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Decision-Making in Christian Community

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It is not always easy to discern the Holy Spirit’s guidance for the Church. Precisely for this reason, Paul’s exhortation is to “make every effort” to do so. Our efforts will be more successful in some instances than others, but we are bound to make these efforts continuously and insistently. It is not optional. When the Church does not act under the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit, it will often fail to act in unison with God and remain divided.

The first illustration of this principle is found in the first chapter of the book of Acts, as the Church is waiting to be born. Peter stands up and addresses the apostles—and instead of waiting for the promised gift, he proposes replacing Judas with another witness to Jesus’ earthly ministry. The group is unable to reach consensus and ends up with two candidates. Lots are cast, and Matthias is chosen.

If we assume for the sake of argument that God’s plan was to replace Judas with Paul, we notice several shortcomings of the apostles’ actions. They moved ahead without the gift, they established human criteria for the candidate which God did not subsequently follow, they identified two possible courses of action (Joseph or Matthias) which failed to articulate God’s plan, and unable to reach consensus, they cast lots to make the final decision.

Before we are overly critical of the apostles, however, we must emphasize that they had not yet received the promised gift, the Holy Spirit. In the words of A. B. Simpson:

Until the day of Pentecost and the descent of the Spirit, the apostles were not permitted to go forth, and to speak and work for the Master. The Holy Ghost is the very life and power of Christianity, and without Him the Church is like a ship without fire in her engine, or steam in her boiler . . . like a body without an animated soul. The Church was never intended to be a natural and intellectual organization, but a supernatural instrumentality wholly dependent upon the direct power of God for all her efficiency, and therefore, needing to be ever separated from the arm of flesh and the strength of mere human agencies. 

—Walking in the Spirit, part IV, “Relation to the Church”

Visible Unity

In Ephesians 4:3-6, Paul emphasizes the need to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Why? Because there is only “one body and one Spirit.” Paul is adamant that this needs to be a visible truth. An invisible truth Paul mentions is that we are also “called to one hope . . .; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” In other words, if there is one Body of which every believer is a part, and one Spirit which guides the parts of the Body to act in a God-directed, coordinated, and effective manner, this needs to be a visible reality.

In John 17:20-23, Jesus prays for us, the Church, to be as close as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and remain in them so that we may visibly be one as they are one and visibly live in complete unity. This is the sign that will lead the world to believe that God loves us as He loves Jesus and loves us so much that He sent Jesus to our world so that “whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). It is the sign that will lead the world to believe that there is one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

After receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, we see the church acting, based upon what the Holy Spirit had spoken to them while they were worshiping and fasting (Acts 13:2), what seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to them (Acts 15:28) and, when consensus could not be reached between the initial either/or options articulated, agreeing to do two separate missionary trips as opposed to one joint trip (Acts 15:39).

In addition, the Bible continually exhorts us to maintain unity. We are urged to “agree with one another in what [we] say,” that “there be no divisions among [us],” and to be “perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Cor. 1:10). We are told to conduct ourselves in a manner “worthy of the gospel,” which will keep us “firm in the one Spirit” and “striving together as one” (Phil. 1:27). We are taught that a relationship with Christ and sharing the Spirit should lead to “being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of mind” (Phil. 2:1-2). The best indicator of being on the Spirit’s path is the community reaching a consensus consistent with the written Word.

Spirit-led community

The Christian community making decisions must be composed of individuals who are themselves Spirit led (1 Cor. 1:11). Having members that are not Spirit led will hinder the entire process and may contribute a good measure of division. Members of a Christian community participating in the decision-making process need to follow biblical examples and teachings when faced with a lack of consensus.

We must react with humility. The lack of consensus tells us we have not arrived at the correct response to the Spirit’s guidance, but it does not tell us which members of the community need to hear more from the Spirit. Our reaction must be one of humility such as the disciples displayed when Jesus stated that one of them would betray Him. Each of the disciples reacted by humbly considering whether Jesus was referring to him (Matt. 26:20-22; Mark 14:17-19). Faced with a lack of consensus in our Christian community we must all be willing to reexamine our position and return to the Spirit for guidance and further clarity on the issue, humbly open and willing to be led in a different direction by the Spirit.

There is a huge “but” in Ephesians 4:7. Paul has just written that there is “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Given this truth, human pride could easily lead members of the community to conclude and insist that their position is as valid as anybody else’s (Num. 12). Realizing this, Paul follows his declaration in 4:6 with a significant “but”:

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it . . . From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament,  grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work (emphasis mine).

In other words, members of the Christian community have been equipped in varied ways and are called to contribute with different “work” to the life of the Body. Our discernment on an issue must include the possibility that God is calling us to defer to another member whom God has chosen for the moment or through whom God has chosen to “speak” more clearly.

While passion is a very important part of our personality that moves us to action in response to God’s calling, we must remember that it is possible to have very strong emotions on an issue that are not Spirit led (Jer. 17:9; Matt. 15:19). This can be true even when the action contemplated is generally deemed to be a good one (2 Sam. 7).

We must reconsider what options have been articulated, keeping in mind that God is just as interested in who we are as what we do. It is easy to assume that an issue articulated as a choice between “yes” or “no” must include the correct response. It is possible, however, that the reasons we have articulated for our response do not represent the “who” God wants us to be, and therefore, the Spirit is keeping us from consensus until we develop the God-desired, underlying reasons for our response.

Finally, we must guard against “resolving” any lack of consensus by disregarding those not in agreement as not being Spirit led. Resorting to casting votes to see where they fall may disregard a valuable contribution of the minority to the process of reaching decisions. This possibility is mitigated to some extent, but not entirely, when a supermajority as opposed to a simple majority is required to reach a decision. It is always wise, however, to attempt to formulate a course of action which addresses everybody’s concerns and produces a result which everyone feels they can live with.

Our Christian community must strive to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. This is what will cause others to “see” God through us. It must be evident that we are one undivided Body, acting under the direction of one Lord, which is Jesus Christ, guided and taught by one voice, which is the Holy Spirit, speaking the truth in love, with every member of the community contributing the work for which that member has been called and equipped. This unity is powerfully revealed in the way in which our community makes decisions. For maintaining this unity, each one of us bears a great responsibility.

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