A Deliberative Body
Part 1 - Unity in the Visible Church
Presbyterian churches are deliberative bodies. When decisions are made, they are determined through voting and majority rule. This process is biblical. This process maintains the unity of the church. This process has worked through the history of the church. This process is beneficial for the church today. And this process lays certain obligations upon the members of that body when decisions are made.
It should be fairly apparent that the church is more than the local congregation. One of the signs of a cult is to view one’s particular local body as the totality of the church. It should be, therefore, no radical statement to say that the visible church is larger than the local church. If that is true, then there must be some manner in which the visible church can govern herself at the numerically larger levels. The question is not if she does, but how she comes to decisions regarding the larger body. There must be some process for the government of the larger church. This government necessitates a type of union among particular church bodies.
This isn’t to say that the church everywhere is to look and feel identical. The church is one. This is clearly confessed in the Apostles’ Creed when “a holy catholic church” is affirmed. But uniformity within the church is not necessarily a good. Uniformity is not the same as unity. Uniformity is a sameness within all parts of the body, whereas unity is a corporate cohesion between different parts working together under one head. Multiformity is not antithetical to unity. Multiformity expresses the diversity and difference in the constituent parts of the body. Multiformity in the church embraces the diversity of humanity’s varied ethnicities, abilities, and gifting. Multiformity encompasses all legitimate forms of worship. Multiformity includes myriad expressions of emotion and temperament. “Such multiformity does not obscure the unity of Christ’s church, but rather causes it to stand out the more boldly…When love rises above uniformity and embraces multiformity, the greatest of Christian virtues comes to glorious expression.”
Certain differences, therefore, should not create division in the body of Christ. While that unity will only be perfectly realized in the invisible church, the visible church ought to strive for it. There is, therefore, a biblical call and necessity for unity in the church. Unity in the visible church is clearly a good. This unity then gives warrant for two or more churches to exist under the same government. We see this unity expressed in the government which oversaw the early church in the book of Acts, specifically the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.
The Jerusalem Council was formed to answer an issue that had developed in the broader church between Judaizers and Gentiles. This was an issue that left unchecked would strike at the unity of Christ’s church. So, elders and apostles gathered in Jerusalem to discuss, deliberate, and come to a conclusive decision about how the church was to operate, and how unity was to be maintained.
The Council exercised the authority that had been given to it as the proper gathering of apostles and elders. These officers were the government of the church over the various congregations represented. They ruled jointly, not severally. Thomas Peck points out that, “if they were all rulers of equal authority, there could be no decency or order in the exercise of their power except by agreement; that is, by an agreement of the majority. There must have been deliberation, conference, interchange of views, and a vote which made the action of the whole governing body.”
This point is important in understanding the nature of deliberation among elders as they exercise the government of the church. The unity of the church gives warrant to a government over particular churches. That government is expressed in elders exercising proper authority to discuss and debate in order to bring the truth of God’s Word to bear on a particular matter. As a result of the debate among equals, a vote is taken and the decision of the majority is adopted as the action of the whole.
There is a goal to all deliberation, and that goal is not for one to hear himself speak. All deliberation should be in order to reach a conclusion. The Jerusalem Council reached a conclusion, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (Acts 15:28, 29). They drafted a letter to the broader church expressing this conclusion. And they selected men to be sent by the church to the various particular churches represented by the Council. This decision was the result of their deliberation over the application of God’s Word to the particular ecclesiastical matter at hand. They worked through the theology to draft a statement for the broader church. And then they sent men out to pastorally apply this theology to their respective contexts. Deliberation in the governing body of the church is bringing Scripture to bear upon the specific ecclesiastical matter before the body with decency and order in order to reach a conclusion that fosters unity among the body.
R.B Kuiper, The Glorious Body of Christ: A Scriptural Appreciation of the One Holy Scripture, First edition, 1967 (East Peoria, IL: Banner of Truth, 2015), 43.
Peck,Notes on Ecclesiology., 189.