I Move We Don’t Vote So Much!

Article
06.17.2014

There’s an interesting pattern I’ve noticed in evangelical churches: The smaller the church, the more frequent the votes. Most of the mega-churches in the evangelical world don’t seem to do a whole lot of congregational voting. They have one or two or three members’ meetings a year (if that), and it’s usually to do massive business like buying land or adopting a multi-million dollar budget or calling a senior pastor or something. But that’s about it. The congregation doesn’t do a whole lot. Many of those large churches don’t even have the congregation vote new members in, or on cases of discipline. Those things are handled by the leadership.

It’s different in small churches—much different. In a small church, you generally have to vote on everything. Our church, for example, used to have a requirement that any expenditure over $150 had to be congregationally approved! Even worse, a member could make a motion during “New Business” to do just about anything under the sun, and the congregation would have to deliberate and vote on it. Keep the curtains open, close them, instruct the nursery director to buy a new puzzle, instruct her to take back the one she bought last week. “I move we use Welch’s
grape juice instead of the Kroger brand—it’s kinda brown looking.” “I move we amend that motion to say Juicy-Juice instead of Welch’s due to the differentiation in the price.” “I disagree. Juicy-Juice is brown, too.” And so on it went.

In the years since those halcyon days, our church has moved to an elder-led, congregational government, and we’ve had to think through the question of just how elder-led the church ought to be. What kinds of things should the church vote on? Everything? Nothing? What decisions should the elders and other church officers be able to
make without a congregational vote? I would argue (right now, that is—I could be convinced otherwise; that’s what
blogs are for, right? Discussion.) that there are really only five things a congregation ought to vote on, three of
which I see clear biblical instruction about, and the other two of which are mainly prudential. Here they are:

1. Membership and Discipline. Two sides of the same coin. The congregation as a whole ought to decide who is a part of its fellowship and who is not. This is clearest in the biblical teaching about church discipline. In Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, it is the church as a whole that makes the decision to exclude someone from its membership. Moreover, they perform that discipline by voting. (Note Paul’s use of the word “majority” in 2 Corinthians 2:6.) Given that, it only makes sense that the congregation ought to vote also on who comes into its fellowship.

2. Leadership. I don’t see anything explicit in the New Testament—either by command or example—about the church voting on its elders. But it’s clear that they did elect, or at least somehow “choose from   among themselves,” their own deacons in Acts 6. From that, and also from the fact that an erring elder is to be rebuked publicly (1 Timothy 5:20), I’d argue that the congregation as a whole ought to choose its own leaders. They ought to vote on their elders and deacons.

3. Doctrine. In Galatians 1, Paul holds the whole congregation accountable for what is taught to it. If false teaching
is allowed to take root in the church, it’s the whole congregation’s fault. Moreover, the church as a whole is to anathematize false gospels, as well as the teachers who teach false gospels. Thus I believe the congregation
ought to vote on adopting or changing its statement of faith.

[4. Budget.] This is less clear to me than the others, but I still think it’s wise for the church to vote on its budget. That’s partly for legal reasons, and partly because it just seems good for the church to “own” its spending plan. The fact is, they’re going to “vote” on the church’s spending plan anyway, with their giving or lack of it, so it seems good to do it up front. Besides, perhaps there is some biblical precedent for this–even if not formal–in the Macedonians “pleading” with Paul to let them spend money for a contribution to the poor saints in Jerusalem. (See Romans
15:26 and 2 Cor. 8:3-4.)

[5. Rules.] This is also a matter of prudence. Though there are obviously some rules a church of Jesus Christ is bound by Scripture to follow, and you don’t see churches voting on by-laws in the New Testament, it seems a good idea to have the church formally agree to the rules by which it will operate. That means voting on its
own constitution and/or by-laws. For our church, this meant voting to adopt a constitution that fairly strictly (though not entirely) limits congregational votes to these five areas. In other words, the congregation voted to
delegate a whole lot of decision-making responsibility to its officers, keeping in its own hands only those things which Scripture explicitly or implicitly puts in its hands—along with a couple of other things for prudential reasons.

The result of all this has been that our Members’ Meetings are wonderfully encouraging times now. The
congregation knows where it must exercise authority, it knows what it has delegated to others, it votes on the important matters it is charged with voting on, we hear reports from officers about other decisions that have been made and implemented, and we don’t get bogged down with “bitty” little motions, discussions, and votes under “New Business.”

In fact, the church has learned over time that most motions from the floor will actually be ruled out of order. That’s because most of those motions, unless they fall in the categories above, would finally amount to the congregation “micromanaging” a decision that it has already—in its constitution and election of officers—delegated
to someone else, usually to the elders or to a particular deacon. So for example, if a motion were made from
the floor to buy a new microphone for the pulpit, the moderator would likely rule that motion out of order, gently explaining that the church already delegated authority over such decisions to its Deacon of Sound, and it cannot now step in to micromanage them. (Though the Deacon of Sound probably ought to take a close look at the microphone then!) Same thing if someone moved to forbid the Deacon of Sound to buy a new microphone: That would be out of order, because decisions like that were delegated to that officer, and the congregation should not micromanage after it has delegated.

Of course, there are always safety valves in case of emergencies. The elders can immediately remove a rogue Deacon of Sound, for example. Furthermore, the church itself can unilaterally and immediately remove its elders and/or deacons if it needs to (that’s #2 above), and it can also change its constitution (#5). But all those of course are emergency actions, and the church would only use them in dire situations.

By:
Greg Gilbert

Greg Gilbert is the Senior Pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. You can find him on Twitter at @greggilbert.