It has been argued that democracy functions most effectively in a Christian culture. However, democracy is not necessarily a Christian form of government. There is no necessary aspect of democracy that absolutely requires a Christian worldview. For that matter, Christianity itself does not mandate democracy or any other form of earthly government. Democracy can exist apart from a Christian worldview. Even still, it’s been a pretty good system for the time it has existed.
The question I wish to ask us to consider is not about the idea of democracy as a form of societal governance, but rather about believing that democracy has a place within church governance. Because we live in a somewhat free and democratic society, there is an underlying belief that democracy is God ordained as the one, the only, and best way to operate in the church community too. But is it?
The Baptist Faith and Message, the confessional document of the Southern Baptist Convention, contains the following statement on the function of the church (Section VI, The Church): “Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic process.”
That’s a clear statement, if there ever is one, of their understanding of church governance. It’s a position that says that that the church is designed by God to function by majority rule through the voting of members of the congregation. As the phrase “democratic process” implies, each member in good standing has equal input in decision making.
Congregational voting – the biblical model for church function or not?
In answering that question, one must distinguish between a consensus and a vote. It is clear that Scripture encourages a consensus among church members and we are commanded to have one mind.
Paul says, “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ; so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; in no way alarmed by your opponents.” – Philippians 1:27-28
So, it seems that having one mind is the standard for God’s church, but notice it nowhere says that we are to get really good at the voting processes.
In the New Testament, we see this pattern worked out in the church at Jerusalem. In Acts 6, when men were selected for the distribution of food to the Hellenistic widows at the recommendation of the apostles, it says, “And the statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch” – Acts 6:5 (emphasis added).
This passage clearly indicates that there was a consensus because obviously a choice was made. What the passage does not mention is whether or not a vote was taken in order to make that choice. What we do know, is that the action was not initiated by the congregation but was initiated by the Apostles, who incidentally, were men who held their positions without any human vote having taken place.
Many of my friends in congregational churches (I pastor in one) tend to assume a vote was the means to reaching the consensus in Acts 6, but I really don’t think that this assumption holds up well under scrutiny. Think about times when voting has taken place – anywhere, and you’ll realize that votes never produce consensus.
That’s because a congregational vote is a choice of “yes” or “no” to a proposal that has been made. That proposal may not address the concerns of many in the congregation, so in casting a vote, the voter is sometimes forced to simply choose the lesser of two offensive options and will not be satisfied with any outcome. When the church’s vote is not unanimous, congregational voting may well create disharmony rather than consensus.
Consensus is far more likely to be reached through good communication between leaders and the congregation, especially without Roberts Rules of Order interfering with open discussion, and without limiting the content of the discussion to a single motion or the duration of the discussion to a single meeting. If a statement finds approval with an entire congregation, the leaders and the people will know it without a democratic process.
The truth is that voting and certainly the democratic process was not a part of the cultures of the Old or the New Testament and was not imposed on those cultures by commands of Scripture, as a good many other concepts were. It’s safe to say that the ‘democratic’ process comes from western tradition, not from Scripture.
In fact, I can’t find anywhere in scriptures where the church, the local Body or for that matter any other Body should be a democracy. If anything, the scriptures display a Theocracy with Jesus by the Holy Spirit as the head for the glory of God the father.
Are There Dangers That Democracy Brings?
A danger that democracy brings to the life of a congregation is the frequent error of a majority focus. Throughout history, it’s demonstrated that the majority is often horribly wrong. Look no further than Nazi Germany, or even the movement to popularize homosexuality, abortion, or a myriad of other social and spiritual ills we face in Canada today.
In Exodus 32 the people took a popular vote which led Aaron to acquiesce to the popular consensus: so, he gave them a golden calf. In 1 Samuel the popular choice was to appoint a king over Israel, so God gave them one: Saul. Throughout Scripture, the popular ‘way’ was often a sinful one. That’s why God so frequently sent prophets to hold his people accountable. Without strong, godly leadership, they were like sheep without a shepherd. There seems to be a tendency for people to be led astray in large groups.
What Is The Biblical Model of Leadership?
The biblical model for leadership and decision making within God’s church involves qualified and tested leaders making decisions on behalf of the body. This does not take place without the body’s involvement, but it does take place without granting equal power to those who have not been biblically qualified as elders. First Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are clear regarding qualifications and duties of these leaders. If equal input is given to those who haven’t been biblically qualified, the church in question is simply rejecting God’s commands regarding the function of his church.
The reason that voting is absent in Scripture may well be that voting itself is in conflict with the God-given structure for the church. Hebrews 13:17 commands, “Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” A vote that would remove decision-making responsibility from qualified leaders is in direct opposition to the command of this text.
Democracy can’t bear the test of a careful study of Scripture. It is a system which stands in opposition to God’s design regarding church leadership and church function. As such, it is a concept that can be gently laid aside by the believer who is willing to test everything by the Word and to adjust his or her life accordingly.