Recently I was meeting with some Deacons and asked them to look at 1 Thessalonians 5 verse 11:
“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”
It was intended to be a word of encouragement to them. However one of them misheard me and looked up 1 Thessalonians 5 verse 7:
“For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night.”
The Deacon was somewhat bemused by this and wondered what I was getting at, given that it was now past 10pm. She was especially bemused because others who had looked up the correct verse were saying how encouraging it was!
I wonder whether you have ever had a similar experience – where most people around you seem to be sensing that God is saying something and you feel that he is saying something different? What do you do with that: do you maintain a dissenting voice (a good Baptistic principle); do you decide to go with the majority (reluctantly or otherwise); do you withdraw from the process? And what if you are in the majority and there are some who differ from that opinion: do you enforce the majority view and ‘win’; do you wait to see if the minority will change their minds; do you seek to be as gracious as possible towards those whose view is not the majority view?
Collective decision-making for Christians is not about majorities, democracy or even (dare I say) consensus. Surely what we are seeking is to be able to emulate the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) where as a result of their deliberations they were able to write that “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (verse 28).
That’s not an easy process so we have developed ways of discerning that which can look like democracy (because we vote and majorities usually indicate the way ahead) but actually are theocratic – ‘Thy will be done’. So our decision-making must surely begin with a humble recognition that we don’t know God’s mind, yet he graciously promises to reveal his will to us. It is surely infused with grace (nobody seeking to enforce their will over others – I wonder how the Pharisee-Christians felt about the decision at the Council of Jerusalem). It involves listening well to everyone (God often speaks from the margins in Scripture (‘A voice calling in the wilderness’ for example)). The end of a process of discernment involves humility that we believe that we have worked out what God wants, but we remain open to the possibility that we have not heard him correctly or fully and are open to have our minds changed. To me that’s what “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” is about.
The letter that was written after the Council of Jerusalem has that element of humility in it: “it seemed good…” This is not an arrogant statement that we have worked out what God is saying, but a gentle, humble recognition that it seemed like it was the right way ahead.
Discerning God’s will is neither an exact science nor an art: it is an outworking of our relationship with him in which we are the fallible link in the chain. We may not get it right all of the time, but God is gracious. We may not agree all of the time with each other, or even with what is decided, but God is gracious.
May we agree with one another that God’s will is more important than our own. And may we receive and show his grace too and continually strive to discern what seems good to him so that we may agree with him.
Be blessed, be a blessing