn't make decisions on behalf of the church. Nor were they soley responsible for the church's direction. Instead, the elders (once they emerged) worked together with the whole church toward reaching a unanimous decision and a single mind. But it was the church as a whole that made the decision "as one new man."

But what about Hebrews 13:17? In that text, some translations have, "Obey them that are over you." The Greek word for 'obey' in this passage is not hupakao, the garden-variety word for obedience used elsewhere in Scripture. It's peitho (middle-passive form), which means to yield to persuasion. The author of Hebrews was simply saying, "Allow yourselves to be persuaded by those who are more mature in Christ than you are."

"So within the decision making process of the early church, the role of elders was to help the church reach a consensus on a matter. By virtue of their relative spiritual maturity, they were sometimes able to persuade the church into a unified understanding of the Lord's mind. But they had no right to force the church to adopt their view. The elders were people who simply demonstrated qualities that built family solidarity (1 Tim. 3:4-5)."


Illustration by Judith Clingan
"A church reaches a consensus when all of its members have come to a unanimous agreement in support of a particular decision. Granted a church may agree with a decision with varying degrees of enthusiasm or some consenting with a heavy heart. Yet a consensus is reached when all have come to the place where they have set aside their objections and can support the decision in good faith."

"When a church operates by consensus, decisions are delayed until agreement is reached. This process requires that all the members equally participate in and accept responsibility for reaching the mind of the Lord on a given matter. Incidentally, the mind of Christ doesn't belong to an individual. It's a corporate discovery--1 Cor. 2:9-16."

"When a church reaches a consensus, murmuring and complaining are eliminated. Why? Because every member has had an equal share in the decision. The church owns the decision. It was made by and for the church under the Holy Spirit's guidance. Decision making by consensus stands at odds with modern pragmatism [expediency, sp]. Those who look through the prism of pragmatism regard consensus to be idealistic and impractical. Yet it's the only sure safeguard to ensure that a group of people have obtained the mind of Christ."

"The disconnect between the institutional church's practice of decision making and the New Testament is profound. And it should give us pause to question why we have strayed so far. In many institutional churches, the pastor and sometimes the board makes decisions independently of the church. The same is true in some house churches were elders have the rule. In those particular churches, the elders decide without any regard for the concerns or judgments of the congregation. Members are without a voice in the church's affairs. What is more, they are encouraged to go elsewhere if they don't line up."

"In churches that decide on the basis of majority rule, those who 'lose the vote' are left to question the judgment of the populace. Sometimes they are left to question the very ethics of the procedure. The fact that Scripture is filled with examples where the majority was wrong is conveniently overlooked. So often, when the 52% see a great victory, the 48% are still grumbling and seeking to undermine the majority decision."

"There's no doubt that consensus is costly. It imposes responsibility upon all members of a church to seek the Lord for themselves. It demands that each believer patiently wrestle and struggle with one another to secure the Lord's mind. It often means trading quick decisions for gaining confidence through delay. But what building together it affords! What working out of patience. What expression of mutual love and respect. What exercise of Christian community. What restraint imposed upon the flesh...We so often forget that, in God's eyes, the means is just as important as the end."

Christian Smith writes:
"Consensus is built on the experience of Christian community. It requires strong relationships able to tolerate struggling through issues together. It requires mutual love and respect to hear each other when there is disagreement. Consensus also requires a commitment to know and understand other people more than a desire to convince or railroad them. Consensus, as a way to make decisions in the church is not easier, just better."

"To paraphrase Winston Churchill, consensus is the worst form of decision-making in the church, except for all the others. Consensus is not strong on efficiency [expediency, sp], if by that we mean ease and speed. It can take a long time to work through issues, which can become quite frustrating. Consensus is strong on unity, communication...and responsible participation in the body. In achieving those values, consensus is efficient."

"Deciding by consensus, then, simply requires belief that unity, love, communication, and participation are more important in the Christian scheme than quick, easy decisions. It requires the understanding, that ultimately, the process is as important as the outcome. How we treat each other as we make decisions together is as important as what we actually decide."
 Viola concludes:

"In approaching the matter of consensus, some have sacrificed God's truth upon the altar of convenience. But human convenience and expediency is a dangerously thin criterion for judging actions in the spiritual realm. The core question that must be asked, therefore, is not, "Is this convenient or expedient?" but, "Is this Scriptural..."

"In summary, leadership in the early church encouraged every member to exercise his or her gifts; it helped to form spiritual solidarity among believers; it fostered a sense of community, cohesion, and unity within the church. The ability to wield power or impose one's will on others does not characterize Biblical leadership. Leadership is characterized by the ability to weld the church together to reach undivided judgments on critical affairs. Any person who does this at a given time is leading at that moment."

"All in all, the NT knows nothing of an authoritative mode of leadership. Nor does it know a 'leaderless' egalitarianism. It rejects both hierarchical structures as well as rugged individualism. Instead, the NT envisions leadership as coming from the entire church. The brothers and sisters supply direction and decision-making by consensus. Seasoned brothers supply oversight. Decision making was communal. It stood between hierarchical structures on the one hand and egalitarian individualism on the other. Elders were called to exercise pastoral oversight in the context of mutual submission rather than a hierarchical structure or subordination."


Frank Viola, "Reimagining Decision Making," in Reimagining Church, 2008.

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