Question: Does Consensus Mean “Being In One Accord”?


The Act of “Consensus” – Part V

            Frank Viola, in his book Reimaging Church, states, “What was the New Testament pattern for decision-making in the early church?  It was simply by consensus.  "Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church," and, "it seemed good to us, having become of one mind," was the divine model for making corporate decisions (Acts 15:22, 25 NASB).  In other words, the decision-making of the early church was not in the hands of the elders. It was in the hands of all the brothers and sisters.  

Because the church is a body, all the members should agree before it moves forward in obeying the Head (Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 4:11-16). In fact, a lack of unity and cooperation among the members reveals a failure to embrace the Head (Christ).  

Majority rule, dictatorial rule, and a Robert's Rules of Order mentality do violence to the body image of the church.  And they dilute the unvarnished testimony that Jesus Christ is the Head of one unified body.  For this reason, Paul's epistles to the churches are saturated with exhortations to be of one mind (Romans 15:5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:10, 2 Corinthians 13:11; Ephesians 4:3; Philippians 2:2; 4:2).  Recall the Lord's teaching on the following text:  

Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. (Matthew 18:19)

Significantly, the word agree in this passage is translated from the Greek word sumphoneo.  Sumphoneo means to sound together-- to be in one accord.  Our word symphony is derived from this term.  So the meaning is clear.  When the church is in sympathetic harmony, God will act.  

In this connection, consensus mirrors the decision-making activity within the triune God, whose nature we were created to reflect.  God acts when the Father, Son, and Spirit agree.  Decision-making in the Godhead is communal and marked by mutual submission.  In other words, it's consensual.”

Viola continues, “Again, the elders of the early church bore the bulk of spiritual oversight and pastoral care for the assembly (Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24).  But they didn't make decisions on behalf of the church.  Nor were they solely responsible for the church's direction.  

Therefore, an elder has no biblical or spiritual right to bark out commands to a passive congregation.  Instead, the elders (once they emerged) worked together with the whole church toward reaching a unanimous decision and a single mind (Acts 15:22, 28).  But it was the church, as a whole, that made the decision as "one new man."   

But what about Hebrews 13:17?  In that text, some translations have "Obey them that are over you."  The Greek word for "obey" in this passage is not hupakouo, the garden-variety word for obedience used elsewhere in Scripture.  It's peitho (middle-passive form), which means to yield to persuasion.  The author of Hebrews was simply saying, "Allow yourselves to be persuaded by those who are more mature in Christ than you are."

So within the decision-making process of the early church, the role of the elders was to help the church reach a consensus on a matter.  By virtue of their relative spiritual maturity, they were sometimes able to persuade the church into a unified understanding of the Lord's mind.  But they had no right to force the church to adopt their view.  The elders were people who simply demonstrated qualities that build family solidarity (1 Timothy 3:4-5; Titus 1:6).”

Viola concludes “There's no doubt that consensus is costly.  It imposes responsibility upon all the member of a church to seek The Lord for themselves.  It demands that each believer patiently wrestle and struggle with one another to secure the Lord's mind.  It often means trading quick decisions for gaining confidence through delay.  But what building together it affords!  What working out of patience.  What expression of mutual love and respect.  What exercise of Christian community.  What restraint imposed upon the flesh.  What bearing of the cross.  What dying to our own agendas.

Is such a cost not worth the value of securing the Lord's mind for his body?  Is it not worth giving Him the opportunity to work in us more deeply as a people?  Does not confidence in getting the mind of The Lord on a matter relating to His church outweigh the convenience of making premature decisions-- decisions that can damage the lives of our brethren and miss the Lord's will?  We so often forget that, in God's eyes, the means is just as important as the end.  Once again, Christian Smith puts it beautifully:  

Consensus is built on the experience of Christian community.  It requires strong relationships able to tolerate struggling through issues together.  It requires mutual love and respect to hear each other when there is disagreement.  Consensus also requires a commitment to know and understand other people more than a desire to convince or railroad them. Consensus, as a way to make decisions in the church, is not easier, just better.  To paraphrase Winston Churchill, consensus is the worst form of decision-making in the church, except for all the others.  Consensus is not strong on efficiency, if by that we mean ease and speed.  It can take a long time to work through issues, which can become quite frustrating.  Consensus is strong on unity, communication, openness to the Spirit's leading, and responsible participation in the body.  In achieving those values, consensus is efficient.  Deciding by consensus, then, simply requires belief that unity, love, communication, and participation are more important in the Christian scheme that quick, easy decisions.  It requires the understanding that, ultimately, the process is as important as the outcome.  How we treat each other as we make decisions together is as important as what we actually decide.