How to lead communal discernment and decision-making in your church

by Jim Van Yperen

There are two common and prevailing models for decision-making in the Western church, as follows:

1.  Objective /Autocratic:  Commonly referred to as “Elder-led,” this form of governance places final authority in a few elected or appointed members.  In this model, discernment and decision-making is “top-down,” relegated to the objective pronouncement of some authority (a pastor, elders, expert) who, through prayer and study, consider the issue privately, reach a decision and tell the church what is best, based on their respected maturity, study or experience.   Generally, member views are not solicited.  Thus, members are asked to trust the discernment of a few, and are expected to submit to the decision made.

2.  Subjective /Democratic :  Commonly referred to as “Congregational,” this form of governance places final authority with members.  Authority is granted to the congregation through voting to approve or correct proposals by the leadership.  This is a “bottom-up” or “representative” form of government.  In this model, discernment and decision-making is the task of every member who is encouraged to pray, search the Scriptures and share their opinions, often in debate, before taking a vote.  Discernment is determined by majority vote.  Decisions are respected, and members are expected to submit because, “Everyone had a voice.”  Leadership authority tends to be distrusted, and needs to be balanced by member input.

There are times when each of the above models may be beneficial for a church.   For instance, suppose a question arises concerning a core, creedal doctrine, such as the divinity of Christ.  It would be appropriate for a pastor or elder to address this immediately and directly, explaining how the church has for two thousand years held this truth.  Or, on the other hand, suppose the question is about whether or not to move prayer meeting from Monday to Wednesday night.  It would be good to welcome wide input so that people take part in, and “own” the decision.  Moreover, both of the governance styles above may work well for many years in a church setting if the leadership is consistently comprised of godly, humble people.  (Character, not structure, is the determining factor in leadership.)  The problem, however, is that each of the styles above tends to encourage individual will over mutual submission.  Mutual submission is what is missing most in the American church today and its absence is the single greatest cause of conflict.

The deficits of the two styles above show themselves most when facing issues that are neither creedal nor insignificant.  Let’s suppose that a contentious issue arises in your church where discernment is needed.  Genuine and sincere views emerge that are opposed to one another.  Take, for instance, a divisive issue such as the role of women in the church.  Where and under what circumstances may a woman lead or teach?  Or consider the growing debate over homosexuality in the church. What should the church’s posture be toward gay persons?   These questions are splitting denominations and leading to intractable conflict in many congregations across our nation.  The traditional autocratic and democratic processes employed to address these issues have fallen short. 

Mutual submission  is what is missing most in the American church today 

and its absence is the single greatest cause of conflict.

Of course, most conservative Christians might include these issues among core, settled doctrines and so dismiss them either by ignoring the issue completely, or offering a summary pronouncement against them.  But the issues are not settled in the pews.  Increasingly, the objective and subjective response has only heightened or confused the witness of the Church, not redeemed the debate.   Perhaps these responses are failing us because they suffer from the same flawed assumption that is underlying the question: that God’s will can be discerned individually and voiced publicly— outside mutual submission to the leadership of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit in the church.    Indeed, it seems that the more sensitive the issue, the greater the temptation for leaders to control or members to manipulate the outcome.  To understand this, we need to look more closely at the dynamics of each decision-making style.

Since the Objective/Autocratic style is based upon a hierarchy of authority, a system of elitism forms almost universally (if unintentionally) within the group itself.   Inside the inner circle there is a person or circle further in that tends to carry more clout than others.  Position, experience, academic credentials or business acumen legitimize qualifications and mark out certain arguments as weightier than others.  That is, decision-making tends to turn less on the movement of the Holy Spirit and more on the pedigree of the individual.  Of course, few leaders would admit this.  They would point to their commitment to prayer, the study of God’s Word and their sincere desire to hear God speak.  I do not doubt this for a moment.  Certainly, this is all true.  But notice what the objective style of leadership is dependent upon: the authority of an expert to interpret God’s voice.  Subtly, but surely, the question moves away from, “How is God speaking through His Son and Holy Spirit?” to “ Who is most qualified to interpret what God is saying ?”  The mechanics of decision-making move inevitably toward a narrow, defensive and decidedly human posture.  It is not always so, but this is the direction of its energy.  Once a decision is made, leaders tend to pronounce their decision, with little explanation, and insist on member submission to their positional authority .  Inevitably, however, members left in the dark or in disagreement with the decision are pulled toward dysfunctional remedies, such as removing the present elite and electing future leaders that will be more “representative” to their point of view.  The front lines of the battle shift from spiritual decisions to political shenanigans.

Notice what the objective style of leadership is dependent upon: the authority of an expert to interpret God’s voice... Subtly, but surely, the question moves away from, “How is God speaking through His Son and Holy Spirit,” to “Who is most qualified to interpret what God is saying?” 

Seeing the dangers of the Objective/Autocratic style, we might be tempted to prefer a more Subjective/Democratic approach.  But this style is equally fraught with danger, albeit from the opposite direction.  In America, rebellion runs deep, coursing through our veins.  We do not like authority.  We reflexively distrust any person or group in power.  Sadly, sexual scandals and abuses of power in the church have provided ample reasons not to trust leaders.  However, the Congregational cure simply exchanges one disease for another.   To prevent power in a few, authority is granted to all.  Autonomy and individual opinion is lifted to the highest ideal.  Every person has the ”right” to be heard.  Thus, we run church meetings like a New England Town meeting, welcoming all to air their peculiar opinions, often in noisy debate.  Yet, if you have ever attended a Town Hall meeting, (or church meeting run like one) you will quickly notice that only a few actually speak, with members acting as spectators, silently or not so silently, registering their support or disagreement with the speaker . 

Further, those who do speak tend to be people who have a specific agenda or an extreme point of view.  Once again, the focus shifts from asking, “What is God saying?”to “Who do I agree with most?”   Thus, these meetings tend to be dominated by polar points of view, wandering sometimes for hours before any sense of agreement can be reached as to whose argument, if any, is most effective or reasonable.  This is determined, of course, by a vote.   Members leave weary, sometimes confused and often unsettled.  Again, few would say this is the dynamic lurking in their congregational grass, but the snake is ever present and it only takes one divisive issue for its ugly head to rise. 

If these are the barriers commonly faced by a church, how can a church hear, discern and follow God’s voice without slipping into objective control or subjective persuasion?  How do we nurture a spiritual discernment process that welcomes the voice of Jesus and guidance of the Holy Spirit into the decision-making process?  In Acts 15, The Jerusalem Council provides just such a model.


Acts 15:  The Jerusalem Council

The year is A.D. 50.   The Gospel has spread into Asia Minor, principally through the missionary efforts of the Apostle Paul and Barnabas.  As the church blossoms, a dispute erupts about membership in the church and fellowship between Hebrew and Gentile believers.  Should new Gentile believers be required to keep Torah law, especially regarding circumcision?   Luke describes the situation,

“Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. 1

This conflict brought several critical issues to light that threatened to derail the missionary effort and split the fledgling church.   On the one side, Hebrew believers who acknowledged the resurrection of Jesus and His claim to be Messiah, still honored Jewish tradition. 

But on the other side were the Gentile converts, with their Gospel liberty, fast outpacing Hebrew believers, threatening the Jewish way of life.  The tension between the two surfaced many important questions.  What was the mark of a true believer?  How were Hebrew and Gentile cultures, once kept strictly separate, to regard one another now?  How could the two enjoy table fellowship when eating restrictions were observed by one party, but not the other?  What was the authority of Scripture on the matter?  If Torah regulations were abandoned, what other laws could be threatened?  Wouldn’t liberty invite moral decline?

Clearly, these issues presented a break with tradition that any conservative would find alarming.  In fact, the weight of Scripture was decidedly in the favor of tradition.  (Remember, only the First Testament was available to the church. God was writing the New Testament through their lives!)

 So, if the question was simply, “What does Scripture say?”  The conservative argument, quoting Moses 2 , would win hands down.  But alas, as the writer to Hebrews would write later, “One greater than Moses has come.” 3   The early church was learning to ask a new question alongside the Torah, “How do the words and actions of Jesus, the Word incarnate, interpret the sacred Word?”  Further, the church, born at Pentecost, now had the added obligation to search and test its decisions by the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit. 4

The early church was learning to ask a new question alongside the sacred Torah, “How do the words and actions of Jesus, the Word incarnate, interpret the sacred Word?”

Thankfully, the church in Antioch understood that answering these questions would impact churches throughout Asia Minor and beyond.  Thus, in the interest of unity throughout the Church, the elders at Antioch sent members with Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem, asking for the apostles and elders to render a decision.  In other words, the church understood they were united with, and connected to, a wider body.  They were not an independent entity, so they were willing to make themselves accountable to others in order to rightly test and discern their practice.  In our day, with the culture of individualism and independence in the Church so high, one cannot make too much of this point.  Spiritual discernment requires submission to, and accountability within, a community. 

Looking at the Jerusalem Council closely, several other key principles emerge that forge a pathway around the pitfalls of the autocratic versus democratic dilemma stated above.  Indeed, what we see first is that there are elements of both practices at work.  For instance, the authority for discernment and decision-making is clearly given to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.  In fact, the text makes clear that the role of Paul and Barnabas was to bear testimony to the work of the Spirit, not to make the decision, even though the Gentile mission hung in the balance.  Paul and Barnabas stood in submission and accountability to the apostles and elders.  The responsibility for making the decision was unquestionably authoritative.  Yet, the text also makes clear that the Council was held publicly, in the presence of the Jerusalem church.  Luke makes frequent reference to the church being present to welcome, hear and affirm the apostles’ and elders’ decision. 5   So, the process was authoritative, and inclusive.  

Remarkably, there is no hint of a power struggle, or question of authority.  Many were present, but the decision fell to leadership.  Yet the manner in which the apostles and elders went about hearing, discerning and deciding the issue is instructive.  Namely, it was understood that the issue had to be discerned and decided at the highest level by a process dependent upon something greater than the people involved:  the Holy Spirit.   It was a spiritual discernment process. 


Let’s examine the marks of this process:

First , the process was communal .  The question was considered within and among the fellowship of believers, the people in whom the Spirit of God dwelt.  Hebrew believers were welcomed to speak, as were the missionaries Paul and Barnabas.  The congregation listened to each.  The leaders heard and processed what was heard through “much discussion.” 6   There was no “open microphone” for any person to give an opinion, but the relevant opposing views were welcomed, heard and considered before leaders summarized their conclusion.  That is, unlike other passages in Acts where Luke describes an angry mob expressing harsh disagreement, this dispute, while no less sharp, appears to have been conducted in the spirit of mutual submission and relational respect.


Second , the apostles and elders seem to be consciously and purposefully interpreting Scripture through the ministry of Jesus , 7 demonstrating how Jesus was the fulfillment of Torah and Prophets. 8 Indeed, the words of Jesus must have echoed in the mind of each apostle,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” 9

 You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” 10

Third , leaders gave emphasis to testing fruit 11 by the work of God through the Holy Spirit . 12   Indeed, we know that Peter had already learned this interpretive lesson in his encounter with Cornelius. 13   God was doing a new work, evidenced by the same Spirit that worked in and through the apostles at Pentecost. 14

Fourth , there is no hint of anyone winning or losing the argument; no person or opinion receives credit for the discernment made .  Indeed, the whole thrust of the narrative suggests that the decision only became certain through listening to and testing the Spirit in the midst of the conversation .  When James stands up to summarize, he does so with words that take into account both sides of the argument, drawing a conclusion that could not have been presented or received by either side prior to the Council convening.  In the Council’s letter sent to the Gentile believers, credit is given in proper order, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . .” 15  

The outcome is credited to God through the Spirit.  Moreover, the “us” seems to include more than the apostles and elders.  Indeed, Luke says,  The apostles and elders, with the whole church decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.” 

We need to pause here and be attentive to why the church appointed “their own men” to go to Antioch.  Our tendency is to read this verse as a small logistical detail, instead of it being part and parcel of the Spirit’s overall guidance and wisdom that it clearly is.  Think for a moment: wouldn’t the most expedient thing be to send Paul and Barnabas back to the church in Antioch, or commission the members of the Antioch church in attendance to do so?  Why appoint others?  The leaders and church recognized immediately what would have happened had they done so.  The competitive nature of people being what it is, wouldn’t at least some of the believers in Antioch, (not to mention those attending the Council), have concluded that Paul and Barnabas “won” the argument and the other brothers lost?  I think it would have been inevitable, and the authority of the Spirit’s role in discernment and decision-making would have been diminished.

What are the issues threatening to divide your church?  If you will prayerfully apply the principles of the Jerusalem Council to you situation, you will not only lead your church into God’s future, but will foster unity where there was once division.  May God give you wisdom and grace as you lead others into discerning His will.

Endnotes

1. Acts 15:1-2

2. Acts 15:1,5

3. Hebrews 3:1-6

4. 1 John 4:1

5. Acts 15:4, 12, 22

6. Acts 15:7

7. Acts 15:11

8. Acts 15:15

9. Matthew 5:17

10. John 5:39-40

11. Acts 15:12

12. Acts 15:8,28

13. Acts 10-11

14. Acts 15:8

15. Acts 15:28