Is the Church a Democracy?

The Baptist Faith and Message, the confessional document of the Southern Baptist Convention, contains the following statement on the function of the church (Section VI, The Church): “Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic process.” While Baptists are certainly not the only group to believe the church must operate by congregational vote, their statement is very clear and serves to illustrate the position held by many today. Their position is that the church is designed by God to function by majority rule through the voting of members of the congregation. As the phrase “democratic process” implies, each member in good standing has equal input in decision making. The common means of guiding these congregations through the process of bringing issues to a vote is the parliamentary procedure laid out in Robert’s Rules of Order. Members who are below a certain age are usually excluded from voting.

Congregational voting dates back at least to the mid-seventeenth century. At that time, most Baptist congregations selected their leaders by popular vote. Regarding the elder and his office, the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith states: “That he be chosen thereunto by the common suffrage [vote] of the church itself.” Deacons were chosen by “like suffrage” (Chapter 26, Article 9).

From a human perspective, this is a very long history. But is it long enough?

Is congregational voting the biblical model for church function?

In answering that question, one must distinguish between a consensus and a vote. It is clear that Scripture encourages a consensus among church members. We are commanded to have one mind. Philippians 1:27-28 says, “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ; so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; in no way alarmed by your opponents.” Having one mind is the standard for God’s church.

In the New Testament, we see this pattern worked out in the church at Jerusalem. In Acts 6, when men were selected for the distribution of food to the Hellenistic widows at the recommendation of the apostles, it says, “And the statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch” (Acts 6:5, emphasis added).

This passage clearly indicates congregational involvement. It clearly indicates that there was a consensus, since “the statement found approval with the whole congregation.” It also clearly indicates that a choice was made. What the passage does not mention is that a vote was taken in order to make that choice. Nor was the action initiated by the congregation. That was done by the apostles (men who held their positions without any human vote having taken place).

Congregational churches tend to assume a vote was the means to reaching the consensus in Acts 6, but this assumption does not hold up well under scrutiny. Even when voting takes place, the vote never produces a consensus and seldom reveals one. In practical reality, a congregational vote is a choice of “yes” or “no” to a proposal that has been made. That proposal may not address the concerns of many in the congregation. Discussion is limited to the distilled idea about to be voted on. In casting a vote, the voter is sometimes choosing the lesser of two offensive options and will not be satisfied with any outcome. When the church’s vote is not unanimous, congregational voting may well create disharmony rather than consensus.

Consensus is far more likely to be reached through good communication between leaders and the congregation, without Roberts Rules of Order interfering with open discussion, and without limiting the content of the discussion to a single motion or the duration of the discussion to a single meeting. If a statement finds approval with an entire congregation, the leaders and the people will know it without a democratic process.

In Acts 15, the Jerusalem counsel reached a consensus regarding Gentile believers. Acts 15:22 states, “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.” This passage, like Acts 6, lacks any statement to indicate that a vote was the means of reaching consensus within the leadership body or the congregation as a whole. They did what seemed good to them as a group. When they had worked through all the questions and reached a consensus, everyone knew it.

Scripture is conspicuously silent on the issue of voting. It was not a part of the cultures of the Old or the New Testament. It was not imposed on those cultures by commands of Scripture, as a good many other concepts were. It is not called for by Scripture. Church voting comes from western tradition, not from Scripture.

To this rather clear reality, many congregational churches respond that voting is not prohibited, so churches are allowed to use it as a helpful tool. In the absence of a command for churches to vote or not to vote, is there anything in God’s revelation by which one may decide the question?

One consideration is the frequent error of the majority. Throughout the history of ancient Israel it is demonstrated that the majority is often horribly wrong. This is true because the majority of people have not been gifted by God specifically to deal with the demands of leadership or qualified for leadership by the process given by God. As a result, they tend to be led astray (in large groups).

The biblical model for leadership within God’s church involves qualified and tested leaders making decisions on behalf of the body. This does not take place without the body’s involvement, but it does take place without granting equal power to those who have not been biblically qualified as elders. First Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are clear regarding qualifications and duties of these leaders. If equal input is given to those who have not been biblically qualified, the church in question is simply rejecting God’s commands regarding the function of his church.

The reason that voting is absent in Scripture may well be that voting itself is in conflict with the God-given structure for the church. Hebrews 13:17 commands, “Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.” A vote that would remove decision-making responsibility from qualified leaders is in direct opposition to the command of this text.

Majority rule cannot bear the test of a careful study of Scripture. It is a system which stands in opposition to God’s design regarding church leadership and church function. As such, it is a concept that can be gently laid aside by the believer who is willing to test everything by the Word and to adjust his life accordingly.