A Church Referendum

Last week I wrote elsewhere about how a referendum, while a useful tool of democracy, is only a tool – and one with serious limitations and weaknesses which make it a poor choice for something as complex and important as deciding what type of voting system Canada should adopt. Last month, the church we’ve been attending had a referendum over the question of whether to allow women to be elders; this morning, more than a month later, there was still a lot of talk about the frustration and anger and grief that resulted from the “No” vote. This seemed to me to be a good case to discuss the limitations of a referendum as well as to talk about church governance models in general.

Church Governance and Democracy

I appreciate democratic forms of governance, even in a church. They arose in the church long before European governments gave up their monarchies, largely in response to the oppressive hierarchies of the Roman Catholic church. The Reformation provided a break from the RCC that went beyond theology, especially among the Radical Reformers (the Anabaptists), and among Protestant churches there are a variety of different forms of governance. Some vote about almost anything, while others elect representatives to serve as Elders, sometimes also called Board Members. Some choose a pool of good candidates and then draw lots to see who will be appointed, as in Acts. The powers of the Board of Elders vary from church to church, and Deacons play varying roles with varying levels of power in different churches. At some point, all of these types of governance were justified with Scripture, and were considered important enough to cause division between groups that were theologically very similar – which is in part why there are so many types of Baptist today. But for the most part, governance bodies are dry and boring, mostly only relating to financial matters and building maintenance.

Arguing about church governance models at the Westminster Assembly of Divines.

Until they aren’t. Churches are used to being divided by mundane issues such as what colour the carpet should be or which side of the sanctuary should house the organ, elevating those things almost to the level of theological importance; but what happens when a church Board, or the congregation, has to decide on matters of theology?

That was the case at this church. The issue of women in leadership/eldership has long been a contentious issue of theology, and was contentious enough that the denomination refused to hand down a single position, instead allowing individual churches to decide the matter for themselves. This was presumably to avoid conflict and schism in the denomination, but by passing the buck the denomination only passed the potential for division down to individual churches, which lack the authority to decide upon it.

Elitism and Democracy

I have been accused, in my recent post about the nature of referendums, of making an elitist argument: “you don’t trust the Canadian people to make the right choice,” I was told more than once. And to some extent that’s correct; I don’t trust the Canadian people to have enough knowledge of the complex models of political engagement involved to make an informed choice about which model of electoral reform would maximize the value of each vote. I argued that a referendum is good for deciding on a value or opinion, but not for writing policy, which should be left to experts. The same is true in the church, and we have a long history of saying so.

The reason that the Anabaptists went to democratic models in the first place was because the church had historically been ruled by elites so far removed from the everyday life of the congregation that they could not even relate to, let alone value, the lives of their people. The church had a system of education and worship that actually kept people from reading the Bible for themselves, continuing to use Latin long after the language had otherwise died out among the general population as a way of safeguarding the Bible from misinterpretation (though sadly not from their own misinterpretation). The idea was that biblical interpretation was such a central aspect of life that uneducated people could not be trusted to interpret it for themselves, similar to the notion that Homer Simpson should not be in charge of safety at a nuclear power plant – such things take expertise, and should not be taken lightly. We require a certain level of expertise for all sorts of things in life, especially things with the power to harm others or disrupt lives, so doctrines which relate to the eternal destiny of human beings was left to the elite of the elite.

The Reformation changed this to a large extent, with reformers translating the Bible into numerous languages and printing it so that some people could own their own copy. This surely came at least partially from the revelation that the Catholic hierarchy could also not be trusted to correctly interpret and communicate the Word of God, and that opening it up to the people would not only provide access to this wonderful text to the masses but would also create more room for accountability. But the reformers themselves, and even later Protestants, did not give up the notion that we must be educated before we can accurately interpret the Bible. In Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a 20th century Lutheran who certainly urged extensive use of Scripture by all Christians) said “Scripture belongs essentially to the preaching office, but preaching belongs to the congregation. Scripture must be interpreted and preached. In its essence it is not a book of edification for the congregation” (294-95).

The notion that all Christians have equal understanding of Scripture simply because we all have equal access to it is more of an American evangelical idea that really proliferated through the 20th century. Fundamentalists in particular largely believe that “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” The idea is that the Bible is written directly to us, for our salvation, and is therefore perfectly understandable without interpretive models. Face-value readings are all that is required to know exactly what God meant in a book written thousands of years ago in a different country and language. This view ignores the fact that we really do have interpretive models whether we recognize it or not, and it also gives the impression that anyone, regardless of their training, can interpret the Bible just as well as anyone else. It throws out experts altogether.

I’ve studied theology formally for eight years, and have continued to study it on the side since graduating with my MA. I get irritated sometimes when long-time church attenders with no formal study of Scripture under their belt take a know-it-all tone with me, as I’m sure people with PhDs and long teaching experience sometimes are irritated at my more passionate assertions that turn out to be incorrect. “Knowledge puffs up,” sure, but we can get pretty puffed up without any real knowledge too, and I know my irritations are minor compared to some of the issues that come up when we throw out our theological experts in favour of a model of interpretation wherein expertise means nothing. I’ve seen Bible and Theology professors have to ask for professional courtesy from their colleagues from other departments who disagree with them about interpretations of texts – something, it was suggested, that would probably never happen in the other direction. A theologian, no matter how accomplished, would probably defer to a trucker or mechanic about how to install a drive shaft, but I’ve been in Bible studies where truckers and mechanics scoff at educated people before sitting down to interpret ancient texts.

A Referendum on the Facts

A referendum is useful for matters of values or opinions, but when it comes to deciding issues of policy or theology there need to be experts involved. A referendum can never decide what the facts themselves are, as if reality is decided by vote. In the case of women in ministry, it is a theological issue concerning the reality of what Scripture is saying. It is a matter of determining exactly what Paul was talking about in a few key texts, and why. It is a matter of facts, not opinions.

When facts are in dispute, informed opinions about them are relevant. If we have no real respect for expert opinions, and believe that the text is equally understandable by someone with an advanced degree in the subject and someone who just picked up the text and read it at face value, then all opinions can be considered informed opinions, and a referendum is a fine way to resolve disputes about contested facts. But if there is a reality that doesn’t depend on the opinions of people who may or may not have even reflected on the relevant texts before, or understood their own cultural and systemic biases, or explored the original context and interpretive history of the texts, then perhaps we should rely more on the views of those who have studied the matter in depth.

I don’t think that this church holds to a strong fundamentalist view of interpretation, nor do I think that it is well-stocked with Bible scholars. Instead, it is a normal church stocked with average people: teachers, tradesmen, truckers, gardeners, marketers, engineers, etc., who read their Bibles about as much as any other Christian and have about as much theological education as most (usually limited to a few church Bible studies). They are not inherently misogynistic, but they have deep cultural roots, and for many this issue is a canary in the coal mine, a sign that liberal values are overtaking their own. This does not make them bad or stupid people (they’re quite lovely, so far as I know them), but it should give a general sense that they are not those who are best qualified to decide this issue of biblical interpretation. Their elders are representative of the church, and are similarly unqualified to weigh in with expert opinions on the relevant passages; again, this does not imply anything bad about them, but merely that they are not career scholars on this subject (and nor should they be – that’s not their function as Elders).

The only person in the church who is reasonably expected to have a strong enough credential to weigh in on the issue is the pastor, and if I understand their church governance structure correctly, he doesn’t have a say in this, though he can make recommendations. The denomination is adequately stocked with pastors and professors who could weigh in on this, but they declined to do so as a body, again likely because of the politics that comes with it. But the fact that church politics can get in the way of biblical experts clarifying a biblical text in a Bible-believing church shows how deeply flawed this notion is that we can all read the Bible and be experts enough that our opinions can settle disputed facts of deep interpretation. Some issues are so contentious that they undermine not just the very notion of expertise, but even the authority of an international denomination.

Conclusion

Some people are quite upset. I don’t blame them; I can’t imagine being told that I’m a second-class citizen in the Kingdom of God, or that my God-given gifts are inappropriate for service to the church because of my gender. As a newcomer and non-member of this church, it’s not my place to say anything (and I don’t get a vote anyway); but as a theologian and someone who analyzes systems and institutions, this is a great example of a falling power. An institution becomes fallen when it undermines its created purposes in order to maintain its own power or self-perpetuation. A denomination that shirks its role in providing expertise and authority in theological matters is shooting itself in the foot, and forcing churches to decide matters of biblical interpretation by vote rather than by determining truth. In the process, more than half of the church population is made unavailable for service to the church as elders, and the theological implications of this decision for women have yet to be worked out. The message this morning, from a series of elders in announcements, sermonettes, and prayers, and then from the pastor in the sermon, and from the choices of songs, was a resounding call for unity; the subtext was “can we all just move on now?” That’s the thing about a referendum, though; they always come back around. This issue won’t go away until it’s resolved, and a referendum isn’t capable of resolving it.