Several hundred years ago, a heresy sat poised, ready to ignite. All it needed was the right match, and 18th century Christianity would be engulfed in flames. The match was found in a young pastor and his congregation just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, USA. The heresy, now called Unitarianism, still simmers and burns today all over the world, but especially where I live in New England.
The match was struck in 1753. Pastor Lemuel Briant had been asked by several elders to quit his pastorate at the First Congregational Church of Braintree, MA. Their reasons were more than justified. In the past year his wife had left him, taking their children away. In departing she had also leveled against him several public accusations of impropriety. But in spite of the family situation, Briant refused to resign. In addition to all that, the church elders demanded he retract a catechism he had given to the children of the church, one written by a man who explicitly denied the deity of Christ. The church’s elders felt it best for Briant to care for his family. They also feared for the spiritual health of the church’s children.
But Pastor Briant simply ignored the elders. Understandably upset, the elders called in several pastors from other churches for help. These pastors were the same men who had ordained Briant three years earlier. In a private meeting, he was again prevailed upon to immediately resign and go take care of his family. However, Briant again refused. Instead, he made his own demand. He insisted that he be given a church vote.1 If the congregation voted to keep him, he would stay, but if he was voted out, he would go.
Lemuel Briant had read the people well, for when the church came together to vote, they stuck with Briant. They completely rejected the recommendation of their own elders and the three pastors who had ordained him. According to original documents, the church retained Briant by an “overwhelming vote.”2 Today, this church is called the United First Parish Church of Quincy, and it is acknowledged as the first Unitarian Church in history. As such, it quickly abandoned all faith in the Eternal Son of God, the Trinity, and the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. In a word, they voted to apostatize.
The spread of Unitarianism
Buttressed with that success and the power of the vote, Unitarianism spread like wildfire in the early days of American democracy. The world was ripe for a more appealing religion that affirmed innate human goodness. Christian colleges such as Harvard, Yale and Tufts fueled the fire by training men in the doctrines of Unitarianism and smuggling them into trinitarian churches. Within a generation, scores of trinitarian churches in New England converted to Unitarianism through congregational votes. They never looked back, and today most New England towns have a look-a-like Unitarian church near the village green.
Such events are still happening today. Churches still vote for unqualified men to lead them, or, as mentioned in the previous article, to embrace sexual sin. In hindsight, voting doesn’t really provide safety. In fact, it can be the tool for spreading dangerous heresy. When it came time for that Boston congregation to choose their own path, they led themselves astray. They abandoned Christ and lost the gospel. Like Solomon’s foolish son Rehoboam, they “abandoned the counsel that the old men gave him” (1 Kings 12:8). And like Rehoboam, it is unlikely that any of the people of that congregation believed they were doing anything wrong. More likely, they felt euphoric after rejecting the counsel of the older men and forcefully displaying their independence.
Could it be that voting has the power to dull our spiritual senses to Christ’s position of Lord of the Church, and how He wants it governed?
Consider what one man wrote:
God’s will is objectively given through the vote of the local congregation. Whether it’s His will for discipline, for officers, for how money should be spent—it is done by the vote of the congregation. That’s God’s way.3
If church votes reveal God’s will, as that author maintains, then how do we explain churches using their votes to depart the Christian faith? That’s not God’s way! Thousands of churches have made votes that went against Scripture, and to this day still do. Voting can end up replacing the Bible as the real authority in our church because it appeals to our love of freedom and choice. We should know better, but it carries a kind of intoxicating power that dulls us to the power of the cross.
Robert’s Rules of Order
This is not to say that all voting is wrong. It is just wrong in a church that believes God’s guidance in Scripture is inspired and infallible. Apart from the church of Jesus Christ many secular and religious groups wisely make decisions through votes. For these groups, voting makes sense, as it does in the world’s democracies of the twenty-first century. These groups want to be governed by the voice of men, and would never look to the Bible for authoritative guidance. Typically, they use voting procedures as taught in Robert’s Rules of Order.4
Ironically, Henry M. Robert wrote his famous book in 1876 after witnessing a painful Baptist church meeting in New Bedford, Massachusetts. To offer assistance to future churches in the hopes of reducing church tensions, he studied the United States House of Representatives as a model for how orderly decisions could be obtained without trampling on the rights of the minority. He streamlined their parliamentarian procedures into basic motions, deliberations, divisions, and votes. His book, slightly modified over the years, is today the de facto authority for decision-making procedures for organizations of all kinds, including tens of thousands of churches.
In the United States, churches will even write into their constitutions a particular edition of this book, so as to avoid possible confusion over details of parliamentary procedure. Once defined in the constitution, the church binds itself to Robert’s Rules of Order as their sole authority for congregational decision-making, including discussion, dissent, and votes.5
This kind of thinking led one pastor to write the following:
At the end of the day, the thing that gets churches in trouble is not usually grossly unethical behavior but failure to follow good procedure. I recommend that EVERY church…have a parliamentarian from outside their organization go through their constitution and look for problems.6
His words pretty well express the passion some feel on this topic. But I wonder—is the thing that really gets us into trouble “failure to follow good procedure”? At the end of the day, is our best hope for unity with each other employing a Robert’s Rules professional who can whip us into parliamentary shape, lest we trample each other? Is the Bible so dysfunctional that we need the expertise of unbelievers to get along in the same Christian church?
As wonderful a man as I’m sure he was, Henry Robert did not examine Scripture to learn how Christ and His apostles gave inspired instructions on how churches should make decisions. Rather, Robert’s major goal in writing his book was to ensure that the voice of the minority should not be trampled on by the power of the majority, but be given a voice and power appropriate to their size in public meetings. This is certainly a laudable goal, because this is a real problem for people who are not led by the Spirit. However, God’s power for Christians begins with the cross of shame in this world and embraces the wisdom that is “from above” (James 3:17). The world needs
Thousands of church constitutions claim the Bible as their sole authority in all matters of faith and practice and yet bind themselves to one of the world’s practices that has no power to sanctify believers. Parliamentary procedure, which is totally foreign to God’s infallible and sufficient Word, instead possesses the power to divide them. I’ve seen people come to church meetings clutching their Robert’s Rules like swords in their scabbards, prepared for battle, while leaving their Bibles back in the car. Why would we want to hold open our Robert’s Rules in one hand while holding a closed Bible in the other? We open our meetings in prayer to God only to open the floor to ourselves. “Do we have a motion? OK, good. We have a motion. Do we have a second? Now we can debate.”
Distrust and Dissent
Parliamentary procedure, whether practiced in the United States government or in a Christian church, is a technique of decision-making designed to regulate those entrusted with authority. Its entire premise is predicated on the distrust of those in power. The principles and presuppositions of Robert’s Rules of Order are useful in the world because they recognize that men are sinful and prone to love power. However, they are diametrically opposed to apostolic teaching and with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This is why non-Christian religions such as Unitarianism practice voting as an integral part of their congregational decision making policies. They require voting power so that they can hold their leaders in check and retain self-determination in an atmosphere of mutual distrust.
But seeing a church make decisions by parliamentary procedure is a remarkably strange way for individual Christians to learn submission to authority, or even godly decision-making. It is simply wrong to believe that God’s will for individual Christians is to follow Scripture when making decisions, but for church decisions His will is to employ parliamentary procedure. Hopefully, no one encourages individual Christians or Christian families to make decisions based on votes, majority rule, checks and balances, and so forth. As I’ll discuss below, we who have received God’s Word and Spirit have a better way: 100 percent church unity, attained through submission to Scripture.
No wonder so many churches experience a revolving door of leaders and members. We practice something so central to our church experience that is utterly foreign to the entire text of God’s inspired and sufficient revelation. How can something man-made inspire, nourish, and build the church of God? When the world’s ways lead the church, the sensitive souls of believers are tempted to all manner of sins toward each other.
As well, parliamentary procedure is designed to encourage and elicit dissent in a context of external order and decorum, not the inner reformation of the heart. Sooner or later, allowing a church environment of dissent and division will bear the fruit of jealousy and selfish ambition. James says, that “is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (James 3:15). God’s church is never to provide a platform for even the tiniest bit of strife and division, nor to encourage any kind of “political process.” Strife and division breed church splits, and many an injured saint will tell you so. But sometimes that pain can be God’s megaphone, leading us to ask the right questions. One of those good questions is actually a straightforward one: “How, then, does the Bible teach us, as a church, to make decisions?”
One Hundred Percent Unanimity
Every church has one goal: to glorify our triune God. That includes honoring Him in how we make our decisions. One word stands above others in decision-making: unity. Unity reflects God’s glory in the church. Paul wrote,
[L]ive in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 15:5–6)
When Paul says that our one-voice unity glorifies God, he is not discussing how we sing together, but rather how we live together. And since living together in harmony requires making decisions that affect each other, we are obligated to make all of our decisions in a way that prevents God’s glory in Christ from being disgraced. We must make our congregational decisions in such a way that any disagreeable or discordant voice is roundly recognized as an affront on God, not us.
So, here’s a heads-up warning: God’s standards are not only earthly high, they’re heavenly high. In fact, they are so high that they are impossible for non-Christians to live by. God’s standard in congregation decision-making is perfection—one hundred percent unanimity in all things—and such a high standard can only be esteemed among a redeemed people who love Christ’s cross more than their own voice. His standard for every congregation is passed on to us through Paul:
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Cor. 1:10)
Even through this was written by Paul, he was nothing but the pencil. The opening words “by the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” mean that it is Christ Himself, the Lord of the Church, speaking here in absolute resurrection authority.7 His words are not merely suggesting that we attain perfect unity in our decision-making. Quite the opposite. He is commanding it: “all of you agree…be united in the same mind and in the same judgment.” The Head of the Church and Lord of life is not asking us to merely strive for one hundred percent unanimity in our church decisions, but to live it. It’s an important distinction because to intentionally practice something that is satisfied with less than one hundred percent unanimity in His church is high-handed sin against this express command.
How high is Christ’s own standard? Any church is not in one hundred percent unity of mind and judgment at the end of their next meeting has violated the decree of the risen Lord. They may preach the right gospel, but they aren’t living by it. Church leaders who authorize practices that tempt and lead the sheep into direct violation of the words of Jesus Christ in 1 Cor. 1:10 must give an answer for this compromise in the day of His judgment. These are strong words, but the precious souls of Christ’s sheep require protection, not temptation. How can voting, which promotes different voices and expressions and decisions attain to the high standard our Lord has set for us of “one voice” unity?
1 Cf. W. S. Pattee, History of Old Braintree and Quincy (Quincy, MA: Green and Prescott, 1878), 221. Thanks to Dr. Sheldon Bennett, present minister of United First Parish Church (Unitarian Universalist) for his kind and generous assistance in the history of his church and Unitarian Universalist beliefs.
2 Clifford K. Shipton, New England Life in the 18th Century (Cambridge and Boston, 1951), 347. Cf. William P. Lunt, Two Discourses delivered September 29, 1839 on the occasion of The Two Hundredth Anniversary of the Gathering of the First Congregational Church, Quincy with an Appendix (Boston: James Monroe and Company, 1840), 132–34. As a testimony to the church’s influence in American history, two presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, lie in state in the basement of the church.
4 Henry M. Robert, Robert’s Rules of Order (New York: Morrow Quill, 1971), iii. Robert was an engineer whose expertise consisted of making seaports suited for large vessels.
5 For an example of the intrusion of Robert’s Rules, note the discussion on church discipline in Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005), 71, and its associated footnote.
6 Greg Gilbert, “I Move We Don’t Vote So Much,” April 3, 2008, The IX Marks Blog, Church Matters, http://www.9marks.org/blog/i-move-we-dont-vote-so-much (accessed February 24, 2009), emphasis original.
7 See also 1 Corinthians 5:4 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6 for other uses of this authoritative statement.