The heresy of democracy

There’s a day event at Carey soon Baptist Church and Leadership. So it was interesting to come across this post from five years ago. Much has changed, Rhetspect has died, or moved on leaving no forwarding address, yet, I think I’d still stand by my dinosaur vision of what leadership ought to mean among a people called Baptist.

Why “Baptist”?

Rhett (of the Rhetspect) has a post (Feeling Strangely Warmed) in which he comments:

People, I think usually just end up in denominations, and then often work backwards and try to justify (to themselves as much as anyone else) why they belong there.

Baptists, endearingly, seem to be quite honest about this. There is no major over-arching vision statement or document of beliefs. On most theological issues they give a pretty wide berth. As I have said before, it’s a great ecumenical approach.

Having said that, I find the whole congregational governance thing a bit hard to stomach. It’s just a bit reactionary for my tastes. But perhaps that’s because I was once involved in a Baptist church where we voted on everything down to the copy machine budget.

So first, as a Baptist (not quite, but nearly, life-long) I’ll be – I hope – endearingly honest about this, I am (still) a Baptist precisely because of the congregational and Christ-centeredness of Baptist life. The picture of “voting on everything” simply misunderstands. In an ideal church meeting (which does not exist, see Genesis 3) we would vote on nothing. The Church (the local gathered community of Jesus followers) would pray, discuss, argue, debate, and finally recognise, which way the Spirit is blowing and follow.

In the real world, we often often end up voting. That’s because of contagious heteropraxis [If you don’t understand see Rhett’s Feeling Strangely Warned and substitute “praxis” (doing) for “doxy” believing.] what I mean is that we hear of congregations voting, and our society votes, we’re democratic, so the church copies the world. When we do, we think of Church as “democratic” what a heresy! We should be pneumocratic, governed by the Spirit of Christ. And that’s why Baptists should be Bible centered, because we know the mind of Christ through the Scriptures that witness to him.

So, Rhett (and anyone else ;-) if that’s “reactionary” then I’m an old reactionary – boots and all!

12 comments on “The heresy of democracy

  1. Judy Redman

    The Uniting Church also works on what Rhett calles “congregational governance” – although all our councils work like this, from congregation through to national. We try very hard not to have to vote, as such, but to reach consensus, and we have a formal consensus decision-making process which means that we very rarely vote in a meeting but we do have ways of indicating how people feel. I have been in meetings where when the initial indication was taken, about 80% of those present believed one option was correct, but after one or two of those in the minority spoke about why they believed what they believed, we got consensus for their position, which I believe was a movement of the Spirit. But we *do* sometimes discuss stewardship issues like how much we might spend on a new photocopier – trying to balance the fact that we don’t have to pay for the time it takes to do some things manually against the fact that our volunteers might well be doing something different if they weren’t doing manual photocoyping tasks. And we would probably get a small group to look at the cost vs benefit and bring a recommendation. So I’m probably reactionary, too, Tim. :-)

  2. tim

    On the photocopier, it seems to me if the decision s operational (which model to buy) it is a waste of time to involve many people, but if the question is whether to spend a lot of money on this equipment or to use this money in other ways then more people should be involved.

  3. tim

    PS your system sounds really good. The best examples of consensual leadership I’ve seen have been in African institutions, Westerners are too fond of giving and taking orders!

  4. Rhett

    Hi Tim, I’m interested to know how you found that post… it was a long time ago!

    I’ve stopped blogging mostly because of time pressures, but also partly because my thinking has changed on some things and I was worried that people might read a post and get the wrong idea of where I was at now.

    On the issue of congregational governance, and now from the perspective on pastoring in a Baptist church, I guess it’s still one I struggle with a bit, and one which I have on the list of “things to get to” one day soon. I’d like to do some serious reading and thinking about it.

    In any case I’d probably express myself with a bit more tact these days.

  5. Tim Bulkeley

    Hi, Rhett, the reference to “this post from five years ago” was intended to refer to my post that ad commented on your post, I confess I did not try to look up your original post in the Wayback Machine. I suspect that since the URL is now dead even that might not work, and your old posts are “safely” dead ;)

    I have mixed feelings about that, but can understand that you don’t want the thoughts of an earlier you coming back to haunt you. I can take this post down if you like? This is a slow blogging period for me, so I was looking for old posts to resurrect, on their anniversary ;)

  6. Rhett

    I’m not quite sure why my comment was left as Tim! Autofill fail? :-)

    No, it’s fine to leave this post here. People can read my comment with it if they need any clarification.

    I’ve had a few people – especially closer to the time I started at my church – assume I still held a certain theology which I was really only trying on for size during study. Plus I kept getting caught up needlessly in debates.

    …And I feel less pressure to say something meaningful now, which is nice! ;-)

  7. rey

    Why shouldn’t churches be democratic? What, they should be run by some cult-leader called an ‘elder’ or something?

    1. tim

      Perhaps because they should be “run” by a community listening to the Spirit. One dictatorial “leader” and a voting system are both bad ways to achieve that. Prayer listening to God and each other can be a very good way to achieve it.

  8. rey

    But if you don’t vote how do you know what the “Spirit” said to the individuals who were listening to him?

  9. rey

    Resolution for today’s vote:

    The Spirit has expressly affirmed that drinking alcohol is a sin.

    May I have the Yeas. May I have the Nays.

    The Nays have it, this church shall consider the Spirit to have affirmed that drinking is not a sin and the Gentleman who brought up the contrary resolution is summarily excommunicated.


    Sounds a bit like the so-called Jerusalem council and the circumcision question, doesn’t it? The outcome after that all voted was to write a letter saying:

    “It seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit….”

  10. rey

    I’ve always been bothered by that kind of statement by the way. “It seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit….” How do you know what seemed good to the Holy Spirit? You just assume if it seems good to you it seems good to the Spirit. Like Paul says in one place after giving an order “and I THINK I have the Holy Spirit.” You THINK? Wow, that is so very close to blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Voting without claiming to know what the Spirit says is probably safer.

  11. Tim Bulkeley

    The Jerusalem council is a nice example of the way decisions are taken in many traditional societies. In Congo at the college where I taught we opperated with a mixture of Western (“democracy”) and traditional. In a committee or council we would discuss, debate and argue. Sometimes we would then take a vote, but if the result was at all unclear we would revert to discussing etc… Other times after the discussion the chair would say something like: I think the conclusion we are reaching is… and if no one disagreed the decision was taken. That sort of process is what I see in Acts where James as leader expresses the conclusion they have been reaching. Not democracy or autocracy but concensus.