Communal discernment and the church meeting

As Baptists, we believe in communal discernment of the will of God, and we engage in such communal discernment through the church meeting. However, this raises a question: is the practice of church meeting just a convenient occasion for communal discernment, or is it of the essence of such work? Is there something special about communal discernment that takes place in the context of church meeting, or is that practice of gathering merely a way of facilitating a process that can happen equally as well in other contexts?

I had not formulated this question until recently, but several conversations have made me ask it. Perhaps the most significant was some interaction on Facebook with Stuart Blythe (of IBTS, late of the Scottish Baptist College). Stuart asked whether Scottish Baptist churches had held church meetings to discern the mind of Christ about the recent referendum; my response was to suggest that we only hold church meetings when we think we need to make a church decision, either about the collective activity of the church (‘Should we support this mission project? If so, how?’) or about our shared vision of the demands of discipleship (‘Should we welcome a married gay/lesbian couple into membership?’); in my context there was no suggestion that we should be making voting yes or voting no (or voting at all, or not voting) a condition of walking together with Christ in our fellowship, and the church had no corporate role to play in the referendum, so there was no need for a church meeting.

Others, however, clearly felt that it would have been a good thing to do, on the basis that we should have been discerning together the mind of Christ on this issue; to which my instinctive response was that we were discerning together the mind of Christ, in our home groups and conversations and prayers and chance discussions. In St Andrews we preached a sermon series on questions of identity, with the specific intention of helping people to frame some of the issues that would inform their voting better, and so on. I did not see our communal discernment as being any weaker or less serious because we did not do it in church meeting – but others obviously did. In trying to understand why, I observed that there seemed to be a sacramentality assumed about the practice of church meeting: in gathering like this, we expect and attain higher levels of discernment than in any of our other interactions, and so, facing any serious matter for discernment, which should gather in church meeting to discuss it.

My best reconstruction of the theology here would be something like this: the local church is a covenanted community, which covenant is a gift of God as well as a commitment of the members; because of this, there is a particular intensity – and a particular divine gift of insight – when the whole church gathers together for the purpose of discerning the mind of Christ. Church meeting, then, should be our ‘gold standard’ for communal discernment, the place we do it most properly and most seriously; there is a sacramental quality to the practice of church meeting. Our chance conversations and small group meetings cannot substitute.

Is this right? We might find Biblical support in 1Cor. 5:4b, which can be read to suggest a particular intensity of the experienced presence and power of Jesus with the church when it is gathered – although there are of course significant interpretative difficulties in that verse, and it is at least possible to read the phrase about the power of Jesus as a reference to Paul’s apostolic authority, rather than something that attends the gathering of the church. The theological argument seems the way to go if we are to defend the proposition.

There is a problem with the theological argument, however: as I stated it, it assumes a 100% turnout at church meetings. Of course, no-one actually assumes that, but the logic of the argument I sketched does seem to require it. We could tweak the argument fairly easily: replace ‘when the whole church gathers together’ with ‘when the whole church sets aside a time for communal discernment, and all those who are able to then gather’ or something similar. This, however, seems even further from the truth: church meetings are almost invariably scheduled and called by the leadership, not by the collected will of the whole church. My point here is that an argument for church meeting being an expression of the whole covenanted church somehow needs to involve the whole covenanted church, and if our church meetings do not, then this sort of argument is not going to narrate them very well.

Now, we could of course read this as a criticism of our practice of church meeting: the whole covenanted church should gather! My instinct, however, is to go a different way: I see no Biblical case for insisting on a sacramentality to church meeting, and no credible theological argument for it either; instead, I see the practice as an expression of our fundamental Baptist conviction about communal discernment – but we can and do discern communally just as well at other times and in other ways. Where we need to reach decision, gathering as many of us as possible in one place is helpful in facilitating our processes of discernment so that we can come to a mind (and allows us to comply with charity law) but where no communal decision is required, we can and do practice communal discernment without holding church meetings, or so I believe.

That said, I can see a different argument for holding a church meeting here. When we call a church meeting, we are being intentional about communal discernment; at other times and in other places we might be less so; we do have a need presently in the UK to recover a sense that our political action is a part of our discipleship – not that we should all vote the same way, but that we should together allow our various political preferences to be challenged and critiqued by the gospel. Perhaps having church meetings about specifically political matters would be prophetic, challenging our churches, and ourselves as members of our churches, to take more seriously the political component of discipleship.

17 Comments

  1. stuart blythe
    Oct 29, 2014

    ‘Where we need to reach decision, gathering as many of us as possible in one place is helpful in facilitating our processes of discernment so that we can come to a mind (and allows us to comply with charity law) but where no communal decision is required, we can and do practice communal discernment without holding church meetings, or so I believe.’

    I am not sure I understand this sentence. So I may be responding to a misunderstanding.

    For my part I do not think that the Church Meeting, however, understood is the only place where ‘communal discernment’ takes place but often it is the only place where formally the congregation meets to discern together … other conversations are not given this status … as the place where as Church we choose to discern as Church (for all its limitations). I think that in practice we treat it as different to these other processes and it is precisely because it is treated as different that I think that it should be the place where we talk about the tough issues together…because here we are agreeing to meet as congregation rather than simply in groups.

    Why not there for these issues would be my question? Why not raise the importance of it in our common life of discipleship?

    • steve
      Oct 29, 2014

      Thanks, Stuart.
      When you speak of ‘the Church discerning as Church’ I can understand it in two ways: either this is merely a description of the church coming to a common mind, or it is something more mystical/sacramental concerning ecclesiology. I think I deal with both these in the post.

      ‘Why not there for these issues?’ First, because of a lack of time: our agendas are already straining with items that require decision (or have to be dealt with because of charity law and the church’s constitution); of course, we could call more meetings but I’m not sure it would be a popular move; Second, and more pointedly, because in the average church meeting a mere handful of people speak, generally those who are confident in public speaking (and so are disproportionately male, professional, middle-aged or older, …) and most sit in silence. The quality of our listening to and understanding each other is far higher in other gatherings. Of course that should not be the case – I’ve written about it in more than one place, with concrete suggestions for improving our practices of church meeting – but whilst it is the case, unless we ascribe some particular quality to church meeting that other gatherings lack, then I think we should conclude that the church meeting is just not a good place for dealing with such issues. (I can only quote my own experience, but every competent minister/church leadership team I have known has understood this, and has always made sure that difficult or contentious items that required decision were extensively discussed elsewhere before they ever came to be on a church meeting agenda.)

      I take your point about status; I was making the same point I think in my final paragraph, about the potential prophetic nature of calling a church meeting about a political matter. I don’t think we would discern very well if we did it, but I think we would be saying something important, firstly to ourselves, by doing it.

      • Stuart
        Oct 29, 2014

        Steve

        In your first post you construct the theology you then challenge. You create the logic of sacrament and 100% attendance you then critique.

        I do not actually agree that either a sacramental theology or 100% attendance is necessary to argue as I do – if in practice the Church Meeting is the time and place we have named as being the place where we make decisions as a ‘Church’ then it should be a place of communal discernment and that we should deal with the big issues that are impacting life in that society for the sake of our discipleship and mission rather than the selected agendas we have at the moment.

        If you have other places where the congregation has the opportunity to meet together, however, incompletely, as congregation, and communaly discern and make decisions that you can name ‘as a Church’ then I think that there we should deal with the big issues that are impacting life in that society for the sake of our discipleship and mission.

        Your inclination is away from that place and time, my inclinations is towards its reform (something I know you have argued for) for if we are to talk meaningfully of the congregation as our community I think there need to be times and places we name as being when (however incompletely) we meet as that community to discuss, discern, and decide together.

      • Andy Goodliff
        Oct 29, 2014

        Steve I don’t see the time issue, but depends whether you meet 4, 6, or 10 times a year. We meet 10. So much on our agendas is not about complying with charity law, its do with finance and fabric! You of course have written about the reasons elsewhere. We could quite easily free up our agendas, I think the issue is we try and protect church meetings from the contentious as much as possible – while the likes of Sean Winter and Helen Dare suggest disagreement is healthy, in practice we avoid it as much as possible. A church that could begin in church meeting – recognising the issue of number and variety of voices you raise – to engage with the questions of politics and faith, could perhaps possibly begin to deal with the questions of fabric and finance. When church meetings are so trivial no wonder they are seen as optional.

        • steve
          Oct 29, 2014

          The way we generally practice church meeting is a rubbish format for handling disagreement, which is why anyone with sense tries to talk out the contentious stuff elsewhere in advance. I’m all for making our practices better, but I still don’t see any lack in our practice if we choose to do our communal discernment elsewhere, and not in formal church meeting.
          If we were not exploring together the call of Christ on our political activities, that would be a lack. If we were doing it in ways that systematically excluded certain voices, that would be a lack. If we were doing it in ways that abused the powers of leaders, that would be a lack. But if we were basically doing it right, but doing that in more extended and dispersed ways than a formal church meeting – I don’t see that as any sort of failure.

          • Daniel Clark
            Oct 29, 2014

            Also we need to take into consideration the various political decisions which take place before a church meeting takes place. For example, even determining the time of the meeting will include some and exclude others before we even discuss how the agenda is determined.
            My experience in Baptist churches in two continents would suggest that church meetings tend to privilege the voice of white, well-educated, well-off and extroverted members and that the only way to include the voices of others (inc. children and adults with learning difficulties) is to use other forms of consultation alongside the formal meeting.

  2. David Reimer
    Oct 29, 2014

    I know I’m slow … but I’m still trying to work out why this should be (or better, should have been) a matter for a local church to “discern”. I’m failing to come up with a New Testament precedent that would encourage me to think this would be a good idea. I can think of a number of texts which would incline me against it.

    Not that Christians shouldn’t have thoughtful, biblically informed views of these things. And as for the referendum itself, the case in point, many churches (at local level and above) and Christian organizations (like SETS) were committed to exactly that kind of reflection. But that strikes me as a different sort of exercise aiming at a different goal.

    • steve
      Oct 29, 2014

      I think the core instinct here is that the Bible is best read and understood in community – specifically in covenanted community, which is a basic Baptist commitment (‘…each church has liberty to interpret his laws…’ – BUGB/BUS Declaration of Principle).

  3. Stuart
    Oct 29, 2014

    It is okay I am going to go away (but you named me)… I think that there is a difference between discerning communally as you describe and a ‘congregation’ however incomplete (no I cannot guaratee 100% anymore than you can) discerning communally as a congregation in a time and place they have named for doing that act. In practice in most places they name and give ‘power’ to a Church Meeting. In so far as this exists I think it should be reformed which would include alternative content. Perhaps learning to deal with the problems and overcoming them would be part of the very process (internal goods?). I am away…

    • steve
      Oct 29, 2014

      Please don’t go away, Stuart – your provocative questions led me to these thoughts, and I appreciate being able to test them with you.

      Let me offer an example: years ago I was part of a church leadership team down south, and we were working on a new vision statement for the church. We asked all our small groups (which meant all the church members, all our regular children and young people, and others) to talk and pray together and to feed back comments; we noted words and visions received at church prayer meetings and in our Sunday meeting (it was a fairly charismatic church); out of all that we came up with a document, which we fed back to the small groups, taking their comments, and revising. The document was probably (I don’t recall, but it would have been odd not to…) finally adopted by church meeting vote, but it seems to me that all the communal discernment happened in a dispersed fashion, or in worship/prayer gatherings that were not constituted as ‘church meetings’. I think that this was the best example of communal discernment I have ever been involved in; the whole church shaped and owned the final product.
      Now, yes, I can imagine ways of doing just as well in a gathered meeting – or probably in several gathered away days with trained facilitators; I can imagine situations where I might have wanted to take that route (the practice we engaged in worked in part because we had previously worked hard and creatively on small group structures, and so were able to roll out something confident that we really were hearing every voice – including, deliberately, the children). But the question I am pushing is whether what we did was weaker because we did not do it through gathered church meetings; I just don’t see any good reason to think it was.

  4. Ken Cochran
    Oct 29, 2014

    With regards to the referendum there were a couple of reasons I can think of why our church did not take a stance on which way it should go -one was that there was plenty of information around in other places to enlighten the decision from a societal perspective and compelling arguments could be made how Scotland would/would not be fairer or more just with a given outcome. People whose opinion I very much respect differe with me on the best outcome. For the church to take a stance would likely have led to division. There was a consensus settling in the church that whatever the outcome our role would need to be as peacemakers as almost half the people of Scotland would be deeply disappointed with the outcome. Having taken a stance would have made that role harder. There was also a consensus building and being encouraged in the church that our identity as Christians transcended an earthly kingdom and our ministry would need to be relevant in the months and years ahead regardless of the outcome.

    Another factor that charity trustees had to consider was that the office of the charity regulator (OSCR) had given some fairly strong guidance on how charities could and could not engage with the referendum. To side for or against independence, a charity would have to be able to show how the outcome would directly affect its stated charitable objectives. If our objectives are to see people come to know Christ and grow in Him – it would seem unclear which referendum outcome would best serve that object. If our objectives were to eliminate nuclear weapons from Scotland then it would have been easier to justify a position but this is not listed in our church’s charitable objectives.

    In the end, I think not having a settled church stance on the referendum enabled us to be accommodating of the result and gracious to each other going forward.

  5. Stuart
    Oct 29, 2014

    I do not think the process you described is weaker as a process of congregational communal discernment. But I also do not think that this is the same as engaging in various communal discernment discussions outwith some sort of unifying congregational intent or direction. What you describe had an intentionality and even a ‘formality’ which gave it a particular importance in the common life of the church as congregation. I think that bringing the socio-political-ethical issues that impact our congregations into this place of congregational communal discernment be that this way or in a Church meeting well done would be good for our mission and discipleship as this process (variously facilitated and enacted) is the way we claim to discern together as congregation. Right I am away again…

  6. Reinald
    Nov 1, 2014

    Coming from a different church setting, I’d like to weight on this topic from a different perspective. In our church, of which I’m an elder, we lead as a team (3 elders for 50-60 members). We believe God has called the elders to lead the church, define the vision, seek Him for guidance on pastoral issues and most importantly, ensure new leaders are raised amongst the congregation in order to plant new churches or take new responsibilities. I always feel uneasy when church leaders call for a church meeting to discuss important matters such as church vision or, even worse, a difficult issue. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for dictatorship. In our decision process we do seek wisdom from different people we believe could help us in that process but never we have a democratic approach where we gather the whole community to ask them what they think. When we reach a decision, we submit it with love to the community and meet with individuals that may not agree. We explain, take the time necessary for change to happen. Maybe we revert if we think what was decided doesn’t work and try another approach. But never do we hand out our right to lead to the congregation. When Paul gives advice to Timothy, he is encouraging him to be bold and to lead. To my knowledge, church gathering in OT and NT are more about corporate worship or public anointing (new king) than democratic decision making. I’d like to think what you think on this Steve.

    • steve
      Nov 2, 2014

      Hi Reinald, thanks for stopping by. What we do and believe as Baptists is not ‘democracy’; it is communal discernment of the mind of Christ; we do sometimes do it by taking a vote to check the community’s sense of what Christ is calling us to, it is true…
      We believe that the gift of the Spirit means we should expect sons and daughters to prophesy, elders to see visions and youngsters to dream dreams, and so we gather together and listen to all, male and female, old and young, to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church. We further believe that the task of sifting and weighing what the Spirit might be saying belongs to the whole church, not to particular leaders, and so we practice communal discernment.

  7. Rachel Muers
    Nov 2, 2014

    This is great, Steve – and very challenging, in a good way, in a Quaker context: where there’s probably even more emphasis (if that’s possible) on ‘communal discernment’ and [the equivalent of] the church meeting – with definitely a strand of something like ‘sacramental theology’ attached to decision-making, and complicated by the fact that there’s a lot more liturgy in Quaker business meetings than in regular meetings for worship. And also the recognition, based on long experience if nothing else, that church meetings are a really bad place to deal with fundamental disagreement – at least if that disagreement is being heard there for the first time and no prior ‘threshing’ work has been done.

    I suppose you could say, in both cases, that the church meeting is important, at minimum, as the context in which the community acting as a whole can recognise and affirm the decision to which it has been led. (I think it probably did matter, in the example above, that your church meeting voted on your proposed vision… or put it this way, where I come from I can imagine exactly the same process happening BUT the minute of the business meeting that approved the proposals would still be very important). And it [church meeting/ business meeting] is also part of the process by which the decision and discernment happens. But I see nothing contradictory, or theologically problematic, about putting under the general heading ‘the church seeking to discern what the Spirit is saying to the church in this situation’ a very wide range of practices and processes in different groups, using different gifts appropriately, and taking as much time as it takes; nor about saying that the church meeting is as it were ‘first among equal’ discernment processes. And, like you I think, I see much that’s problematic in going the other way!

    One point that occurs reading your post is that, with the voteless decision-making method, Quakers are generally very ready to conclude from a business meeting ‘we are not yet in a place where we can make this decision [with, implied or explicitly stated, 'so we now all have to go away and do more prayerful work on it, in small groups or whatever'; and also implied, 'we have faith that, if a decision is needed urgently, we will be led to a decision']‘. Which – the expectation that matters will often be deferred – may be less the case where voting is an option?

    There’s then another story about how the decision-making method [Quaker business method/QBM to its Ffriends], with its underlying theological principles, gets modified and applied differently in different contexts within larger discernment processes… but that’s a spoiler for a research project I’m hoping will get off the ground soon!

    • steve
      Nov 3, 2014

      Thanks, Rachel.
      Yes, the demand for unanimity is an interesting added component; I am told that certain Mennonite groups have an interesting twist on it where sisters/brothers can dissent in two ways, one effectively blocking, ‘I am not yet convinced that the Spirit is in this decision, and so cannot accept it’, and the other non-blocking, ‘I am not yet convinced that the Spirit is in this decision, but discern the Spirit’s leading in the community, so accept it’.
      I think Baptists have held back from demanding unanimity on the basis of a fairly strong doctrine of depravity; for each one of us there will be that area where our disordered desires are so powerful that we are unable to discern the Spirit’s leading; but the gift of community saves us from such failure.
      The other thing that strikes me about demanding unanimity is that it seems to strengthen the need for the whole community to be gathered; is there any Quaker reflection on that? (I’m beginning to imagine a Baptist argument built around the notion of ‘gathering’, which seems to me quite important in Baptist ecclesiology; we might see the community as something dynamically re-formed each time we gather, so that the whole church is always, by definition, present whenever it gathers…)

      • Rachel Muers
        Nov 3, 2014

        Yes, those two modes of “dissent”operate in quaker decision-making as well -and the option of “I don’t personally agree but I can recognise that this is the right decision”is very important in explaining why it’s not consensus. Also,I think, in explaining why 100% turnout is not required or expected(though maximum “accessibility”is). Something like your theology of gathering would work. Plus: I might have a responsibility to show up if I have particular expertise etc that can inform the decision; but I have no way to judge that a meeting I wasn’t at was not rightly guided, and absent strong reasons (which don’t include “I disagree with the outcome”) I have to trust that it was…

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