Few of us liked being disagreed with not least because we think we are right about stuff. That is, of course, the nature of believing things. None of us believes what we don’t think to be true. So, obviously, the stuff we think we believe is right. That is, in point of fact, why we believe it!
Some pastors and church leaders really don’t like being disagreed with either. They are, they insist, God’s appointed leader. And, to some degree, that is right. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be wrong. Nor does it mean they are the only one with any spiritual insight into matters.
But some pastors and church leaders so dislike being disagreed with that they create polity and structures to make it very hard for anyone to disagree. Of course, they always welcome ‘feedback’ (except, they often don’t, really) but it is also clear such ‘feedback’ is merely advisory. It is for their information to do with as they will.
They manage to achieve this by formalising a few things that make their decision-making unassailable. First, they appoint elders for the appearance of co-equality and shared leadership, but then the phrase ‘first amongst equals’ gets bandied round a lot and it soon becomes clear that, though there is a group of people called elders, one of them is calling all the shots. In fact, the subtle shift to ‘first amongst equals’ allows them to treat the elders as a subordinate sounding board rather than a co-equal team of people with equal authority and decision-making power. This way, even when people disagree, their dissent merely needs to be noted.
Some go further still with much talk of ‘loyalty’. Except ‘loyalty’ typically gets defined as backing every decision the leader makes, regardless of what you feel about it. Challenging decisions is cast as disloyalty and dissent. It is not a legitimate, worthy of discussion disagreement between equals but a challenge (and a disloyal one at that) to the superior position of the apparent elder-in-charge.
If they are really keen to keep a tight grip on power, the members are similarly left without any authority either. Members’ meetings exist less for involved decision-making purposes and more ‘for information’. Members are simply told what is going to happen, rather than asked any view on what will happen. Members receive no voting power and, far from voting on the colour of the carpet, they aren’t even permitted to have a say over their leaders nor those who are welcome and removed from the fellowship.
Whilst there are other forms of governance that would not see a formal role for the members in the appointment of church officers (elders may appoint elders, for instance), two things bear saying. First, in such systems, there are means of recourse for church members over such appointments, such as to a bishop or presbytery if needs be. But in independent churches, there is no such external authority (hence why most independent churches are congregational). Second, in those other systems, even though elders may appoint elders (for instance), they are nonetheless usually properly considered co-equal. But in a scenario where the ‘first amongst equals’ is considered a higher-level of elder, and elders appoint elders, we are really talking about appointment by one man. Where there is no external authority over the church either, and the members have no involvement in decision-making at all, that is a good setup for avoiding dissent.
Unfortunately, none of that is Biblical and nor is it very safe. It is unsafe for the man at the centre of it and it is dangerous for the church. Unaccountable power is a very dangerous thing. Coupled to somebody with a strong personality and a view that any questions amount to disloyalty and dissent, you are creating a situation that is a recipe for disaster.
The fact is, disagreement is often a good thing. Not overt division and infighting, but disagreement. I am painfully aware that if I got my way on every stupid and ill thought through idea I ever had, I would either burn out, get the sack or have no church left! I need other people around me to keep me from my own stupidity and, more importantly, from the worst excesses of my sinful heart. That’s not to say I’m wrong all (or most) the time necessarily, but I’m definitely not right all the time. None of us ever are!
Our church is clear that elders are co-equal in authority and decision-making. We use the word pastor, generally, to mean full-time elder. I am not above my other elders and they are not above me. We are only servants of the church members (of which we are three) who appointed us and have the authority to remove us from office too.
And we are from three very different backgrounds. It sounds like the start of a joke, but we have one former methodist, a former Anglican and a strict & particular Baptist now jointly running an Independent (FIEC) church. Whilst we share a bunch of common views and theology, unsurprisingly we disagree on stuff. We sometimes think about church differently. But all of us are committed to working through those disagreements by way of scripture. All of us ask, when our assumptions or presumptions kick in, ‘what does the Bible actually say about this?’ and we are forced to question whether our background and viewpoint really is what the Bible says. That sort of disagreement is really good for us.
More than that, because we are genuinely co-equal, it means I don’t always get my way. There are times my other two elders disagree with me and we don’t do what I think is best. I make my case, I try to persuade them, and they aren’t convinced and overrule me. Both of the other elders have, at some point, found the same. That is also good. Obviously not good for me, I want my own way. But it is good that I cannot ride roughshod over them and, to the same degree, over the church with whatever takes my fancy. Unless we are all persuaded, we do (or don’t) do the thing. In those cases where something must be done, two agree and the one must give way (though each will try to persuade the others). In rare cases, two may agree but decide the issue is such that without all elders being onboard, we won’t move forward with whatever it is. All of this is good.
The real benefit of this setup is that when we are truly co-equal, when members come and disagree with us (which some are wont to do), it is far easier to deal with. No one elder has made the decision, but all have jointly agreed. So when dissent comes, it is not a test of loyalty, but an opportunity to listen and hear the objections in a way that isn’t quite as personal as if I have made all the decisions. And three of us are able to share our respective understandings of why and how the decision was reached.
The fact is, it is OK to disagree. It’s OK for elders to disagree with each other and it’s also OK for members to disagree too. That doesn’t make everybody equally right, but nor does it mean every disagreement is a matter of dissent and disloyalty. The fact is, disagreement (as one of my elders said recently) is inevitable. The question is not whether we agree, it is how we deal with it. If we are all committed to letting scripture be our guide – and our polity is in line with it – we have a far better chance of reaching consensus and, more to the point, handling disagreement well when it comes.