This week I voted. It did not take long. It was not difficult. It was an election for my local Police and Crime Commissioner. The ‘campaign’ has been very low key around here – no leaflets, no phone calls, no posters. I had to look up the candidates for myself in order to make a decision about where to put my ‘x’. If I hadn’t had a polling card I would not have known there was an election at all.
It was tempting to think that my vote won’t make a difference: why should I put myself out by walking around the corner to the local school that was hosting the polling station – it’s only one vote, after all. That thought did cross my mind this morning, but then I dismissed it. Not just because if we all thought like that then nobody would get elected, or even the thought that there are countries where the people are denied that privilege, and when they are given it they vote enthusiastically. There was a bit more thought than that. I have written to my MP several times recently: about the clearing of part of the ‘Jungle’ in Calais, about the way that our Government could do more to help those fleeing persecution, and most recently about the ‘Dubs amendment’ to the Immigration Bill. But if I don’t participate in the democratic process as fully as possible (with whatever flaws I might think it has) then it’s much more difficult for me to voice my opinion with as much integrity as I would like. If my voice is to mean anything then I feel that I should vote.
Of course democracy is not really mentioned in the Bible. Nobody voted for Moses or Joshua, or the Judges, or the absolute monarchs of the Old Testament. In the New Testament nobody voted for Caesar, or any of the Herods, or even Pilate, Felix, Festus or King Agrippa. And the appointment of the early church leaders seemed to have more to do with whether they had known Jesus and the length of a straw (or whatever ‘casting lots’ meant) than democracy.
I believe that democracy has no place in the church (even though it’s the best (or least worst) political process). Don’t get too hot under the collar just yet, please read on because, as we all confess as good Baptists, I believe that if we vote in a Deacons’ or Church Meeting we are not voting democratically (although it looks similar) we are seeking to express what we are collectively discerning to be God’s will. Deacons’ and Church Meetings, at their best, are places where we can disagree agreeably, discuss graciously and then seek to discern wisely what God is saying to us.
In the book of Acts there are two contrasting approaches to discerning God’s will. The first is from the mouth of Gamaliel in the Sanhedrin when they were working out what to do with Peter and the Apostles who had been arrested (Acts 5):
34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honoured by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. 35 Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: ‘Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. 36 Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. 37 After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.38 Therefore, in the present case I advise you: leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.’
I have often heard Gamaliel’s wisdom commended as a good example of how to deal with a tricky situation. But to me it seems like a cop-out. He did not commit himself to discerning God’s will, he hedged his bets: he uses ‘if’ twice in the last two verses. (As an aside I note that the Sanhedrin had the apostles flogged before they released them, just to make a point and the Apostles rejoiced because they had been considered worthy of suffering for the Gospel).
Then there’s Acts 15 – the Council of Jerusalem – where the Christians tried to work out how Jewish God wanted you to be to follow Jesus. People of opposing views shared their opinions and then they discerned together (we don’t know how) and decided:
22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. 23 With them they sent the following letter:
The apostles and elders, your brothers,
To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:
24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorisation and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul – 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.
I love the phrase “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” as that, to me, seems to capture the essence of how a Deacons’ or Church Meeting should come to a conclusion. Whether or not votes are cast in order to help us discern, at the end we should all affirm “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” and then work to put that into action – even if it’s not our own personal preference – because we believe we have collectively listened to God through each other and heard what he wants. And that’s where Gamaliel’s words, with a slight alteration, make more sense: “But because it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
Be blessed, be a blessing.