Democracy: A Bad Idea in Church?

After a 40-day leave of absence, the children of Israel at the foot of Mt. Sinai gave up wondering about Moses’ return. Converting plaguing questions into action, they assembled to decide what to do next.

“I know,” someone snapped his fingers. “Let’s make another god to lead us out of here. We can’t count on this Moses guy anymore.”

“Yeah, yeah,” they nodded to each other. A few bumped their neighbor with a crooked arm.

“Aaron could do it for us,” someone yelled as he led the crowd to the man Moses left in charge. Everyone seemed to be in hearty agreement, so Aaron followed the will of the people and fashioned a golden calf.

Unfortunately, despite the people being of one mind, what God had in mind for the Israelites differed incredibly. In the end, many lost their lives due to the popular opinion.

The benefits of voting, freedom of speech and membership agreement, far outweigh the counterpart—a dictatorship. In a democracy, where the masses influence the ones in authority, the people enjoy great freedom. The most “insignificant” person possesses the right to speak his or her mind and vote. A true democracy bars a select few from whisking the masses away in a direction that only benefits the ones at the top.

The freedoms of democracy spill over into our churches as well. Churches use different terms depending on the denomination, but many essentially set up democracies in the following ways: Congregations and boards vote in pastors and elders; elder-boards receive recommendations from pastors, while pastors are kept in check by elder-boards. Everyone in the church is free to speak up about policies, ministries and other decisions that face the church—whether this happens by sitting on a board or sharing your views with those who do.

How do we, as believers, reconcile the reality of democracy in our churches with the cautionary example of the golden calf, where democracy went awry?

With every freedom comes responsibility. Before some of the Corinthians came to faith, they used to take part in the pagan ritual of eating meat sacrificed to idols. As new believers, the old mindset easily returned when they continued to eat this meat—even with their new knowledge of the one true God. Out of love for those still struggling in this area, Paul cautions the mature believers: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak,” (1 Corinthians 8:9, TNIV). Although these mature believers possessed the right to eat the sacrificed meat, he asked them to lay down those rights. Paul taught responsible liberty. When seeking the best for the new believers tempered the freedoms of the mature, the whole body of Christ was strengthened in Corinth.

In many of our churches, we have the right to call a meeting with our pastor, to relay an idea to a ministry team and to cast a vote concerning an issue facing our church. But how are we using our yeas and nays? If we exercise our rights to serve ourselves, ignoring the effect on the rest of the church, we fall into the same sin Paul pinned on the mature Corinthians. In our liberty, there will be times to practice restraint—for the best of the body.

During a unique period of time when my church experienced rapid growth, limited staff and a small population of middle and high school students, we had no youth group. Eventually, a few voiced concern over the missing ministry. As a result, our pastor called a prayer meeting for the church to seek the Lord on the matter.

In a few minutes, the prayer meeting turned into a town hall meeting. Everyone interested voiced their opinions until the group divided down the middle. Those who wanted the youth group cited concerns that the kids needed biblical teaching specific to adolescent needs, such as relationships with the opposite sex and purity. Those who thought a youth ministry was unnecessary explained the New Testament church did not seem to value separating the church by age—besides, the present youth seemed to be acclimating well as they grew into maturity alongside the adults.

Both were great points. Both sides made good Biblical sense.

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Instead of taking a vote and letting the majority decide, my pastor, wanting the Lord to guide this decision, stopped the debate. He ended the meeting by asking everyone to lay their intentions down and prayed God would raise up what He wanted for our community and for our youth.

The following week, when the concerned returned, everyone repented of their plans and asked God for His. In the end, the members agreed, but this unity took time and the Holy Spirit leading the hearts of all involved.

Sometimes the Lord leads His children into scary and uncomfortable places. God commanded the Israelites to fight the giants in the Promised Land. But when the 12 spies returned, 10 of them recommended everyone to sit still. They found it foolish to take on the large, fortified cities filled with dangerous looking men. Caleb and Joshua attempted to convince the people otherwise. “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it,” (Numbers 13:30, TNIV). But it was too late. The people followed the advice of the majority.

God brought Jesus to the cross. This deeply pained those closest to Him, and out of good intentions they attempted to change the direction of the night. Just before His arrest, the disciples were willing to fight Christ’s accusers, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” (Luke 22:49, TNIV). But Jesus silenced the majority and followed God where He was leading—despite the confusion and fright of his closest friends.

Just like the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai, many times the majority believes following God lacks logic and safety and they attempt to find a better way. Yet repeatedly, Scripture shows us, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong,” (1 Corinthians 1:27, TNIV). God’s plans for our churches may not appeal to many of us initially, but if we fail to follow where the Spirit is leading, we will miss out on the fullness God has planned for us.

If the Church becomes careless, unharnessed freedom can turn us into institutions for the people, by the people. We can choose a different course than the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai or those who chose the recommendation given by 10 out of the 12 spies. We can practice responsible democracy. We can lay down our rights from time to time and be willing to consider the words of a few when the Lord is leading them—even if the plans make us a little nervous. Then the Church will move into what God intends for us, just like Jesus did in view of the cross.

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