Mailbag #67: What Should Members Vote On (And How) . . . Responding to Members’ Foolish Social Media Posts
I have two questions. First, what are considered “important matters” necessary for the members to vote and what are some examples that would be considered “unnecessary” for voting? Second, how do you practically carry out the voting process? What does it look like?
Bible: I believe Jesus authorizes the congregation to make decisions in matters of membership and discipline (see Matthew 18:15–20; 1 Corinthians 5) as well as in doctrine and officers (see Gal. 1:6-9; 2 Tim. 4:3; cf. Acts 6:1–7). When we realize that these are the very things that constitute a church as a church, I think we can also say, by implication, that members should vote on anything that’s crucial to the nature, integrity, and mission of the church.
My church: In my own congregation, therefore, the members vote on receiving new members, saying goodbye to departing members, the final stage of church discipline, affirming elders and deacons who have been nominated by the elders, and the church budget. Why the budget? This is not something you see in Scripture, but a budget determines how a church will do gospel ministry in its location. Therefore, we think it’s important for the church to affirm the budget as its own. It’s crucial to the integrity and mission of the church.
The church does not vote on non-pastoral staff hires, building maintenance decisions, financial decisions under a fairly high dollar amount, the sermon schedule, the Sunday School curriculum, and a hundred other day-to-day decisions.
How on membership/discipline: To your second question, what does this look like? It depends on the matter at hand. With receiving and saying goodbye to members, an elder will make a recommendation, give an explanation, and then call for a voice vote. With church discipline, however, we almost always give the congregation two months before announcing and voting. So we explain the circumstances in one meeting (“tell it to the church,” Matt. 18:17a), and then we explain that if nothing changes in the ensuing two months we as the elders will come back at the next meeting and recommend removal (“and if he doesn’t listen to the church, treat him as you would. . .” Matt. 18:17b). On one or two occasions, we have recommended immediate congregational action, but that’s unusual. Discipline decisions are also voice votes.
How on officers and budget: With elder and deacon nominations, the elders nominate a person in one meeting, and then give the congregation two months to discuss the matter before voting in a subsequent meeting. The same goes with the annual budget. Elder votes are by private ballot, while deacon and budget votes are by voice.
I think I’ve covered the most common matters.
I’m an elder at my church. Our church has a clear and biblical position statement on human sexuality, very similar to the Nashville Statement. Over the past few weeks I have noticed three of our members have said things on social media (Facebook) that seem to support gay marriage. I’m struggling to know the correct biblical approach to this. On the one hand I am concerned that these members seem to be confused (at the very least) on a clear biblical view of sexuality. On the other hand, I have concerns about how to approach this in a biblical way that doesn’t feel like we are monitoring our members’ every action online. What advice would you offer?
Your question is an increasingly common one. A few thoughts:
- Regular teaching ministry: The most important thing for you to do is make sure you’re clear on these matters in the regular teaching ministry of your church. If these individuals are confused on a biblical view of sexuality, is that because they’re new to your church, or because you never teach on it? Sadly, many fail to address these culturally difficult matters. I’m not telling you to raise it every week, or to address it more than you address other culturally prominent sins. But I am telling you to teach and preach the whole counsel of God, including what it says on marriage and sexuality.
- A conversation: After praying, have conversations with these individuals. If you don’t already have a relationship with them, task another elder or leader familiar with the situation who does know them. The more this conversation can occur in the context of a relationship with larger expressions of care and encouragement, the better. I’d enter the conversation itself giving the members the benefit of the doubt and asking questions, not making quick accusations. Also, I’d give them time to think through any errant views that emerge. You don’t have to force anything in one conversation.
- A public forum: Facebook is a mostly public forum. Therefore, I think it’s generally reasonable to bring up a matter that someone has posted, particularly if you are Facebook friends. It would be utterly reasonable for anyone to raise with me something I have published in an article. If their page is closed, and you have not seen it directly, treat it like you would reports of someone promoting the matter at a private party. You might start by encouraging/equipping the individual who did see it to have the conversation.
- The meaning of church documents: A crucial piece in all this is what your church documents say about marriage. If your statement of faith, for instance, says that God created marriage exclusively for one man and one woman, then these members are potentially out of sync with the statement of faith. I would raise that matter and observe that their membership in the church implies agreement and support. Insofar as these matters are in your church’s documents, your church has effectively said that these are not matters on which you’re willing to agree to disagree. Membership depends upon agreement. For the sake of their own integrity, these individuals should be unsatisfied with promoting one thing on Facebook and another thing in the statement of faith.
- Public promotion: I assume people in the church have a number of privately-held aberrant views on various matters. I personally don’t feel the impulse to search all those out. Rather, I trust the ordinary teaching ministry of the church to address such matters over time (see point 1). The primary reason I think this situation may warrant a slightly more deliberate approach (see point 2) is because these individuals are publicly promoting it. They are, in effect, seeking to lead others astray and divide the church. Also, think of Paul’s warning in Romans 1: “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (v. 32). If same sex marriage is sin, are they not publicly promoting sin? Consider, how would your church respond to someone promoting adultery on Facebook, or embezzlement. I assume you would challenge them.
- Discipline? Suppose a member was promoting adultery or embezzlement on Facebook. If your church practices church discipline, it’s conceivable you would push toward church discipline over time. It’s difficult to affirm a person’s profession of faith who is publicly promoting significant sin, and doing so after being warned and loved and pursued. Likewise, I think it’s at least possible that I would push toward discipline here, assuming the individuals don’t repent. I’m not saying I would in every circumstance. I’m not recommending a policy. Every situation needs to be handled case-by-case with pastoral care. Maybe their posts aren’t clear. Maybe you sense lots of immaturity and confusion more than hardened rebellion. I’m simply saying that this is one possible doorway you might eventually walk through.
I pray the Lord would give you wisdom and insight, these individuals humility and grace, and your church unity.