Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Was Acts 15 an Example of Unanimous Decision Making?

Was the conference of apostles and elders in Acts 15 an example of unanimous decision making and a model of governance for the Church of God?


First of all, they did not gather for the purpose of making a decision. They gathered for discussion, to consider the matter. A decision resulted, but that was not the stated purpose of the conference according to the biblical text. Here is what the Bible says. "And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.' Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question" (Acts 15:1-2). "Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter" (Acts 15:6).

Notice, they came together to consider the matter, to discuss it in other words, not necessarily for the purpose of making a decision. Peter and Paul could have made the decision - they had authority, and Peter's authority was actually greater than Paul's. But Peter, being wise, did not want to make the decision without counsel and advice. He wanted to hear what many others had to say, not just Paul. "Where there is no counsel, the people fall; But in the multitude of counselors there is safety" (Proverbs 11:14). "Without counsel, plans go awry, but in the multitude of counselors they are established" (Proverbs 15:22). "For by wise counsel you will wage your own war, and in a multitude of counselors there is safety" (Proverbs 24:6).

Perhaps they hoped to also reach a decision after discussing it. Probably they did. But the way God inspired the text of Acts, the purpose according to God's word was to "consider" the matter. God does not say, "the apostles and elders came together to decide this matter".

You can read the whole story in Acts 15:1-29. There was "much dispute" (verse 7), so they certainly did not start out from a position of agreement. Then Peter spoke, and after that, the discussion stopped. "And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: 'Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.' Then all the multitude kept silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul declaring how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles" (Acts 15:7, 12).

Notice, there was no more "much dispute" after Peter spoke giving his decision. This gives the impression that after a point when Peter felt he had enough input to make a decision and the "much dispute" had gone on long enough, he gave a decision and everyone else shut up. Once he made the decision, there was no more need for dispute. This was not a group decision.

Paul and Barnabas spoke, expounding on the reasons for Peter's decision and supporting it (verse 12). Again, the multitude was silent. Then James formalized the decision and added that they would write to the Gentiles informing them of the decision (verses 13 through 21).

Did the multitude agree with the decision? They supported it. Once Peter, who had authority, made the decision and James confirmed it, they supported it. They did not rebel against the decision made by those who had authority.

But that doesn't mean that God led them to agree with it in their minds apart from the decision of those who had authority, mainly Peter. The multitude did not make the decision.

And there is no statement in this account that everyone agreed with it unanimously. The closest you can find is this: "Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, namely, Judas who was also named Barsabas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren. They wrote this letter by them: The apostles, the elders, and the brethren, To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings" (Acts 15:22-23). The letter goes on to explain and announce the decision (Acts 15:24-29).

Does the fact that it "pleased" the whole Church to send chosen men to Antioch with Paul and that they wrote a letter explaining the decision mean they agreed with it and consented to the making of the decision? No. It does not mean that everyone was persuaded that the decision was best. But they supported it. They understood government in the Church. They submitted to top-down government, and once the decision was made, they got behind it and supported it.

Perhaps they all were persuaded. But whether they were or not, it is evident that their unanimous consent was not required for Peter to make a decision and for James to back up that decision.

There was no unanimous decision making in Acts 15. This was an example of a leader getting free discussion from a multitude of viewpoints before making a decision, then making the decision and the multitude submitting to that decision, supporting it, and backing it up. Why did they back it up? They understood top-down government. They knew it would be wrong to rebel against the authority God has placed in the Church.

This was a policy decision as much as a doctrinal decision, maybe more. It was a decision about what to require of the Gentiles.

There are many analogies to teach the principle of support for authority among those under authority. In a football team, the quarterback calls the play. Other members of the team may not agree with the call that it is the best call, but once the quarterback calls the play, the whole teams tries to make it work. They support the call.

Mr. Armstrong no doubt asked advice of the evangelists and ministers who were under his authority about various decisions Mr. Armstrong had to make, and they may have had various opinions, but once Mr. Armstrong made the decision, they were expected to support it, back it up, and try to make it work.

Is Acts 15 a model of governance in the Church of God by unanimous decision making? No. The whole Bible, teaches top-down governance. There is example after example after example of God appointing a man to lead from the top down and that man making decisions without necessarily the consent of those under him.

There is a problem with group decision making. Not everyone in the group will necessarily obey God.

Suppose you set up a Church of God organization with four leading ministers to make decisions. Every decision they make must be unanimous.

But each man is a free moral agent. Christ is the head of the Church, but He will not force anyone to submit to His lead. So Christ might lead the leader of the group, the chairman, to make the right decision. He might lead that man through the Bible and through the Holy Spirit. But all it takes is one other man in the four to exercise his free moral agency to make a bad decision, not following Christ and the Bible, but following the dictates of his own heart, maybe even deceiving himself, and by withholding his consent render a unanimous decision impossible, thus preventing the leader from following Christ.

For such a leader to consent to an organization that only allows him to make decisions as three other men agree with him is putting more trust in those three men than he puts in God and Christ. He trusts those men to follow Christ, but by doing so he puts limitations on his own ability to follow where Christ leads.

"Thus says the Lord: 'Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the Lord. For he shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when good comes, but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land which is not inhabited. Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose hope is the Lord. For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, which spreads out its roots by the river, and will not fear when heat comes; But its leaf will be green, and will not be anxious in the year of drought, nor will cease from yielding fruit' " (Jeremiah 17:5).

What if the leader, the chairman of the group, decides not to follow Christ? Is it not better to have three other men to moderate his error, to prevent him from making the bad decision, to restrain him in other words? No. That is not God's way. They can advise him to do the right thing, but the decision must be his, because only in that way can his fruits be fully known not only to God but to the Church.

If he is not following God, then other Church members will see his bad fruits and will not follow him. In this way, he will become known.

Setting up an organization that requires unanimous consent of a group of people for decision making weakens the group, tends to promote compromise between the right way and the wrong way, and confuses the whole issue of who is following God and who is not.

That is not the structure of governance in the Church of God that the Father and Christ teach in the Bible.

Acts 15 does not justify a handful of ministers breaking away from a fellowship that practices top-down governance because they are unable or unwilling to get along with the leader. It does not justify trashing two major, biblical, and successful doctrines of Herbert W. Armstrong - top-down governance and preaching the gospel to the world - and trying to build a new model of governance according to their own opinions, imagination, and dictates of their human hearts but not according to the Bible. It does not justify ministers keeping almost all the tithes and offerings of the members for their own salaries while spending comparatively nothing to bring the gospel and the Ezekiel warning to the world that needs it.

It does not justify members who support such a fellowship by sending all their tithes and offerings to such a fellowship, knowing that they are not doing anything to warn the Israelite nations of the tribulation to come. It does not justify the ministry of such a fellowship from bringing blood-guilt, the sin of murder in God's sight, upon their own members according to God's warnings to the Church for our time today in Ezekiel 3:17-21.

There can be legitimate reasons why ministers must leave a fellowship. The failure of the fellowship they leave to preach the gospel to the world and the Ezekiel warning to Israel can itself be sufficient reason. Unfaithfulness in doctrine can be another reason.

But not Acts 15 used against top-down governance. If anything, Acts 15 supports top-down governance, for it shows the authority of Peter to make a decision. And there was no unanimous voting in Acts 15, and any Church of God fellowship that builds a corporate structure to collect and disburse the tithes of the people with unanimous voting as a structure of governance that controls that corporation is mistaken if it tries to justify this by Acts 15.

Here is a link to a related post in this blog:

"Incorporation of Church of God, The Father's Call", dated December 21, 2015, link:

Here are links to related chapters or sections in Preaching the Gospel:


No comments: